Well. My primary assumption about what to pack for air travel is wildly out-of-date. I’m a carry-on girl from way back. My ability to “pack light” is a point of (rather perverse) pride. I suppose it’s a hold-over from more vagabond days, when my imperative to carry nothing more than a backpack kept me free to go anywhere and do anything. I also had my share of luggage lost in the 1980s, delivered to me by van several days after I had started vacation. And then the concept of paying for checked bags entered the zeitgeist, adding fuel to my already indignant fire. Yes, I am a carry-on girl, and proud of it.
Things, they are a-changin’. It is now often cheaper to check a bag than to carry one on-board the airplane. The allowable dimensions for carry-on luggage have shrunk like a sweater in the dryer. The airlines are absolutely encouraging us to check our suitcases at the curb and trust that we will meet them again at our final destinations. If I’m going to check a bag when I travel, I no longer have any reason to pack only the bare necessities. And yet—as my brilliant and hilarious girlfriend Pat recently said—“packing for a vacation can send me into therapy.”
I have just returned from a six-day trip to see my family and my editor. I did check a bag, swallowing my pride as I paid for the privilege. I stuck to my wardrobe rules for the year, of course, which certainly streamlines the process of packing. Skorts travel well. Still, I will do things differently when next month I make another jaunt.
I have always packed for travel the way I now dress—a sense of uniform prevails. Neutral pieces that all go together are the name of the game—an adult version of Garanimals, the company that first brought “mix-and-match separates” to an art form. First I take inventory of all the activities my trip will entail, then I force myself to pack as few pieces as possible that can be combined to meet any demands of my journey.
For example, last week I knew I should be prepared for the following:
1. Meetings with my editor and a potential franchisee—both totally casual. Of course I wanted to look my very best, but being in a “creative field” has its perks.
2. Heavy lounging, relaxing, story-telling and card-playing with my extended family
3. A night on the town, including a performance of a touring Broadway show
4. Daily exercise
5. Swimming and boating and sitting around a giant fire as the sun dips into the lake
6. Warm (hot) days and cool (cold) nights
I took three skorts – one is wrinkle-free and best for travel days; one is most flattering but best for standing events because it wrinkles; one is great for everyday – and a small collection of sleeveless back tops. I wore a denim jacket on the plane and took one black cardigan and a thin windbreaker-type jacket. I wore one big gauzy scarf and packed another. As is my custom, I wore cowboy boots on the plane, and I packed a pair of nude wedges and my comfy, sporty, go-anywhere black FitFlops. And while I felt I had enough clothes to look appropriate at all times, I wish I had packed more.
One mistake I often make in packing is to underestimate the power of smell. I always think, “I have enough. If anything gets dirty, I can just do a little laundry.” If you know me, you know the likelihood of me doing laundry while I am travelling. No matter my good intentions, I just can’t force myself to do so vile a chore while I am enjoying my time away from regular life. So as I sit around those big fires on the beach and jump in and out of various bodies of water, my clothes absorb certain aromas. Walking city streets on other trips, or riding horses or bicycling through state parks—just any of the things one does when exploring new places—likewise leave their stench in the fibers of my togs. By the end of any sojourn, when I’ve done a particularly good job of mixing and matching and “packing light”, my clothes stink.
The airlines have offered me a lovely solution to this olfactory dilemma. Now that I feel like I have to check a bag—and it can weigh up to 50 pounds!—I am going to change my strategy.
In three weeks, I am going to New York City, for both business and pleasure, accompanied by two of my besties who are both enamored and a little frightened of the Big City. Again the list of things I should be prepared to do ranges from as dressed up as I will ever get to as casual as I want to be. We worry about the heat. Although mid-June is a far cry from late-July, summer in the City can be downright uncomfortable. We want to be prepared also for rain, and for air-conditioned theatres and museums. We want to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and maybe bicycle through the Park. We will visit old friends and we will pay visits to new business acquaintances. And of course, we will walk. A lot.
My new strategy:
I am going to use a rolling suitcase and check it at each curb. However we make our way between the airport and our lodging, we will have to keep in mind that we will be hauling big bags. (I am used to being completely mobile – the subway or a city bus are totally reasonable options when I want to save a buck and live like a local. Schlepping for blocks from public transport to my hotel never bothers me – great way to get a feel for the ‘hood! This trip, we may do a shared-ride or a taxi – you know, like grown-ups do.)
I am going to pack every single skort I have. That way, I will have nearly the full options of my regular wardrobe – I will have more than one skort for each day, even without doing laundry my threads should smell fresh as a daisy! The best part is this: ALL of my skorts, folded together, take up the suitcase space of about one pair of jeans.
One joy of checking our bags, of course, is that we can take all our beauty products without worrying about three-ounce bottles. We can take luxurious things, like our slippers or our nice cologne or a sick pair of heeled boots that really deserve a lap through SoHo before they die. We can take all the gifts we want to those we are visiting, plus the giant lenses for our cameras, and oh the possibilities for bringing home souvenirs! The airlines’ insistence that we check our bags can only boost the economy. I once had to curb my travel purchases to what would fit into my crowded carry-on bag – now we all have the freedom, and the room in our luggage, to shop ourselves into a collective coma.
So during my year of experimenting with simplicity, the airlines are encouraging a certain excess in our travel. As I pack, I will think of myself less like an intrepid adventurer, making do with as little as possible and using her wits to survive. Perhaps I will channel someone more civilized, try an older and lovelier approach to travel. Some character written by, maybe, Jane Austen or one of the Bronte sisters, who tucks all her love letters and her porcelain atomizer into her travel chest. The kind of woman who unpacks in every new place and surrounds herself with the accoutrements and comforts of home. Who travels with her own tea and biscuits, embroidered pillow, and a cameo of her mother. Who opens her silk parasol and dons her finest gown to go experience the wild abundance of new experience.
I’ll let you know how it goes.