Travel Tips for Curly Hair

It’s one of travel’s great unanswered questions: Is it possible to have consistently good hair while traveling (or, God forbid, camping)? Having curly hair complicates things even further. So many travel blogs feature (white) women with long, shiny, straight hair and provide travel hair tips like using shampoo bars, limiting yourself to a tiny bottle of conditioner, or using dry shampoo. If these tips don’t work for curly hair at home, they definitely won’t work abroad! Here are some of the tips I’ve gained after years of struggling to replicate my curly hair style on the road:

Know Your Hair

If you have curly hair, you probably already know to take hair tips with a grain of salt. With that in mind, these tips come from years of frying my hair with straighteners and harsh shampoo, getting truly awful haircuts, and being generally embarrassed by my hair. After all these years, I’m finally starting to figure out what my 3b, low porosity, protein loving hair wants. As I’ve become more comfortable with my hair I feel less constrained by it— I’ve had long layerless styles, super-short pixie cuts, and most recently, curly bangs. Every time I change up my style I learn something new! Keep experimenting and get to know your hair before your trip.

The Curly Hair type graph— the first step to getting to know your hair! Source.

By nailing down my at-home routine, I knew what to prioritize while traveling. If you’re wondering where to start, I recommend checking out the curly hair Reddit sub!

Here’s how I usually style my hair at home:

1. Shampoo: I know a lot of curlies are anti-shampoo, but I’ve learned that if I don’t shampoo, my hair feels heavy and lifeless (another reason to get to know your hair!). I use sulfate-free shampoos that cleanse without stripping too much natural oil. Right now I’m using VERB Ghost Shampoo. I love it because it keeps my fine hair volumized without drying it out (I promise this isn’t sponsored!)

2. Condition: Take a palm-full of VERB Ghost Conditioner (I’m telling you, I love this stuff), rake it through (detangling as I go) and let it sit for at least 10 minutes.

3. Turn off shower, rake through leave-in conditioner (or just a bit of regular conditioner if I’m feeling lazy).

4. Gel! My hair needs gel for definition and body. I rake it through then scrunch like crazy. Right now I’m using Aunt Jackie’s Don’t Shrink Flaxseed Gel. I like it fine, but I’m open to suggestions in the comments!

5. Air dry (while shaking my head around every now and then) or diffuse dry.

I’m really bad at making my hair last more than one day, but I try to wear my hair down on the first day, then up in a bun the next day (and any subsequent days…once it’s in a bun, it’s not coming down).

A recent good-hair-day selfie, featuring spontaneous quarantine highlights!

TSA-Proof Your Routine

If you’re flying carry-on-only, which I usually do, make sure your curly hair routine makes it through the TSA check. I can’t tell you the number of nearly-full Shea Moisture tubs I’ve accidentally packed and subsequently lost to an unsympathetic TSA agent. Make sure all your products adhere to the 3-1-1 rule (more tips on this below!). Lastly, because TSA (and, let’s be honest, damn near ever facet of our country) engages in racist profiling, as a Brown Girl™, you probably don’t need me to tell you that you might get singled out for “random” additional screening. On more than one occasion I’ve had a TSA agent aggressively pat my bun (for bombs? Drugs? We’ll never know) while letting girls with blonde top-knots waltz through the scanners. It helps to know what all your products are for so you can calmly explain them to an overzealous agent if you need to.

Prioritize Conditioner!

Every curly haired person knows the “quarter size” recommended amount of conditioner is bullshit. If your curly hair routine is anything like mine, you use a palm-sized glob of conditioner every time you wash your hair. When I relied on just one 3oz bottle of conditioner, it would last me just two or three washes. So what’s a curly headed Brown Girl to do? Double up. Now I travel with at least two (sometimes three!) small bottles of conditioner. In order to fit them in my TSA approved toiletry bag, I replace some of my other liquids with solids that won’t take up any precious space in my quart-sized ziplock. I use a bar of gentle soap that can double as face and body wash and have even switched to using dry “toothpaste tabs” (desperate times call for desperate measures, ok).

Consider Deep-Conditioning Oils

Can you tell I’m obsessed with moisture? Instead of (or in addition to!) packing conditioner, I also pack a 3oz bottle of jojoba or argan oil (heavier oils like coconut and shea butter don’t work for me, but if they work for you, go for it!). Oil goes further than straight-up conditioner and keeps my hair shiny and moisturized. If you don’t want to pack a separate bottle of oil, you can also mix it into your conditioner so it packs more moisture-punch.

When I was traveling through the desert in Jericho, Palestine, my curls needed all the moisture they could get!

Embrace Braids

Travel can be a great time to try out a new protective style, either with your hair or extensions (although if you are getting extensions, get them done a week or so before traveling to give them time to settle). Braid extensions can last up to 6 weeks, so they’re a great option for long term adventures! My hair is too fine for box braids or other extensions, but putting my hair into two braids keeps it from tangling too much and helps prevent breakage.

Bring a Microfiber Towel

I’ve packed my diffuser on international trips and regretted it every time—it takes up a ton of room in my suitcase and it’s always a pain trying to make sure you have the right outlet converter. Instead of my diffuser, I’ll pack a microfiber towel or old tshirt to dry my hair as much as possible without risking frizz and breakage with cheap hotel towels. If I’m traveling soon after showering, I like to hang my towel on the outside of my bag so it can dry in the sun.

One way to travel with curly hair is to cut it all off! Just kidding…kind of.

Final Thoughts: Be Ok with Some “Bad Hair Days”

It sounds cliche, but when I look back on photos where I thought my hair was a disaster, I don’t even notice my hair. Instead I’m thinking about the amazing time I was having.

Sure, my hair is in a bun in 80% of my photos, but I’m not mad about it!

I do everything I can to feel put-together and confident, but I try not to consider it too big a deal if I need to just throw my frizzy hair up into a bun for the third day in a row. Travel is unpredictable, and sometimes curly hair has a mind of its own!

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