The Essential Checklist for Fast and Light Air Travel
As light as you think you travel, there is always a way to cut the list down so that you can focus on fun and not on lugging around extra weight. You were so proud when you started traveling with just a carry on (no checked back) - but have you tried going with just a light backpack? It could change your life. We highly recommend trying it. We include both domestic and international travel checklists. Start with Packing Light which we define as packing a bag small enough that it fits under the seat in front of you. If going abroad, add in items from the International Travel Checklist. If you need more space, read Traveling with Just a Carry-On. Also, see our Travel Tips for our favorite airline and hotel hacks.
We've added a few new tips for the winter travel season.
This is everything we take on a 5-10 day trip. It will all fit in a small backpack or regular carry-on bag.
- Backpack — Take a pack less than 30 liters so it will fit under the seat in front of you. This ensures that, if no overhead space, you won't have to check a bag. A top loading pack is ideal because it lets you cram in extra items. We like the Patagonia Arbor because it is simple, lightweight and stylish.
Most airlines are pretty lenient about the size of your personal item. However, more and more budget airlines like Ryan Air are becoming more strict. Not conforming to their size limits can cost you 50 Euros. Ideally, your backpack can cinch down to meet any airlines personal item requirements.
- Down Jacket — This is the key to being warm while still packing light. For most trips, a super light down jacket is ideal like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer and Women's Ghost Whisperer. It's plenty warm and compresses down to nothing. Or, our personal favorite for cold weather trips is a down jacket that combines with a rain jacket. Our Top Pick is the Patagonia Tres 3-in-1 Parka and Women's Tres because it provides warmth, rain protection, and style. The advantage of a combined jacket (also known as a 3-in-1 jacket) is that you can combine the two when walking onto the plane and free up carry-on space.
- Drivers License — Forgetting this (or your passport) is usually the only thing that can keep you from getting on a flight. If you do forget your driver's license, you can still get on domestic flights as long as you have other forms of identification like a credit card, insurance card, etc.
- External Battery — A must-have for long flights and as an emergency backup to get your phone, camera, GoPro, headlamp, or tablet charged when on the move (or when you forget your international adapter). On our around the world trip, we were almost held in India because our smartphone was dying and the Indian officials wouldn't let us leave unless we could prove, on the smartphone on Google, our claim of a recent change to Chinese Visa laws. Or, when late for a flight, our phone was about to die and take our mobile boarding pass with it. Midway through the security line, the external battery came to the rescue. Perhaps more importantly, an external battery will make sure you don't have a phone or tablet failure mid-flight and mid final season of Breaking Bad. The technology changes so rapidly. Here are some iPhone Battery Saving Tips for Backpacking - iPhone Battery Saving Tips.
- Fleece Jacket — Heavy fleece jackets are so 2010. It's much better to use a lightweight down jacket or synthetic insulated jacket. However, light fleece jackets, a bridge between long underwear and a heavy fleece jacket, are quite versatile. Our favorite is the Patagonia R1 Hoody because it provides a hat and partial glove in light and functional design.
- Headphones — While Bose QuietComfort are the most deluxe, we find them too bulky for our fast and light style. We prefer a smaller Bluetooth earbud like the JBL Reflect. A headphone splitter is ideal for sharing movies whether in the back of an airplane seat or at a table. We currently use the Belkin Rockstar Multi Headphone Splitter.
Most airplanes only accept a standard headphone jack. Your Bluetooth headphones or new Apple headphone connector won't work (unless you have an adapter).
- Pants — We steer away from the traditional journey or hiking clothing which may be easy to wash in a sink, but makes you stand out like a tourist. We prefer light jeans with some stretch, usually achieved through 3-5% spandex. Our current favorite is the Prana Axiom Jean for the men and the Prana Kara for the ladies. We also love the Prana Brion Pant because it's incredibly light and works for hiking, biking or going out on the town.
- Phone and Phone Charger - Make sure boarding passes and reservation information is available for fast offline viewing (consider taking a screen capture and saving it to your photos).
- Rain Jacket — As mentioned above, we often take a down jacket and rain jacket 3-in-1 combo. If you are bringing a separate rain jacket, we recommend an ultralight one like the Outdoor Research Helium 2.
- Shirts — We just take what is comfortable, which is usually cotton. Keep in mind thinner shirts dry faster, and synthetic shirts dry the fastest.
- Shoes — Like pants, we prefer shoes that are comfortable and stylish than can go on a short hike if needed. We like the Toms Chukka Boot. We typically wear a heavier leather shoe on the plane and then pack an extra pair of flip-flops (for warmer weather) or super light running shoes that are still stylish like the Nike Free RN. If you plan to do a little hiking, we like bring an ultralight pair of trail running shoes like the La Sportiva Helios 2.0.
- Socks — We like a mixture of cozy cotton and synthetic socks medium length and short. With the occasional sink wash, 2-4 pairs are just fine. Darn Tough is our favorite brand right now.
- Toiletries — A drugstore like CVS has a whole section with a tiny-sized toothbrush, floss, deodorant.
- TSA PRe / Known traveler number — If you fly more than a few times a year, get TSA Pre. It costs $85 and about an hour of your time depending on how far you live from one of the 300 enrollment centers. Not only do you get MUCH shorter security lines, you don't need to remove your belt, shoes, jacket, laptop or 3.4 ounce or less liquid/gel containers.
- Airline Club Membership — This doesn't sound essential, but it's made the most significant difference in our travel experience in the last years. But for a quarter the price of a first-class ticket, usually $200-500, you can buy a club card that gives you access to airport lounges. It's not that a lounge is that fancy, it's just SO MUCH NICER than the alternative of fighting for an uncomfortable seat near the gate. If you're trying to get a little work done, an airline club usually has much better WiFi, ways to charge your device and free food and drinks. We think they are well worth paying an annual fee on a credit card (which incidentally then gets you more miles). We like the United MileagePlus Explorer because it gives you two passes and United probably has the biggest network of lounges.
- Underwear — Take synthetic underwear that you can easily wash in a sink like the ExOfficio GiveNGo Boxer Brief. Roll in a towel, step on it, and air dry it for an hour. You have the hotel room laundromat.
- Electric Skateboard — Don't laugh, we're serious. These boards not only make getting around fun and create a more intimate experience with a city, they can save you a lot of money in taxi and Uber rides. Some cities are better than others. New York, Amsterdam and any city with a lot of bike lanes is ideal. Note the battery size as it's illegal to fly with larger electric batteries.
Most video services let you download movies to your device. While on WiFi, download shows and you won't be held hostage by the airline's media selection (or lack thereof.) Also, some airlines will provide free media on your device during flights. However, you usually have to download their app before takeoff.
International Travel Checklist
Take everything from the previous list Packing Light and add:
- Credit Cards — Use a credit card without foreign transaction fees which can add 3% to every purchase. Not sure if you have fees? Call the customer service number on the back of your credit card or do a google search. If your journey takes you to Europe, it's convenient to have a card with the new chip and pin number.
- International Adapters — You can buy these at most airports, but you will save money buying them in advance. If you forget, sometimes the hotel front desk will have extra (they also might give you a toothbrush if you forget that).
- International Phone Plan — You want to set this up a few weeks before your trip. You will have to choose how much data you need. In general, SMS is the cheapest way to communicate internationally when you can't find WiFi and use Skype. Reset your phone's data counter and check every day or so to make sure you are not going over. Overages are expensive! The best phone plan we have ever seen for traveling is Google's Project Fi because you pay the same domestically for data as you do internationally.
- Passport and copies of passport — Remember, if your passport expires 3-6 months after your flight, it may not be valid. We know, it makes no sense. Why can't the expiration date on a passport be the expiration date? But a few friends with valid passports have gone through customs/embassy nightmares because their passport was set to expire a few months after their trip. Ouch. Store a copy of your passport, key reservations, and itinerary on the cloud (Google Drive for example).
- Visas — If traveling from the United States, most countries either require no visas, want you to pay a fee when you arrive, or let you buy a visa within 72 hours of your trip. However, a few countries like Brazil require either a visit to a consulate or paying an agency to deal with the consulate for you.
Traveling with Just a Carry-On
- Carry on Bag — While we avoid carry-ons in favor of a small and light backpack, we understand they are sometimes necessary. We like light and simple carry-bags especially since international airlines often have strict weight requirements. Our favorite is the Eagle Creek Tarmac Carry-On.