Baring my Sole: Best Shoe Packing Secrets for International Travel

by Julia Zaremba

One shoes, two shoes. Red shoes, blue shoes.

Black shoes, blue shoes. Old shoes, new shoes.

I’ll be the first to admit: shoe addictions are a heavy habit to break. I blame my feet­-ish of shoe fashion on my teaching experience in Italy, where I have never seen anyone wear a pair of heels more than once and even family dinners require matching pumps.

Close up of leather loafers and jeans
You’ll have to curb your enthusiasm for shoes as a traveler – packing light is the only way to go.

However, when traveling, the best tips on packing for international travel start with how to pack shoes (aka. stuff your inner Imelda Marcos into the closet and, instead, follow the philosophy of the Birgit Nilsson school). When asked what she attributed her success in the role of Isolde, the great Swedish soprano replied, “a comfortable pair of shoes.” One more time for the people in the back: the best shoes for travel are comfortable shoes!

Words of wisdom! If your shoes are comfortable and right for the occasion, it’s easier to do great things. This is especially true when traveling abroad, as you’ll have plenty of bonding time with your footwear. And, just like that depressing moment when you have to turn down the last dance because your feet are past blistered and sore, who would want to say “no” to a scenic coastal hike just because there’s no pair of adequate shoes?

As someone who has, more or less, been living out of a suitcase for the past six years, let me tell you: it’s possible to travel with only three pairs of shoes and be prepared to tackle anything from Peruvian mountaintops to Parisian dinner parties. Yes, ladies, that’s right. Three pairs of shoes, regardless of journey length (in miles or time) or destination, can be enough, if you know how to pack shoes in just the right way.

My main advice? Worry less about fashion and more about practicality and packing light for travel.

Grey boots standing on hay
A nice, comfortable pair of boots in a neutral color are going to be your salvation.

The Three Must Haves

In the name of the Walker, the Elegant, and the Flipper-Flopper, here’s the holy trinity of the best shoes for travel that will save you on any occasion:

These Boots Are Made for Walking. This is gonna be your biggest investment and closest friend, so make it good. Something light and breathable, but also sturdy and weatherproof. Rubber soles are a plus. Go for a neutral, classy color (i.e. brown, grey, dark blue, etc.), so that you can pair ‘em with all of your outfits. Friendly Fashion Tip: Please stay away from white tennis shoes – looking at you, Americans.

Goody Two-Shoes. Grab a pair of nice flats (ballerinas or penny loafers are the best bet) that can take you to an art exhibition opening or wine bar with that cutie from the hostel. Color-wise, black is eternally elegant and consistently classy.

Fun in the Sun. I have worn out dozens of pairs of flip flops because they are my go-to shoe. Quality-wise, go for something better than the .99 cent Walmart ones (and stay away from plastic straps like the devil!), but don’t invest in $100 suede-leather pairs with a one-inch sole. Flip flops will get you through hostel showers, lazy evening walks, beach sessions, and hot days under the sun. If you do have a bit of wiggle room in your budget, opt for a more-expensive hiking sandal that can double as shower shoes, such as Chacos or Keens.

For those that are not flip flop-friendly, opt for light sandals. If you’re packing for international travel to warm climates, buy something local (bonus points if it’s hand-crafted and supports the local economy), which will erase a bit of your touristic façade and make a useful souvenir.

Girl wearing ankle boots propping her feet up near a coast
You want these boots to be made for walking the globe.

The Shoes Clause

There’s exceptions to every rule, even the rule on the best shoes for travel. In addition to the above, add/substitute as necessary to ensure you have all of the best shoes for sightseeing:

Runners. Being in Prague or on the Philippines is not going to stop athletes from being athletes. If you’re a sports addict or training for an upcoming marathon (er, 5K), grab your running shoes. These might seem unnecessary when packing light for travel, but if running is your go-to activity, they’re well worth the extra weight and space.

Dancers. For dancers, one of the best reasons to travel is to meet new dance communities. And there’s no point in doing so if you’re not going to spend the entire night on the dance floor! So, latin lovers, bundle those dance heels up well!

Hikers. If you’re gearing up for an adventure trip (or just really love the outdoors), regular walking shoes ain’t gonna cut it. You’re stuck with bulky, heavy water-proof, over-the-ankle, steel-toe monsters. But, when you read unmarked peaks and see views no one else will, you won’t mind the extra weight.

Specialists. Scuba divers, horseback riders, rock climbers, surfers…we get it. Shoes are part of your equipment; that fourth pair doesn’t really count. Overtime, you’ll learn how to pack shoes for travel out of necessity.

Man wearing hiking boots hanging his feet over a cliff
For adventurers looking to get out in the great outdoors, your run-of-the-mill walking shoe isn’t going to cut it. Invest in a good pair of hiking boots – and make sure to do so with time to break them in!

Shoe Tips for Trips

We don’t want to leave your tootsies stranded, so keep these head-to-tip-toe packing tips in mind:

  • While slip-on shoes make everything faster at airport security, wear your heaviest shoes when traveling. These sometimes account for half of luggage weight, so it’s a big saver of space! It may take more time in the queue, but the sacrifice is well worth it for the saved weight and space.
  • Limit your colors to brown and black, as they go with anything. Besides, dark colors help hide scuffs and stains. If you pack a matching belt, you’ll always be in practical style.
  • When trying to figure out how to pack shoes for travel in a small bag, stuff smaller items (i.e. underwear, socks, jewelry bags) into the shoes to utilize every available inch of packing space, and to prevent them from getting crushed. If you’re not stuffing, pack pairs of shoes tightly together, soles out, with the heels at opposite ends.
  • Use disposable shower caps (free with fancy hotels) to cover the bottoms of shoes in your suitcase. Keep dirt where it belongs.
  • Think outside the bag: tie laces together and loop shoes onto the outside of your backpack, instead of packing them inside. Not only does this save room, but it lets smelly shoes breathe.
  • I love heels, but I hate them abroad – I just have to leave them behind when I’m packing for international travel. Why? Mostly because a lot of cities are built with cobblestoned streets, a lot of towns have dirt roads, and you can’t run to catch the bus that is leaving ahead of schedule. However, if you do get tired of flats and you want to feel like a diva for a night, check out thrift stores when you arrive. There’s always something fun for a couple of bucks, and it’s perfect for a night of glamour. Afterward, leave them in the hostel bin for future travelers.
Passion led us here written on a sidewalk
Travelers know that the right walking shoe can make or break any trip abroad. Pack light. Pack smart. Remember you don’t have to sacrifice comfort and utility for style.

Voilà! Now you’re ready to take on anything, anywhere because you know how to pack shoes for travel – and you know all the dirty secrets on the best shoes for sightseeing like the back of your, er, foot? It is time to check out all of the travel adventures available on GoAbroad.com; whether it’s volunteering in Thailand, a teaching program in Japan, an internship in Belize, or a study abroad program in Madagascar (or anything in between), there’s a path for you just waiting to be explored.

So, wave “sole long,” offer a “see you leather,”  tighten up those laces, and start making meaningful footprints upon the world.

Feet itching to see the world? Save & compare programs on MyGoAbroad