Traveling is exciting – but it requires some planning. After all, we want to be comfortable away from home. Here, I outline some of my own rules for packing – learned after 50 countries, 22 trips to Europe, 5 to Asia, and lots of places in between (not to mention a thousand conventions and conferences within the United States).
Traveling for business or leisure (or a combined trip) has some things in common and a few differences. I will address as many as I can. NO matter what sort of trip is coming up, one thing that applies to all packing, and is your first critical decision is…shoes.
You will be miserable if your feet hurt. And I would caution against buying any new shoes, unless you are weeks away from departure, and you can really really break them in and ensure they will not give you blisters or worse.
- Decide on the right sort of shoes for the trip. They must be comfortable and versatile.
- Never travel with ONLY the shoes you are wearing in transit. Something could happen to your shoes. Like stepping in bubble gum on a sidewalk. Like having your feet swell and the shoes become too tight.
- Packing a pair of flip-flops is a good idea. You can wear them in the shower if needed, to the pool, as bedroom slippers, or home if suddenly your shoes do not fit (Yup, that happened to me – all the way home from Greece. Good thing it was not winter).
- You may need one pair of shoes for a special event, like a reception. Shoes take up lots of space, especially for men, so consider carefully.
Plan your clothes in a color scheme, so mostly everything can go with mostly everything else. Most things in your suitcase should be versatile, with the possible exception of some special outfit for a big event (like if you are accepting an award, or chairing something fancy). Here are some suggestions.
- For women – a scheme of black and white with an accent like pink or teal; blue and white with a few red accents.
- For men – A palette like navy and khaki; Consider one very nice blazer, in either tan or blue with pants and shirts favoring the other color. Other schemes might be blue and gray, for example, or black and tan.
PLANNING THE WARDROBE
You will need one outfit per activity day -but some items will be used more than once. Then, one way to dress up if needed (especially if it’s unexpected); one way to dress down for exercise or the ride home. If you are gone for more than one week, plan on getting laundry done once per week. All hotels offer laundry services. If you are in an rural eco-setting, pack soap to wash essentials. This keeps your luggage light.
- Start with something to sleep in. A raincoat could double as a bathrobe. Flip flops could be slippers.
- Always have one extra shirt in case someone spills their wine on you, or a waiter trips and spills fish sauce on your clothing.
- If that blazer or sport jacket is leather – it is easily wiped off if something spills. A good investment for traveling.
- Women travelers – carrying a wool or pashmina shawl can serve multiple functions. Throw it over your coat for added warmth on a chilly evening; Throw it over yourself on the airplane when the air is too much; it’s available to create an evening wear outfit if needed.
- Consider the fabrics in your wardrobe. Many travel fabrics require no ironing. Silk is a wonderful fabric for travelers – men and women. It has minimal wrinkling, can be warm or cool, and dries quickly in a hotel bathroom overnight when needed. It takes up very little room in a suitcase. If purchasing something new in silk, wash it prior to travel to ensure it does not shrink. Travel catalogues like Travelsmith and Magellan offer helpful travel clothing and gear.
- Dress for where you are going. Consider the weather, temperature, and customs. For example, in much of Africa, local women never wear pants. In much of Europe, only children wear shorts – not adult men and women.
- A lightweight packable tote bag – not just for shopping (many places in the world do not offer plastic or paper bags for shoppers); but for long touring days, it can hold a water bottle, and other things you need with you for the day.
- Consider packing one plastic hanger, a length of string or bungy cord, a hand-sized towel.
- Anything liquid should be within a zip-lock bag.
- Nail clippers could also cut a tag, or piece of tape if needed.
- A small roll of duct tape. Your luggage could become damaged in transit. Duct tape will generally help it get home in one piece.
- For women especially, don’t pack a suitcase you cannot easily lift. There isn’t always help available.
- DO YOU NEED A HAT? Many places you go, hats are important. Consider packing a crushable hat.
- For traveling into buggy places with mosquitoes, for example, consider acquiring some insect repelling clothing carried by most outdoor clothing vendors, such as L.L. Bean.
PLANNING THE PERSONAL ITEMS.
These are different for every individual. What medicines are needed? Toiletries? Makeup? These things will help determine if you are comfortable on your trip.
Medicines – Make sure you have what you need. Any controlled substances need to be in their original containers. Pills – have always 1 or 2 extra in case one drops onto a floor, or you are delayed getting home. With any medicine, be sure your supply is ample to accommodate delays, and accessible in transit. I like to arrange vitamins for each day in little “pill pouches” available at most drug stories. They are about 2 inches by 2 inches in size. These pouches can also hold just a few of something you need sometimes – like tylenol, or advil. Sharpie markers write well on these pouches.
Traveling Outside the United States? You could be sensitive to local water. In a developing country, water may not be safe for travelers. Ask your primary care provider for a prescription of CIPRO, which you would take if you ingest unsafe water by accident. Ask questions about the water where you are going. Drink bottled water where the cap is still clearly factory sealed.
ALL important items must be stowed in your carry-on bag (which of course may end up under a seat or in an overhead space in transit). Especially medicines. If you are traveling for business, and there’s a presentation in your near future, or meeting, have what you need in your carry-on.
DUCT TAPE – Real silvery duct tape comes in a small version, same width, but not very much tape on the roll. Consider packing some. I cannot begin to list the possible uses for duct tape during travel. One example, would be if your suitcase zipper busts. You may not be in a place to buy a new suitcase.
SUNSCREEN – For those on outdoor adventures, and even just touring around a town, sunscreen is an important protection. The tricky part is that it often comes in containers too large for the 3-1-1 bag. Look around for small containers of a good quality sunscreen product.
Caption: Many suitcases look alike. A bright tag can help your luggage be recognizable. Make sure the information on the tag (hidden here for security) is up to date.
THE CARRY ON BAG
Traveling far? To an remote area? Put one change of underwear and a clean shirt in your carry-on bag, sealed in plastic, perhaps lining the bottom. Luggage can get lost. The farther you go, the better chance of its delay.
Remember to avoid anything prohibited by TSA if traveling by air. Carry a small container of clean water (after you have been through security), snack foods (schedules are subject to delays), anything you need to remain comfortable. I pack a book, a small notebook, pen, hand cream, chap stick, a paper towel or handkerchief (yes, they still make them), tissues, phone, items for entertainment (like ear buds; crosswords). Some frequent travelers always carry a sleep aid, in order to adjust to time changes more quickly (by getting to sleep when it’s time).
Probably you don’t need a full container of most things. Often people buy a new bottle of shampoo for a trip, for example. Unless you bought the little travel size, you probably don’t need that much shampoo. Instead of packing a full container, pack a nearing-empty container, which can be disposed of in transit.
The little zip-loc types bags are available in most pharmacy stories. You may want to pack some just-in-case Tylenol, or Advil, or Melatonin. Or, use these to organize vitamins you take daily. A sharpie pen can write on the plastic. See the photo.
Caption: Packing a small amount of stuff you may need to be comfortable and to stay well is a good idea. Many people have difficulty sleeping during travel, especially after a long flight. Consider something to help with sleep if you believe you may need it.
The longer the trip, the more likely delays. Have some food with you. Nuts, granola bars, dried fruit are all good options if they work for your diet needs.
Caption: I would never begin a long trip without some food in my carry-on. Sometimes I have been delayed for a long time in a place where no vending is available, such as a plane sitting on a runway waiting for a backed up queue for departure.
IF you are presenting shortly after you arrive, or have other business responsibilities, everything you need for the meeting or presentation needs to be in that carry-on, such as your laptop, ipad, USB drives (always prepare more than one, they can break after your first presentation when you have four more to go).
Caption: In this picture, note the tiny plastic zip-loc type bags useful for packing small amounts of pills.
THE 3-1-1 BAG
For air travel, the 3-1-1 bag is required by TSA for liquids and gels. Check your airline website for details. If you take liquid medicines, like eye drops, that bag can get filled real fast. Often health food markets carry hair shampoo that comes in a bar like regular soap, and therefore does not need to go into that little bag. Any liquids in your luggage should be additionally secured with a plastic bag in case caps fall off. This only applies to luggage which is checked. If you carry on your small suitcase which fits in the overhead bin, then your ONLY liquids and gels are in the carry-on bag.
United States small appliances will probably not work in countries outside North America. Travel sites sell step down chargers/adapters (which convert the power) and outlet plugs with the correct configuration of pins. If you skip the charger, you may ruin your appliance (tablet, razor, hair curler, phone, etc.).
Whatever sort of luggage you select, the same principles apply.
First, anything in packaging takes up more space that the items alone. Foe example, perhaps you bought insoles for the trip, and they are still in the box. Or maybe you bought last minute tylenol, and the bottle is also in a box.
The more structured the container, the more space it uses. Things in pouches that can flatten out are better options.
Plastic bags with baffles can be useful. Some travelers put each outfit, or at least clean shirts in one of these. You lay the garment flat as possible in the bag, which in the case of a dress shirt would be carefully folded to avoid wrinkles. Then, you roll up the bag. The baffle lets out air, making the finished back very flat. See the photo.
Caption: These bags are a good tool for travelers. One photo shows one empty, the other with a shirt inside. They are available in travel stories.
The principle for packing most stuff is the least amount of folds possible. In other words, do NOT fold tops. Fold pants minimally. Lay things in one at a time, folding over a sleeve for example, but keeping most things flat.
There are travelers who believe strongly that rolling items is a better idea. You decide.
Pack your suitcase at LEAST the night before, and stand it up. Gravity will pack things down and give you a bit more space.
It’s not a bad idea to pack the suitcase well in advance, to ensure the things you need fit, then take it apart, and repack it with what you really need.
MONEY, SAFETY, SECURITY
Always have some local cash, especially if you are going far. You may need something right away, like a bottle of water, or a luggage cart, which can only be purchased in the local currency.
Nearly all credit cards work around the world – as long as you inform your card company of your plans. Generally a phone number on back of the card will give you access to the information you need.
Some cards charge still fees for foreign transactions. Check to see if your card does, because you may need a different card for travel.
Caption: Pouches like this with multiple compartments work well for packing jewelry, or dealing with multiple currencies. They use less space that rigid containers.
Always travel with at least two credit cards in case one is lost, stolen, or stops working. Keep them in two entirely different places. Have your card numbers and those needed phone numbers on the back of the card in a location you can access while you travel. Some folks put all this in an email to themselves. Inform your credit card company you will be traveling- using the phone number on the back of the card.
Cash machines, which go by different names, are available in most areas of the world. Consult your bank to ensure which ones will work prior to departure. You may need to swipe or insert your card to gain access to a money kiosk which is secured behind locked doors. Take out cash before venturing into a remote or rural area where machines are less likely available (such as on an African safari, or exploring the Australian outback).
In transit – especially if you may want to nap, consider carrying money, cards, passport, and anything else critical in a pouch you wear all the time – even tucked inside clothing.
Caption: This money pouch goes around your waste and slips under clothing.
NEVER leave a purse, briefcase, backpack, camera case, or tote bag unattended while you sleep or move around.
Women travelers – NEVER hang your purse on your chair back in a restaurant. Place it at your feet, keeping one handle around a foot, or ankle. Pickpocketing and petty theft are common in some countries.
NEVER leave your purse at the table when you go to a buffet in a restaurant unless you leave it with a trusted person who knows it must be attended carefully. A common tactic among thieves is for a group to enter a restaurant and cause a distraction, and while you are looking to see what’s going on, someone else is collecting purses, wallets, cameras, etc.
Caption: Here are some wearable items to carry valuables around your neck at all times (except when going through Airport security).
PASSPORTS and VISAS
All foreign countries require passports that are current, do not expire within 6 months, and have empty pages for stamping. Some frequent travelers must visit a consulate to have pages added.
Some countries require VISAS in addition to passports. Sometimes you must apply in advance and pay a fee. Sometimes you pay a fee at the airport when you arrive and your passport is stamped (but not the same line you waited in to have your passport checked and stamped upon arrival). Check in advance how things work.
It can be fun to accumulate lots of stamps from around the world.
HOTELS AND OTHER ACCOMODATIONS
Staying at an interesting hotel is great fun when traveling. Know in advance that credit cards are often charged in advance for a booked stay in most countries outside the United States, even long before departure. Changes in itinerary, such as a delayed flight – you will probably still be charged, and there is nothing you can argue about. Never use a debit card for a hotel booking, as the card will cease to work until after your departure. (And debit cards for no enjoy any protection under U.S. Law, which credit cards do).
Two-star properties (**) are often a good value. They maybe family owned, quaint, and less expensive. Travel memberships, such as Best Western, Choice, Starwood, Hilton Honors can assist you in making bookings and, when it’s time, to use your bonus points.
Bed and Breakfast Inns are often a delight, with quaint accommodations and helpful innkeepers. When choosing alternate accommodations such as “Home Away” or “AirB&B” or VRBO, it is important to keep in mind you may have little or no contact with anyone in hospitality – no one to make recommendations, help you know where to go, where not to go, help with your return flights, assistance if you lose your purse, luggage, or are the victim of a crime like pickpocketing.
TRAIN and BUS TRAVEL
Train and bus travel are sometimes a better value than air travel between countries. Europe, for example, observes First and Second class distinctions and prices on trains. Be sure you know in advance what countries your train crosses, as some borders stop trains and demand additional fares in cash from travelers. The cleanliness and condition of land travel transportation in various countries can be different. Guide books and sites can inform you in advance of what you need to know.
Taxi service varies greatly around the world. Much of it is unmetered. In other words, you don’t know how much the ride costs until you arrive at your destination. Consider asking your hotel for help calling a taxi, finding out the exact price in advance, and have exact cash prepared. Many taxis around the world do not have the capability to take credit cards and other online entities, such as Venmo.
Tipping is almost universally expected in taxis wherever you travel.
One common Taxi scam if, for example, you give the driver a $20 (or equivalent in local currency, for them to hide the $20 and claim you only gave them a $10 (which they have conveniently handy). If you suspect a driver, take a photo of the driver and the license tag as you depart the vehicle. Some countries have tourist police dedicated to keeping visitors safe.
Know Before You Go!!
EATING AND DRINKING
Sampling local foods is a joyful part of traveling. Be thoughtful about what you put in your mouth. Lower GI distress has ruined many a vacation or business trip.
If water locally is unsafe, eat things like soft boiled eggs rather than scrambled (they may have added water); bottled wine or soda or beer; well cooked meats. Do NOT order drinks with ice cubes, mixed cocktails, or salad (it was washed in local water). Cooked veggies are probably all right. Always ask if the water is safe for brushing your teeth. In a city like St. Petersburg, Russia, for example, the mass graves from World War II have leeched into the water supply, making the water non-potable for teeth or anything on your face, but suitable for showering (if you can keep water out of your eyes and mouth).
Hot coffee and hot tea are generally safe.
Caption: A travel purse, day pack, or tote bag may be a good choice – especially on with a place for a water bottle – for activities during the day. This needs to be packable into your luggage for women, as this would count as your carry on, and it probably doesn’t hold enough for that purpose.
Consult a guidebook to find out about tipping is restaurants. In Australia, for example, servers earn real wages and are not supported by any tips. In other countries where tips may be expected, they must be cash and not added to a credit card.
Once you’re out of a big city, vendors and hotel workers may speak little or no English. Be careful ordering, and never assume something where you are is the same as back home.
Example 1 – I was eating at a nice restaurant in Cape Town,South Africa and a teacher friend ordered Ostrich steak. She didn’t like it, so asked for something else. She was shocked when she was charged for both meals. The server pointed out she had eaten some of it, and they could not resell the ostrich steak. She had to pay for it. Another person at the table requested A-1 steak sauce with her steak. The server had no idea what she was talking about. This product did not exist in South Adrica.
Example 2 -In a small danish village, the menu was arranged by numbers, and each number was a complete three course meal – no mixing and matching. My co-traveler wanted the broccoli from Number 1, the meat from number 2, the dessert from number 3 and something else from meal number 4. If it was even an option to mix and match, certainly the server knew little or no English and my dear friends was brought all four complete meals. The table wasn’t even big enough for all four plates (and I had already ordered just a single meal). We still laugh about this today. It was an expensive lesson because, of course, she had to pay for all of them.
I cannot express my surprise the first time I went into a public restroom (I was in Singapore) and opened the door of the cubicle, and there was nothing but a hole in the floor. So you don’t feel like an idiot, the protocol is you stoop over the hole, facing the door. Paper is sometimes provided. Hard on knees!
It’s a great idea to always carry tissues or a partial roll of toilet paper wherever you go. In many places, rest rooms have an attendant, and you are expected to put some local coins into a dish on the sink. Still other places (like Thailand, for example), you purchase a small wad of toilet paper prior to entering the cubicle.
Some public restrooms will have one cubicle with a traditional toilet, if you know to look. There may even be a picture of a toilet on a door.
Carrying hand sanitizer is another good idea. Soap may or may not be available.
I have often thought a great title for a travel book would be “Fifty Ways to Flush a Toilet.” You may have to really look around to find how to flush. It could be something above you, on the floor (something to step on), behind the toilet – anywhere. Or, in a rural area, it might be a scoop and a pail of water.
This topic is enough for a course. I strongly recommend consulting and reading a guidebook before you travel. Often, guidebooks are available to download to your kindle app on your phone.
One thing I will mention is especially for unmarried women traveling without a male partner. Marriage is so strong in many cultures that single women make no sense to local people – especially in African countries, Middle Eastern countries, and anywhere where the Muslim faith is dominant.
Ladies, consider going to an estate jeweler and purchase yourself a simple wedding ring and wear it during travel depending on where you are going. I do not think men need to be concerned with this.
Other customs to read about in advance: tipping, restaurant manners and protocols (such as you may never be handed a bill for your dinner until you request it).
Be a humble traveler. Never talk down to local people. They will notice. Never act like you are better than anyone else because maybe you have more money than local folks. Treat everyone you meet with respect. Don’t be surprised if they know immediately where you are from. Clothes, shoes, jewelry, and even smiling are all cues to locations (Lots of folks are not smiley, which may have to do with the condition of their teeth, or just what is locally normal).
Be careful what you do with your hands in a foreign country. Giving a thumbs up, for example, may be something sexual. Observe what local people do.
Caption: This gesture in the US means “okay.” In Turkey, it means you are a gay man looking for a partner, according to one informant.
Jewelry, scarves, bookmarks, throw pillow covers, table linens are all very packable for the trip home. If you intend to buy art, consider packing a collapsible art tube. Most things can be shipped home of course. Something breakable? Either pack it separately and carry it on, or embed it in your own clothing for the journey home. A decorative plate or tray can be slipped about in the middle of your suitcase so it is cushioned from the top and bottom.
In countries selling carpets, I have been informed the carpets are considered art and are not dutiable. Check with locals to find out what is considered art, and what is not dutiable.
On the return from a long trip, I make a list on paper, such as in a travel journal or on your phone, of all my purchases with approximate prices (because they may have been purchased in a different currency). Save receipts from a larger purchase, such as gold jewelry. I think overall, it’s a good idea to be honest with the customs desk when you return home.
Once I brought home a great deal of books. I explained to the customs agent they were for educational purposes, he waived the duty.
When you read this, you may want to share some travel anecdotes on the comments. Please feel free. I will love reading them.
1 thought on “Going somewhere? How to pack and prepare for traveling”
Oh, yes, the toilets in Asia. It’s a good idea to scout out the possible western toilet stall! Thanks for the wealth of travel info here. I laughed at your friend’s four meals! The key is the ability to be flexible and remember we are guests in another country.