Traveling with curly hair: the low maintenance guide to amazing curls abroad
I always thought I had terrible hair. And I’m not just fishing for compliments here (ahem: the comment box is below. I’ll wait.) For my entire adult life, my hair has just been … not good: it’s half-heartedly curly and wavy at the same time, super frizzy and fly-away, prone to split ends and breakage, and extremely thin. It tangles and breaks off if I so much as look at it the wrong way. And it has a never-ending thirst for
Needless to say, it was NOT fun to travel with. During my year-long honeymoon, I backpacked around the world with my hair shoved into a messy bun, which I dreaded undoing because I just knew there would be awful tangles and breakage to deal with. I didn’t have space in my travel backpack for conditioner, and I didn’t have much luck finding any on my travels. I returned home with some of the worst hair of my life, and I was ready to chop it all off.
But then I heard about something called the “Curly Girl Method.” And while the full method was more involved than I was really prepared to do, even trying a half-a**ed lazy version of it actually changed my life. I mean, mostly it changed my hair, but it changed it so much that it spilled over into other parts of my life, too. The confidence boost was real, y’all!
Suddenly, I didn’t have wishy-washy frizzy hair anymore. It turned out that all that frizz was actually just thirsty curls waiting to live life to their fullest potential! And even though my hair is still super thin – my ponytail is the width of a pencil when it’s totally straight – you’d never know it to look at my hair when it’s curly. All you see is full, glorious, bountiful curls! I felt like a new, confident, sassy, curly-haired person ready to take on the world.
Let me show y’all what I mean. Here’s my before hair, a wishy-washy fine mess with no real texture that couldn’t decide if it was wavy or curly – and this was on a good hair day:
And here’s my after hair, full of luscious defined curls that I literally never even knew I could have:
The thing is, living your curly life to its fullest potential is not the easiest thing to pull off, especially while traveling. It’s a bit labor-intensive, requires a few niche items, and generally requires some planning ahead. For me, what works best while traveling is a very low-maintenance version of my at-home curly hair routine.
What do I mean by low maintenance? Well, once you’ve got your curls locked in, you’re in luck: your hair will look amazing for 5 whole days. Yeah, that’s right: 5 straight days of good hair days in a row. (You can still shower if you want, though. I mean, I sometimes don’t. But you can. I’ll explain later!) That actually makes it worth the extra effort on wash day. (Because I am lazy.)
If it sounds a little intimidating, don’t worry: I’ve figured it all out. Over the last few years, I’ve managed to take my curls across the world and figured out how to fit my entire hair care routine into a tiny bag that fits neatly into my carry-on bag! So whether you’re a curl pro already or you’re just starting to coax your hair to meet its curly potential like me, here’s everything you’ll need to take your curls on the road … or train, plane, bus, rickshaw, tuk-tuk, colectivo, moto-taxi, boat… literally anywhere, really.
The Curly Girl Method (while Traveling)
Everyone has slightly different variations of the original “curly girl method” – which was coined and first debuted in this book – and over the years I’ve figured out what works best for me.
I’ve also found that the routine matters more than the actual products. My hair is fine and thin, so as long as I’m not weighing it down with super heavy product, anything that can give it lots of moisture without product buildup or silicones will work for me! I’m mostly just using inexpensive products – but they’re applied very carefully.
So, here’s my routine in a nutshell:
Step 1: The “Reset” Wash
Everything starts with a “reset” shower. If all goes well during this part of the process, I won’t need to reset my hair again for another 4-5 days.
The caveat is that this is the high maintenance bit. Think of it as an investment: the payoff for spending a few hours fiddling with your curls is that your hair will look amazing for the rest of your trip with almost no effort.
First, here’s the step-by-step process I take for washing my hair.
- I start by shampooing my roots with a gentle, sulfate-free shampoo. Not everyone actually needs shampoo – many curly girls clean with conditioner only – but I find that too much conditioner weighs my thin, lightweight hair down! My current favorites are Shea Moisture and Maui Moisture.
- I condition all the way from my roots downwards with a lightweight, moisturizing conditioner. For me, it’s super important that my conditioner is lightweight because my hair is super lightweight.
- I condition my ends with a thick, heavy, moisturizing hair mask. This is where my hair needs most of its moisture, so I glob on a LOT of thick, heavy conditioner – but ONLY on the ends of my hair, so it doesn’t weigh down my volume. The deep conditioner I’m currently using is this Shea Moisture curl smoothie.
- I finger-comb my hair and clip it up for the rest of my shower. There are usually a few tangles to work out at this point, and once I’ve more or less gotten those out of the way, I pile my hair on top of my head and clip it up to keep it out of the way and let my conditioner soak in.
- I comb through my hair upside-town and wash out the conditioner. When I’m ready to finish up, I run a wide-tooth comb through my hair while upside-down – this is very important! At this point, you should be starting to see “curl clumps” forming. Wash your hair out while still upside down, taking special care to keep those curl clumps together!
Now that you’re done showering, it’s on to the second part: product application and drying!
- While still upside down, “scrunch” your hair to help those curl clumps form. You’re basically just squeezing out some water, so that when you start applying product, it won’t all mix with the excess water and fall right off! Take special care to to it upside down and gently, so that your curl clumps get even curlier.
- Apply curl cream by “scrunching” upside down. I don’t need to do this every time, but sometimes my hair needs a little extra boost, and I find that a curl-forming cream really helps! There are loads of different curl creams out there. I really like this one for my fine hair because it’s nice and light.
- Apply hair gel. This is by far, hands down, the MOST critical part of my routine. Your gel is what will keep your curls going strong for the rest of the week – it’s ESSENTIAL! There are two ways I like to apply gel. First is the same scrunching motion I use to apply cream. The second method is called “prayer hands” – you’re basically running your palms down the length of your hair, and then gently crunching again to keep those curl clumps curly! I use this extremely cheap, super nostalgic 90’s era gel because it’s cheap, has a great hold and fantastic shine, and washes out fully in water so I never get product buildup. (Also, nostalgia.)
- Plop using a micro-fiber hair towel. You want to plop all of your curls onto the top of your hair and avoid stretching them out. It’s super easy to do using my favorite microfiber hair towel! And then, it’s finally time to flip right-side up.
- Air-dry or diffuse your hair. After letting your hair sit plopped in a towel for a while, you can either take it down and let it air dry the rest of the way, or if you’re tight on time, use a blow-drier and diffuser to gently dry your hair while upside-down. If you’re diffusing, start at the roots util they’re dry, and then gently cup your hair up into the diffuser and push it all upwards against your head, so you’re still keeping those curl clumps clumped!
- When your hair is fully dry, “scrunch out the crunch.” That gel you applied to your hair will have turned into a rock-hard little cast. Think Justin Timberlake’s “Ramen Noodles” look in the 90’s. While wonderfully nostalgic, this is not the desired effect! You’ll need to break up that gel cast to release your bouncy, shiny curls. All you have to do is scrunch your hair like crazy with your hands. I like a lot of volume, so I’ll even fluff up my roots a little bit to really get that gel broken up! Once your crunch is fully scrunched out, congratulations: you have beautiful, shiny (that’s the gel), bouncy curls.
Step 2: The Maintenance
My reset shower takes a lot of work. But luckily, I only have to do it every 4-5 days. The rest of the week, I just do a little maintenance to keep my curls looking good! Here’s what I do:
- Sleep with your hair piled on top of your head.
Sleeping with your hair in a “pineapple” keeps your curls above your pillow and protected from getting stretched, frizzed-out, and otherwise ruined while you sleep! I typically just pile it at the very top of my head with a soft scrunchy. Some folks swear by using a buff or silk scarf, but I’ve never managed to figure that out.
- Refresh your curls every few days.
Around day 3, my curls start looking a little flat and less defined, so it’s time for a refresh! There are 2 main ways I like to refresh.
The first is by taking a shower with my hair piled up on top of my head in a scrunchy. I don’t get my hair wet, but the steam from the shower adds enough moisture to my hair to get it all nice and puffed up again, so by the time I come out of the shower, I’ve got lots of volume again.
The second one is a little more involved. You’ll need to mix a little bit of conditioner and gel into a spray bottle and fill it up with water.
Turn your hair upside-down and spritz it all over with your refresh spray. Then, scrunch your hair (the same way you do in the shower) to help your damp hair re-form curls. The conditioner adds moisture, and the gel helps set the curls again. You might need to scrunch out the crunch a little bit in a few minutes once you’ve dried!
In a pinch, even just getting your hands wet, flipping your head over and scrunching your curls a few times will help add some volume and definition. The key is that curls CRAVE moisture, so any way you can get moisture into them will help your curls form!
And that’s it – that’ll keep you looking amazing for another 4-5 days!
Curly Hair Travel Essentials
There are a few hair tools that come along with me when I plan to rock curly hair. This is my complete curly hair travel packing list, and while it may seem like a lot, I’m able to shove all of this into one of those drawstring shoe-bags or a medium packing cube for tidy storage in my suitcase.
- Travel blowdryer and travel diffuser: I actually typically air-dry my hair at home, but time is a precious commodity when traveling and a blowdryer cuts dry time by roughly a zillion percent! It’s also a critical tool in a cold destination – nobody wants frozen hair (even if it looks really cool). I use a very small, foldable blow dryer with a collapsible curl diffuser that take up a small amount of space in my bag. Just don’t forget to bring along a plug adapter/converter if you’ll be traveling abroad!
- Microfiber hair towel: Along with a full sized travel towel (since hotel towels never, ever fit me), I also bring along a small microfiber hair towel to help my hair dry faster. I “plop” it while I’m getting dressed and ready for the day and then blow-dry/diffuse it until it’s fully dry.
- Scrunchies: I use scrunchies to pile my curls on top of my head in a high ponytail overnight. That way I don’t knock out the curls overnight and get a volume boost in the morning! Any old scrunchie will work, but silk scrunchies are best for taming frizz and sliding out of tangle-prone hair, like mine.
- Hair product: Of course, you need tiny travel-sized bottles of all of your essential hair products! I bring along my gel, curl defining cream, shampoo and conditioner decanted into little 1oz bottles. And I throw in a wide-tooth comb and a clip for the shower, too. It all fits in my zip-up hanging travel toiletry case.
Travel Tips for Curly Hair
Put all your haircare products into tiny, travel-friendly bottles.
We’re carry-on-only types, so all of our favorite products (yes, Jeremy and I both use the exact same hair products) get decanted into little tiny bottles that neatly fit in our hanging toiletry bag.
Bring extra conditioner!
Don’t count on the hotel’s free bottles, or finding suitable hair products wherever you’re traveling. You won’t, and if you do use some random hotel conditioner, you might end up making your hair worse – they’re usually loaded with silicones!
Once you find a shampoo and conditioner combo that works for your hair, bring as much of it with you as you can – especially conditioner, which you’ll be using a LOT more than shampoo. I have several mini containers of my conditioner packed into my travel toiletries case, so I never run out!
Use a t-shirt to plop if you don’t have a micro-fiber towel.
I always bring along a microfiber hair towel to “plop” my hair in, but if you forget yours or don’t have one, you can just sub out a t-shirt, or any smooth item of clothing. It’s a little harder to wrap around your head, but I find that long-sleeved shirts work best.
What you absolutely should NOT do EVER, is resort to a regular old terrycloth towel, even for plopping. Those little loops of thread on the surface of the towel feel great on your skin, but they’re awful for your hair! They cause frizz, disrupt your curl pattern, suck up more moisture than you want, and generally ruin a good curl day.
Never use a regular towel on your hair! Any soft, smooth shirt or item of clothing is an improvement. (Just make sure to pack a travel clothesline so you can hang your shirt up to dry after your shower.)
Plan out your “wash days” strategically to fit into your itinerary.
Wash days are a whole thing. It takes my hair like, 5 hours to air-dry enough to the point where I can “scrunch out the crunch.” And I do not usually have 5 hours when I’m traveling! Which is why I always pack a travel blowdrier and diffuser, but even that can take up 45 precious minutes that I could spend out having adventures.
So, I plan my wash days strategically. I shower and reset my hair on travel days, such as when I’ll be on a long flight or train ride. I don’t care if I look cute during those days, and it gives my hair plenty of time to fully set into the curls it’ll stay in until my next reset day.
Then, for the next 4-5 days, I use various tricks to keep my curls looking good, including sleeping with my hair in a “pineapple,” wearing my hair in a super-high ponytail while I shower to soak up moisture & volume without actually getting wet, and spritzing my hair with a refresh concoction of water, gel, and conditioner.
Water can have a very different effect on your hair while traveling than you’re used to.
“Hard water” as it’s called, is not actually ice (confusing, I know) but water that contains trace elements of chemicals and minerals. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can have a negative effect on your hair called buildup – just the same as what causes staining on your tub or tiled bathroom floor. And lots of hotels, hostels and vacation rentals have hard water!
To wash away that icky buildup and keep it from damaging your hair, either bring a small amount of clarifying rinse or shampoo, or – my preference – bring a small bottle of Apple Cider Vinegar with you! Distill the Apple Cider Vinegar with water and rinse your hair with it. As a plus, watered down ACV is also my favorite cure for a bad sunburn!
Bring a pair of tiny, foldable scissors.
This is just a general travel tip – scissors are super handy to have on hand. But when it comes to hair, scissors can be really helpful. We’ve used ours to trim split ends, cut bangs, trim beards, tidy up down there, and – if you’re up for it – give haircuts! This is the pair we brought with us on our year-long honeymoon, which has come with us in our suitcase ever since.
- Haircare Travel Tip: ONLY use these scissors on hair – never on paper or anything else! You could potentially damage the blade which could in turn damage your hair.
Take special care with the ends of your hair.
(Rhyme intentional.) The ends of your hair are the most prone to breakage and splitting, which leads to tangles and frizz – two things I am regretfully well versed in. I take a tiny tub of split end balm. I put it on my ends after showers, whenever they’re feeling dry, or just when I need to tame things down and smooth things out. I brush through with my boar bristle brush to spread the oils through my hair evenly.
In a pinch, Coconut Oil and Olive Oil are fantastic for hair.
A little tub of coconut oil or argan oil goes a long way. While it’s not great for facial skin, coconut oil is perfect for hair, hands and feet, and dry lips.
And both argan oil and olive oil are all-around beauty powerhouses! I bring Argan Oil on trips to use for both my face and hair … but I’ve also been known to take advantage of shared olive oil bottles in hostel kitchens, too.
A little bit of oil goes a long way: put a dime-sized drop in your hands and smooth through your hair starting with your ends.
When all else fails, just get your hair wet and start over.
The magic of curly hair is that every time you get your hair wet or add moisture, you have an opportunity to reset your curls – even if you’re not doing a whole “reset” wash day.
You can spray water into your hair, put it up into a ponytail while you shower your body, or just get your hands wet in the sink and scrunch your hair to reset your curl pattern.
I’ll often do this with a particularly annoying curl up front that gets easily frizzed out – you can literally re-curl a piece of hair with your finger and let it dry into a whole perfect lil’ corkscrew.
And now, my fellow curlies, go forth and look fabulous!
What questions do you have about traveling with curly hair? Drop me a comment below!
Psst: Looking for more tips for looking and feeling fantastic while traveling? Take a look at some of these other posts:
Our Top Travel Tips & Resources
- Booking Flights: To score flight deals, search on Google Flights or Kayak. Money-saving tips: fly mid-week or on the weekend; fly carry-on only on a budget airline; and take red-eyes or early morning flights.
- Accommodations: We usually stay in budget-friendly vacation rentals, boutique hotels or private rooms in hostels. We use Booking.com to book hotels (we love their flexible cancellation policy) and Hostelworld to book hostels (low deposit, easy change/cancellation, and excellent reviews). For vacation rentals, we prefer to book using VRBO because they’ve got lower fees and better support than Airbnb, and we’re not fans of Airbnb’s unethical track record. You can also book vacation rentals on Expedia and Hotels.com. We also use TrustedHousesitters as both hosts (for our home and our fur-child) and travelers!
- Travel Insurance: We always, always, ALWAYS buy travel insurance for international trips, and we STRONGLY suggest it – visit our Travel Insurance Guide to find out why. We recommend either World Nomads or SafetyWing for international travel insurance. SafetyWing is one of the few policies that covers Covid-19, and they have excellent monthly policies that are perfect for Digital Nomads and long term travelers!
- Travel Credit Card: We book all of our trips on our favorite travel credit card. Not only do we earn cash back that we can spend on more travel, but the card offers fantastic travel perks like travel insurance, trip delay and cancellation coverage, lost baggage reimbursement, and rental car coverage, which helps protect us on our travels. Learn more here.
- Vaccines & Meds: We use the travel guides on the CDC website to research recommended medications and vaccines for international trips. We always recommend getting every vaccine recommended by the CDC! You can get them at your primary care doctor’s office or a walk-in pharmacy.
- Tours: We love booking guided tours, especially food tours and walking tours, to get a local’s perspective and a history lesson while sight-seeing! We book our tours using Viator and GetYourGuide.
- Transportation: We use Rome2Rio to figure out how to get from place to place, and book local transportation online using Bookaway wherever we can. When we book a rental car, we use Kayak to compare rental companies and find the best deal.
- Luggage Storage: Whenever we’re checking out early or taking advantage of a long layover, we use LuggageHero to safely store our luggage while we’re running around. Use the code PRACTICALW for 2 hours of free luggage storage on us.
- VPN Service: A VPN keeps your digital information (like website login details, bank info, etc) safe, even when you’re connected to an unsecured network while traveling. Plus, it lets you use Netflix & other streaming sites abroad! We use NordVPN. Use the code WANDERLUSTPROMO when you sign up!
- What to Pack: Here are the travel essentials that we bring on every trip. We also have packing lists for hot weather, cold weather, and many more. Take a look at all of our packing guides!
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