I have a love-hate relationship with packing. I love the excitement that comes with shoving all your stuff into a bag, imagining what your fabulous upcoming trip is going to be like, and how you’re going to use each and every one of the meticulously selected items. But I hate the fact that it’s so hard to tell what you will actually use until you’re halfway around the world, likely weighed down by pounds and pounds of things you don’t need and missing at least one necessary item that you can’t believe you forgot. But more than anything, I hate having a bag full of junk in an airport or a train station, having to dig around through a million things to find your passport, fiddling with straps that are too short or a bag that (literally) rubs you the wrong way, all while trying to get your shoes on and off and wondering if anyone is ever going to see the full x-ray photo of your body that was just snapped by that TSA machine. A well-packed bag can make the difference between a relaxing, easy airport experience and an absolutely horrible one.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you won’t have to check a bag at all. But if you do have to check a bag, or if you just want the convenience of not having to lug all of your belongings through the airport, you’ll have to bring something with you on the plane. The above is a typical carry-on for me when I am traveling long-haul to an urban destination (let’s be honest–a trip to Berlin required slightly more frivolous packing than schlepping through Albania or exploring Costa Rica did) with a checked bag. I would pack very differently on a domestic flight or on a flight where I have everything in the cabin with me.
That outfit is comfy (and warm) enough for the plane, but also appropriate enough for whatever I might run into upon arrival, if I needed to re-wear it. Obviously you’ll need to adjust this based on your destination and the weather, not to mention your personal style and comfort-gauge, but for me, tank top-sweater-jeans-ballet flats is the go-to option, with a jacket if the weather requires one. Now, if I was on a domestic flight, I would get dressed in whatever I wanted, stick my Kindle and a snack in my purse and be ready to go. But for those longer flights, I get a little more intense and, after dressing strategically, I always make sure I’ve checked off the following boxes:
1. Medium-sized bag: Not too big that it can’t be used as a carryall-style purse later in your trip, but not too small that it can’t hold all the essentials. For my last trip I used the Baggallini Only Tote which was affectionately nicknamed “the diaper bag” by my traveling companions, because that is exactly what it looks like. I am still deciding how I feel about this bag…on the upside, it’s super lightweight and can fold up pretty well if it needs to be packed, it’s shallow so you can easily see what’s inside and get to it, and it has incredibly convenient pockets. It also holds a lot of stuff, including my DSLR. On the downside, it tends to get a little too wide when it’s fully packed to be held comfortably on your shoulder, and, well, it looks like a diaper bag. I’ll go into more detail in a later post, but the point is, bring a bag that can hold what you need, make sure that it’s comfortable enough to carry around on the plane and once you’ve hit the ground, and make sure you can easily get to the things inside. In the future, I’d like to upgrade to something a little less diaper-baggy, something like this beauty, though leather can be heavy and I would hate to get that thing dirty!
I also try to bring a small purse with me inside the bigger bag (way smaller than the one pictured, which is what I carry daily). For me, this eliminates the frustration of juggling two bags and the difficulty of digging through a bigger bag to find my documents at the airport, as well as keeping all my most valuable items contained in one easy to access place. Once I land, I then have the option of carrying the big bag, for days when I want to take my DSLR with me, or the little bag, when I need less stuff.
Inside my big bag, I have the essentials:
2. Phone/Music Player: I have an HTC Evo 3D which is great because it has the ability to be phone, music player, ereader, translator, camera, etc. etc. etc. all in one. Basically, travel with a smartphone! It’s great. If you don’t have a smartphone, an iPod Touch is a fabulous and totally under-rated travel tool. I used mine to death living in Spain, and I highly recommend it if you don’t want a smartphone or a phone contract. I also use Spotify premium and LOVE it. You can take playlists with you offline, and I think it’s totally worth the $10/month to have unlimited access to music (including a lot of international music) anywhere you go. I have yet to find a reliable way to access Google maps offline, but maps in general on the iPod Touch/Smartphones are a lifesaver and much less conspicuous than a big paper one, though in some places it might be better to wave a paper map around conspicuously than an expensive electronic device…your call.
3. Kindle and charger: I love my Kindle! Before I got one, I read a lot of public domain books on my iPod Touch which is super compact and great for those of you with good, young eyes, but most people find the tiny LCD screen irritating. The Kindle on the other hand, is truly easy on the eyes. Now they’re even smaller (and cheaper) than ever, and with access to tons of free ebooks through the library, I love reading again. If you have the version with 3g you also have the added bonus of free internet access around the world. Not many people realize that, but you can use the 3g to actually go online, check your email, etc. It’s not perfect and it’s a bit of a pain to type, but it’s great in a bind or if you’re unable to travel with a cell phone. And did I mention it’s free??? Instapaper is another great tool that allows you to clip online content to a kindle-friendly offline format. I use it to clip articles about my destination for plane reading. The charger also works with my phone, which means one less cord to pack!
4. A snack and an empty water bottle: You should definitely keep TSA in mind with this category, but it’s always a good idea to bring snacks on the plane and usually they don’t have a problem getting through security. Airport food is gross, expensive, and unhealthy and typically makes me feel horrible, and many airlines no longer offer any food at all, even on the longest of domestic flights. On my last trip, my friend and I brought cheese and crackers, carrots and hummus, and some homemade brownies that in total only cost us each a few bucks and lasted us from SFO to YYZ. It was a bit weird that the hummus wasn’t confiscated, but it was only a $2 investment and was well worth the risk! I also bring a small (empty) nalgene bottle and ask the flight attendants to fill it with water every time they go by to keep hydrated en route. It makes for a much more pleasant journey, and you end up with a little extra space in your bag once you’ve devoured everything.
5. Socks: I like to wear ballet flats because they are compact, dress up or down well, and are easy to deal with at security, but once you’re on the plane, they can be less than snuggly and your feet can get cold. I pack one pair of wool socks that I slip on once we’re in the air. It makes me feel a bit comfier and keeps the airplane chill away.
6. Toiletries: I bring a little mesh bag of a few select toiletries with me that will last me through my journey and will hold me over if my checked bag does not survive the trip. Toothbrush and toothpaste, a baby GoToob filled with facewash, travel-sized deodorant and face/body lotion, nail clippers, tweezers, and only the most essential of make-up supplies: powder, blush, mascara, and chapstick. If I am stranded without all the other stuff, I will survive very comfortably with those things. Never underestimate the usefulness of nail clippers and tweezers when you’re traveling; I literally never go on a trip without them!
7. Pashmina: It’s a scarf! It’s a blanket! It can protect your hairdo from drizzle! It can make you decent enough to enter a Catholic church/temple/other place of worship when you have no sleeves! It can cover that nasty armrest you want to lay your head on at the airport! You can sit on it on the beach! So many uses for a $5 purchase. Pashminas, I love you.
8. Passport-friendly wallet: I don’t like having my passport and my wallet separate from each other. Some people like to spread things out so they don’t lose everything if they get pick-pocketed, others like to go for the money belt. I’ve tried both. I don’t like them. I prefer to have one place where I keep cards, cash, and passport, and I protect it with my life. I found a wallet at Forever21, of all places, that is perfect for this. It’s exactly passport sized, clips shut so nothing falls out, and is still slim enough to carry daily. I’ve also used it every single day for three years, and it hasn’t malfunctioned yet. And it was $6! Woo!
9. Breathmints: Chances are you will be sleeping and/or eating if you’re traveling for more than like 6 hours, and you can’t always break out the full toothbrush, so these are mandatory.
10. Camera: This is just one of those items that I’m never putting in my checked bag. Camera bags do not work for me, so instead I keep my Canon Rebel in a neoprene sleeve that costs….wait for it….$5. And then I pop it in my carry-on. It’s about as compact as you can get, and while the sleeve won’t protect it from everything, it’s a pretty good safeguard from normal bumps and scratches.
So that’s it! It’s not the shortest list in the world, but when I’m going to Berlin, or London, or Barcelona, I’m not exactly in survival mode. I’ll save my survival-mode packing instructions for another post. Packing light doesn’t have to mean being uncomfortable or ill-prepared, and if you do it right, you can make it anywhere in the world while staying pretty, comfy, and entertained!