Thursday, February 26, 2009

40L To Freedom: Go Carry On

I really don't like checking luggage. First, it takes time. The only times I've almost missed a flight have been a result of inordinate luggage checking delays (and the only reason I didn't miss either flight was the desperate smile used to jump the line). Second, it limits transit options on arrival. Too much luggage and navigating subway systems is a pain, as is having to monitor your stuff under a luxury coach in sweltering siesta heat. Third, it makes you more of a target in any country, at least until you check in.

However, traveling mostly carry-on requires: (1) some idea about what you might do where you go, (2) going easy on the liquids, (3) limiting. The more you do it, the better you get. Over time, I've developed a standby arsenal of compact products and a very functional set of clothes. None of them involve Gortex.

After a day of reading "what's in your bag" blog entries, some suggestions.


(a) At home, I tuck away basics I'm almost ready to donate - worn shirts and skirts. I take a few with the intent to leave them behind if they survive the trip. This means: I don't worry when it gets dirty, I can send out laundry without fear, and I come home lighter than I left.

(b) I make my own guide book - using a thin Moleskine that will also serve as a travel journal/note pad, basic details and maps. I make notes about what a book really recommends and compare books. I don't make solid plans, but I try to get ideas. In the journal, along with what I do and experience, I record things like exchange rates or email addresses as I go.

(c) Read up on risks and learn medical care; know your insurance. I'm reasonably able to diagnose minor medical problems and treat them, but more importantly I know when things are going sideways and I need to not only see a Doctor but communicate what may be happening.

(d) I hoard sample sizes. Nothing is finer than having just a little surprise after a long haul or before a night out.


A denim skirt - beach wear, club wear, afternoon wear. Black long yoga pants - fend off harassment and allow for impromptu yoga by the sea. A simple cotton dress, short - it has to be able to go to dinner, survive a light hike, and dance all night. A basic black fitted tshirt, currently non-cotton. A pashmina - blanket on the plane, scarf when it's cold, accessory to your sun dress, way to make airport security treat you like you might be business class. Comfortable shoes that aren't ugly and match my basics.

Aloe Kote sunscreen (SPF 25) - someone finally made solid non greasy non pore clogging sunscreen, they live in Minnesota. Solid shampoo. Powdered detergent or a Sunlight bar. Ear plugs and butterfly band aids that could handle blister triage. Gel strips and bobby pins.

A small camera (+ charger), often a laptop, ear buds, flash drive, inexpensive cell that will hold a pay-as-you-go SIM card (for long term stays/security risks)

A book to read and leave behind. Books can be the ultimate black market, especially in the language you prefer to read in. You can trade with people you meet and swap at exchanges in hotels/hostels.

Surf wax, a wax comb/remover and a fin key. I tend to surf where I go if possible (albeit poorly) and it's good form to be able to share. The trio remind me of my best trips. I also love the way wax smells and have from time to time joined the cult of using it to moisturize... shhh.


Oatmeal and vacuum packed tuna. An inexpensive tote bag, often whatever grocery bag everyone uses, to carry temporary stuff, as an added safety feature if you're carrying a grocery bag it seems like you must have been around for awhile, as opposed to an expensive water resistant something that screams MY PASSPORT IS IN HERE. A towel, maybe two if it's beachy. An adaptor, except for Europe where it may be less of a mission to get one before.

Local magazines and newspapers. I conduct small immersions when I go somewhere new - I want to know what they read, how they party, what they're listening to, what local politics are affecting people, and how people communicate. For example, some cultures are blunt. Other countries don't use sarcasm widely. It also helps a bit with language, though translations are pervasive. It's also interesting to compare how my news sources at home are covering a given area.

An item or two of clothing. Sometimes just some inexpensive heels to get into a club, other times something cool and interesting. My only souvenirs are clothes and consumables, 90% of my clothes are not from the city I consider home.

Insect repellent and possibly a SIM card.


A candle. Tres romantique, better than a flashlight if power goes down. A pillowcase. Though full linens are often overkill - if I wind up somewhere absolutely gross, I improvise or sleep in my clothes. A can opener.


A passport holder or money belt, most medications (except something for rehydration)

Hiking boots. I find a lot of Western travelers overkill the gear needed to actually explore places. Unless you're planning on a multi-day hike (which this list is not appropriate for) or scaling a legit mountain, you will see people like me doing it in flip flops and feel like a dork.

An SLR. I love SLR shots, but I'm not willing to be diligent enough with my stuff. A laptop is enough to worry about. I'm also just not a huge picture taker. And I make friends with anyone carrying an SLR and make them give me their stuff.

I don't actually travel with an MP3 player outside of North America. I've never missed it. In a lot of unfamiliar places I prefer to be able to hear what's going on around me... And I secretly like cheesy music played by mini bus drivers throughout the world.

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