ESSAY

She Lugs It, She Lugs It Not: How One Traveler Moved Toward the Light

(Robin Zingone Ftwp)
By K.C. Summers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 5, 2006

Traveling as much as I do, I've learned a lot over the years. How to research and approach a destination. What Web sites have the best airfares. How to avoid sitting next to creeps on the train (a used tissue on a seat goes a long way). But the most important thing I've learned? Pack light.

And by that I mean: Pack light.

I can't emphasize it enough, people. Pack light, pack light, pack light. It's become my travel mantra, my obsession, my cri de suitcase . Packing light is the reason I was able to spend two weeks in Thailand a few years ago and take everything I needed in one carry-on, a personal best I'm still bragging about. Of course, I didn't win any fashion awards, but I never said this way of life was easy.

Why all the passion about something as mundane as packing? Because when you take the "lug" out of luggage, you change the entire nature of your trip. There are the practical benefits, of course: Limiting your baggage to one small suitcase and one personal item, you can print out your boarding pass ahead of time and go directly to the gate, avoiding long check-in lines. When you land, simply grab your bag from the overhead bin and go, bypassing the throngs camped out at the luggage carousel. No more worries about the airline losing your luggage, either: It's always at the end of your arm. And getting around is easier: With one bag, you can walk from train station to hotel, for example, instead of having to commandeer a taxi to shuttle heavy suitcases.

But psychologically, the benefits are even greater. There's something liberating about traveling with only a carry-on: You're no longer a slave to your stuff. You don't need to spend a lot of time planning what to take when your entire wardrobe revolves around a pair of black pants and a couple of tops. Not obsessing about your appearance brings humility and perspective. That's right! You become a better person. Unencumbered, you're free to focus on what's really important: your destination and how to make the most of it.

I think most people know all this intrinsically, but they seem to lose focus when they pack. I've been appalled at some of the things I've seen my friends -- otherwise perfectly intelligent people -- throw into their bags. Hardback books! Big, clompy hiking boots! Industrial-size shampoo! What are they thinking? I've learned this the hard way: You've got to be ruthless. That old traveler's tip about packing only what you think you'll need, then eliminating half of that? Believe it. Yes, you'll have to sacrifice some dignity when you end up wearing your wingtips to the beach. But you'll be liberated from the tyranny of luggage.

But with packing light comes great responsibility. Don't be that person who stuffs her rollaboard so full that it jams the aisles and requires the kindness of strangers to wrestle it into the overhead bin. If you can't lift your own carry-on into the bin, do us all a favor and check your luggage.

By the way, by "carry-on" I don't mean a weekend-size tote -- I'm not that much of a minimalist -- but a soft-sided suitcase that will (just) fit in that little "Is your bag too big?" box at the airport. Stick to 22-inch bags and smaller to be safe.

Ready to come over to the light side? Here are a few of my rules for the road:

· Black is your friend. It's stylish, doesn't show dirt, goes with everything, and you can dress it up or down. I get more mileage out of a pair of black pants than an undertaker. Add a black jacket or sweater and you've got your base; supplement with a few colorful tops and scarves and you're the picture of urban chic. (If black is too funereal for you, brown or gray or other neutrals also work well.)

· Hold your head high. Repeat after me: You're never going to see those people in the plane/museum/tube station/sidewalk cafe/riverside promenade again. They have no way of knowing you've basically been wearing the same get-up for a week.

· Footwear must multitask. Invest in a good pair of walking shoes (Ecco, Mephisto, Josef Seibel, etc.) that work equally well with dressy or casual outfits. Your goal should be to take one pair of shoes per trip. If you must take two -- say, you're going hiking and to the opera -- pack the lighter shoes and wear the boots on the plane.

· Rethink your gel and liquid needs. Yes, the new TSA rules are confusing and inconsistently enforced, but to speed your way through the security line, don't argue. You know you're legally allowed to take refillable three-ounce containers in your carry-on, but it's safer to buy prepackaged toiletries than to fight with a clueless screener. And whatever you do, make sure your plastic bag has the right specs (one-quart, zip-top, pulled out of the carry-on for inspection). If your toiletries won't fit into the bag, buy what you need on the other side -- or go without.

· Bulk up. To save suitcase space, I always wear at least four layers on the plane: camisole, T-shirt, shirt and sweater, plus a fleece or coat in season. I may look like the Michelin Man, but I'm never cold.

· Make your clothes work for you. A pashmina shawl can serve as a blanket or pillow on the plane. Stretchy yoga pants or leggings can double as pajama bottoms. A trench coat makes a dandy bathrobe.

· Be ruthless (there's that word again) about reading material . Travel to me means found reading time, and it's tempting to pack a bookshelf's worth of bestsellers on a trip, plus a dozen or so magazines. But all those pages add up, resulting in many extra pounds. So limit yourself to one book (paperback, it goes without saying) per genre: one thriller, one biography, one nonfiction, etc. You can still take the mags, but go through them before you board and rip out all non-editorial pages. You'll be amazed how quickly you can reduce a thick Vanity Fair to pamphlet size. With guidebooks, rip out all irrelevant pages or photocopy what you need. Jettison all of the above as you go.

· Leave a little extra room in your bag. You'll need space for all the stuff you buy during your trip, such as clothes. Trust me -- you'll be so sick of all your travel outfits, you're going to need a whole new wardrobe when you get home.


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