As I’m writing this, it’s winter in my corner of the world. And I don't like the cold so at the first sign of a falling leaf, my mind switches into tropical gear. And being a list lover, I've created a... tropical vacation packing list.
PLEASE NOTE: Some articles on this website were written before COVID-19 emerged. I've done my best to keep destination articles updated but the changing situation has made it impossible to adjust the entire site to the realities of the pandemic or travel restrictions. You'll find updated information from the CDC about travel conditions by country but please check all appropriate sources before you travel as situations can change in minutes.
Whether you're headed for Nairobi or Jamaica or East Timor, or any other tropical destination, this holiday packing list has what you need. Do what I do: print it out, cross out what you don't need, treat yourself to a few things you might not have and pack the rest!
If you're headed for the hot hot cities, perfect. But if you're going a bit out of the way, say for a rainforest trek or an adventure to a remote tropical corner of the globe, I've also got you covered in my "off the beaten path" section at the end, which covers survival and hiking gear that will help keep you comfortable and safe. (If you're a carry-on woman only, here's my list of top carry-on luggage for any trip.)
- Travel visas (find out more about which visas you need)
- Passport (you can keep it safe in this fun Passport Amigo)
- Plane or train tickets and passes
- Student or senior card: Don’t forget this! You could save a lot on all kinds of attractions
- Extra photos for visas along the way: somehow these always cost an arm and a leg
- Health insurance (here's why I think it's so important)
- International vaccination certificate
- Money: make sure to have some small bills in local currency before you land, and then exchange for more once you arrive
- Cards: credit, debit or prepaid. Check with your bank about what fees you’ll incur for using your card abroad, and consider a traveler check as another option
- Travel journal or notebook (these are my favorites)
- Travel guidebooks
- A travel map or a map app (Google Maps or my own favorite, Map.me)
- International driver's licence (usually needed if you're headed beyond Europe or North America) along with your normal driver's licence (you may need both to rent a car overseas)
- Physical paper list of emergency phone numbers: embassies, family and friends and the hotel (even if they're on your phone contact list, you can run out of power or lose your phone)
- Copies of everything: keep copies of your passport, license, hotel confirmations and everything else on a USB, in your email inbox or as hard copies (to be stored separately from the originals, of course!)
- Travel money belt to keep everything safe
- First aid supplies － see this list for details － along with your usual medicines and prescriptions
Tropical vacation outfits and clothes
- 2 pair of travel underwear: one to wear, one to wash (make that three if that’s too scary)
- 2 travel bras, something comfortable and quick-drying
- if you're hiking, 2 pairs of moisture-wicking socks
- Comfortable sandals
- Bathing suit
- Wrinkle-free washable pants or trousers
- 1 pair of comfortable pants like harem pants, joggers or palazzo pants
- Shorts － just check local mores first, and remember that mosquitoes (and the tropical sun) love exposed skin
- Wrinkle-free washable travel skirt
- 2 wrinkle-free, loose-fitting washable blouses (linen and cotton wrinkle, but are great in humidity － just stay away from acrylics)
- 1 pair flip-flops, whether for the beach or communal (or less than clean) showers; they're also easy to slip on and you won't be surprised by any bugs hiding in your shoes
- Sarong － you've probably got one of these from a previous trip - take it along or buy a new one at destination (can be used to cover up, as a towel, sheet and much more)
- Plastic poncho or lightweight waterproof jacket (if carrying an umbrella is too cumbersome)
- Decorative scarves like this one for dressing up or a travel pouch (a scarf) that is both dressy and helps you hang on to your valuables
- Headband or bandanna to keep cool (just wet it and wear it)
- A stylish travel hat
- Lightweight fleece, cardigan or a pashmina for chilly nights or over-the-top air conditioning
- Packing cubes for keeping organized. I never travel without mine!
Personal TRAVEL PACKING LIST items
- Travel size shampoo and conditioner (I now use solid shampoo and conditioner bars)
- Another option is a recyclable toiletry set
- Travel size antibacterial soap
- Travel size lotion for legs, face or cracking hands
- Nail clippers
- Comb or hairbrush: try this tiny one to save space
- Disposable razor if you need one
- Toothpaste and toothbrush
- Travel size deodorant
- Dental floss
- Lip balm, with sunscreen
- Hair clip, barrette or hair elastics
- Dramamine or wrist bands for motion sickness (I tried these on some Asian bus trips and was surprised to find they actually worked!)
- Menstrual products if needed
- Baby shampoo － it doubles as body wash and clothing detergent and is available pretty much in every corner of the world
- Eye mask and ear plugs for the plane or noisy neighbors
- Neck pillow for sleeping on the plane: this one is compact and needs no inflation
- Eyeglasses, contact lenses and solution: here's a little kit to keep it all travel-sized
- Sunglasses (I prefer leaving my good ones at home and traveling with cheaper ones, like these)
- Bug spray - here's the lowdown on what you should use, and why
- Q-tips or other cotton buds
- Your usual make up selection
- Wristwatch with alarm function (unless you use your Smartphone for this)
Technical gear for the tropics
- Always bring a flashlight: a small one like this is all you need － keep it in your shoe at night to find it right away in an emergency. If you think you'll have to go outside at night, throw in a headlamp (great for a hands-free option). Carry it around at all times - you don't want to be stuck in a giant mall when the lights go out.
- Adapter for plugs: this one is nearly universal (but read the fine print!) and doesn’t require you to bring multiple country inserts
- A small penknife or Swiss Army knife: but only if you’re checking a bag (check airline rules frequently since safety measures are always changing).
- Pens/pencils (I love this Space Pen, which won't leak on my travel wardrobe).
- Something to read, or your entire library on a Kindle (or similar) － and if you don't want a Kindle you can download the Kindle app and read on your computer
- Phrase book or handheld electronic translator (or download an app!)
- Cell phone/phone cards/charger: avoid buying overpriced replacements in the airport
- Phone card or an unlocked cellphone (like this one) if you're using local SIM cards
- A camera if you’re not taking a cell phone, or if yours doesn’t have enough memory space. Also remember batteries, a charger and spare memory cards! (When I don't use my iPhone, I use a Lumix, which I've been very happy with).
- Again, if you have no phone you might want to take music on an iPod or MP3 player: but try to avoid wearing earbuds when you're out and about! Not only does it shut you off from meeting new people, it can put you in danger because you can’t hear what’s going on around you.
- USB key or flash drive to keep copies of your important papers
- Laptop, if you happen to need to work during your travels
Packing to head off the beaten path in the tropics
- 1 pair hiking or walking sandals
- 1 pair hiking boots or shoes: hang them on the outside of your backpack with a climbing carabiner when you're wearing sandals
- sealable plastic bags
- 2 safety pins
- 3 meters of paracord: can be used as a clothesline, to fasten your mosquito net, a sling, a belt, a watch band, a carrier for your water bottle...
- 2 carabiners: one small, one large
- Small mirror: can also be used to attract attention
- Mini-sewing kit (if you're flying with hold luggage, because you can't take this into the cabin with you)
- Rubber doorstop: to prevent anyone from getting into your room
- Rubber bands
- Sleeping bag and sheet (or use your sarong as a sheet)
- Small plastic magnifying glass, for reading small print or starting a fire
- A small lighter and waterproof matches
- Mosquito repellent (check out the slow release type for longer protection) but if you're headed where there's malaria or dengue, you'll need a mosquito tent or net
- Tin mug: for eating and drinking. In a year of travel across Africa this turned out to be my one most important possession (I called it Kermit for its froggish green color)
- Deck of cards: Bored at the border? Start up a game and keep your valuable smartphone hidden from view
- Sheet of tin or aluminium foil, folded (you can eat off it, drink from it - amazingly useful)
- Universal sink plug - for some strange reason, outside decent hotels half the world's sink plugs have been lost
- A length of duct/duck tape (rolled up tightly) - this is amazing stuff for things like repairing your backpack
- Roll of densely packed toilet paper or travel tissues just in case there’s nothing else around
- Compass or compass app
- Eating utensils: (try this half fork-half spoon version, called a spork)
- Personal locator beacon (PLB): press a button anywhere in the world and an emergency signal goes out - this is only if you're heading into what's left of the uncharted world
- Take something personal - a postcard, a memento from home, a keepsake... (I travel with a lucky stone) and have a wonderful trip!
Still at the planning stage?
- Here’s my 11-step guide to planning the perfect adventure
- Check out accommodation options with booking.com before you decide
A few additional thoughts for your travel packing checklist
- Don’t overpack! I 100% believe that travelling in nothing but a carry on is your best bet. If you’re staying within the walls of civilization, you’ll be able to purchase many things if you forget them or really need them.
- Staying in a hotel? Toiletries are usually provided, so save space, money and time by just using what they give you.
- Take light, quick-drying clothing. This is not the time for jeans － the humidity will make it hard to dry anything off, so the lighter the fabric the better.
- Make sure you have waterproof bags or ziplocks on hand to keep your valuables from getting wet in an unexpected rain storm － especially if you’re just wearing light clothing and can’t hide your phone in a deep coat pocket.
- Don’t pack anything valuable that you can't afford to lose. Even if you have evening events, try to do without the bling: even if it's fake, thieves won't necessarily know that.
- Make your outfits mix and match. You should be able to pull out any top and any bottoms from your bag and have an ensemble.
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