Introduction: International Travel With Only a Carry-On (and Other Tips)
Do you want to travel, but the idea of lugging around a giant suitcase through multiple airports makes you cringe? Do you wish to avoid costly baggage fees? With some careful planning, you can indeed travel comfortably with only a carry-on. But even if your trip will require checked luggage, here's some tips for making travel easier.
Step 1: Choose Your Luggage Wisely
Your suitcase will be your home away from home, so make sure it fits your needs. But you have many choices - wheeled or backpack? Carry-on or checked? Backpacker or suitcase?
Personally, I don't like wheeled suitcases because I find them difficult to maneuver on anything other than flat pavement. If you're going for a backpack style, be sure to get a comfortable one that fits. Try it on (ideally with weights inside) and walk around the store for a bit.
Here are my main 3 pieces of luggage (from left to right):
1. My new favorite is the Osprey bag, specifically designed for carry-on travel. It is the maximum size and holds about the same amount of stuff as the Ferrino bag (#2), but it's easier to pack evenly (and find things inside) due to the location of the nice lockable zipper and the square shape. The straps can be stuffed inside a pocket that doubles as a laptop sleeve. The downside is probably that it looks more expensive than it was.
2. My original carry-on only bag is the red and black Ferrino backpack. It meets the maximum carry-on size requirements, so long as it isn't too heavy. It is designed for backpacking, so the shoulder and hip straps are very comfortable. The top-loading style makes finding just one buried item a pain though, and its drawstring top is not lockable. The number of straps hanging loose would make it difficult to check it as luggage.
3. If I do need checked luggage (which hasn't been forever), I take the large green Caribee bag. It's hard to see in this picture, but this bag is almost twice as thick as the other two. It has backpack straps that can be zipped into a flap and a removable duffle bag strap. This makes the airline happy, since you don't have loose straps to get caught on things. This bag also has an expansion zipper, and a small day pack that zips on the back, or clips to the front for security. The downside is you can't fully load up the day pack and zip it on. It also throws you off-balance if it's attached to the back. But it's otherwise an excellent bag...for checked luggage
Step 2: What to Pack?
When deciding what to pack, you need to answer the following questions:
1. What are the expected local temperatures for this time of year?
2. What am I doing? Will I need any specialized outfits for outdoor pursuits or fancy events?
3. How do the locals dress? Would this outfit be considered offensive or inappropriate?
4. How long will I be there?
5. Do I need any special gear (sports, camping, etc) ?
Over-packing will only leave you lugging around extra stuff and take away room that you could be filling with souvenirs. On my latest trip, I spent 15 days in Turkey, Jordan, and Israel, in the summer, so my answers to the above questions were these:
1. very hot and dry (temperatures ranged from 80s-100 during the day, down to around 65-70s at night in the desert)
2. hiking, swimming, and clothing appropriate for Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious sites
3. even in more liberal parts of the Middle East, it's probably a bad idea to wear a low-cut shirt...both due to cultural sensitivities, and sunburn. Knees (and often elbows) are generally covered.
4. 15 days. There will be a hostel with laundry available at one point (also, laundry in the sink is always an option)
5. no special gear.
Step 3: Sample Trip: Clothing
Here's what clothing I packed in my carry-on for my trip to the Middle East (slightly modified to reflect what I actually used/needed, as there were a few items I barely used). This was everything I had for 15 days - I wore one of these outfits on the plane the day I flew out.
- swimsuit with shorts
- long sleeved shirt with hood (made of cool material and large enough to wear over other shirts)
- pajamas (t-shirt and short yoga pants)
- 4 pairs of capris (black denim, grey and green quick-dry, black dressy)
- black maxi skirt (though honestly I wore this once, black dress pants would have been more useful)
- scarf (essential for visiting mosques, though you can buy them everywhere)
- 2 nice shirts, 3/4 length sleeves (if I had more of these, I'd have brought another instead of a t-shirt)
- 2 t-shirts (I actually brought one plus one nice long sleeved shirt, but ended up never wearing the long sleeves)
- one quick-dry t-shirt
- dark leather hiking shoes
Not shown: 7 pairs of underwear, 6 pairs of short black socks, 2 bras. I also had a pair of cheap flip flops, but they were not really necessary.
Step 4: Sample Trip: Gear
Here's everything else I brought along on that same trip:
- Packing cubes in various sizes (it helps keep things organized)
- a beach towel-sized quick-dry pack towel (in the small blue packing cube near the top of the picture)
- luggage scale
- toiletries - toilet paper (A MUST), deodorant, hair ties, hair brush, anti-diarrheal medication (just in case), painkillers, band-aids, other hygiene products as needed
- paracord- for clothesline or fixing things (though I didn't really need this much, about 12 feet would have been plenty.)
- silk sleeping bag liner (for when your hostel doesn't have sheets, or your hotel is questionable, or just warmth)
- RFID blocking wallet, coin purse
- passport and passport wallet - can be attached to belt and hidden inside pants
- plastic baggie for liquids - shampoo, castile soap, sunscreen, and a travel toothbrush with a toothpaste tube in the handle
- camera, charger, and extra memory cards/batteries
- deck of cards, sketchbook, pencil, pen, book
- day pack that folds up into a pocket (though, if I'd brought a backpack instead of a purse, this was unnecessary)
- collapsible water bottle
- mini flashlight
- guide books
- tablet (or smart phone)
- shoe bag (so the shoes you're not wearing don't get everything dirty)
Not shown: power converters, photocopies of credit cards and passport, printed copies of hotel and plane reservations (don't rely on electronic as your only copy for this!), several hundred US dollars in cash (not all in one place), and a duffel bag that folds up small, so you can check some of your stuff on the way home if you buy too many souvenirs!
Step 5: Getting on the Plane
Most airlines allow one carry-on and one smaller "personal item", which is usually defined as a purse, briefcase, coat, etc. So use that to your advantage!
The largest item will always be considered your carry-on, and must be smaller than the airline's given dimensions. As long as it looks small enough, most airlines won't actually check...but don't push it, just in case. Be prepared to shift things around if necessary, and don't fight the airline if they make you check the bag.
I chose a large purse as my "personal item" instead of a smaller backpack because, while the backpack I would have taken was actually smaller, purses are generally less questioned. (Also, the backpack was orange and I'm somewhat paranoid about backpacks in large cities, but I should have just gotten over it.) The personal item must fit under the seat on the plane.
When you are at the airport, make sure your passport, travel documents, all electronics, all liquids, and anything you want during the flight (a warm shirt, book, etc) are in the personal bag. Then you only have to dig through one bag at security checkpoints, and you can leave your main bag securely in the overhead bins.
Wear your heaviest clothing at the airport - hiking boots, jeans, coats, whatever. If it's on you, it's less weight in the bag.
Step 6: Learn Before You Go
There are a few things you should learn about your destination before you travel. The obvious ones are what to do and see while you're there and how to be safe at your destination. But being prepared for the culture is a great help.
Be aware of holidays - things may be closed. I can tell you from experience that it will be hard to find a cheap hotel room during Easter weekend in Rome, and you'd better buy food ahead of time for a Shabbat during Ramadan in Jerusalem!
If you will be visiting a religious site, be respectful of local traditions. Do not take pictures during worship services unless you have permission. Dress nicely - you are a guest. It's fairly safe to assume both men and women should cover their knees and shoulders at most religious sites, and you will sometimes be asked to remove your shoes. Men, take off your hats at Christian sites and cover your head at Jewish sites. Women, probably no cleavage anywhere and bring a scarf for Muslim sites . A friend of mine said she had to buy a t-shirt to enter a Buddhist site because a shawl over her tank top was not good enough. I've had no problems getting in Christian, Muslim or Jewish sites wearing 3/4 length sleeves and capris or pants, but some conservative places may require a skirt (a sarong over your pants may work).
If you are traveling to a country where you do not speak the language, a phrasebook can be very useful, but if you don't have one, I've found the following phrases the most useful to learn. It's always polite to make an effort to try to speak the local language.
1. Hello, do you speak English?
2. Please and Thank You
3. numbers, at least 1-10
4. Yes and No
5. (where is the) Toilet?
6. How much?
Remember that you are subject to the local laws even if you are unaware of them. Always be respectful toward any kind of authority figure, even if you disagree.
Step 7: Food
Getting to try new food, at least for me, is a major bonus of travel. While you could eat at McDonald's - there's been one in every country I've ever been to - you shouldn't. (Though to be fair, it's an experience- just not one that needs to happen more than once. If you do go to McDonald's in another country, at least eat one of the items you can't get in the USA. Also, McD's is not usually the cheapest restaurant in other countries.)
The dirt cheap way to eat is to find a grocery store or street market and buy things you can safely eat raw, prepackaged snack food, or things you can cook yourself. My go-to travel food as a poor college student in Europe was to bring a container of gorp (made from granola cereal, dried fruit, and/or chocolate) and a jar of peanut butter. Usually we'd eat that (and any breakfast the hotel/hostel provided) and save our money for one big fancy restaurant meal, which would be something local.
The other way to eat cheaply is to eat like a local. A meal of hummus, pita bread, moutabel, falafel, and bottled water (and tea? I forget) from Hashem, the best hummus place in Amman, Jordan cost something like $18 total for four people. But if you're eating street food, be careful to pick a vendor that looks clean, and is preferably busy. And maybe stay away from something like shwarma that can go bad easily on a hot day.
But definitely try something new. It may become your new favorite food!
Step 8: Choose Your Traveling Companions Wisely
In order to have a great trip when traveling with others, it's best to have traveling companions that have the same goals and travel styles. Are you all ok with staying in a cheap one-star dive hotel, or do you expect luxury? Do you all need concrete plans and a set itinerary, or is a plane ticket and a guide book enough? Will you be happy going to clubs all night, or would you prefer to rest up for the next day? Will anyone be upset if you skip a certain sight?
Personally, I prefer to travel in a group of 2-4 people, because you have someone to share your travels with (and split the cost of hotel rooms), yet not too many people that arranging things becomes burdensome. But it also depends on where you're going and what you're doing (and who you're with). One of my dream trips is to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, and that trip would best be done with a slightly larger group due to costs. And some places I'm perfectly ok with traveling alone. It's just the kind of thing you have to know yourself and what you're comfortable with.
Step 9: Do As the Locals Do
If at all possible, try to talk to people who know the area. You may learn about the best hummus place in Amman, or be taken to a medieval pub in Granada, or be invited to pick up a plague victim's skull in Wamba, Spain, or get to pet a kangaroo in Melbourne.
Those long sleeves in the Middle East? Excellent for sun block in lands with very little shade. Aran Island sweaters from Ireland are famous because they keep you warm in a cold, damp climate. There are reasons for the different types of traditional dress around the world.
Some religious sites charge admission for tourists...but not for worshippers. Sure, you may not get many pictures of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin if you go for a church service, but it's absolutely the best way to experience it.
Remember, photos are just photos. Don't spend your trip looking through a viewfinder. Be fully present, and your experiences will last longer.
Step 10: Getting There for Less
The great thing about the internet is that you can shop around easily for plane tickets. Use a private browsing window, because travel sites sometimes track your computer and raise prices based on how many times you've looked up a route or what country you're currently in.
Some days are cheaper to travel. In the United States, for example, a plane ticket for a Tuesday is going to be cheaper than traveling on the weekend. Holidays are always more expensive in any country. And travel in the "off-season" is cheaper, though it might require more planning because some sites you may want to see are closed.
Night flights or night trains are great ways to save money - if you're ok with sleeping on them. But if you can, you'll be sleeping and traveling at the same time, so it saves both the cost of a hotel and giving you more daylight to do fun stuff.
Hostels are an excellent way to save money - they often have a kitchen so you can cook your own food, and many have laundry facilities, on top of being cheap. The downside (or upside?) is that you're probably sharing a room with strangers. I like them; not everyone does.
If you're booking a cheap hotel online, one way to gauge the quality of the hotel is to check the quality of the English in the reviews. What may be a decent hotel for someone from the third world may not be acceptable to an American, for example. But also realize that Americans have weirdly large expectations for hotel rooms, compared to the rest of the world. All any hotel room really needs is a secure lock, the right number of clean beds, air conditioning or heat as needed, and a bathroom (or bathroom down the hall, if you're ok with that). You'll probably just be there to sleep, anyway.
Bed and Breakfasts are also nice if you prefer something a little fancier. I traveled across Ireland this way with my mom, since she needed something a little nicer. We got a tasty full Irish breakfast, and the owners were happy to call ahead to the next town to make reservations for us, since if you booked them through the tourism office they would take a cut.
Step 11: Have an Amazing Trip!
Take your nice, lightweight bag, and see the world!