Packing tips for travelling light

travel packingI have been amazed to notice that many people don’t know how to pack for a trip. They bring too much stuff, random things, too many shoes, the wrong types of clothes, thrown in a suitcase in panic and without much order. And I am not even talking about men who don’t know how to pack, because their wives have been doing it for them their whole life (oh, yes, these still exits!) and who – after 30 years in the same house – still don’t know where their socks are … Even younger and more travel-savvy people I know are unable to travel light and pack like rats fearing a famine.

I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I have realised that some tips I try to follow could be useful for others (secretly hoping that my husband will read this and that next time he will not insist on me packing, because “you do it so much better than me!”):

  • Consider how you travel (car, train, plane) and the worst case scenario (you end up having to carry all your luggage for a long stretch). Take the luggage that you can carry with you or roll in front of you, if you are forced to by unexpected circumstances. A good combination can be: A suitcase with 4 wheels (easy to roll) and a small backpack. In case you need more space, you can add a big tourist backpack. If you are only going for a weekend a small backpack and a small cabin case with wheels (with a folding extra bag in your handbag for stuff you may buy), or just the cabin case may be enough. In this case, less is best !
  • Consider where you are going: in most destinations, there are a lot of things you can buy – at the seaside, you may easily find sunscreen, flip-flops, towels or sunhats… cosmetics (shampoo, etc…), basic foodstuffs can be got everywhere, so take just enough for a day or two. There may not be a need to carry everything with you from home unless you have special requirements. Clothes like T-shirts, skirts, dresses, sweaters or scarves can also be easily bought, so don’t bring too much stuff – focus on those where it may be difficult to find the right size – shoes, pants, bras… General tip: bring a small quantity of what is key to your mental wellbeing – I bring a little reserve of good black tea with me and this has saved the day on several occasions when I was only offered “Lipton yellow” or even “fruit tea” instead of the real thing!
  • Clothes – I will not go into these, as there a hundreds of posts that detail how to pack clothes. I usually go with a few basics and at least two pairs of comfortable shoes – always wear the most bulky pair as this saves space in your luggage. And a little bag of ethnic jewellery and one or two scarves to spice things up or cover your head and neck to protect from the sun/air-conditioning. On long flights, it’s good to have a change of underwear and an extra T-shirt in your hand luggage so that you can freshen up or survive if they lose your luggage. (General tip: clothes folded and then rolled get crumpled much less and are easier to pack/fit better. Always bring an extra pair of warm socks and a few paracetamol pills.
  • Books/phones/paper/tablet – most of it on me, with at least one charger. For books, either the Kindle or the tablet works so that I don’t bring paper copies anymore with me most of the time. I find that books in english can now be bought almost everywhere, at least on the airports and in many places (hotels, cafes) there are book-sharing arrangements that are actually quite nice – it brings you to discover books you might otherwise not read. Or – my favourite – you just pick up books about the place where you are. This is possible now virtually everywhere. With Amazon, I sometimes download them directly on my kindle or tablet in the hotel or at the airport while waiting. Always a ballpoint pen or a marker on me – to fill forms, write down something, you never know. One set of headphones can be also useful to listen to music.
  • Passports/tickets/keys – I prepare all of this in a plastic pouch the night before leaving. I include printed out reservations of plane tickets, hotel reservations, addresses, possibly even little maps of the places, highlighting contact/telephone numbers. If possible in the order in which I will need them. Saves for last-minute panic. (Good tip: send a copy of all your docs on your e-mail in case you lose them/have them stolen.)
  • Handbag – I find it practical to have a little envelope handbag for the paper and tickets my phone and keys, that I can keep out when needed and then stash it in the backpack – to only have one piece of on-board luggage if needed. An extra folding textile shopping bag (Decathlon does even tiny foldable backpacks.) can be extra practical. For those who travel in style you cannot go wrong with a pliage or two from Longchamp.
  • Risk mitigation: I have rarely had my luggage lost, but it happens. How to make sure it does not affect you too harshly? If you have two bags – divide the things between the two – 3 pairs of socks in one, 3 in the other, one pair of pants in each, etc… if they lose both the bags, complain immediately, go shopping for what you need and get reimbursed by the airline. Always have some basics with you in your hand luggage (underwear, toothbrush, phone charger, keys, medication). Also, if you can, don’t pack fresh foodstuffs in luggage that you check-in… Cheese can get really smelly after travelling around for a few days… although it may make the luggage easier to find, you will not want to wear any of the contaminated clothes afterwards. Extra tip: it is good to separate the money you bring and your documents in 2 wallets and stash the other at the bottom of your handheld luggage and keep the other one at hand – some cash (paper) in a pocket can prevent you from taking out you wallet in crowded places such as airports or train stations on departure/arrival and becoming a target for pickpockets. Tip for ladies – one or two pads/tampons (even if it’s not that time of the month) can be a life saver on a trip.)
  • Awkward size/fragile objects – you can travel with some less traditional stuff: Hats are easy – The Panama hat goes on the head and you take it off on arrival. Snowboards, bikes or strollers can be checked-in. Guitars or similar instruments you can take on board on some airlines and the air hostess will put it in a cupboard in the plane. Anything that could be damaged you can have wrapped in plastic at the airport but remember to save time for this before check-in. (Tip: if you check in a bike, don’t expect to ride it on arrival – for security reasons they will empty the tires before putting it on the plane – so either you have a pump with you or you walk !)
  • Particular attention should be given to liquids or similar items: Wine bottles are tricky – but I have come back from Cyprus with a suitcase checked in with 6 bottles of wine rolled in 2 T-shirts each and all were fine. Honey can be a real bastard if it leaks… several plastic bags can help, but are no guarantee. Careful with open shampoo bottles and toothpaste… For most destinations, careful with powders – I have recently travelled with a plastic bag covered in tape full of powdered milk – no problem, but a friend had a lot of explaining to do when at arrival in an unnamed african airport, her suitcase was “leaking” a strange white powder – actually a ruptured bag of starch she was bringing from home for cooking.
  • Extra plastic bags can be useful, stuff 2 or 3 in “empty holes” in the suitcase. For dirty laundry for example – such as the T-shirt on which the baby sitting next to you in the airplane has “accidentaly” thrown up after you complained that it cries too much… A roll of strong tape can also go a long way. In the worst case to try to hold together your suitcase that has burst at the seams because you have been trying to put too many things in.
  • Specific car tips – one extra bag for trash and a bottle of water inside the car, food and drinks in a separate bag to take inside. If you have lots of luggage fill a soft bag full of clothes (sweaters, blankets, towels) and you can use it as a pillow inside the car. A little pouch next to the driver’s seat with coins for peage and a quick drink. Sunglasses and a folding umbrella at hand. A car charger for phone can be a good thing to have. No smelly stuff, no milk if possible (old milk spills smell terrible), if you have luggage on the front seat, attach it with the seatbelt so that it doesn’t fall on you in a sharp turn.

What else ? Well, some people make lists and these can be helpful, but whatever you do, there will be things that you will forget and you will think of those exactly half-way to the airport, when there is no time going back. Of course, when you are travelling with kids, like I am now, the rules change, but that would be a whole other type of blog post… Bon voyage !


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