10 Travel "Must-Haves" That You Can Live Without

By Britney Hope on 8 August 2011 (Updated 16 September 2014) 25 comments
Photo: Jay Bergesen

If you Google "travel must-haves," you will be treated to pages upon pages of articles listing many travel-sized, helpfully collapsible items and nifty little space-aged gadgets all geared toward making your next trip hassle-free, and all (they swear) completely and utterly necessary.

(See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)

While every destination admittedly comes with its own set of packing requirements (a water purification pen would be pretty handy in some places) and certain factors (like traveling with small children) warrant an exception, it seems kind of silly that many people feel the need to travel with all the comforts of home — isn’t the reason we go traveling in the first place to experience someplace else? Next time you travel, try to avoid lugging along these travel "essentials."

1. Suitcases

They’re big, they’re heavy, and even though they usually have wheels, they can still be a pain to cart everywhere. What’s worse, their size can fool you into thinking that any extra space after packing needs to be filled, prompting you to pack something else you don’t need. Condense your possessions into a backpack for a more flexible, less cumbersome trip. You’d be surprised how much they can hold, and provided you meet certain size requirements, backpacks can also help you avoid the headaches of checking your bags.

2. More Than One of Almost Anything

When packing for a trip, I often find myself rationalizing an extra pair of shoes for imaginary "just in case" scenarios. But the truth is, unless your trip’s itinerary careens wildly from hiking up mountains to attending black tie events, one hat, one pair of shoes, and one belt should be all you need. Even limiting one’s self to a single pair of jeans, while extreme, is entirely possible. Underwear, of course, is an exception to this rule. You should probably bring more than one pair of underwear.

3. Neck Pillow

A sore neck is definitely a bummer, but there are alternatives to relying on the official neck pillow. Even rolling the soft sweater you brought along can be a suitable substitute. Now, some people do swear by these, and so if you really feel like this item is nonnegotiable, I suggest an inflatable model that can be neatly folded and tucked away when not needed.

4. Keepsakes From Home

Although it may be tempting to bring a memento to remind you of home such as a stuffed animal or a particular piece of jewelry, there is literally no use for any sentimental trinkets while you’re traveling. Yet, many travel sites suggest bringing something to ward off homesickness. An alternative to taking up space in your pack with teddy is to simply bring a few photos and tuck them into your wallet, or buy a country flag badge and sew it to your backpack.

5. Books

Books can make for great entertainment on long flights, but once you’ve finished reading them, you’ll be stuck carrying them around for the rest of your trip. This is true even of pocket-sized paperbacks. Stick to disposable recyclables — magazines, newspapers, etc., or else leave your paperback behind for someone else to enjoy.

6. Guidebook

Guidebooks offer advice and perspective on your destinations, outlining historical facts and famous landmarks in addition to recommending hotels and restaurants. These books are convenient, to be sure, but there are also many travel review sites online that offer the same services without the bulkiness of a book. Plus, relying on their expertise can often prevent you from discovering the magic of your surroundings yourself. So if you’re looking to pack light, avoid bringing a guidebook along — spending your trip with your nose buried in someone else’s experiences is a surefire way to miss your own. (See also: 40 Most Useful Travel Websites That Can Save You a Fortune)

7. A Monster-Sized Camera

Lots of sites recommend bringing professional-grade SLRs (usually whatever model is new the month the article is published). Unless you’re a professional photographer or photojournalist and you make your living using a camera, you really don’t need a big fancy piece of equipment weighing you down. Pocket digital cameras are very affordable these days, are portable, and literally fit into nearly every pocket. Plus the newer ones take really fantastic pictures.

8. Basic Toiletries

Soap, shampoo, razors — even toothbrushes — are provided happily by most hotels. I regularly packed three plastic baggies full of conditioner and Q-tips for years before I realized that they were taking up valuable space, and I never used all of what I packed during the trip anyway.

9. Laptops

This popped up on more than one site’s "travel must haves" list. I barely like carrying my laptop around the city, let alone an entire country! If missing emails is a concern, there are Internet cafes nearly everywhere you go, and if there aren’t, chances are you’ll have a hard time accessing the web on your laptop anyway. Unless you’re on a working trip, leave the laptop at home — you’ll love how freeing it feels to not be tethered to a screen.

10. A Plan

I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve gone somewhere with a detailed, to-the-minute itinerary only to have the most magical, memorable moments of the trip be the spontaneous ones — moments no one could ever plan. Of course, plan where you are staying at night and know what time your next flight is, but in terms of where to go, what to eat, and what to do during your day, try simply taking off in one direction and seeing where it takes you — you won’t be sorry.

It can be rather surprising how easy it is to get by without certain conveniences — and how little you miss them — once you’re in the full swing of your trip. Sometimes it’s to the point where you can’t believe you once thought those conveniences were necessities in the first place. On your next traveling expedition, save your storage (and your back) from over-packing. Instead, challenge yourself to discover what you can live without.

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Guest's picture
Debbie M

I love compiling lists of things to do (from Guidebooks) before I go. I decide which one or two I most want to do, and try hardest to fit those in. I prioritize the other things, too, and organize them by location. That way, if something didn't work out in one location, I can see other options to try nearby instead of just giving up and doing something random or going back to the hotel. I think all this research and planning is a big part of the fun and helps me learn a lot before I go (especially if it's a place very different from where I'm from) so that I can be more comfortable on the trip and do more. Plus I definitely like having a plan on places to stay, with reservations already made. Helps me feel better.

But then I also keep my eyes and ears open while I'm there and stay very flexible. I never do half of what's on my list, but then I'm also never just sitting around having run out of ideas. I've never changed my overnight plans, but I'm certainly open to that.

I admit that I do bring a laptop, if for no other reason than to store my pictures. I also use it to keep a journal of what I do so that when I get back I can make a nice album to help me enjoy the trip over and over later. But you can store a lot of pictures on an iPod (which I don't own) and write in a paper journal (which I normally do). (I also bring a tiny notebook for taking notes while I'm out, especially on tours when the tour guide is telling us lots of interesting things.)

Britney Hope's picture

I also research a place before I go, and make lists of where I want to try. I get too excited not to! My most recent trip, I really wanted to revisit a restaurant I hadn't been to in seven years, and it was one plan that worked out great.
Flexibility is key, and I like your idea of listing some backup plans- especially for rainy days!

Guest's picture

One of the best trips I've ever been on was almost entirely unplanned. I was on study abroad for a year in Japan and had to (somehow) get from a small town in Southwest Japan (about an hour east of Hiroshima) back to Tokyo.

I knew I wanted to take the ferry from Hiroshima to Kobe (because why not? Ferry's are cool!), I knew I wanted to spend the night in Kobe, I knew that I wanted to see Himeji castle (in Kobe), and I knew I was going to have to take the local trains back up the coast from Kobe to Tokyo, because the bullet train was too expensive.

I convinced two of my friends who also needed to make this trip to come with me. When we left, I knew where we were staying each of the two nights we would be traveling (one night on the ferry, one night in a small hostel-like establishment), roughly how we would get from one place to the next, and roughly how much everything was going to cost. Otherwise I didn't have a clue what we were going to do.

My friends told me later that if had known how "unplanned" the trip truly was before we left, they never would have come along. As it was, it was one of the best trips of our lives. We found an amazing ramen restaurant, got to walk though a beautiful Japanese garden that wasn't on any map or in any guidebook I've looked at since, and we really bonded over the whole experience. It was a *blast*.

Britney Hope's picture

It's great to hear of fellow 'unplanned convert.' I'm a planner- love to plan things months, even years in advance sometimes! My boyfriend has since convinced me to lay off the over planning and go with the flow, and our last trip together was a total unscheduled blast!

Guest's picture
Guest

No books??? Then I wouldn't be interested in going. To solve this problem, I bought a Kindle. That way, I can take all the reading material I want!

Guest's picture
Erin

I have to disagree with a couple of things on this list.

First, I'm a reader, so books are an absolute must on my trips - I like to read books about/set in the places that I'm visiting. I find that it truly enriches my experience. Second, I think having a guidebook is invaluable, especially if you go to a site only to discover that they've temporarily closed for renovations or something like that. But I don't waste a lot of space with these items - I carry an eReader with my books and guidebook already loaded. It also doubles as a notebook if I need to jot down some notes (but it doesn't work so well for long journal entries - I still use a paper journal for that).

Second, toiletries. Yes, some hotels offer toiletries free of charge, but if you're traveling on a budget, a lot of places don't. I can fit all my toiletries in two quart-size bags, and they don't take up much space at all. I'd rather sacrifice a little space than risk being dirty and stinky because my hotel or hostel didn't offer me soap.

Guest's picture
Guest

I'm also going to have to disagree with some of these. I can't do without books, especially on trips. My Kindle comes in incredibly handy for this, as I carry hundreds of books with me in it. Buying a Kindle has lightened my packing for trips considerably, as I used to bring a fairly small bag /just/ for books.

Also, I think it is generally a good idea to carry two pairs of comfortable shoes if you are traveling to/in a rainy area. Unless you can go somewhere with a dryer, shoes stay wet for a ridiculous amount of time and get stinky easily when worn wet.

Lastly, I absolutely can't travel without toiletries. I've tried before, but as a woman with long hair those itsy bitsy bottles of shampoo/conditioner may be enough for one shower, but certainly not enough to share. Especially since they tend to be really low quality, except at high end hotels. I'd much rather sacrifice the space for a bottle of shampoo/conditioner than get several bottles from an annoyed hotel clerk (if they even let me).

Britney Hope's picture

A Kindle truly would be a perfect replacement for books on a trip! I should probably invest in one of those...

You're also probably right v shoes- although I find that Crocs now makes some very decent-looking shoes these days, and they dry out in mere moments. I recently took a trip to Vancouver where in one day I jumped in and out of my Gramps' boat into knee-high water, then proceeded to through a dress on and go out for a nice mean on Robson. I mean, no one was complimenting my shoes on their snazziness, but I don't mind on a trip- Crocs just don't quit!

I digress on toiletries- just this weekend I realized that there are also places out there that make really interesting, travel-suitable products that don't cost a crazy fortune! Lush is a good example- you can buy tiny little bars of shampoo and conditioner, not to mention soap, and sometimes can get them cut in-store to suit the length of your trip. This is something I will definitely be trying!

Guest's picture
Guest

The Kindle App on the iPhone/iTouch is the app I use the most on my iPhone. Love the convenience of a Kindle without buying an actual Kindle (a unitasker, as Alton Brown would say). Some people don't like the small screen, though, and have encouraged me to get an actual Kindle.

I just wish the Kindle books were either (a) significantly cheaper than their paperback versions, or (b) could be easily lent to friends and family.

Guest's picture
alysa@impulsesave.com

I totally agree with the laptop point: no one wants to lug around a heavy laptop! I had a friend who was in Kenya for an extended period of time (a few months); but rather than bring her computer, she took a smart phone and used that to communicate and have the internet as needed.

A warning though - if you aren't bringing a computer, be sure that the camera's memory card has enough space for all your photos! You don't want to run out of room early in the trip without anywhere to transfer pics to.

Camilla Cheung's picture

My iPod Touch has been the single best travel item I have ever purchased. I can check email anywhere I can find Wifi, and I can download dozens of books to read so that I don't have to carry around a stack of paperbacks with me. I can search for travel information on the Internet and save this information for reading later, download maps of my destination, and I can even Skype with friends and family back home. In a foreign country, a translator/dictionary app helps me to communicate. My husband figured out how to save movies and TV shows so we can watch them on the plane/train/bus. Not to mention hours of entertainment playing Angry Birds. I'm not usually a huge Apple fan, but the iPod touch is worth it for traveling!

Guest's picture
Guest

I agree about the iPod Touch. I'm a one-bag traveler, and my iPod has proven to be a little workhorse! I bought it for entertainment consolidation -- I usually take a season of a TV show, some movies, and a bunch of Kindle books for use on trains and planes.

But I've also discovered so many more uses! I keep organized itinerary info and contact info for all our hotels and reservations on a couple of apps. It's my alarm clock, voice recorder, translator, map, notepad, and currency convertor. Plus I can connect to the internet and email whenever there's a free signal, to stay in touch with home. I love it!

Britney Hope's picture

I love my iPhone for the same reason. I didn't want to mention it in the article, since it's not a financial reality for everyone, but if you can afford an iPod touch or something similar, it really will save on tons of packing space!

Andrea Karim's picture

I'm kind of the opposite when it comes to plans - I never make any when I travel. And I have to admit, this hasn't served me well at all. I had two weeks in London where I intended to make a trip to Paris for the day, or to Scotland, and never managed to. I backpacked all over China, but never seemed to stumble on any of the gems that people said I would - instead, I often found myself cold and hungry, or being chased by Chinese policemen for accidentally wandering into an area that I wasn't supposed to.

A plan isn't all bad.

Guest's picture
Hank

I'm a little bit "Old School" and like to have a money belt with me when I travel especially when I'm heading overseas in an austere environment.

Guest's picture
Edward

I travel a lot as a hobby and one of the things I've been surprised with is that people don't even think about pre-millenium technology anymore. Before I go I photocopy the relevant pages from the guidebook (usually that's only about a dozen or so), leave the guide (or return it to the lender/library), and then throw out the pages after I've moved through a city/destination. Easy! ...And I don't get stuck carrying 200 pages of a book that I'm only going to use 10 pages as reference.

Britney Hope's picture

That's a great idea! When you're finished with your references, do you recycle them enroute, or do you save them for scrapbooking?

Guest's picture

I'm getting ready to go on vacation and found this articles useful. One of my must-haves is my Kindle. I no longer have to carry multiple books taking up space. I will carry one device that will hold as many books as I choose to read or not read ;)

Guest's picture
Guest

I like to pack two pairs of shoes - one comfortable pair for walking around, and one pair of strappy black heels. Simple, and they take up such little space, it's entirely worth it for when I randomly need them on trips.

Guest's picture
Michelle

Thanks for this list! Can you recommend any good waterproof cameras? I plan on going snorkeling soon and I need one. I would prefer that it either be extremely cheap or disposable, or both :)

Britney Hope's picture

Hm. I'm not the expert on underwater cameras, but maybe this website can help: http://www.trustedreviews.com/the-best-waterproof-cameras-of-2011_round-up

Good luck and bon voyage!

Guest's picture

I'm quite satisfied with my iPhone (saves me money and space). I read with a Kindle app and navigate my way through travel guide apps. I still do consult Lonely Planet guidebooks. There's no need to buy them, you'll get them for free at hotels/hostels/guesthouses.

Guest's picture
bogart

Er, if I'm truly budget traveling (sometimes yes, sometimes no), I'm not staying places that provide toiletries.

Guest's picture
Guest

I would never skip the guide book. However, these can be borrowed for free from the library. Nicer yet is to post a request for suggestions on a travel site like Frommers.com. You will be bombarded with reviews, suggestions for great hole in the wall places and worth-it stops nearby where you are visiting.

I do pack twice the number of shirts as pants/skirts and pick shirts that coordinate with the bottoms. Sticking to one extra pair of shoes saves a ton of space as does choosing a summery dress for formal evenings.

I don't bother with a laptop when traveling for leisure. I lot of hotels have computer specifically for checking email so I don't miss my important messages.

Guest's picture

# 10 is so true. When we went to Ireland, we planned where we were going to stay...traveling to a new location via car every day. We had a few basic things we wanted to see, but we mostly winged it. We walked along coastlines, found little roadside shops, ate at little cafes, shopped in grocery stores. Oh, it was so memorable. :)