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July 17, 2009

Q&A Friday

My favorite days are the ones where I get interesting email questions (as opposed to "Will you send me a picture of yourself in pantyhose?"), and lots of people wanted to know the same thing as reader Heather:

How do you pack such a small suitcase? How long is your trip and what do you take in order to take something so small? I pride myself in packing light, but I think you've got me beat. Can you share your secret?

Never in a million years did I imagine I could go anywhere with just a carryon bag. I used to need a sherpa to travel just for a weekend away. When I went to my first book expo in New York City, I took a huge suitcase and had to pay an overweight fee for the bag -- for a three day, two-night stay! I neglected (probably out of shame) to take a picture of my luggage for that trip. Here, however, is what I packed for a trip to Paris with my girl friends back in 2006:


That's a purse, my same old shoulder bag I always use, plus a giant flowered expandable upright rolling bag. It weighed 2,000 pounds. (For all the people who have asked about my shoulder bag, I bought it years and years ago in Santee Alley, near the garment district in downtown Los Angeles, sorry!)

As it turns out, I was NOT the girl who packed heaviest for that trip, though! The honor for most over-packed traveler goes to Shannon:

Amen, sister.

During my book tour I didn't bother packing light since I had no idea what all I would need or who I would meet or what shoes would make my ass look skinnier. For a trip to Portland and Seattle I took all this:


There's my little Samsonite rolling bag there on the left, along with a Charles David purse which is almost the same size as the boarding bag (!!) and of course a giant, overstuffed suitcase. If I ever had to tour again I would probably do the same and just pack extra wine in the checked luggage. Touring is stressful.

Going from the gigantor suitcase me to the carryon me has been a process. I started before my trip to Rome by doing a trial run -- a month before I was scheduled to leave for Italy, I visited my family in Florida for a three-day weekend and I took a rolling duffel bag (kind of like this one, or close to it) and my shoulder bag. Even though I didn't have any problems with the airline staff, I realized while boarding that the duffel bag was actually a little too big to be regulation carryon size. It fit in the overhead but just barely. And when I got to Florida I was still missing some critical items (contact solution, for one) and I had too much unnecessary stuff, mostly clothing.

For my trip to Rome I just checked a bag. It was my first trip abroad by myself and trying to anticipate my every need was too stressful. A few months later I went to Paris by myself and I took a checked suitcase there, too, and on the way home had to pay another surcharge for the bag since I had bought so many books at Shakespeare & Company that I was over the limit again!

After that, I finally committed fully to the carryon. The trick seems to be going for a short enough time that I can take just what I need and also having one good pair of shoes that I can use for almost every occasion. (I did pack some flipflops for my trip to Hawaii, and I have some ballet flats I sneak in to look dressier sometimes.) I don't pack contingency outfits anymore -- that's the "I don't know if I'll need this but it's awfully cute..." stuff.

Here's what I took on my recent trip to Dublin:

[Rolling bag contents]
1) Four pairs of black trousers
2) One pair of soft yoga pants (good for pajamas and in a pinch, dressed up with ballet flats, they can pass as palazzo pants)
3) Underwear and socks -- just enough for the trip. I don't pack extras since you can easily wash a pair of socks in the hotel sink if you absolutely have to.
4) Five soft layering T-shirts in neutral colors (black, grey, wheat, white)
5) One long-sleeve black T-shirt for layering (good to wear on the plane ride home)
6) Two thin cotton layering sweaters, one black and one dark red.
7) My DKNY sweater wrap, which can be outerwear on a cool day or can be a dressy sweater top. (Here is a picture of it so you can see what I mean -- from the DKNY site, so many variations. I have the merino wool cozy, but that cashmere-linen blend one looks really nice, too. By the way I have had this for two years and it still looks as great as the day I bought it.)
8) Gadgets -- eeePC, chargers, plug adaptors, phone, etc. Most of it fits in the zippered front pocket if my bag. Sometimes I put everything in a clear ziploc baggie.
9) Toiletries. In my TSA-ready one quart clear ziploc bag you will find a small bottle of contact solution, lip gloss, a tube of L'Occitaine hand cream, a tube of the Olay face cream I use, backup contacts lenses, travel-size toothpaste, and a travel-size conditioner. The hotel I booked had great soaps and shampoos (most hotels offer something) and I'm not picky about shampoo. But I am picky with conditioner, so I bring a small 3-oz. bottle of my own.

In addition to the liquids, I also pack a small cosmetic bag with a washcloth (this is something most European hotels have not embraced, and I like it for washing my face), makeup and mascara, a comb, deodorant, toothbrush, earrings and assorted stuff. The guidebook can fit in the suitcase along with a tiny compact travel umbrella and that's about it!

In my shoulder bag I pack my book, notebook, earphones and ipod for the plane, all my personal items (passport, money, medications, aspirin, gum, glasses, etc.), a copy of my flight itinerary and hotel info. Sometimes I bring some super-compact slippers for wearing over my socks on the plane. I keep them in a ziplock baggie. For this trip I subbed in my ballet flats, which I can also wear as shoes for dinner, or anywhere I don't do a lot of walking. Oh -- and I take snacks with me, usually a few Lara bars.

On my trip to Ireland I also brought along a water-resistant coat which I didn't use once! For coats, I don't even try to pack them, just carry them on the plane with everything else. I usually tuck a scarf or two in the pockets or a hat or gloves.

It takes a while to go from super overpacker to small just-enough-packer. And if I were flying nonstop to somewhere and staying for an extended period, I would probably check a bag. The downsides to traveling with just a carryon bag are that you can't bring liquids over 3 oz., you can't bring things like a corkscrew or tweezers, and you are limited to just a few clothing and shoe options.

The upside to traveling so light is that you don't have to worry about losing your luggage. For a very short trip, this is a huge relief. And if you have a tight connection (especially on the way back) you don't have to wait for your luggage to come through customs and then re-check it before boarding the plane to your final destination. And of course you get to brag on your website about how light you travel!

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The other question I got a lot of was this:

Where do you find good deals on tickets?

Here is a link to an entry I wrote that gives up all my cheapskate airfare secrets.

Not much has changed. I do usually check the airline website that houses my frequent flier program, too, because I often use my miles to upgrade to a better seat. If you're planning on traveling a lot, try to find one loyalty program and stick with it. Even if a flight on my preferred frequent-flier airline is $30 more I'll go with the more expensive fare so I have all my points in one place. Those miles add up!

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Hope you have a great weekend! I plan to join la Soba in some serious weekend relaxation...


Posted by laurie at July 17, 2009 10:58 AM