The 23 Items to Pack for Every Solo Trip
My grandma used to say, “Carry everything with you, so that when you arrive, your things arrive too.” And after I touched down in Ecuador’s Quito airport for a solo trip a couple of years ago and realized that my checked baggage hadn’t, her words rang louder than ever.
When traveling alone, packing light isn’t as important as packing smart. Since travel inconveniences amplify when you’re on your own, you want to prepare for any scenario that will set you back on your journey.
First and foremost, the items at the top of the priority list should provide comfort and convenience—and ideally serve more than one purpose. So leave behind the strappy heels you’ll only wear once (no matter how cute they’ll look in your photos), and make sure you’re choosing things efficiently. In the same way the KonMari decluttering method asks you to take every item into your hand and ask if it brings you joy, hold every item and ask yourself: Is this item a necessity on my trip? If it passes the test, set it in the suitcase.
The next tier of the test? Make sure you can singlehandedly manage your luggage for a distance. Without anyone to split the baggage-toting time with, challenge yourself to see if you can walk down the block and back without a struggle. The key here is being able to keep your hands free, so you can focus on what’s ahead and not what’s weighing you down.
For me, the secret combo has been an ultra-light, rolling hard carry-on suitcase and a backpack, since it passes the international carry-on allowance and I don’t have to check anything (thanks, Grandma!). Here are 23 items that have helped me trot the globe with as little baggage — figuratively and literally — as possible. And for more solo travel advice, here are my hacks for traveling alone, tips for how to meet people, and the best places to go.
Hard-shell Rolling Carry-On Suitcase
I used to favor soft suitcases, since I thought there was more give to squeeze in extra items. But then came the tragic time I had to drag my bag through the rain with a pathetic garbage bag over it, and my stuff still got soaked. After a few more years of wrapping all my clothes up in plastic bags, I wised up and got the Samsonite Ziplite 3.0 20-inch Hardside Spinner Carry-On Luggage. Its expandable zipper allows for extra space, and even when I feel like I’ve overstuffed, I’ve always been able to rezip the extra zipper completely, magically creating bonus room.
Backpack with Padded Straps
As I was sprinting down a street in Chicago years ago, my crossbody bag suddenly plopped onto the floor behind me. After that lesson, I’m a firm believer that two straps are better than one. Not only does a backpack spread the weight out better, but anything that lets you be hands-free while navigating routes solo is a godsend. Depending on the adventure, I alternate between a large men’s black Vans backpack ($47) I inherited and a pink waterproof Cath Kidston one ($72, but I got it on sale at Asos for $48.60). Plus, since it counts as a personal item, it adds to your carry-on allotment on flights.
Whenever I’m near one of Japanese discount store Daiso’s 3,660 locations around the world, I always stock up on their plastic storage bags ($1.50 per pack; amazon.com for similar product). While the teeny ones are perfect for holding medication, the other sizes fit everything from chargers and toiletries to passports and phones. Opt for the thicker bags to protect against moisture. The clear plastic makes it easy to stay organized and find things quickly. Also, pack extras—they can easily be stashed at the bottom of a bag and you never know what size and shape will come in handy.
After seeing fellow tourists wear hidden money belts that were so bulky and obvious, I never thought I’d own one. But after the stress of having to leave my luggage for a day in a hotel’s self-service locker room in Vienna, I realized it was time. After some research, I landed upon the Lewis N. Clark Hidden Waist Stash Wallet ($14), which is so lightweight, I often forget it’s even on. With multiple pockets, I’ve been able to organize my passport and other currencies without having to give them a second thought. The protection layer against cyber fraud offers bonus security.
Zip Pocket Jacket
Ever since I lost my New York City Metrocard and New Jersey Transit bus ticket in one swift go, the first thing I look for in a jacket is a zip pocket to ensure I have easy access to my essentials. This jacket by The North Face ($63) has everything I need, yet is wind- and waterproof with a stowable hood, making it the perfect all-in-one.
Whether to keep warm, dress up an outfit, cover your head, or use as an extra blanket, a large scarf like this Uniqlo’s stole ($19.90) can serve any number of purposes. I’ve even used them to pad a fragile souvenir, and I’ve seen a fellow traveler metamorphose one into a draped outfit.
Foldable Reusable Bag
Lovebag’s Stash It series ($16) is so light and tiny that you won’t believe how much it can hold. I’ve folded one into my pocket on a cold morning and then opened it up to put my jacket in it when it warmed up. I’ve also used it as my daypack when a backpack was too big, and also opened it up to hold extra souvenirs when I bought too much. But the best part is that the strap is long enough that you can wear it as a cross-body bag. Bonus: The pouch is so stretchy and durable that I’ve used it to hide extra money, so my cash isn’t all in one spot.
After realizing how ridiculous it is to bring five pairs of shoes with me “just in case” on one trip, I now limit myself to two. I bring one pair of waterproof, durable sneakers and another pair of shoes comfortable enough to use on long walks but can also work when going out to catch a theater performance. I landed on Cole Haan’s Pinch Weekenders ($100), available in both men’s and women’s varieties. The patent leather version works for any occasion, and will help you trudge over cobblestones in Cuba or hit the dance floor in Marrakech.
One of the recommended items for my Morocco trip was a headlamp for the night out in the desert. It seemed like a big investment for one evening, when I could just use my phone as a flashlight. But while I was at picking up other trip essentials at Target, I saw the Energizer 3 LED Headlight was only $10 and much more compact than expected. And boy, was it worth it. Not only did I use it to navigate my way to the restroom in the Sahara, but when I was in Cuba, there was a blackout while I was packing, so I simply strapped it on my head and continued without missing a beat.
Sturdy Folder for Printed Documents
Fill a sturdy folder, like the Five Star 2-Pocket Advance Stay-Put Portfolio (Amazon, from $2.19) or the Premium Poly Envelope with Velcro Closure (Amazon, $7.95 for 5) with printouts of all your essential paperwork—including airline, hotel, and transportation confirmations and maps to anywhere you might need to navigate on your own. Another tip: Instead of bringing a heavy tourbook, print out articles and tips and toss them away as you’re done with them, so you aren’t juggling so much paperwork.
Even though I bought my small Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Sack ($12.95 for a one-liter size) for my camera and phone when I found out it would be raining during my Machu Picchu hike, I’ve now taken it along on almost every trip. If anything, it serves as an extra pouch, where I know all my electronic and chargers will remain organized and dry.
Last Chance Clothes
I often pack underwear and socks that are just one use away from the trash can. They’re still usable and durable, but maybe it’s a sock that’s been through one too many muddy runs or underwear that’s beginning to fray. That way, you can throw them out after using them and lighten your load along the way. Or take those t-shirts you really don’t need and wear them as pajamas or a base layer during your travels and leave them behind as well — opening up more room for souvenirs!
Being on your own, you want to avoid getting sick at all costs, so I go crazy with wipes to ensure minimal contact with germs. Before every trip, I head to Target’s travel section and stock up on every form of wipes: Wet Ones Anti-Bacterial Wipes for my hands, Clorox Disinfecting Wipes to Go for my plane and train seats and the hotel room (yes, I’m that person!), and Cottonelle Flushable Cleansing Cloths to, well, to keep you feeling fresh and clean in all those public restrooms.
Customized First-Aid Kit
Only you know what you might need the most, so run through your itinerary and the worst-case scenarios. For me, this usually includes a drugstore run to pick up Dramamine, Imodium, Tylenol Cold, Sudafed, Neosporin, large patch bandages, eye allergy drops, and contacts rewetting drops. But when I get home, I strip off the packaging and just organize the actual items in plastic bags, writing the dosage directly on the back of the packaging in Sharpie so that it all fits into one small bag. And don’t forget to bring to your daily multivitamins to keep you strong on the road.
Emergency Contact Info Card
Take an index card (or as a cheat: the back of a business card!), write all of your emergency contact info with a Sharpie, and put in your wallet. That way, if something goes wrong and you can’t access your phone, you can still get in touch with your contacts. And if there’s an emergency and someone is trying to help you, they can also find the info in the place they’re most likely to look—your wallet. Make sure it’s labeled clearly, with an international symbol of a red cross.
You can’t go wrong with an aluminized polyester blanket ($8 for a four-pack). It fits flatly into a corner of your bag and opens into a gigantic cover-up, perfect for chillier than expected nights under the stars, like I experienced out in northern Africa’s desert. It can also double as a ground cover for sticky situations.
Mini Bungee Cord
Another small object that can prevent all kinds of potential aggravation is a mini bungee cord ($6 for a four-pack). It can be used to keep a door open or closed, to hold a busted bag or suitcase together, or even to hang items as a makeshift mini clothesline. And if you really wanted to get creative, it could also be used as a hair tie or belt extender.
In addition to the aforementioned two pairs of shoes, throw in a pair of flip flops. Since they’re water resistant, they serve a different purpose and are flat enough to take up minimal room along the side of a suitcase. Besides being useful for days at the beach, they can also protect your feet in the shower or a hostel floor you’d rather not step on. My favorite pair is still the tried-and-true Havaianas Slims ($26).
If you’re anything like me, once you get going on your adventure, it’s easy to lose track of time until your stomach starts growling. Instead of scrambling to find something to tide you over, buy a box of snack bars, get rid of the box and put them in a plastic Ziploc bag (which you can later reuse). The durable nature of Kind Bars ($14 for a box of 12) prevents them from getting crushed. Just remember to avoid ones with too much chocolate or other ingredients that could melt.
Foldable Down Jacket
I’ve always tossed about three or four legal-sized envelopes in my bag—and ultimately end up using at least one for various purposes. Often, it’s to collect the group tip or give my own tip on a small group tour, while other times it’s to put essential tickets or extra cash in a safe place. And when I was traveling in Cuba, there were so many papers to bring that they helped me keep everything organized to speed through lines.
Extra Passport Photos
More than a decade ago, I was running around Paris for more than a week and bought a seven-day card for the Metro, which had a space for a photo. Little did I realize it actually required a photo until a cop stopped me in a station and asked to check it. I ended up getting scolded—and fined. Needless to say, I now always travel with two extra passport photos in the off-chance they’re needed.
Old Cell Phone Case
Leave behind that too-cute phone case and snap on an older, more discreet one. To avoid being a target for thieves when you’re on your own, go low-key with your tech and try to blend in. When I’m traveling abroad to countries where smartphones are less common, I sacrificed fun for a $3 light blue case that I got at a Taipei street market, which drew less attention.