By K.C. Summers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 16, 2011; F01
I don't check luggage. Never have. Even before the days of checked-bag fees, I refused to play traveler's roulette with my belongings. I'd rather pack light and wear the same black pants all week than suffer damaged, stolen or lost luggage (at worst) or endless waits at the baggage carousel (at best). If it doesn't fit into my carry-on, it doesn't get packed.
Honestly, though? Packing light is a giant pain. It requires tough decisions and a willingness to sacrifice both vanity and dignity (see black pants, above). Carrying on is not for the weak.
Which is why, when getting ready for a long-awaited trip to France several months ago, I found myself wavering. It was just a 10-day vacation, but try as I might, I couldn't fit everything I needed into my regulation 20-inch roll-aboard. City clothes, country clothes, guidebooks, hiking shoes, laptop - none of these things was expendable. Yet I was committed to flying with the proverbial one personal item and one carry-on. What to do with all my extra baggage?
Reader, I wore it.
I'd always poked fun at those dorky traveler's vests and jackets loaded down with all manner of pockets, snaps and zippers, but now I was desperate. If the garments could hold travel documents, cameras and even iPads, as the ads touted, then why not an extra pair of shoes, a bathrobe and a few novels?
Googling around for options, I discovered a world of outerwear that would do James Bond proud. Removable pant legs! Secret compartments! Pockets within pockets! I started out small and ordered L.L. Bean's $79 travel vest, which boasted eight pockets and an outdoorsy vibe.
Then I stumbled onto the Scottevest "system" of "gear management clothing." With products ranging from a 33-pocket knee-length coat to a 13-pocket cotton hoodie, this company turns packing light into performance art. I ended up springing for a 17-pocket windbreaker for $75, choosing a drab green color so as not to attract too much attention from airline personnel.
Giddily, I repacked my stuff. Out of my carry-on and into my vest went my camera, extra batteries, airplane socks and a blindfold, a mini-booklight, a money belt, an immersion heater, an electrical adapter and a converter, noise-canceling headphones and, hanging from a clip, my water bottle. So far, so good.
But the windbreaker was the real revelation. I discovered that in addition to the 17 pockets, I could also fit things into the space between the mesh liner and the back of the jacket. To wit:
two pill organizers
extra tote bag
folder with maps, printouts, train tickets and other travel documents
big floppy hat
flatiron (I know, I know, but I was going to Paris!)
Not surprisingly, the coat-as-suitcase phenomenon has sparked controversy, especially now that many airlines have increased their checked-bag fees. Travel-gear companies have rushed to embrace the trend, with the Idaho-based Scottevest taking an early lead as hidden-pocket champ. The company made headlines in October when Delta's in-flight magazine rejected its ad touting how to "beat the system" and "avoid extra baggage fees." Scottevest founder and CEO Scott Jordan immediately cried censorship, although the airline cited "creative standards."
Delta Sky publisher Marialice Harwood said last week that the Scottevest ad was misleading. Since it pictured a coat stuffed with an iPad, a cellphone and important documents - all typically carried onto the plane by passengers, not placed in checked luggage - the ad might lead passengers to believe that the airline charges for carry-on luggage, she said in an e-mail. "Delta Air Lines does not charge for carry-on bags, so we believed that this content was misleading and could potentially cause confusion about Delta's baggage policies."
"It got entertaining," Jordan said of the ad brouhaha. "We saw a tremendous blip in [online] traffic after that. We've had the best holiday season ever, by a long shot."
Airline touchiness aside, is stuffing your coat with luggage okay with the feds? Asked to comment on the trend, Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Sarah Horowitz said, somewhat enigmatically, "The TSA doesn't endorse or approve any packing products. Obviously when you go through security you need to remove your jacket."
I decided to take that as a ringing endorsement.
On the way to the airport, I was feeling downright smug, but once in the security line, I began to get nervous. Turns out that when you wear half your luggage, the overall effect is a little . . . bulky. I looked like an extra from the hippo scene in "Fantasia." As the line inched along, I started to perspire. Would the agents single me out for extra screening? Would airline officials cry foul? Nowhere in the rules does it say that you can't stuff your pockets, but suddenly I was losing my nerve.
I turned to my travel companion. "Do I look normal?" He assured me that I did. "You just look . . . full-bodied," he said. "Like you're going abroad to have bariatric surgery."
When my turn came, I arranged my windbreaker and vest artistically in the plastic bin, trying to hide the larger protrusions. I walked through the metal detector and stood oh-so-casually on the other side, waiting for my stuff to emerge from the X-ray machine.
It emerged all right, but so did a security officer. He gestured to the bin containing my lumpy green windbreaker. "This yours?"
"Yes, sir. Is anything wrong?"
"I saw a corkscrew in one of the pockets."
"But . . . but . . . I thought corkscrews were okay?"
"Not when they have a knife attached."
He began to go through the pockets, pulling out my immersion heater . . . my money belt . . . my straw hat. It was like the clown car of windbreakers. Finally he found the offending corkscrew and tossed it aside.
But he wasn't done with me. Turning the jacket over, he unzipped the big back pocket and pulled out my spare tote bag, which was stuffed into its own little pouch. "I saw this on the screen," he said. "What is it?"
"Collapsible tote bag," I said brightly. "You know, for bringing back souvenirs?"
He looked at me for a long minute. "You've got a lot of stuff."
"I know," I said.
"Okay," he said.
So I was free - for the time being. I still had to make it past the gate agent. Donning my luggage again, I tried to zip up the windbreaker, but it wouldn't close over the vest - which was now soaked through with sweat. I thrust my boarding pass at the agent and kept moving. I almost made it past her, then felt a tug on my sleeve.
"Ma'am? Don't you want your boarding pass back, so you know where to sit?"
So, I beat the system. Was it worth it? Let's just say that I decided to check my bags on my return flight from Charles de Gaulle. I couldn't take the strain.
Summers is a former editor of Travel.