Ultimate Buyer’s Guide to Travel Jeans: Form Meets Function

Shawn Forno

Jeans are the original badass travel pants. In fact, jeans might just be one of the most enduring, rugged pieces of travel gear ever made.

Jeans: The Original Travel Pants

When miners, during the California Gold Rush, asked for, “A pair of sturdy pants that could withstand hard work,” Levi Strauss gave them jeans. And it changed the game. Soon everyone was wearing this durable, yet oddly comfortable, denim fabric (or “dungaree” if you’re that kind of guy). And it wasn’t just the new fabric.

Jeans were made with copper rivets to hold the fabric and stitching together in the places where other pants frayed or ripped. (Rivets are those little metal thingies in the corners of your pockets and stitches).

Jeans were truly state of the art travel clothing, back when “travel” meant weeks of hitching trains and stagecoaches west in pursuit of a better life. They became the outfit of an entire generation of hard scrabble dreamers.

Travel Jeans: Miner Tested, Italian Approved

But jeans also owe part of their DNA to the world of European fashion. Jeans or “jeane,” the sturdy cotton-based corduroy fabric, originated in Genoa, Italy. That’s right, denim nerds; while jeans are known as the iconic symbol of tough American gold miners, the fabric itself comes straight from the fashionable streets of Italy.

Half European wonder fabric, half American icon, half comfortable as all hell, jeans are more than just a great pair of travel pants. They’re a way of life. And the best part is—jeans have only gotten better. Except for JNCO jeans. The 90s were rough.

Stretchy spandex blends, new colors, fashionable cuts and styles, and travel friendly features like zippered pockets mean that travel jeans are one of the best items of clothing you can put in a carry on backpack. They go with everything, never go out of style, and take an absolute beating.

Here’s our review of some of the best travel jeans out there, and a few reasons why we think jeans are the ultimate pair of travel pants.

The Pros and Cons of Travel Jeans

Jeans aren’t known for being great travel pants. They are great travel pants. They’re just not known for it. So let’s change that.

Pros:

Travel Jeans are Durable

Jeans can take a beating. Heck, they were designed for the mines. Hiking, climbing, biking, sitting in the dirt at Coachella—it doesn’t matter. Jump in the ocean, stomp through the mud, climb a big ol’ nasty tree. Your jeans can take it.

Jeans also hide stains like a boss. Actually, stains make your jeans look even better. Get a dark denim and staining your clothes is one less thing you have to worry about.

Travel Jeans are Comfortable

Jeans can take an insane amount of abuse and yet still feel great against your skin. It’s magic fabric. It really, really is.

If you can find a modern pair of jeans with a spandex or elastene blend, you’re in for an even bigger treat. These jeans give and bend with you to perform during any activity, from lounging in the park to biking across Mexico City.

Travel Jeans are Versatile

Jeans work for happy hour, an 11-hour flight, hiking a mountain, or just walking around town. You can bike in ’em, go to a concert, or even rock climb in ’em. Yes, I rock climb in jeans. Frequently.

Jeans are business casual if you’re taking any meetings on the road. They also look at home in a cafe while you tap out your latest blog, or the club where (stylish) jeans are usually on the dress code. The right pair of jeans can even make a t-shirt look iconic. Ask James Dean.

Oh, and before you complain about how jeans are hard to wash, stop. You don’t need to wash jeans. Ever. Actually, according to Chip Burgh, the CEO of Levi’s, you shouldn’t wash your jeans. At least not for the first 6 months. Hiut Denim agrees:

“Raw denim is best given a good six months before washing. The longer you can leave it, the better your jeans will look.”

If you do cave and wash your jeans, just pay 2€ to dry them, you cheapskate. Or wear them damp. Body heat is an amazing way to dry clothes. Seriously.

Travel Jeans are Fashionable

Speaking of fashion, how are you gonna compete with jeans—especially on the road. Most travel pants look absolutely ridiculous. Zip-off shorts? Cargo pants? Sweat wicking trail pants that *vvvvvippp vvvvvippp vvvvvippp* down the street with every step? No thanks.

If you want to look like a tourist, wear techy travel pants. If you want to look like you know what you’re doing, wear a great pair of jeans.

Cons:

Travel Jeans are Heavy

Yes, jeans weigh more than paper weight travel fabrics. But, pound for pound, jeans are a more valuable addition to your travel capsule wardrobe. You don’t need to pack (or carry) as many different pairs of pants when you pack the right travel jeans. They’re good for daytime, nighttime, work and play. One pair of great travel jeans can be your go to for weeks of travel with just a few other pieces. Plus, you can wear the jeans while you travel (aka on the plane), making your bag that much lighter.

Cuff the jeans up when it’s hot, roll ’em down when it’s cold, and “break glass in case of emergency”—cut them into super stylish jorts (jeans shorts) if they’re “too heavy” or hot for the trip you’re on. I love my jorts. They’re like jeans but lighter.

Travel Jeans are Hard to Clean

Actually, they’re the easiest pants to clean, ever. You don’t have to wash them. If they start to smell, just pop in the freezer overnight (cold kills odor causing bacteria), lay them out in the sun, or just hit ’em with some Febreeze. Easy. Peasy.

Travel Jeans are…

That’s it. Those are the only cons. And they’re not even cons. Enough of this nonsense. Here are our favorite travel jeans.

The Best Travel Jeans Review

Let’s be honest. You buy travel jeans because you want to look good on the road. That’s ok. Heck, it’s more than ok. You should look good while you travel. Especially if you’re a digital nomad taking meetings, networking, or just living your life abroad.

 

Best All Around Travel Jeans: Aviator Jeans ($109)

They claim to be the best travel jeans in the world… and they might just be. These jeans are the perfect blend of fashion and function in a package that you’ll actually want to wear (for a price you can afford). The stone washed slim fit denim looks awesome, fits great, and handles anything you can dish out on the road.

Features like the two hidden zippered pockets (plus the 5 regular pockets) feel natural, not tacked on like so many other travel gear gizmos. Although, the belt loop clip is a rad new features.

Bonus: the pockets are actually big enough for a passport AND a phone. What a shocking concept to design pockets big enough for the two most carried travel items.

 

These jeans feel great on the plane, and look stylish enough to wear out on the town. I’m a big fan, and could easily travel for a week with just these and a pair of shorts. Plus, they come in a lot of sizes (aka odd numbered waist sizes) so you can find the perfect fit.

Finally, the 70/30 polycotton spandex blend (2% spandex) allows for just the right amount of stretch and give without looking (or feeling) like jeggings. These might just be the best travel jeans around.

Most Stylish Travel Jeans:  Outlier Slim Dungarees ($198)

Outlier makes travel clothing that looks good, and the Outlier Slim Dungarees are no exception. If you want a pair of upscale jeans that can handle the “dust and grime” of the road, but still look good in the hotel lobby, look no further. Plus, they’re made in America (NYC!), so you’re getting the authentic denim experience.

These jeans kick ass and look awesome doing it because they’re the next generation of travel jeans. The “Workcloth” fabric stays dry in light rain, dries quickly, and shrugs off coffee stains like a boss. Slam that fifth espresso shot with shaky hands. No one can tell!

 

Just listen to Tortuga co-founder and CEO, Fred Perrotta:

“I have zero regrets about wearing jeans when I travel or even why I fly. When I travel, I want to feel and (hopefully) look good, which means dressing like I do at home. My Outlier Slim Dungarees are the best travel pants that I’ve found. They’re are a modern, technical reinvention of jeans.”

Best Stylish Travel Jeans Runner Up: H&M 360° Flex Slim Jeans ($59)

If you’re into a stylish, modern, slim silhouette on a budget, the H&M 360° flex jeans might be for you. They come in a variety of colors (including classic blue jeans), and the 5% spandex/cotton weave means they give and move like crazy (5% spandex is HIGH).

Bonobos Slim Fit Travel Jeans ($128)

If you want to look good in some bright colorful travel jeans, go with Bonobos. 2% spandex stretch and a range of awesome shades makes these travel jeans a head turner for the beach or the club.

If you want an even slimmer pair of jeans, check out the H&M Tech Skinny Jeans ($59) for that calf hugging travel jean goodness.

Most Comfortable Travel Jeans: Uniqlo Stretch Skinny Fit Color Jeans ($30)

Uniqlo has been quietly making awesome travel clothing for a while. Now they’re actually coming out and saying it with their “travel essentials” collection. Interestingly enough, jeans aren’t in the collection. Which is super dumb. Because jeans are awesome travel pants.

The nylon blend means they dry a little faster than traditional denim (awesome), and they can move with you while you bike, climb, run, or just win that dance battle with dope windmills.

Most Comfortable Travel Jeans Runner Up: Levi’s 541 Athletic Straight Fit Jeans ($49)

These pants aren’t the most flattering fit in the world, but I know that not everyone wants a tailored or slim fit pair of travel jeans. These jeans look great, feel super comfortable, and their friggin’ Levi’s. They’re the OG travel jeans, but with a 93% cotton, 4% polyester, 2% polyethylene, 1% elastane blend that makes them more stretchy and comfortable than ever.

Best Budget Travel Jeans: Uniqlo Stretch Skinny Fit Color Jeans ($30)

Yeah. Uniqlo jeans are comfy and budget friendly. I love Uniqlo jeans. I love ’em.

I’ve had multiple pairs for years and I do everything in them. I go to work, I ride my bike, rock climb, dance, hike, nap—you name it, these jeans are perfect. And they only cost $30. The best part is that they go on sale. All.The.Time.

A couple years ago I picked up four pairs of these bad boys for just $5 each. And they looked awesome.

They don’t last forever—especially if you ride a bike and rock climb in them—but I’ve turned most pairs into some awesome colored jorts. And you should too.

Best Budget Travel Jeans Runner Up: H&M Slim Jeans ($29)

H&M jeans are a solid runner-up to Uniqlo. No muss. No fuss. Just comfy, stylish travel jeans with 2% spandex for that added stretch. You can’t ask for more than that for $29.

Travel Jeans Honorable Mentions

Travelsmith Stretch Bull Denim Jeans ($59)

These babies are 98% cotton, 2% spandex with classic lines, hidden zipper pockets and breathable mid-weight fabric. What more do you want?

Bluffworks Denim (Coming Summer/Fall 2018)

I’m a huge Bluffworks fan (they are my favorite travel pants), so when I heard Bluffworks was making a pair of travel jeans, obviously, I got excited. The jeans are still in the design/production phase, but they promise to be:

  • Stretchy enough to move with you
  • Sweat wicking and quick dry to keep you cool
  • Soft yet durable “like traditional denim”
  • Full of travel-friendly features like zippered, hidden pockets

I’m sure when they launch they are going to RULE. Keep your eyes peeled.

Travel Jorts

Don’t like your travel jeans? Got a rip in the knee? It’s too hot for jeans? No problem. Cut ’em into shorts. Now you’ve got yourself a stylish, durable pair of travel jorts that feel like jeans. Huzzah!

Women’s Travel Jeans

Taylor Coil, Tortuga’s Marketing Director tackled the subject of women’s travel jeans, from fit to function. Here’ what she has to say:

Unlike the men’s denim market, which is awash with technical fabrics and pockets galore, women’s denim is lacking in options tailored specifically for travelers.

Case in point: if you search for “travel jeans” you’ll see knit pull-on jeggings that focus on quick-dry, spandex-forward knits with denim-esque stitching.

That’s not a jean – that’s a legging that’s lying to you.

Since this post is about neither leggings nor liars, I’m going to stick to actual denim recommendations.

The best travel jeans are the ones that fit you perfectly. Bonus points if they’re the right cut and length to wear with your favorite travel shoes in every weather.

One caveat: In my experience, giving specific product recommendations is notoriously unhelpful when it comes to women’s denim. Finding a new brand that fits is a nightmare and typically leads to more frustration than success. Instead I’m going to emphasize fit, length, and fabrics to give you a bit of guidance. Don’t worry, I’ll still link to a few favorites.

Fit + Length

The Problem with Skinnies

There’s a reason skinny jeans reached ubiquity despite feeling remarkably oppressive to wear: they’re functional. I have yet to find a shoe that doesn’t work with a pair of skinny jeans, and most of my tops look at least okay with them. When in doubt, skinny jeans will probably work.

My quips with skinny jeans are twofold:

  1. They aren’t exactly comfortable
  2. I’ve worn them for at least a decade and am frankly tired of the silhouette.

The latter quip is obviously subjective, so I’ll stick to the former. Wearing a pair of skinny jeans feels like inviting my legs to suffocate in cotton sausage casings. I don’t want to subject myself to such treatment on a flight, train journey, or full day of sightseeing.

If you haven’t ventured away from the silhouette since the terrifying low-rise bell-bottoms of the early aughts, I invite you to try one of the options below.

Straight Legs

If you, too, are very much “over” skinny jeans but are somewhat timid about venturing into voluminous territory, straight leg denim is a good starting point. Since straight legs don’t grasp onto your ankles and hold on for dear life, the legs have more movement and are less likely to ride down whilst you’re seated.

For the most part, straight leg denim is still pretty thigh hugging, so it’s tough to find a pair that fits every part of you perfectly. The good news is that straight legs are almost as ubiquitous as their skinny counterparts. It’s a good bet that your favorite brand makes a straight leg option.

Cropped Kick Flares

I’m sure this will be polarizing, but I love a cropped kick flare for travel. The cut is forgiving yet figure hugging, stylish yet approachable. Kick flares aren’t universally flattering (they’re especially tricky on shorter folks) so try them on before buying.

Protip: raw hem is the secret to a perfect kick flare.

The level of flare is up to you. Options range from pretty tame, a la Paige Colette (my holy grail denim, by the way) to more voluminous a la Mother. For a lower-priced version, try Everlane.

Cropped Wide Legs

If you’re willing to go bolder, may I recommend a pair of cropped wide legs? I particularly love this option in the summertime because the silhouette acts like two leg vents, letting your lower half breathe.

Plus, I personally feel more stylish when wearing wide-leg denim despite the occasional confused (or judgy, let’s be honest) once-over from a stranger on the street.

Wide leg pants are much easier to fit because they don’t hug your thighs or derriere. The only consideration, really, is the waistband.

The biggest downside to wide leg pants, denim or otherwise, is that is that full-length versions are a nightmare in wet weather. NYC sludge will forever stain the hems of my favorite wide legs after a surprise rainstorm last spring. For travel purposes, I recommend opting for a cropped version unless you’re headed to a literal desert. The Loup Simone is a higher-end favorite of mine and Gap currently makes a budget-friendly option.

Fabrics

Did you know that denim is measured in weights? It’s measured by how much a 1-yard piece weighs on a scale. You’ll typically see weights between 9-23 oz (though 9-16 is most common).

A 9-11 oz jean is considered lightweight. This weight is great for summer and is the most common variety of women’s denim. Lighter weight denim is less durable and more prone to the dreaded “saggy butt syndrome.” I find that I need to wash my lighter weight jeans relatively often – not because they’re dirty, but because they’ve lost their shape.

Mid weight jeans (12-15 oz) are a bit stiff at first, but they break in nicely, don’t stretch out, and last a long time. Since the fabric is heavier, they might feel uncomfortable in the summertime.

It can be tough to find new denim in mid weights, but vintage options are a good mainstay. Vintage Levi’s are often between 12 and 14 oz.

Heavy weight jeans (16 oz +) are not very common in women’s denim. They’re typically novelty cuts and aren’t comfortable enough for a day of travel. Stay in the light-to-mid-weight range.

Opt for approximately 1-2% spandex or elastane. More than that and your denim will stretch out more quickly. Less than that and you might not feel very mobile.

TL;DR

Jeans were made for travel. They’re rugged, comfortable, versatile, stylish, and timeless. Invest in a quality pair of travel jeans and you’ll have one less thing to worry about on your trip (and when you get back home).

  • You don’t have to wash your travel jeans as much as your other pants; seriously
  • Jeans were designed for gold miners, they can handle sitting in the grass
  • Look for jeans with at least 2% spandex; it sounds weird, but it feels amazing
  • Guys can  jeans with zippered pockets and a big enough pocket for your passport
  • Gals, find a brand that you love and fits just right, then experiment with other cuts
  • Go wide leg and feel the freedom

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