The Art of Packing for Travel

Some people have a difficult time packing for a trip, no matter for how long they’re going away. I’ll admit to being a last-minute packer, and, on occasion, I’ll overpack. But that last part doesn’t happen often.

I was reminded about packing habits after reading the New York Times article “What Anthony Bourdain Can’t Travel Without,” in which the food travel icon mentions always packing notebooks, a pillow substitute, books, and a hidden knife. Bourdain also advises against getting angry when dealing with airport security/immigration and preparing for security checks with minimal attire (i.e., no belt, jewelry, other complicated things to remove).

Yangon airport
Welcome to Yangon

When I was traveling around with my work-from-home full-time job, I had a large suitcase and a Patagonia Chacabuco 32L backpack, which has served me well over the past four years and is no longer sold. My plan was to avoid winter weather, so that cut down on the heavy clothes, though I still had my two-layer coat that I needed toward the end of my time in Tokyo.

Getting through security

No one likes airport security and the TSA makes the process more miserable than in any other country I’ve been through. Singapore’s Changi Airport makes the security check easy, friendly, and efficient. Of course, there was also the wooden metal detectors in Myanmar, which I’m pretty sure didn’t work.

singapore security bin
Organized security tray at Singapore Changi Airport

Anyway, to prepare for the security check I ensure I don’t wear a belt. I’m still lagging behind in buying easy slip-on shoes (in Asia I didn’t have to remove shoes). I take off my watch while in line and put in the top compartment of my backpack along with my keys. All my travel documents and money are in a pouch around my neck, which is also useful for traveling through areas known for pickpocketing. And my backpack has an easily accessible laptop compartment to get the computer in and out quickly.patagonia backpack

All of this means I spend less time getting my belongings into the bins. Of course, there are times I forget to pull something out because my mind is usually on what I forgot to pack for the trip.

All liquids–by that I mean toiletries, sunscreen, etc.–are in Ziploc bags. I always have them split into at least two bags, which is helpful in case one breaks during travel. When I stay at hotels, I take a few containers of shampoo and body wash to use for travel later in case I end up staying at a hostel. I also have an empty reusable water bottle that I can fill up at water fountains before my flight.

travel pouch
All travel documents go here

It’s best to organize everything to prevent backing up the security line, which will get backed up anyway because of unprepared travelers and the general work ethic of the average TSA employee.

The essentials

Here is what I absolutely needed while traveling, all of which was packed in my carry-on:

  • Laptop (it’s a bit heavy and large because it was given to me by my job)
  • Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5 (I thought this would prevent me from missing out on shots like in Iceland)
  • Travel neck pillow (since upgraded)
  • Kindle (because I need to read and don’t want to carry heavy books)
  • Universal power adapter
  • 1 regular-size notebook and at least 1 pocket-sized notebook
  • 1 hoodie

I now have an Acer 2-in-1 mini laptop/tablet that I use for travel, while my larger laptop is reserved for home use. This has cut my backpack weight down significantly. I could downsize my camera as well–I wish I had bought a compact mirrorless camera with a better zoom lens instead, but that that’s something I’ll consider purchasing another time.

travel camera
The camera would take up even more space if I bought a new lens.

I had been resistant to getting a Kindle, but my parents gave me an old one that they didn’t use. It was great because it was light and easy to carry everywhere. I also enjoyed using it on the metro systems in Tokyo and Seoul–it made reading with one hand on a crowded train easy. It helped me catch up on some classic literature, all of which was free to download.

Everything else is quite light. My universal power adapter even has two USB slots for charging, which was a reason to buy it. The Cabeau Evolution memory foam neck pillow was worth the investment–it’s more comfortable and can be used as a great regular pillow.

Cabeau Evolution pillow
This thing is comfortable

The hoodie was to stay warm on flights and to use as an extra layer on the pillow.

Everything in the backpack is organized according to need–anything I need during the flight is on top so I can pull it out quickly and shove the backpack in the overhead. The only things I really need for the flight are the Kindle, pillow, hoodie, and water bottle. I always book a window seat, so I don’t want to bother everyone in case I forget something in the backpack.

As for my larger suitcase, here’s what was generally packed:

  • 8 short-sleeved shirts (including button-down shirts)
  • 1 long-sleeve pullover
  • 8 pairs of socks
  • 9 pairs of underwear
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 pair of light pants (something that could double as business casual)
  • 1 extra pair of lightweight hiking shoes
  • 1 microfiber towel
  • Extra travel toiletries
  • Electric Razor
  • Cup-top hand-drip coffeemaker and reusable filter
  • An emergency supply of coffee (single cup filter packs/some instant)

Doesn’t seem like much, but it was enough to live week to week. Of course, while traveling and working I ensured that every apartment I rented had a washing machine.

All this stuff easily fit in my suitcase and it was well under the general weight limit for checked luggage. It also left space for small souvenirs, of which I bought few.

Packing changes for vacations

Of course, when I settled into stationary expat life, I took shorter vacations and had no need for that enormous suitcase. I realized this prior to my weeklong trip to Myanmar, at which point I had to go in search of a new suitcase just two days before departure.

These suitcases are too big for even a weeklong trip

My new suitcase turned out to still be too large. I managed to fill up about half of it with essentials for the trip. I added some extra clothes and left the rest of the space for souvenirs (I still bought few).

When I traveled home last year for my birthday, I again managed to only fill up half the suitcase. I filled out the rest with a huge container of Taiwanese tea for my mother and a bottle of Kavalan whisky for myself, as well as a few other small gifts for friends and family.

Lao Skyway
My backpack barely fit on this flight in Laos

When I took shorter trips, I managed to borrow a small suitcase from a friend in Taipei. It could be used as a carry-on if I didn’t pack any items that had to be checked. A few times I had to check that tiny suitcase–when I traveled to Laos and Vietnam I decided to pack insect repellent and sunscreen, so it had to be checked. I could still pack a week’s worth of light clothes in that little suitcase.

And if I was heading out of Taipei for three or four days, I managed to fit everything I needed in just my backpack.

What are your essentials for travel? How much do you need for a weeklong trip?

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