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Stress-Free Travel Packing -  It’s in your mind

Kim Epp Frenette

"Hypocrite!” my daughter joked, as she tossed her tiny backpack on top of my roller bag and varied tote bags in the back of the car.  We were leaving for a 2-night get-away; the trunk wasn’t close to full, but she was calling me – normally the Queen of Packing Lite -  out on my excess. 

Even on discount airlines, the ones that permit only one “personal item” for free, I resist springing for luggage fees, so my family is well trained.  On one three-week trip to Europe we each took a single backpack. Nothing else.  “If you can’t carry it, you don’t need it,” has been my travel mantra to my kids for a long time.

No parent enjoys getting caught doing what they say not to, so I had a comeback.  “We’re driving, honey.  That changes the rules!”

What you take with you on your travels should support you, not dominate you.  Overpacking means wrestling with excess baggage and increased risk of stuff getting lost or stolen.  Under-packing, and forgetting essential items, can turn a trip into a disaster.

Packing can be tricky because every trip is different, and you don’t know what’s going to happen when you walk out that door. Over the years I have developed mental guidelines for the packing task – mantras if you would – flexible enough to cover most travel scenarios and take anxiety out of the experience. 

  1. Let lazy be your guide

There was a time when travel was glamorous and porters where plenty. Most of us now schlep our own bags, so my first step in packing is always to think through where the bag(s) will go and how. I let lazy be my guide and limit myself to what fits in the piece of luggage easiest to handle over the length of the trip.

When I travelled with my teens to Europe we relocated every three or four days using a combination of trains, rental cars, discount airlines, and boat.  Our apartment in Rome was up three flights of stairs- no elevator. In Venice we had to cross dozens of bridges and cobbled streets. We had to descend over 200 steep steps to our Airbnb flat on the Amalfi Coast. All fantastic experiences but I can’t imagine attempting those locations with roller bags!  Restricting myself and my family to backpacks allowed more options planning the trip, and made it logistically care free.

The roller bag and totes on the other hand, despite my daughter’s eye roll, were the perfect choice for our short trip to Savanah.  Our car had plenty of room, and with valet parking and elevators at the hotel there was no need to be concise.  Who cared if I threw in more wardrobe options than I ultimately needed?  It saved me time and hassle on the front end with no downside.

Choosing my bag first to determine how much to pack may seem counter-intuitive.  Shouldn’t I just bring what I need?  It is easy to overestimate what is needed on a trip, or to get overwhelmed by planning for every scenario. Committing to a luggage limit reduces the headache of moving my stuff around and is a great motivator to culling out the adorable but impractical high heels I probably wouldn’t wear…

  1. Worst case first…

What could I really, really, not live without, and what would destroy my trip if I didn’t have it with me right away?  An epi-pen, if I were highly allergic (I’m not) comes to mind. Spare contacts and solution. Important medications, passport, visas, identification, important addresses, as well as credit cards and/or money generally make the list. 

I use my TuckTop™ for carrying small items I can’t afford to lose or have stolen.  It has a passport size hidden pocket, a zippered pocket for small valuables, a place for my cell phone, and an extendable latch for my wallet so I can’t accidentally drop it or forget it.  (It also has pockets for extras like sun glasses and lipstick, so I don’t usually carry a purse when I am wearing it.  One less thing to worry about!)

Once I make sure I have the supercritical and irreplaceable things with me in an ultra-secure fashion, the rest is gravy.  I pack what I think I will need within my allotted space limit, but I don’t stress, and encourage my kids not to stress, about what might be forgotten. As my third mantra explains…

  1. We’re not going to Siberia….

And if we were, Siberia has stores.  Barring a far wilderness trip (out of the realm of this post) I know I will be able to replace forgotten basics.  It might be inconvenient, mess up the budget a bit, or not be an exact replacement, but as the Stones sing – you get what you need. 

Sometimes forgetting non-critical stuff is part of the fun.  On our Europe trip my daughter hung newly washed panties in the hotel to dry and forgot to repack them the next day.  Long gone before it was noted, our scrambled panty-hunt in a small Croatian outdoor market only minutes before we would be water-bound for a few days was a lot of fun!

I sometimes “forget” to pack my favorite travel accessory - scarves, and consequently have a great collection of inexpensive scarves, each with a fond travel memory.

  1. Limit your imagination… 

It is tempting to pack for every imaginable “what if”, but universal law means I still end up with stuff I don’t need and missing some I do. Instead of trying to micro-manage my belongings for every day and every activity, I think broad picture:  hot, cold, wet, casual, and “dressy” - whatever the definition of dressy may be given the travel plans. For me it usually means a simple dress appropriate for a nice restaurant.  Yes, I can imagine getting invited to a black-tie event at the Monaco Casino, but I am not going to pack for it. That’s what the reserve Am Ex card is for…

If I have something to cover these scenarios (with a special call out to underwear and socks) I am good to go. It is a framework I came up with teaching my children to pack independently.  They got the concept easily, though their choices were not always what mine would have been….

If I start agonizing over what to bring I tell myself the following: Layering is your friend; Love things that do double duty; It is not a sin to wear the same thing two days in a row, or several times before washing; Quit imagining people will notice. They won’t. If they do, who cares?!

  1. Do You…

I find when I am open to new experiences and genuinely interested in learning about the places I go and the people I meet, I have a fantastic time regardless of what is - or is not - in my suitcase.  One time in Paris I was caught in a sudden downpour sans umbrella or rain coat (I am not a fan of either).  Popping under the awning of a very crowded café, some travelers motioned to an empty seat at their table.  We spent a pleasant half hour chatting while enjoying a watery view of Notre Dame, and I came away with a recommendation for a great Bistro that evening. Still mostly dry.

My best travel packing advice to myself, my family, and anyone else who’s interested: Relax and be you. If you are stressed about stuff -  too much, too little, right stuff, wrong stuff - you will be distracted from what’s around.  Ultimately, successful travel is not about what you bring, but whom.


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