Stress, stuff, and world travel: The not-so-secret connection

Today we welcome a guest post from Chris Guillebeau. He is a writer and world traveler who publishes The Art of Nonconformity. He has an amazing plan to visit every country in the world (113 down, 84 to go) before his 35th birthday in four years. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisguillebeau.

Here’s the basics: In a personal quest to visit every country in the world, I regularly pack up and hit the road for two weeks at a time. On any given trip, I’ll probably visit at least three places on at least two continents.

Much of my travel involves round-the-world flights, so I frequently have to think about going from Africa to Eastern Europe, Northern to Southern hemisphere, and other regions that are considerably different from each other. I also have to work wherever I go, so I can’t leave the laptop or paper notebooks behind.

I’ve been doing this kind of travel for a while, and I’ve noticed something interesting: less is more.

Yes, I know, this concept is hardly novel, especially for readers of Unclutterer. What I find interesting is the relationship between stress and stuff. After visiting more than 100 countries (I still have 80+ remaining, so I’m far from done), I’ve come to believe that the more I take with me, the more stress I’ll encounter along the way. To cut down on the stress without cutting out stuff I really need, I’ve learned to adopt a few principles.

The Principles

The overriding principle is take less, but here’s how it looks in more specific terms:

  • Fewer Clothes. Generally speaking, I need more shirts than pants. Most of them are t-shirts or polos, but bringing a dress shirt helps me out when I need to have a business meeting or talk my way into a hostile country without a visa. (You never know what will come up.)
  • Some travelers are anti-cotton, on the grounds that cotton is hard to wash along the way. This is probably true, but I don’t usually worry about it. For me, the most important quality for clothes is “easily packable.”

  • Nothing Big in the Bag. No matter what I have to take, I want it to be as small as possible. The only bulky items I bring along are my running shoes, due to my habit of trying to squeeze in marathon training at many of the stops. Otherwise, the smaller, the better.
  • Travel Is an Art, not a Science. I don’t have a spreadsheet that tells me where to put each item, and my packing list is quite loose. Since I avoid the engineering approach, I try to take the less-is-more approach: if I don’t need it, it doesn’t go in the bag.
  • Combine Items or Multitask Whenever Possible. I can charge my iPod while syncing, so why bring the wall charger? My laptop has a built-in microphone, so out goes the USB mic I used to travel with.
  • Leave Things Along the Way. After I finish a book, I leave it behind for someone else. Hostels are great locations for drop-offs, but I’ve also left books and magazines in restaurants, airplanes, and buses. If I’m unable to do laundry, I’ll recycle an old t-shirt somewhere and buy another on the street.

A Few Things That Help

I try to be low-tech, because if something doesn’t work, I’m not good at fixing it. That said, these technologies have been helping me a lot lately:

  • Gmail Offline. I love the new Gmail Offline feature (it’s in Labs) so I can process my email no matter where I am. If you use Outlook, of course, you already have this option – but as a Gmail fan, this feature rocks my world. On a typical 10-hour flight, I’ll reply to 200 or more messages, which will then zip out the outbox as soon as I land and connect to wifi. To get it, check out this short tutorial from the Google team.
  • Verizon MiFi. At least in the U.S. now, I have my own wifi hotspot wherever I go. I can also share it with up to four others, which I like to do in airports that don’t offer free wifi. Coming back to Grand Central Station from Hastings, New York recently, I was able to work online for 40 minutes, and I shared the signal with my friend Ishita so that she could work too. When I set it up last month, Verizon told me that an international version is in the works – something I’m deliriously excited about.
  • MacBook Camera. I recently started making videos while traveling, and by using the built-in camera on my MacBook, I’ve avoided the need to get more gear. Once you learn to look at the top of the computer instead of the screen (it takes a few tries), it works great. My videos aren’t Oprah-quality – at least, she hasn’t called yet – but they’re easy to make and I try to have fun with them.


The more I unclutter, the less stress I encounter when traveling. Your experience may be different, but if you’re looking to see the world without lugging a suitcase, rest assured that it’s doable. Now, if only I could find a way to avoid leaving my iPod behind in the back of a taxi, I’d be set.

21 Comments for “Stress, stuff, and world travel: The not-so-secret connection”

  1. posted by Kathy on

    I always try to take as little as possible on a trip. You can always buy or rent something that you need and the idea that an object is available elsewhere often keeps me from over packing.

  2. posted by Anita on

    Interesting tips, but visiting at least 3 countries in 2 weeks?! How can spending 4-5 days in a country (other than, perhaps, Monaco or Liechtenstein or a similar micro-state) give you any sort of idea of what the place is like? Of its regional specificities?

    Sounds simplistic to the point of arrogance. I don’t see the point in going to a country just to say you’ve visited it. If you truly have an interest in a place, take the time to see it properly and understand it, rather than rushing through to check it off a list. It may take you longer, but you can be sure it will be infiniely more rewarding.

    To me, travelling is supposed to be about discovery and opening your mind to new points of view; this sort of statistical tourism does nothing for me.

  3. posted by John on

    Great stuff Chris.

    When I travel I tend to pack light as well. What’s the point of packing along so many clothes when you’re going to have to lug them all over the country and get them washed every single time. I for one don’t want to spend the majority of my trip doing laundry.

  4. posted by Imshin on

    This guy is a collector. He collects countries the way other people collect mugs or dolls or minatures.

  5. posted by Deborah Marchant on

    Thanks for the Great Practical Tips!
    I’ve often thought about writing a travel book, but about how to deal with something else. I would call the book “The Emotions of Travel” .

    Here are some ideas below – er – ah – I mean feelings about what I write here.
    Thanks again! Enjoy these videos. – Deborah

    Packed –

    Take Off –

    Visiting –

  6. posted by Suzyn on

    The same concept holds true for all the stuff in your life. I’m moving soon, so I’m spending time packing all this stuff that I never use! And then I’ll pay people to haul it to the new place!! Where, I hope, I’ll finally have the time and “mental space” to go through it all and unclutter. The *next* move – ahhhh – 20 boxes?

  7. posted by Celeste on

    I got a lot of good ideas from Rick Steves. Here is one link. He’s also on YouTube from an episode on how he packs for his travels.

  8. posted by Chuck on

    On a recent trip to Ireland, I found I was able to leave my laptop at home and use my iPhone in its stead. While not quite as nice as having a laptop, it removed a lot of bulk (and weight!) from my bags.

    I also recently purchased a kindle dx I look forward to taking on future trips. Kindle, magazine (for takeoff/landing), iPhone, and headphones: all the carry-on I need.

  9. posted by Mletta on

    Packing light is a relative term and not so easy to incorporate based on your type of business (fashion, the arts, entertainment, for example, or others with high visibility)or where you are traveling. Especially for women on business trips that include corporate meetings, formal business affairs and public appearances.

    Some of us simply cannot wear three simple pieces a hundred different ways on a ten-day business trip. Just won’t work.

    I now ship things ahead and then ship them back home. Easier than worrying about carry on, checking, or whatever. Less stress.

    Most of the real weight/clutter comes from stuff other than clothing anyway. The tech stuff alone (computer, cords, etc and the chargers for phones, etc.) is what really makes packing HEAVY. That and the business-related materials (no, not everything is online, on a flash drive, etc. Would that it were.)

    Also, I simply do not want to wear the same clothes almost every day on a long trip. Ugh. Clean or not.

    Depending on where you travel and what you’re doing, your apparel can make a huge difference. In how you are greeted, treated, seated and more, as it were.

    For both biz and leisure travel, we tend to go to some very nice places as well as more casual ones. We don’t wear shorts and flip-flops, nor do we want to, when traveling in both U.S. and foreign cities.

    Travel “light” if you must, but please, consider dressing appropriately and not using the weight of your luggage as an excuse to dress sloppily. The whole world is NOT Disneyland or Disneyworld. Oh, and don’t wonder why you are treated like the great unwashed when you show up at a five-star eatery or venue in your dirty, wrinkled clothing that looks like you’ve just come off a boat or a day at the beach. If you don’t respect yourself enough to look good and clean up, what do you want from others?

    Sorry, didn’t mean to go on a rant, but I really have issues with people who dress like they are in their backyards doing yardwork when they are out in public and traveling in the U.S. abroad. Look like a slob, be treated like one.

  10. posted by Sunny Paris on

    I totally agree that the less I pack, the better I feel, and the less nervous I am about losing my stuff.

    Mletta, In my travel experience the people who look like slobs are not the people who pack light. If I may generalize broadly and badly, the same people who carry enormous suitcases and get in everyone’s way at the airport are the same people who wear flip-flops and sun block into the Vatican.

    I pack very light, and have a few items that I can use to look appropriate in many places. A peasant-style skirt for instance, is easily packed, easily washed, and can be worn on the beach or in a cathedral. I have backpacked/hosteled in Europe, and except for the times that I actually have the backpack on my back, you wouldn’t be able to guess that I didn’t have conventional luggage or wasn’t staying in hotel rooms. (Though in the heat of summer, I generally do have flip-flops with me, and wear them in appropriate places– but the hostels don’t look down their noses at me for wearing them, I promise.)

    For business, I operate the same way a guy does– the guy who brings one suit. I take one blazer, two pairs of slacks, or a pair of slacks and a skirt, and a few shirts or shells to change out. I may bring a simply mostly rayon dress for evenings out and dress it up with the blazer. I wash out things in the sink and make use of the iron in the room. I did a week business trip with one carry on bag, and I smelled good and looked polished. Sure, my wardrobe was a little repetitive, but it worked.

    I do confess that this is made easier by the fact that I am a tiny person. My husband is a tall and broad guy and his clothes, no matter how few of them he brings, just don’t fit into the same tiny amount of space mine do. So he can’t do the carry-on I do.

  11. posted by Chris Guillebeau on

    Hi all,

    Thanks for the great feedback!


    Sorry to hear your negative views – my perspective on world travel is much deeper than what can be conveyed in one guest post, or in one short comment. Feel free to visit my site to learn more of what it’s really about, or feel free not to – but this post was mostly just about reducing stress and simplifying the travel process.

  12. posted by Babs on

    Why do you need a laptop?

  13. posted by Lisa T. on

    I’ve been alternating between working and travelling in New Zealand for the past nine months. A laptop is necessary for me because of my work (web design). For other long-term travellers, a laptop can be invaluable for sorting/storing photos and communicating back home. I’ve noticed a huge upswing of backpackers with Macbooks and Eee PCs.

    But my essential pack-light item is a micro-fibre towel. They’re small and dry in a jiff. They’re also good to squeeze water out of your clothes after washing. It makes me cringe when I see backpackers with a huge cotton towel that never dries and takes up half their bag!

  14. posted by Elaine on

    Nice. On my first major international trip, I was fortunate to encounter some seasoned travelers. Best tip, ever: Go through your closet, find stuff you no longer wear much because they’re slightly stained or frayed or shabby-looking – especially underwear & socks, since you’re not about to donate these to Goodwill. Pack ’em, wear ’em, discard along the way and your luggage will have more room for those souvenirs you pick up by the time you return home.

  15. posted by RustyMitchell on

    MLetta- agreed… if you want 5 star treatment from a hotel… now if you want 5 star friends who you don’t have to pay to love you and in fact sort of enjoy the fact you’ve been out sweating in the streets etc… try dubya dubya dubya couchsurfing dot com. Not for the weak in spirit… is the simplest idea that is so crazy it works.

    It’s one of the only ways I know to cut straight past the tourist traps and right into the heart of the place.

    I personally don’t care how much $$$ I’m making, I’ll try to “surf” before paying for room and board because you can’t buy friends as good as these.

  16. posted by Twin XL on

    I think we all forget how much we end up “doubling up” on many of our things. Thanks for reminding me!

  17. posted by wavewolf on

    It would be nice to put Chris and Doug Dyment (the guy from in the same room. And i would love to be a fly on the wall there too. Packing light has become a way of life. …even when i’m not on the road or in the air. A great article.

  18. posted by kazza on

    Mletta, I’ve found three things which make altering my wardrobe when travelling a lot easier.

    1. Reversable clothes – any jackets I take travelling must be completely reversable so one jacket replaces two. And a fashionable wrap dress which doesn’t need ironing – classic black one side, subtle multi-coloured pattern the other – for evening.

    2. I always take 3 or 4 silk scarves from India, a cashmere Pashmina shawl from Pakistan with two distinctly different sides (one conservative, one dramatic) and a handful of light weight costume jewellery brooches made by local artists. The brooches are stored in a double-sided drawstring silk bag which can be used as 2 different evening purses. Any of these instantly changes the tone, focus and formal/business look of my clothing.

    3. Three pairs of classic business pants/trousers, four blouses and one skirt should be more than enough for me for two weeks with these additions

  19. posted by Lynette J on

    On my overseas trips I take old underwear that may have one last use and those that are nice I do the woolite thing. Which works if I have a couple days to make sure it dries before going to my next destination. I also pack all the clothes I am sick and tired of, leaving them behind as I go. It is no great loss as I get quality stuff from good old thrift stores. I also leave shoes I wear in that country behind. I have been doing this for over 11years. There are people in China, Russia,Egypt and England who are wearing my clothes. I always have plenty of room for whatever I want to bring back. My friends who travel with me though do take advantage of me because I bring back so little. If it cannot fit in one suitcase, I do not need it.

  20. posted by Open Loops 8/18/2009: Articles I Think Worth Passing Along | on

    […] talks about “Stress, stuff, and world travel: The not-so-secret connection”. I don’t travel much, but that will be changing, if I have anything to say about it. And […]

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