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Embrace overpacking: The case against carry-ons

Minimalism is overrated

(Min Heo/Illustration for The Washington Post)

Welcome to The Upgrade, By The Way’s new series on travel hacks and hot takes. See how to submit here.

For too long, travelers have been sold the false promises of minimalism. In the past decade, certain bloggers and social media influencers have promoted a travel ideology on their impossibly perfect feeds. It goes something like this: Purchase a little suitcase in a muted color, fill it with a few neutral-tone T-shirts, and you, too, can achieve some beige nirvana.

Personally, I’ll pass. After years of trying to fit into the minimalist’s world, I’m here to reclaim a pejorative: I’m an overpacker. Yes, I like dedicating an extra suitcase to shoes and bringing an outfit for every possible occasion. Embracing that fact about myself with pride has made me a happier and, I might argue, better-dressed traveler. Doing the same might make your travels happier, too.

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Although it promises liberation from stuff, I’ve found that minimalist travel can lead to a stressful fixation with how much stuff you should or should not pack. Traveling with anything larger than a teensy, trendy suitcase makes you feel like a hoarding tourist.

The idea goes deeper than the age-old air-travel debate between the checked bag and the carry-on — something that carries a bit more weight, given this summer’s reports of checked-luggage chaos. What I’m talking about is the trend stemming from the self-help minimalism promoted by the likes of Marie Kondo and the Minimalists. Critic Kyle Chayka, author of “The Longing for Less,” has said this commodified brand of minimalism has become “a kind of mania for living with nothing or living with as few objects as possible, and embracing empty space.” That might work for organizing a closet, but it seems less ideal when you’re meant to be, well, packing empty space.

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Look-alike carry-on start-ups have built luggage brands around that aesthetic. Sometimes the minimalist influencers even sell their own suitcases, as with bloggers Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, stars of Netflix documentary “The Minimalists: Less Is Now.” Millburn and Nicodemus framed the launch of their duffel bag — the $295 Pakt One — as an antidote to “impulsive consumption” and something that delivers “joy.” In other words, a typical sales pitch in the ironic wrapping of anti-consumerism.

Checking a bag vs. carrying on is the great debate of airline travel

My growing irritation with the self-help rhetoric was part of what led me down the path of overpacking. It was also the spatial constraints with my Instagram luggage. I’d spend hours before international trips trying to fit what I wanted into the small carry-on without popping its zipper. I was depriving myself of the extra things that can make travel enjoyable.

Everything changed on a trip to Iceland last summer — my first journey in which I truly indulged in the depths of a properly large bag. I decided to pack everything I wanted. Not only did I avoid the prior zipper strain (I dusted off my big, uncool Briggs & Riley bag), but I also had more fun (space to buy weird, heavy books about Icelandic elves, for instance).

The battle between carry-on and checked bags divides the By The Way staff. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

In other words, if you really want to enjoy your next trip, start with as large a suitcase as you desire. (Maybe a few matching bags that make you look like a bougie lady in a 1950s luggage ad.) And fill your suitcases with whatever you want, leaving space for a few quirky souvenirs you collect along the way. Overpacking is really about the idea that life benefits from a little clutter.

Sure, overpacking has a few downsides — like staircases. But, to me, the pros outweigh the cons, especially if you want to tone your muscles.

Ultimately, one traveler’s “overpacking” is another’s “essentials.” Unlike minimalists, I won’t argue that any specific suitcase or packing method will lead to your travel enlightenment. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if you have a bit more fun when you pack precisely what you want and nothing less. And isn’t fun the big reason we travel, anyway?

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