Disclaimer: this was a jointly written post, and “I” is used to refer to different people: the author of this blog and the wife of the author of this blog. Who “I” is should be clear from the context, but it’s also not really material to the point of the post.
Minimalism is about intentionality and not letting our stuff make decisions for us. How stuff can become a barrier becomes abundantly obvious when traveling. For example, the average woman carries 8 pairs of shoes for a normal vacation. Overpacking inevitably results in dragging massive suitcases that must be checked, rather than carried on, exceeding weight limits, and begging for space in your travel partners’ luggage. This makes travel more expensive, slower, and impossibly unwieldy to move even short distances on buses, metros, or cobblestone sidewalks; thereby requiring an expensive cab ride for each transition. But why? What does extra pair of shoes–or tech gadget or whatever else causes you to overpack–get you for your troubles? Decision fatigue and dissatisfaction? Is an extra footwear option really worth the cost? Or take the “Just in case items,” how often do they actually get used? How expensive would it be to just buy an umbrella where you’re going if it starts to rain? What’s the expected cost? Is it worth checking a bag?
My wife and I just had the opportunity to travel to Greece for 3 weeks, which was amazing (both for the sights’n’sounds and just time spent together). We did the whole thing without having to check any bags*.
How We Did It
As the above statistic shows, clothes are the achilles heel of many travelers and are what ends up filling many of those large suitcases which are better suited to transporting a body for disposal than taking aboard a plane. Fortunately, they’re also something that can be easily consolidated. Neither my wife nor I actually own 3 weeks’ worth of clothes/outfits, so that (not very good option to begin with) wasn’t even an option worth considering. In a somewhat counterintuitive move, we actually ended up buying some new clothes for the trip (that we will absolutely wear again).
- Men’s Clothes
- Shorts. I’m not a big fan of shorts, so the only pair I had prior to this is pretty ratty (and happens to be a purple camo print) and my wife prefers to not be seen with me when I’m wearing them. Given that the temperature got up to 108 degrees Fahrenheit while we were in Athens, I’m glad I got some new, wife-approved shorts.
- 100% polyester T-shirts. I got 2 shirts from Sierra Designs (amazing and definitely recommend) and 1 from ExOfficia (meh). All 3 are quick-drying and are supposed to be odor-resistant, which is important when they are encasing a sweaty man running up and down the Samaria Gorge.
- Socks. I’ve been running low on socks recently anyway, so this was as much a needed purchase for general use as it was for the trip, but I got 3 pairs of Merino wool hiking socks and several pairs of low-cut running socks. Both are soft and supportive (even in my Converse All-Stars), sweat wicking, and, most importantly, are still comfortable and not too smelly when used multiple days in a row.
- Women’s Clothes (Spreadsheet of Wife’s packing list): All the clothes I packed could be worn together interchangeable and fit into a color palette of black, gray, white, blue, with a couple splashes of green.
- 2 Dresses that are mostly polyester, sweat wicking, etc. One of them in particular is longer/more modest because we visited some monasteries, and everyone (men and women) needed covered shoulders and knees to enter. (ExOfficio Kizmet dress and Toad&Co. Rosemarie Dress, both in Indigo).
- Skort. Skorts have the nice advantage of being very breathable without needing to worry about how you’re sitting, and proved to be great for travel. The skort was comfortable enough to wear hiking, but also worked when I wanted to look a little more pulled together. (Toad&Co Samba Skort).
- Shorts. I didn’t own any shorts before our trip and purchased two pairs – one was excellent and I have worn several times since and the other I would put in the regret pile. The first were a pair of Athleta Midtown Short, which were comfortable, easy to move in, stayed looking nice throughout the trip and were easy to wash. The other were a pair of linen shorts that left my inner legs covered in black fuzz once I put them on after swimming.
- Pants. Like the shorts, one pair of pants worked out well and the other not so much. The first were the Royal Robbins Jammer Roll-Up Pants, which I wore hiking and in places where I knew my legs might otherwise get scratched up. The ability to convert them to capris was particularly great. The other were a pair of linen pants that I wore on the plane and once to sleep in, but not at any other time.
- Sports bras. Much easier to wash than a standard, underwire bra. Also more comfortable when you’ve been walking 20K steps and it’s only not even dinner time.
- T-shirts and tank tops. More merino wool and 100% polyester t-shirts. Quick drying, sweat wicking, etc. Most of these were purchased through REI and performed as advertised. The REI Northway was probably my favorite of the bunch because of the way it washed and dried so nicely.
- Other items.
- Two swimsuits – it was worth the little bit of extra space these took up, as there is little worse than pulling on a wet swimsuit.
- Cardigan – good to have for these evenings when things might be just a little chillier.
- Scarf/Coverup – While not a regret, it was not quite as useful as I hoped. However, it was useful one or two times at the beach when we didn’t have towels.
- Hat – I never ended up wearing this on our trip. When it comes down to it, I’m just not a hat person and never felt comfortable wearing it. Next time, I will listen to my instincts and save the space.
- Sandals. This, like his socks, fell into the category of something that we were going to get this summer anyways, but got grouped in with this trip. I got both a pair of light beach sandals
A lot of these things were more expensive than we would have liked and we did end up going slightly over-budget on clothes, but we still wear most of them. In addition to the new stuff, we did bring a lot of stuff we already had: some cotton T-shirts (which really do take substantially longer to dry than the 100% polyester), swim suits, etc. We each had 3 pairs of shoes: hiking shoes, leisurely-walk-around-town shoes, and beach sandals.
What we did not pack:There are a couple of things that you may find on packing lists that we didn’t bother to bring.
- Towels. This really depends on what type of hotel or place you are staying. There was only one time we wished we had towels with us and the only reason we didn’t have them, was because we only borrowed one towel from the hotel.
- Dress Shoes. This will likely depend on what activities you have planned and where you are traveling, but we had no need for dressier shoes. Probably more important is being well groomed and not wearing beach gear, rather than bringing a specific pair of shoes.
Carry-ons and Day bags
All clothes and toiletries went into the suitcases, and everything else went in our day bags. This might seem obvious, but I’m pointing it out because it helped serve a purpose: anything that wasn’t worth putting on our shoulder and carrying all day wasn’t worth bringing. (Note that this went double for me, because I don’t have a roller-bag for my main suitcase). That “everything else” included:
- Ipad, phone, power cords, headphones, etc.
- Sunscreen and after-sun care (purchased a big tube there; after we were done flying).
- Guide books, reading books, and notebooks (and pens)
- Medications (band-aids, anti-itch medication, headache meds, etc.)
- Waterbottles. Lots of waterbottles. A 32 oz and a 48 oz, sometimes a collapsible 20oz, and sometimes a disposable one. And soda.
- Food (mixed nuts and bread, usually)
- Any tickets, documentation, etc. that might be needed that day (including passports).
I already had a messenger-style day bag that I love; it was a gift from work for 3 years of service and I can’t find it online (though it’s very similar to a Timbuktu bag), but my wife ended up buying a cross-body purse since her day-to-day purse (4 years old, falling apart, and no cross-body strap) was definitely not suitable for walking 25K steps a day for a week straight. New bag also had some security features like clips on the zippers and razor-proof bottom–which we fortunately didn’t need, but also didn’t need to think about.
How did we make less than 15 garments (not counting socks or underwear) per person work for 3 weeks? Well, frankly, a lot of double-days. Every night we would air out the clothes from the day, and by morning, they usually passed the sniff test. In cases where they didn’t, the non-cotton stuff was easy to wash in the sink. We got some backpacker washing strips, and were able to do a very decent sink-wash. I hate the feel of cotton after it’s been sink washed, but the polyester was great. We also found a couple laundromats where for $10 or so we were able to drop off our cotton clothes, go to a cafe, and come back in an hour or two to get our stuff (mostly underwear, but also shorts and some cotton t-shirts). Nothing in Greece is self-service, so it was all done for us, which was great. Even if we had needed to spend an hour at the laundromat, we could have gotten some coffee or beer and read (or written) while waited and that would have been fine as well.
Conspicuously absent from the day-bag list is a laptop. I went back-and-forth on this, but feel I ultimately made the right decision. Instead of bringing a full laptop and charger, I brought my iPad (which I was going to do anyway), bluetooth keyboard, and one of those 3-fold magnetic stands. The stand irritates me and I probably could have found a better, cheaper option, but this was a fairly late-in-the-game decision and it worked well enough for writing (like this blog post, which I’m writing on a ferry) and the occasional youtube video of Seth Meyers to keep up to speed on what’s happening in the insane world of American politics. I also ended up buying an international calling and data plan, which did end up being very useful/needed a few times (where a hotel phone or wifi calling wouldn’t have worked). The data plan was still pretty limited, so it’s not like I was still 100% connected to the LTE grid like I normally am, but it worked in a pinch for downloading new areas in Google Maps (which still works offline), double checking hotel reservation numbers/emails, and looking up schedules and info about the metro system.
Full List of Tech Gadgets:
- iPad (his)
- Bluetooth keyboard for iPad
- Phones (iPhone5 and Galaxy 6 Edge+) – these were also our only cameras.
- USB Chargers (lightning and mini)
- Headphones (x2)
- Outlet converters (x3)
- Portable battery. Since it was sunny, we had the brightness on our phones turned to maximum, which drained the batteries, especially for the Edge+ with the extra large screen, so this came in very useful a few times.
As so many others have pointed out: minimalism isn’t about deprivation; it’s about intentionality. We spent a lot of money on plane tickets, hotels, restaurants, and other experiences, but it was (almost) all intentional and without any buyer’s remorse (with only a couple exceptions for some of the clothes).
Protip: buy and carry lots of water from the grocery store. In Greece, a 1.5L bottle of water costs 30 cents in the grocery store,€1 from a convenience store/kiosk,€3 from a restaurant, and between €3 and €6 from a ferry or outside a tourist hotspot (though price ceilings do limit the price somewhat). Stocking up on water by the 6-pack and carrying one or two in your day-bag can save you a few Euros on water, but more importantly, it can save you time and money on other stuff. Once you get dehydrated, your decision making abilities go down, so you’re more likely to just buy something (especially food/restaurant) as a mindless response rather than intentionally. Also, if you get really dehydrated, the resultant headache is your body’s way to tell you to go inside, sit down and take a break, which means you aren’t exploring, hiking, enjoying a sunny beach, etc. Even better is to bring your own water bottles and fill them with tap water where it’s safe to do so (not the case on most Greek islands, but it was fine on Western Crete and the Greek mainland).
There’s nothing wrong with buying a nice meal at a nice restaurant. Fortunately, and this is one of the reasons we chose it, in Greece, even the nicest restaurants aren’t more than 25 euros a plate, and most are substantially less than that. But even eating on the cheap doesn’t mean sacrificing in taste. Street food makes for a yummy meal for about €5, and going to a grocery store (always an interesting experience in and of itself when in a foreign country) and picking up some meat, cheese, bread, and beer makes for a cheap and easy meal from your hotel room. This allowed us to save eating more expensive food for when we were actually in a mindset to enjoy it. I.e. We were intentional about it.
I’m generally not a big souvenirs guy, preferring to eat good food, drink good beer, and not have to store anything new when I get home. But there are exceptions, so here are some thoughts on souvenirs.
- The single most important souvenirs are memories. They are why we travel, and they don’t require storage later.
- Carry small bags, and your space for souvenirs will be limited. This is a good thing since it literally means you can’t really bring anything back that doesn’t fit in a suitcase with the essentials. Shipping may be doable for some things where applicable.
- As soon as you get a souvenir “to remember this place by” you’re doing it wrong. Take pictures and tell stories to remember your vacation. You don’t need a shot glass to remember that you went somewhere cool.
- Like all purchases, you should only buy things that will really add value to your life. When on vacation, try to make sure it’s something unique to where you are, or is at least cheaper there. For example, I bought a new wallet in Greece. It doesn’t say “Greece” or have the Greek flag, but is a unique kind of leather and was much cheaper than wallets in the US. I’ve been looking for a new wallet for the last 6 months (I’m very particular about my wallet), so when I found a great deal on something I was going to get, I bought it in Greece.
- Get something cultural or unique to that place. Again, you have pictures and memories, but artwork from another country can be a nice addition to your walls and a nice conversation piece. On this trip, we bought some traditional Greek worry beads so the husband will stop fidgeting with everything else, like my stuff and things that hurt when he drops them on you. It’s unique and fun and maybe a little touristy, but we intentionally bought them from an actual dealer/artisan rather than one of the many shops on cruise ship row.
- Gifts for other people. I don’t think it’s necessary to buy other people stuff just because they didn’t get to join you for your vacation, nor do I think you should be obligated to buy gifts for other people if you don’t want to. That said, vacations, especially in a foreign country, are a great time to start doing some Christmas or Birthday shopping if your family does exchange gifts for these occasions.
- Focus on the edible and consumable items. We discovered that we love good olives (none of this sliced black olive crap from a can that we get in the US) in Greece, so we bought some duty free olives and olive oil. It’s about the experience and saving these items for a special occasion to share with friends and family.
- Oftentimes, people are swayed by argument that “well, I’ll only ever be able to get this here” and buy something they think they might regret not buying later. More and more though, that premise just isn’t true, and you can ask the shop for a business card, write down what it was that you were looking at, and then look online later (if you still remember what it was that you wanted so badly at the time). This is an especially useful trick when you’re tired, hungry, thirsty or already decision fatigued.
Things You can Just Buy There
There are lots of just-in-case items you might be tempted to bring, but not bringing them–even if you need to buy them there–will on average save you money and provide opportunities for new experiences. In our case, we got stuck in the rain and had a fun (albeit a bit uncomfortable) time trying to find an umbrella. After an unfortunate bee sting while hiking, we got to experience a Greek pharmacy trying to get anti-itch medication, and learned about how their pharmacies work. Sunscreen. I’ve said it before, but seriously, if you’re going to a sunny place for more than a couple days, your tiny travel-sized sunscreen isn’t going to cut it anyways, so leave it behind and just buy some there.
Lessons Learned and Some Buyer’s Remorse
It was a great trip: we had lots of fun, took lots of pictures, saw the main things we wanted to see and do, and we kept the whole 3 weeks–hotel, airfare, and all–well within budget. But there were a few sights we didn’t get to; a few hotels that were better advertised than executed, and some places we wished we had stayed longer or shorter. So it goes. With regards to packing and how we could have made travel easier on ourselves, we also learned some things.
- Always bring enough water. Seriously. If you think you have enough, pack one more.
- Devise a system beforehand for tracking expenses (if you care). Merchant names in Mint usually aren’t obvious, and cash just goes so quickly without any tracking mechanism. We ended up not really tracking spending categories, but wish we had.
- Camping clothes washing detergent is super useful, but use concentrate not tabs. If the tabs get wet–as they are wont to do when you’re washing clothes in a sink and try to grab them with wet hands–they tend to get stuck together or dissolve into the countertop.
- Underwear is a special class of clothes and there is no way around changing that every day, even with athletic or allegedly odor resistant garments. Plan accordingly.
- Things we packed and didn’t really use:
- Bluetooth speaker – I’ve used it a ton since then, but never had the need for it in Greece.
- Waterproof case for phone and a pelican box – used a couple times, but easily could have gone without them.
- Sun hat – I’m just not a hat person.
- City walk sandals (not as comfortable on mile 2 as they were on mile 1) – we were able to return them after the trip since I wore them so little.
- Good After sun care is as important as sunscreen.
- Protip: obviously, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so wear sunscreen, but almost inevitably some will get wiped or washed off or you’ll miss a small spot and end up with inverse-finger-shaped spots of sunburn. Good After sun lotion can mitigate the worst effects of that sunburn and get you back on the beach without turning into a lobster. This saves pain and means more time spent roaming or beaching and less time out of commission.
- Linen pants: good for the plane, but left lint on everything, so I haven’t worn them since. In general, make sure you wear everything at least once before bringing it on a trip (if you have time).
- Rental car is not necessarily a good item to go Dutch on. If you’re in a hilly area, something with more horsepower is worth paying for (maybe even an automatic transmission). We had to skip a few monasteries in Paros because our little A-class rental car just couldn’t make it. Combine that with my limited experience with a stick shift car, and we decided to play it safe and not get stuck on a mountain “road”.
Had we checked bags, we would have spent an additional $75 on checking bags on the planes, an additional $50-60 on cabs, 60-90 minutes baggage claim, check-in, and customs, and had more inconveniences moving around. Having more clothes would have saved us, at most, $20 in laundry and $15 in coffee while doing laundry (though we probably would have gone to the cafes anyway).
I’m very glad–at times I was even a bit prideful–that we did the full three weeks with only our little carry-on bags. We were able to bypass baggage claim, easily navigate busy ferry terminals, and even carry our luggage half a mile when we got lost walking to our hotel (not the most pleasant at the time, but we were the talk of the hotel staff and it makes for a fun story). By the end, our luggage was a little heavier and unbalanced with both souvenirs and lazier packing, but we still made it, unencumbered.
*Full disclosure: we did have to check a hardshell bag for an interim flight from Athens to Crete on RyanAir because it was 3 centimeters too deep and they’re sticklers for that sort of stuff. We didn’t check any bags for international flights or ferries.