Packing Essentials: Honesty and Self-Reflection

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There are tons and tons of lists/advice articles for packing out there. They insist that X number of shirts are necessary, or Y different types of shoes, or a combination of ABC are absolute essentials. But in my extensive travel experience the most important things for packing are honesty and self-reflection. Vacations and travel tend to be the fulfillment of fantasies–you’ve been dreaming of going to Costa Rica, or Tokyo, or California for years and now, you’re finally going! Dream come true! But it’s important to remember that when you’re finally enacting this fantasy, you’re still you! So: the most essential things for packing: are honesty and self-reflection. Being honest about what you like to do and how you like to spend your time will lead you to the most important items to pack.

For example, if you know you’ll be relying on public transit, but you don’t want to arrive at your hotel(s) sweaty and gross from lugging a ton of suitcases around, pack one you can handle by yourself with ease. You DO NOT want to be the person holding up the bus departure because you can’t wrangle all your luggage. If you hate the idea of having to wash your socks in the hotel sink, but re-wearing a shirt is NBD, pack one less shirt and three more pairs of socks! If it’s important to you that you have a ton of outfit changes, that means multiple, heavy suitcases, be realistic about the need to pay others to help you haul your stuff around. There’s no one-size fits all when it comes to packing and deciding what is truly the most important to you is what really matters.

I almost always pack too many “fancy” items when I travel. I like to think that I’ll spur of the moment go to the Opera, or a hip restaurant, or get invited to an elegant party. But in all honesty, that pretty much never happens. It’s smart to bring one “nicer” outfit, but I have never needed the two or three fancier dresses I tend to pack. A black or other dark color jersey dress that folds down to nothing and won’t get wrinkled, is a much smarter option for me than the full-skirted strapless dress I was tempted to bring on my last trip. Sure, it’s a super cute dress, and I do wear it on the reg, but it’s a bit overkill for hours and hours of stomping around foreign cities. And Dry Clean Only is a crap strategy for traveling.

When voyaging to foreign, new, or unknown places I’ve found it’s best for me to bring favorites: favorite shirt, pants, shoes, whatever. Yes you run the small risk of losing them, but it’s nice to have the comfort of your favorite articles of clothing when surrounding yourself with the new and unfamiliar. It’s like armor.

So when packing: think about how you really live, what you genuinely like to do, and the actual likelihood of that spur of the moment Opera visit. While travel is full of new experiences, most people tend to travel like they live, whether that means fancy drinks on a yacht or beers on the dock. If you actually do decide to go somewhere extra-fancy and you’re missing the requisite clothes, you can always go on a quick shopping trip. Unless you’re in the heart of the Amazon you’re not going to be bereft of options and a shirt bought in Denmark makes for a great story later: “Oh this old thing? I got it in this amazing boutique in Copenhagen…”

And besides at the core, the only thing you really need while traveling is your passport and wallet.


20 thoughts on “Packing Essentials: Honesty and Self-Reflection

  1. Great advice! I have a bunch of fancy lace bras/knickers that I think will be great to pack for Paris this November. But let’s face it. I never wear them at home and my cotton soft underwear is always the more comfortable choice, so I’m sure in the end, I’ll be practical and choose my everyday underwear.
    Same with shoes, comfort will reign over fashion.
    It really is about being realistic 🙂

    1. haha so right! When I went to Paris (4+ years ago) I was tempted to bring SO MANY pretty things and heels and a million accessories. It’s hard not to picture yourself as Audrey Hepburn or something, but it’s just not real! Especially if you’re going to sightsee and sightsee and sightsee! Have you been to Paris before? It’s hardly revelatory to say, but it’s truly amazing.

      1. Yes I have been before but my husband hasn’t. He is keen to see it, if it were up to me we’d go to the South of France instead *beautiful* 🙂
        We are also doing Belgium (I really want to visit Ghent) and perhaps a bit of Germany. My husband thinks Frankfurt but I’m not keen. Frankfurt has little history left since the war flattened it Lol.

      2. Hasn’t hit me yet, my father in law is 85 yrs old and wants to visit relatives in the U.K, so he sprang this on us a week ago. We will escort him to his sister’s house in England and then we’re free for 4 weeks to explore the continent.
        I remember your post on Ghent, so lovely! We should have a good chance to check out some of Belgium’s finest cities 🙂

  2. Great post! I’m the same as you, I always want to trot out my fancy on a trip, when really, I’m usually too worn out from exploring in my regular clothes to attend any sort of even that would warrant my best frock. I love these tips and will definitely keep them in mind!

    1. Thanks so much! I get frustrated with almost all packing tips articles because packing and traveling are so so sooo subjective. It should really be about how individuals want to travel, whether that’s with one bitty carry-on or a whole flotilla of luggage. You just have to be realistic about what those choices mean. Thanks for reading!

  3. Well said, Brenna. I like your thoughts and style. You are right, it’s about who you are and what you do. We don’t need anyone else’s list, just our own. Safe travels. JT

  4. When I was packing for 3 months in Europe, I for one had a vision b4 leaving of the backpack I wanted and within 2 days I found one I never envisioned existed. That was the Osprey Waypoint… Women’s 65. I had bought a 2nd hand women’s backpack for S. Africa two years b4, and it was great bc it was smaller & forced me to limit what I took. The same was true with the Osprey, plus it opened like a suitcase, no tunnel design, it had an attachable day pack (which now 2 months in I can stuff inside the main when I change towns & travel) which was important bc I refuse to travel around with an ‘I’m a tourist sign on me’ with cameras hanging left & right, a big backpack & a smaller on on the chest…. It’s just screams ‘ROB ME!!’ I’m as vulnerable as a turtle on its back. No Sir, I don’t play that silly game… The dance between the tourist & the opportunistic thief.

    Lastly i limited weight to under 20 kg for everything…. Besides basic clothes on me, not parkas & sweaters and layers to get around baggage fees (I can check 3 bags for free) but under 20kg total it was. I opted for no shoes, flips only bc I never wear shoes and let’s be honest… Shoes can be purchased anywhere on the world. I only did so 2 wks ago! 😂

    My biggest mistake… Taking 8-9kg in high end camera gear. It’s sat in the bottom of my pack the entire trip… More a liability concern to damage or the thought of it being stolen… Shipping home, way too expressive.

    Reality is, limit what you bring… If you’re worried about the fashion police spotting you, you might be traveling for the wrong reasons. 😀

    1. People travel for a ton of different reasons, which means they might bring one small pack, or three giant trunks. I’m super glad you’ve found out what works for you! Happy travels!

  5. I think everyone is different. But more you do it, more you know. And more changes happen for the next adventure. And everyones list says something about the person making the list. And its a pleasure to learn something about them, through such random lists.

  6. What you’ve written is so very true.
    I know I’m different here but I’m probably the only reader who has the opposite problem – I never pack enough fancy clothes. My kinds of trips don’t include fancy restaurants or going to the opera, or at least, that’s what I think. But as soon as I arrive there, there will be an event where I’d need something fancy and I don’t have it.
    Still, great article and good advise to consider for everyone who wants to go travelling.

  7. Thanks for liking my post “Picture This”. I have been enjoying your sight, and just had to say I loved your post “Packing Essentials”. Really well written and extremely insightful. My wife and I have spent the last two years in a ’96 Blazer with 3 cats (….well, we went to Mexico with 2 but a kitten fell off a 10 foot wall into our fountain……and then there were 3) joyfully wandering without a home base. Your statement “While travel is full of new experiences, most people tend to travel like they live” is almost so simple and to the point that it can slide past the reader before they realize it is both accurate and important. Well done and thanks for the read.

  8. Love the post!!! Personally I’m the ultra light type of traveller, I once spent 6 months in Asia and all my things fit in a 30lt backpack. However my best friend is the opposite, she came to visit me in Chile for 3 weeks and she had 2 suitcases… but like you said, she was willing to pay the extra $ to have them carried and so forth. ultimately we are both happy and we both love traveling. People are just different and there isn’t ONE universal rule for what you should pack.

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