Packing is a straightforward endeavor, right? Just put the stuff you’ll need in a bag (or bags) and be on your way. Only it isn’t that simple. And folks who overpack can be in for an unhappy trip.

What to bring?

First, some assumptions. You’re traveling for a fixed period of time, not forever. And, you’re going to be in a place with a minimal level of creature comforts like electricity and clean water (i.e. you’re not camping in the wilderness, in the outback, or someplace where electricity and clean water are not available.)

The backpack rule

When we travel, no matter the length of time, we only carry what we can fit in a backpack. A small backpack at that; one that will fit in the overhead compartment of most airplanes. That’s the backpack rule; if you can’t carry it on your back, it doesn’t come with us.

That’s right. Just the backpack. No huge suitcases crammed with junk we don’t need. And no luggage on wheels (those things may be convenient in an airport, but they are a pain on cobblestones, stairs, and crowded cities).

And let’s be clear, we’re not a couple of young backpackers staying in youth hostels and eating ramen every night.

To be fair, Karen will sometimes carry an additional purse or shoulder bag, but that’s it.

This allows us to carry on all our luggage and not have to check our bags. No lost bags by the airline and no waiting at the carousel for our bags to show up.

The exception to the rule? Returning from a trip we may check our bags if we’re bringing back bottles of wine.

Packing Wine (or other bottles)

U.S. Customs allows people to bring in one liter of alcohol (a standard bottle of wine is 750ml or 3/4 liter) duty free. After that, the duty (tax) is $1-2 per liter. Same goes for beer, spirits are more.

That’s the rule. In practice, people who bring up to a case of wine or beer for personal consumption are often waved through with no duty assessed. Just be sure to declare what’s in your luggage. As a bonus, the lines at customs with something to declare are often shorter than the lines with nothing to declare.

Make sure your bottles are safely packed in your luggage. I like to use Wine Wings. Bottles fit snugly inside, protecting them from breakage.

Also, only pack unopened bottles. That half empty bottle of Bordeaux that you can’t part with? Pour it down the drain or finish it off. Putting the cork back in the neck won’t be secure and the wine will likely spill out.

Finally, a word about those cute bottles of limoncello sold all over Italy. Those corks pop right out under the changing pressure conditions of commercial air travel. Use duct tape to heavily secure the cork in the bottle, otherwise you will have a sticky mess when you unpack.

Packing clothes

Undoubtedly clothes will take up most of the space in your luggage. Resist the urge to pack a different outfit for each day. And resist the urge to pack more than one dress up outfit. And resist the urge to pack more than one pair of shoes in your luggage. Wear a comfortable pair of shoes and pack one pair for a nice occasion.

Trust me, unless you’re an A-list celeb or an ambassador, you can get by with one semi-formal outfit.

I like to pack four or five casual shirts, two dressier shirts for nice restaurants, one tie for formal events, one sweater, one jacket (depending on the weather), sleepwear, and a week’s worth of socks and underwear. That’s it. Everything else is superfluous. Trust me, you can get by on this.

When packing, roll your clothes instead of folding them. You’ll be amazed how much space you save.

And speaking of saving space, get some Travel Cubes. Not only do they compact everything down into a nice small square, but they also keep your stuff organized. Highly recommended.

If you’re worried about running out of clean clothes, don’t. We’ve had fun adventures looking for places to do laundry. Everyone says they want an authentic experience when they travel. Well, what’s more authentic than washing your drawers in Sicily? Or, looking for a spot that will wash, dry, and fold for you in Norway? The cost is usually reasonable. In a pinch, you can wash your clothes by hand in the bathroom sink. Packing a tiny bottle of liquid soap can be a lifesaver when you run out of underwear while traveling. Hang your wet laundry in the bathroom with this handy portable clothes line. Word to the wise, portable clotheslines won’t usually hold heavy, wet laundry like jeans; toss them over the shower rod.


I like to have a dop kit for all my traveling toiletries. Then, everything is in one place. But, be aware that if you have liquids inside your dop kit, and are planning to take it take it as part of your carry on luggage, you’ll need to remove it at security.

Of course, most hotels have soap, shampoo, and other items you might need, but I always like to carry a little of everything in case we stay at someone’s home which may not be equipped with every amenity. Your local drug store will likely have travel sized items that are TSA compliant (under 3 ounces).

Or, you can get your own travel bottles and fill them yourself with shampoo, mouthwash, conditioner, and any other liquid you might need. Just be sure to label them. I’d hate to see you mix up the shampoo and mouthwash bottles.


We live in a world dominated by electronics. And, you’ll likely want to bring some of your devices on your trip.

Many countries outside the States, including all of Europe, use a different platform for their cell phones. So, before you leave, look up the Operating System for local cell phones.

Your phone can get data anywhere if you can get on WiFi. But, to make phone calls, you’ll want to get a local SIM card. Another option is to buy a cheap local phone. Making phone calls can be convenient if you are making reservations at a restaurant or following up with your B&B. But, if you don’t want to make phone calls, you might be able to get by on WiFi alone.

Of course, you can use Skype or some other Internet-based platform for making your calls. Just be aware that you might not always have access to WiFi when you need to make a call.

I also like to bring a tablet rather than my laptop. Tablets weigh a lot less and take up less space in a backpack where every inch is precious.

Lastly, don’t forget your plugs and cords. And not just the ones that recharge your devices. Many foreign countries have standards for plugs that are different from the U.S.

You can use your devices in other countries as long as you have an adapter. Instead of buying a different adapter for each country, get an all in one adapter that has a plug for most countries worldwide. In addition, you should have a surge protector, just in case.


What happens if your wallet is stolen while traveling? Or you lose a credit card? Or, God forbid, your passport?

Hopefully, you’ve got backups of all your important docs. I like to take close-up, clear pictures of all my credit cards, licenses, and passport. I also like to have a document with my itinerary.

Then, I email all my docs to myself and my itinerary to a trusted friend or family member. Some people also like to bring a paper copy of their docs with them as well. But, if you do this, keep in mind that you should protect the copies as vigorously as the originals.


Movies and books are easy to download to your tablet, laptop, or phone. I usually bring a hard copy of a local guidebook plus another paperback novel for entertainment.

Some people bring maps of where they are going, but Google Maps is available online. And you can use Google Maps even when you are offline; just download your maps when you are on WiFi.