How to pack — the bag
You know in job interviews, when you get the question “What are you not good at?” and you are supposed to answer something that sounds sincere, but at the same time make sure you can talk convincingly about the hard work you put into overcoming it? My real answer (rarely used) is that I am really, truly bad at planning. If my life is planned longer than to the end of the week I get a little bit stressed. Asking me about things that happens weeks or month into the future will always get a noncommittal “sure, if I am around” answer.
Surprisingly though I am very good at organising. Probably because I am so used to chaos, I am good at making things just work, seeing patterns and getting things just fall into place. And if I have a superpower it is highly organised packing. I can pack pretty much anything into any space. As superpowers go it’s pretty crap, especially as the career I have chosen relies more on planning than packing, but pretty handy when you tend to always pack last minute.
A lot comes from experience, I travel more for pleasure and work than a most people, but some of it comes down to the same reason that I love Excel. There is a is a system, a logic to good packing. And, secretly, every time someone tells me that they can’t believe that I can travel that light and still have all I need, it brings me deep satisfaction. Just like when I solve a tricky Excel problem. This is my highly organised, but very chaotic view on bags.
To check in or to not check in?
A serious topic that divides the travel writing community, with a lot of people coming down very strongly on the carry on side. So strongly that they will even recommend you to order things you can’t bring to your holiday address or get washing done when you are away.
Sod the carry on snobs, I say. Travel is about enjoyment, and if you have the things you really want and need with you, you will be more comfortable and content. With that said, having check in luggage means you will fill it up and bringing things “just in case” is not a good strategy.
Start by assessing the purpose of your trip — if it is a ski holiday and you have a board and outerwear that you really like and want to use, check in. If it is a weekend trip to Ibiza or an overnight work trip to Düsseldorf, carry on. The problem comes when the trip is longer and varied. Up to a week I can still easily go with carry on, but if there are specific activities involved (like a yoga holiday or camping) I tend to check in. If a trip is really short or if I arrive late and don’t want to wait around for luggage I always go for carry on.
If having specific things that can’t be carried on will bring you joy on the holiday check in, but your starting point should always be carry on. The exception to this rule is liquids — more on that later.
Important tip: Remember to check your airline cabin luggage restrictions, there was a time when air flight was enjoyable and this was standardised, but no longer. Both dimensions and weight restrictions varies depending on who you fly with.
The travel community is equally divided here — especially for carry on. On the one side you have the roller ons, and on the other the backpacks (that tends to be more hardcore and extremist in their views). There is also a more stylish minority that prefers the classical over the shoulder bag, often called weekend, overnight or holdall bag, generally in leather, with a price tag to match. Somehow this is also seen as a masculine option — of course a real man can’t rely on wheels to get his luggage to the right place.
Once again I will come down divisively as a pragmatist. I have 3 carry ons — one of each type — and one check in bag.
The over shoulder bag: For work trips up to 3 nights and other really short trips, especially when I need my computer, I have a Tumi laptop bag. The specific model I have they don’t sell anymore, but this is the most similar one in their current line up. This is an expensive bag, but I absolutely love it (and bought it relatively cheaply in the US). It has lots of small specialised pockets, pockets in pockets, a sturdy shoulder strap, a pocket that helps you secure it on top of your check in luggage. Also, when the it broke 3 years after I bought it, they came and picked it up at my house, repaired it and delivered it back without even asking for a receipt. Do be aware though — I use this as the only bag I have on trips like this, and it does require extreme packing skills, but it’s not in any way impossible.
The backpack: I have a Northface BaseCamp X-small duffel bag. It opens from the side, not from the top like a traditional backpack, so you can see what you have in it without unpacking everything, it is waterproof, has comfortable, easily adjustable shoulder straps and can be carried as a duffel. But my model doesn’t have any outside pockets, and the material, great for big bags as it is sturdy and keeps its shape, makes the smaller bag a bit hard to open and close. Looking at their current assortment it seems like I am not the only person to complain. The latest model has an added outside pocket and from what it looks like, different material, so maybe a better choice. I use this bag for trips up to a week, especially if I am going to travel around a lot. You have to manoeuvre more and will have to carry even a roller case more than you think, making a backpack more practical. I also use it for airlines with extreme weight restrictions as it is lighter than even the most lightweight roller bags on the market.
The carry on roller luggage: I am in the market for a new bag as the sturdy Samsonite I bought 15 years ago has finally given up. I of course have a very clear idea of what I want:
- 4 wheels — you walk around with your roller luggage a lot and need to be able to manoeuvre it in tight spaces.
- Lightweight — on the extreme end. A lot of airlines have very restrictive weight limits for hand luggage and are really expensive if you have to check it in last minute.
- Soft fronted with a sturdy frame — so you can easily get it into overhead lockers, but also pack a bit more as it flexes.
- Outside pockets — I don’t carry a handbag, meaning I want somewhere to store things like passport, wallet and things I want easily accessible.
- Top and side handles for carrying.
The current frontrunner is Lipault’s Plume 50 that weighs just 2 kilos, holds 35 litres and gets good reviews from other travellers.
The check in roller luggage: I don’t like big spinner (4 wheel) bags. I have friends who love theirs, but they just seem too unruly for me. I also like bags that are high rather than wide as they are easier to get around with. Check in bags also need to be sturdy and really well built to last, so weight is not as much of an issue. I also, of course, go for the smaller type of bag. There is no trip, anywhere, of any length, that needs a bag that is bigger than my Northface Longhaul 26. It has big exchangeable wheels, outside pockets and can be adjusted in size.
And a bonus — the check in backpack: I still have a bag from my old backpacking days. It rarely gets use nowadays as I am older, more comfortable and my travel patterns are different, but there are edge scenarios where it is very useful. Like when you hire a convertible and need a soft sided bag that can fit into very limited boot space. Mine is an ancient Haglöfs — I bought it 20 years ago and it saw a lot of use back then, and is still going strong. As you generally use this type of bag when you travel around a lot, get one that is front loaded and can open up fully so you don’t have to take everything out every time you need those socks in the bottom. On mine you get a great carrying harness for carrying it on your back, but can when needed zip them away and convert it into a shoulder bag, meaning it doesn’t have to be checked as special luggage. Once upon a time it also had an attachable day pack. Osprey has one that is pretty close to mine.
Please, please don’t do this
The more I travel, the less patience I have with fellow travellers. Might be that I got old and grumpy, might just be that I expect more from my surroundings nowadays - no matter what, please think about this:
- Unless you are very old or have some kind of physical limitations — if your bag is too heavy for you to lift it’s just too heavy. Full stop.
- If your hand luggage will be tricky to get out of the overhead lockers wait until the other passengers have departed to try to get it out. You are holding everyone up and not everyone will have check in luggage to wait for later.
- When you get to the front of the check in/bag drop queue make sure your bag is locked, straps are secured and that you have your passport ready. That is not the time to repack and get things out of your bag.
- Same goes at security. When it’s your turn make sure your jackets and belts are off, your liquids and computers are easily accessible. No one likes queuing and not everyone is at the airport with as much time as you.
- Also — after security, the conveyor belt is not the place to get dressed or assemble your bag again. Pick it up and take it to the tables they have specifically for that purpose.
- When waiting for your bag at luggage pick up in Arrivals, you really do not need to stand just by the luggage conveyor. If you take a step back everyone can see if their bag is coming, not just you.