Travel is my passion. I’ve been lucky enough to have set foot in over 50 countries, and I can tell you that one of the best things about travel is that anyone can do it. Tall, short, fat, thin, young, old; it doesn’t matter as long as you’re out there in the world, exploring and having fun.
As a petite traveller, there are, however, a few unique considerations to take into account when setting off on a trip. Here are just a few travel tips for shorter ladies:
1. Choose the right luggage
I’m a big proponent of travelling with a backpack. Not only will you be able to navigate stairs, cobblestones and uneven surfaces like a boss, but you’ll be hands-free and mobile.
When you’re petite, though, it’s extremely important to choose a backpack that fits well. I’ve written an entire post on this, in fact. You should read it. Basically it comes down to finding the right bag to fit your torso length, shoulder width, and hips, so you can comfortably carry your pack without pain or injury.
If you’d prefer to travel with a suitcase or roller bag, the size isn’t quite as important. But try keeping your luggage as small as possible. After all, you don’t want to be struggling to carry it, or to have to rely on help from others to get around. That defeats the purpose of independent travel.
2. Don’t assume you can ‘buy it there’
Most travel packing advice goes something like this: Don’t obsess about taking every little thing, because if you forget something you can just buy it there.
This may be true for a lot of things — toothpaste, for instance, exists in pretty much every country in the world. But for us petite travellers, that assumption can’t be made about clothing.
On a trip to Mexico a few years ago, one woman in my group had the misfortune of having her bag lost by the airline. They eventually located it, but she didn’t get it back until the last day of the trip. For two weeks, all she had to wear were the clothes she wore on the plane, and a few items she purchased at market stalls. She actually looked good in them. I wouldn’t have.
On another trip to Chile a few years prior, the airline lost my luggage on the way down. Luckily I had a similarly-sized petite local friend who was willing to loan me a couple of items to tide me over until my bag arrived.
Even in countries where the average height is much shorter — east Asia, for instance — the clothing available in the malls, shops and market stalls is generally made for much taller women. I would’ve assumed it would be easy to find clothes that fit in those places. I would’ve been wrong. And remember, when you’re away from home, you’re generally also away from your local tailor or your sewing machine. Items like hiking pants, t-shirts, jackets, skirts, jeans, bras and swimsuits probably won’t be available in sizes that fit you at your destination.
This is especially true if you have other size considerations beyond just being short. Plus-sized women know that in some countries, particularly Asia, it can be really challenging to find clothes in larger sizes. If you’re plus and petite, this is a double-duty challenge. Ditto if you wear a particularly small shoe size, or if you have an unusual bra size.
Rule of thumb: take everything you think you’ll need, clothing-wise, from home. Don’t assume you can just replace it there.
3. Travel carry-on where possible
Related to above: When the airline loses your bag and you fit into standard sizes, it sucks. When the airline loses your bag and you don’t fit into standard sizes, it can quite literally ruin a trip.
I always pack as much as I can in my carry-on luggage. If I absolutely must check a bag, I try to ensure that it’s full of easily replaceable items. I keep my precious, hard-to-find-impossible-to-replace petite clothing in my carry-on bag. It’s not that it’s particularly expensive. It’s more that, let’s say the worst were to happen and the airline actually lost (as opposed to delayed) my bag. Even if they cut me a cheque, what would I do with it? With so many retailers no longer even carrying petites clothes at all, many of those items are ones I’ve had for years and are, quite literally irreplaceable. And the rest would be really, really difficult to replace at home, never mind on the road.
If you can’t imagine fitting everything you need into a carry-on bag, here’s some advice from fashion blogger Jean (of Extra Petite) on how to create a petite-friendly capsule wardrobe for travel.
Don’t take chances. Travel carry-on.
4. Visit some countries where you feel tall
Did you know? The tallest women in the world live in Latvia, with an average height of 5’6″. In contrast, the shortest women in the world live in Guatemala, where the average height for adult women is only 4’11”. That means that, at 5’1″, by Guatemalan standards, I’m above average!
In fact, according to recent studies, there are practically entire continents, including most of Central and South America, Africa and Asia, where I’d be of average or above-average height. The vast majority of the world’s population lives in these countries. Once I get outside of North America and Europe, I’m not really that short anymore.
Of course, this isn’t why I choose travel destinations. But I have to admit that it’s kinda fun to go somewhere and feel tall. When I visited Vietnam a few years ago, I got to hang out with some women in the hill tribes in Sa Pa that made me feel like a giantess. It was pretty awesome.
It’s eye opening to visit different cultures and places that aren’t like home. And seeing things from quite literally a different perspective is, for me, a component. I wouldn’t say that it’s all that noticeable most of the time. But then, a big part of my identity here in Canada is that of a petite woman.
It’s interesting that, in places where I’m actually not that short, or even taller than average, people may relate to me differently. This is hard to separate from how they relate to me differently based on my language, ethnicity or skin colour. But it’s there. And it’s something I try to be aware of. For instance, there’s almost never a risk that anyone will view me as intimidating or threatening here in Canada due to my small stature. But in some countries, I need to be careful not to yell or impose, because that may not necessarily be true everywhere.
5. Become an airplane ninja
There’s a lot of discussion about the challenges of fitting into an economy airline seat when you’re tall. But did you know that us short women also have issues with uncomfortable airline seats?
Personally I find that securing a window seat is the best option on a long flight, since I can curl up into it and avoid the back and neck pain that is too often associated with sitting in a seat designed for a taller human. I also look for airlines with above-average seat pitch in economy class, to increase the chances that I can cross my legs or tuck my feet up to avoid the pins and needles.
Above all, don’t allow taller passengers to bully you into switching into a middle seat or otherwise giving up your seat. Just because you’re shorter than they are doesn’t mean they’re any more entitled than you are. Don’t let anyone push you around.
6. Follow common-sense safety advice
This isn’t specific to being petite, of course. Anyone can be the victim of a crime if they’re unlucky. But the harsh truth is that we small females sometimes appear to be easier targets than, say, large, beefy men do. It isn’t fair, but it is what it is.
I’m not a big fan of paranoia, and I don’t think there’s anything specific that you need to do to stay safe. You have a better chance of being hit by a car in your hometown than you do being victimized by crime on the road. So there’s no need to go overboard.
But, yeah, don’t be dumb, either. I always recommend being aware of your surroundings, getting a read from locals on where the go- and no-go areas are, not flashing valuables or jewellery around, and carrying a phone for emergencies. Take taxis if you’re not sure if it’s safe to walk somewhere at night, don’t accept drinks from strangers or leave drinks unattended, try to always walk purposefully, and keep a hand on your bag to deter pickpockets. Try to dress and act like the locals (even if you don’t necessarily look like them), and don’t do anything to attract undue or unwanted attention. In this, we petites sometimes actually have an advantage, because we won’t “stand out” as much as taller people do.
7. Leave the high heels at home
I admit it: I love my high heels. Even just another few inches of height makes me feel powerful and confident when I stride into the boardroom. But, as much fun as high heels are at home, they have no place on the road. None.
Sure, it’s tempting to want to pack those stylish shoes on your trip. But trust me when I say, your feet will not thank you when you try to walk miles every day on uneven surfaces in heels. Just try to imagine getting on and off of crowded public transit, navigating busy tourist destinations, stumbling through cobblestoned streets, doing hundreds of stairs, or hiking up to a viewpoint in heels. Get the message?
Instead, limit your shoes to 3 pairs per trip:
- One pair of hiking sneakers. I wear these on most days in cooler destinations, for any hikes as well as walking around cities and sightseeing.
- One pair of comfortable walking sandals. I like Naot, since I can wear them for miles on end without discomfort, and they’re cute enough to go from day to evening.
- And one pair of flip-flops, for the beach, grubby showers, etc.
If you’re going exclusively to hot countries, you can leave the hiking shoes at home. Exclusively to cooler destinations, skip the walking sandals. Snowy destinations, replace the sandals with winter boots. Anything else, and you simply have too many shoes.
8. Get some clothes tailor-made
Are you visiting a destination like Thailand, Vietnam or India? Treat yourself to a real indulgence: Custom-tailored clothing made to fit.
In many popular destinations, you can find a dizzying array of fabrics, styles and patterns available in both local and western-style dress, all made to order. You can enter the shop, get measured, pick out your fabrics and designs, return for a fitting or two, and walk away with a whole new tailored wardrobe in just a few days.
This sort of luxury would be reserved for the fabulously wealthy here in North America. But in many parts of the world, it’s quite affordable and accessible. Make sure you do your homework on ethical practices, of course, to make sure you’re not contributing to child labour, exploitation or poor working conditions. But, as long as you shop responsibly, this can be an amazing way for petites to experience something usually reserved only for average-to-tall women: Having clothing that fits perfectly.
9. Indulge in the local flavours — carefully
One of the best parts of travel is getting to try the local food and drink. Everywhere I go, I love to visit restaurants, markets, street stalls and even the homes of locals, and try out the gastronomy.
As a petite woman, I have to be a bit more judicious about this than most. After all, a meal that’s reasonably-sized for a larger person is probably too big for me to eat. And in some cultures, leaving food uneaten on a plate is considered rude.
The good news is, once you get outside North America, portion sizes in restaurants usually become a lot more reasonable. Also, I tend to do a lot more walking and physical activity on the road than I do at home sitting at a desk job. Usually I end up losing weight when I travel. But it does mean I have to be a bit more aware of how much I’m eating.
As for drinking, I can’t keep up round for round with guys half my age and twice my size… or even with some of the women. Nor should I try. The nice part of being petite is that nobody will expect you to; it’s not the badge of honour that it is for many male travellers. But backpacking and staying in hostels tends to involve a lot of alcohol, so it’s something I need to keep an eye on. I also love sampling the local craft beers, which, luckily, is usually pretty easy to do in small quantities by ordering tasters.
So indulge, by all means. Eat, drink, and be merry. Just do it in size-appropriate quantities.
10. Be unstoppable
Above all, don’t let your shorter height stop you from seeing the world. We petites can do anything that our taller counterparts can do. Sure, we may have slightly shorter legs, but that’s just incentive to walk faster.
Want to hike the Inca Trail? Cycle across Europe? Ride a camel across the Sahara? Well, what are you waiting for? The world is out there!