Selecting the perfect travel shoes

For the last 2+ years, I’ve been traveling. Europe, Africa, and the Americas. I’ve been “onebagging it“–that is, traveling with a single, carry-on sized bag (plus a small day-pack). One of the important decisions to be made when traveling like this (light, and for an indefinate period of time), is which travel shoes to wear.

When I began researching shoes, I had a few specific requirements in mind:

  • I wanted shoes I could wear hiking in the mountains.
  • I wanted shoes I could wear on the beach.
  • I wanted shoes I could wear to a nice restaurant.
  • I wanted shoes I could wear to a taco stand.
  • I wanted shoes I could wear to a wedding. (if I were to receive an invitation while traveling–it’s happened!)
  • I wanted shoes I could dance in. (I’m a salsa dancer)
  • I wanted shoes that were comfortable enough to walk in for hours.
  • I wanted shoes that would last as long as possible. 1 year of heavy usage minimum.
  • I wanted the lightest weight, least bulky shoes possible.

Naturally, I wanted to meet all of these requirements with the minimum number of shoes. So the first step was finding the most versatile pair of shoes possible. This took me to reading books and blogs about men’s fashion–a topic which was otherwise almost completely foreign to me (although it helped with planning the rest of my wardrobe, too). Rather than boring you with all the details, I’ll just show you shoes I settled on, then offer some general advice in case you’re a traveler looking to answer some or all of these same requirements in your shoes.

My go-to pair of shoes

My go-to travel shoes: Dark Brown McTavish shoes from Allen Edmonds

My go-to travel shoes: Dark Brown McTavish shoes from Allen Edmonds

I settled on pair of brown leather McTavish shoes from Allen Edmonds.

I had never worn this style of shoes before, having always been more of a “running shoe” sort of guy. But my fashion research suggested (and you can confirm this by asking any shoe salesman, or any fashion blog) that a pair of brown leather, wingtip shoes are literally the most versatile men’s shoe you can buy. Although they were, to my untrained eye, very “nice” shoes, they are still considered casual. That is to say, you can wear them with jeans. If you do a Google images search for brown wingtip shoes outfits you’ll see everything from blazers to khakis to t-shirt and jeans. And they all look pretty good with those shoes. But they’re also nice enough that I could wear them to a wedding (although not my own–tradition calls for black in that case).

So, from a fashion standpoint, I had the taco stand, nice restaurant, and wedding all taken care of.

These were the most expensive pair of shoes I’ve ever owned, retailing for $295. But for that price, you get two things: Quality, and comfort. These are honestly the most comfortable shoes I have ever owned. I can (and often do) wear them for hours at a time, and I wear them for heavy walking, and my feet and back don’t hurt after, as they often do in other shoes.

So I also had the quality and comfort requirements met.

One other requirement these shoes handled was the dancing requirement. The leather soles make turns easy in dancing (and in fact, many shoes sold specifically for dancing have leather soles for just this reason).

These shoes are rather bulky, though, so I always wear these shoes on my feet when traveling, and put the smaller/lighter shoes in my bag. Which brings me back to the list of un-met requirements:

  • I wanted shoes I could wear hiking in the mountains.
  • I wanted shoes I could wear on the beach.
  • I wanted the lightest weight, least bulky shoes possible.

My “sport” shoes

My sport travel shoes: Olive Vivobarefoot Men's RA Shoes (discontinued)

My sport travel shoes: Olive Vivobarefoot Men’s RA Shoes (discontinued)

To address the hiking need, I wanted some sport shoes. To get the lightest weight, and least bulk possible, I decided to look for some so-called “barefoot” shoes. Originally, I owned a pair of Merrell barefoot shoes which I really liked, but they eventually wore out, and have been discontinued. So the Vivobarefoot shoes are actually my second pair of barefoot shoes. By now, that model is also discontinued, but the new Vivobarefoot RA II come in even more colors, so that’s what I’d buy if/when I’m in the market again.

I selected these specific shoes because, although they are technically a sport shoe, and therefore suitable for hiking, etc, they don’t really look like sports shoes, so they could be worn to a decent restaurant, but probably not to a wedding.

When traveling light, you want every item in your bag to serve as many purposes as possible. By having two pairs of shoes which overlap in functionality, I simply have that much more flexibility when putting together an outfit.

When packing my bag, I always stuff these shoes with socks, underwear, or other small items, then put them in my bag. They are very light weight (much more so than traditional running shoes), and are also very pliable, which makes them ideal for one-bag traveling.

Beach shoes

For the beach, the obvious choice is flip-flops. You can probably find some that suit you just fine at Walmart for about $2. I wasn’t so lucky. My feet are an odd size–11½ EEE, to be exact. And finding shoes in my size is difficult enough, but finding flip flops in my size is even harder. I did find a pair I like, and they are of excellent quality, so just for the sake of completeness, they are linked here. If you’re curious, you can also read my review of these flip-flops on Amazon. But you can probably find some flip-flops that suit you with much less hassle, not to mention expense.

Slippers

Another item you might consider, especially if you’ll be traveling in colder climates, is a pair of warm slippers. I carry some with me, but during the summer months I practically never use them.

Concluding thoughts

So now you see the four pairs of shoes I travel with. Here are some points that may be relevant to you, and lead you to make a differnt decision than I did for one or more of your pairs of shoes.

  • Do you like the classic leather look?

    If not, you may not want to go with brown leather wingtip shoes. But be aware that wearing sports shoes day in and day out is not considered normal in most of the world, like it is in America. If you’ll be traveling to Europe, or even Mexico, you’ll look very out of place, indeed very “American” if you’re wearing sports shoes every day. So if you think you don’t want classic brown leather shoes, I encourage you to strongly re-consider. Maybe you can find a more casual look that’s still a step up from a sports shoe. Loafers are popular. Do some googling, read a bit on men’s fashion blogs to decide what you’re comfortable with in a style.

  • Do you dance?

    If you don’t dance, a leather sole may not matter at all to you. If not, you can certainly save some money by going with a cheaper brand of shoes, but keep in mind that you’ll likely sacrifice something in quality, at the same time. If you’re prepared to replace your shoes more often, that may not be an issue.

  • What are the proper care procedures for your shoes?

    This probably matters more if you’re buying a pair of leather shoes. If you’re not accustomed to wearing classic, all-leather shoes such as those offered by Allen Edmunds, do a little research into proper care. You’ll need to get your shoes shined (that’s usually easy and cheap to have done on the street wherever you’ll be traveling, so no need to carry shoe polish in most cases).

    Leather (and most materials, honestly) will last longer if it has time to breath between uses. This is one reason I wanted versatile sports shoes. I try to alternate days between my Allen Edmonds shoes and my Vivobarefoot shoes, so that both pairs will last longer.

  • Can you buy replacement shoes on the road?

    I love to travel in Central and South America. It’s practically impossible to buy shoes in my size there. Therefore, high-quality shoes which will last me at least a year are essential. I tend to return home at least once a year to visit family, so replenishing my supply of clothes, shoes, and other supplies on a yearly cycle is reasonable for me. Consider your needs, and the availability of replacements when and where you’ll be traveling. If you can buy replacement shoes easily on the road, you may do just fine to buy a $50 pair of shoes, and replace it every 3 months, versus a $300 pair of shoes that will last a year.

  • Are you comfortable with barefoot shoes?

    The travel convenience of barefoot shoes is amazing. But they aren’t without some drawbacks. They simply don’t offer any arch support. That’s the idea, after all! They’re intended to simply provide minimal protection while giving you a “barefoot” experience. But they also don’t provide any cushion for your heel, and if you’re accustomed to walking in normal shoes, you may quickly find yourself hurting your heels and/or shins. So be sure to read up on how to walk barefoot. Switching to barefoot shoes should be a gradual, and intentional process. Do some research and decide if you’re comfortable with this.

  • Do you want versatile sports shoes?

    Whether you go with barefoot shoes or not, be aware of how versatile you want your sports shoes to be. I chose to go with some sports shoes that don’t look sporty, specifically so that I could wear them in non-sports settings. That may not matter to you.

I hope sharing my shoe experience has been helpful to you. I would love to hear your comments and questions, or if you think I’ve overlooked anything, or you’re aware of some amazing new product on the market, please leave a comment below.

One Comment

  1. Interesting. Useful information even if your only going for an extended vacation. I’d be interested in your “goto” items. The ones you carry that you just can’t go without and are useful for most everyone or might be? And perhaps the things you rely on in the countries you go to that are cheap or free that you or others use on a continuous basis? Either way, I found this, article useful and I am a female… so. .. well done!

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