How to travel like a backpacker – without looking like one

Standing in the hot Croatian sun in a long line of travellers waiting to board a ferry, I could feel the stare of the guy next to me.

“Excuse me, is that all you have?” he asked, pointing down at my small, bright blue carry-on.

“It is!” I beamed.

Glancing at his own giant black suitcase that could have fit three of mine inside it, he joked, “You make me feel bad about my life.”

Recently, I travelled through Europe for three weeks. And when I say travelled, I really mean travelled. That is, everything from hostel breakfasts to my washcloth-sized towel brought me back to when I actually backpacked with a backpack when I was 20

The thing is – I’m not 20. (Heck, not even close…) So while I had the itinerary of a backpacker (nine cities, six flights, two ferries, and a handful of shuttles, buses, Ubers, trams and that small boat I ended up on with the guys from Germany) – I didn’t want to bring a backpack or have the look of someone who had.

That’s right – gone were my travel days of rotating through three t-shirts, two pairs of hiking shorts and a hoody from the Gap. (Seriously, that’s actually all I had once). This girl wanted not only her workout clothes and running shoes, but also her dresses and makeup and flat iron, and to look as en mode as possible cruising down the Seine. (Seriously – how would I meet the man of my dreams sporting a fanny pack?).

Having said that – I also didn’t want to be slowed down carting around a 500-pound suitcase. So, how could I do it?

I decided I would bravely attempt – to the gasps of all those who have seen what I usually pack – a carry-on suitcase. (Enter more gasps).

Check out my wheels! That little carry-on weighs in at 4.3 pounds. Brilliant!

But could I manage a three-week trip around Europe with just a carry-on?

Miraculously, somehow, as witnessed by the guy staring at me in awe, I actually did. (Applause here please).

And, was it worth it? Absolutely. Being way more selective and efficient in my packing meant:

  • I was faster in transit (I could land and go without waiting for my luggage)
  • Less physical strain
  • Less time deciding what to wear (fewer clothes= fewer options!)
  • Time saved all around

But, how did I do it without wearing the same creased shirt over and over again and not looking homeless?

Below, I present my Top Tips for How to Travel like a Backpacker Without Looking Like One: 

1. Size/weight matters

This one’s important. If you’re going to choose a carry-on, choose the lightest one possible. The advantage of bringing fewer things so you can transport them more easily is negated if the bag itself weighs as much as than the items in it. I went with the carry-on version of Heys’ “World’s Lightest Suitcase”, which weighs only 4.3 pounds. It meant I could bring even more without going over the weight limit, while still being sturdy and manoevering well, even over cobblestone;). Plus, it fit well in tight spaces, like jam-packed buses, subways and cafes. Win win!

2. Toiletries: Bring what you need & downsize 

Downsizing meant I could bring all of my essentials – so I didn’t  look like a backpacker…even if a sort of was;)

With my trip involving a wedding, a cruise and some of the best parties in Croatia, this meant not foregoing essential beauty items that often weigh a lot – even everything needed in one of those five-step facial skin routines. So, I took each of my can’t-live-without items and transferred a small amount into travel-size bottles. I also bought the travel-size versions of everything possible, including deodorant, hairspray and dry shampoo (another timesaving essential!). Anything that came in a bigger package, like tampons, I took out of the box, downsized, and put in Ziplock bags. This way, I was able to bring everything I needed while still managing to fit it all in my purse and carry-on.

3. Toiletries: Be transport-friendly!

Keeping all of my essentials in a Ziplock bag saved time going through airport security, unpacking, repacking and more!

This one is key. After downsizing my toiletry items, I then put all of them in one large Ziplock bag and carried it in my purse (which is huge – more on that later). I soon realized this was a brilliant strategy for the following reasons:

Since, at the airport, toiletry items need to be in clear, plastic bags, I was already set upon arrival (read: time saver!). While it was a bit heavy in my purse, this allowed for quick and easy access whenever I was going through security. It also meant things like my deodorant were always at the ready – super helpful after a long flight or unexpected hike trying to find my Airbnb. Then, when I arrived at my destination, I just had to lift the clear Ziplock bag out of my purse to access all of my toiletries. It was easy to see where everything was, keep things in one place, and pack it up pretty quickly.

Extra tip: In previous trips, I wrapped toiletries in plastic bags in case they leaked. This time, for faster access, I taped the lids shut (plus, they were already in a Ziplock so wouldn’t leak on anything but the other toiletry items). I brought the tape with me (small and lightweight) so I could re-tape the bottles as the trip unfolded. It worked well – not a single leak the entire time. Plus, the tape served as a lint remover. Score!

All smiles at a wedding in Poland. What backpacker?

4. Buy certain items as you go

Okay, let’s be honest: I couldn’t bring everything I needed in a purse and carry-on for three weeks. I decided if I needed a few select items, I’d buy them as needed, and leave them behind. I thought I might have to buy a beach towel and a sweater, but managed just fine without either – thanks to extra bath towels where I was staying, and the versatility of my jean jacket – it worked for all occasions! I did buy sunscreen for the last lag of my trip. I definitely saved on weight and space not lugging these extra things around the whole time.

Back to my roots: A return to the Cite Universite in Paris, where I studied in 2003. Also in tow- my silver purse, which later doubled as my beach bag.

5. Wear your weight

This one is well known, but tried and true nonetheless. When in transit, wear your heaviest items. This saves space and weight in your suitcase. For me, it meant wearing my running shoes – not the sexiest footwear, I know – but, channeling my inner Sporty Spice, I matched it with a cute/sporty dress or skirt, and tied my jean jacket (one of my bulkier items) around my waist. (This was good to have on cooler flights too.) Given that I’m into fitness, I actually enjoyed looking sporty while on the go, and I was in better footwear while in transit. Having two go-to outfits for the actual travelling part of my trip was also a time saver since I always knew what I’d be wearing ;))

Bus station stop in Zagreb. Matching pashmina and running shoes? Best coincidence ever.

6. Clothing: Be selective and strategic!

Read: be selective. I heard once that you should lay everything out for your trip, divide it in half, then in half again. It seems daunting, but it really is possible. How to do it well and maximize the number of outfits you have is easy if you do the following:

A) Solid colours:

If you pick clothing items in solid colours that can mix and match with other things, you’ll be able to maximize the number of outfits you create. That’s right – no one on Instagram will notice you really only have four shirts. 😉 So, it means the long black skirt you wear one day with a white top and yellow pashmina, you can wear the next day with a pink ruffled blouse. And that white top can later be paired with your blue skirt, which can later go with the pink blouse. See? It’s that easy. 🙂

Boarding the Eurostar from London to Paris. There’s fruit salad and a croissant in that purse;)

B) More bang for your buck:

Think about what you can maximize most. For example, I brought a yellow pashmina which would not only help keep me warm in cooler temperatures, but also look nice in the evening, and would go with nearly everything I brought. As well, when it came to choosing a warmer top, I went with the jean jacket thanks to my mom’s recommendation. A former traveller herself, she said, “A jean jacket doesn’t show dirt, it doesn’t wrinkle, you can dress it up or down, and it goes with almost anything.” It was the only long-sleeved item I brought and it became one of the most valuable. (Thank you, mom!)

Other ways to get more bang for your buck:
My huge purse doubled as a beach bag and my swim cover up could also be worn as a dress. Woot! Bottom line– if you think you’ll only get selective wear out of something, ditch it. It won’t be worthwhile if you’re mostly just carting it around.

Palace stroll in Split, Croatia. I also paired that skirt with a black and white bikini top at a beach party in Hvar. Maximizing items is key!

7. Roll, roll, roll

This one is crucial! Forget folding, ladies. It’s all about the roll. Rolling dresses, skirts and shirts not only saves space, it prevents clothes from wrinkling too (which means no ironing – also a time saver!).

Extra tip: Be sure to condense everything as much as possible- I rolled up my underwear and exercise bands and fit them into my shoes. Leave no space unfilled!

All about the roll: I posted this to Instagram before I left. Not only did it save space – rolling kept things wrinkle free 🙂

8. Shoes: Do some ‘soul’-searching 😉

Okay, this one can be tough. I had to consider what I really needed versus wanted. And I realized, my must-haves included:

  • Running shoes (because working out never takes a vacation, right? RIGHT?;)) for jogging, hiking and city day tripping </li
  • Two pairs of flat sandals – bringing one in neutral and one in black meant I had shoes for every outfit
  • Heels for the wedding – if not for that, I wouldn’t have brought them
  • I also managed to squeeze in my flip flops for the beach, too (which spared my sandals from sand, etc). My “flip flops” are actually heavier waterproof sandals that do well on rocks too, super helpful at some of those not so sandy beaches.
Sun drenched in Hvar! While those sandals took up a fair bit of space, they were worth bringing. Comfy for walking around, great on the rocks, sand, and in the water. And- with a bit of a wedge, they even transitioned to the casual yet cool ‘apres beach’ bar scene.

That’s right – I fit all of the above in a carry-on! Bottom line – comfy shoes in both neutral and black will match virtually every outfit you have. (And if you’re a fitness addict like me, the running shoes will be a must;)).

No gym at my accommodation? No problem. Running through cities and towns is an amazing way to discover a new place – and keep the pounds off.

9. More than a purse

Years ago I bought a huge silver-coloured purse from the Marais quartier in Paris. It turns out it was one of the best things I’ve ever bought. Since it’s silver, I can dress it up or dress it down, and since it’s enormous, not only did it hold my toiletry items while in transit, but also random maps and guide books, bottles of water, half-eaten sandwiches, and my towel when off to the beach! Go with a solid, neutral colour and go big. Your purse can be your mini-suitcase, your lunch box, your beach bag, whatever you need it to be and still look good! Bottom line, without a huge purse, I couldn’t have managed with just a carry-on. An absolute essential.

My silver purse went everywhere I went – even here as my beach bag. Above, outside the Green Caves in Hvar, Croatia.


10. But…

This one is for all you shop-a-holics: It shouldn’t shock you, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the one disadvantage of all of this is that you can’t buy much on your travels when you’re limited in what you can carry around. So, if shopping is your thing (my fashion-loving friends would die), a carry-on won’t work for you. I did buy a summer dress in Zagreb, but it rolled up nicely and didn’t take up much space. I also bought a ring in Hvar and the turquoise pashmina in Paris, but they were tiny too. So, to pull this strategy off, you have to live by the mantra,  ‘Take only memories, leave only footprints’ – which is my kind of travel 🙂

At Laganini Lounge Bar in Hvar, Croatia. Throwing a little glam into my low-budget/backpacker style trip!