Saturday, March 24, 2012
The Corpulent Traveler
Genesis: I used to pack a lot more than I do now. Some of this was because I was inexperienced in the art of travel, and part of it was because I could. I've been an elite with Delta for quite some time now, so I've been able to take a full set of weights in up to 3 checked bags for what seems like an eternity. However, I had an epiphany 2 years ago in San Francisco. My wife and I had taken our (at the time) 2 kids on a trip to Northern California, flying into Sacramento and out of San Francisco. Because our daughter was getting a little old for a stroller, we took 2 separate umbrella strollers so that we didn't have to carry them both everywhere, along with a set of clips to hook them together if the need arose. We had a single mid-sized piece of checked luggage for the 4 of us along with 2 rollaboard suitcases. We both also had on regular sized backpacks. This was a little heavier than we normally would pack, but because the only time we'd have it all together outside of a car was riding BART to San Francisco International, we thought we could manage. Of course, we stuffed them to the rafters on the way out and forgot about getting some souveniers and bread from Boudin. By the time we were actually on our way to BART (via a city bus), we had the rollaboards, a plastic bag, a box of bread, 2 backpacks, and 2 separate strollers. It was a NIGHTMARE. Let me say that again. It was a NIGHTMARE. We must've looked like the upper crust of homeless people, frantically shuffling all our earthly posessions to a bus so we could catch the bus to the train to the airport. It didn't stop there. Have you ever tried taking a house from street level down 50 feet underground? Well, it's not easy. We had to make separate trips, leaving kids freaking out and unattended because they were scared of the escalators and we still had to take down enough possessions to take care of Sherman's Army on its march to Atlanta. It was at this very moment in time where we decided enough was enough. No more!
Principles: We came out of this with 2 principles that drove everything else: 1. Keep your hands free at all costs. With 2 kids, you need those hands. With more, you need them more. With less, it's nice to know you can use them. 2. 1 suitcase only. I don't care if you have a dozen kids. Find a way to get it into 1 suitcase or less.
Application: The first thing we did when we got back was to get a new double umbrella stroller. I know that they have these SUV sized beasts that have cupholders, cruise control, and 20 inch rims these days, but those will help you naught as you work to bring your travel corpulence in line. The fact of the matter is that a double umbrella stroller folds up smaller than anything else. You can gate check it and it's light enough to manuver through checkpoints and such. Beyond that, it's insanely cheap. We had had one of these, but 2 years of kids and travel around the world had destroyed it. We immediately reupped our commitment and got one.
The second thing we did was ditch the rollaboard suitcases. We've been huge fans of the Amazing Race for years and years and one of the main things I noticed but never truly paid attention to was the fact that every team that was of any threat to win the race had on hiking backpacks (you know the kind - internal or external frame, they run from about your butt to your head). We went to REI and picked up one. I tested it out on my next business trip to Washington DC before giving it a thumbs up, and it came through brilliantly, holding my camera bag, 2 suits, and assorted other whatnot. My wife has continued to use a slightly larger than standard backpack instead, and so far it's been so good - we haven't needed 2. In my opinion, this is the best travel invention known to man. I know that it can get heavy (I've loaded mine down with upwards of 50 lbs of stuff), but you'll feel light as a feather knowing that you aren't carting something around behind you. You can go up stairs, you can go over uneven paths, you can do anything. You are only limited by your feet. There's a reason that serious Amazing Racers use them. It's because they just work. Your arms are free to take care of what they need to - be it take care of your boarding pass or fend off an attacker with a knife.
The third thing we did was eliminate our aversion to washing things while on vacation. I know that hotels charge you a kidney for any laundry they do. Who says they have to do it? They provide you with all the essentials in your room - soap, water, a washboard, and a drying rack. You can scrub your clothes in the sink, using the porcelin and granite to function as the washboard and then wring them out and dry them on the shower curtain rod or other drying implements. You can even use the in room hair dryer to speed the process if you desire. As a result, we've dramatically cut down on the amount of clothes we take. Typically you can do 1 change of clothes on your back and 2 in the bag per person. One thing that we also like to do is get travel Febreze and wrinkle release to freshen up your clothes.
The fourth thing we did was figure out what we could buy in country. It's worth it to go out with less diapers or baby food if you can get it where you're going relatively easily. You don't want to spend your entire trip looking for a drug store, but do a little research beforehand and discover what is available and where you can find it.
Fifth: get a bigger checked bag. I wouldn't go out and do this immediately, unless you've got a big family. My rule of thumb is 2 adults + 2 children can fit in a medium sized checked bag. If you've got more than that, you're going to need to super size that bag. Get the largest one that fits an airline's definition of checked bag. We got an Ogio 9700, so named because it has 9700 cubic inches of space. It just barely squeezes in under their definition of a checked bag. "But what about weight?!" I hear you saying already. Fret not! Pack clothes and/or diapers in here. Nothing else. If you have to because of the TSA's liquid restrictions, make sure it's in lightweight plastic - preferrably ziploc bags (that way you can collapse them as the need arises). For everything else - books, media, shoes, etc, that's why you have that nice hiking backpack from step 2.
Sixth: Get an iPad. I realize that we're getting expensive here, but hear me out. Not 3 months before Steve Jobs took to the stage to announce the iPad, we bought our kids one of those cool portable DVD players for our upcoming trip to Japan. The only problem? It was a pain in the butt! 2 hours of battery life, the size of a goat, and the need to take your entire media library with you. He announces it, and I immediately get it. It was an absolute godsend on that trip. It's changed our travel lives. We now have 3 (one for me, one for my wife, and one for the kids). It's got enough battery life to get you between almost any 2 airports in the world. Not only that, but it holds hours of movies, it does books, it has games. We have replaced a foot high stack of books (each) with a little piece of aluminum and glass less than an inch thick. We've gone from 10 lbs of trees to a pound of tech. It's absolutely astonishing, and it's a must have travel companion.
Seventh: You don't need all that crap. Yes, there are some toiletries (hair treatment, toothpaste, makeup, etc) that the hotel/motel/cruise ship/campsite won't have. Get sample sizes of these (available at Target or Walmart) and use those. Don't try to pack your whole beauty regimen in a suitcase. It's a recipe for disaster.
Eighth: Ship it. I've done some speaking engagements for various conferences that have required handouts. I'll do research to find the nearest Fedex Office and go print my stuff there. If it's materials like books and whatnot, I'll send that stuff a few days early to my hotel via USPS or UPS so that it's there when I need it at a reasonable cost. It's not worth lugging it yourself.
Finally, here's my packing size guide for families:
Yourself: 1 hiking backpack.
Yourself + Significant Other: 1 hiking backpack + 1 small backpack
Yourself + child: 1 hiking backpack
Yourself + S.O. + child: 2 hiking backpacks (ideally) OR 1 hiking backpack + 1 rollaboard sized checked suitcase
4 people: 2 hiking backpacks OR 1 hiking backpack + 1 standard sized checked suitcase
5 people: 2 hiking backpacks + 1 rollaboard checked suitcase OR 1 hiking backpack + 1 small backpack + 1 full sized checked suitcase
6 people: 2 hiking backpacks + 1 standard sized checked suitcase OR 1 hiking backpack, 1 small backpack, and 1 full sized checked suitcase.
Ultimately you can do this. We just went to Tucson last November and because we didn't want to pay for car seats we still managed to stuff all of this in just 1 full sized checked and 2 backpacks, despite having 3 car seats. Give it a try...once you feel the unfettered freedom of walking through the airport without dragging things behind you, you'll never go back!