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It’s been a year of airport chaos and problems with baggage handling have left many travelers struggling to reunite with their luggage.
Flying with only carry-on is as desirable as ever. But for one traveler, even that isn’t minimalist enough. She’s hitting the road with only a small, 12-liter (3-gallon) shoulder bag.
Brooke Schoenman is an American woman living in Australia and the publisher of Her Packing List, a website which she uses to pass on her wisdom when it comes to whittling down what to take on the road.
And that’s something that she’s road-tested almost to the extreme.
Schoenman’s path to burden-easing enlightenment began when she studied in Italy before embarking on a post-graduate round-the-world trip. Along the way, she explored Guatemala and later worked teaching English in Ukraine before moving down under 13 years ago.
“I think I had a 55-liter backpack and a day pack that I wore on the front,” she tells CNN Travel of her first trip. A 55-liter pack can be the maximum size – or a little too large – for a carry-on. “And that was me really trying to pack light. That was me thinking, ‘I don’t know how people do it with a 30-liter bag.’
“I didn’t use all those extra things that I packed.”
As she gained more experience as a traveler, she says packing light became more important to her.
“It was literally the carrying of things that started to wear me down. Every time [I’d] have to walk across this airport or find my way to the bus, to the train, to the airport or to the whatever, I would just be like, ‘This sucks.’”
This realization was one of the reasons behind starting Her Packing List in 2010. The aim of the website is to help all travelers, but especially women, pack and plan better for their trips through packing guides and insider tips. The website gets its name from the checklists Schoenman says are an important tool in prepping for travel.
‘That’s all you have?’
“Preparing for [a trip] was the only thing that you could do to bide your time before you got to leave,” she says. ” So thinking about it and thinking about all the things you could bring and pack, it was exciting.”
The website wasn’t always about minimalist packing, initially offering advice for travelers checking luggage, but it has evolved over the years as Schoenman herself made do with less.
“When [I] first started the site, I didn’t talk all the time about carry-on packing,” she says. “It was like you were checking a bag and your carry-on was the stuff you had in the cabin with you that was really valuable or breakable like an extra outfit and an extra pair of underwear, that kind of stuff. And then I started packing lighter.”
Schoenman hit her peak in minimalist packing in 2016 when she left for three weeks of international travel with only a 12-liter handbag and a US itinerary that included Portland, Vegas, Chicago, San Francisco and three days on an Amtrak train.
“I got into the Uber on the way to the airport in Sydney,” she recalls. “The guy was like, ‘Where are you going? What terminal?’ And I was like, ‘International.’ ‘Where’s your luggage? How long is your trip?’ ‘Three weeks.’ And he’s like, ‘And that’s all you have?’ ‘Yep.’”
Her friends and family were also amused by her lack of baggage. “My mom just sort of laughed when she saw my bag and realized it was all my luggage.”
Inside her laptop-sized handbag she packed the essentials. This included a packing cube of clothing that could be worn multiple ways, fold-up shoes, a mini keyboard for her smartphone and small containers of essential toiletries. She visited a wide variety of environments so wardrobe planning was important.
“I traveled in April and I was completely caught off guard when Portland temperatures reached the 80s (20s in Celsius) on that trip,” she recalls.
“Luckily, I packed a wardrobe designed with layering in mind, so I had lighter pieces that worked for the warmer temperatures. It was also quite cold and windy when I visited Chicago on that trip. So layering up was super important.”
Her light packing also made transportation a breeze.
“I felt like I had a lot more mental bandwidth on this trip when moving between destinations as I didn’t have to worry about my luggage or think hard about what I was going to wear from my limited options.
“It’s nice to be able to leave the airport or the train and head straight out with all your luggage and not feel weighed down in the process.”
It also helped when it came time to check out of her room.
“On my last day in Vegas, I checked out of my accommodation and then proceeded to go shopping for the afternoon with all my luggage and belongings,” she says.
“Since all I packed was my messenger bag, this was not uncomfortable or out of place. Also, not having to worry about getting back to my stored luggage before heading to the airport was wonderful.”
Schoenman says it’s more important than ever to travel light right now as airport operators struggle to maintain staffing levels post-pandemic.
“I just had someone share with me that they went on a trip and it took them eight weeks to get their bag back,” she says. “Their bag went the completely opposite direction around the world to where they were going.”
After receiving positive feedback from her blog post about her minimalist trip, she started teaching seminars about how others can do the same.
“People are very shocked that they were able to achieve what they were able to achieve,” says Schoenman.
“I give them a framework, and then each week we focus on one area of packing. I give them lessons and assignments and step-by-steps.”
Graduates of the class have shared photos with her about their own minimalist travels. But at its core, she says, the class and the trip that inspired it aren’t about what to pack or not to pack. It’s a mindset.
“A lot of it is just realizing what are your priorities and being comfortable with less, which is really hard for some people to deal with.
“I’ve had people come out of the class and then they go and sign up for decluttering courses and stuff, because their mind is primed. They’re like, what else can I minimize in my life?”
For those planning their own lightweight packing list for an upcoming trip, Schoenman says certain items are helpful, but not entirely necessary.
“Obviously, different sorts of packing cubes can be very helpful, especially anything that can compress things so that it’s easier to get inside your small space.
“Another thing is just finding items that are the right size for your trip. Travel-sized toiletry containers are often way bigger than you need for your trip for many products that you’re using.”
These days, Schoenman doesn’t travel with just a handbag on every trip, but she still keeps it light with backpacks of similar size, especially on frequent opal mining trips to the Australian outback.
“My max bag is a 26-liter bag,” which is about the size of a school backpack. “Really. That’s my high-end travel.”
(Top image: Graphic by Leah Abucayan, CNN. Photos courtesy Getty and Brooke Schoenman)