A Year of Travel, Part 2: The Five Things I Didn’t Need

Last time, I talked about the things I found I needed in my year-long travels around the world. It’s a pretty minimal list – after all, I was living out of a 35-liter backpack. But I found so many unhelpful carryon packing guides that told me all the things I’d need that were, to be frank, kinda bullshit. 

What you don’t need when traveling the world

It’s a natural impulse to buy a whole bunch of specialized products when setting off on a new life phase – we live in a consumerist capitalist world. Also shopping is really, really fun. Just ask all the people I saw along the Hadrian’s Wall hike who were kitted out like they were climbing Everest as I strolled past in my sewn-together sneakers and Fendi scarf.

But traveling light makes life infinitely easier when you’re gone for a long time – cheaper on luggage fees, simpler navigating transit and steps, and mentally less taxing. (Also if you hike across a country dressed like you’re going to brunch, everyone you meet will remember you!)

So in the interest of transparency and saving you a backache, here’s what I didn’t need at all:

Expensive and bulky “safety” travel gear

You’ll see tons of bloggers pushing Pacsafe products – and they’re pretty much all sponsored. I agonized over buying these before I left, but didn’t need ripstop day bags or elaborate safes or heavy bag protectors – ever. They’ll just weight you down. The only place I’ve ever been robbed is in Boston, actually.

And those ripstop bags? No one is running around with knives trying to saw through your crossbody. Get something that’s sturdier than a tote, that has a zipper of some kind, and keep a cautious but not obsessive eye on it when you’re in a spot with a fair amount of pickpockets. You’ll be fine.

Don’t let the suburban worryworts get you down – if I had a dollar for every person who asked me how I survived in Athens without being robbed blind on a daily basis, I’d be able to buy an apartment there. I did buy a little luggage lock to keep the key parts of my backpack closed when it was out of sight, and my Longchamp backpack was a perfectly safe daypack. 

Red Longchamp backpack in front of a cathedral in Lyon, France
My trusty little companion.

Too many fancy travel clothes

It is very tempting to fall down a rabbit hole of online shopping for travel clothes – I totally did. I love shopping and also a theme!

But really, the things that served me best on my trip were just basic clothes.

  • My favorite Athleta yoga pants, with pockets, and a pair of Victoria’s Secret ones too.
  • A shitty but oh-so-comfortable stretchy bralette I bought at a Monoprix in Lyon.
  • A three-pack of the comfiest cotton underwear I found at an H&M in Paris.
  • My Blondo boots I’d owned for almost a year before I left (those babies were amazing – waterproof and warm and chic).
  • The love of my life, my Fendi scarf I bought on eBay on a whim.

Those were my most amazing pieces, and none of them were expensive, travel-specific items. I did give in and buy travel underwear before I left and honestly, meh. I preferred my H&M bulk buy. This might not apply if you’re an outdoorsy type (I am not), but for the general traveler, comfortable and decent-looking clothes can be found anywhere and you don’t need to spend hundreds on a new wardrobe. 

Solo female traveler in Malacca Malaysia with street art
One of my three outfits – a second-hand linen shirt and flowy cotton pants from Thailand.

A big stash of meds, tampons, and toiletries

It can seem like you need to pack everything – after all, how will you get the things you need while in the wilds of Laos? Actually, this does not really apply in Laos – stock up before you go. But in a 7-11 in Thailand, in a Greek pharmacy, in an Irish Boots, you can get pretty much everything you need.

It helps if you use common things (OB tampons are so widely available, unlike their fancy and wasteful American counterparts). Most meds you need are easy to get if you’re in a fairly developed country. I carried only Cipro in case of urgent and severe stomach issues, and some bandaids. I got allergy meds abroad for much cheaper than in America and over-the-counter antibiotics when I had a parasite. In Sephora or department stores around the globe, I’d pick up excellent shampoo and conditioner in tiny bottles, skin care when I ran out, and some fun local beauty products too.

I did not have to lug everything around with me just in case (even though my vanity did suffer a bit). You won’t either.

Again, if you’re backpacking in the south of Laos for weeks on end or rough camping, this does not apply. Though if you’re doing that, what are you doing on my blog?

The only two exceptions to this rule were:

  • stick deodorant for Americans. It’s nearly impossible to find, so bring a big one!
  • sunscreen in Southeast Asia, as almost all of it has skin lighteners.

And that’s it – we live in a very global world now. 

An expensive American phone plan

I know that many providers will let you use data abroad, but if you’re gone for more than a week it’s always more expensive than getting a local SIM. This is where an unlocked phone is essential – then you can swap out your SIM cards on the move. In the EU, a phone plan you buy in one country will work in another too, which is even easier.

It’s also helpful to get a SIM so you have a local number, especially if you’re planning on staying in country a while.

A 5gb data SIM in Cambodia cost me $5, the same in England cost me $12, and I never paid more than $30 for a month of data and calls. You can buy SIM cards in any airport (though they’re most expensive there), or in convenience stores or cell phone shops in any city or town.

As a solo female traveler, I liked always having a working phone in case I got lost or needed to call a cab or a friend, and so the minimal cost was very worth it to me. But don’t pay more than you need to. 

A bulky laptop

In fairness, I did not work in my year abroad, so that makes traveling light much easier. But I brought only an iPad mini, which was much easier to pack and allowed me to watch movies in my hostel beds and write my blog posts.

If you’re working, of course, a laptop makes sense (though even now I work on my iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard), but an iPad is easier to take around and cheaper to replace than a MacBook. 

Female digital nomad writing in Athens Greece
Me and my iPad, working away.

Traveling light and free

Travel blogs love talking about what you do need to buy, in part because if you buy the same thing, they make money (I do it too, no shame!). But those long, long lists of “must-haves” can make preparing for travel seem wildly expensive or super intimidating, and it’s really neither. 

Make sure your phone is unlocked, your clothes are practical and comfortable, and your backpack fits you well – and you’re ready. Good luck out there! 

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