lucy in front of my carry-on luggageIn my last post, I declared myself The Queen of Light Packing and attempted to give a packing tutorial. To paraphrase Stuart Smalley: “It was NOT my best post. But that’s OKAY. ‘Cause I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me…” Or peoplegone it, dogs like me. Anyway, back to packing. This will be my best post on packing. Because one of my tips for packing light is to pack about a week before your trip, mull over your packing and meditate on what’s really essential. Then the night before your trip, edit ruthlessly and repack.

Your first goal in packing is to make sure, should the airline lose your luggage (and if you don’t plan for it they certainly will), that you could survive on your trip with only what you’ve packed in carry-on. So let’s tackle that first. My lovely assistant Lucy shows above what I’m taking on the plane: one rolling carry-on and one backpack/camera bag. Here’s what’s in them (terrier not included):

Rolling Carry-On Bag

contents of my rolling carry-on

If AeroMexico loses my checked bag, I think I could survive for three weeks with these core contents.

  • Black cotton dress
  • Large pashmina scarf which doubles as a coat
  • Gold rayon Indian pants
  • Green batik skirt (wear on plane)
  • Green dressy T-shirt (wear on plane)
  • Brown dressy T-shirt
  • Foldable rain jacket in self-pouch
  • Tevas suitable for hiking Zapotec ruins
  • Dressy sandals (not shown, to wear on plane)
  • Macintosh laptop
  • Crushable sun hat
  • Extra sports bra and several pair of underwear
  • Nightgown
  • Essential cosmetics in ziploc bag
  • Three guidebooks (optional)

Okay, worse comes to worst, I could survive on this. I’ve got most of my bases covered with something dressy, some basic separates, two pair of shoes — including one that could be used for strenuous sight-seeing — basic electronics, basic cosmetics, hat, and reading material. Although, a true light packer would look up sights on the laptop or carry a Kindle. Still, as I’ve mentioned before, for me, part of the fun of travel is toting along and scribbling in some well thumbed guidebooks.

And a word about that underwear. That’s my one indulgence. You’ll noticed I have packed that REI “techno” underwear — you know the fast drying stuff they advertise with “17 countries, 6 weeks, one pair of underwear”? Yeah, they claim you can pack just two pair and wear one pair, while the other is washed and drying. Well, I don’t tend to go traveling to spend my time washing underwear, so I pack loads. It’s small, it doesn’t take up that much room. So sue me. But I will recommend this techno underwear as being very comfortable, especially in hot and humid countries. Mine was tested in the Belizean rainforest. ‘Nuff said.

So here’s the score: AeroMexico allows a carry-on of 22 lbs and 45″ or less when length, height and width are added together. My carry-on is 40″ (measured generously) and 18.6 lbs. And that’s with a laptop and three guidebooks. Without those, I could easily pack a lot more clothes into it and that could be my only luggage.

Backpack/Camera Bag

contents of my backpack

If only I didn't have such an electronics/camera jones, I could probably travel so much lighter.

  • Nikon D-90 camera and battery charger
  • Canon point and shoot (in pink case) and battery charger
  • Extra memory cards
  • Lens cleaning kit
  • “Rain jacket” for Nikon
  • iPod mini in arm band (Assuming I get around to power walking. Ha!)
  • Ultra slim wallet and passport case
  • Moleskin notebook (Don’t travel without one!)
  • iPhone (which could preclude the need for the iPod)
  • Reading glasses and sun glasses
  • Electronics case with connection cords, card readers and ear buds
  • Pens, hair brush, mini flashlight (you never know), emergency tissues (you really never know!)

Another handy dandy item: a tape measure. I find it much easier to shop for clothing in other countries by measurement, not by size.

So, there it is. If I weren’t going to school, that would be my packing. Unfortunately, you can’t pack light and go to school, especially when you need to lug along textbooks.

Check-In Luggage

So that brings me to the suitcase I have to bring and check through. Technically, it’s a check-in bag since its total l x h x w measurements are exactly at 45″ (when measured generously). But loaded up with textbooks, it’s going to go far over the 22 lb. limit for carry-on.

survival stuff for traveling

So call this my survival stuff. Stuff that's required by the course and stuff that would make a nearly month-long stay more enjoyable.

  • Cosmetics/medicine case: first-aid kit, Imodium, Pepto Bismol, aspirin, Vaseline (the wonder substance — use it for blisters, bug bites, moisturizing), Tide detergent travel packs, additional sunscreen, disposable toilet seat covers and lots more tissue packs.
  • Lipton instant soup packs. (If I get so sick I can’t move, here are four “meals” I don’t have to go out for.)
  • Ceramic foldable fruit peeling knife — critical line of defense against tourista.
  • Make-up (which I always lug along and never end up using)
  • Plazas textbook, Spark grammar charts, Spanish verb conjugator, Spanish-English dictionary.
  • Extra Mexico guidebook which I’ll give to one of my fellow students.
  • Loads of reading glasses
  • Noe Valley Voice. My neighborhood paper which runs pix of people holding up the paper in exotic locales. Gotta be done.
  • Mini-backpack that converts into a purse or a messenger bag — for when I just can’t lug that camera bag.
  • Portable yoga mat and four DVDs from my DVD boyfriend, Rodney Yee
  • Running shoes
  • Reusable water bottle (my concession to eco-travel)

Again, most of this stuff would be unnecessary on an ordinary trip. For really light traveling, I’d distribute some of the medicinal essentials and the bathing suit between my two carry-on pieces (which still had ample room.) But if I’m going to be in classes for up to six hours a day and expected to do two hours of homework a night, I’m going to need Rodney and maybe some power walks to keep me sane.

half packed check in suitcase

Here's the problem: my survival stuff now accounts for more than half the space in my check-in case. See, it's a slippery slope, my friend.

But since I’ve got this extra suitcase, might as well use the space I have. So here’s what else got packed:

  • 2 more cotton dresses
  • 2 cotton shirts that can double, in a pinch, as cover ups or light jackets
  • 2 more T-shirts
  • Work-out leggings & shirt, dressier shorts, bathing suit

And I’m still in a carry-on sized bag — that has not been unzipped to its full expansion.

That’s my plan. The take-away is that you will expand your packing to fill the suitcases you are planning to take. Once you’ve accepted that you’ll have a check-in, you’ll fill it. If you reject the idea of a check-in suitcase, you’ll find a way to make carry-ons work for you.

(Oh, and slip Rodney Yee into your carry-on. You can use a towel for a Yoga mat. But Rodney’s too cute to leave behind.)