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Packing light: A tale of woe and obsession

February 16, 2011

Hats take up a lot of room on planes, and don't fit all that easily into overhead bins. Just FYI.

My favorite psychosis is packing light. I have raised this art to a fine obsession. I bought every book I could find that delineates precisely how many garments to take, what material they should be constructed of, and the most effective packing methods. I have a variety of bags in different sizes to choose from, depending on the length and purpose of the trip, and almost any size or shape packing cube Eagle Creek sells. I have vacuum bags, which compress all the extra air out of your bulkier clothes.

(I feel like the Little Mermaid at this point, when she sings, “I’ve got gizmos and whatsits galore,” but I’m not a cute redhead and I can’t breathe under water.)

I watch videos and online tutorials. I subscribe to traveler’s newsletters. I inhabit luggage stores, touching the merchandise. I used to put myself to sleep at night mentally packing the perfect 3 week wardrobe to Europe, where every piece had to match and you could only take 12 garments. That got to be a little too weird, even for me. Maybe I should go back to it, though, since it’s really hard to get to sleep now.

I am mostly an armchair traveler, but when I get the urge to get up out of my chair, I need to be able to do the stuff my wandering soul yearns to be able to do, and that means packing light enough that I can carry my own bags. This is easier said than done. Age has taken some of my strength and given me arthritis in return—a rotten deal if you ask me. But I haven’t lost my competitive spirit, and being able to carry on your bag, ignoring the carousel at the end of a ridiculously long and noisy flight, is an accomplishment akin to Sir Edmund Hillary’s remarkable ascent of Everest.

The packing world is extremely competitive, a little known fact amongst normal people. I’ll bet you didn’t know there is a huge debate about rolling your garments instead of packing them flat.  And do not mention bags with wheels around dedicated carry-on specialists who are convinced that carrying your bag over your shoulder (or better still, on your back in the form of a backpack) is the preferred way to go. Dedicated travelers know that for the height of cachet, nothing beats the person who can haul all of their possessions for a month or more in a backpack strapped to their backs. God, I want to be this person so badly, but it’s a fantasy.


Note the hidden word "lug" in luggage

Much like the transsexual on the train from Heathrow who stared at me the whole way to Paddington Station, I have a dream to be someone I’m not. I am not someone who actually travels light. I am weighed down by the thing that connects me and the transsexual: cosmetics, makeup and toiletries, also known as Jars of Goo. That which makes me fascinating to people who care about attaining the perfect face (transsexuals, mostly, it seems) is what forces me to check a bag, ever since the nasty TSA people made my life a living hell.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a competitive traveler is the fun of watching another traveler screw up. The ways to screw up are manifold when traveling, so I will tell you what not to do:

Do not pick too big a bag (anything over carry-on size is too big, such as the first bag I bought, 25″). It seems small until you have to carry it yourself up many flights of stairs to get to your room at that delightful B & B that looked so cute online but, it turns out, is short on staff and has no lift. You start with a big bag, you’re gonna find stuff to fill it, so do not give in to that temptation unless you’re going on a cruise (and if you are, please do not write to let me know because I officially hate you).

I learned my lesson recently about overly large and heavy bags and packing more than you really need when Ryan Air threatened me with a £70 overcharge fee if I had the audacity to check a second bag on a short flight. Ever since then, I have become rabid about taking less, because £70 is approximately $112.00, and that’s highway robbery.

Do not buy a heavy bag. Anything over 7 lbs. when empty is too heavy. Think about it; if the airline is going to charge you for a bag that weighs more than 40-50 lbs. depending on your carrier, (and they will) why on earth would you want to bring a bag that starts out heavy?

Do not bring a lot of clothes. This might sound obvious, but you’d be amazed how easy it is to bring only 3 of everything and have enough for a month. As long as you can wash your clothes by hand and you really like the colors (and everything goes together), you’ll be fine with 3 shirts, 3 pairs of pants, a couple of pairs of shoes, a few pairs more of underwear and socks, and some kind of versatile coat or jacket. Black is bad for travel, no matter what anyone says (shows too much dirt). Layers are key.

Do I pack like this? Hell no, but you can, because you’re smarter and more adaptable than I am.

Also, if you’re going to make plane reservations, try going directly to the airline’s website; you’ll most likely get the best prices for seats. I have given up using sites like Priceline or Orbitz, because airlines offer deals to customers who come directly to their site, and treat me better too, possibly because I am their customer, not just some number from the net.

After years of messing about with different sources, I now like to find hotels, and I have learned to accept Rick Steves into my life, even though I hate him and he must be stopped. Unfortunately, in spite of his unctuous and overbearing manner, he is Right, and I bought two of his bags. I went over to the Dark Side after the Ryan Air incident, which scarred me and forced me to see that excess is bad, packing light is good. Doesn’t mean I do it, but I do keep trying. All mountain climbers know what happens when you fail to achieve the summit: you go back next year and try again.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2011 5:04 PM

    Very nice article. And I very much agree on the influence on Ryanair when it comes to turn travellers into Hand-luggage enthusiasts. I am actually down to just travelling with a day pack! And I have just recently stumbled across Rick Stevens and agree with your opinion. Prefering my own bag though.

    • February 16, 2011 5:12 PM

      Do you have a particular bag you like? I was re-reading travel-related sites today, and going over in my mind the small details of things I’m not happy about when it comes to the bags I have. The Eagle Creek Switchback I bought in ’96 still functions just fine and looks okay, too, which blows my mind, considering how old it is. Especially when I compare it to the new EC I bought just last year (and paid through the nose for) which, after only one trip, started coming apart. Such a bad decision, but I didn’t know they had lowered their standards. So now I’ve moved on to Rick Steves’ bags, which seem to be made really well, but I haven’t actually travelled with them yet.

  2. February 17, 2011 8:18 AM

    I’ve been travelling since I was born (Dad used to be an airline pilot and so got me started young – very young) and my most favorite part is the packing. I do it way in advance (in anticipation) and I manage to get all my cosmetics into a plastic case in my hand-luggage. However, with the crazy new rules, I have to sacrifice one outfit to fit in the cosmetics into the luggage for the hold.

    You’re right – I didn’t know about the debate – I always flatten everything out and manage to fit in just what I need. And I despise large bags. Very nice post. I’m thinking about travelling this summer and I’ll really have to figure it out before I go. Last summer I was up in the North near K2 (the second highest peak in the world – and yeah, it’s in my country so it would be silly not to go) and I barely took anything even though I didn’t go hiking. But mountaineers really have it all figured out as I observed. Plus, they hire porters to carry all the heavy stuff.

    • February 17, 2011 10:18 AM

      I think “they hire porters” is hysterical, although you might not have intended for it to be… 🙂 but isn’t that the crux of being able to do the serious mountain climbing you hear all the fuss made about?? Serious mountain climbers have HELP, dammit. We’re on our own lugging those bags!! I have also been traveling since The Dawn of Time; my first flight was at the age of 18 months, and it was the last propellor flight to Alaska. So that means I have been flying a Really Long Time.

  3. MJD permalink
    February 24, 2011 10:09 AM

    I thought I was the only one with this particular obsession. Last year, before a trip to Prague, I spent 2 months making a graphic packing plan for my suitcases. Now I’m getting ready for a trip to Spain and back to studying every possible travel aid and accessory. I, too, have every Eagle Creek tool ever invented. Nothing makes me happier than putting things in small bags. Not even the trip itself.

    • February 24, 2011 10:13 AM

      oh god, welcome to the sickness. I am laughing deep inside. Only one obsessive recognizes another. 🙂 NO ONE understands this need to be hyper-organized. Also, the entire issue of the correct bag for every moment of life… there is a blog entry coming about that…! The exactly right bag is the quest of my lifetime, much more important than the perfect jar of goo. I am not talking about travel bags exclusively, although of course that counts. The exactly right bag equals thousands of dollars during the course of my life, no doubt.

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