Our 52 Places Traveler has spent the past five months on the road figuring out how to answer that question. Here are her most important takeaways on packing and prepping for long-term solo travel.
Credit: Kaisa Talaga
You know those paisley Vera Bradley duffels beloved by sorority sisters and grandmas nationwide? I dragged one with me for the first four legs of my impossible, wonderful 52 Places trip because it was the only luggage I owned that fit all the things I thought I needed. It went home just before I left the United States, which made up the first few legs of my trip, along with some 20 pounds of clothes, according to my luggage scale. (I eventually ditched that, too.)
Blogs, travel writers, foreign correspondent friends, and flight attendants all gave me great advice, but the past five months of hopscotching through climates and national borders have been figuring out what works for me, with trial — and a ton of error. Here are my most important takeaways on packing and prepping for long-term solo travel.
1. Pick a card. Not just any card.
I got so stressed out about packing and starting a new job that I totally overlooked what I needed most: the proper credit cards to make sure I had access to money at all times. Not having those before I left was the single biggest headache of the early part of this trip.
I had to wait 40 days to get approved for a Chase Sapphire Reserve — widely considered the best card for international travel, despite its $450 annual fee (you can make it up with a $300 annual travel credit and quick points accumulation) — and instead use a Citibank Prestige ($450 annual fee, and a lot of similar benefits) that only came with a $7,000 limit. Between the costs of this trip, and huge deposits required by Latin American rental car companies, I was paying down my balance every other day. (And spending more time crying on the phone to customer service reps than talking to my family.)
Points and perks are great, but you need cards that work in real life. Three, each with no foreign transaction fees, are worth consideration: the Reserve (mine came with a $27,000 limit); Capital One Quicksilver (a good backup with modest cash back and no annual fee); and something from this list with chip + PIN capabilities since you can’t use automated kiosks in Europe without one. Also consider a Charles Schwab Investor Checking Account — they reimburse your A.T.M. fees. For more, the team at Wirecutter, a New York Times Company, has an in-depth guide to travel rewards cards and their perks.
2. Picking a bag? Decide on your travel personality.
First, ask the question: What kind of traveler am I? Rugged backpacker? Chic minimalist with a spinner bag? Then pick luggage that helps you realize that. I’m a grown-woman multimedia journalist hauling (and keeping an eye on) all my own stuff. So I needed the most compact, most capacious bags I could actually lift myself. My kit: a roller carry-on for clothes and toiletries, a backpack for some 20 pounds of computing and camera gear, and a small purse because I don’t know how to live without one.
3. Manage your menstruation like a boss.
As important as credit cards are, my number one concern going into this trip was: What happens when I get my period? Like many people with a uterus, it sometimes ruins my life for up to a week every month. And I almost never see it mentioned in travel writing, which is overwhelmingly dominated by men.
OB Ultra Tampons, the only ones that work for my heavy flow, are hard enough to find in New York City, let alone on the road. So I’ve been trying menstrual cups (greater capacity, re-useable) paired with Thinx (cutest of the period underwear I tried; order a size up) — and the results have been dismaying. I’ve bled on clothes and hotel sheets from Montgomery, Ala., to Oslo. Emptying the cup in public restrooms is also an embarrassing dance I haven’t mastered.
There’s a definite upside to cups. On my one successful week, I went on an eight-hour hike in Peru and never once had to squat behind a bush to change a tampon. But you need a lot of test runs before hitting the road. One menstrual-cup advocate told me it took her 3 years to find the right fit!
4. If you cherish it, leave it at home.
High heels, bomber jackets, good dresses and my favorite leather handbag all went back in the first shipment home. My new motto: A trip like this will ruin any object you love. Since then I’ve lived out of my LeSportsac Essential Crossbody purse. It’s virtually theft-proof and holds all my essentials (wallet, phone, external batteries, Ray-Bans, lip balm, passport) in well-organized compartments. Plus, it’s washable, which has proved crucial in disasters involving powdered sunscreen and melted chocolate.
5. Pick bags that can take a beating.
For a suitcase, I very intentionally chose a two-wheeled Briggs & Riley Baseline International Carry-On (acquired at the wonderful Luggage Super Outlet near Disney Springs). Sure, it’s a tad heavy (9.13 pounds) and expensive ($399 wholesale). But it also has a unique soft-bodied design that makes it roomy and easy to pack. I can sit on it in train stations, drag it over cobblestones and check it whenever I want. Plus, those sturdy two wheels won’t roll away from me if I get distracted, which gives me one extra layer of protection against theft.
Backpacks were trickier, but I’m happy with the third one I bought, the $170 Osprey Fairview 40, which features a spine-saving aluminum frame, waistband and chest strap. (Remember to get a rain cover.)
Selected items from our 52 Places Traveler’s bags. Some made the cut, some didn’t.
Jada Yuan/The New York Times
You can never have too many bags inside your bags. Eagle Creek packing cubes (a Wirecutter favorite!) and compression sacks keep my clothes ordered (I use the roll method) and nylon mesh pouches from Muji and The Container Store hold everything else. Things that could leak get Ziplocs. An REI Co-op Flash 22 Print Pack packs flat and comes out as my daypack. And a Loqi bag tote is endlessly handy.
7. Pretend you’re fleeing a world disaster.
You know those go-bags you keep in your closet to grab and run when the baby is coming, or when the apocalypse hits? The same concept applies to intense travel. Assume you have to walk out the door in five minutes and won’t come back for 12 hours. My purse is always ready with my Sony RX100 camera; my charger for its terrible battery; two of my three portable batteries; two wall-charging blocks; a converter plug; and both a micro-USB and an iPhone cord. Plus tampons, of course.
Duplicates and spares live in a Skooba Cable Stable DLX gadget organizer, and are always back at the hotel charging for the next outing
8. Stay charged.
Hotel outlets are never as convenient or as abundant as you want them to be. The miraculous Allocacoc Power Cube gives me four conventional sockets for American devices, two USB ports and a bunch of plug adapters. I supplement it with one six-foot Anker USB cable that can stretch to my bed from most parts of a room, or one of my portable batteries. Speaking of batteries, three seems to be the magic number: two big ones for long days (an Anker PowerCore 20100 and a Tronsmart Presto 10000) and a small Jackery bar that recharges much faster than the other two.
9. Find a uniform.
Default to comfort over style. Stick to black and neutrals, for easier mixing and matching — and better hiding of stains. Add color through jewelry and scarves. Also, pick fabrics like merino wool that are anti-wrinkle, dry quickly and don’t retain smells.
My staples: Hanky Panky retro thong underwear (wide lace waistband that doesn’t create a muffin top); SmartWool and Darn Tough socks; Chantelle and True Body Lift bras; a sports bra; this great Arcteryx Cala dress in black; something long-sleeved for sun protection; and a retro one-piece Esther Williams bathing suit that works for going out when paired with black shorts from Joy in London.
From the waist down, it’s all about leggings. For casual and travel days, I wear Outdoor Voices 7/8 Warmup Leggings in deep-sea blue. All other days I’m in Wolford Velour Leggings — elegant, velvety soft multi-taskers that may be the single greatest clothing purchase I’ve made in years ($425, though I got them on discount). They’ve even kept me warm hiking in Patagonia and Iceland. I may never wear jeans again.
10. Be kind to your neighbors’ noses.
Oh, stinky clothes, the bane of the long distance traveler. Regular sink washings with Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap go a long way. But my go-to trick is spot treating with a small spray bottle filled with Dryel. Makes everything smell fresh in seconds. I practically cried when I ran out a week ago.
11. Choose your shoes wisely.
Shoes are notoriously tough to pack. To make the cut in my bag they have to serve multiple functions, feel comfortable, pack easily, stand up to water and dirt and look okay. Right now I have blue Altra Escalantes for walking (clouds for my feet!); black Columbia Fire Venture Mid Waterproof hiking boots for outdoor excursions and rainy days; and Reef flip flops. (Make sure you like the look of those boots because you’ll be wearing them on most flights to avoid packing them.) All I need now is a dress sneaker.
12. Make your own winter coat.
If a lifetime of skiing and snowboarding has taught me anything, it’s that layers beat bulk. My second skin is a super-thin Ibex merino wool sweater-jacket that a good friend gave me (Athleta has similar options). Heat Holder fleece lined tights can be worn on their own or under leggings. A Brazilian Canga scarf (a gift from 52 Places finalist Shannon Sims) doubles as sarong and a towel.
In place of a winter coat, I pair two jackets: my flattering teal and navy Salomon Halo Down Jacket II and an urbanite-cool K-Way Jacques Plus Rain Jacket. The combo kept me dry-ish in Chile and Iceland and doubles as a pillow.
13. Get foreign correspondents to design your first-aid kit.
Two reporter friends, Heidi Vogt, who has lived in Afghanistan and both East and West Africa, and Jean H. Lee, an expert on North Korea, were my packing gurus, so I melded their suggestions with a few tricks of my own. Beyond the basics (Band-aids, anti-bacterial ointment, ibuprofen), you want:
— Lavender oil for bug bites.
— Loperamide (Imodium), Cipro and oral rehydration salts for the inevitable G-I issues. And Travelan, which you take before meals to prevent the inevitable.
— A SteriPEN water purifier, which came in handy when I was holed up in hotels in South America with no bottled water around.
— Lacrosse ball for rolling on sore muscles (a physical therapy trick).
14. Cut your toiletries by two-thirds.
Besides clothes, most of what I eliminated in my first purge were beauty products. As long as I have sunscreen, bug spray and, yes, tampons — all can be tough to find when you need them — I’m winning. Lotion should be multipurpose (Embryolisse Lait-Crème works for hands and face). Whenever possible, replace liquids with powders or solids. Get a Violife Slim Sonic battery-operated toothbrush (every seasoned lady traveler I know has one). Mascara and a red lip pencil that won’t melt has been all the makeup I’ve needed.
15. The war on chafing.
Like many women who like wearing dresses, I spend my summers combating “chub rub” — the irritation that comes from your sweaty inner thighs rubbing together. Imperative: two pairs of Spanx Thinstincts, which are like lightweight bike shorts that prevent skin-to-skin contact, and a stick of Megababe, which you apply when you don’t want to wear the Spanx. (Stick deodorant and baby powder also work in a pinch.)
16. Epilator over razor.
I can’t deal with shaving my legs daily, or the itch of stubble growing back. So I always travel with a Braun epilator. It pulls leg hair out by the root, so the hair takes longer to grow back. Be warned, it can be intense for first-timers.
17. Keep a plane routine.
Travel days are always when I lose things. So I try to make them my personal Groundhog’s Day; the more militant the sameness, the more I’ll notice if anything is off. Same hotel check out procedure, same outfit, same flight accessories. On my always list: Compression socks — the best I’ve tried are from Cep Compression — and noise canceling earbuds (I use them for transcribing interviews), though you don’t need super expensive ones.
18. Turn your phone into a laptop.
I love traveling with a full-size Bluetooth Apple keyboard that I hook up to my phone for writing out stories and emails (another Jean Lee trick). It weighs next to nothing and allows me to leave my computer at the hotel if I’m trying to upload photos on Wi-Fi, or am worried about rain or pickpockets. It’s especially helpful on long days away from wall outlets. The computer will die, but the phone-keyboard-portable-battery combo can go much longer. And that iPad? I thought I’d need it for watching movies on planes. It just became another thing to pull out at airport security. I don’t miss it.