How I (finally) learned to travel light …

My PacSafe carryon trio in Costa Rica

My PacSafe carryon trio in Costa Rica

…with new luggage and a new travel style

I HAVE NEVER made a secret of my inability to travel light. In fact, I have often said the porter’s faces light up when I arrive at the New Delhi train station. I even wrote a blog post about it: A story about taking the train in India. Perhaps the romance of yester-year travel lingered in my mind, images of porters carrying steamer trunks down gang planks, the Gateway to India looming in the background — like a scene from the film Passage to India. But thanks to some new luggage I received from PacSafe, I actually travelled carryon only when I went to Costa Rica for two weeks. Here’s how I did it.

Passage to India Bombay

Scene from the film Passage to India

Carryon is the way to go

Pacsafe Slingsafe handbag

Pacsafe Slingsafe handbag

For years, I have heard many travellers extol the virtues and benefits of travelling carryon only, but I never thought I would be able to pare things down enough. However, a caustic remark from a fellow travel writer during a press trip in Ireland was the tipping point, the moment when I thought it would be worthwhile to at least try and travel light. My pride was hurt. So, I did some crowd-sourcing and heard good things about PacSafe luggage — which is light, versatile and has a lot of anti-theft features built-in. The good people at PacSafe agreed to give me three (small) pieces to try: A purse, a backpack for all my electronics gear and a carryon bag with wheels.

I admit, when I unpacked the luggage, I gulped. This was not a lot of space! More crowd-sourcing. Someone mentioned compression sacs, and I bought a set from Eagle Creek, another excellent luggage maker. While I was at it, I also bought some lightweight travel clothing — pants and shirts made from micro-fibre and merino wool and good-quality flip-flops that you can actually walk in without ruining your back.

Pacsafe carryon bag

Pacsafe carryon bag

And when I realized I had to really pare down my toiletries because everything I was carrying would go through security, I bought a couple of clear plastic cosmetic bags and bottles. This was a whole new challenge: I had always thrown things like big bottles of conditioner, my Swiss army knife and manicure scissors in my checked bag. But no more! When you go carryon only, you have to really think about every single item and whether or not it might get confiscated at security checkpoints.

A couple of days before leaving for Costa Rica, I spread everything out that I wanted to take and gave it a “trial packing.” I fell instantly in love with the compression sacs — they really work! An entire wardrobe of clothing ideal for a tropical vacation that included hiking in cooler mountains fit into my carry on bag (after I left out an extra sweater and a few other non-essentials). My toiletries were a little tougher: I had to really re-think what I was planning to take. But I actually loved going through this exercise and bringing a minimalist ethos to my packing. One of the tricks I discovered was packing as many things that do double-duty as possible — for example, moisturizer with SPF, tinted lip balm.

Pacsafe backpack

Pacsafe backpack

Next, I packed the backpack with my electronics. The laptop, iPad mini and DSLR camera, plus all the cords and peripherals, were essential as I was going on a travel blogging trip. After I removed the inner safety bag that came with the backpack, I was good to go. The padded laptop sleeve was the perfect size for my 13″ MacBook Pro and also had the perfect sized pocket for my iPad Mini. I already owned a plastic case for the cords and peripherals. The only thing I had to leave it at home was an extra camera bag. I could only bring one.

Finally, I put everything I really needed in the handbag, which was far roomier than I initially realized. Nevertheless, I used a smaller travel wallet, and left a bunch of cards at home, and also ditched my usual cosmetics bag. I just stashed a compact and tinted lip balm in an inner pocket. During actual use, I learned to appreciate the safety features, like the clasp that prevents purse snatchers from opening the bag, and the slash-proof material.

PacSafe luggage travel

Discovering the benefits of travelling light

Once I adjusted to my new minimalist packing style, and became familiarized with my new luggage, I started to reap the benefits of travelling light and using only carryon. And it was almost immediate. At the airport in Toronto, there was a massive lineup for the checkin counter and baggage drop, and I waltzed right by. When I landed in San Jose, I knew my guide from Costa Rica Tourism was waiting for me. I was able to simply walk off the plane, pass through customs, make a quick stop at the duty-free for Bombay Sapphire, and be in the parking lot to meet Hector, the guide, within minutes.

While travelling, carrying small, light luggage made transfers, and checking into and out of hotels, a breeze. And when I got to the tiny airstrip in Tamarindo, Costa Rica — surrounded by cows grazing in nearby fields — I didn’t have to worry about whether I was over the baggage limits. But best of all, I got a little tinge of satisfaction when I saw my luggage was smaller than my guide’s rather large suitcase.

Thanks to PacSafe for the luggage. It transformed me. I am now someone who travels carryon. The porters in India will have to make do without me.

PacSafe luggage Costa Rica travel

Me at the tiny Tamarindo airport in Costa Rica with all of my luggage.

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42 Responses to How I (finally) learned to travel light …

  1. Gary Arndt January 8, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    How many maple leafs do you have on your bags???
    Gary Arndt recently posted..Sunset on Gwaii Haanas National Park, British ColumbiaMy Profile

  2. Laura January 8, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

    I almost always travel carryon only but it can be a challenge. Smart and light packing definitely help reduce the stress on a trip so I’m always trying to improve. I think I’m going to try some compression sacks!

  3. janice Varuna Soderholm January 8, 2014 at 3:13 pm #

    Can I do it? OMG I am sucha minimalist in my home however I love having stuff with me when I travel – especially my favourite clothes- yes non-attachment and all that – but I have to think about this. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. Laurie January 8, 2014 at 9:01 pm #

    I always do carry on for long weekends away but never for longer. I am off to Mississippi, New Orleans and New York for two and a half weeks at the end of the month. United has me going all over the country with multiple plane changes for all of my flights so I am really nervous about my luggage being lost/left behind… I am considering carry on but with two different climates it is going to be a challenge for sure. I have a compression sac as well as a couple of packing cubes… I guess the one thing I hate about carry on is hauling that sucker up and down into the overhead compartments!!! I guess better to be stressed doing that (and hoping I don’t drop it on someone’s head) then waiting at the luggage carousal getting stressed!!! Great post!!! (P.S. didn’t you have to put your purse into the backpack in order to just have two pieces of carry on luggage)
    Laurie recently posted..What will 2014 bring?My Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 8, 2014 at 9:06 pm #

      HI Laurie, I think the stress of loading and unloading overhead bins is far less! But I here you. I think most airlines let you take 2 pieces of carryon and a purse, if I am not mistaken. The purse is really quite small. Also, when I was returning from Costa Rica, I also had a large shopping bag with duty free and souvenirs and they let that on TOO!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..How to find vegetarian food in CanadaMy Profile

    • Suzanne January 9, 2014 at 11:36 pm #

      Yep, tossing that thing into the the overhead bin is nothing compared to waiting three days for your bag, which I had to do last week when I foolishly checked instead of carrying on… Never again, I hope.

  5. Yeshi January 8, 2014 at 9:49 pm #


    What about those of us who are considering relocating to India long-term? I am really having a hard time with packing light for a two-year or more journey. It’s me and my 10-year old.


    Thank you!

    • Suzanne January 9, 2014 at 11:39 pm #

      When I moved to the UAE I surrendered to checking two-three huge bags. I now regret paying the fees because I could have purchased what I brought and MORE with that money if I had just left the stuff back in the States. Things are even cheaper in India than here. Just my humble experience.

    • Mariellen Ward January 10, 2014 at 8:58 am #

      Moving is a far different experience than travelling for 2 weeks and coming home! I would say, take what you feel you cannot live without, perhaps especially things with sentimental value. And remember, you can buy almost everything you need and save money on paying baggage fees. Another option, is to travel light, and ship what you need.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Year in review: Return of the heroMy Profile

  6. Renuka January 9, 2014 at 2:46 am #

    Traveling light is definitely beneficial. I am also one of those who like to pack everything possible. Somehow, I have never been able to travel light, but I understand it’s good. And if you have a cool stylish backpack, nothing like it!
    Renuka recently posted..Voyager Likes To Come Back HomeMy Profile

  7. Sahir January 9, 2014 at 6:08 am #

    Traveling light is very nice experience as you don’t have to bear the load of heavy luggage. As I could see in the photo you are carrying such light weight luggage, this really frees your arms and shoulders while you travel.
    Sahir recently posted..Motorola’s Invention: Skin Tattoo with MicrophoneMy Profile

  8. Lisa | LLworldtour January 9, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Looks nice & smart! I Try the plastic space bags. They definitely compress your stuff. I’ve been using them for years & love them!
    Lisa | LLworldtour recently posted..My First Trip of 2014: Skiing In Jasper!My Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 10, 2014 at 8:59 am #

      Hi Lisa! Thanks for the comment. I am not sure what “plastic space bags” are — are they different from compression sacs? Some people swear by packing cubes, I haven’t tried them yet.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Winter in Canada: What to do?My Profile

  9. Suzanne January 9, 2014 at 11:33 pm #

    Hello again! I used a very similar system on my trip to Bombay, Poona, and Benaulim over the holidays, except my large bag is convertible to a hands-free backpack and my backpack is convertible to a shoulder strap bag. I use a slightly bigger Pacsafe purse (why are the security purses all so fugly?!?). I fit all the carry-on requirements except on the small planes I went over the weight on my bigger bag. Oops, I guess I am still bringing too much. I wanted to share that the trip was amazing–memories for a lifetime– thanks to lots of tips, encouragement and inspiration from YOUR blog during the past couple of years. And I am also loving working overseas, which feels pretty fun all the time. Thanks so much. -Suzanne

    • Mariellen Ward January 10, 2014 at 9:01 am #

      Wow, very interested to hear more about bags that convert, as you mentioned in your comment. Are they PacSafe? Can you give me more info about them?
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..First time visitor to Canada, eh?My Profile

  10. Junalin @ Doula Training January 10, 2014 at 12:15 am #

    This is great! Thanks for posting this kind of blog.. Keep posting
    Junalin @ Doula Training recently posted..Is A Doula Right For Me?My Profile

  11. Aleah | January 10, 2014 at 4:55 am #

    Until I can afford Pacsafe (or be a big enough blogger for them to let me try out their stuff), I have to make do with my local backpacks LOL Will try out traveling light this year. I’m tired of having to spend a lot of time waiting to get my bags checked in.
    Aleah | recently posted..The Best of My Travels in 2013My Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 10, 2014 at 9:05 am #

      Hi Aleah, I can assure you, I travelled for MANY years with inexpensive, aging gear; and logged many hard miles. And I’m a LOT older than you, LOL. 🙂

      It’s not necessary to invest in the top-quality stuff, it just makes life a bit easier. Also, I found it helped me transform into someone who travels lighter.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Year in review: Return of the heroMy Profile

  12. Ross January 10, 2014 at 6:53 am #

    Sounds great. I have always toyed with the idea of travelling light for an extended time but never do it. Those compression sacks seems great. I must get my hands on them.
    Ross recently posted..Shopping in Saudi ArabiaMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 10, 2014 at 9:06 am #

      I might add packing cubes into the mix too, but compression sacs worked really well for clothes. Not for gear or toiletries of course 🙂
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Pura Vida in Costa Rica My Profile

  13. Adrian Tanase January 10, 2014 at 4:35 pm #

    Those looks heavy.
    Adrian Tanase recently posted..4.6 milioane de conturi furate de pe SnapchatMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 11, 2014 at 6:17 pm #

      Hi Adrian, you probably can’t get the scale on the luggage. The carryon and backpack are quite small, and not heavy at all. Especially the carryon — it was very light.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Pura Vida in Costa Rica My Profile

  14. glenn jampol January 11, 2014 at 8:14 am #

    Thanks Mariellen for reminding me how much I need to still pare down my travel paraphernalia. I travel a lot and this helped me to be more disciplined when I move about (which i do quite often). I hope to see you in Costa Rica again soon!!
    glenn jampol recently posted..The Low Down On CoffeeMy Profile

  15. MickiK January 13, 2014 at 9:45 pm #

    Oh, I am just so ridiculously jealous. With two kids and a husband who likes to carry something for every eventuality, I think my days of traveling light may be done for a while. Sigh.
    MickiK recently posted..12 Free iPhone Travel Apps for the Technically ChallengedMy Profile

  16. Wesley January 13, 2014 at 10:54 pm #

    So tru, i had a hard time with learning to travel light.
    But, it’s so much better to travel light.

  17. Jo Fitzsimons January 16, 2014 at 6:15 pm #

    I made the move to carry-on this summer and I couldn’t go back to anything bigger. I halved my bag size and my back and purse (no baggage fees) are happier for it. I do miss my swiss army knife. Sigh. I (accidentally) tried to get it past TSA in the USA (it was in the bottom of my bag) – thought that day was going to end more unpleasantly and involve a bail bondsman. Won’t try that again. Great post and well done on the downsize.
    Jo Fitzsimons recently posted..Oahu Part 1: Hiking Diamond Head on SteroidsMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward August 20, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

      I know, my Swiss army knife, and also my manicure set with scissors, were two of the things I had to leave behind. It definitely takes more thinking to go carry-on.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Getting ready for long term travelMy Profile

  18. Drew Goldberg February 12, 2014 at 4:32 am #

    YES, I couldn’t agree more! Traveling light is the way to go. Thanks for sharing this and spreading the message!

    Cheers and happy travels 🙂

    Drew Goldberg recently posted..6 Sri Lankan Foods to TryMy Profile

  19. Ann Cee February 15, 2014 at 4:28 pm #

    My dream to to be able to pack everything into a carry on. We usually travel to tropical locations (which you’d think you need less space for), but, as a family of three with three pro cameras and the laptop, never can get by with less than five (!!!) bags.
    Ann Cee recently posted..Readjusting to the Real WorldMy Profile

  20. Charles McCool May 7, 2014 at 10:04 am #

    Carry On Only is definitely my mantra. A huge paradigm shift in thinking and doing.
    Charles McCool recently posted..World’s Smallest Park, Portland, OregonMy Profile

  21. Ceci Snow August 20, 2014 at 11:16 am #

    Despite many miles/kilometres of traveling I have yet to learn to travel light. I am improving, and I loathe checking luggage, so I am devouring your articles on the subject! Even traveling from the east to west coast in Canada to visit my son and his family, I take too much. As he reminds me, Vancouver has stores and if I really need something, I can buy it. Duh. I am thoroughly enjoying your blog and website. You are an inspiration.
    Ceci Snow recently posted..Open your eyes and see, don’t just lookMy Profile

  22. Maria N January 23, 2015 at 3:33 pm #

    Packing light is great idea…but what do you do with things you buy?

  23. anil_traveller August 1, 2015 at 5:43 am #

    Lovely post! some useful tips in there. It took me 2 years of travelling to learn to pack just the right amount. 🙂

  24. Emilio Ford November 17, 2015 at 6:04 am #

    I always have tried to pack light. Several times I managed to do it. Your post is really useful! I have Pacsafe carryon bag when I had to travel light. Best regards!

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