Way back when I first started travelling I assumed that the three sizes of suitcases were a guide to how much to pack. The big one was for international travel and the medium for domestic, and the small one for weekends away. Then I started working for Lonely Planet Publications as a designer and one of the many wisdoms I picked up is that you should never pack more than you can carry at a run for a kilometre.
By the time I stumbled on OneBag.com I thought I had mastered the art of travelling light. Half of what I read on the site made me feel smug that I’d already thought of it, but the other half was new and inspired me to pack even lighter.
On this last trip I travelled for most of the month with only a carry-on bag and a large handbag, knowing I’d have to haul them off and on of planes and trains with a bad back and no Paul to help. It was only at the convention at the end that I acquired more stuff than I could fit in my bag, but at that point we knew we could relax because we we would be taking a friend’s bag home with us.
So how do I manage with one carry on sized bag? Here’s some of my rules of bonsai travel:
* Make a ‘template’ packing list of essentials to copy and modify for each trip.
* Dress in layers and choose separates that will go with all other pieces. Sticking to a neutral and one colour helps. Avoid light colours if you’re travelling for a long time, as you might not have time or products to deal with food and sweat stains, which dark fabrics hide.
* If you do take light coloured clothing, remember to take a light coloured bra. Otherwise, take dark underthings.
* Choose clothing that will dry quickly and does not need ironing. I have fast-drying jeans and you can get ironing-free shirts.
* Wash clothing every few days with the hotel shampoo, using a travel towel to wring as much water out as possible, then hang on hotel coat hangers, traveler’s washing line and bathroom rails (it’s great when they’re heated, but take care not to melt delicate synthetics!).
* A shawl or sarong, depending on the climate, can be used as a scarf, skirt, jacket, shade cloth, bag and blanket.
* Reversible clothing, or clothing that can be worn more than one way, is great for travelling. It’s hard to find so keep it only for travelling.
* Shoes should be comfortable, hard-wearing and will survive being squished in a suitcase (with socks inside to hold the shape). I like to take one nice pair in case we go to a swish restaurant, but not heels as they take up too much room. I found my perfect travel shoe for this trip – black leather mary-sues with a runner-style sole. But I’d still need waterproofed runners as well if I anticipated walking in wet grass. At least one pair you take should be easily removed and without metal embellishments, for getting through security.
* Use jewellery to add interest to your wardrobe. Rigid circular necklaces and bracelets might bend and take up more room, so avoid them. Thread chains through straws to keep them from tangling. Perhaps take one chain/leather cord/ribbon and interchange pendants. Avoiding metal jewellery also helps avoid hold ups in security.
* Buy flat or small souvenirs as they are are easier to pack. I’ve often bought A4 sized artwork on holidays. It can slip inside the inevitable souvenir book. Otherwise, plan to buy things you’ll use or wear straight away. I nearly always buy a souvenir t-shirt, and like to buy socks, jewellery and scarves. I’m also a sucker for little travel-sized perfumes – non-aerosol of course.
* Work out how much you’ll use of bathroom products and decant into smaller containers. I’m always on the lookout for small plastic containers that don’t leak. Just to be sure, keep them in zip lock bags with a tissue to absorb moisture.
* Keep a lookout for products you use in travel sizes. I’ll often find they are only available outside of Australia, so I pop into pharmacies and supermarkets to see what they have.
* Choose a restricted make-up colour palette to match your clothing. For this last trip I bought lip-liners from the Body Shop and sawed them in half. (Cover your whole lip with liner before applying lipstick and you’ll still have some colour left after eating.) I also took an old, emptied blush compact and squished some lipstick colours into one compartment and cream eyeshadows into the other, then bought mini makeup brushes. Another trick is to buy foundation with sun-protection in it already so you don’t remove or have to reapply make-up when using sunscreen. Moisturiser can double as make-up remover and shaving cream.
* On some long-haul flights you can gamble on receiving some useful items, like moisturisers, lip balm, toothpaste and bed socks. If you’re travelling business or first class you might get pajamas, depending on the carrier. If your gamble doesn’t pay off you can always buy some when you get there. Resist taking what you won’t use. Don’t worry, the airlines recycle what isn’t opened or worn. (And I still haven’t found a use for multiple sleep masks.)
* IPhones are brilliant as they can be camera, torch, alarm clock, book, guidebook, phrasebook, notebook and computer as well as phone. During the parts of a flight when devices must be turned off, or when the battery is running, I have a crossword puzzle book and tear out the pages as I complete them, and a small novel or anthology that I don’t mind leaving behind when I finish it. A top-up battery is well worth having on hand, too.
* On trips where you need clothes for one kind of trip then move on to another kind (business to pleasure, warm to cool climate) or when you really want to buy something large and/or heavy, post things home or to a friend or family member. I print out slips of paper with the address on it to take with me, so there’s no chance my terrible handwriting will cause mistakes.
I’m always looking for new ways to pack light. One product I want to get hold of for my next trip is a couple of hooks that can clip onto those annoying anti-theft hotel coat hangers so I can hang clothes in the bathroom to dry. Clothes nearly always dry faster in the bathroom than in the wardrobe.
One product that is impossible to transfer into another container and I can never find in a travel size is a hypo-allergenic deodorant, so this time I made my own using this recipe. I’m tempted to try making other products now – especially if the result is solid and dry so I don’t have to put it in the liquids bag to go through security.
But while seeking out and trying products for bonsai travel is fun, the most effective way to achieve it is to simply take less stuff. I nearly always find I didn’t wear or could have done without one or two items of clothing, and only occasionally wish I’d brought something else. Usually the latter is something I couldn’t have predicted, to do with the local climate, and in that case what I need is usually available there. The only garments I wouldn’t gamble on finding at my destination are wet/cold weather gear and a bathing suit.
Not every travel tip will suit every traveller, too. The OneBag.com site advises against using a bag with wheels, since the mechanism takes up space and adds weight. But my back won’t stand up to carrying a 7-8 kilo bag round, so it’s a compromise I’ve accepted I have to make. Fortunately, wheely bags are getting lighter and lighter.