After years of my girls and friends saying to me, “you should write a travel guide” I have decided to start that conversation. We’ll call this step 1 – packing and preparation. I won’t call myself an expert, just a traveler with quite a bit of experience. What works for me may not work for you, and my girls and husband even pack and travel a bit differently than I do. When I was a kid, my parents and I did a lot of road-trip type travels. We spent two weeks at the beach along the Carolina coast every year with family. It was a laid-back, casual event. We didn’t need many clothes outside of swimsuits, shorts, and flip flops. We also traveled extensively out west, visiting National Parks. Still to this day, my husband and I and our children annually take a road-trip to a favorite National Park out west – we hike by day, and play board games by night – it totally rejuvenates us all. Both of those are completely different from air travel, whether it’s to Chicago or China. When you road trip, you can take whatever you can fit in the vehicle of your choice – it can include beach chairs, tents, hiking boots, coolers, and golf clubs, as well as huge suitcases of clothing. When you travel by air, you really need to consolidate and pack efficiently and smartly. Let me share with you what I’ve figured out over the miles and years of travel.
Often times when I’m traveling with my husband, we are attending a conference or meeting related to his professional interests. Many times, there will be an agenda of events. Some of those might be group dinners, and some might be outdoor activities. Generally, I try to get that agenda ahead of time. I then make a few notes on it – will I need a dress, and if so, how dressy (a dinner in Alaska is usually more casual than one in London). Will I need sneakers for traipsing around a city or museum? Will I need sturdier shoes, like hiking boots? Then I decide on outfits for all of those, trying to use pieces more than once. I once traveled in Europe for 3 weeks in 4 different countries, and took one dress. It was a 3/4 sleeve cotton knit dress that I dressed up with heels and a pretty scarf to wear to a dressy meal at Cambridge University, and later wore with a jean jacket and canvas flats to a less formal event. It was of a fabric that could be packed and unpacked and not wrinkle, and could be hung in a bathroom to steam out if it did happen to get a crease or fold along the way. (also, don’t think you have to spend a lot of money – this is a basic that I picked up from Lands End online probably 10 years ago, and it still looks good). I try to limit myself to just two or three pairs of shoes: sneakers, dressier shoes, and sandals or hiking boots, depending on the destination. I know there is a stereotype about Americans wearing sneakers – I don’t care. I have back issues, and I’m not going to wear an uncomfortable shoe. Most European cities have areas of cobblestone on their streets, and you walk most places there. I try to make sure my sneakers are nice-looking and in good shape, and don’t worry about what others think. I wear the bulkiest pair – usually the sneakers – on the plane, so that my shoes aren’t taking up too much room in the suitcase. If there are instances where I need pants, again, I try to limit myself. I will choose two or three pairs of pants, usually a black pair, maybe one pair of nice jeans, and another lightweight pair. Then, I will choose tops and blouses that can go with multiple of those pants, mixing and matching. You can change up the look with a cardigan (that I usually wear on the plane as a layer) or scarf. Because I’ve made notes on the agenda, when the Tuesday night dinner rolls around, I know what I was planning on wearing, and I don’t have to think about it. I try to choose clothes that pack well, and ones that can be washed out in a hotel sink or tub if needed. No matter where I’m going, I always pack some exercise clothing and a swimsuit. In the U.S., 95% of the hotels have gyms and pools/hot tubs. Sometimes that’s just what you need after a day of travel. There are a lot of hotels in Europe that don’t have them, but I always like to be prepared. The other items that go everywhere are a packable rain jacket (I roll mine up into the hood, reducing how much space it takes up), sunglasses, a knit cap and lightweight pair of gloves. I’ve talked about pants here, but if you prefer skirts or shorts because you’re going to a warmer climate, apply the same rules. However, I have found that even in warm places, I want at least one pair of pants and an outer layer for cool evenings or rainy days.
Now that I’ve gathered my clothes, I see if there is any way that I can trim it down even more so I carry only what I really need. Unless you are going to the Australian Outback or the Arctic Circle, you will find a drug store or grocery store just about anywhere you go – you can get what you forgot when you get there. My goal is to travel with carry-on baggage only (I don’t always manage that, but it’s always my goal). I have a rolling hard-side carry-on that fits in the overhead bin on 90% of the planes, and a large zippered tote with a “trolley sleeve” that fits on the handle of my rolling bag. My clothes go in the hard case; my liquids, and personal items go in the tote. That way, if my hard case has to be valet-checked at the gate, I have my medications and essentials with me at hand. In the tote, I carry a small travel blanket, an e-reader, tissues, ear buds for my music (on my phone) or the movie, some socks, my medications, empty plastic baggies of various sizes (can be used for wet swimsuits or snacks) and all chargers that I need. I love taking photos of where we travel, but have a really good camera on my phone, and will use that if I’m space-limited. However, if we’re off to a safari in Africa or big landscapes like Norway or Alaska, I will pack my large DSLR camera and lens in my hard-side case. Any extra lithium-ion batteries go in the soft tote with the chargers. If it’s a long-flight, I will often also carry a snack like peanut butter crackers or an apple and an empty, reusable water bottle that I fill once I’m through security. Remember that the TSA and the European equivalent have rules about how much liquid you can carry, hence the empty water bottle. The rule is one quart-sized baggie for your liquids, none of which can be over 3 ounces. You can buy travel-sized bottles of shampoo and toothpaste, etc. or, you can purchase empty 3 oz bottles, and fill with your favorite shampoo (the more environmentally friendly option). At this time, most hotels are still putting shampoo, lotion, body gel and sometimes toothpaste in the bathrooms (in Europe it is often large bottles mounted to the shower wall). I feel like more and more American hotels will start shifting to the European model in order to reduce the amount of plastic that is used. I try to use what’s provided, or if I’m going to be there a while, find a store and purchase. That way, I don’t take up valuable space carrying shampoo and lotion. You have to remember what all counts as a liquid: makeup foundation, mascara, deodorant, sunscreen, any liquid medications. Unless you have gone through the background check and paid the fee for TSA Pre-Check (only in the U.S.), you will have to remove this bag of liquids for inspection when going through security, so keep it accessible.
The other stereotype about Americans is that we are loud, colorful, and brash. When I travel, I enjoy seeing how the people in that location live – that means I try to not stand out as someone from away (except for the aforementioned sneakers!). I wear minimal jewelry (I do anyway, but I don’t take anything outside of the simple studs and chain that I normally wear along with my wedding rings), and I don’t carry a big, bulky purse. I usually carry a cross-body purse that can go out to dinner or around a museum. We have experienced several cases of having our credit card numbers stolen in Europe, so now I always use a wallet or purse with built-in RFID blocking technology. I like a cross-body because it keeps my hands free, and yet on a crowded subway, I can pull it close and hold on to it. The only exception is that I will also put in a small wristlet purse to carry lipstick and my phone to a dressier dinner, but this packs flat with my clothes. While I’m traveling, the cross-body purse can be put into that tote that I use on the plane, making sure that I don’t exceed the “one carry-on, one personal item” rule that most airlines have.
The last topic in Travel 101 is what to wear for the journey. In our extensive travels, I have seen it all, from pajamas to formal wear. Here’s my theory: be comfortable but neat. My girls like to wear leggings on flights – I ask them to wear a long shirt, a long cardigan, or dress over them because people really don’t want to see your behind. I will often wear a neat pair of stretchy hiking pants with pockets. My phone or lip balm is easily accessed, but the pants don’t bind me like a pair of jeans will. I usually pair those pants with a long-sleeved lightweight shirt or blouse, and a cardigan or scarf. You would be surprised how chilly the planes get, and like not seeing your behind, people would rather not see your bosom – be covered and neat. In the cases of the planes getting warm, I can remove a layer and be fine. Again, with the sneakers – the best bet for negotiating airports. No matter how well you plan your itinerary, you can never anticipate bad weather, mechanical issues, or heavy air traffic. At some point, you will find yourself running through an airport. Those cute heels or flip flops aren’t going to feel good after you’ve run a mile to the next gate. I do find on long flights that my feet will often swell, so I will remove my shoes once we’re at cruising altitude, and put on a soft, comfortable pair of socks. That way, I don’t walk to the restroom in my bare feet, nor do my feet get cold while in my seat. On short flights, I just loosen the laces, and then retighten them before landing. If you know that you have an event soon after landing that needs dressier clothes or shoes, pack those where they are easily accessible and change in a restroom or lounge as soon as you arrive at your destination. That way, you’ll be comfortable on your flight, and your nice clothes won’t be wrinkled or have tea spilled on them by your seatmate.
The airline should email you a link to your boarding passes. You can print them, or send them to your mobile device (better so you don’t worry about misplacing them). Now, sit back, buckle your seat belt, and enjoy the journey. The attendants will be by shortly with complimentary drinks. Have a great trip!