‘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.

  • SirWIred

    For longer trips, I hit the local Dollar store for toiletries. (A real dollar Store, not a “discount” store like Dollar General or Family Dollar.) A dollar each for misc. sundries is cheaper than even getting travel-size stuff at Target (much less mail-ordering it!)

    When we rent a beach condo, the local Dollar Tree usually supplies us with paper products, toiletries (hand soap, dish soap, body soap, dishwasher detergent, laundry detergent, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, etc.), snack foods (my wife’s favorite brand of Pretzel sticks is the one we only see at Dollar Tree), bread, jigsaw puzzles, stupid kitchen utensils that are missing from the room, etc. Pretty much everything except stuff to cook.

  • Jeff W.

    I do not think that minimalist travel is the appropriate way to travel. Right-sized is a better approach

    For example “…who buy underwear at their destination, then discard it before returning home.” is really just replacing one problem for another. So now these people are buying underwear and really discarding perfectly fine clothing when done. Adding more stuff to landfills. And odds are, these were manufactured off-shore in sweatshops. At least the winter-coats can be donated, but it is still consumerism at its worst.

    All of this assumes you can purchase items upon arrival. Landing late night in NY, a store is likely open near you. In Omaha, a little more of a challenge. If you are traveling to a location that requires a winter coat, especially a heavy one, are you willing to risk going a day without one?

    And if you have every had to purchase toiletries at a vacation/tourist destination and the prices can be astronomical.

  • AJPeabody

    Compression and packing cubes decrease volume but not the number of things you take, and they don’t decrease the weight, either.

  • eBob

    I am sure you could find something just as easily in Omaha. Most likely you would have a rental car and a lot of Wal-Marts are open 24/7.

  • DChamp56

    You’re suggesting people now bring more carry-on luggage, where some people completely disregard the number of items you can take, and bringing incredibly over-sized items with them, making overfilled overhead compartments the norm. Sorry, I can’t agree. I check one bag, and carry my essentials in a backpack that fits under the seat in front of me.
    Oh, and before you mention the “intrusion of an oversized seatmate”, maybe you should first talk about shrinking seats. Wow….

  • finance_tony

    That’s why I fill mine with helium prior to applying the vacuum. You’re compounding the weight differential between helium and regular air when you do so. My luggage went from 55lb, which was overweight, down to 32lbs, with plenty of room for souvenirs and still under the weight limit.

  • Bill___A

    I agree. I like to arrive somewhere and not have to purchase anything but also just have what I need. Buying things and throwing them out is wasteful and bad for the environment.

  • FQTVLR

    Somehow I do not think I would take advice from someone saying they would purchase underwear when they arrive at a destination and then discard it when they return home. Not environmentally friendly at all. And rather silly as underwear does not take up that much space in luggage. And I am glad there are people who can afford to purchase a coat simply for one trip and then leave it when they return home. I have photos of me in Iceland (23 years ago), Alaska (15 years ago) Yellowstone, the Midwest (where I lived for 6 years), Scandinavia in the winter and the Himalayas wearing the same parka I bought when I moved to the Midwest in 1990. I also have a dress coat the same age. I will wear both until either they or I fall apart from overuse.

  • C Schwartz

    I was pretty surprised to see that advice — the throwaway underwear. There have been several articles on how bad throwaway and fast fashion is for the environment.

    And I am not particularly interested in spending time searching for cheap clothing. I did not like doing it when my luggage was delayed

  • Jeff W.

    I only used Omaha as an example. Very nice city and have been there many times, I like the downtown entertainment district.

    The point really that some destinations have more options than others. But I still don’t really want to spend my first hours in a new place looking for a store to buy what I didn’t pack. Especially if my arrival time ends up being later than when most stores are open.

  • Jeff W.

    Silly question. Does not the compression and helium basically go away as you unpack and use the items? What does one do when it is time to return?

  • Travelnut

    Hmmm. First, my qualifications. While I’m not a road warrior, I’ve made at least one international and one domestic trip a year for the past 20 years. I’ve gotten my packing list down to the bare essentials, for me. A couple on the Paris subway I was chatting with remarked, “is that all you brought with you?” They had two huge suitcases. No way I would be dragging bulky heavy bags on & off the train, up & down stairs. So I get packing light.

    That said, I do not agree with many of these statements.

    Loyalty points: we always disagree on this, Chris. I am going to London for Christmas/NYE, and I used loyalty points for my business class plane ticket. I will enjoy the all-you-can-drink wine and fawning service very much, thanks! I could have used Hilton Honors points for the hotel but I’m saving them for another occasion.

    Buying items at the destination: no no no! First, the availability of the items within walking distance/easy transportation from your hotel can vary. If it’s downtown London, it would be pretty easy. In Prague, I had a desperate need for band-aids and lady products on a Sunday and it was very difficult to find ANYTHING (and the product selection was pretty bare). And do you really want to spend your precious vacation time trying to find a drugstore? And waste money by leaving the unused portion?

    Quick-drying clothing/undies: I will give you this one. I try to find a laundromat but sometimes that is really difficult.

    One or two changes of clothes: get real. (This is from the female perspective.)

    Doing business on your smartphone? Also get real. You can answer email but that’s about it for my job.

    Donating a coat before you leave? Only if I really would not need it after that and I was going to get rid of it anyway. Who can afford to buy a coat just to get rid of it when it’s perfectly good?

    Electronics in general: a tablet takes little room and will be good enough for most tasks. Electronics/appliances that I will always bring with me are my Apple plugs and hair straighteners that have the UK or European configuration. Best purchases ever if you go to those countries often.

  • Travelnut

    I was wondering too. Not knowing the mechanics of how the vacuum part works, wouldn’t it suck out the helium?

  • BubbaJoe123

    I’m pretty sure he’s joking.

  • eBob

    I agree. My point is that there really isn’t anywhere you could go in the continental U.S. where you would not be able to buy essentials unless you flew into an actual small town and did not get a rental car. I have flown into cities far smaller than Omaha and not had a problem getting something that I may have forgotten.

  • AMA

    I bring my oldest, rattiest stuff and discard it when I am coming home, except for what I’m wearing. Makes more room in the bag for souvenirs! Also, that way I don’t stress if my bag gets lost.

  • SirWIred

    Heh, the cabinet under our sink contains a veritable World’s Fair of lady products, as my wife invariably forgets them when we travel overseas and gets to learn how to find them in yet another country!

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    A liter of helium has a “lift capacity” of around 1 gram, so he’d need a large balloon attached to his bag. You don’t see toddlers flying around after birthday parties.

  • Skeptic

    I live in the continental US (Alaska, home of the tallest mountain on the continent) and I beg to differ! Even if there was a store, and you had a way of getting to it, and it was open, and it had goods in stock, you would not want to pay bush prices for something you buy for 1/10 as much here in Anchorage. Minimalism is fine if you are going to the beach. Not so much at -40 F in the dark.

  • Skeptic

    Plus, if you inhale that helium as you apply the vacuum, you can make the sternest TSA “officer” laugh as you pass through security!

  • The Original Joe S

    Leave your coat in the North? I got off a plane from warm sunny Asia at JFK. Hadda go to LGA. Standing out in the cold waiting for the bus; people snickering at the idiot with no coat……….

  • Yikes. I travel with a 20 L bag that fits under the seat, so I think I qualify as a minimalist traveler. Most of this advice is poor.
    • Don’t throw out your stuff when you travel. Get good lightweight stuff instead. Wear it at home too. The ex-officio undies last around 10 years, so are a good investment. Bring 4-5 pairs and wash in the slink.
    • A prima loft jacket is light and compact. Again, it lasts for years.
    • Don’t bring 2 outfits. Instead make sure all your tops and bottoms mix and match. Bring more tops than bottoms. 3 tops x 3 bottoms is 9 outfits.
    • Substite solid toiletries for liquid when possible. Deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, lotion bars all come in solid form. These are smaller and lighter than their equivalent liquids.
    • Order a bunch of itty bitty bottles and decant your toiletries into them. I have several bottles in the 15-30 ml size that holds liquid makeup, face lotion, etc.

  • Tricia K

    More power to you if you can travel with two outfits but ask anyone who has had a suitcase go missing about the amount of time they had to spend replacing necessities and they aren’t likely to jump on board the “buy your underwear there and throw it out” train. I’m ok if someone donates a winter coat they got for a specific trip and have no need for it at home but tossing perfectly good clothes in the trash really bothers me. While I have tried to pare down my backpack, I will never be called a minimalist, because I won’t leave home without my iPad (keeps me from killing my husband due to my insomnia) and medications I will never check and can’t live without.

  • John McDonald

    We stopped giving xmas gifts to family decades ago. Saves a lot of time buying stuff no one wants. Personal space on aircraft isn’t shrinking on most airlines. Low costs maybe but they’ve been around for decades now including long haul. Getting really sick of this myth.

  • LonnieC

    Be careful with OTC drugs. Some come from China, where regulation and standards are poor. Otherwise, excellent advice!

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