How to Pack: Pet Peeves Dressed Up as Travel Advice

The only way to flyPan Am put the first 747 into service in January of 1970, inaugurating more-or-less officially the modern travel era. Unless you’re, well, old, you’ve lived your whole life in a world where flying overseas is routine. So packing to go overseas should also be routine.

But no, whenever I get on the plane to Jakarta or Rome or Hong Kong, there are always hundreds of other people aboard who haven’t a clue how to pack the right way. Or at least, they don’t how to pack my way, but that’s a very minor distinction.

As a public service, I’m going to teach you the right way to pack – pack to go on vacation in the tropics at least, because that’s where I like going (I’m no fonder of cold weather than I am of people who pack the wrong way).

First, forget about the suitcase. I’ve never understood the sales pitch for a suitcase. “Hey, why not put all your stuff in an expensive, stiff, bulky box that’s difficult to carry even a short distance! It’s too damn big to carry-on, so give it to some mook in a jumpsuit and with any luck, he’ll cram it in somewhere on the same plane, so when you land, you get to wait 45 minutes in the hopes of picking up whatever is left of it!”

Screw that. Buy a medium-sized, frameless backpack. A backpack is indescribably more convenient than a suitcase. Carrying a suitcase you can maybe walk one city block in any comfort. Past that, your hand starts to ache, your shoulders and back start to complain, and it will get worse at every step. With a backpack, after a few minutes, you barely notice you are wearing it.

And you never have to deal with baggage claim; you walk on the the plane, fly (with full access to all your stuff) and when you land, you just walk right out of the airport. Don’t worry if it’s technically too big to bring as carry-on. If you’re actually wearing the thing, they never check.

What to put in it? As little as humanly possible. In my decades of travel, I don’t think I ever thought, “Oh, I wish I’d brought x.” It’s never happened. Basically, you want to bring a few changes of clothes.

The trick is, calculate your day-count: your day-count the number of days you’re going to be gone – up to a maximum of six. If your trip is overnight, the day-count is two; five days, four nights, the day-count is five; six days, six; seven days, still six. This number is important for packing.

Pack day-count pairs of underpants. Pack day-count pairs of shirts, unless you’re the kind of person who likes buying (and wearing) souvenir t-shirts; if so (I say, rolling my eyes), you can pack two fewer shirts.

Bring a plastic bag for laundry. If you are staying more than five days, you want to have your clothing laundered every four days. Do not wait until the last minute to get your laundry done. You don’t want to know how I learned this.

If you are wearing sandals, pack two pairs of socks. If you are wearing boots, pack day-count pairs of socks; if you’re going on a particularly wet or muddy trip, pack one or two more. Also, if you’re wearing boots, pack a pair of very light flip-flops (in a plastic bag). Do not pack the boots; wear them on the plane.

Pack one pair of sturdy trousers or jeans and one pair of shorts and one of those light waterproof windbreakers you can fold up in to a little pouch. Pack whatever you like to sleep in, but remember, you’re going to a tropical country, so you can leave the flannels home.

Pack a toothbrush, sunscreen, and bug-repellent.

What else? Pretty much nothing else.

I’ve seen tourists bring the most amazing collections of impedimenta on trips. A flashlight, a first-aid kit, a ball of twine, sweaters for countries that haven’t seen snow since Gondwanaland, things they won’t even let on the plane like bottled water and knives, a sewing kit, aspirin, toilet paper, a Frisbee, an umbrella, framed photos of their family, a yo-yo, extra ball-point pens.

I ask them why (actually, I tend to say, “Dude, WTF?” but you know), the answer is always, “I might need it.” You might, sure. You might need anything. The reality is, you probably won’t.

For anything you’re considering bringing, ask yourself this question: is it certain you will need it?

Since almost nothing falls in the certainly-necessary category, I’ll let you ask another question: if by some chance, you end up needing or wanting it, can you get it locally? Just because you’re in a foreign country doesn’t mean they don’t have 7-Elevens.

Keep in mind, almost every hotel will supply shampoo and soap, and typically a razor and toothpaste.  I cannot believe I have to tell people this, but absolutely every hotel supplies toilet paper.

If you might possibly need something, and if you do need it, you cannot get it any other way, then OK, maybe bring it: prescription medicine and, uh, that’s all that comes to mind.

So that’s your backpack. It’ll be about two-thirds full.

Next, get a satchel. You’re going to have a few things you need ready access to, and you won’t have your wallet. (Did I tell that already? Leave your wallet at home? Yeah, tropical countries are poor countries and poor countries have pick-pockets: leave your wallet at home.) Get a satchel to carry stuff you need to keep with you even when your backpack ia back at the hotel.

I know, guys, it’s kind of like carrying a purse. Too bad. Maybe it’ll help if you tell yourself you’ll look like Indiana Jones. You won’t, you’ll look like Joy Behar, but whatever, carry a satchel.

Ladies, yes, a purse can count as a satchel if it has a sturdy strap (sturdy enough to resist knife-wielding thieves on the backs of motorbikes) and a positive closure, like a snap, zipper, or velcro. Promise me you’ll empty out all the other crap – the lipstick, the loose change, the pack of tissues, the half-pack of Orbit gum – before you go.

In the satchel, put your passport, your tickets, photocopies of your passport and your tickets, your driver’s license, two or three credit-cards, your debit card, a few Zip-Lock bags (somehow, you always end up needing them), some cash, and – most important – an iPad.

It doesn’t have to be an actual iPad. It can be any kind of modern tablet, or even a smart-phone in a pinch. It replaces dozens of other items: a phone, a camera, a GPS, a map, an alarm clock, books, magazines, newspapers, a dictionary, a phrase-book, a calendar, a calculator, a night-light, a notebook, a diary, a voice-recorder, a music player, a television, a compass, a photo-album, and a secure web-browser.

That last item is the important. At some point on your trip, you’re going to need to access the Internet. Maybe to book a hotel or a flight, but something, and if you use a computer in an Internet cafe, you have no idea how secure that computer is. There could easily be a key-logger or a virus, hunkering down and waiting to snag your credit-card number and your email password. Connect your tablet to wi-fi and you bypass the buggy computer and connect directly to your bank and your travel-agent in (almost) perfect safety. I like to bring a wireless keyboard, which makes everything even easier.

Two more things: shoes and a hat.

If you’re going anywhere in the tropics you need a hat. Really, you should get a big floppy one with a brim that will shade your face and neck, but I for one make do with a ball-cap.

Choose your shoes. If you’re going to do a lot of hiking in rough areas, wear hiking boots and as I said, wear them, don’t carry them, on the plane. Boots are heavy and you don’t want to tire yourself out shlepping them when you don’t have to. If you are not bringing boots, get a pair of sturdy sandals with heel straps, like Tevas. Do not bring sneakers or hushpuppies or any other kind of low-cut, closed-toes shoes. In the tropics, you might as well be wearing wing-tips. Any sort of ordinary shoes will keep your feet uncomfortably hot and damp, without providing any protection or ankle support in return. Remember: sandals or boots, nothing in the middle!

OK, now suit up. Put on a loose-fitting cotton shirt and shorts. The shoes, the hat. Put your satchel on first (which would you rather lose: your money, passport, and credit cards, or your underwear?) and then your backpack.

It’s vacation time.

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