Schlep Yourself (or, Tips for Packing Light and Traveling Happier)


After my recent post about checking your luggage and surrendering to baggage claim, I thought I should clarify something very important: Just because you’re checking your luggage doesn’t mean you should pack as if you’re checking your luggage. Except for those of you traveling by your own private jet, packing light is a necessity for happy, smooth travels.

Here’s my rule: Unless you have physical limitations, you should be able to schlep your own bags while you travel.

I take this “schlep your own stuff” seriously. During my two years of transient life, moving back and forth across the Atlantic and up and down the East Coast, most of my life was packed into six very large suitcases. Too much for one person to schlep? You would think. But no, I managed to get those suitcases in and out of multiple apartments and off of multiple baggage carousels by myself. (Side note: A standard airport luggage cart can hold 6 large bags quite well. Beware, however, if you have to push said cart across a slight incline, especially if you are pushing it with one hand while pulling another bag with the other; assistance in this scenario is advisable, if you want to avoid a traffic accident. Trust me.)

Self-schlepping also applies to getting your bag into the overhead bin, should you decide to go the carry-on route. When I carry-on, the last thing I do before I lock my suitcase is dead lift it over my head. Seriously. If I can’t lift my packed suitcase straight overhead, or if I wrench my back out in the process (lift with your legs!), then I know I won’t be able to get it into the overhead bin either, so I better start taking stuff out.

This means, of course, that the amount of schlepping involved in your trip should be directly (and inversely) related to the amount of luggage you take with you. When I went to Africa for two weeks, all I packed was a carry-on roller suitcase and a day bag. (See Exhibit B above.) How did I do that, you ask? I followed these three simple rules of thumb:

1. Start with a smaller suitcase. This is the best way to keep your packing in check. You will fill the space you have. (Always. It’s a law of the universe, I think.) So don’t buy an enormous suitcase. Buy carry-on or one size up. (I previously wrote about buying suitcases as a guest on Commandress here.) If the suitcase is expandable, don’t expand it until the return trip. (You know you’re coming home with souvenirs, right?)

2. Simplify, simplify. I will never claim to live a simple life…except when I’m packing. This may sound ridiculously obvious, but travel is not your normal life. You can’t pack for it like normal life, either. You simply can’t take your entire closet or medicine cabinet with you, so start making choices (however hard they may be). Can you live with just one kind of moisturizer for ten days? Yes, you can. Can you get dressed with only two pairs of shoes to choose from? YES, you can. You just have to be thoughtful about your packing. Figure out your outfits ahead of time. You don’t need ten outfits for ten days; you can wear the same thing more than once (I give you permission). If you find yourself thinking, “I should take this just in case,” that means it should stay home (except for your first aid kit, whose entire purpose is “just in case”).

3. Travel-size it. I love anything miniaturized and/or compacted for travel – alarm clocks, umbrellas, cosmetics. If you must take something with you while traveling, make it a mini (or an inflatable – I love my inflatable neck pillow). And certainly don’t pack full-size bottles of shampoo, vitamins, or other toiletries, unless you’re going to be gone long enough to use the entire bottle. Almost every kind of toiletry comes in travel size now, so you really have no excuse. If you doubt whether a travel size bottle will be enough, use it at home beforehand and see how long it lasts you. Then refill it and go!

It’s a terrible feeling to be a few days into your trip and wish you could jettison half of your suitcase. I also hate to come home from a trip and discover something in my bag that I didn’t use or wear once. In most situations, if you need something you didn’t pack, you can probably find a substitute on the road – or, better yet, learn to cope without it. Our consolation for having to return from vacation is that we can go back to our complicated, full-sized lives, entire closet included.


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