travel planning

Packing 101 – No, you don’t need that

There are two elements to the art of packing: deciding what to bring and figuring out how to get it all in the bag you have.

I decide what to bring based on some simple principles:



1 Colors matter: Everything needs to match everything else. Easiest to stick to one neutral color (black, brown), then pick one or possibly two others (blue, green) for everything else. If all the shorts and skirts and shirts you bring are in within this color group, then you should be able to mix and match things pretty easily.

2 “Bring Layers!” : everybody says this but it’s still good advice. Instead of bringing that big winter coat that you might need, make sure you have a couple cardigans and a trenchcoat. You might end up wearing four layers of clothes one day, like I did on a recent trip to Stockholm, but heck: you’re warm.

3 Who cares: Guess what? These people in Bangkok, or London, or Monteverde, they don’t care what you’re wearing. You don’t need to impress them. Even more importantly, you’ll never see them again, so if you are wearing the same thing you wore two days ago, who the heck will even notice?

4 Avoid formal occasions: Once in a great while I feel like I have to pack “special” clothes for a “special” occasion, and every time I regret it. Either it never happens and I’ve brought extra clothes for no reason, or I end up someplace fancy where the surprisingly casual dress of the other diners makes me feel like a rube.

5 Don’t skimp on shoes: Always bring more than one pair of walking shoes. Rain, mud, blisters, aching feet — they happen. Having an extra pair can really make a big difference. I’m amazed at how just switching the shoes you’re wearing can give a new lease on life to aching feet at the end of a long day. Oh, and those “fancy” shoes you want to bring? The cute ones? Forget it. Leave them at home. See #3 above.

6 Socks and Underwear: I make no attempt to be one of those preening “light packers” who manage to pack for a week in a tiny knapsack – I just want to pack efficiently and make sure that everything I bring actually gets used. Therefore I’ll often pack a whole week’s worth of socks and underwear just so that I don’t have to do any sink-laundry while traveling. I mean really, do you really want to wash clothes in a bathroom sink after a long day of sightseeing? I don’t.

7 Finally: The little bits and pieces: depending on where you’re going, you may need:

  • nail clippers
  • headlamp (instead of a flashlight, they’re much more useful)
  • dental floss (can be used for so much besides teeth!)
  • gallon size ziploc bags (I use these all the time, for everything)
  • an extra luggage lock (in case one goes missing or you buy so many souvenirs you have to bring home an extra bag filled with your dirty clothes)
  • an extra bag – see above (you can get cheap sturdy pack-in-a-pocket duffels from REI that are perfect for this)

Now, how to get it all in there:

Eagle Creek pack-it cubes: it took me a long time to warm up to these… they do seem a bit precious, and might seem like a waste of money, but they do one really important thing: they keep things from shifting around in your bag and getting wrinkled. They can also make figuring out the geometry of bag-packing easier: they fit together better than hodge-podge stacks of clothes and once you’ve worked out how they best fit in your bag, you can pack them the same way next time. I also utilize ziploc bags a lot, for keeping smaller things organized (and to keep shoes from dirtying things up). It’s especially useful to pack this way if you’re going to be living out of your suitcase and moving around a lot. If you’re staying at one hotel the whole time then it really doesn’t matter that much.


A Short Guide to Guidebooks

The thing about guidebooks is that you never know which ones are the best ones for you… each line has its own strengths and weaknesses, and of course people want different things from a guidebook so one that appeals to backpackers will likely not appeal to someone interested in a more luxurious experience.

So here is a little run-down on the big names, and my opinion on what they generally offer:

Lonely Planet: The granddaddy of the guidebook.  Some are really written for hardcore, pennies-a-day backpackers, while others are much more mainstream. Occasionally you’ll get one that is spectacularly out of date, which is why I always check on Amazon to see when it was published and what others think about it: the reviews there are generally in agreement, so I think its a good gauge. Also for some remote locations, this is pretty much the only book you’re gonna get.

Rough Guides: UK sensibilities with a budget eye. I love these books. Generally they have a good balance of cheap hostels and nicer hotels, and the accomodations they specifically recommend are in my experience pretty nice. Info on attractions and transportation are generally correct and the on-point. Overall, the Rough Guide point of view is closer to my own than Lonely Planet is, so more of these are on my bookshelf.

Time Out: These books are in a way geared towards locals as much as visitors, pointing you towards some lesser known but interesting restaurants, bars, etc. They do some very timely editions called “shortlist” which are very good — for instance the London 2010 Shortlist will tell you all sorts of things going on this year… which is great if you really want to find out what will be on at the museums or the theatre. They’re usually pretty small and excellent for carrying around. Too bad they don’t come for more cities.

Rick Steves: Have to admit, I love to hate Rick Steves. The reasons are numerous and I won’t bore you with them here, but the sad awful truth? These books are good. Real good. Thoughtful hotel listings, solid info on restaurants, useful tips about how to schedule your day and excellent local insider knowledge so you can get off the tourist path (only to run into others carrying his books).

Eyewitness Guides: These books are great for one thing: knowing what heck the place looks like. They are packed full of pictures, and maps that help get a sense of the neighborhoods and areas where you will be exploring, but that’s about it. The listings in the back are horribly terse and the pricing info is so vague as to be utterly useless. Oh, they also show you what the buses, police cars and money looks like, which if you’re a travel geek like me you’ll find quite fascinating.

Frommers & Fodors: I recently got a Frommer’s book for an upcoming trip to Sydney and now I remember why I rarely buy them. Its like the fast food of guidebooks. Bullet points, star ratings, tiny blurbs about different attractions and restaurants, and that’s about it. There is not much of an editorial voice, and nothing in the way of background or history… there is just not much there there.

Travelzoo Deal Alerts

This post may tempt you to do some dangerous things… it’s up to you. If you can handle it, then by all means proceed. If you are going to come back to me later complaining about all the money you just spent on a ticket to Paris, then just wuss out now and go read something else. It’s okay.

The first thing you need to do is go to the Travelzoo site and sign up for the Top 20 alerts. Every Tuesday, Travelzoo sends you a list of the best 20 deals they’ve found on the web. Unlike some other “deal” emails you may get (I’m looking at you Kayak!), these are real. Travelzoo actually has real people checking up on them to make sure they’re valid. You click the link in their email, which takes you to the Travelzoo site, where you can get more info before proceeding along to the actual seller of the flight or tour or whatever.

There are often great deals in these emails. Just last year I went on a week long Ireland trip with round trip airfare, B&Bs and rental car for about $1600 per person in mid-summer. At that time, the airfare alone was over $900.

The real benefit to being on this list is probably the Newsflash emails, however. About every week or so, I get one of these. Sometimes the “40% off flights to Orlando!” deals are not that exciting, but at other times I’m frantically booking the crazy cheap flight to Sydney or wherever before the airline has figured out what they’ve done.

The danger of course, is that you will book a flight to Sydney (or Stockholm, or London) on the spur of the moment, then spend the next few months peeling money from your budget to pay for this little fling of yours.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Seat Guru – find the best seat on any flight

If you fly enough, you’ll develop some strong preferences: aisle or window, Airbus 320 vs 747, even which side of the plane you’ll be on (hint: in warmer climes, the sunny side of the plane can get crazy hot as it’s sitting at the gate).

Seat Guru can help. Listed there, by airline, and then by airplane type, is pretty much everything you need to know. Which window seats don’t actually have a window? Which seats don’t recline all the way? Where is the loo? All answered on their color coded charts.

Occasionally these charts are not fully up to date, as airlines change the configuration of seats whenever they can figure out a way to squeeze a few more in there, but overall it’s a great way to at least up the chances that you’ll get a good seat.

As someone who has more than once sat in the incredibly loud, no recline hell of the last rows, that truly is something to appreciate.

ITA Software – search for flights like travel agents do

Simply the best thing that’s happened to travel planning since the internets.

Go to the ITA Software website here:

Click “Search Airfares Using QPX”

Log in as Guest.

From there, perform whatever search you need.

The thing that differentiates this from every other flight search is the option, on the upper right, for a “Month Long Search”. This allows you to view the cheapest fares for a given route over an entire month, making it incredibly easy to tell if its cheaper to fly on a Tuesday or a Sunday, etc.

The only catch, if you can call it that, is that you cannot book flight through this service. You should be able to book a flight online or over the phone using the exact dates, flight times and codes shown. I have, twice now. It could hardly be simpler.