After college, I spent a year backpacking through Europe. I started out with a 40-pound brick on my back and came home with just a 14-pound case of the barest essentials. The lesson I learned was to travel light -- less is indeed more and washing out underwear in the sink every night can become just as routine as brushing your teeth before bed.
Now, as I pack my family of four for a trip to Asia, I fear I have forgotten how to travel light. Not even the airlines' restricted baggage policies are helping to curtail me here. We are traveling carry-on only for two weeks and I have still managed to cram the 20-inch suitcases full of things I know I won't use. I know better, and yet I am still overpacking.
I blame it on my age. I've entered the "contingency" stage of my traveling life, which doesn't allow for one to travel light. While intellectually and physically, I am still eager to explore the world and have new adventures, I now require greater assurance of my family's safety and comfort. I find myself trying to prepare for every possible event. Because we are traveling outside our medical comfort zone, I want to know that my husband -- a diabetic -- is going to be safe. Because we are visiting places where cigarette smoking is still common and tap water unsafe to drink, I want to bring measures to mitigate our discomfort. Because I know traveling itself can be a stressor -- time-zone adjustments, dehydration, inadequate sleep, exotic food -- I want us to have enough of what is familiar so that we are able to be enchanted by what is different. I want us to embrace the inevitable hassles of foreign travel and be able to shake them off, instead of letting them derail our fun.
And for that to happen, I feel the need to overpack. I feel compelled to be prepared for everything. Rain ponchos to sunblock and wide-brimmed hats for all. Medicine for every possible ailment. Outfits that my daughter is comfortable wearing to school, but culturally adjusted to the places we are visiting. Extra shoes for my son since we're hitting Hong Kong in monsoon season and he has zero tolerance for icky, wet shoes. I want to prepare for the unknown by having choices -- lots and lots of choices.
I realize that it's concerns like these that drive people into the arms of cruise ships. Cruise ships take the adventure out of the adventure and still allow you to snap photos in front of the Pyramids and say you've been there. Give me independent travel any day, but as I sit here forcing myself to take things out of my suitcase, I am envying how cruise ships give you the freedom to overpack -- I think it's encouraged actually -- with the knowledge that you will be unpacking just once, compared to our independent trip where we change locations every few days.
Packing, at its very core, is a statement about who you are. Are you someone who wouldn't dream of walking into Le Meurice in Paris unless they are dressed to the nines -- and thus will bring along a complete outfit with shoes you'll be wearing for all of three hours? Or are you someone content to wear shorts and sneakers for 14 days straight, rotating two t-shirts? Does it matter to you what strangers will think? Does comfort trump style?
As my Aunt Sophie aged, I watched the importance she attached to what others thought would diminish. She traveled widely in her later years and her primary issue was whether she could handle the weight of her luggage without assistance. I guess you could call her the original under-packer. She never would have dreamed of buying a new outfit for a trip and she traveled with a case that could actually fit under the seat in front of her. Lifting it overhead wasn't an option for my 4'10" aunt and she preferred not to rely on the kindness of strangers to do it for her.
It used to be that simple for me. In fact, I probably could have written my own how-to-pack-light-and-travel carry-on-only guide. Of course that was before I learned about monsoon season and had a son with zero tolerance for wet shoes.
Here are some tips for traveling light in the summer:
Cotton underwear actually take up a lot of room in the suitcase and are slow to dry. Invest in a few pair of travel underwear. I've been road-testing Ex-Officio's Give-N-Go and while not inexpensive, they are my new go-to panties. Bone dry in six hours after washing.
It's one of those accountability things, not unlike Weight Watchers. When you see the written list in front of you, you have greater willpower to resist the chocolate bar -- or in my case, the third maxi-dress.
For overnight flights, I like to wear light sweat pants. No reason they can't count as a pair of pajamas.
You can just toss away what you don't use. Hotels give you most of what you need anyway, and with the TSA making it so hard to carry aboard liquids and gels, why not just take your toothbrush and then buy everything else there? Less to carry, not any more expensive and you haven't lived until you've tried Russian toothpaste. We thought it was vodka-flavored.
What would you be wearing if you were home? You know which jeans you like the most, which sandals are good for walking in. Bring that stuff.
Or if you do, road test them first by wearing them at home. Everything in the suitcase should have been worn and washed before it goes traveling with you. You don't want to bring a cami whose straps fall down all the time and you don't want new sneakers causing blisters. Clothes, like shoes, need to be broken in.