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Travel packing: 4 weeks, 5 countries, 1 backpack

I recently had the good fortune to spend a month travelling with my husband and teenage daughters, visiting Japan, France, England, The Netherlands and United Arab Emirates. We decided to take backpacks rather than suitcases, figuring they would make it easier to use public transport, which we prefer for the genuinely local experience it provides. Happily, this proved to be the case: our little Turtle Family trotted happily up and down the stairs of the Metro and the Underground, easily overtaking the poor suckers with their hefty suitcases. They also proved to be a bonus when accessing our fifth-floor walk-up in Paris, and third-floor loft in Amsterdam.

However it did mean we had to be very disciplined in our packing. In the end we proved that we could travel comfortably with comparatively little; the individual luggage limit on our flights was generally 30kg, while the weight of our four backpacks combined was just 40kg. And yet we had everything we needed, even though we had to pack for a range of climates (from Dubai's 42 degree days to London's 12 degree summer evenings) and a range of activities, from sight-seeing in stylish Paris to walking in the Cotswolds and cycling in Amsterdam. 


Prior to our trip I enjoyed reading other people's advice on travel packing, so I thought I'd throw my own ideas into the mix. If the mark of good packing is that you have everything you need and use everything you take, I did pretty well. Here's what I packed:


  • Black cotton chinos - more comfortable than jeans, and cooler for summer travelling. They looked casual with sandals and a t-shirt, and smart with a silk shirt and flats. 
  • Black A-line skirt - tempted as I was to throw in a dress or two, I figured that a skirt could be more versatile when mixed with different shirts.
  • Tailored black shorts - these were casual, cool and practical enough for country walks or cycling, but smart enough for city sight-seeing on days when we would be tackling lots of staircases. 
  • Black capri pants – ditto for the black shorts. Mine are made of a lovely Japanese fabric with plenty of stretch, making them as comfortable as trackpants for long flights.
  • 4 T-shirts, two with ¾ length sleeves, in plain colours. One T-shirt was black to combine with the black skirt for an LBD look
  • 3 silk shirts – silk is my favourite travel fabric. A simple silk shirt can be dressed up and down, and it dries in just a few hours, allowing for easy bathroom sink laundering. Creases can also be easily smoothed out by rinsing them and allowing them to drip dry.
  • 1 cotton cardigan
  • 1 woollen jumper

  •  A lightweight ‘travel trench’ (mine was a gorgeous purple), in a fabric that could withstand a light shower but didn’t look like a raincoat. 
  •  A sarong (*see below)
  • 2 silk scarves
  • 3 necklaces and my nice pearl drop earrings, carried in a small evening bag
  • Lightweight cotton pants and an extra T-shirt to wear as pyjamas. As tempted as I was to pack some lovely satin pyjamas for our time in Paris, practicality won out. The pants were the super-light, super-loose type that can be picked up in Asian market stalls - we call them ‘elephant pants’ as most of them seem to have elephants in the print. They were perfect to wear out during our time in Dubai, where the temperature soared but a modest dress code was expected (we visited during Ramadan).
  • Underwear in a quick-dry fabric. Cotton underwear can take literally days to dry hanging in a bathroom!

  • Black tights to wear under the skirt 
  • A simple white sun hat, designed to be rolled up for travel
  • Swimsuit
  • A cross-body leather handbag for sightseeing. This design allows you to wear your bag in front when you fear pickpockets are around. Our backpacks included a zip-off day pack; not glamourous but perfectly practical for our long flights and day trips when we needed extra carrying capacity.
  • Black flats
  • Black sandals
  • Black walking shoes /sneakers (ie. Skechers) in a style that looked good with the black trousers, capri pants and shorts


Needless to say, all the shoes were comfortable enough to walk around in all day. No matter how gorgeous your shoes look, you will soon regard them with loathing if they cause blisters or aching feet. Travelling with our kids, we weren't going to be heading off to nightclubs, so I didn't feel the need for high heels. My black flats looked smart enough to take me to any restaurant.


And that’s it. I had something to wear for every setting and climate, and enough variety to ensure I wasn't sick of the sight of my clothes by the end of the month. In every European town we visited I was stopped and asked for directions, so I must have blended in with the locals pretty well (and for someone who is sartorially-challenged, that felt like a win in Paris, I can tell you!)


In hindsight, the only thing that I would have added was a lightweight spray jacket or poncho that could have been shoved into my handbag if it looked like rain – the trench was just a bit too bulky and crushable for that. In the end I bought a small umbrella, which did the job pretty well. However, I have a Paqme raincoat on my wishlist for future trips.

My other travel essentials are a sarong*, eyemask and earplugs, noise-cancelling headphones, my e-reader, clip-on reading light, a puzzle book, a book of WH Auden's poetry and low expectations. What would you never leave home without?


* In praise of sarongs

I never, ever travel without a sarong. My favourite is black with a geometric white pattern, making it both a bit funky and a bit elegant. I have used it as:

  • A blanket on planes
  • A sheet: lots of European accommodation has only doonas - way too hot in summer
  • A poolside/beach cover up
  • A towel
  • A travel pillow, folded or rolled up
  • A curtain / shade cloth
  • A table cloth
  • A picnic blanket / mat for lying on in parks
  • A shawl or scarf
  • A modesty cover-up when entering temples, etc
  • A face cover / eye mask in ridiculously sun-lit bedrooms
  • An improvised carry bag, with the diagonally opposite ends knotted, then worn across your body (as women use them for carrying babies).
  • Protection from mosquitoes


It never fails to amaze me, just how useful a large piece of fabric can be!

My constant travel companion
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