Friday, August 24, 2012

Stories from a Suitcase

My sister once showed up at my house in New Mexico, having driven 500 miles from Colorado, with four suitcases and a box of shoes, for a weekend visit. I couldn't help but laugh. She brought, among other things, an entire country-western outfit complete with cowboy hat and boots, just in case we might go two-stepping, and half a dozen elegant outfits with matching shoes for dining out.

Talking with my friend Sheila this morning, I am reminded of how much I've had to learn, unlearn and relearn about traveling. Sheila asked me for a list of what I thought she should bring, since she and her friend Ann are joining me for a week in Italy in November. She wants to travel, but hasn't done a lot of it yet. So this list is for her, as well as anyone else interested in what to pack for long or short term travel. (With some notes written while in Rome, months after this post......)


1. For this upcoming trip I purchased a bigger wheeled suitcase, a good sized one made by Heys, and gave my smaller one away. It sold for a deep discount at TJ Max because it had a scratch!! (Like it won't get ten new ones on the first trip!)  It's essentially a plastic clamshell with four wheels at the bottom, a pull-out handle and two other handles on the sides. It's also brightly decorated with a scene from Italy. Now there is NO chance I will mix up my suitcase with any other at the baggage claim.

2. Basics for health and survival: a first aid kit with extra things like Tums for indigestion and Kaopectate for diarrhea. A sticky ace bandage that does not need 'clips' for the occasional sprained ankle or torqued thumb. For the older traveler....knee braces for hiking. If the suitcase is long enough, maybe a foldable or telescoping walking stick would be good to take along. My walking stick also has an attachment at the top to mount a camera, so it doubles as a monopod. Bring all the vitamins and drugs you normally take. If you are packing prescription meds, make sure they are in the original bottles with the labels. Sunscreen (a travel sized one is fine), and a good hat that can be tied so it won't blow off, like a Tilly hat.  Basically, go through your own supplies at home to see what you normally keep around for emergencies, then pack a few of those things. Creams and gels can go into the small screw top containers made for traveling, there's a travel size tube of aloe vera for sunburns. Think about bringing a small container of Metamucil or psyllium fiber, fiber tablets, or small package of fiber cookies. (Travel on buses, trains, and planes has a tendency to constipate a person!) A couple of items you may want to have in your carry-on: something warm to wrap around yourself, a pair of socks for chilled feet, and a neck pillow. Lots of pillow styles are available, try them out carefully, you'll be glad you did. (The absorbent towel mentioned later in this list is great as a cover or a pillow.) I was once advised to have a toothbrush, comb, and clean underwear in my carry-on, as you never know when you might be stranded for the night without your big luggage. That actually happened to me in Dallas, but had I heeded that advice? Nope.....I was stranded with only my fingers for a comb.

3. If you like day trips and hiking around, you'll want to pack a pack, preferably a thin camel-back that holds a couple liters of water, with a few pockets for lunch and essentials. In the pack you can stash a light plastic poncho, sunscreen, a bandana, your hat, maps, etc. But when you're out with the pack, remember not to put any real valuables in it, as people can easily distract you, unzip a pocket and take whatever is inside. Pickpocketing happens to just about every traveler eventually.

4. Electronics and cameras. Make a list of what you must have on the road and bring all the battery chargers, data transfer cords, disks, docking stations, etc. If visiting outside the Americas, purchase an electrical plug adapter before you go, as most adapters sold in other countries are for those people needing adapters for the US, not the other way round. I find a medium sized zippered bag is great for all those loose adapters, batteries, and cords. You'll want to put any valuable electronics and cameras in your carry-on bag for security. Small cheap phones with limited minutes can be purchased in most countries if you need one, the iPhone can be reconfigured by changing out the sim card if you have the right model.
(Much later note after 2 months in Europe: Ian Mallory suggests taking a small "fat Phoebe", an extension cord with three or more plugs at the end. This way you only need one adapter to the other country's electricity, and you can plug in several chargers at once. A great idea, wish I'd brought one!)

5. Papers and books: Bring only what you really need. Books weigh a LOT and bog you down. Most travel guides can be purchased at the destination and left behind or resold to second hand book stores. If you pick up a second hand guide, cut out the pages you need and toss the rest. It'll lighten your load. If you have an iPad or iPhone, download some guides from the App Store, and use those maps.

6. Washing;  I take enough underwear for 7 days, figuring I can do laundry on the road, even if I wash only the underwear by hand. Most clothes can be worn many days without ill effect on you or others. A super-absorbent towel is handy for use after a shower, mopping up, or to squeegie out the underwear before hanging up to dry. A light cord about six feet (2 meters) long and some small clips are good for all kinds of purposes, including a make-shift clothesline. Travel sized liquid detergent is good to have, as are some smaller absorbent towels for the kitchen. (By the way, shampoo is excellent laundry soap and so is body wash!)

7. Clothes: I highly recommend taking very few clothes. 2-3 pairs of pants, one light weight, one heavier weight (unless you're going to Antarctica or someplace!) The light pants could be the zip-off legs type that also give you a pair of shorts in case you need them. One dress up thing:  (for men) a dress shirt with a tie, (for women) a nice dress with a shirt jacket over (that you can use anytime), and a pair of decent looking shoes that double as good for walking long distances too. A couple of short and long sleeve shirts, a good velour pullover or jacket, and an over-jacket that is water resistant (like Gortex). Unless you're in a rain forest you probably won't need a folding umbrella. You will need something comfortable to sleep in that would NOT be an embarrassment if you end up sleeping in other people's homes or a hostel. The thing about clothes is they are available everywhere, unless you're really hard to fit. Many times, for an extended stay, I buy a few extra clothes and then leave clothes behind. It's good for you, and for their economy too. The nice thing about traveling is that hardly anyone will see you in the same clothes more than once! Ditto for jewelry, which is small and easily taken back home as nice souvenirs!
(Another note after being on the road for a while: Don't bother to bring dressy stuff unless you're going to a conference or something. A nice shirt with pants, some jewelry, and/or a scarf to dress up is really all you'll need for an evening out.)

8. Shoes. In addition to the comfortable but dressy shoes, you may want hiking boots and sandals. Find a pair of shoes you can live in, because you'll probably be walking a lot. And you'll want shoes that won't slip on wet cobblestone streets and turn an ankle. I have some Teva all-terrain sandals that I wear year round unless it's really cold. I can walk for miles in them. But I take hiking boots too. Under long pants they look a lot like normal walking shoes, but have much better ankle support.
(Again, Ian Mallory recommends only two pairs of shoes and after toting some high-heels around I agree, leave those at home.) 


9.  CookingOnTheRoad is a previous post with all kinds of suggestions for what to take and do if you are on an extended stay and will be cooking for yourself.

10. Personal grooming: Again, go through your own bathroom, and decide what you must have to get ready on a daily basis. Check out the travel sections at stores like REI, WalMart, and Target. You'll find squashable hair brushes, mirrors, sewing kits, cosmetic travel kits, small deodorants, tiny toothpaste tubes, etc. If you can live with a minimum amount of makeup, fingernail polish, hair gunk, blow dryers or curlers, try to take as little of this stuff as possible. Most hotels have blowdryers. For a longer trip, you can buy what you need along the way. Better yet, find a nice hairstyle that doesn't require more than a comb through (or comb over!) and go with that!

11. And most importantly!! Money, passport, tickets, and visas for whatever countries you'll be visiting. And a travel pouch to wear under your clothes for keeping the your money and passport safe. Ladies - carry a purse if you need one, but make sure it zips, has a long strap you can wear across the chest, and is leather or some tough material that is not easily cut. Men - carry money in the front pocket, you're more likely to notice a strange hand in your pocket if it's in the front! Think about how you'll get money on the road. Make sure you know the passcodes for your credit cards and debit cards. I have two debit cards, one for travel (not too much $ in that account!), and one from my regular account. I keep the regular one, the credit card, and my passport together at all times, and only use the travel card for getting money at ATMs. That way, if the travel card gets stolen (or I am abducted and forced to withdraw all the money in my account) the thieves won't get much, and I'll have a backup!