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.
Thanks for sharing. really a great travel advise. ((:
I love your red bag.
I take along a few ziplock bags in a variety of sizes. I usually end up stuffing them with presents or dirty clothes on the way home. That way, things aren’t rolling around in my suitcase and they won’t spill out when TSA opens my bag (which they tend to do more often than not).
I also am a fan of packing a bit of duct tape. Not much can’t be fixed with a bit of Grey magic. Haha
Thanks for the band aid tip! Will have to find that for my next trip!
Wow! I’m ready for my retirement and tips to make my trips perfect!!!! Thanks Cat!
Good list ‘o tips. Having lived outside the US for 8 years now and travelled to close to 50 countries in that time, NEVER change money at an airport, kiosk or bank. The ATM is far and away the easiest and close to if not the best rate you will get (even after the couple dollar charge from your bank).
Great stuff Cat, like the way you think here. For me I have a simple rule about packing. If it will not fit in the overhead compartment bag don’t take it. Also, when traveling I wear sweat pants, shoes that easily slip on and off, and a comfy pullover shirt. No belt, no metal of any kind. I have been known to bring a pillow if it is a long flight. But I slip through TSA easily. My laptop is in the overhead bin bag. A pair of shoes on my feet sometimes is it… and some baby powder LOL. Often I will buy clothes where I am and bring it back so I never fully pack out what I am taking. Generally I do not go where it is cold but if I do I wear the warm stuff even if it is hot where I am. Peel it off when I get on the plane.
Great list! I would still like to see how you pack for Japan in a backpack!
If I may comment on #2 – it would be nice if everyone were ready to go through the scanner/x-ray BEFORE getting in line so that all you have to do is place your things on the belt and slip off your shoes. On the other end grab your stuff and CLEAR the area.
Great tips! I too have what I call a “go list” for both business travel and leisure. That way I minimize the chances of forgetting to pack something I need. And so true about traveling companion. One time I was in Madrid for business and I ended up with a guy who only ate meat and potatoes. While I wanted paella and jamon iberico, he was always looking for the next Burger King or McDonalds. That really sucked.
Nice article, Cat. Wish I had read this before our European vacation!
Great tips and advice!
Cat, but I still don’t know how you travel with just a backpack or small carry on for that length of time. How do you do it? How little clothes do you pack?
CAT: Thanks…good tips. For me, I wear backless shoes by Murrell for the plane trip. Easy to take off for TSA and on the plane. The unfortunate part is they are hard to find. The last pair I got was at Robins. I also don’t wear a belt on the plane. I use jeans where they fit well enough they don’t fall.
When I went to Peru these gals told me that whenever they travel to a third world country they pack clothing that they don’t need anymore. On the last night of the trip they collected the clothes that people in the group could part with, washed them than donated the clothes to a charity. It was a good idea, now there is lots of space for all the goodies that you bring home.
One thing that I do when I travel international is pack a duffle in my luggage and use it as a hamper. By the end of the trip my suitcase is full of goodies and the duffle is full of laundry. I used to do that when going Mainland too until they started charging for baggage.
Cat- I need to learn your packing method for my Mainland trips.
I like your duffle bag tip. I will definitely do that on my next trip.
Best Travel Advice Ever!!! It’s all about planning ahead and making that list. You would make an awesome travel buddy.
btw…THANK YOU! for sharing pics and especially your blogs It helps keep my mind of things I have to deal with medically. Hoping to travel next year and healthy enough to compete on a few triathlons =)
Thanks Cat for all the tips.. In comparison to myself and most people I know, I consider you a world traveler.
I am a list kind of a gal. I make lists for everything. I will definitely make a master list for future trips.
I’ve never heard of Band-aid friction block set. It sounds like something long distance runners can use too?
I am obsessed with cross body bags. I can’t travel without them. I like your red bag. The Sak?
Bellman are also good resources. Our bellman in NYC was so helpful in telling us which subway stations to catch our trains, and he gave us great recommendations on places to eat.
I always make use of our USPS. I’ve even mailed my dirty laundry home.
One tip my friend taught me is to bring two pieces of luggage and keep one empty. Then when you come home, you will have room for all the goodies you buy.
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When I travel, I often pack things in the suitcase in those large “Space Bags,” you know the ones that look like giant sized Ziploc bags? Since those things are clear, it’s easy for TSA to see inside of them. No need for them to go rummaging through everything like when I used to use garbage bags to store everything.
Great list. Some other tips.
Smartwool socks…keeps your feet dry. no blisters even after long walks.
Mix & match clothes. Black always works for pants. Dump the jeans. too bulky & hard to dry.
No one cares if you wear the same stuff, so pack light.
On trips of 2 weeks or more. plan to wash clothes one night. Use it as a regroup time as well.
Wash underwear everynight. (wash & wear stuff drys quickly.) Men should wear t-shirts under their shirts. Keeps the outer shirts fresher. (I like ex-offico and LL Bean stuff)
Starbucks for wifi. check out electrical outlets before u go so that you have the right plugs.
Gallon size zip lock bags for wet or possibly wet/damp stuff.
ATM’s or Hotels to change money. Never banks. Charge it where possible. For japan exchange money in Waikiki at the places on Royal Hawaiian before you go. (better rates) + don’t waste time finding an ATM.
Only thing I’d disagree with is murses for men. If it don’t fit in your pants or jacket pockets you don’t need it. Those japanese kleenix sized foldup bags are great if u pickup a few things.
great advice! being prepared takes away some travel related stress.
Add to your #10. Pre-print a label from USPS.com for your flat rate box and take with you in case you send a box home. if you don’t use it, when you get home cancel the label/postage and you will be refunded.
and another tip – before leaving home, call your credit card company to let them know you are traveling. Also, limit the number of cards you carry with you.
whenever we rent a car, our first stop is always to buy water (usually a case since it’s in expensive.)
best advice, number 17. Mark Twain – “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,
I agree about comfort for travel, but I also make sure to look into cultural and social norms for clothing, especially when traveling internationally. How short can my shorts be? Is it offensive to show my shoulders? Does my “casual” just look sloppy? Americans often have a poor reputation for discounting the culture and expectations of others, so I try my best to avoid sticking out in that way.
TripAdvisor is an excellent resource populated with ratings and feedback from seasoned travelers. It’s a great way to create a list of must-sees. Sometimes the big name attractions aren’t really worth your time, and it’s great to hear that before you go. Planning is key. I’ve never had a bad trip, and I thank lots of pre-travel research for making that happen.
in japan, hong kong, vietnam and canada it’s been easy enough for me to change money at the hotel front desk.
one stewardess (sorry,flight attendant) tip my friend gave me when i worked for a large airline: when travelling international, make a photo copy of your passport and carry that with you. put your passport in the room safe with one of your flight shoes (only really works if you have different shoes for flying and for walking around town, i guess). put the other flight shoe by the door. that way, when you’re checking out, and getting ready to go, you’ll only have one shoe to put on. you have to go to the safe to get the other one and voila!! there’s your passport. the photocopy should be sufficient for any identification purposes while on the ground so no need to carry the actual passport around with you.
I have not traveled out of the country in awhile. Besides at the airport, when else would you need your passport?
A superb blog! Definitely some smart ideas about traveling!
Thanks great tips!
My favorite tip is #16 that is so true…this will either make a friendship stronger or break a friendship and not so fun trip at all.
I wish i could pack as light as you do but i think i’ve gotten way better within the last 2 years.
Great tips! Even for people who are seasoned travelers, these tips are good reminders. I have 2 suggestions though:
4. Research money exchange options: In Japan, the Japanese Post (JP) Office is also a bank and anywhere you see a post office, there will be an ATM in front. You can draw from your U.S. bank account using that ATM and the rate is market rate + a small foreign transaction fee. It was just as good as getting my money from Pacific Money Exchange in Waikiki, even with the fees. Plus its so convenient when you’re running low on cash and you’re no where near an airport.
15. Get a good purse. (Men, too.): A word of caution when going to foreign countries like Spain or Italy or Greece (etc). Many countries have very high unemployment rates and drive up property crime. The biggest targets are tourists with bags. Just need to remember not to put anything in your bag that you cant live without. Things like ID, passport, credit cards, cash, flash drives with pictures of your entire vacation can all be stolen with a tiny razor blade.
Since I grew up in an airline family, and flew stand-by well into my 20’s, I learned early on that you never wanted to be stuck anywhere w/o your toothbrush and a change of clothes. Consequently, I learned to be a brutally efficient packer…I also HATE waiting for my luggage on the other end.
This list could also apply to women (w/gender specific modifications) if they can get over wanting to take too many accessories/shoes that they’ll never end wearing.
1 blue jeans
3 collared shirts
1 jacket/sweater (I have a nice bulky fisherman’s sweater that also works great as a pillow)
1 dress loafers (to get thru TSA and for a nice dinner)
1 athletic shoes
And I always plan on doing laundry…much easier to do if you’re travelling domestically and staying w/friends.
Of course if I travel on a buddy pass now (post-9/11), i’m immediately tagged for frisking because 1. I’m a single male traveling alone. 2. I’m not checking any luggage. 3. I don’t have a return date. 4. My last name ends in a vowel, so I can’t be haole…j/k. 5. My name didn’t show up on the manifest until 23 hours ago. It’s at the point now where TSA asks if i’m used to doing this because i’m wearing shoes that are easy to slip on and off, and my pockets are empty…money, phone, and keys are all in my bag.