In a recent post, I admitted to having a packing problem — namely overpacking — so that I have to lug a large suitcase on many plane or train trips rather than a lighter, much handier carry-on-size bag (21 or 22 inches long). It spurred me to write “Seven Reasons for Packing Light,” mostly learned the hard way.
But I like to think that after my last trip — a week-long European cruise in February — that I’ve learned my lesson. I’d convinced myself there were extenuating circumstances: it was winter, so I needed heavier clothes; it was a cruise, so I would only need to unpack once; and it was a business trip (a story assignment), so I needed dress clothes and shoes for the ship’s semi-formal nights.
And, of course, my large bag had wheels, as does virtually every suitcase these days, so I could easily wheel it through airports and on level ground. And it being an overseas flight, there would be no extra charge for checking the bag. So, giving in to what seemed the inevitability of a large bag, I loaded it up with contingency clothes: extra shirts, extra shoes, extra trousers. The “you never know when you might need it” syndrome. It all added up to one heavy, bulky suitcase.
My Big Mistake
New York City train stations and airports are notorious for escalators not working, with no elevators in sight. This means lugging or dragging a heavy suitcase up or down sometimes long — very long — flights of stairs, only to have to squeeze onto a crowded commuter train. What to do with my oversized bag? In my recent case, it meant blocking a crowded train aisle. Conductor not pleased. Other commuters irate, throwing dirty looks. Embarrassing for a professional traveler.
So I’ve decided that unless I’m going on a trip that absolutely requires special equipment — such as heavy hiking boots and hiking sticks and multiple sweaters in the Himalayas — that I’m packing light from now on. That means no checked bags, and no bags I can’t easily carry up or down stairs or get into overhead bins on trains or planes.
Here are 10 general tips on how to pack light. In subsequent posts, I’ll have tips specific to women, and others for men.
* Particularly when it comes to clothing, keep this old chestnut in mind: “Lay out everything you think you need, then pack only half of it.” For instance, if you think you’ll need four shirts, you’ll probably do fine with two. (However, if you lay out so much that half still equals a mound the size of a small-town landfill, you’ll definitely have to check a bag.)
* Another way to look at the above rule: “If in doubt, leave it out.” You can always buy a needed — or wanted — item at your destination.
* Open your (carry-on sized) suitcase and pack your absolute essentials first (nothing terribly valuable, of course, in case you have to gate check your bag or leave it in an overhead bin that’s out of sight; valuables go into your “personal” carry-on, such as a shoulder bag, backpack, or briefcase that will fit under an airline seat).
Once you’ve packed your essentials — and I’m talking shoes (preferably one pair, while you wear the other en route), underwear, one or two shirts, a pair of trousers (you’ll wear the other on the plane), a few socks if you’re wearing shoes other than sandals), toiletries with TSA-approved small-sized containers, a crushable hat or cap for sun protection, and some specific items for women and men that I’ll get to in subsequent posts — then you can add borderline items only if there’s space. For example, you may want to pack bulky computer cords or charging equipment in this bag if you’re reasonably sure it won’t be out of your sight.
* Take advantage of “miracle” fabrics that can be washed out and dry easily overnight or even while you’re eating lunch. That means you can wear them over and over, even if they get sweaty, and they are much lighter and more breathable than wool, cotton, etc. I have a down “sweater-jacket” that can roll up into a small stuff bag that’s easily crammed into the corner of a suitcase. It fits snugly and provides warmth, especially if worn under an outer jacket if needed.
* Use packing cubes. Rather than digging around in your suitcase for an elusive pair of socks, pack your shirts (or underwear, trousers, etc.) in packing cubes — nylon containers that fasten with Velcro or zippers and keep your clothes neat and unwrinkled. You don’t even need to unpack them at your destination — just remove a piece of clothing as needed and if it’s still clean after wearing, fold and return it to the packing cube.
*Use compression packing bags. These are bags you fill with dirty clothes (usually) and then roll them up as a one-way valve pushes out the air, forming a flattened pack that takes up much less space and keeps your dirty clothes separate as well.
* Use every inch of space. Stuff extra socks or anything you can roll up into a small ball (such as a belt) inside packed shoes or anything hollow.
* Wear your heavy jacket, blazer, or heavier pair of shoes onto the plane so you don’t have to pack them. Fill pockets with extra handkerchiefs, Kleenex packs, etc.
* Remember that in general, as a leisure traveler you won’t be expected to be as turned out and stylish as you might be at home. Still, there are easy ways to look good (tips on those to come in subsequent posts).
* This may seem obvious, but it’s commonly overlooked amid all the other last-minute travel arrangements: check the weather at your destination before you pack. If it’s going to be dry and sunny, leave your rain gear at home. (It’s always prudent to carry a compact, fold-up umbrella, however.) If the weather is going to be cool and you’ll be nowhere near a beach, sandals are probably dispensable.
* Be sure that your personal carry-on — where you carry your passport, wallet (or extra wallet — more on that in the men’s tips post) or little purse, any other valuables, prescription medications, electronic equipment (laptop, tablet, cell phone, charger, etc.), reading material — is large enough to hold what’s needed and that your passport, cash, and a pen (for filling out forms) are readily accessible. Having shirt or jacket pockets while traveling is also extremely handy.
Next up: Packing tips for women.
Readers, if you have any favorite packing tips that I haven’t covered, please feel free to add by leaving a comment — thanks!
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