Recently on Twitter, I came across a vacation-packing checklist that included such items as a pocket square, binoculars and a travel steamer. There were 10 boxes to check in the shoe section alone.
After I got done snickering over the image of an Edwardian dandy packing for bird-watching in the savannah, I thought about how certain trips do require more specific items. But strategic packers can still minimize weight and bulk in an era of ever-more-restricted cabin space and hefty checked-bag fees. So in time for summer travel season, here are some questions to consider as you fill up that suitcase.
What’s at the lodging already? Since my travel accommodations range from no-frills to Airbnb to luxe resorts, I can’t take anything for granted — so I call ahead to check on the availability of everything from laundry machines to printers. There’s nothing worse than landing late in a remote location and finding out the hotel doesn’t provide a hairdryer if you were counting on it (and to save space, I frequently do).
On a complicated trip with a tightly packed itinerary, I leave my laptop home, use my phone for communication and note-taking — and avail myself of the business center if I need it, having called ahead to ensure computer access. The way I see it, there’s no point in schlepping three expensive pounds of MacBook around the world for two hours of Internet use.
How easy is it to buy basics where you’re going? As a teenager, I enjoyed the thrill of buying foreign toothpaste and deodorant, which I’d savor as souvenirs back home — so I never packed more than a trial size. Today, I employ this strategy less for foreign thrills than for efficiency: Most cities are full of supermarkets that sell all the heavy toiletries I need, usually the same familiar brands as back home.
Unless you’re on a blitz trip or headed somewhere truly remote, restocking overseas takes little time, costs about the same and saves a great deal of weight. Pharmacies throughout Europe and Latin America sell familiar brands, along with a wider selection of everyday remedies — often at a lower cost. That said, hard-to-replace essentials you rely on should stay in the carry-on.
Who else is going? It makes no sense for two women to bring two curling irons. If you’re traveling with another adult — friend, spouse, parent — compare packing lists and see what you can consolidate in the way of toiletries (one shared emergency bottle of Tums, Advil, or Febreze is probably sufficient for a short jaunt) and accessories. Ditto for overseas data plans and SIM cards; each traveler may not need as much data if you’ll be consulting the same GPS maps or restaurant listings.
Are you bringing a baby or small child along? Then pare your own stuff down to the bare minimum, since small children travel with staggering quantities of non-negotiables — changing pads, bibs, wipes, bottles. Keep a day’s full supply of baby essentials, including a change of clothes, in your carry-on luggage, and bring your own car seat unless you’re absolutely sure you can secure something similar in your destination.
But you can streamline the toy collection — a tablet keeps children of all ages quiet on otherwise boring rides. And travel offers kids novelty to explore at every turn: seat-back screens and magazines on airplanes, lots of action and shops at airports, train stations, and resorts.
Do you keep kosher? In a series on kosher travel earlier this year, I spoke with a number of experienced kashrut-observant globetrotters who confirmed that in most cases, it’s no longer necessary to travel with a portable kitchen or frozen meat. Between the Internet and the expansion of kosher resources worldwide, a little prior research today goes a long way toward ensuring you’ll have the basics you need virtually anywhere — from cookware and kitchen staples to a hot Shabbat dinner.
Is there a possibility you’ll have to dress up? On a business trip or cruise, this is a given (though you’ll probably have a steamer at your destination). On solo trips, you may get a spontaneous dinner invite or snag tickets to the opera. For these occasions, I find that a very basic, well-cut dark outfit with inconspicuous dark shoes fits in well just about anywhere and doesn’t call attention to its casualness.
Are you flying a low-cost airline? Then measure and weigh all your luggage — carry-on as well as checked — very carefully. Many European discount carriers have stricter limits, and enforce every centimeter and kilo.
Some items are always worth packing. I’ve never been sorry I took a mini-flashlight, passport, umbrella, paper maps, chargers or adapters; I’ve frequently been grateful for that cheese sandwich in my purse. And I’ve always been happy that I left a second pair of shoes behind.