Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How Not to Schlep

When my sister and I went to Europe years ago, we took Frommer's Guide to Europe on $25 a Day. Arthur Frommer, now 80, is the guru of traveling cheap, and his guides are family affairs that include chatty anecdotes about his long-suffering wife (once Hope, since replaced by Roberta).

Hope, in her day, was the paragon of cheap traveling virtue. Whether it was the drip-dry black dress that doubled as a nightgown and evening attire, or the little clothesline she packed so she could get away with two pair of underwear for a four-week stay, Hope Frommer was your woman.

We developed a name for Hope after a while. Hope the Schlepper.

See, if you work as assiduously as the Frommers to avoid schlepping too much in your bags, you become an unsophisticated bozo without the right clothes or supplies for the myriad possibilities you'll encounter on your trip.

And that is so not CheapBohemian. Style does matter.

Despite all the free advice out there about what to pack for a trip (some of it even good),  does anyone tell you how to pack light without looking like an asshole?

I didn't think so.

Let me give it a try.

Here’s a bright idea for your next long trip. A week or so beforehand, pack everything you plan to take in the luggage you plan to use, and then replicate as nearly as you can the typical transition day from one city to another: walk to the bus or subway stop nearest you, make any transfers necessary to go to the train station or airport, then turn around and go home again.

You'll quickly decide to dump the extra shoes and books, cut down on clothes and appliances, and maybe invest in better luggage. But before you go off to Travelsmiths, you should shop in your own closet first. 

Aside from wishing I’d gotten better luggage, I have spent my time gloating to myself about two items I threw in as afterthoughts: the suede Merrells I normally only wear to walk the dog, and the black silk ski underwear I’ve worn constantly under everything else. Flip-flops, pajamas that look okay even on a train or in a shared-bath situation, and earplugs are also items for which I've been grateful. Most airlines provide free eyeshades on the overseas trip, which are a must for Northern summers with their late- or nonexistent sunsets. If by some amazing lapse you don't get the freebies, you can probably buy some as soon as you land.

Now we approach the biggest hassle for the weight-conscious traveler who would like to look like less of an asshole: The shoe problem. Most advisers will tell you to pack only two pair of shoes. I agree, in theory. But I packed three, because I like to run and I am just vain enough not to want to wear sneakers in other situations. The third pair I've brought is a gorgeous and walkable pair of Danskos that I have yet to wear--but I plan to. You might consider filling in your wardrobe at any of the  good thrift shops you can find, even in small towns, if you ask the concierge or a knowledgeable local.

My daughter is sporting an excellent pair of black Converses with anything she wears. If you are also eleven years old, this will work for you.

Now, luggage: The difference between good luggage and great luggage is surely worth the cost. I am not even sure I succeeded at getting the former, but I am sure hurting for the latter. My “seemed like a good idea at the time” choice was the Sub-Zero G line from Landor-Hawa. They tout this luggage as the lightest weight available, and it’s true, but read the fine print.

As in, is there a claim for strong fabric (no), sturdy frame (nope), and water-resistance (nada, as we discovered to our peril on a rainy day in Oslo).

How can you design luggage that isn’t at all puncture- or rain-resistant? That is precisely the question I will pursue with L-H when I return. I've already shot off an angry email to them, and received a reasonably satisfactory promise to exchange. More on that when I am stateside. For now, don't believe the hype.

So what DO you take? Here are the items we have found handy so far:

1. Gifts--these are critical if you are staying with friends, family, or in an intimate setting through services like Airbnb or Couchsurfing. If you are not, we have to ask why not. Some great gifts include anything light and handmade by an American crafter, from jewelry to lightweight crafted paperback books. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the oddball things you can only get in America, such as Bazooka Joe gum and Whoppers or Cap'n Crunch cereal.
2. Classic, thin, wrinkle-resistant clothing that can be layered. Three pair of pants, a light skirt,  and about six tops should actually work for a woman for 10 to 14 days if you act like an American and shower a lot. As for what men pack, I have no clue how men do anything, so I can't comment.
3. As few shoes as possible—see above.
4. Enough underwear to avoid doing laundry more than once every 10 days--contrary to the advice of other intrepid travelers, I do not consider it "fun" to find a local laundromat and sample a brew while waiting for my stuff to dry.
5. As few guides and recreational books as you can manage—a Kindle or other e-reader is a great option.
6. A plug adapter if you are bringing electronics – You no longer need a current adapter for modern appliances, but check the tag on older devices before you go.
7. Picnic stuff  that can go in your checked bag (take care with this step if you are only carrying on): empty water bottle(s), handwipes, plastic spoons and forks and knives.
8. Extra toothbrushes—trust me, you’ll leave them behind in the most expensive country you visit.
9. A bit of each toiletry—again take care because of carry-on restrictions.
10. A bit of detergent – though not if you are only carrying on.
11. A light roll o' plastic bags--can also be purchased in Europe, although trips to the apothecary are also not "fun."
12. Small roll of duct tape--in case you too buy Landor-Hawa luggage
13. A traveling clothes line if you are that kind of person--I am not.
14. A comfort thing or two: peppermint tea bags have been our thing, surprisingly hard to find in Northern Europe.
15. A flashlight--optional.
16. Eye shades--free on most airlines.
17. Ear plugs--a must.
18. Socks or slippers from home--optional but really a great idea, especially if you are roughing it.
19. 2-in-1 pjs that look okay to strangers--I brought yoga clothes.
20. Sunglasses.
21. Brimmed hat--can be bought in Europe. Think about how you want to look in pictures.
22. Sun lotion--can be bought in Europe, and comes in refreshingly nicer smells in some countries.
23. Umbrella--can be bought in Europe, but so nice to have already.
24. Telephone--my company, Verizon, was amazing about this, and I have a smartphone, which is great because I always get the phone service (costly) and get the email/Internet about 2/3 of the time (cheap). Other companies vary. A disposable phone in the destination country is damned expensive in most cases, so do your homework.
25. It's really not such a bad idea to have a towel – for next to Arthur Frommer, Ford Prefect is my traveling guru – so a compact gym towel is a good choice.
26. Some lightweight goodies. Among ours are: a book of matches, a deck of cards, a few elastic bands for hair, travel wristbands for air- and seasickness.
27. If you are traveling with a child or if you behave like a child when you travel, consider taking a travel pillow and light blanket. A baby blanket might do, but the pillow needs to be real, not one of those blow-up affairs. Of all the people you do not want to look like an asshole to, your child should top the list.

Tomorrow, a poem.


  1. I always travel with a box of breakfast cereal. You never know when you're going to get stranded in an international departure lounge with no food, in a train station at midnight with no food, on a stalled bus with...well, you get the picture. Protein bars are nice, but cereal has lots of fiber and no fat and is vitamin-fortified. Also it doesn't weigh very much. Works for me.

  2. good point. we may have to break into the Cap'n Crunch some desperate night.

  3. Okay, so forget the expensive luggage. You can get good, sturdy, roll-along suitcases at (you guessed it) Target. Also, Costco often carries some good and affordable luggage. The campaign riff-raff and our mutual friend/international traveler all buy their luggage at these swanky locales and swear that this is the way to go.

    I'd also recommend NOT buying black luggage or luggage in one of the popular luggage colors. Go ahead, get the pink or red roller bag. Then, when the baggage claim breaks down in Philly after your transatlantic flight, causing 5 flights' worth of luggage to be strewn willy nilly throughout the hall, you will be able to spy your bag easily while everyone else is picking through the million black roller bags for theirs.