Travel-light vs travel-heavy: how much should you take on holiday?

Are you taking too much? Or not enough? Or just the right amount?

Travel-light vs travel-heavy: how much should you take on holiday?
(Image credit: Getty)

Everyone wants to travel light. Almost nobody actually does. We all know someone who regularly goes on two-week long haul trips carrying only a small backpack. Do you aspire to that? Or wonder how they cope? It’s more typical to see passengers hauling incredible amounts of luggage around airports as if they’re going on some kind of 18th-century expedition into the wilderness. For anyone who regularly travels light, it’s a shocking sight. 

Taking things you don’t need across the world and back is absurd. It massively restricts your mobility, is a pain to shepherd around airports, and there’s a climate change kicker; every gram you take onto an airplane increases your carbon footprint and accelerates global warming.

However, it’s no good pretending that everyone can travel with just a spare pair of underwear and a credit card. How much luggage you need to take depends on where you’re going and what you plan to do.

Have you ever come back from a trip away with clothes you didn’t wear? If so, this is for you. Here are six things to ponder before deciding to travel light or travel heavy.

1. Where are you going?

Trips to hot countries, especially if you’re just going to a resort, are prime for travelling light. Even if you plan to get a taxi/bus from the airport to the resort and stay there for a week, there are zero reasons to take anything but the essentials. If you plan to backpack around a hot country, nothing changes except that taking only a small backpack will save you some serious physical effort. However, if you’re going off skiing for a week or hunting for the northern lights in the Arctic Circle, travelling light is very difficult.

2. Cut down on shoes

It’s always shoes that stop people from travelling light. What if we go somewhere smart? Or decide to go to the hotel’s gym? Or an impromptu hike? A pair of flip-flops might be useful … and slippers would be nice for evenings in the hotel room. Stop! Prepare for every eventuality and your chances of travelling light are over. Now this will be easier for some people to do than others, but aim to take only one pair of shoes on a trip. It depends on what kind of trip you’re going on, but for backpackers, urban explorers and adventure travellers, consider a pair of ‘approach shoes’. Essentially low-sided hiking shoes, they’re smart enough to get you into a decent restaurant, and have the soles to get you up and down a mountain. Of course, you can always squeeze-in an additional lightweight option, such as a pair of flip-flops or collapsible canvas shoes, but any more than that and you’re being way too cautious. 

(Image credit: Getty)

3. Who are you dressing to impress?

A smart shirt here, an extra layer there, and evening dress just in case. Why? The world is a really casual place. It doesn’t care what you wear (it doesn’t even notice), and to travel light you need to remember one simple rule; just take a change of clothes. Whether you’re going somewhere hot or cold, there’s no logical reason to have more than two outfits when space is tight. The world has washing machines, and if you invest in quick-dry, easy wash travel clothes, a quick hand-wash in a basin is usually fine. Take ‘travel underwear’, for example; it’s usually nylon, pretty comfortable, and its quick-dry design means you can travel with no more than three pairs. The difference that alone makes to how much you travel with is massive. If it’s your own vanity that’s to blame for your over-large suitcase, it’s time for a re-think.

4. Everyone has a luxury item

Maybe it’s a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to keep you sane on the plane. Or a set of golf clubs. Or a piece of medical equipment you absolutely cannot travel without. It could be a big camera and a laptop if you’re a photographer (who are hardly known to travel light). That’s fine, and who would want to travel without the equipment that helps then enjoy a trip? However, it’s not an excuse to lack discipline elsewhere in your suitcase. Rather, it’s your reason you need to travel light; to make up for the extra weight you have to cart around the world.

(Image credit: Getty)

5. Is ‘luggage shame’ next?

We’ve all heard of flygskam, a Swedish term that translates as ‘flight shame’, to describe how frequent flyers feel. Is ‘luggage shame’ next? The amount of fuel used by airlines is determined solely by weight. Let’s start with bodyweight. If you weigh 100kg then your carbon footprint when flying is a third more than a person weighing 66kg (losing 10kg won’t just help your waistline!). 

However, bodyweight aside, luggage makes a massive additional difference to your carbon footprint. If you’re taking two 23kg bags plus another 23kg as hand luggage on a long haul flight, that’s a huge additional carbon footprint.

6. The world has shops. LOTS of shops…

Are you headed to a remote outpost in Antarctica for your holiday? Unless you’re going off-grid, remember something that most over-packers have trouble with; the world has shops. LOTS of shops. Nowadays you can buy anything anywhere, and you know what? It’s fun. Shopping for something you really need in a strange place might mean you come home with a great souvenir from your trip. It will also probably be cheaper than anything you buy in the UK.

However, don’t make a habit of buying single-use items abroad only to sling them in the airport bin at the end of your trip. Just take what you think you need safe in the knowledge that, in an emergency, you’re really not going to struggle. 

The best-laid plans to travel light often come to nothing in the few minutes before you leave for a big trip, when many of us shove an extra pair of shoes and two more outfits are shoved inside a suitcase. If you can resist that, and stay disciplined, it's possible to wander the world unencumbered by stuff and with more freedom to explore … and with ‘luggage shame’ far from your thoughts.  

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Jamie Carter

Jamie is a freelance journalist, copywriter and author with 20 years' experience. He's written journalism for over 50 publications and websites and, when he's not writing, spending most of his time travelling – putting the latest travel tech through its paces.