Five Surprising Reasons to Pack Light

One of the most common travel questions I get is how to pack sensibly for a trip that lasts several months. My advice is always the same: pack as little as possible. Your body will thank you, and your mind will be at ease as you’ll have fewer material things to worry about.

Don’t let this old photo fool you. I’m currently roaming around the African continent with a tiny backpack that weighs about 9 kg, which is about 20 pounds, or 1.5 stone to those of you following the odd British measurement system. 😛

I plan to be on the road with this bag anywhere from three to six months. And even now I feel like I don’t need a third of the things I brought with me! Goes to show that there’s no such thing as packing too little. You’ll always make do with what you have, and most things that you need you can also get on the road. After all, your home country is not the only place where people use clothes to cover themselves and shampoo to wash their hair.

Not that I was always such a travel minimalist – far from it! I have just learned from experience. Back in 2006 when I headed to Australia armed with the one-year Working Holiday visa, I even packed rollerblades with me! Can you believe that?? Nowadays my entire bag’s contents weigh less than those bulky exercise shoes did. Yes, I still love rollerblading (and nowadays also kangooing), but I have also understood that you can’t have it all. As I wrote earlier, this lifestyle is all about making sacrifices.

And while I haven’t seen anyone else hauling rollerblades around, not a day goes by when I don’t see little backpacker girls carrying rucksacks twice their size, or guys trying to look macho while sweating profusely under their ginormous pile of stuff.

So what’s the big deal about packing light, you may be asking. Well, for one thing: people are not ants. We are not built to carry eight times our own bodyweight. But really, the answer lies in these pictures. Here I am on my Asian tour in 2007, carrying the world in my bag:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here I am today, on the streets of Rabat, Morocco:

(Yes, I realize I look ridiculous in my long Moroccan jilaba robe, but it gets chilly here so I had to get one!)

Picture yourself having to carry one of these bags around every day for, say, five months. Which one would you rather choose? Yep, I would definitely take the latter one too. And I’m so annoyed that I didn’t come to my senses earlier! It was only during my one-month trip to Mexico in the end of 2008 that I first thought about bringing just a small day pack with me. (I figured if I could survive a week with it, I could do a month too.) And WHOA, what a difference that made! Not only was it much easier for me to move around physically, I also noticed the five major benefits there are to packing light:

1) Saving Money

You know those outrageous fees that airlines charge for checked-in baggage? Well, they don’t bother me, as my mini-bag counts as a carry-on. I have even managed to avoid baggage fees on Spirit Airlines, which is notorious for charging $20 even for a carry-on bag unless it is small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. And mine is! Also, buses in many developing countries charge about 50 cents to a dollar for each bag that is placed in the luggage compartment. I avoid that charge too, which may sound miniature but can mean savings of $50-100 over the course of a long trip.

2) Peace of Mind

Back in the day when I traveled with a huge rucksack, I constantly had to worry about it. Will my checked-in belongings make it onto the same flight as me? (Most of the time, no.) Will the bag still be in the luggage compartment of the bus by the time I get off? Has something been stolen from inside of it? Might someone slash the big bag open without me even noticing it? Those are not fun things to worry about, so I’m happy that I no longer have to spend time doing so. My little bag goes with me wherever I go, and is always at my sight. No more lost luggage worries whatsoever.

3) Increased Feeling of Security

Maybe this is not warranted at all, but I feel like I’m less of a target for potential robbers when I just carry a small bag (or at least I can run away faster!). If you arrive in a new town in a foreign country carrying a big rucksack, everyone can see that you are a newbie tourist. With a small bag, however, you can fool people into thinking that you have been around for at least a few days. For all they know you could be an expat walking around town with the day’s shopping in you bag, or a traveler going hiking, who has left most of his or her valuables in the hotel. Either way, big bag = much to steal, small bag = less to steal. The fact that I’ve never been robbed while traveling should speak for itself (knock on wood)!

4) More Room for Spontaneity

This one was the biggest surprise for me personally when I first started traveling light. I suddenly felt so FREE. Up until that point I hadn’t even realized how much my big backpack had controlled my life. Hauling the 20kg on my back like a mule had meant that my #1 priority in a new city was always finding a place to store my bag, which often meant having to book the night’s accommodation right off the bat. If it later turned out I didn’t like the town or the guesthouse after all, I just had to deal with it and stay there anyway since I had already paid. But now, with my tiny bag in tow, I can arrive in a new city, wander around for a couple of hours, and then hop on a bus to continue elsewhere if I feel like it. Perfect! This also helps with…

5) Saving Time

A prime example of how traveling light can save you time is my experience in Mexico: I arrived in Palenque in the morning, visited the Mayan ruins and a waterfall during the day, and then continued on a night bus to San Cristobal de Las Casas. I did all this while carrying my little bag with me. Thus I was able to see more in my one month in Mexico than the old heavy-traveling me would have in two months. And those hours that I used to spend huffing and puffing on the street desperately looking for a guesthouse to toss my bag in were now saved up and carefully spent on a beach instead. Not a bad trade off, huh!

Another time saver is being able to walk off an airplane and straight onto the taxi line without needing to stop by the luggage carousel to wait for your bag to arrive 30 minutes later (or worse than that, never). More often than not, this also means being first in the taxi line out of the people on your flight! Yay for traveling light!

So who is with me on this? What’s the silliest thing you have ever traveled with? I bet nobody else thought of traveling with rollerblades… More importantly, was I successful in inspiring you to travel light next time you go hit the road? If so, stay tuned.

Coming up: tips for how to pack light! Got any tips of your own to share?

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So, how was 2011 for you?

A decade ago around this time of the year I spent a balmy night soaking in a hot tub in San Marcos, California, surrounded by a group of international students from my college. It was just another one of those evenings spent chit chatting about school and the end of the semester, when suddenly Matt, our Brazilian friend, asked us all:

“So, how was 2001 for you?”

Huh?

Everyone was quiet for a little while, not knowing whether Matt really wanted a reply, or whether he was just getting ready to crack another one of his jokes. But it turned out he was asking it in all seriousness, and wanted a more profound answer than just “good”.

Now, I don’t remember what any of us said, but I do remember how this one little question changed the tone of the entire conversation. Instead of the usual blabber, we each started to really think about the past 12 months, the dreams and wishes we had, and whether they had come true. For many of us, they had. One of my big dreams had been to study in the US and that at least had come true.

In asking his surprise question, Matt made me start a tradition. At the end of each year I like to take a moment to think about the year that went by: what I learned, what types of things I encountered, who I met and how I changed as a person.

Back in 2004 I created a set of questions to measure my year. So I figured that today, the last day of 2011, is just the right time to answer those questions again. So here we go!

2011 QUESTIONNAIRE

1. What overall grade would you give 2011 on a scale
from 1-10? Why?

-Hmm. That’s a tough one. I guess I’d have to give it a 9, as it was a nicely balanced year: I spent about a third of it it New York, another third in Finland, and the final third traveling the world. I met lots of lovely new people, reconnected with old friends around the globe, experienced amazing things (such as a flight over the rainforest in Guyana to visit one of the world’s most impressive waterfalls), had really interesting work opportunities and found inner peace. Well, maybe not quite, but almost! Hah.

2. What would you say was the best thing about 2011?

-Discovering Kangoo Jumps, the exercise shoes that make you bounce like a kangaroo!

I first came across these funky shoes at a Kangoo aerobics class in New York in February. I instantly fell in love and bought a pair of my own through Mario The Trainer, the US guru of Kangoo Jumps.

The reason why I love Kangoos so much is that I can’t help but smile every time I put them on and start bouncing. If I’m already happy, Kangoo Jumps make that happiness feel ten-fold. And if I’m feeling down, Kangoos make me forget about my worries. All that matters in the world at that moment is that I’m bouncing like a kangaroo and having a great time! Who needs depression medication when you’ve got Kangoos?

Here you can watch me bounce around Helsinki Airport:

3. And the worst thing about 2011?

-My dad encountered some major health problems, so that was definitely the worst news of the year for me. Luckily he is fine now (knock on wood!). In terms of the worst thing that I experienced myself – it would have to be getting my two bottom wisdom teeth taken out in surgery a few weeks ago. I spent my Christmas in a lot of pain and am still not fully recovered. I wouldn’t recommend that ordeal for anyone! To serve as proof, take a look at my “human vs. hamster” photo, where you can see how swollen my jaw was afterwards compared to normal.

4. How was 2011 different from other years?

-Not really that different as it was yet another year spent writing, traveling, meeting people, learning new things and enjoying life. Career-wise it was a great year: I wrote 30 long or medium-length articles for various publications, served as an assistant in a journalistic book project, did fact-checking for the United Nations Association’s Global Agenda book and got selected as a Quality Hunter by Finnair out of 2,000 applicants. So I can’t complain! But oh, I did turn the big 3-0 this summer, the number I had been dreading for years! So that was something different. But I’m still here, still kicking and having fun, so I guess it wasn’t that bad after all. 🙂  They say 30 is the new 20, and I believe that wholeheartedly. 😉

5. What song characterizes 2011 for you?

Benjai’s Trini for sure! Bring on the carnival spirit!

6. What was the best party of 2011?

Carnival in Trinidad & Tobago! It was one week of non-stop partying, as I wrote in my old blog:

“My personal favorite was the Veil breakfast party, which started at 4 a.m. on Sunday morning and went on until noon the next day (yes, the Trinis do party 24/7 during carnival!). Not many parties are more fun than those where you dance outdoors to the beats of great Soca songs, and watch the sun rise out of the horizon. Finally at noon, sunburned and all partied-out, you get home and just crash. It’s then that you know that you’ve really made the most out of your carnival, like a true Trini.”

A big thank you to my Trini friends for showing me how the islanders party it up! You have to see it to believe it.

Besides the carnival partying, there were also some epic nights in New York, Havana, Guyana’s Georgetown, Warsaw and many other places.

7. Did 2011 bring any new favorites to you? Bands, movies, food, songs, cities…?

So many! I loved all the Soca songs from carnival and I still listen to many of them weekly. Aside from Benjai’s Trini song that I mentioned above, I also grew to like this year’s Carnival Road March winner, Machel Montano’s Advantage. In the beginning of the carnival week I wasn’t a big fan, but then by the end of the week I was singing along to the frantic tune with everyone.

After spending nearly a month in Cuba I was also converted into a huge fan of Reggaeton/Cubaton. This song was playing non-stop in Havana’s bars and streets and car radios.

Another Spanish-language favorite is “Tu Angelito” by Chino y Nacho. It brings back so many memories of my unforgettable month in Cuba, and always makes me feel like dancing. I think I was probably a Latina in my previous life (although the fact that I’m totally salsa-challenged would speak against that…).

8. Did you travel anywhere in 2011?

The question is more like where did I not travel to this year… I spent the first few months of the year home in New York, then took off on a tour of the Caribbean and Central America. During the 2.5 months I visited Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. The schedule may seem a bit rushed, but I had visited the last three of those countries before as well and only passed by Mexico and Belize quickly. Then it was back to New York for a bit, before taking off to Finland for the summer.

In the end of the year I was selected as one of Finnair’s eight Quality Hunters, and thus spent the last few months of the year flying around the globe and blogging about it. I flew about 15 flights in seven weeks, so needless to say I was a little sick of planes and airports by the end of the project! Hah. During October and November, I visited India, Romania, Germany, the US, Japan, Poland and Holland. Thus for the month of December I decided to stay put in Finland and avoid all things related to traveling. But I’m over my travel exhaustion now and ready for new adventures in 2012!

9. Would you wish for 2012 to be anything like 2011?
-My routine answer to this question is, “In some ways.. but I hope it’s an improved version! :)”

10. So overall, how was 2011 for you?
-Unforgettable, fun-filled, busy, challenging, ever-changing and full of surprises. No two months were alike but each month I had at least a few moments when I thought , “I’m really happy right now.” So it’s safe to say it was a great year!

What about you guys? How was 2011 for you?