How to Pack for a Weekend Trip in a Personal Item

Laura Leavitt

With a few swaps and drops from your weekend trip packing list, you can get it all into a well-packed personal item. 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.

In May, I spent ten days in Germany and Iceland experiencing everything from sunny summer in the English Gardens to a thirty-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 ran exactly the standards of the personal item on the flights I took: 18 in x 14 in x 8 in (46 cm x 36 cm x 20 cm). The rules for personal items are vague and often not enforced.

The general is being that a personal item should be able to be tucked under the seat in front of you, or you should be able to carry it in your lap. Personally, I prefer a backpack, but the same rules apply to a briefcase or a versatile purse.

Ten days packed just in a personal item  is pretty extreme. Having so little luggage meant I wasn’t as prepared for every scenario as I could have been. However, if you’re only taking a weekend trip with a personal item you’ll avoid most of those while enjoying the benefits of traveling lighter.

Personally, I hate putting things into overhead bins, and my heart sings when I get to skip a long baggage check line and head straight for security with my small bag. 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. 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.

The biggest benefit of carrying only a personal item is freedom. I had a long layover in Chicago. 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. My bag was with me if I needed any of my stuff. But, because I packed so light, 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 and Bag Wisely

The Bag

The first rule of personal-item-only travel is to check the size and weight restrictions of your particular airline. The rules vary quite a bit by airline. And yes, some of them really do weigh your bag.

The biggest choice to make is whether you want to travel with a packable daypack or a fully-featured laptop backpack as your personal item. Both have their merits, so the choice is a matter of preference.

A packable daypack is lighter but has less organization. The Setout Daypack will be perfect if you’re not bringing electronics, though the Outbreaker Daypack has a bit of added structure which will be more comfortable if you’re using it as your only bag.

If you want the most comfort and organization in your personal item, consider the Outbreaker Laptop Backpack or Setout Laptop Backpack. The Outbreaker Laptop Backpack has tons of pockets for the organization-savvy traveler as well as waterproof sailcloth to protect your stuff in a sudden downpour. The Setout Laptop Backpack has just enough organization and sturdy shoulder straps for a comfortable carry.

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 your 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 are recommended for almost any kind of travel. A 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’ve developed a capsule wardrobe, this is where it shines.

Start with one pair of pants and your travel outfit pants or 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 be mixed and matched infinitely. 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.

Your three-day to four-day packing checklist should look like this:

  • 2 pairs of pants (Wear one on the place and pack the other.)
  • 3 tops (Wear one and pack two.)
  • 1 sweater (Wear it.)
  • 1 pair of pajamas or workout clothes
  • 1 scarf (Wear it.)
  • 4 pair of underwear
  • 4 pair of socks

Pack the following from that list in your bag. Wear everything else.

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

That fits in a personal item. Easily.

Electronics: Less is More

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.

For the lightest options possible, I find that a paperback for analog time and a phone for “computer” tasks are the perfect options. If you’re packing a tablet or computer, then a laptop backpack is the perfect choice for carrying your office set up and the essentials for a weekend trip, while still falling within airlines’ personal item guidelines.

Most smartphones and small tablets can support typing and audio recording. If you really want to be able to capture your trip and journal about it, download an app instead of packing an analog notebook. If you must have paper, consider a few loose sheets, rather than hundreds, since you can only write so much in a long weekend.

Shoes: One Pair for Three Days

Personal item packing becomes impossible if you need multiple 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.

Packing Less for a Weekend Trip

Deciding which things to leave behind on a trip can be hard. If you can dress down and go a bit more natural, you may save yourself some serious weight on your back.

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

Buy the Small Stuff 

One of the secrets to personal item packing is in leaving unnecessary items at home and using what hotels provide 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.

 

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