How to travel with just a personal item

How to travel with just a personal item

We recently traveled to Cartagena, Colombia for my good friend’s wedding. Our trip was only a long weekend (because of our limited vacation time – ugh…). Long story short: Delta changed our flights and was going to charge us $1000+ per person to get re-routed. We just cancelled (thankfully getting refunded) and rebooked through Skiplagged (one of my favorite go-to’s for cheap flights). This meant a few layovers and flying with budget airlines (like Spirit). It also meant we were only able to travel with a personal item bag. We learned a lot through this process! Check out my list of tips on how to travel with just a personal item.

Also, you can read about our Cartagena Colombia itinerary if you’re interested!

How to travel with just a personal item
  1. It’s possible to travel with just a personal item! The first thing to know is that it’s possible to travel with just a personal item — at least if you’re traveling for a shorter amount of time. There a lot of things to consider but just know it’s possible!
  2. Understand the dimensions of a personal item. For many airlines a personal item is something around 18″*14″*8″. We all know sometimes these dimensions are given as a guide. But when flying with a budget airline — like Spirit — these dimensions do matter! It really is important to find a bag that fits that dimension. Spirit did monitor and there were plenty of people in line on our flights who were pulled aside to measure their bag and then have to pay for it (because it was actually a carry-on size)!
  3. Find a quality personal item back. Maybe the most important tip is to find a quality personal item bag. I did quite a bit of research to find a bag that was efficient, could attach to a carry on (if I have one), was easy to carry, and looked nice. I settled on the Beis Convertible Mini Weekender Bag (in beige). I love it! The bottom compartment is great for shoes and it even comes off! I actually detached this compartment and used it as a packing cube inside my bag. It was super helpful and I highly recommend this bag!
  4. Find a quality toiletry bag. It took me time to find a quality toiletry bag. But I do think this is an important step in how to pack with just a personal item. I actually found a bag that I got for free with an order of my face-cleansing products — OSEA. I don’t think they sell the bag, but you could find something like this anywhere.
  5. Have a plan. If you like packing last minute and throwing in any random outfit you might use, this will not work when traveling with just a personal item. You will need to have a plan and prepare what you want to pack. You may need to re-pack a few times even.
  6. Pack light and essential. Part of having a plan is to understand that you need to pack light and only essentials. Pack only what you need! We had 2 full days in Cartagena and a half day on each side. I packed a total of 4 dresses (2 night time and 2 daytime), lightweight pajamas, a bathing suite, and I wore an airplane/travel outfit (including a sweater). My clothes on their own didn’t take up much space at all!
  7. Use small toiletries. This is also important to get through TSA. You need to pack 3 oz bottles into 1 ziploc bag. Following the TSA guidance will also mean packing less in your personal item. Think about what the hotel might have when you arrive to your destination. Will they have shampoo? Maybe you don’t need to even pack that. Are there some daily routines you have that you could part with for a few days on your trip? For example, I use a different face cream in the morning and night (SPF in the morning). For trips like this, I opt out of my evening face cream and only pack my morning one. This is just one tip in how to travel with just a personal item.
  8. Use packing cubes and/or pockets. I don’t always use packing cubes, but using the bottom compartment in the Beis bag was key. This bag also has plenty of pockets to use the space efficiently. I put my shoes and some snacks in the bottom compartment. I tucked socks, underwear, and my bathing suits in all the gaps. Then I just threw my clothes and a kindle on top. I was good to go!
  9. Do you really need technology? I made the mistake of bringing my ipad. I did use it at night if I couldn’t sleep. I would put on an episode of a show. But I wish I didn’t bring it! This was one of my mistakes. It was heavy and it took up lots of crucial space (just a standard ipad!). Next time I will make sure to download a few episodes to my phone so I don’t have to pack that extra technology.
  10. Pack a kindle rather than physical books. If you read on airplanes or when you’re traveling, consider packing a sleek, small kindle rather than a physical book. This will save you lots of space.
  11. Limit the number of shoes! This one can be tough! Especially when you’re doing different things on your trip. I was proud of myself for just having to pack one pair! I packed a pair of heels for the wedding. Then I wore my cute Keens (I actually don’t know if they sell my pair anymore, but this one is most similar to what I have.) on the airplane and the rest of the trip. They are cute, stylish, versatile, and super comfortable for walking.
  12. Use creativity to wear clothes twice. Like I said above, if you can be creative to wear an outfit or two twice, that will help tremendously in packing light. I actually don’t think I needed 2 day dresses. I really could have worn the one twice. Maybe the second day I would have added a belt to add some variety. But this will go a long way if you can make this work.
  13. Have a small cross-body bag for your documents and wallet. So you don’t have to dig into your personal item bag all the time, I recommend having a small cross body bag to store your phone, passport, credit cards, and other documents. AND you will have the ability to hide this under your sweater in case Spirit is THAT particular… I’m talking about a bag like this from Lululemon or the smaller version of this one from Vera Bradley (I have the mini version of this bag in solid grey and it works great).
  14. Be realistic. If you are traveling for a couple weeks and it’s becoming too difficult to pack this small, it might be worth it to pay ahead for a carry-on. Tip: on most airline carriers, if you pay ahead for a carry-on, it’ll be much cheaper than paying at the gate. As much as I think I pack light, I’m not sure I could do a week long trip with just a personal item. Each person is different, but be realistic with what will fit your needs.
  15. Understand that this could be a headache or make your life easier. Along the same lines, if you aren’t realistic and you try to pack too small, your trip could become more of a headache. You might become frustrated if you’re traveling for a week and didn’t pack that one extra outfit. Or your bag might become really heavy and annoying to lug around. On the other hand, if you’re just traveling for a few days and a personal item will realistically work for you, it might feel amazing! You might be relieved that you don’t have much to deal with.

If you’re traveling somewhere for a few days and want to do it affordably, consider traveling with just a personal item. It can be tough, but with the right amount of planning and intentional thought you could be able to do it. I hope you found this list of how to travel with just a personal item helpful!


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