How to Pack for a Weekend Trip in Just a Personal Item

Laura Leavitt

In May, I spent ten days in Germany and Iceland; experiencing everything from sunny summer in the English Gardens to a 30-degree wind chill on the Golden Circle. Packing to cover every eventuality with only what could fit in my personal-item sized bag was hard work. Granted, my bag runs exactly the standards of the personal item on the flights I was taking: on every dimension, it comes in just under 18 in x 14 in x 8 in/46 cm x 36 cm x 20 cm. The rules for personal items are often quite vague, and sometimes are not enforced as well as the neighboring passengers would like.

The general rule being that a personal item should be able to be tucked under the seat in front of me, or I should be able to carry it in my lap without moving into the seat space of the next person, or the aisle. Personally, I prefer a backpack, but the same rules could apply to a briefcase or a versatile purse.

Ten days packed just in a personal item  is pretty extreme. Occasionally, having so little luggage actually meant I wasn’t quite as prepared for everything scenario as I could have been. However, if you’re only taking a weekend trip with a personal item, there are some clear benefits to traveling lighter.

Personally, I hate putting things into overhead bins, and my heart sings when I get to skip a super-long baggage check line and head straight for security with my light load. And of course, if you don’t check a bag, the airline can’t lose it, can they?

On low-cost airlines, the fees for taking a checked bag are as high as 60 USD per flight, and carry on bags often require a fee as well. Even on a more traditional airline, limited carry on luggage space may mean that a carry on backpack will have to be checked, taking time out of your travel and sightseeing to wait at the baggage claim.

For me, the biggest benefit of carrying only a personal item was freedom. I had a long layover in Chicago, so instead of needing a room to keep my stuff, my slim pack rode with me as I toured museums, walked along the waterfront, and dug into ooey-gooey deep dish pizza. The bag was with me if I needed any of my items, but because there were so few of them, I wasn’t uncomfortable even after a long day with miles of walking.

Personal item travel may not be for everyone, but if you can follow this weekend trip packing list, you are on track for success.

Plan Your Travel Outfit & Bag Wisely

The Bag

The first rule of personal item only travel is to check the size and weight restrictions of your particular airline. Believe it or not, these vary quite a bit depending on which company you fly with. And yes, some of them really do weigh your bag.

The biggest choice to make is whether you want to travel with a backpack as a personal item, or with an over the shoulder duffle. There are merits to both, so it just comes down to personal preference. Lockable zippered pockets and waterproof fabric increase the safety of the contents of your bag and guard against unpredicatable weather.

Choose a bag that is lightweight if your airline has tight weight restrictions. Adding a set of packing cubes keeps everything organized and allows you to easily unpack and convert your personal item to a day bag for your adventures once you reach your destination.

The Travel Day Outfit

The outfit you wear to travel should be the bulkiest outfit of the trip – think sweaters or jeans, with big boots. This way, none of those things have to go into the bag. While this may make your travel experience a little warm at times, you can shed those layers during layovers and waiting times to cool off.

A travel day outfit should include a light coat with zipper pockets. These zipper pockets yield a surprising amount of additional space for packing things like chapstick, wallets, cell phones, and other travel-day essentials.

The zippers keep the pockets from being emptied accidentally during the security check at the airport. Taking the coat off is easy and putting it back on for long enough to board the plane ensures that you will not be encumbered in the tight seating process.

What to Pack for a Weekend Trip: Layers

Layers are recommended for almost any kind of travel, but a nice set of layered clothing, chosen carefully, can create multiple outfits to pack for a weekend trip with only a few actual articles of clothing. If you have developed a capsule wardrobe, this is where it shines.

Start with one pair of pants and your travel outfit pants/leggings, since they can be paired with multiple less-bulky tops for variety.

To conserve space and keep things organized,  I roll my clothes up.

While some people like to express their individuality through their clothing, I find that neutrals are a great way to go on light-packing trips; an assortment of khaki, grey, and black can almost infinitely interchange. If you love color, use a couple of pieces as accents. Wear them with your day-of-travel outfit and intermix them thereafter; a bright scarf goes a long way.

A four day packing list would look like this:

  • 2 pairs of pants (one you wear on the plane, one you pack)
  • 3 tops (one you wear, two you pack)
  • 1 sweater (wear it)
  • 1 pair of pjs (could double as your workout or lounge clothes)
  • 1 scarf (wear it)
  • 4 pair of underwear
  • 4 pair of socks

Of that list, what is packed in your bag is only:

  • 1 pair of pants
  • 2 tops
  • 1 pair of pjs or workout clothes
  • 3 pairs of underwear
  • 3 pairs of socks

That fits in a personal item. Easily.

Pack for a Weekend Trip: Smartphone or Tablet

While I can get by with extraordinarily little, I still enjoy downtime entertainment and something to do on a bus or train, so my cell phone and a paperback book are my top choices when choosing what to pack for a weekend trip.

A slim tablet will expand functionality, but (unless you’re working) few people really need to carry their heavier laptops around. For the lightest options possible, I find that a paperback for analog time and a phone for “computer” tasks are the perfect options.

Most smartphones and small tablets can support typing and audio recording, so if you really want to be able to capture your trip and journal about it, consider downloading applications instead of packing an analog notebook. While there is something romantic about writing on paper, lugging it around is anything but comfortable. If you must have paper, consider a few loose sheets, rather than hundreds, since you can only write so much in a long weekend.

Weekend Trip Packing List: How to Choose Shoes

Personal item packing becomes impossible if you need many pairs of shoes, so I recommend one pair of shoes for the whole trip. If it’s a casual trip, wearing a pair of simple sneakers or non-bulky hiking boots works. If there will be nicer events involved, your most comfortable pair of dress shoes or simple black flats are great.

Very few pairs of shoes can be packed in a personal item and leave adequate space for other things; the one exception is a pair of slim sandals or flip-flops. For people who cannot live without two pairs of shoes, one hack is to tuck a small pair of shoes (soft cloth ones, for instance) into a water bottle holder on the side of a pack.

Of course this is not ideal, and they may be a little twisted at the end of the journey, but it does mean you have at least one other option for footwear.

Choose Multitasking Items & Pack Less

Deciding which things to leave behind on a trip can be hard. For some, having make up, a  fancy tie, or reusable water bottle are considered essentials. However, if you can dress down, go a bit more natural, and use water fountains, you may save yourself some serious weight on your back.

Evaluate whether something should be on your checklist based on whether you can live without it for 3-4 days. While I like to wash my face in the evenings, I can survive without my facial cleanser for 3 days if it means not toting it with me everywhere.

Work hard to avoid the heaviest items.

Pack for a Weekend Trip: Buy the Small Stuff 

One of the secrets to personal item packing is in leaving unneccessary items at home and using wha hotels provide on your trip, or buying small items as you need them. Towels, pillows, hygiene items, and anything that can be acquired for free, or inexpensively, at your destination are best left at home and picked up later.

One exception I made was for a small stack of protein bars, to eat on the trip.

For anything disposable or consumable, the light packer’s mantra is to buy the small stuff when you arrive. If buying things and leaving them behind feels wasteful, it is usually possible to find someone who can benefit from free stuff. You might even make a new friend because you were able to share your extra snacks on the plane.

TL;DR

With a few swaps and drops from your weekend trip packing list, you can get it all into a well-packed personal item sized bag. This shift will save you money on low-cost airlines and bring you happiness when you aren’t toting large amounts of luggage with you as you travel.

  • Choose your bag wisely
  • Wear your heaviest items on the plane
  • Pack in layers
  • Minimize shoes
  • Buy the “extras” when you get there