Our Take on Rick Steves’ “Packing Light” Philosophy

Renowned travel expert Rick Steves’ mantra has always been, “You’ll never meet a traveler who, after five trips, brags: ‘Every year I pack heavier.'” He’s a big proponent of traveling with a carry-on measuring exactly 9″ × 21″ × 14″, and nothing more. I know, right?!?! It seems kind of insane and yet it’s actually quite doable if you put some thought into the process. However, I’d also say that it’s not always necessary to pack this light. I’ve traveled both ways: 1) using Rick Steves’ philosophy (and actually using his own brand of carry-on backpack), and 2) using a big, heavy suitcase plus a carry-on! There’s definitely a time and a place for each style of packing.

When to Pack Light

  • If you’re going somewhere and are changing destinations and accommodations every few days, it will make life easier to pack light. For instance, if you’ll be in Italy for two weeks but going from Rome to Florence to Venice to Milan, the wisdom of Steves’ philosophy will become quite evident once you are there. When you see other tourists having a heck of a time yanking their heavy rollers on the cobblestone streets, tiny, crowded sidewalks, stairs (think Venetian bridges), and on/off boats and trains, you’ll have an “aha” moment.
  • If you are flying somewhere with one or more connections, and you’re nervous about losing your luggage. Don’t sweat it, just pack light. With all the craziness surrounding air travel these days, why risk getting to your destination without your stuff? This could literally ruin your first few days of travel as you coordinate with the airline, have to go get replacement items, etc.
  • If your lodgings are small and offer little storage, such as a hostel, guest house, or a funky shack on a beach in Bali. Why have your giant suitcase take up so much of your cute accommodations?
  • If you know you will be spending your trip in basically just a swimsuit, cover-up, and flip-flops, there’s probably no need for a big suitcase. You can definitely whittle down your wardrobe and toiletries to fit a carry-on.
  • If you’re only going somewhere for a weekend or few days. Whether you’re somewhere for three days or a week, the 5-4-3-2-1 Packing Trick can really help you with a travel capsule wardrobe.
  • If you’re going somewhere with free/cheap and convenient laundry access, pack enough for three days and then make use of this great perk.
  • If you need to hightail it out of the airport to an appointment in a jiffy, don’t lose 30+ minutes waiting for your bag at the carousel.
  • If you’re trying to save money and wish to avoid the check-in luggage fee.

When to Pack Heavy

  • If you’re going to be at only one or even two locations, go ahead and pack more. Two weeks in the same hotel or VRBO apartment, whether you’re in Singapore or San Diego, makes it doable to have a large suitcase. You’ll have minimal time having to lug it from place to place. We’ve got an excellent piece on a well-organized suitcase!
  • If you’re driving to your destination, you can definitely pack more. You know the limits of your own vehicle, and if everyone else on this trip is also packing heavy, keep that in mind. You don’t want to be driving without vision clearance through your rear window! You’ll probably also need space for groceries, etc. Here’s our guide on packing for your vacation rental.
  • If you’ve got a big trip with wildly varying climates, you’ll need to pack heavy out of necessity, as you’ll be needing clothing and accessories for both places.
  • If you’re going on a long cruise and you’ve got formal dinners, excursions, and all kinds of other fun activities that need a variety of outfits, by all means pack heavy!

Helpful Items for Any Kind of Packing

  • Compression bags – These really can help you bring more in a small suitcase! Just watch the weight on it so you don’t wreck your back.
  • Clear toiletry bags – TSA-approved quart-sized bags work better and hold more than a ziplock.
  • Travel clothesline – If you’re traveling light and need to wash/dry some items, this is better than a shower rod.
  • Quick-dry travel underwear – On a long trip when you’ve packed only a carry-on, these are really amazing.
  • Travel squeeze bottles – Don’t bring your big bottles of toiletry liquids; these are much better.


As you can see, there are definitely more occasions to pack light. You know your own travel style and needs…Happy packing!


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