You don't need to check luggage. Never, ever again. Really. That's what packing experts Susan Foster and Doug Dyment say, and they know what they're talking about -- they roam the world with just one carry-on bag each.
Foster's and Dyment's websites and books, at Smart Packing (www.smartpacking.com) and OneBag.com (www.onebag.com) respectively, are a wealth of packing information. Reading them will change the way you look at your bags (and hopefully, it'll help you travel with fewer bags.)
Smart packing and traveling light helps now more than ever because most airlines charge for checked luggage. Unless you're an elite frequent flier, you're likely to pay at least $25 per bag, each way—and more if you have many bags, or they're overweight. Carrying on still costs nothing on most airlines (but not Spirit in the U.S.).
One of the more pointless parts of the security process is when you're forced to remove your laptop from your bag for the X-ray machine. As many other countries don't require this, I can only surmise it's because our X-ray readers are somehow inferior to those abroad.
Responding to the varied groans and complaints of frequent laptop-removers, the TSA started approving a range of carry-on bags where you don't have to remove your laptop—you just flip their special laptop pouch away from the rest of the bag and push it through the X-Ray.
Incipio, CODI, Targus, Skooba Design, Pathfinder, Briggs & Riley and Tom Bihn also make checkpoint-friendly bags, according to the geeks.
That said, our packing experts just don't see why you should pay extra for such a tiny improvement in your travel process. If you're worried about someone stealing your laptop on the belt, just send it through last, and watch it go into the machine.
Packing Tips From The Experts
Dipping into Foster's and Dyment's websites gives you hours of reading about how to maximize your luggage space. But here are a few quick tips for a more compact carry-on.
1. Avoid heavy, hard-sided suitcases. They're heavy, inflexible and hold much less than duffels or rollaboard bags. If you properly compartmentalize a soft bag (using packing cubes, Ziploc bags or even just rubber bands), your stuff will stay in place and it won't look like it got put in a blender when you get off the plane.
2. Have a packing list. "Packing panic" is one of the major reasons people overpack, and a packing list is the best antidote. Dyment has a comprehensive list at his OneBag.com site. I think it goes a bit overboard if you're going to civilized locales (you don't need to pack a spork if you're going to a place with fast-food restaurants, for instance) but it gets you thinking.
3. Compartmentalize. Ziploc bags and packing cubes are your friends. If you like, go for a bag with a lot of different pockets, and use them differently. Those straps at the bottom of some carry-on bags' compartments are great for strapping down your pants. If you don't fill your bag all the way, throw in some bubble wrap, Foster says. It's light, and it can be used to cushion souvenirs on your way home.
4. Pack the right clothes. You don't need to reinvent your wardrobe, but some clothes travel better than others. Avoid linen entirely, Foster says. If you need dress clothes, try cotton-poly blends. Layers pack better, and are more flexible, than heavy winter clothes. Silk long johns can go a long way on cold-weather trips, Foster says.
Small umbrellas beat raincoats any day of the week—and in Dyment's world, they double as parasols. Avoid cotton socks, Dyment says—they don't dry quickly. And you never really need more than three pairs of shoes, Foster says. I'm a man; I travel with one, a sturdy pair of dress Doc Martens that work well for both business meetings and walking around.
5. Do laundry. Our Pauline Frommer likes to advocate staying in an apartment anywhere you plan to stay more than a few days. Other than saving money and living like a local, you'll probably get a washing machine—which means you can bring half the clothes you'd otherwise have to carry. Dyment and Foster are fans of washing your socks in hotel bathrooms, but that would just ruin my vacation.
6. Don't bring cheap things you can buy on the road. My favorite example of this is beach mats, towels, and blankets. These are heavy, bulky items, and in many beach resorts, you can just pop over to the local Walgreens and get them for $2.99 each. (Don't buy the overpriced ones at your hotel, of course.) While you're at Walgreens, you can pick up all those liquids and gels you didn't bother bringing, too. Then you can leave them in your hotel room.
Of course, there's an exception to everything. Families with small children shouldn't try to pack super-light; if Nina-Rose needs her "little special blanket" to fall asleep, pack the darn blankie. If you're about to fly nine hours and four pounds of books are the difference between your kids being little angels and an unfortunate incident of "air rage," bring the books. (And the snacks.) Tweens, however, can easily get into the packing-light mentality—it could even be a challenge or a competition.
If you're the type of person who likes to acquire things, you may have to check your bags anyway. In that case, you might need the right lock.
The TSA has baggage screening machines, but sometimes they like to get elbow-deep in your underthings. You'll know this has happened when you get a friendly note in one of your checked bags saying essentially, "Hi, we're the TSA, and we've found your underthings to be non-explosive. Have a great trip!"
When they do this, they'll cut the locks on your bag. That may be irritating.
This is more likely to happen when you have things in your bag that look strange on X-Ray machines, according to Foster. Chocolate sometimes looks like explosives. Electronic clutter is a red flag. Ditto for clothing or shoes with large metal elements.
So the TSA approved a set of baggage locks that they can open with a special key, and then re-close. These locks have a diamond or a torch symbol on them, and they're commonly called "TSA locks." One place to get them is Safe Skies (www.safeskieslocks.com/index.php).
Let's remember that the only real use for baggage locks when you're flying is to prevent your stuff from falling out of your bag -- and you can also do that with plastic zip ties. Determined thieves wield bolt-cutters. But flimsier locks can help defend you from the sorts of casual offenders who, for instance, roam some overnight trains.
TSA locks don't always help. I've heard of airports where there's only one "TSA key" for the whole baggage-handling area. If the inspector doesn't feel like finding it, off comes the lock. That said, if you're going to lock your bag, you might as well use the ones which have a chance of surviving the underthing-search.
Sascha Segan has been writing for Frommer's since 2001, authoring the books Fly Safe, Fly Smart and Priceline.com for Dummies and collecting Lowell Thomas awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation for his Frommers.com columns in 2007 and 2009. He's also the managing editor for mobile at PCMag.com. He lives in New York City with his family.
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