‘Tis the season for minimalist travel

It’s that time of year when an already tight space on a plane, train or automobile seems even tighter, thanks to those extra holiday presents or layers of bulky winter clothing you’re wearing. Maybe it just feels worse because of the airspace intrusion of an oversized seatmate or a yapping emotional-support poodle.

This may be the right moment to bring up travel minimalism, which can help you make it through even the most claustrophobia-inducing voyage. “Being a minimalist traveler frees up mental capacity to enjoy the experience,” says Timo Way, who has taught classes on traveling with less.

Too many passengers think the art of taking less begins and ends with the packing adage “roll, don’t fold.” Not true. It applies to every part of your trip, from selecting the right seat to bringing practical, space-saving clothes, luggage and electronics. And yes, anyone can do it.

The less-is-more philosophy extends to how much travelers consume, and that’s particularly true for people who embrace minimalism for environmental reasons, says Joshua Becker, author of the book The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own. For them, downsizing means fitting into a smaller, more fuel-efficient car or refusing to play the loyalty points game to score an elusive upgrade into an over-the-top business-class seat with all-you-can-drink wine and fawning service. Minimalists are content with a downsized travel experience.

“We need far less than we think,” Becker says.

Decluttering consultant Debora Levi told me there’s a reason minimalism is catching on among travelers. The idea that you have to take everything with you is a direct response to the reality of modern travel, where airlines charge for carry-on items and personal space is shrinking. Minimalist travelers take less with them, but the most committed declutterers discard their unnecessary belongings even before their trip ends. For example, one of Levi’s clients flies from Miami to New York, then donates her winter coat before returning home.

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“People are learning to let go,” she says.

Francine Jay, the author of The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Guide to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify, says there’s something about the time of year that makes people go minimal. Nothing stresses you out like holiday travel, but having to haul a lot of gifts with you is enough to trigger a nervous breakdown.

“Packing lightly makes for easier, more efficient travel,” she says. “When you don’t have to check your luggage, wait for it at the baggage carousel or worry the whole time about losing it, you have more time and energy to enjoy your trip.”

Beyond “roll, don’t fold” and avoiding checking luggage, what else can you do to travel minimalist? It can be summed up in three little words: Less is more. Don’t bring something you can buy at your destination, such as large tubes of sunblock or toothpaste, and when you’re done with your trip, leave the items you don’t need at your destination or donate them. This encourages you to buy things in smaller amounts. (If you want really small quantities, try a site such as Minimus.biz, which sells trial-size toiletries in TSA-approved amounts.)

Do something about your clothes. I spoke with hard-core minimalists for this story who buy underwear at their destination, then discard it before returning home. Others swear by synthetic travel underwear by companies such as ExOfficio. I own a few pairs myself, and they allow me to dramatically reduce the size of my carry-on. You can wash them in your hotel sink, and they dry quickly.

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Depending on the length of your trip, take one or two changes of clothes. You can’t go wrong with black, says Martha Merritt, dean of the office of international education at the University of Richmond. “You will look more like a native wherever you go outside the United States,” she says.

Oh, and lose those bulky electronics, too. The most accomplished declutterers leave the laptop or tablet computer at home and learn how to do everything on their smartphone.

This holiday season, the line separating the stressed travelers from the relaxed ones may also divide the minimalists from the rest. They’re easy to spot in their dark clothes, dictating emails into their smartphones, unworried about the fate of their checked baggage. Sounds appealing to me.

Three ways to go minimal

• Make your carry-on smaller. If you need a hard-sided carry-on, you can still get the benefits of expandable luggage with the new Briggs Riley Sympatico CX international carry-on spinner (briggs-riley.com, $529). It expands by 25%, then compresses back to its original size.

• Un-bulk your wallet. Check out zerOz, a minimalist wallet (zeroz.com, $35-105). This is your wallet on a diet. It’s slim but doesn’t give up any of the functionality of a traditional wallet. It has a cash strap and a quick-access tab for your driver’s license.

• Shrink your stuff. I’m a big fan of packing cubes such as the TravelWise Packing Cube System (eatsmartproducts.com, $24.95). These lightweight nylon cubes let you stuff your shirts, pants and dresses into small compartments for streamlined packing. Best of all, you don’t have to unpack everything to access an item — just zip open the top.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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