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Grandma Ruth, the consummate world traveler, could never stay put. She jumped a bus to Chicago to join the communist revolution when was was still a teen, went back to nursing school in her forties and never hesitated to hop in the car to drive twenty hours across country just because. Even in her last years, when everyone, her kids, grand kids, doctors, everyone warned her not to fly, she ignored us all so she could see New Zealand.
She was just that kind of woman.
I learned a lot from her. How to pass the wind in mahjohg. How to make potato latkes – ahh latkes -- and home made pickles. How to get a good deal on just about anything. And of course, I learned how to pack a suitcase.
That I never listened to her is another thing. I tried my own way for years, but now, on the eve of yet another pack up and move (more on that soon), I’m finally taking her advice.
Pack Early and Often
We always knew Grandma and Grandpa were going on vacation because their suitcase stood already packed near the door of their bedroom for about two weeks before the departure date.
They laid everything out, arranged it just so. Made choices, took out what they didn’t need, and then, they were done. If at the end, they thought of something extra, there was space left to pack it, and always enough room for the gifts they inevitably brought back.
I am the opposite. You'll find me panicking in the early morning hours before our bus or flight is to leave, and my bags are too often close to bursting. I doubt I'll ever be the type to be ready weeks or even days before I go, but I have made a concerted effort to begin at least a couple days earlier than usual.
Know the Difference Between What You Want and What You Need
How many late nights have I spent surrounded by piles of things wondering how the hell I was ever going to get everything to fit? That’s when eventually it dawns on me. Choices must be made.
Need is relatively different for everyone, but most must-have lists will include passport, electronic or paper ticket, money, toothbrush and paste, underwear. Pants and shoes for walking and hiking. Soap. This ensures the basics of of staying clean and comfortable. Then, you think weather. Do you need a bathing suit or a coat and gloves?. Are you working or blogging? Then you may need a camera or computer.
I also include tea tree oil because its antifungal, antibacterial and anti-louse. I cannot tell you how many times this has been useful. Lavender, too, can come in very handy for the same things.
Beyond that, you’re getting into wants. Nothing wrong with wanting as long as you're willing to lug it.
Here is a small collection of packing advice gathered from other travel bloggers:
- Uncornered Market lists all the clothing and everything they need to travel the world, from Thailand and Malaysia to Central America.
- Or Nomadic Matt's ideas for the electronics you bring along on your trip
- Soultravelers3 offers tips for being a traveling fashionista.
- And finally, a universal packing list from Travellious that includes the ever lovely handy packing calculator.
Ziplock Bags Are Your Best Friend
There’s something magical about a Ziploc. Somehow you can fit more into the same suitcase when each individual item has been placed in one. While the laws of physics seem to defy this, it is undeniably true. And if something spills, the rest of your stuff is protected.
While Grandma and Grandpa put everything that would fit in a Ziploc in a Ziploc, I use them for those things I want to keep together. This little photo here to the right shows a week-and-a-half supply of both mine and Lila’s underwear, all clothing for running in warm to cool weather, both our bathing suits and Lila’s socks. It also keeps them in easy reach of the top of the suitcase.
I’ve also used those vacuum pack bags, the ones like giant Ziplocs that you can just roll the air out, close and go. One caveat: Use too many and your pack becomes surprisingly heavy.
You Can Buy What You Need When You Get There
Clothing, extra underwear, a warm sweater are very possibly cheap and easier to find after you arrive at your destination. For instance, why not buy a handmade llama sweater and gloves when visiting the Andes. It’s soft comfortable and designed specifically to keep people warm in that part of the world. Bathing suits on the Cote d’Azur? Mine was 10 euros.
You Can’t Buy Everything You Need When You Get There
Noah has a size 14 foot. You cannot find shoes in his size anywhere in France, Italy, Panama or Costa Rica. We have yet to find them in Argentina. Noah’s shoes are enormous, but we make room for whatever he may need because they are not easily replaceable.
Grandma Ruth and Grandpa Charles had a list of medications they needed to take daily. While prescriptions are often cheaper in other countries, I personally wouldn't risk not finding what I need when I need it.
Ok, so this contradicts my previous Grandma Ruth lesson. The key is to do a bit of research before you go. My best advice for this sort of research is to talk to other travelers. Again, Trip Advisor, Couchsurfing, your basic Google search. There's also Travel Blog Exchange -- creation of Kim Mance of GoGalavanting and Debbie Dubrow of Delicious Baby -- where you can find links to and advice from hundreds of travel bloggers.
You Don’t Need As Many Pairs of Pants As You Think
We all teased Grandma Ruth because she was happy to wear the same clothing day after day. Laugh as you will, I think her mindset was always that of someone who wanted to be free to move around. She never wanted extra baggage.
It’s a choice, take those three pairs of jeans and two shorts. Pack two sweaters for fashion, and all the nail polish colors you want. I know, each item is small, doesn’t seem like a big deal, but somehow they add up quickly.
If you leave behind what you don’t really need, you’ll find quite a bit of freedom to move in return. And yes, feel free to take that as a metaphor for life as well. Because travel is about exploring the world outside your daily life, experiencing the new and expanding your world to include other people, countries and places.
What, then, becomes important to bring along in your bags?
Photo courtesy of David Master's Flickrstream
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