Before Rich and I started our global wanderings, I had no idea how to pack. I remember on our honeymoon (Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to 1987) taking contact lenses, must-iron cotton dresses, and a tiny steam iron that for some reason required salt. I used to swipe salt from restaurants, pouring it into napkins that leaked granules all over my pockets. Rich took a suit jacket, collared shirts, possibly even a tie. All this would have made (some) sense if we were traveling in a civilized manner, but we were tramping through the jungles of Costa Rica, and I found the howler monkeys and parrots weren’t particularly impressed with such sartorial niceties. It was definitely a dress-down environment, and we soon saw the wisdom of leaving the better clothes at the bottom of our suitcases – which in those days were the bulky, old-fashioned kind without wheels.
Since then, we’ve traveled to dozens of countries (our total now stands at 48) and have learned the value of streamlining. We now have little roll-aboards measuring 21 x 13 x 7.5 inches (54 x 34 x 19 cm) and weighing just four pounds (1.8 kilos); fully packed they usually run about 20 pounds (9 kilos). Our clothes are fast-drying and wrinkle-resistant; I threw out that ridiculous steam iron decades ago. We’ve spent years looking for the best shoes, toiletries, first aid kits, laundry supplies, security measures, garments with hidden pockets, gadgets, and gear.
Lately, of course, we’ve been working out how to manage the electronic devices that none of us seem able – or inclined – to live without. What apps and devices do we really need? How can we keep all our cords, chargers, and other e-accessories organized? What do we do if a cord gets lost? (Helpful hint: check with the hotel desk. They often have vast collections of left-behind cords and other accessories; you may be able to replace yours without spending a cent.)
I’m often asked how I live out of a single small suitcase for months at a time and recently decided to collect my best strategies in a new guide called Pack Light: Quick & Easy Tips for Traveling Everywhere with Exactly the Right Stuff. The guide is as streamlined as my suitcase: modest in its dimensions, but packed with useful things.
Not everyone is on board with the idea of traveling light. Paris Hilton, for instance, arrived for a single month’s visit to southern Spain with nineteen suitcases. The unpacking, she said, “was brutal.” The poor kid. At the other end of the scale is Lee Child’s fictional protagonist, Jack Reacher, who travels with nothing. Every two or three days he buys all new, inexpensive clothing in a chain store and throws away every stitch he had on. Rich has long harbored a hankering to travel that way, but so far I’m holding firm on the need for my little red suitcase filled with life’s essentials.
When it comes to packing, are you a Jack Reacher or a Paris Hilton? Chances are you’re somewhere in between. Most of us are trying to figure out how to take along everything we need for comfort and style, without a lot of excess baggage that will slow us down. “You’ll never meet a traveler who, after five trips, brags ‘Every year I pack heavier,’” observes travel guru Rick Steves. Packing light means more freedom and mobility, so you can go out and enjoy the parrots instead of being stuck in in your hotel, scrounging for salt so you can steam-iron a cotton shirt.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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