Category Archives: Packing

Practical Souvenirs: Shopping for Peshtamals in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

My trip to Turkey was a quick one.

In planning our trip to Lisbon from New York, the only airline offering a fare that was even close to reasonably priced was Turkish Airlines, and, being a Turkish carrier, the majority of their international flights include a layover in Istanbul. Now, Istanbul is most definitely not on the way to Lisbon when you are coming from New York. In fact, it is almost laughably out of the way, but in the interest of saving about $400 on the airfare and getting in a short trip to Istanbul, we decided to take the plunge.

Our layover only gave us 21 hours in the city, so we just decided to see the best known sites and save the rest for another trip. After being there for less than a day I can now say that I will most definitely be back, because even the little taste that we got of the place was incredible.

After a ridiculously short night of sleep in a hot, smelly hostel, and a very early wake-up call facilitated by the azan of the Blue Mosque and some very noisy seagulls, we took off to make our rounds. Our first stop was a quick run-through of aforementioned Mosque, followed by a trip to Hagia Sophia, which was shockingly beautiful. Then we had an obligatory visit to the Spice Market, where we stuffed ourselves with free samples of Turkish delight and some fabulous, sweet apple tea before heading over to the main event. The Grand Bazaar.

I feel like I wanted to go to the Grand Bazaar before I ever really knew what it was. When I was little, the idea of a bazaar, any bazaar, was so exciting and so exotic that I always fantasized about the possibility of exploring one and picking up all kinds of wonderful things to bring home.

Unfortunately, after a week in Portugal where I eagerly snapped up all kinds of ham, canned fish, seasoned salt, and other goodies, I had very little room left in my one bag. In the end, that didn’t stop me, but the initial hope of finding the perfect compact souvenir from Turkey led me to a few stalls selling these:

After a bit of poking around, I learned that these are peshtamals (peştamal in Turkish), or hammam towels. They are basically vey soft, very thin towels that come in a variety of beautiful colors and shapes, and they can be used for just about anything, from actual towel to scarf to beach blanket to tablecloth. They are made to be portable, lightweight, absorbent, and fast drying, which makes them awesome for all kinds of things.

One of the most practical souvenirs I ever brought home was a picnic blanket that I bought on a whim in Paris and now use ALL THE TIME like six years later, so I thought this could be a very useful gift to myself. It also is overall a very practical travel item as it can be used for a million different things without taking up too much room in your suitcase. I’ve gotten used to traveling with some kind of lightweight cloth that can be used as a towel or blanket while traveling, starting first with a cheap sarong, then graduating to a more durable microfiber camp towel (quite possibly in one of the best purchases I’ve ever made), and it’s shocking how convenient it can be to have something like that with you on the road. I love my REI towel, but a peshtemal is a much more fashionable alternative, and almost as compact. If there is any possibility of having a beach visit or an impromptu picnic, either at home or while traveling, I love to have something like this in my bag.

I ended up buying a lovely, soft, white and light blue one and my friend picked up two more in other colors. They packed down into nothing and were the perfect soft blanket on the lonnnnng plane ride back to San Francisco. Even better, they were cheap! About $6 or $7 each, which, for the quality that we got, is a lot better than what you can find online in the states, though there seem to be some good deals available on Etsy.

My only regret is that I didn’t get more! I ended up buying a set of actual Turkish cotton bath towels that were not very practical for packing into a tiny suitcase, but I probably should have invested in a few more peshtemals instead. Right now I’m using mine as a throw in my bedroom, mainly because I don’t want to get the pretty little thing dirty, but I might have to bust it out and use it as an actual towel come summer.

Istanbul was absolutely overflowing with wonderful things that could be brought home as gifts, but if you’re looking for something easy and practical that’s not a food item, a peshtamal is the way to go! For more information on where to get them while at the Grand Bazaar, see here or here, or just look around for a while, you’re bound to see them all over the place.

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Carry On: Vacation-Worthy Tote Bags

In June, I went to Portugal and Turkey. We decided to fly Turkish airlines because it was way cheaper than any other airline. Actually, I never would have gone on this trip had I not found that affordable airfare, so thank you, Turkish Airlines for making this vacation happen! But considering our very short layover in Istanbul on the way to Lisbon (and yes I do know that Istanbul is not on the way from New York to Lisbon…gotta save money, people!!), and the fact that I was unfamiliar with Turkish Airlines outside of the terrible reviews they receive online, I was a bit nervous about our baggage making it along with us (more on my experience with the airline later). I packed everything I could into a domestic-sized carry-on wheelie, but alas, it was rejected when I tried to check in at JFK. After a brief catty exchange with the attendant (sorry, attendant), we boarded, and our bags were promptly lost.

Luckily we got everything back on our second day in Lisbon, but after being there for two days without all of my clothes, makeup, toiletries, and other personal effects, I realized two things: 1. I do not need as much stuff as I thought while I travel and 2. The stuff that you actually need should be carried with you, and chances are it can fit easily into a tote bag. The tote bag I brought on my trip, which cost me a whopping $2.95 at H&M three years ago, was an absolute lifesaver on this trip. Lightweight, collapsible, and cheap enough that I didn’t mind getting sand/food/street dirt all over it, it was the perfect daily carryall when I wanted to tote around my DSLR and everything else that I “need” on a daily basis. I’ll detail all of those necessities in a later post, but for now, here’s a roundup of vacation-worthy tote bags of all styles, shapes, and sizes.

Vacation-Worthy Tote Bags

Clockwise from top left: Everlane Striped Tote ($35), Thursday Friday Birkin Tote, Similar Here ($65), Madewell Transport Tote ($168), Rennes Riley Tote ($220), Zara Ombre Tote, Similar Here (on sale now in stores for $70), Ann Taylor Loft ($4.88!! Sold out, but there is a DIY here)
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An Unending Battle: Finding Comfortable, Non-Hideous Travel Shoes

Every time I go on a trip that will involve lots of walking in an urban environment, I face the same dilemma: what shoes do I wear? This sounds absolutely ridiculous, I know, but it is an extremely valid question. If you’re not comfortable, you’re not going to enjoy your trip to the fullest. And if you don’t look good while you travel….well….come on, you want to look good in all those pictures you are going to take! I’ve sacrificed style for practicality before when it comes to baggage, but I have a really hard time with shoes. I would love the FEELING of wearing my Asics Gel Kayanos while traveling….but I wouldn’t be able to stand the sight of myself.

When I went to Germany last year, I thought I had found the solution in some Bensimon knock-offs from Old Navy (mine were grey corduroy), but I ended up in SERIOUS PAIN by the time we were a week or so into our trip. Seriously, I was hurting. We had been walking so much that my ankles and feet and everything were just super swollen and awful, and it honestly made the last few days of my trip way less enjoyable. Also, you should not wear shoes like that in the rain with no socks and expect them not to stink. Just sayin’.

So what is a girl to do? Don’t even think about Googling “comfy travel shoes” because “cute” and “stylish” take on WAY different meanings in any results that you’ll find. I always break down and just stick to the classics, like black leather ballet flats, but those will honestly kill you after you spend a week walking every day in them. Honestly. I walk a lot. I walk to work, to the store, to the gym; everywhere. But walking on vacation is a whole different beast.

The only kindred soul that I have found that has a good answer to this question is here:

photo credit: les anti-modernes (click through image for link!)

She honestly provides the only legitimate round-up I’ve ever seen on comfy shoes to wear while traveling while not looking….too comfortable (plus great posts on other super stylish travel-friendly basics! check it out!) . I can’t say I agree with all the  suggestions; I’ve got both low-top and high-top Chuck Taylors and I can’t walk more than 100 feet in them without blowing out the arches in my very flat feet, but they’re still a great classic for a lot of people.

I still haven’t found a go-to shoe for travel that satisfies all my very finicky needs. I bought these many years ago when I was leaving to study abroad and faced the same conundrum (and when they cost about twice as much as they are now!), but I just don’t love them:

adidas silver streak

Alas, the hunt continues. I’ll probably leave these guys at home when I set out for Portugal next month, which only leaves me with aforementioned ballet flats and sandals (and these guys if I’m feeling adventurous), which could be a serious mistake. Any good travel shoes out there (or inserts that can span the comfy-cute gap)?

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Packing the Perfect Carry On Bag: Ten Things to Bring to Make Long Flights Less Awful (For Girls)

Practical Carry-on to Europe
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.
My favorite personal example of the horrible carry-on-effect was the day that I was trapped in Madrid Barajas airport for 27 hours due to an unexpected holiday season snowstorm. Upon arriving at the airport I found out that my single checked bag was drastically overweight and I ended up having to check the backpack I was using as a carry on to redistribute. As a result, I had to use a re-usable polyester shopping bag as my carry-on (great bag, just better used at the market!), I accidentally checked my iPod (which, as an extra slap in the face was later stolen out of my suitcase), my cell phone ran out of batteries (charger, again, in checked bag), and I had LITERALLY 2 (euro) cents left in my checking account. I ended up in tears, alone, sleeping in a luggage cart after fruitlessly waiting for ten hours in a line to get on a new Iberia flight, and very, very hungry. Eventually I got back home (about 42 hours later), ate, and recovered most of my possessions, but I will ALWAYS pack and prepare more carefully as a result of that trip.
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.
For me, the carry-on fulfills two purposes: 1. To hold all the things I want/need during my flight, and 2. To hold the things I would absolutely need in the event that my checked bags were lost. If bags are lost on your outbound flight, there is no guarantee you will see them at all on your trip, and that could be a major bummer/vacation-ruiner. For that reason, I make sure to wear a layered outfit on the plane that could take a re-wearing or two if necessary, like this (disclaimer…these are random items picked off polyvore, I WISH I could afford $500 shoes and a $500 scarf…..I must confess I do have the bag though!):
Comfy Travel Outfit

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!

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The Eagle Creek Pack-it Folder: A Review

Normally when I go on a trip, packing is easy. Or at least that is the way it’s always been for me in the past. Twice I’ve utilized my enormous rolling suitcase (like 50-70lbs when fully packed enormous) for trips lasting over four months where I knew I’d be staying in one place. Once I even used that same enormous suitcase for a two week trip that didn’t involve much moving around. Other times, I’ve packed my backpack with the essentials for my destination of choice and the appropriate season. Summer in Albania was easy: It would be hot and dry and I packed super light. Spring in Costa Rica was also a piece of cake: nothing fancy, just bathing suits, shorts, and tennis shoes for muggy, hot outdoorsy-ness. I never really needed to pack super tight because I always knew what was in store. But packing for my last trip (to Germany and Denmark in the fall) was a different story. I was traveling for only about ten days, but the weather was all over the place: 50 degrees one day, 80 the next. Raining, then blazing sun. On top of that, it was an urban trip and I wanted to look presentable: no dirty tank tops and flip flops on this trip (well, not at the beginning of the trip at least!). Packing light is nice, but there were pictures to be taken people! I also knew that I wanted to take my backpack (no more pulling rolling suitcases up metro stairs for me!), but was concerned about having to get in and out of a top-loading pack when I knew it would be absolutely crammed with stuff, not to mention fitting it all in there in the first place! Enter the completely unexpected solution to my packing problem: the Pack-it Folder. I had been looking around at a variety of websites and travel blogs where people go into rather crazy detail about their packing habits and preferences, and this weird little envelope just kept popping up. The idea of folding all my clothes into one pile didn’t seem like the logical solution to my problem. I was skeptical, but I decided to give it a try.

The Eagle Creek brand of these packing folders (there are others by Magellan and similar companies too) is available lots of places, including REI and the Container Store.  The idea is that you use the plastic insert as a guide to fold up your clothes and then you stack the folded items into the envelope, folding the whole package together with velcro closures. It seems to be designed with men’s collared shirts in mind, but I found that it works even better for casual women’s clothes since they tend to be smaller and less finicky to fold. I gave up on using the folding board after my first use because I realized that I could fold my clothes in any way i liked and still get a LOT of stuff into this folder. The label says 8-12 shirts, but I found that its optimal capacity was more like: 5 women’s tank tops, 5 cardigans, 1 pair jeans, 1 pair black pants, 3 blouses, 2 dresses, 2 pairs shorts, 1 pair pajamas….basically everything but thick sweaters and jackets will fit surprisingly nicely.

Once your clothes are in, you place the plastic folding insert back on top and velcro it all up like an envelope. It seals up pretty tight, so things stay in place and don’t shift around too much (I found that when it’s super packed things do shift a bit, but far less than they would loose in your bag!). I have the 18-inch model, which slides snugly into my Osprey Exos but might be too tight for bags even a little bit smaller. It doesn’t fit into my smaller North Face Recon or my Baggallini Only tote at all. When you need to access your packed clothes, you simply pull out the whole folder and peel off the layer you need, replacing the rest. Clothes stay as neatly folded and wrinkle-free as you’d expect them to be in a well-filled drawer in your house. The whole process is much easier than pulling out everything each time you need to get to those socks at the bottom of your pack, and less frustrated than pulling out a bunch of small vacuum or compression bags and trying to remember which item is in which bag. I even managed to add a new purchase, my Oktoberfest dirndl from C&A, into the envelope, which I totally thought was at capacity when I departed California. All in all, this envelope is awesome for both for urban backpacking as well as singe-destination trips where you want more room in your suitcase or are just trying to stay wrinkle free.

This folder won’t fit everything; I mentioned jackets before but bras, socks, etc are also not going to fit into this thing with any kind of efficiency, so little mesh zipper bags are a great addition to this method of packing. I get mine for $1.50 at Daiso in San Francisco, but you can probably get them at any dollar store, or travel stores if you want to pay more.

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