How to travel light — really light

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By Christopher Elliott

It’s one thing to preach about the virtues of traveling light. It’s quite another to practice them.

For years, I’ve done just that — written about the virtues of minimalism and packing light. But with three kids in tow, I’ve hauled a lot of stuff around the country on our trips. Too much stuff.

A few weeks ago, I embarked on an unexpected adventure. A spring cleaning exercise mushroomed into a project to downsize all of my earthly belongings into a few small boxes. I had to sell the house and move suddenly. I’ll spare you the drama.

It became clear that I would have to do that thing that I’d been talking about for so long: I’d have to travel light. Really light.

My father, a retired minister, probably would have comforted me with the words of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will leave this life.” That’s excellent packing advice: take nothing!

Perhaps appropriately, Job’s own life was beset by tragedy. But I digress.

Here, then, is my light packing advice from someone who has done it for real:

No more paper if you travel light

Paper weighs you down. I took two decades worth of receipts and tax returns, correspondence and memories, to a professional shredder and let ’em have it.

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Receipts from the Fish House in Key Largo, circa 2001? Shred! The 1990 University of California commencement bulletin? Shred! Letters from the ex-girlfriend? Shred!

Boy, that felt good. Paper weighs a lot. It certainly has its uses (boarding documents, confirmed itineraries) but as my daddy used to say, you can’t take it with you. You know, when your number is up.

How much can you really wear?

If you’ve ever tried to wear more than one pair of pants, then you know it’s not possible. So why do you own so much? Do you ever wear it? I had a closet full of clothes I never wore. Some were no-brainers, like the pair of size 40 pants I wore when I tipped the scales at 230 pounds. Yeah, that was 2002, and it was all baby sympathy weight. (I’m around 160 now.)

Other items were not so easy. The hat collection, built over many years of travels around the world. I was fond of one or two fedoras. They are in a better place now, which is to say, they are not cluttering my closet. (Related: How to win the war on wrinkled clothes.)

Find out why traveling light really matters

As all of the excess fell away, it became clear to me what mattered. My valuable data was backed up to the cloud, and I’d downsized to a MacBook Air. I’d pared down my clothes to a few changes by season, enough to fit in a box. Everything else was donated. What remained was important. (Here’s everything that you need to know before planning your next trip.)

My children were still there, thank goodness, and they are the most important thing to me. When all the furniture is gone and the dust settles from the last garage sale, and you have three children still standing there, that becomes very clear. Stuff doesn’t matter; people matter.

My greatest regret? Having to say goodbye to my three cats. I had to give them up for adoption a few weeks ago. I can barely bring myself to write those words. They are with friends, and I’m sure I will see them again, but I am heartbroken.

So the next time you pack for a trip, remember these simple words of advice. Leave the books and papers at home. Pack only what you’ll wear. And don’t forget the things that matter to you the most — the loved ones in your own life.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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