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How to Stay Healthy and Happy While Traveling

Frequent business travelers tend to have this look about them: pasty skin, bags under their eyes, a spare tire around the middle. There are definitely exceptions, but it’s easy to get unhealthy fast while traveling. And we’ve been there, eating the same unhealthy food, getting insufficient exercise, sleeping too little, never seeing the sun. But now we make a big effort to stick to some healthier habits because doing so makes us feel a thousand times better. That’s only a tiny exaggeration.

Today we’re deviating from the finance stuff and even the retirement emotions to share our very best life hacks: everything we’ve learned about staying healthy and happy while traveling, earned the hard way over years of frequent work and fun travel. We could go on and on and on with the lessons we’ve picked up over the years, but in the interest of brevity, we’re focusing on the tips that we think are most important. But if you have a question we haven’t addressed here, feel free to ask us in the comments. Like any good frequent traveler, we loooooovvvve talking about this stuff. :-)

OurNextLife.com // Healthy, Happy Travel - Our Best Life Hacks


Caveat: In a few places here, I suggest bits of gear that I use and love, but let’s first make sure this is crystal clear: Staying healthy while traveling does not require you to buy a thing. Virtually every tip here is more about mindset than it is about having some bit of stuff. But I’ve also tested out just about every travel gadget and gizmo, and so if you just happen to be in the market for something of the sort I’m talking about, feel free to consider my recommendations. (Links aren’t affiliate links, in case you were wondering. Not that we have any problem with them. We just don’t use them ourselves because we don’t want to create confusion about why we’re recommending a particular product. We earn $0 whether or not you buy something!)

With all of that out of the way, let’s dive in!

Think beyond convenience food

Eating poorly is the fastest way to hurt your health while traveling. Even if you think, “Well, travel is a small slice of my life, so who cares what I eat?” how well you eat directly affects how you feel, which could affect how well you do in a key presentation, or how hard the jetlag hits you.

Unfortunately, most airport and hotel food options are pretty abysmal in terms of both health value and cost. But it’s not actually hard to eat healthily while traveling if you make up your mind to do it. Here are some tips that help:

Don’t eat like you’re on vacation — Okay, so you very well might be on vacation, and you might want to splurge on unhealthy but oh-so-delicious food. That’s fine in small quantities, but if you’re traveling often for work, or you’re doing fun travel for an extended period, it’s important to get out of the vacation eating mindset. Try to eat as close to “normally” as possible. The exception might be if you keep to a super frugal food budget at home, you could splurge a little on more fresh produce while traveling for work, since someone else is picking up the tab. For example, I never ever buy cold-pressed juice when it’s on our dime, but it’s a nice treat while traveling for work. (Yeah, I totally know how to party.)

Pack healthy snacks — I find that I make my worst food choices when I let myself get too hungry, so I try to stay prepared to stave that off. I always carry dried fruit and nuts with me, and usually a KIND bar or two. If I’m feeling especially organized before a trip, I’ll throw in a banana, a cut up apple, and some snack-sized veggies. With this stuff handy, it’s easy to pass up the chips and cookies that airport newsstands put right within easy reach.

Make the grocery store your friend — Whenever I land in a city where I’m staying over, instead of finding a restaurant to eat at or heading straight to the hotel and ordering room service, I seek out the closest healthy grocery store. I’m a big fan of Whole Foods because of their prepared food selection, which requires no prep (kinda hard to actually cook in a hotel room, unless it’s a Residence Inn with a full kitchen). I’ll usually make a big salad from the salad bar, and stock up on other healthy options like sushi, cut up fruit and veggies, hummus and yogurt. But you can find decent options at really any grocery store. When all else fails, I’ll grab a bag of snow peas and a tub of hummus to dip them in, a big fruit salad and some green juices or smoothies. Bonus: This approach is waaay cheaper than buying hotel or restaurant food. I’ll usually spend less on two or three days of food than one room service meal would cost.


A recent trip’s haul: fresh watermelon and asparagus, a big salad and ready-to-eat tofu. Tofu may not be your thing, but basically anything you get from the grocery store will be better than hitting up McDonald’s. (And yeah, there’s totally a chocolate bar in that picture. We’re not aiming for perfection.)

Get a fridge in your hotel room — Many hotels give you a fridge in your room nowadays, and lots of budget hotels even include a microwave. But here’s a pro tip: every hotel will bring a fridge to your room if there isn’t one — all you have to do is ask. There are all kinds of reasons why people might need them — diabetics storing insulin, nursing mothers storing breast milk, people with food allergies, etc. — so you won’t even have to explain why you need it. Put the request in your reservation, and chances are it will be in your room before you arrive. If you’re at a super high end hotel and there’s a fridge but it’s filled with mini bar items, you can ask to have it cleared out, but most of the time they’ll just bring you another fridge for your stuff. Now you have a place to store your healthier food options.

Make the best choices when you have no good options — Sometimes you get in late, the grocery stores are too far away from your hotel or they’re already closed, and the only options you have in front of you are KFC or Cheetos from the vending machine. Or you ran out of time to pack snacks, and you’re stuck buying food at the airport. Just do your best, and remind yourself that you’ll never regret making the healthiest choice. Many vending machines stock baked chips or popcorn instead of all the fried stuff, most hotel mini markets will at least offer you fresh fruit, every airport newsstand sells bananas, and most fast food places offer marginally healthier options. And if you end up eating badly one meal, just move on and do better the next day.

Pack light and ditch the rolling bag

I’m going to assert something controversial here: rolling bags are terrible for you. I know, I know. They’re so handy, but they have a bunch of bad side effects, such as:

  • They cause asymmetrical muscle use and strain when you’re pulling or pushing them, which leads to back and neck pain
  • They hold you back from walking up escalators, robbing you of valuable exercise
  • They add unnecessary weight to your load (that bulky frame and the wheels often weigh upward of five pounds), which increases the chances you’ll pull something lifting the bag into the overhead bin
  • They encourage overpacking

Our recommendation instead: Go with a backpack.

This may sound hard to believe, but it’s true: I know a bunch of frequent travelers who developed back pain during their travels, and had it improve or disappear when they switched from a rolling bag to a backpack. And I’m one of them! (Of course, if you have serious back pain, consult your doctor.)

Backpacks encourage you to pack lighter, they let you carry your stuff more symmetrically, they strengthen your back and core, they allow you to climb those escalators triumphantly, and they’re easier to get into the overhead bins without tweaking anything.

Related post: My travel packing list (What Work Travel Has Taught Us About Minimalism and Life)

Almost any backpack works for travel, so there’s really no need to go out and buy a new one. And more and more business travelers are carrying them these days, so you won’t look out of place. If you want to buy a new one, I recommend a “travel pack” instead of a backpacker-style pack, since travel packs are often specifically sized to fit as carry-on luggage, and they zip open suitcase-style, which makes it so much easier to pack and find something quickly.

After having tested just about every travel pack out there, my favorite is the Gregory Compass 40, which has by far the best system I’ve seen for letting you get your laptop in and out quickly while boarding the plane, and lets you get into the pack without having to loosen the compression straps, which no other pack does. (It was recently discontinued, so if you want one, get it soon — bonus: it’s on clearance.) Con: It doesn’t have a hipbelt or water bottle pocket, but I carry my water bottle in a purse anyway. If you don’t care about getting a laptop out at top speed, and the uselessness of their water bottle pockets doesn’t bother you, the Osprey Farpoint 40 gets top marks for comfort (great suspension, straps and hipbelt), and will always fit as a carry-on.


The Compass 40 with my usual load of stuff in it even fits in the smaller “personal item” bag sizer, but when fully loaded still comfortably fits in the carry-on luggage sizer.

Look for unexpected exercise opportunities

When you get to your hotel late at night, I know how much easier it is to crawl into that freshly made bed than it is to hit the gym. Or maybe you have an early morning meeting, and it just feels impossible to sacrifice sleep to go for a run before your meeting. If you’re a natural exerciser, then you don’t need this section, but for the rest of us, our philosophy is this: While traveling, we don’t need to aim for fitness perfection. Instead, just aim to be active generally.

Being active is pretty natural while doing fun travel. You want to be out and about seeing things, so you might as well walk to as many places as possible, or rent a bike to get there. That’s way more fun than taking a cab or the subway everywhere. Dedicate yourself to self-powered travel and you’ll be fine.

It’s definitely harder with work travel, and you may not want to walk to a meeting, for example, if doing so will mean that you arrive sweaty and disheveled. Instead, look for unexpected exercise opportunities, like:

  • Killing time at the airport by walking up and down the corridors (bonus: if you carry a backpack instead of pulling a rolling bag, it’s kind of like training for a backpacking trip) — if you see someone doing this the next time you’re at an airport, say hi! It might be me! I walked almost six miles around a major airport during a long layover earlier this week. :-)
  • Getting in the habit of taking stairs at hotels instead of elevators
  • Always walking up escalators instead of standing still
  • Doing a few minutes of yoga or stretching at the beginning or end of each day (most hotels have mats they’ll lend you now, and more and more airports have yoga rooms)
  • Going for sightseeing walks, which business travelers should all do more of

Related post: 10 Ways to Make Work Travel Feel Like Real Travel

It’s another product you definitely don’t need, but if you’re dedicated to exercising while traveling, minimalist sneakers can be a worthwhile purchase. I have a super lightweight pair from Asics that take up almost no space in my backpack, so I have no excuse not to pack them. I got them for more than 50 percent off on Sierra Trading Post


Make hydration your job

Staying hydrated while traveling is tougher than it used to be before the no-liquids-through-security rule. But it’s worthwhile to make sure you’re getting enough water since dehydration makes most people cranky and headachy, which make travel far less pleasant. I try hard to arrive at the airport with a full bottle of water (in my insulated Klean Kanteen bottle that comes everywhere with me), and I chug that bottle right before I go through security. Then, as soon as I’m through, I find a water fountain or bottle filler and get more water, which I take on the plane. I’ve also found that most flight attendants will give you water in your own bottle if it’s not too narrow-mouthed, which both saves disposable cups and lets you get more water than just one dinky cupful — especially useful on longer flights. I also find that alcohol dehydrates me like crazy in the air, so I avoid it for the most part — your mileage may vary.

In hotels, the tap water is usually fine, and less wasteful than bottled water. But if you have to use a glass the hotel provides, rinse it well before using it. Rumor has it that housekeepers clean those glasses with something a lot more like Windex than like dish soap…

Related post: Our Bottled Water Manifesto — Thinking About Frugality More Broadly // A Call to Action

Prioritize quality sleep

If you’re only traveling for a day or two every once in a while, then sleep is less important. But if you travel regularly, or for an extended period, then good sleep is crucial. It keeps your spirits high, your immune system strong and your energy up. While we don’t stay in fancy pants hotels when we’re paying for them, we also don’t stay in the cheapest of the cheap. We want to know that we’re going to get a halfway decent mattress most of all, and that we’ll have a room that’s not crazy hot or crazy cold.

To make sure I get good sleep on the road, I do a few key things:

  • Avoid flying the redeye unless absolutely necessary, because even the longest ones are less than six hours, and not good quality sleep even in first class
  • When I get to a hotel room, adjust the thermostat right away to a good sleeping temp (or, preferably, turn it off so it doesn’t waste energy, and so the noisy blower doesn’t wake me up)
  • Carry eyeshades and earplugs so I can get good sleep even if the room is bright or noisy (especially around airports)
  • Schedule flights so that I’m not forcing myself into short nights of sleep

Mind the germs

We’ll end this monster list on a topic that’s super important to keep in mind when traveling, but often overlooked. No one wants to get sick ever, but especially while traveling. And airplanes and hotel rooms are basically germ pits. I won’t go into details (Google and YouTube can do that for you if you really want to ruin your day), but treating everything you touch while traveling as though it could make you sick will spare you many bugs over time.

I’m not suggesting you wear a mask or swab down everything in sight when you get to your seat. Just do two simple things: 1. Don’t touch your nose or mouth while traveling (because they’ve been touching germy things), which includes not eating with your hands, and 2. Wash your hands as often as you can. I travel with folding chopsticks so that I can always eat finger foods without directly touching them, and I suds up as often as possible (I’m not a fan of triclosan, the active ingredient in most hand sanitizers — see this article for more info if you’re curious — but in a pinch, I’ll use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer).

Anything we missed?

This is quite possibly our longest post ever, even longer than our first monster how-to post on learning to camp. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have missed something! Let us know what other questions you have in the comments — and let us know if you do any of these things to stay healthy when you travel. Bon voyage!



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50 replies »

  1. Great tips guys. I also always travel with some nuts to munch or if I know I’ll be on the plane for lunch I often will prepare and pack a good old PB&J sandwich and maybe some pretzels so I know I have food and don’t have to pay the inflated airport prices.

    • Amen for skipping those airport prices! I don’t think about it when I’m traveling for work, because it just costs what it costs, but then when we travel for fun and I all of a sudden notice those price tags, my eyes practically pop out of my head! I think last week I saw that a basic Yoplait yogurt was $6 at an airport shop. $6!

  2. Great tips! We often hit the grocery store and having a refrigerator helps a lot. Neil sometimes rents a bike to commute and/or sight-see when he’s working in a city, which is also cheaper than other most transportation options. He recently started packing just a backpack. I never thought about the impact on your body, but that makes sense that the rolling backpacks aren’t great for your muscles or alignment.

    • I LOVE that Neil rents bikes! I sometimes think about that, but it hasn’t worked out for any of my biz trips yet. And yeah, it sounds like total hyperbole, but the backpack has been lifechanging for me. :-) I was pretty sure I had a chronic wrist problem — nope! Just “rolling suitcase wrist.” And the backpack really is so much better for my back.

  3. Thanks for “varying” a bit from your routine! You had some great ideas here. I really need to think about the “prioritize sleep” idea. So often when we are away, there is a goal of seeing so many things that sleep patterns really get disrupted. That one change could probably really help – especially early in a trip. We also try to stick to “normal” eating – and up the exercise to keep the extra “adult beverages” we consume in check!

    • That’s great that you already prioritize eating normally and getting lots of exercise! You’re a step ahead of most people! But yeah, sleeping well is key to happy travel. And I didn’t say this in the post, but avoiding all screens before bedtime helps a lot too in terms of quality of sleep. :-)

  4. ONL,
    My first thought when I read this headline was that traveling is inherently healthy. Then I saw business travel. Ugh. Big difference.

    When I was backpacking extensively, I was the healthiest I’ve even been, despite drinking lots of beer and eating out constantly. My health was maintained because I was always on the move and active; hiking, swimming, and carrying a backpack from place to place (btw, I’ve always been partial to Eagle Creek backpacks).

    Now, even though I work in consulting, I’m fortunate that I don’t need to travel for work. With kids, it would be really tough. When I was younger I would have loved it. The trips I did take were filled with nice restaurants and constant food. Not to mention sitting at a desk or on a plane, one of the least healthy activities. Sitting all day is the worst, and I still do that mostly :(

    • I actually DO think there’s a lot about travel that is inherently unhealthy. I really do bet that a lot of how great you felt when you were backpacking was about age — if you did that same trip now, and ate out and drank a lot, the physical activity alone wouldn’t be enough to make you feel great. My backpacking time was a lot shorter than yours, and a bit younger, but I definitely drank a bunch on that trip and still mostly felt fine. Now if I have like one cocktail on a plane, I’m useless for a day and a half! It’s a huge bummer, but our ages catch up with us! I agree that backpacking is an inherently active way to travel, but it’s also not the way most grown-ups do their travel. Most people stay in a hotel, take taxis or subways, don’t do the active sporty stuff, and eat and drink to their hearts’ delight — total recipe for unhealthiness.

      That’s a long way of agreeing with you that travel definitely CAN be healthy, but it takes some deliberate choices!

  5. I deal with a lot of vendors who are flying in from out of town so I’ve seen “the look” I became friendly with a particular vendor and I notice a shift in his behavior and his “look” He began eating healthier and using his downtime in the hotel to exercise instead of watching TV or surfing the web. He dropped weight, felt better and overall had more energy for his job and home life.

    All about making better choices.

    • Haha — yeah, you know what I’m talking about! No one is aspiring to the “road warrior look.” ;-) But awesome for the guy you know who got motivated to make better choices. It’s definitely possible! Someone recently said to me on a flight, “You can’t possibly be a 1K, you don’t look unhealthy enough.” ;-) You *know* I took that opportunity to do the “healthy travel is possible” truth bomb!

  6. I don’t travel much but agree with hitting up a grocery store instead of a restaurant. A friend and I went to Seattle last fall and stayed in a hotel across the street from a Whole Foods. Huge selection (which is a must as I’m mainly vegetarian) and often more delicious than eating out. My friend even scored a free dessert from the bakery, just by asking what the fruit inside it tasted like! Can’t beat the customer service.

    • I know and love that Seattle Whole Foods, and it has an especially wonderful prepared foods section. Not every store is that luxe! :-) But every Whole Foods has a “try me” policy if you’re unsure about something — I’ve gotten a whole bunch of things unexpectedly comped over the years just by asking a question about them (and never expected the comp or asked for it!).

  7. These are some great tips… coming from a reliable source! We’ll probably keep this to reference later on. We also love to hit up the grocery store when traveling. Especially with a growing family the food becomes more and more expensive.

    The Green Swan

  8. I will add one more. We would go to a local travel health clinic and get them to assess what health risks we needed to worry about and we got shots for everything we could and meds for things like malaria. Especially important to get the Hepatitis A and B series in most of the world. Also even in civilized places like Missouri there are health concerns. I never knew Rocky Mountain Spotted fever was called that because people would get a tick bite in Missouri while traveling west and incubate it while crossing the plains and then get the fever about the time they hit the rockies. I always check the local guides to safe travel as well as the one my own government puts out. I skipped a very flattering invitation with a substantial cash award to Iran after discovering some of their typical additional plans for some visiting scientists (especially Jews) after checking with the Israeli and Canadian embassy. I also check out the poisonous insects and plants, and dangerous animals sections. You don’t want to tangle with a brown recluse spider in the south for example. One final tip, carry a printed letter from your doctor explained what your meds are on official letterhead. Not only does it help with customs but it makes it much more likely a local pharmacist will replace lost or damaged meds for you without sending you to a doctor first.

    • Those are GREAT tips if you’re going to an area that has issues with communicable diseases or any sort of unrest or specific threats! You can tell I was writing this more from the perspective of cities I travel to by air for work — but you bring up a super important set of points for places that have more natural or political threats!

  9. You guys continue to be the best. “Can I request a post on travel tips 2 weeks before I leave town?” – You: “Bam! Our genius tips and advice.” Follow up with: “more things you’ve learned traveling please.” :) More people are interested in this than you think.

    • Haha — I wasn’t thinking it was going to be 2500 words when I set out to do it, but there you go. Did it for the love. :-) Hope these tips help on your awesome UK trip. Can’t wait to hear all about it! (And I have to remind myself that it’s okay to do posts like this — they always get way lower stats, so I assume people aren’t really *that* interested. But I think of our once-a-month Friday posts as the place to drop in the off-topic stuff.) ;-)

  10. The bit about cleanliness of glasses at hotels grosses me out. I guess we’ve always assume that they actually disinfect that stuff. Thankfully haven’t been sick yet!

  11. Great tips. When I travel internationally for work I typically avoid alcohol as much as I can. Trying to head to the gym for even 30 minutes here and there is a great idea. Don’t eat like you’re on vacation is a big one. I suppose it also depends on where you are traveling. For example, food in Japan are mostly quite healthy for you IMO.

  12. A spare tire around the middle… Took some time to picture it correctly… I actually imagined a real tire… (I need som sleep I guess).

    It looks like you have good and optimised system for business travel. I do it now that rarely, that I let myself go on all the bad things…

    • Haha, yeah, that is probably an American idiom that doesn’t translate so clearly. :-) I think if you don’t travel all that much, it’s not such a horrible thing to have some bad habits around it. It’s when the trips get more frequent or longer that you have to start paying attention. That’s something we’ve learned the hard way!

  13. I read some terrifying articles about the bedspreads, towels, glasses and coffee makers in hotel rooms. Now I strip the bedspreads off the bed, order extra towels, and don’t use the coffee maker or the glasses! We grocery shop for food, so I still use the refrigerators and the microwave (I hope there isn’t anything horrifying about them I haven’t read yet). No ill effects so far! One thing I always do, no matter how inconvenient, is leave if the accommodations don’t seem up to snuff no matter the hour or the hassle.

    • I’m so happy that tons of hotels are even moving entirely away from bedspreads. More and more of them these days have duvet covers, which are so much cleaner because they actually get washed sometimes. ;-) I wouldn’t assume that the fridge and microwave in hotel rooms are sparkling clean, but how bad can any of that stuff be? I just wash my hands a lot and call it good. :-)

  14. I’m so glad you wrote this topic, my husband is also a consultant for about a year and we are having a heck of a time getting a good schedule down. He’s currently passed out next to me after getting in at 2:00 AM last night and leaving first thing in the morning on the train to his office.

    While I’m not traveling, I don’t keep routines when he is gone, which I find keeps me less productive. It’s actually a large part of the reason I’m starting my own blog, to get some “routine” in my life. Thanks for the tips!

  15. I’m excited that the old wheely-bag that a family member gave me (used) in 2002 has finally broken enough for me to justify replacing it. I hate the thing, but it was free and still did the job. I pack light anyway and don’t need too much space in my luggage. I’ll definitely check out what you recommend.

    • I’m such a huge fan of traveling with a backpack now. I don’t think you need any fancy, expensive backpack. Really any backpack will do the job. But if you truly need a new one, the ones I recommend have some nice features.

  16. My version of “business travel” is a little different from yours, lol, but I definitely am very happy to have recently bought (what is advertised as) an ergonomically correct backpack for women, which I now use every day. I had been alternating for years between a) a backpack that was too big for my frame and b) shoulder bags, both of which were terrible options. The new backpack (from North Face) is much better.

    Your point about healthy food while traveling reminds me of when I was a kid and accidentally trained myself to eat junk whenever I got on an airplane. I think my parents just didn’t have enough cognitive energy left over from travel planning to deal with trying to make us eat healthy, so we often ended up having a lot of candy and fast food, as well as unlimited bubblicious gum (ostensibly for popping our ear canals, but I was mostly chewing it for the sugar content). I have only just recently rid myself of the “air travel is a time to eat junk” mindset. I can’t believe how far into adulthood this lasted!

    • Oh, dude, same here with the junk food. And I also have this feeling that if I get upgraded to first class, that I need to drink some alcohol because it’s free! It has taken some time to break myself of that mindset as well, and I really have to remember how bad it will make me feel. So now I’m better about abstaining, but still not perfect. Also, glad you got a backpack that fits you better! That is certainly going to be so much better than an oversized pack or a shoulder bag!

  17. I guess I learned the grocery store trick overseas where you don’t drink the tap water and tiny bottled water in the room is often $3-5 (converted over to US currency). A local food mart will be $1.50 for a bottle 5 times the size. Even if you can’t speak the language, you can find the bottled water and hold out local currency change in your hand….they take what you need to pay and smile. Most local marts even have pre packed food…not the Whole Foods quality, but often fun to try something more local and super cheap. I’ve often gotten food there and headed to a local park to eat a light lunch/ dinner, versus a room service meal. Fresh air & sunlight helps with adjusting to time changes.

    • Those are all great tips! I learned the same thing when I did a short backpacking stint in Europe — the grocery store is your friend! Water isn’t an issue there, of course, but the store is vastly cheaper than even the food stands. And I LOVE the idea of going to the park to enjoy your meal — I so totally agree that being out in the fresh air is so good for us, and I’ve even read research that actually touching the ground or grass with your bare feet helps with jetlag. ;-)

  18. I really need you guys to meet my wife so you can tell her to travel light! She always overpacks for overnight and weekend stays. Overall great tips! I’ll be bookmarking this post :)

    I booked a red eye flight in October from Hawaii to LA. Got it because it was available and free with the points I earned travel hacking. Hopefully it isn’t too terrible with a toddler in tow :)

    • Haha! Overpacking is so common! But I am so much happier having rid myself of that habit. It helps to have a pretty monochromatic wardrobe, and to have several pieces of clothing that can be worn multiple ways. :-) Good luck on that redeye! I always feel so bad seeing kids on the redeye, so be sure to do lots of tiring stuff before you get on the plane! Then hopefully sleep will happen more easily. :-)

  19. Amazing post! I’m going to be coming back to this as a resource. One of my own rules is not to accept things given to me as gifts. It sounds heartless and is a bit tricky to avoid offending people, but the weight just adds up, especially when I’m on an extended trip and space in my pack is at a premium.

    • I think that’s a great rule, though I’m sure it’s tough at times to stick to it. But I totally understand — it becomes a real pain at a certain point to carry more than you’d planned, especially if it forces you to overflow into another bag which then you might have to check on the plane. And the weight on your back… it DOES add up!