Confessions of a Light Packer- A Guide

I’m a light packer. Other than a short period of time when traveling alone with two children both needing car seats, and that OTHER time (read here)I haven’t checked a bag in 16 years. Why? I’m competitive to an unhealthy degree although I’ve learned to mask this illness in order not to scare small children and dogs. Too busy raising the Offspring to engage in healthy and creative ways for expressing this blue ribbon seeking behavior, my competitiveness manifests itself in unusual ways- like not checking bags.

I like to be first. I want to be first in line, first off the plane, first through customs, first to the cab line. I want to be ahead of the person in front of me, once I pass that person, I would like to be in front of the next person. My mother recognized this behavior early. She is a good mother most of the time and tried to manage this tendency toward “front of the classroom” tendencies. Against all social norms in the South at the time dictating that ladies don’t sweat, she enrolled me in a new and unheard of game called soccer. I shined. And got a lot of red cards. In the traveling scenario, I admit the lack of risk to being caught being less than sportsman-like has occasionally led to a thrown elbow, misplaced foot, or a hurled ninja star in the path of someone who might potentially have overtaken me in my quest for coveted overhead compartment space. I do have my scruples and draw the line at a mom with a stroller. I’ve seen elite frequent flyers literally upturn a stroller with a baby in it to pass a struggling mom. For shame!

Spouse and I are cut from the same cloth. His true colors are seen in the International terminals. Case in point, our first trip in to Narita Airport in Tokyo.  Spouse and I quickly gauged our way to the front of the herd. Spouse ran blindly in the direction of pointing arrows not reading the signage below. The Japanese are a competitive lot – they followed closely behind. Soon Spouse and a plane load of Japanese were all running in the wrong direction. When it comes to directions I usually follow blindly behind Spouse, however, I noticed the guards were not standing where we were all running. I actually stopped to read the signs.

“Honey- we need to go this way.” I called to him as he ran in the wrong direction.

No response from Spouse- he just turned and ran in my direction- his eyes glazed. The herd started to stampede my way. I turned and ran. Fortuitous that we only had carry ons so we could get out-of-the-way- the mad stampede eventually stopped, sweating, breathing heavy, heads sagging, at the baggage carousel. Spouse and I trotted on to the customs corral. We took our pick of customs officials just waiting for business.

The Offspring? They’re getting used to the bizarre transformation that occurs in family travel situations. No longer fearful when their parents mutate upon entry to an airport from easy-going, relaxed parents to the back biting, crowd jumping, sprinters that refuse to stop for the bathroom. The Offspring have witnessed Spouse revert to his college days when after a particularly long trip to Disneyland he was overcome with a longing for home and broke in to a full speed 100m sprint through the packed LAX airport, all 6’4″ of him, heading in to the stricken crowd as he hurdled bags, small children, the elderly and anyone else not swift enough to get out of the way, his bag dragging like a trail leg. I watched in admiration and adoration.

My sisters complain about this “issue.” “Slow down- this isn’t a race” It isn’t? It is. There might be something of value ahead for which we need to be in good position to beat the crowd. When one of us reaches a certain milestone birthday, that sister picks a place in the world to visit. Only the sisters go- it would be far too nerve grating for anyone else to attend. We have earned nicknames along the way:

Ouiser-Me- the Oldest- from the movie “Steel Magnolias.” The character is cantankerous, off-putting, easily annoyed and annoying, impatient.

The Nose– Middle Sister. The Nose can pick up the scent of good food and sniff out all locations in any city through out the globe. One look at a map combined with a whiff of the wind and it’s firmly implanted in her olfactory glands- from thereafter the Nose need not refer to it again. We follow her blindly. It is an impossibility for the Nose to become lost.

The Tourist– The Youngest Sister. Affable, happy, smiling at everything and everyone, white sunscreen on her nose, sensible shoes, camera and binoculars always slapping against her chest, we force her to leave the fanny pack at home. Voted “most likely to get mugged” her purse always hangs limply open on her arm. She’s a shining beacon to dishonest Roman cab drivers.

I became militant about my packing after our trip to London. The Tourist knocked over every passenger in customs carrying her military issue body bag over her shoulder. For every passenger she knocked over, she took out two more as she smiled, apologized and bent over to help the first one pick up their scattered belongings. Given that I had only one carry on, that meant I was free to schlep her other 2 bags each weighing 50 lbs. One for shoes. I mean, I want to look my best but we’re not in the fashion business. By the time we sorted out who would carry what, the line through customs was an hour-long. For our next trip to Italy, Ouiser declared it to be a “Carry On Only” trip. Period.

“We will save at least an hour in customs, no waiting in lines on either end,  we will be riding trains to get our hotel- we’ll need to be able to carry our luggage. No one will know we’re Americans.”

This post is difficult to write. The actual purpose of this post is to teach those of you who care to know how to pack lightly. Why? Atonement. I must atone for my travel related sins. If I pass along my tips, perhaps, all the wrongs I’ve committed against other fellow travelers will somehow be forgiven.

Other travelers gaining a competitive advantage once my secrets are shared in cyberspace has stopped my fingers mid sentence- could one of you be headed along the same path where we might be sharing air or train space? Disastrous. But I must forge on.

I’ve heard it all before- it can’t be done, I can’t do it. I’ll be gone 7 whole days or longer. Blah blah blah. Of course you can do it- the question is why wouldn’t you want to do it? Do you want to stand in lines to manage your baggage? Do you want to pay additional fees for the privilege of checking your bags? Are you afraid you will get to your destination and not have that critical sweater that you just can’t get dressed without? Fear not, all the solutions to your fears can be managed. So naysayers- let’s assume a winter trip to New York city.

1) Equipment: The starting point- everything must fit in to one carry on bag and  another bag that fits under the seat. One must be wheeled- not strapped to a wheeled apparatus or a sophisticated oversized Hermes (or look-alike) which fully loaded is too heavy to carry. The other which will go under the seat must be soft sided and large enough to carry a purse if you are female.

2) List of what goes in the Wheeled Bag

3 Pants

3 Shirts

1 dress or skirt- jersey material (Men this would be a pair of Khaki or dress pants) This outfit is for any dressy occasions. If men need a jacket, I’d suggest wearing it on the plane or packing in a dry cleaning bag. (below)

One pair of shoes in addition to the ones worn on the journey


Underwear, bathing suit, socks, pj’s, gloves, etc.

On Shoes. I have found a wonderful solution to the problem of wearing shoes that are comfortable but look like they are. I call them the loafer wedge. The secret of the loafer wedge is the comfort. Everyone from EZ Spirit to Stuart Weitzman and Donald Pliner makes a version. (Click here for an example of a pair from Naturalizer)I get a new pair every 2 years or so and wear them year round everywhere. I credit mine for the Italians asking me directions while in Italy. If I’d worn any other shoes, I’d have been easily identified as a tourist. Plus a couple of inches melts away pounds, adds leg length and just does a body good.  Men- any good pair of loafers are fine. You’re lucky.

3) What to Wear on the Plane

I don’t wear sweats on an airplane. I wear an outfit that is too bulky to fit in my suitcase, or will be worn in other circumstances in the journey. For instance, I suggest that men and women wear some sort of jacket that will be worn through out the trip. Jackets take up a lot of room in a suitcase and they are easy to put in the overhead compartment.

If traveling during winter, I’ll wear a winter jacket and a sweater on the airplane which leaves room for another sweater in the wheeled suitcase.

All these items must match each other. Other than the jacket or dress, maybe shirts for men, none should be dry clean only. You should be able to hand wash if need be.

All clothes should be in the same color scheme, black, white, grey, red whatever. That way, all the clothes match each other. No one will see you so it doesn’t matter if one wears the same outfit every 2-3 days. If it’s your family- they don’t really care do they? If one brings the same color scheme, you’ll be able to mix thus one won’t be wearing the same outfit anyway. No worries. I’ve been known to wear an outfit that’s a favorite every day- yep. No one knows.

4) Dry Cleaning Bags

One of life’s great mysteries is why clothes don’t wrinkle when encased in a dry cleaning bag, wadded up, and stuffed in a suitcase. I discovered this miracle when I traveled for work. I don’t know how or why- but it works.

5) How to Pack the Clothes

Roll them all like a sausage. Tight little sausages. Looks strange but you’ll get twice the amount of clothes in the bag.

Put socks inside shoes. Also a good place for dirty stuff… If the shoe fits….

In the end, my bag is packed. In the bag are 3 pants, 1 dress, underwear, jammies, socks, 3 shirts, make up bag, hair product, razor etc and 3.5 extra inches without stretching the zipper on the bag. For the exercisers- there’s the room for the running shoes and extra work out clothes. I never carry a hair dryer since most places supply one. Anything else can be bought when I arrive.

The final product:

My plane outfit provides me with an additional pair of pants, scarf, and shirt. My total potential outfits without repeating, doing calculus to figure the exact number, or a significant laundry load is at least 11. (Let’s say I wear each shirt twice- I can hand wash and hang dry if I need to)

The soft sided bag contains my purse which I sneak on the plane in order to comply with the 2 piece rule. This gives me extra space for my favorite must have gadget- don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. I got a middle seat from Japan to LA and didn’t feel a thing with this miraculous invention.


This is a model depicting me

But What About…:

1) Equipment Trips– Skis, Snowboards, Dive Equipment etc.- Usually we ship our equipment ahead of time. I put pants, heavy jackets, boots, gloves, undergarments etc in the snowboard covers and carry on the remaining clothes. Same for dive equipment.

2) Shipping Bags-Shipping costs vary depending on location. In Japan, shipping costs are usually about $100 roundtrip. The airlines don’t charge for checked luggage. In the US, checking oversize luggage can vary between $50-100 each way depending on the airline, and the judgement of the person who actually checks in the bags. Fed Ex can ship bags for around $50 each way with insurance.

I like this as an alternative to checking bags if the cost is equal. Given that you will probably not get the actual value of the items if insured through the airline, insuring and shipping through FedEx seems to be a good alternative. I haven’t done this myself but my friend Kimmy Choo does this for all her trips.

3) I’m going to buy lots of stuff on my trip- Here it depends on what you’re buying. France – clothes shopping- want to claim it all duty-free? Then maybe bring a giant suitcase with lots of room so you can open it at the airport to show the officials. And check it. If buying gifts for children, put those in the soft-sided bag that goes under the seat. I usually buy kids different candies and snacks from trips- they’re always entertained by what other people eat and it doesn’t take much room in a suitcase. Alcohol is best shipped by the place from whom it was bought for two reasons- prevents breakage and avoids import issues.

SO – there you have it. On our recent trip to Hokkaido, I broke down and did the unthinkable. I had to ask Offspring #2 if there was room in her bag for a pair of jeans. My heart jumped out of my chest when she said “yes” and presented me with 4 extra inches in her bag. Now that is parenting success at its height.

I would love to hear tips on traveling light- of course- if you’re willing to share…..

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22 Responses to Confessions of a Light Packer- A Guide

  1. Lisa E. says:

    I love this! The more I travel, the more I try packing light. My tips:
    – Velcro rollers for hair (light, hollow! use the hotel’s hair dryer to heat them!)
    – Take a pashmina or other shawl. It can be a pillow on the plane and of course it can serve its intended purpose and keep you warm in chilly museums and theaters.
    – – for travel-sized toiletries!

    On our last trip to Japan we only took a couple of outfits and did laundry twice at a coin laundry near the hotel. I really preferred that to lugging two weeks’ worth of clothes around Tokyo. Plus, how cool is it to do laundry in a foreign country?


    • amblerangel says:

      Good ideas! I don’t know why I ever lugged around a hair dryer – I act as if once I leave home I will be unable to buy anything I might need along the way. And I agree- scarf or pashmina is a must…Plus you’ll look so French…


  2. Okay–I know I should follow your good example, but a significant question remains–what if you are traveling to a country where you can buy very little you might need along the way?
    For me, Haiti–so much of what I need I either can’t buy there or can’t afford to buy, so I end up taking things to compensate for all the what-if’s you encounter in a developing or 3rd world country.
    I know this explanation isn’t terribly clear. I may need to do a post on my own blog about this, so I can get some feedback about managing the challenges we face traveling into post-disaster situations.
    By the way, I like to get where I’m going quickly, as well. Only I’m the fast one with the over-sized bags–not a good situation. Watch out for me in Narita!


    • amblerangel says:

      I’m going to throw the “bag example” card your way because you live there- but- how is the mail service? Would it be easier to ship some of the loot in to the country when you to KY say? Then you don’t have to lug it around risking the lives of unwary travelers as you barrel full steam ahead toward your final destination? When my kids were little I did do that a fair amount just because the car seats plus the kids were so hard to manage- forget about having to do luggage too. Just a thought. Otherwise I’d say- get a super big bag with wheels and don’t worry about it- the other thing is I don’t mind one bit asking my family to send me things I need- and I an usually guilt someone into complying….


  3. Tokyo Jinja says:

    This made me laugh out loud…you will never convert me, and I spent most of last year complaining about folks like you! After they started charging for checked bags in the US, it was sheer hell every time we got on a plane as there were too many carry-ons for the overhead bins!! At least this year, our trip down to Florida was peaceful as Spirit Airlines has started charging for checked luggage or carry-on – no difference! So you’ll want to avoid flying them.

    And I always have some extra thing that I just have to wear…and at least one pair of high heels.


    • amblerangel says:

      Haha- even I had to pay to carry on I would still pack light to avoid waiting for bags in baggage claim- NEVER check bags flying in to Philadelphia- it will take longer to get the bags than the flight took to get there…


  4. Claire says:

    Absolutely hysterical. I LOL at least five times. The kids were getting ready for school begging me to tell them what was so funny. I promised to share the blog after school so they can appreciate their Aunt Ouiser’s comments about travel. I have come a long way since that London trip following big sisters “guidelines” (Rules for the trip). I always comply, because after all, big sister always “NOSE” best. Love both of you and can’t wait to celebrate my 40th in Italy. Hopefully, we can make it there before I am 50:)


      • The nose says:

        Haha!!! We promise not to make u cry when not allowed to spend two hours in a scarf shop—– bc ouiser is in a hurry to see what is going on down the street and I am in a hurry to make sure we get to dinner on time. I just wish I had video of ouiser carrying my cardboard tube of posters thru the airport. Not realizing the backside was taking out oncoming travellers like a baseball bat. Alas that was before we learned to send you, the affable tourist, bumbling into local post office to sweet talk civil servant into mailing it to USA . Miss y’all! Nose


      • amblerangel says:

        Good times, Good times….


  5. You and your husband sound like those couples from Amazing Race! 🙂

    Great packing advice! My husband travels a lot and is also good at the packing thing. Unless he’s gone for a longer period, he also likes to travel with just carry-on luggage. I on the other hand tend to over pack. Horribly.


  6. Ashmore says:

    Loved this…I try to “roll” instead of “fold” and it never works for me. I will try again. I am forwarding this to Lou…she of the dreaded 1950’s “hanging bag” that doesn’t have wheels (which I drug through the streets of Paris for her 70th birthday…she was lectured all the way home). I usually throw away my toiletries at the end of the trip because 1) don’t have to get them out yet again going through security and 2) every little extra space counts for souveniers. I also love those heavy nylon bags with leather handles that roll up, just in case you overdo it at Portobello Rd. Market (and as you said, you can squish your purse into it)

    Happy New Year!!!


    • amblerangel says:

      Ahhh- the secret of the roll is in the tightness of the roll. It has to be extremely tight and then scrunched together. Loose rolling is the same as a fold. Imagine you are trying to squeeze all the air out of the garment as you roll. Then you’ll have it. I actually like the bags that fold in to themselves the best as my extra bag. The one I have pictured is one where when squashed up it fits neatly in to its own pocket (shown on the side) Then you just put it right in your purse. Voila! Say hey to Lou for me! (Who uses hanging bags with no wheels anymore????)


  7. Training4now says:

    LOL I always fight with mom about why she packs so heavy but now here you as a mother are saying you pack lightly. It made me happy.

    When I travel with my mother I try to avoid taking clothes since I know I will be buying tons of them and tons of shoes too.

    One day I have try shipping everything and see how that works out.


  8. amblerangel says:

    Oh- another someone I know puts toothpaste, hair gel and other products in zip lock bags. A pretty good best practice- doesn’t take up any room, squeeze out what is needed on an as needed basis, throw away at the end of the trip..


  9. sweffling says:

    Just found your blog and love the variety. This last post is a real lesson to one who just cannot travel light. But everything changes once one needs to carry medicines etc. The aging process is a real downer!


    • amblerangel says:

      RXs are tough. Both my Offspring have asthma and are on 5 medications each. What I usually do is put each medication in it’s own labelled zip lock bag with enough pills to get us through the trip and then about 4 days extra just in case. The inhalers of course are loose. BUT- they go with me in my purse. Now, that said, my mother is on more than that- however, she admits to only a fraction and of that takes less…..If it’s easier to take the bottles, I’d put them inside shoes. On the other hand, my mother is coming to visit, and I’m going to tell the airlines she needs a wheel chair and let them cart her and her luggage everywhere. Then- who cares how much stuff she has…. I say “shake what your mama gave ya” and in this case- a nice healthy age- use it to your advantage! Thanks for reading- I’ll go over to yours…


  10. Love this. I’m a light packer as well. I used to travel to America for 2 weeks, with only one carry one suitcase and nobody could believe how I managed. I’m curious about the dry cleaning bags, will have to give that a try and I love that side pillow thingie! I must get one for the next time I have to travel on a hideous plane (HATE flying)


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