Here’s a hot packing tip: leave your live reptiles at home. Unfortunately, one passenger didn’t get the memo on this, and he stuffed a crocodile into his duffle bag just before boarding a small plane in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The crocodile got loose during the flight.
“Not surprisingly,” writes Sandi Toksvig in The Tricky Art of Co-Existing, “the terrified passengers tried to get away from the unexpected guest, and they rushed to the front of the plane, which then sadly crashed. Only one person survived, along with the crocodile. He then lost his life to a machete. (The croc, not the surviving passenger.)”
Even without crocodiles, it’s amazing what people put in their luggage these days. Manufacturers are always coming up with such “must-have” accessories as airplane seat covers and Ooh-La-La Lingerie Travel Cases for your unmentionables. But seasoned veterans of the road appreciate the advantages of packing simply and sensibly. As travel guru Rick Steves puts it, “The measure of a good traveler is how light he or she travels. You can’t travel heavy, happy, and cheap. Pick two.”
Earlier this week, my friend Kathryn arranged a party to celebrate the publication of Adventures of a Railway Nomad, and as the book provides lots of practical advice about what to bring on a long trip, she asked if I would give the guests a packing demonstration. So I packed my bag as if for a journey and had the fun of dazzling the skeptics in the crowd with how much I could fit into a roll-aboard measuring just 21 x 13 x 7.5 inches (54 x 34 x 19 cm). Here’s photographic proof that it can be done, along with the advice I shared with my audience.
1. Lower your fashion standards. Not completely, of course, but this is the moment where you have to be practical and make hard choices. The go-with-everything black flats or the fancy red heels with the flower on the toe? Your favorite white sweater, even though it's bulkier and harder to keep clean, or the navy blue? At my age, I don't want to look like a backpacker, so I choose conventional attire that will look at home pretty much anywhere.
2. Assemble everything in one place before you start and check for any gaps. Have you packed enough layers for various climates and social situations? At the demo, someone pointed out that I hadn't included a warm sweater. To be perfectly honest, I'd forgotten to, probably because it was 97 degrees (36 celsius) that day. However, I pointed out that in addition to the contents of the suitcase, I would presumably be wearing clothes, and we agreed to pretend, for purposes of the demonstration, that I had on my black cashmere travel sweater.
Here's everything that went into the suitcase:
2 pairs of trousers
1 pair of pajama bottoms
1 sleeveless top
2 short-sleeved shirts
3 long-sleeved shirts
3 pairs of shoes
4 pairs of socks
Notebook & pen
Kleenex & Handi Wipes
I'd made a few adjustments for the demo. I did not include my undergarments, figuring A) the packing demo crowd knew what undies look like, and B) a woman deserves some privacy. To be fair, I packed one more pair of shoes than I'd normally take, just to make up the weight. Also, I chose not to include my hair dryer, which lately I've avoided carrying, as most lodgings usually provide one.
It's impossible to plan for every conceivable contingency, so rather than overpack, I stick to the basics and remind myself that I can buy a few things — an inexpensive hair dryer or bathing suit, for instance — if it turns out I actually need them.
3. Pack everything in the same place every time. It saves countless hours of rummaging. Start by placing all your clothes, folded flat, in the half of your suitcase that will be uppermost when you're on the move. (No point in letting heavier items, like shoes and laptops, crush your clothes, even if they are made of non-wrinkle fabrics.) Some people advocate rolling or bagging clothes, but I find this too fussy, and it doesn't really save much space. So I fold everything and tuck underwear (usually 5 days' worth) into the corners. The first thing I packed for the demo was a heavy black jacket with multiple interior pockets designed to foil pickpockets. During hot weather, this will stay at the very bottom of the stack; I adjust the order of the items according to changing social situations and the weather.
4. Take wrinkle-free, washable travel clothes that you can mix and match. I just bought this flowered skirt with the matching sleeveless top and sheer scarf. I then found a warm cashmere scarf/shawl in the same shade of coral. The rest of my clothes are very neutral: black, white, beige, plus an old T-shirt I happened to have in more or less the same shade of coral.
5. When the clothing side is complete, pack your hard items on the other side. This is where to keep shoes (wrapped in plastic to keep road dirt off your things), electronics, and toiletries, starting with the bulkier items.
6. Roll socks inside your shoes. It helps shoes retain their shape and saves space. Some people put their socks inside of plastic bags before placing them in the shoes, but I have to confess my hygiene standards are lower than theirs. This seems fine to me.
7. Pack all your toiletries in one kit. I used to carry a little pouch for tooth accoutrements, another for cosmetics, etc. But having multiple pouches just adds confusion and takes up more space. Collect it all in one kit, however large that needs to be, and designate a section of the kit for each type of item. My toiletry kit is a bright color to make it harder to leave behind, and it comes with a hook handy for hanging. For airplane travel, I carry my plastic bag of liquids inside the toiletry kit's large central section, ready to haul out for inspection.
8. Carry the lightest electronic devices that will serve your needs. Rich likes his iPad, but I prefer a MacBook Air, which to me is a "real" computer yet is small enough to tuck into one side of the suitcase.
9. Put all your cords into a single bag. Inventory that bag before every departure, as it's all too easy to forget a cord. If you do, check with the front desk of your next hotel; they often have huge collections of lost cords and will be delighted to give you one. I put my bag of cords in the topside pocket of my suitcase, and use the other pockets for flip flops or slippers.
10. Treat the outside of your suitcase like a purse (or man bag). This is where to store things you'll need at a moment's notice. I normally travel with a 17-pocket vest, so I don't keep my wallet, phone, camera, or other valuables in suitcase pockets. But if I did, I would secure them with a small combination lock or a zipper clip. I use my bag's outer pouches for my Kindle, reading glasses, umbrella, snacks, Kleenex, and other essentials.
11. Label your bag. Mine tends to stand out just because of the color, but I've also added a label with my name on it, which has a phone number and email address inside, plus a purple handgrip I was given in an airline lounge, plus a little red and green crocheted good luck charm I bought in Romania. No thieves can pretend they mistook my bag for theirs.
And there you have it. The total weight: 10 kilos (22 pounds), which is acceptable on most airlines these days and light enough for me to haul up and down stairs without assistance. It fits everything I'm likely to need. And best of all, there's no room for crocodiles, so I won't be tempted to bring one along.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY
It was a dark and stormy night on the Adriatic. “’The sea was angry that day, my friends,’” said Rich, quoting the Seinfeld episode where George plays a marine biologist. “’Like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.’” We were reeling about the pitching ferry, trying to find our mini-cabin in its lower depths. “You do realize,” he added, “that we’re actually below the cars and cargo? We’re in steerage.”
We were sleeping in a six- by twelve-foot closet with two stacked bunks, a sink the size of a salad bowl, and nothing else. Well, sleeping is a bit of an exaggeration; we spent the night there, dozing fitfully, praying the tiny railings would hold and we wouldn’t go hurtling to the floor. Around two in the morning, when a trip to the bathrooms became necessary, we lurched through a series of heaving corridors, stumbling and crashing into walls, hoping we wouldn’t be flung bodily through anyone’s door. It was like trying to walk on the back of a bucking bronco, but with handrails.
"Imagine weeks of this on the Atlantic,” I gasped.
“Now I know why my grandmother vowed she’d never cross the ocean again,” said Rich.
We were on deck at dawn, thrilled to see solid land on the horizon, even the unlovely harbor of Bari, which had clearly chosen the profits of shipping and petrochemicals over quaintness and charm. Leaving the cranes and silos behind and heading into the old quarter, we seemed to be the only non-locals about, which suited us just fine.
On that bright, windy morning following the storm, every balcony was aflutter with sheets and flapping clothes, occasionally pinwheels as well. Doors stood wide open, and we saw cobblers tapping on boot heels, tailors stitching, women gossiping as their fingers shaped the little ears of pasta known as orecchiette, which they spread on mesh trays to dry in the midday sun.
Our next port of call was Barletta, another town where industrialization helps keep the tourist hordes at bay. We wanted to pay homage to the town’s most famous resident, The Colossus, an ancient bronze statue standing 5 meters (16 feet) tall. No one is quite sure who he was – a fifth-century Roman emperor maybe? – or how he got to Barletta – washed up on shore after the sack of Constantinople perhaps? But everyone agrees he’s the guy who saved the city.
According to ancient legend, when the Saracens were about to invade, The Colossus went down to the harbor and stood on the shore, weeping. “Why are you crying?” the Saracens asked. “Because I am so much smaller and weaker than everyone else in this city,” he moaned. Terrified at the prospect of fighting an army of giants, the Saracens rowed back to their ships with all due haste and left Barletta in peace. And I am sure every word of that story is true...
En route to our last stop, Pompeii, we decided to visit Naples, mainly because so many people had warned us against it. And it turned out to be everything we’d heard: dirty, noisy, crowded, chaotic. As our taxi roared down the wrong side of the street along the trolley tracks, honking at anyone who stopped at a red light, we saw a city as vibrant as the back streets of Asia, as zany as a street market in Mexico, and as quirky as San Francisco’s Height-Asbury during the summer of love (but as it turned out, with much better food). Within five minutes we had abandoned all thought of going to Pompeii and spent the next few days absorbing the madcap atmosphere of a city that refuses to conform to anyone else’s standards or expectations.
Then it was time for an overnight ferry (smooth as glass! in our own stateroom!) to Barcelona and a high-speed train to Seville. I’m still getting over my train lag; I keep having urges to head to the station and board a train for somewhere. But mostly I’m simply delighted to be home, sifting through memories of the trip, and mulling over all the stories and travel tips I’ll be sharing with you in the months ahead.
Yes, I've got lots more photos of Southern Italy. And for more about the journey – planning, packing, things we've learned, how many miles we traveled, etc. – see Train Trip/Central & Eastern Europe.
Welcome travelers, future travelers & armchair travelers!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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