Learn the subtle art of light packing
Rome is no place to be weighed down by too much baggage.
Everyone aspires to pack lighter the next time they travel. Who hasn't sworn at an overly heavy bag, when hauling it onto public transport in a foreign locale? And how many of its items remain unused throughout the trip?
But what is light packing? To one person, it's two suitcases instead of three. To another, it's a single backpack. Any reduction is a good one. But to the gung-ho, hardcore traveller, the aim is the achievement of "packing nirvana".
In our years of travel, my wife and I have slowly progressed toward this sublime goal. But we had a rough start. On our first trip to Britain, we found ourselves travelling on commuter trains across the Hertfordshire countryside. Our mammoth suitcases wouldn't fit into the luggage spaces between the seats, causing stress on a busy train as they took up seats of their own.
The English are inclined to grumble inwardly, but otherwise not cause a fuss. But you couldn't rely on this stoicism in all parts of the world. We took the hint, dumped the suitcases at the next stop, bought new ones and posted the excess clothing home.
But two smaller suitcases are still far from the road to packing nirvana. Over the years, we reduced the amount of luggage needed, until we reached a simple formula: only one cabin luggage-sized bag or pack each, to any destination. This requires some hard thinking and tough choices, but it can be done. Think: are you really going to need formal gear in the deserts of Syria? Can layers suffice instead of a heavy coat? Are electrical appliances necessary at all?
Lonely Planet's Jennifer Mundy says the secret of light packing is "When in doubt, go without". She also says travellers often take too many pairs of shoes. "Shoes really add to the total weight of luggage and take up lots of space. Being a shoe addict, I learnt this the hard way - and I have small feet!"
The great advantage of carry-on luggage is speed of access and departure. You can usually avoid the check-in queues at airports. Even if there isn't a dedicated desk for people checking in without luggage, you can politely ask an official. Checking in for a flight from Heathrow to Melbourne, I was slipped sideways past the queue when they realised how little luggage I had.
It's also easy to get out of the airport at the other end. While fellow passengers are still processing toward the baggage pick-up, you're through the green zone and into the real world. It can startle customs officers on quiet nights, however. Arriving in Fiji, we caused a group of dozing officials to jump to their feet at our unexpected arrival at the head of the pack.
You also have a wider choice of transport with less gear. Arriving at the bus station in Amman, Jordan late at night, we were confronted with a gang of taxi drivers wanting to take us to their favoured hotels. Instead, we were able to pick up our gear and walk the kilometre or so to the backpackers' we had in mind. Cabin luggage is also the most you'd want to take on the local minibus transport common in the Middle East.
This is all well and good, but it's not packing nirvana. Carry-on luggage can still get very heavy. How could it be further lightened?
Mundy has more tips. "Pack clothes that don't easily wrinkle, dry quickly and can be used to create multiple layers. In cheaper destinations, clothes can be bought along the way. Also be culturally aware and pack clothes suitable for the destination."
Preparing for a holiday in Italy, I thought hard about the subject. In the end, I decided on a rule of three: three shirts and three sets of socks and underwear. A coat, a pair of boots, and two pairs of trousers, one casual and one formal, completed the ensemble. Along with that went the usual camera, toiletries and book for reading on the plane.
This time though, I was trying something novel. Onto my Palm handheld computer, I'd downloaded an electronic version of Lonely Planet's guide to Rome. This was surprisingly useful. Restaurants and accommodation could be searched by price and location, and I looked much less of tourist consulting my Palm than a hefty travel guide. And it was less bulk in the packing.
So far, so good. But by the time we'd travelled by train to Florence, then Sienna, the bag seemed uncomfortably heavy. Hauling it up the slopes of the hilltop city, I vowed to examine my soul – and my luggage – once again.
Now, at last, I could see packing nirvana shining like the Holy Grail in the luminous Tuscan skies. This is what I vowed to take, next time I went on a similar trip. Two shirts, one T-shirt, one pair of trousers suitable for casual or semi-formal, one set of track pants, one pullover, two sets of socks and underwear, and one pair of boots.
Theoretically, you'd wear the T-shirt and track pants while washing everything else. You'd have to wash more often, but many destinations have dead days of the week when no attractions are open. And time spent in laundrettes can be useful for catching up on postcards and reading.
No books – I'd either read public domain novels downloaded to my Palm, or buy second-hand books along the way and leave them at each stop. I even pondered the ditching of toiletries. If you had enough money, and you really wanted to reduce luggage, you could buy new toiletries at each new destination, and donate the previous toothpaste and so on to fellow travellers as you went. A disposable camera would round things out nicely.
So there it is: packing nirvana. Is it an impossible dream, shimmering away just out of reach like a mirage?
Mundy thinks it might be. "The traveller would constantly be washing clothes, and laundry can be expensive to get done professionally at certain destinations. Also, clothes might not dry if hand-washed in cooler places. However, people have written to Lonely Planet stating that they travel with just carry-on luggage, so it must work for some."
Maybe it's unattainable. But next time I'm on a holiday when mobility is favoured over luggage weight, I'll give it a try. If my nerve holds at the packing stage.
on 27 February 2008.
More Articles by Tim Richards
A look at the friendly dolphins of Bunbury, Australia.
The colour and chaos of cab rides in the Egyptian capital.
How I became involved in a murder investigation in Poland.
The surprising art deco city in East Africa.
Tour the famous movie and TV locations of the UK.
A journey through Syria, calling at open air souks, Crusader castles and desert ruins.
Visiting the attractively old-fashioned southeast corner of Poland.
Discover how Australia celebrates the festive season in summer.
Exploring the green walking trails that wind through the New Zealand capital.
A journey through the stunning "rose red city" in southern Jordan.
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