Travel Tips: how to pack

I love to travel.  I love being in a new city and learning how to navigate unfamiliar streets and neighborhoods and eating at restaurants that I can’t find at home.  I love getting caught up in conversations with locals, whether in my native tongue or theirs, and discovering what they love about their homes and the things that they’re interested in finding out about visitors.

What I think makes me different from the other billions of people in the world who also like to travel is that I also love the travel part itself.  I love figuring out how to pack everything I’ll need for my trip into a carry-on suitcase.  I love the drive to the airport, I love getting through security efficiently, and I love having just enough time to have a glass of wine before getting on my flight.  One of my non-super superpowers is that once my seat belt clicks shut, I can fall asleep in under three minutes (although this might be a sign that I operate in a state of constant sleep deprivation).  Striding through the airport weaving through sleepy travelers makes me feel productive and invincible. 

And so I humbly offer a few packing tips; I can’t promise that these are new or revolutionary or that you haven’t read them in other places.  I can promise you that I put these into practice every time I take a trip, and they never let me down.

1) Avoid checking bags.  When you check your bag, you invite the airline to misdirect it or lose it altogether.  I’m not at the point yet where I believe the airlines do this on purpose to spite us, but I’ve had too many bags not arrive in cities at the same time that I do to feel comfortable checking.  Sometimes it’s unavoidable (like when you buy a bottle of wine or three or end up purchasing too many purses in Buenos Aires (they were gifts) (mostly)), but I try to risk it only on the return flight home, where I know I have plenty of clean underwear.

2) Get a high quality, carry-on bag.  During the summer, I can pack two weeks’ worth of clothes and shoes and provisions into my rollerbag.  I confess that while my carry-on is only 20-inches high, it is also a couple of inches wider than your average bag (I don’t want to measure it at the moment, but picture a bag that’s less rectangular and more square).  The sum of the dimensions is still well within the limit, but the extra couple of inches in width ensures that I can get everything in and the overhead compartment door will still close without having to turn the bag sideways.  (Turning the bag sideways is an inefficient and RUDE use of shared space.)  It’s important that the quality of the bag be high enough that you don’t end up having to check it because the wheels have come off or the telescoping handle will no longer telescope.

3) Don’t pack your whole wardrobe.  For most weekend trips, I can pack what I need into an average-sized backpack.  This is necessary if you’re forced to connect and the time between connections does not allow you to wait for the airline to get your bag from under the plane to the jetway.  I had a friend try to detract from my ability to pack light, saying it was easier because I’m a girl and my underwear and shoes are smaller.  (I’ll concede the shoe issue, but I won’t concede the underwear issue; you’ll see the reason why in a moment.)

What it boils down to is that you have to accept a certain amount of flexibility in hygiene, i.e., being willing to wear your jeans more than once or twice before expecting to wash them and your t-shirts a couple of times.  I do pack enough underwear for 1.5 times the number of days that I’ll be gone (some levels of hygiene flexibility are a bridge too far), but I also assume that I’ll be able to rinse things out in the bathtub or sink if clothes get too stinky.  I also try to pack things in a single color family to mix and match, and I’ll try to pack only one pair of shoes but no more than two (a pair of heels and a pair of flats, and I travel in my tennis shoes, which take up the most space in a bag).

If you’re traveling for work, it can get trickier, but I’ve found that most people understand that you didn’t want to pack your closet or check a bag and that most people also don’t look that closely at other people’s clothes.  As a woman, you can make a skirt, a pair of pants, a jacket, and a cardigan look like a million different outfits just by switching out your top and accessories.  When I was traveling to a different city every day, it was even better, because I packed one suit and three shirts, just like the men do.  I used to pack a bottle of Febreze for the nights when I was too tired to rinse, but with the liquids rule, I can’t always count on having the space in my Ziploc baggie.  Hygiene-wise, I understand if this is a bridge too far for you.

4)  Roll your clothes.  I’ve seen the ads for the cubes and the vacuum-packed plastic bags.  Waste of money.  The best way to maximize every cubic inch of your bag is to roll your clothes.  If you do it right, they won’t wrinkle too badly (I have a lower tolerance for ironing and therefore a higher tolerance for light wrinkling than most).  If you travel a lot for work, then you should already have purchased a rollerbag with a suiter sleeve that will keep your suits and dresses wrinkle free, especially if you keep them in the plastic bag the drycleaner gave you.  Pack things like socks and scarves last, because you can jam them into small, awkward spaces that didn’t get filled by your shirts, skirts, or pants.

5) Travel-sized items are your friends.  I’ve had friends tell me they had to check their bags because of their hair products, including shampoo and conditioner.  No.  I am not an adventurous traveler, so you won’t find me in random third world countries trying to make do in a hostel, but I have never traveled anywhere that my lodging did not offer shampoo and conditioner.  They might not have been in my first choice brand, but they were there.  Risking the perfection of your hair is infinitely preferable to risking the airline losing your bag.  In the former situation, your hair may look wonky in a few photos, but in the latter situation, you’ll be wearing the same increasingly dirty outfit in more of your photos than you intended until the airline pulls it together (and pulling it together for your benefit is never the airline’s priority).  If your products do not come in travel-sized containers, either start testing new brands so you can switch, or invest in the cute bottles they have at the Container Store or Wal-mart.  Also, the economy is global, which means that if you must have your preferred, non-travel-size brands with you, you can buy them at your destination.  Don’t gum up the beginning of your trip waiting for your bag at the carousel if you don’t have to.

6)  Ladies, your purse counts as a personal item.  Accept it, and move on.  You may get away with it some of the time, but you won’t get away with it all of the time, and hearing you complain and whine that “I’ve never had to consolidate before,” is going to earn you disdain from all the other women and men around you who managed to pack all their stuff into a rollerbag and a computer bag.  There’s a limited amount of space for items carried onto a plane.  We all have to share it.  Please don’t be the churl who takes up more than your fair share because you carry a gigantic purse in addition to your gigantic computer bag.

That’s all for now.  The next installment of tips will likely be an angry one about the lack of civility and courtesy at the airport and ways to avoid being THAT GUY/GAL.  If you have tips of your own, please share them in the comments.  See you at the airport!

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9 Responses to Travel Tips: how to pack

  1. Jessica says:

    When I started traveling, I stopped buying anything made even partially of linen. I love the way it looks in catalogs, but i hate the way it comes out of a bag. Even if it’s meant to be wrinkly, it looks awful.

  2. jhofmann0116 says:

    On the subject of airline etiquette for future blogs…it is customary to deplane from front to back. Therefore, if you are sitting in row 34, the folks in rows 1-33 should be getting off before you, unless these kindly travelers are elderly or need additional assistance that they are patiently waiting for until the rest of the travelers have disembarked. Jumping up into the aisle as soon as the seat belt light goes off does not entitle you to get off the plane sooner. CTFD.

    • YES. I would have included it anyway, but this is an EXCELLENT reminder. I love it when people run me over with their bags in the aisle of the plane. Why is where you’re going more important than where I’m going?

      • KT says:

        Ordinarily I follow that etiquette.
        In all things.
        But when I had my mini vaca, I had a connecting flight, and only 15 minutes to get off the plane and to my connecting flight. Flight 1 was significantly delayed. So my attitude became “screw all y’all I’m getting off asap!” But Flight 2 was also significantly delayed. I had asked a flight attendant if there was a way to find out if Flight 2 was on time or not. But she was singularly unhelpful.
        Also. Churl.

  3. AZ says:

    I was absolutely anti-bag-check. Until the kids. And now I get it (and it’s unavoidable for us). But I do not understand the poor saps milling around the baggage carousel who do not appear to have rugrats in tow.

    • I think the childless people at the baggage carousel need more creature comforts from home and care more about their appearances than I do (I understand that it shows). I always feel relieved for parents when I see their children toting their own backpacks, even though it may contain only a single book or stuffed animal.

  4. CA says:

    I’ve been checking bags a lot lately, because I haven’t reached a status level where I am guaranteed overhead space. This would be less of an issue if people grasped the concept of appropriate size and content of the overhead bin. PUT SOMETHING UNDER THE SEAT IN FRONT OF YOU. And yes, the hat is lovely, but it does not belong overhead. Hold onto it or leave it at home.

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