To save time, money, and hassle, a golden rule at KAYAK is never to check a bag.
A Packing List
The traditional "Dopp kit" was created in 1919 by Jerome Harris, employee (and nephew) of Charles Doppelt, a leather goods designer who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the early 1900s; the folding leather toiletries case was given an abbreviated form of the company name. Its popularity grew considerably during World War II, when the U.S. Army issued millions of them to recruits. Dopp kits continued to be manufactured by the Charles Doppelt Company until the firm was purchased by Samsonite in the 1970s (they are currently made by Buxton). I consider them overly large, overly heavy, and overly inappropriate for the traveller who wishes to venture lightly.
I use a simple, small, lightweight (0.6 ounce, 16g) packing cube for this purpose.
Considerable space & weight can be saved by not packing large, "economy-sized" containers of toiletries: small, travel-sized versions are often available at the "trial sizes" section of your pharmacy (they can also be found online at Minimus, a great source for tiny/travel sizes of all sorts of things, not just toiletries). Be aware that most travel-sized containers can be refilled; even a small toothpaste tube can generally be reused (hold it tightly mouth-to-mouth with a larger tube, and squeeze the latter). Even better — more efficient, easier (especially when creams or gels are involved), more environmentally responsible, and much cheaper in the long run — is buying in bulk and repackaging in travel containers designed for refilling.
A list of "essential" toiletries could be considerably longer than the one presented on this page; it's the area most subject to personal inclination. A good moisturizer would be on many lists, which could extend to include foundations, exfoliants, scents, conditioners, mascaras, and much more. Skin chemistries vary as widely as personal tastes, though (what is perfect for one person can be a disaster for another), thus I can offer little in the way of reliable recommendations, except as they pertain to volume & weight. Both of these can be all too rapidly inflated by cosmetics, so always strive to seek out non-liquid solutions.
Again, strive for multifunctionality whenever possible. An appropriate zippered cosmetics pouch (such as that pictured at right) can serve double duty as a dressy clutch for evening wear.
Here's one additional suggestion before I get back to the packing list. Coconut oil (pictured at left), another great example of a multi-use product, makes an excellent (and natural) moisturizer, hand cream, body lotion, hair conditioner (it restores protein), pre/post-shave lubricant, and make-up remover. It's inexpensive (buy it in the cooking oil section), and comes in both virgin and refined/bleached/deodorized (RBD) forms. It does have one drawback for some travellers: the non-hydrogenated oil melts at 24°C (76°F), making it subject to the rules for liquids should you find yourself transiting a hot airport. Below that temperature, however, it's a solid (though liquefies easily when you rub it between your hands).
toothbrush, cap, tooth cleaner, floss
A cap for your toothbrush will keep it clean, make it more packable, allow it to dry easily, and — if you get the type with an attached suction cup — let you hang it on the nearest mirror or similar surface, and not have to look for a sanitary storage spot.
Traditional tooth powder works just fine, and will save you more space, weight, and security hassles than pastes and gels. Shaking tooth powder directly onto your toothbrush is likely to end up wasting a fair bit; instead, dispense some into the cup of your palm, and pick it up with a damp toothbrush.
If you just can't give up your favourite toothpaste, Toothpaste 2 Go makes a handy kit that lets you transfer it (much like the more broadly applicable Easy Traveler tubes) to a travel-friendly container.
In addition to its intended use, dental floss serves a myriad of other functions, rivalling the sarong and bandanna for multi-use potential. It makes excellent heavy-duty thread for all kinds of darning and other repair work (make sure you carry an appropriate needle), from mending a tear to suturing a wound to trussing poultry; the cutter on the box is handy for thread & yarn as well (airplane knitters take note). Tightly-knotted floss (especially the waxed kind) being generally quite difficult to untie, it can also be used as a temporary luggage "lock", to discourage pilferage. In fact, it handles a variety of tying chores, securing pants legs (when riding rented bicycles, caught in bad weather, or defending yourself from ticks), replacing a broken shoelace, tying back your hair, fixing broken eyeglasses (by threading floss through the lost screw holes), and securing a plastic bag over a wine bottle as an impromptu cork. Floss also makes a superb slicing tool, and can be used to cut items such as cheese, cake, pastry, and cold butter (even an umbilical cord, should you happen to give birth in your hotel room one day); for this reason, don't be tempted to use it to replace a broken necklace string, this being something you want to break under conditions of stress, not act as a cutting instrument! Other emergency uses include: clothesline, ukulele string, broken toilet tank chain substitute, and removing a stuck finger ring. Want to hang one of those "hookless hotel hangers" in the shower stall? Tie it up with floss. Waxed floss makes a good fire-starter. Bakers can use it to separate cookies stuck to the baking pan. In a survival situation, floss makes a fishing line, a snare, and binds a knife to a stick to make a spear. Finally, if a dripping faucet is keeping you awake, tie one end of a length of floss around the spout, put the other end in the drain, and arrange things so that the water flows quietly along the floss, rather than forming drops!
Many people, misunderstanding the intended function of dental floss (which is to remove the film between your teeth, not dislodge food particles), use it incorrectly. Teeth should be flossed following brushing, not before. When using a tooth cleaner that incorporates fluoride, it's better to let it remain in your mouth while flossing, then rinse afterward.
razor, blades, shaving lubricant
Some hardy souls use soap, but my fair, sensitive skin demands something with more lubricative value. A remarkably effective alternative to a (bulky, often aerosol) container of shaving cream/gel/foam is shaving oil, a tiny (smaller than your thumb) 1/4-ounce plastic bottle of which will — at about three drops per shave — last for up to 90 shaves. Sounds unlikely, but it works surprising well (oil being the best lubricant, after all), and also eliminates the need for after-shave lotions.
I first discovered shaving oil in the 1990s, and haven't bought any other shaving lubricant since. So it's not just a perfect travel solution, but a superior overall approach to shaving. I've tried several brands; most work well, though my personal favourite (pictured at right) comes from England, and its supplier (David Somerset) makes it convenient to purchase via credit card and the Internet. Give yourself a week to get used to it; you'll want to rinse the blade a bit more frequently than you're used to (oil "clings" more than creams/gels/foams, one of the characteristics that makes it work so well). I'll be surprised if you ever go back to those giant cans of environment-damaging chemicals.
Don't hesitate to shave in cold water: a surprisingly large number of people (myself included) do so by choice, and there are good arguments for the practice (for one, see Shaving Made Easy, page 51). It's certainly better for your skin, and actually quite refreshing, though some may find that it takes getting used to.
Although I normally use a proper safety razor with double-edged blades (an approach both more effective and vastly less expensive than disposables), this makes less sense for travelling, as the razor weighs a fairly hefty 2.8 oz (78g); disposable razors offer a lighter alternative. And don't be in too great a hurry to toss them out: you can hone (as opposed to "sharpen") one — in much the same way as is done by old-fashioned razor strops — on your own arm. Whenever you find the blade(s) getting a bit dull, simply run them (in the non-cutting direction!) along the outside of your forearm, from wrist to elbow, about a dozen times. This can significantly extend the life of a razor, and is a trick well worth knowing.
Incidentally, a binder clip makes a sturdy safety cap for use when packing a disposable razor, as pictured at right.
comb and/or hairbrush
I list these items primarily for nostalgic reasons in my own case, but many will find them useful.
shampoo, bar soap & container
Consider my advice concerning travelling with liquids. J.R Liggett's Old-Fashioned Bar Shampoo (pictured at left) is a travel favourite, and comes in several formulations. A 3.5 ounce (100g) bar is roughly equivalent to a 24 ounce (680g) bottle of shampoo.
Soap is pretty much universally available, so only rarely an item that you'll consider packing. When you do, though, you'll want a watertight container of some sort in which to store it. A Ziploc® bag will suffice, but can get pretty messy; special soap containers are a more prudent choice.
Again, factor in the many liabilities of travelling with liquids, and consider a solid variety.
Try to find stainless steel ones (at good cutlery stores) if you're bound for humid climates. Also, when buying a toenail clipper, be sure to get the proper type (such as pictured at right): they are not supposed to look like large fingernail clippers, but rather have cutting edges that are either straight or curved the opposite way (convex, rather than concave) to discourage ingrown toenails. Some manufacturers seem not to understand this, to the detriment of your toenail health.
Here's another reason to carry decent toenail clippers: in the absence of a knife, or appropriate pair of scissors, they provide an excellent way to conquer sealed plastic packaging (like the bank vault in which they've encased the camera memory card you just bought), and the nylon cable tie used to re-fasten your checked bag after they've ensured that you no longer carry a knife with which to open it!
viscose towel (washcloth?)
Viscose rayon, which is derived from cellulosic sources (wood pulp, cotton), has a highly amorphous polymer system (as well as polar polymers), making it the most absorbent fibre in common use, thus an ideal basis for a high-efficiency towel. Originally developed in 1983 by Pacific Dry Goods, but now produced by MSR (Cascade Designs), the classic PackTowl® Original (92% viscose/8% polypropylene, and pictured here) comes in a variety of sizes. It's lightweight and packs small, yet — astoundingly — soaks up more than nine times its weight in water (the large size will hold a full litre of fluid), even when damp (unlike, say, terrycloth, which becomes effectively useless when wet, and — being cotton — takes a long time to dry). Further, you can release 90% of that water merely by wringing the towel out. It dries quickly as well (if still damp when you need to depart for your next destination, simply pack it in a Ziploc® bag and hang it out to dry when you arrive).
Viscose towels may not look like much, or feel particularly soft (they initially resemble a piece of rather stiff felt, and for this reason sometimes garner negative reviews from people who don't understand how they work), but they do become softer and more "towel-like" — and more absorbent — after each washing, and are much more effective than any other type of "travel towel". They can be machine washed (no bleaching or ironing), and air or machine dried. And they can be cut to preferred sizes, without worrying about the edges unravelling. Viscose is also biodegradable, and the brand I recommend is produced in an eco-friendly fashion.
Be aware that most products sold as "travel towels" are not viscose, but rather some sort of synthetic microfibre. Even MSR's PackTowl brand includes several non-viscose products: their Personal and UltraLite versions are made of polyester/nylon blends (85/15 & 70/30, respectively). These are great seducers: they feel much softer to the touch, making them more appealing (thus easily sold), but are only about 40% as effective when it comes to absorbing water; they are also more expensive, and slower to dry. Yet another version is MSR's Nano offering, which is only 20% as effective as the original! So I strongly recommend that you avoid them all, and get one (or more) of the viscose versions (i.e., the PackTowl Original). And remember that — for any type of towel — darker colours dry faster than lighter ones.
A small viscose towel (or even a piece cut from a larger one) also makes a good washcloth, an item surprisingly uncommon outside of North America. If you prefer an exfoliating washcloth (some find them too abrasive, but they are quickly rinsed and dried), the Japanese "Salux" brand is a good travel choice; related choices are ergonomic "exfoliating gloves" (as pictured at right, aka "bath mitts") and Buf-Puf facial sponges, which come in regular and gentle versions.