In three weeks I travelled more than 25,000 miles, from Honolulu to London to Amsterdam to Paris to Japan — and back again.
And while I don’t consider myself a world traveler, I have packed a few bags in my lifetime to come away with some tips and shortcuts that I’ve found useful.
And you might, too.
So here are a few tips I’ve come up with that will help any kind of traveler, whether heading to a weeklong conference for work or booking a vacay with your entire family.
1. It’s all about the shoes. This is always the most difficult part of packing for me. What shoes do I take? How many? What will I be doing on the trip? I hate dressing like an American tourist — athletic shoes, jeans and a fanny pack — and bringing appropriate shoes is key. I pack shoes that are versatile, comfortable and easy to pack. And since shoes take up a lot of room in a suitcase, I decided to skip the heels and bought very dressy sandals that can be flattened down to fit neatly into a small space.
2. Dress for TSA. I don’t understand why people insist on wearing every piece of metal they own to the airport. Don’t you know you’ll have to take off your belt, that scarf, those sweaters and everything in your pockets before getting through the TSA checkpoint? You will be on a plane for at least five hours. Why dress your absolute best? Wear pants with an elastic waistband. Skip the jewelry. You’ll get through security so much faster.
3. Pick a color, any color. When I pack, I decide to wear either black or brown — not both. That means everything I pack will match, so I can mix pieces much more easily. That includes shoes. The less you have to pack, the more room in your suitcase for the stuff you buy!
4. Research money exchange options. Most people get their money exchanged prior to departure. I don’t. The only difference is Japan since exchanging money there can require an act of Congress. (Trust me. You’ll have to go to a bank to get your American dollars changed into yen. The rate is terrible and you’ll have to fill out paperwork and wait for at least half an hour.) I usually exchange my dollars at the airport. But there are countries such as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom where you often get a better rate taking money out of your account from an ATM. Even in Taipei City, we just got our dollars exchanged at the airport. So easy.
5. Make a master packing list. If you travel as often as I do, you should always keep a packing list handy. I have one that just has the absolute must-haves that you can’t — or don’t want to — buy on the road such as rechargers (for my phone, cameras, computer, Kindle), medication I need, and my passport. Everything else — toothbrush, body lotion, deodorant — you can buy.
6. Buy this. If you are wearing fairly new shoes on your trip — or expect to do a lot of walking in shoes you don’t usually walk in — you need this product. It’s called Band-Aid Friction Block Stick. I rub it all over my feet before I put on my shoes — it’s not greasy; in fact, you can’t even feel it — and, honestly, I haven’t gotten any blisters despite the miles and miles I tend to walk while on vacation. Even with brand-new shoes. I swear by this.
7. Have a plan, sort of. I’m not one of those highly detailed, color-code-the-file-folders kind of traveler. But I always have a plan, even if it’s just in outline form. The last thing you want to do is spend all this money, travel for hours to get to a foreign destination, and have nothing to do. You should have a basic idea of what you want to do — or, in my case, eat — for every day on your trip. It doesn’t have to be down to the minute, but you should have a general idea of where you’re going. That will help with packing, too.
8. Buy tickets online. I’m not talking about airplane tickets, either. If you are planning to hit a Broadway show or walk through the Palace of Versaille, do a little research and see if you can book tickets online. That will save you a long wait in line. But only do this for the must-see/must-do items on your list.
9. Make an omiyage list. If you’re like me, you tend to overshop for gifts to bring back home (omiyage). So I make a list of who I need to buy gifts for and get a few extras just in case. And do your omiyage shopping as late on the trip as possible. (I actually don’t listen to my own advice, but I always wish I did.) Airports, especially in Japan, are chock full of the best omiyage. This is a great place to get last-minute gifts, too. But get your gifts toward the end of your trip. That way you’re not lugging around bags of Pretz and Kit Kat bars.
10. For U.S. travel, bring packing tape. One of the best things I’ve ever done is ship back things I bought while in Seattle in a flat-rate box at the post office. It was early in my trip — I was heading to Portland after — and I didn’t want to lug around the extra stuff. So I went to a post office, packed my goods in a flat-rate box, taped it up and dropped it off at one of the kiosks. I didn’t even have to wait in line.
11. For Japan travel, get a mobile WiFi device. I’ve used Rentafone Japan twice already and both times I’ve had great customer service. The fee is reasonable — about $60 USD for a week — and the device is mailed to your hotel with a self-addressed stamped envelope for you to just drop in the post when you’re done. The company also rents mobile phones, if you need one, but I just used the mobile Internet. (There aren’t a lot of places that have free WiFi in Japan, even in hotels.)
12. Eat like a local. This may be difficult if you don’t know anyone living in the country you’re visiting. But you can do some research ahead of time to find out where the best places are to eat. And I don’t mean tourist-y places, either. Look for food bloggers who live in the cities you’re visiting; these folks usually have a finger on the food pulse in their area. Or talk to the hotel concierge or taxi drivers for tips. They often have great advice on where to eat. Why go all the way to Paris and eat at McDonald’s? Try the local cuisine, eat outside your box.
13. Write it down. How many times have you taken a photo and, when you get back home, you look at it and can’t remember what the heck it was? Write things down. I know you say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll remember.” Trust me, you won’t. I carry around a small notebook — though you can use your phone for this, too — and write down things I need to remember. Names of restaurants or dishes I’ve eaten, location of places, directions and addresses. They come in handy later.
14. Know a few words. Don’t quit your job to study a new language full-time. But be familiar with a few key words in the language of whatever country you’re visiting. Know how to say “yes” and “no,” know what the word is for “bathroom” or “taxi.” Knowing “left” and “right” is also helpful. It’s not just good to show the locals you’re trying, but knowing some simple vocabulary can be useful, too.
15. Get a good purse. (Men, too.) In foreign countries, men using “purses” — actually, small satchels — is incredibly common, so don’t feel weird about donning a man-purse on your trip. The more you can carry on your person rather than in your easy-to-acccess pocket, the better. The best bags are cross-body ones because they take the pressure off a single shoulder and allow your hands to be free. Get one that fits things like your wallet, camera, snacks (important for me), phone, map — whatever you think you’ll need.
16. Pick the right people to travel with. There’s nothing worse than traveling with people who don’t have the same interest or temperament as you. Meaning, she can be a great friend, but if she’s not into visiting museums and you are, one of you will have to compromise what you want to do to please the other. Travel with people who travel like you. If you like to sit in a casino for 18 straight hours, find people who don’t mind doing that. If you like to hike or go whitewater rafting, find folks who would be game, too. Your travel partners can make or break your trip.
17. Have an open mind. Different countries, different cities — the key word is that they’re “different.” Keep an open mind. People do things differently. They eat differently, they talk differently, they dress differently. Don’t judge, just learn. That’s what traveling is all about.