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Travel Only with a Purse: Personal Item Packing Hacks and Swaps

Updated: 1 hour ago

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You may not believe me, but on more than 75% of my trips to Europe, I pack ONLY a personal item bag. This is of course because the airlines like to charge for anything larger than an underseat bag, unless you have status or are willing to pay quite a bit on top of your ultra-low airfare.

In fact, I've grown so accustomed to this style of packing that I actually prefer it over bringing anything with wheels, that has to be stowed above my head, or frankly anything that I have to spend time waiting on at the bag carousel is out the door as often as possible.

So, I've gotten REALLY good at packing a personal bag.

You can read all about personal bags at my separate post, including what bags are best, and a personal bag packing list, but for this article I want to focus on swaps and hacks for how you can think smarter, pack smarter and carry less for your next trip.

In this post we will explore the clever ways to pack light and pack small, ways to trade out what you think you need for a 3-6 day trip, swaps to save space and carrying weight, items you can do without, and the types of outfits to pack that are ideal (for the woman traveler) on a short trip.

In this post we will explore the following:

Understanding Bag Restrictions and Considerations

I've mentioned before in my article "how to pack a personal bag for international flights" that knowing your airline's bag sizes is paramount to a successful trip.

It is inevitable to see people scrambling at the check-in counter to repack, wear some of their clothes, or end up checking their bags for a fee because they weren't prepared. Be sure to consult some of my advice in that article above so that this isn't you.

Namely, if you are traveling on several cheapo airlines, always go for the smallest bag size of the two or three carriers that you will be traveling with.

In the case of my next upcoming flight, I'm restricted to a bag no bigger than a duffel purse. It has a little expander on it, so it can go smaller by night and bigger for travel days. It also has a crossbody strap for day time strolling and shopping in the Florence streets, and a little arm handle to look ever-so-chic while waiting at airports and train stations.

It's not too heavy or bulky, it's comfortable for carrying around town (with train stations I will be carrying my belongings with me everywhere), and being crossbody it's good for considerations like safety and pickpocketing (you can read my cautionary tale on this here).

So the winning bag for this trip? My freebie Nine West bag that my mom gave me recently. It's perfect!

black and brown purse next to a piano

Now, unfortunately this has been sitting in its original wrapping with tags on it in her closet since 2015 (seriously it still had the receipt and everything) so I couldn't find it on the internet, but here's some other great options for you to consider a long the same lines (be sure to check bag sizes to your airline:

Now that you have your ultra lightweight and airline approved bag, you need to cleverly pack everything in as tightly as possible. Enter, the packing cube.

Get Clever: Do Packing Cubes Save Space?

You bet your britches, they do. I can't rave enough about how absolutely necessary these are to packing an arsenal into one itty bitty bag. Let's dig in deeper.

packing cubes for travel

Packing cubes will change the way you pack drastically.

Why Packing Cubes Work

These game changers corral all those rolled clothes into a compact cube for easy in and out access. How many times have you seen people rummaging through a mess of clothes at airport security?

You can roll and jam in weeks worth of clothing into various sized cubes.

The idea is that with your many cubes you can easily stack and squish a month's worth of stuff into one suitcase using clever block stacking skills. You are essentially preparing your luggage to fit like a bunch of tetris blocks in your suitcase, so having the base rectangular shape gets you going.

What Can You Pack In a Packing Cube

Pack your cosmetics

They actually sell packing cube style cosmetic bags and I love them. In the same manner, it squishes your stuff together to eliminate unused space.

Easily found in stores like Ross or Marshalls, these bags can run around $12-25 depending on the style. I prefer see-through bags that help moving through the TSA security lines faster.

I use one cube for 'dry' cosmetics like combs, qtips or bandaids, and then another one for toothpaste, deodorant, etc.

Pack a starter bag

This bag is a grab bag for the first night or two in a destination. The last thing you want, especially if you are still in transit, is to go through all your various bags to find what you need.

This grab bag will house pajamas and clean clothes for the next day for you and your family. One bag for the whole gang.

Pack your laundry

My days of stealing the laundry bag from the hotel closet are over! One thing I love to do is take all the mounds of laundry and throw them in a packing cube. It corrals the stench and the space.

Pack Gifts, Souvenirs and Alcohol

If you bring extra cubes, these are great to corral gifts and souvenirs!

Pack Kids Toys

Kids toys fit well in cubes, including plush toys and all the little cracker jack toys they seem to pick up from dollar stores and McDonald's happy meals. Go for a cute children's style cube and they'll want to pack it themselves!

Pack Shoes

Corral the stink with cubes. Cleverly arrange flip flops on top of dress shoes without heels or laces poking the other items in your luggage.

Pack Books and Documents

Consider using your packing cube to keep documents or books tight together.

Pack Electronics and Chargers

That mess of wires and chargers can be wrangled with a simple packing cube.

Other Uses For A Packing Cube

This may seem silly, but your cube full of clothes can easily double as a makeshift pillow, should you need one.

Some have handles and can also be used as a day bag for going out as well. It's sturdy enough to be a car bag full of snacks and other essentials, and easy to bring from hotel room to parking lot.

Make a statement with stylized bags that reflect your personality!

Are Packing Cubes Worth It?

100%, these will save you space every time, as I've just illustrated, so you're going to want to purchase a few sets for the family.

This is non-negotiable!

You need to invest in a set of good packing cubes to successfully pack a personal bag!

Now, time to get packing.

What You Think You Need For a Short Trip

If you haven't already, you can subscribe to receive notifications on new blog posts at the following link, which will get you access to my travel planning checklist.

Otherwise, you probably have a good idea of the basics for every trip. Obviously cosmetics, pajamas, day wear and evening wear, etc. But it's when you get down to details that I find people REALLY over pack and overthink it.

  1. You think you need all the tech gear and entertainment for your flight. Wrong.

  2. You think you need adapters and chargers for everyone in the family, for every gadget you own. Wrong.

  3. You think you need makeup, perfume, hair dryers, curlers and all the things that make you glimmer and shine. Wrong, wrong wrong.

  4. You think you need to pack a world of snacks for your trip. Sigh, wrong again (trust me I am the worst with this one).

  5. You think you need to pack all the toys and entertainment for the kiddos too. Surprisingly, wrong!

  6. You think you can't survive with just one or two pairs of shoes. Wait til you see what I've got in store for you on this one.

  7. You think you may need a bathing suit, which obviously means a coverup, flip flops, sunblock and a hat too. Oh and those floaties for the kids, and goggles, and maybe some sand toys, just in case. Ouch. Wrong!!

  8. You think this trip is the perfect opportunity to try new outfits, new shoes, and new everything. Stop! Wrong!

  9. You think of clothes as single use items. Psha. Nope!

I think I've made my point here. There's a lot of misconceptions on what you think you need. Now let me show you the way to packing lighter and getting all the items you DO need into just a personal item or purse.

What You can Swap Out (Hello Personal Item Packing Hacks!)

Now that I've told you that you are wrong, let me show you how we can swap things out and change your thought process about your personal item list.

My number one tip to packing a personal bag is to pack as if you are only going for one night.

With this in mind, you will drastically change your packing habits. Here's the swaps for you to consider:

Tech Gear

Don't bring: Bulky Noise-cancelling Headphones

Swap for: Ear buds, like these popular ones from Amazon. They're only $40 and pack in a pocket. You can even just use the ones the airlines hand out. They're fine and you'll only be using them for your return trip (you'll be sleeping on the way to Europe).

Don't bring: Chargers and adapters for everything you own.

Swap for: Streamline what you bring. Do you really need your laptop? You're supposed to be on vacation. I've got a tablet sized chromebook, so I don't mind carrying my computer, and it only needs one small plug that happens to be the same plug needed for my Google Pixel. The only other plug I need is for my watch.

I bring ONE foreign adapter for the family (it's this one and it's great).

foreign adapter with USB ports

As for the kid's gadget? Unplug them! There's plenty else to entertain them on long flights. Here's my suggestions for toddlers.

Don't bring: Too much entertainment for your flight like game boys (are those still a thing?), tablets, kindles, etc

Swap for: The seat back entertainment system has tons to watch, read, listen to and play. You really don't need anything else.

Entertainment and Snacks

I have a bad habit of overestimating my boredom on planes and trains. The truth is, between the goal of sleep heading to Europe and dealing with my daughter on the return, there isn't much wiggle room for fun. Here's my best swaps:

Don't bring: Lots of magazines and books

Swap for: 2 magazines max (they are disposable), 1 book (soft-sided). I also bring an activity book, specifically this one for logic puzzles, which takes up a good amount of time and is enjoyable for me. When space is really an issue, I rip a few pages out and take them with me.

Don't bring: Too Many Snacks

Swap for: I swear it's like there's no food in Europe, the way I pack snacks for me and my kid. Some airlines don't give out food or snacks (like Norse Air) so it's crucial you bring something, but just don't bring the whole dang snack cabinet. Bring 1 sweet snack per person, 1 salty snack, and 1 piece of fruit (to be consumed before crossing country borders/customs). Buy anything else you need at the airport and stock up at the Priority Pass Lounges, if you are able to get in (psst anyone can get in at the link above).

Don't bring: Too Many Toys For the Kids

Swap for: I'm always packing way too much, thinking I'll have options (and ammunition) for any potential boredom meltdowns. As it turns out, many airlines provide goodie bags with actvities for kids, and if they don't, you can ask. My kid mostly sleeps, eats and watches the seat back entertainment. I barely ever open my emergency toy stash anymore, and find that it is wasted space when I do.

Calling all Mamas: See the toddler link above (in tech gear) if you are still in the "dear god help me I need entertainment for my toddler" phase.

free kids entertainment bag

Cosmetics, Makeup and Hair Stuff

Ladies, I know you want to look chic and avant-garde in your Parisian photo shoot or your trot through Florence, but give yourself a break. Go au natural as much as possible.

Leave the bulky cosmetics at home. Swipe sample sizes from hotels as you go! They won’t reuse them after you’ve stayed anyway. Otherwise, buy travel sized or fill them yourself.

Don't bring: Hair products

Swap for: 2-in-1 shampoo conditioner combo (buy a big bottle and refill a small container to meet TSA liquid limits). If you need more than that, buy something small abroad and toss it when you are done.

Don't bring: Hair dryers, curlers, straighteners, etc.

Swap for: Most hotel rooms have a hair dryer, but if you absolutely need your styling tools, go small and consider voltage. You don't want to be that comically stupid American blowing circuits in old wired hotels. Consider something like this from Amazon (it includes voltage adapters), or grab a super tiny one like this one and just make sure it's got the right oomph not to blow the lights at your cute airbnb.

Don't bring: Makeup

Swap for: For some, this statement is tragic. Give it a try! All I bring is lipstick (or a tinted Burts Bees Lip Balm) and a small bottle (0.17 FL oz) of Versace perfume. It's just enough to feel pretty without lugging anything else around.


Don't bring: Heavy or new shoes

Swap for: Heavy shoes only work if you are wearing them on your feet for travel days, and new shoes are too unpredictable. Bring broken in, well worn, well tested shoes that pack easy in your bag as needed. Sometimes I even pack my shoes in a water bottle pocket of a backpack or hang them from a carabiner.

Pro tip: Clip hats to a carabiner on the outside of a backpack or rolling bag.

Don't bring: Heels or dressy shoes, multiple pairs of shoes

Swap for: get clever. Let me introduce to you the Solely Jane interchangeble shoes. You bring one base (black or tan) and then choose several tops that you can swap out in seconds. The tops pack flat, so you can have several wardrobe changes without any added weight or packing space. I call that a win.

Buy yours here (or just browse the products) and use Solely Jane discount code ALWAYSPACKTISSUES for 10% off!

flat shoe tops

Water Gear

I used to always pack a bathingsuit, because you never know if a hotel pool calls to you, or a beach ends up on your itinerary that you didn't expect.

Don't bring: Any water gear. None.

Swap for: Unless it is specifically a water-based trip, you can buy everything you need at your destination. It will be fun hunting for sand pails and swimsuits at bargain prices. You may not look great, but consider it a fun souvenir and toss at the end of the trip if it doesn't fit for the ride home.

Single Use Outfits (Unless They are For a Pack and Ditch Method!)

Don't bring: Single use outfits (other than underwear and socks)

Swap for: Bring air-wicking, comfortable clothing that travels well. Bring items that can be spot cleaned, or cleaned and rinsed in a sink if need be. I find that most of my tops can go 2-3 days, and bottoms 3-5.

The Pack and Ditch Method

My ultimate hack: Bring unloved, old and tired clothes, underwear and socks on your trip with the plan to THROW THEM AWAY as you go.

That's right, throw away your underwear, your old holy socks, and if you find a donation bin, plop that potato sack dress in there at the end of the day. You won't miss these items, and your load will be lighter. Bonus - no stinky clothes to cart around in your already tiny handbag.

"Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without"

Over the many years and countless travels, I have learned to hone a very fine art of leaving things behind for one simple reason - to make space for souvenirs in my luggage. There’s a brilliance in this plan. You can’t donate old underwear and socks, and the weight alone of carrying chunky winter boots back to Florida’s winter is brainless. So, I pack the old, the haggard and the used and ditch it along the way. Here’s how:

Ditch as you go. Every old pair of socks and underwear gets ditched daily. Do you really want to carry around your smelly socks anyway?

Only pack used, old, dying underwear and socks. Make sure they are at least comfortable though, because then you’ll have floss up your crack the whole trip and be really unhappy about your choices.

Bring sturdy shoes that have treated you well for a long time but that have seen their day in the sun. This pair is getting packed for their last hurrah. Make it a good one!

Things to Leave At Home

As if I need to reiterate, leave these items at home!!!! You don't need to look amazing, you just need to look put together, comfortable, and consider weight and bag size. You can do this!

  • Bulky or heavy tech

  • Magazines

  • Toys

  • Snacks

  • Hair products, hair dryers, curlers

  • Makeup beyond the simplest needs

  • Heavy shoes unless they are on your feet

  • Any water gear beyond a bathing suit (and do you reallllly need it?)

  • New shoes - ouch, leave them at home!!

  • Untested outfits - are you sure they are comfy?

  • New outfits - better to toss old outfits as you go

Personal Item Packing List

Lastly, the round up. Here we are folks, the official "what does Maria put in her tiny little purse for travel?" list. In addition to the thorough outline I've put in my separate post, here's a drilled down idea of what a 5 day trip to Italy might look like in my purse or personal item.

The outfits:

Pack slinky, squishable stuff. Air-wicking products are best for this. Think Columbia, North Face and Eddie Bauer. These squish really well into your trusty packing cubes.

  • A slip dress - it's comfy, versatile, and great for day or evening wear

  • A jean jacket (wear with travel outfit) - the pockets in most jean jackets are great for stashing passports and more

  • Travel outfit + 1 extra shirt (bonus if your outfit has hidden pockets for added storage!)

  • Old undies - out the door they go!

  • Old socks - I really don't need to be carrying stinky socks in my purse

Pajamas - typically I bring an old tshirt dress for this, in case I need my PJs to turn into day wear. So bring something you don't mind being seen in public with.
  • Bathingsuit ONLY if I know for sure it is in my itinerary (or buy one when I get there)

  • Small jewelry/accessories to keep an outfit fresh

Other stuff:

  • Chargers, adapters

  • Simplest compact cosmetics: deodorant, hairbrush, toothbrush, eye drops, meds

  • The occasional lipstick and perfume (travel sized)

  • Headphone

  • Small snacks for 1 day

  • 1 added entertainment like a logic puzzle book

  • An expandable bag. This may be a tote for shopping or even a small backpack or purse. It provides me with flexibility when I'm not restricted to airlines bag sizes, like for carrying coats, water bottles, day snacks, etc. This should be an empty, pocket sized collapsible duffel bag. This packs as small as your hand and offers a lot of options later down the line.

  • 1 pair of "airplane shoes" these are my every day walking shoes

  • 1 pair of comfortable sandals or Solely Janes - these can go on beach strolls, take me out to dinner, etc.

  • For this type of packing - consider an inflatable neck pillow for the airplane that packs flat. There's no space to be walking around train stations and such with your pillow round your neck. That just screams tourist, don't you think? I know I need my neck pillow, so an inflatable one is the best way to pack light, even if it's not as good as the cushy pillow ones. Others have recently been on the trtl bandwagon, but I haven't tried it myself yet. The trtl neck pillow is more like a neck wrap, and is making waves in the travel communities. If you try it, let me know how you like it!

Now it is your turn. Can you pull it off?

1 comment

1 Comment

May 01

Great suggestions!


Hi, I'm Maria!

Globetrotting since 1995, I'm not a digital nomad or a social influencer.

I'm a traveler. I'm a storyteller.

And I'm here to inspire you to

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