While there is certainly much to write about when it comes to ditching emotional baggage, this post is about ditching the literal baggage—namely, travel baggage. How many of us have found ourselves heading off for a week-long trip dragging a suitcase big enough to fit a couple toddlers and the family dog through a bustling airport, finally pulling up to the check-in counter with a sweaty forehead from the exertion and the anxiety that you’ll ring in a couple pounds over the weight limit? Who isn’t familiar with those few seconds of held breath and crossed fingers and silent prayers as the red numbers on the scale fly up and then fluctuate between one pound over and under? And then, when it hits 1.2 pounds over, giving an apologetic smile to the person at the counter, hoping they are having a good day and won’t demand you whip out your credit card to pay the $50 penalty fee? I mean, were those bright red heeled boots you brought just in case you might end up at a trendy cocktail bar (never mind the plan is to chill on the beach and build sandcastles with the kids) worth it? And you find yourself envious of the smartly-dressed passenger at the next counter over with only a tidy carry-on and wonder how they do it?
Friends–it is a skill. Practically an art form. Smart, minimalist packing requires foresight, organization, restraint, honesty, self-assurance, bravery, discipline and tremendous will. Seriously, folks. It’s hard. And it’s so hard precisely because trimming the literal baggage requires dealing with the emotional baggage.
While I am certain there are people for whom packing is merely a utilitarian task completed in less than a half hour, for many of us, packing for travel can take up an entire day or two while we hem and haw about what to bring, overwhelmed by what ifs. What if it there is an August cold spell on the island? What if I get sunscreen stains on my shirt? What if I get blisters from hours of sightseeing around the city? What if I run into an ex at my friend’s wedding? What if I meet a rich celebrity who invites me to a star-studded party on their yacht and I drink too much champagne before falling off the boat while leaning back on the railing for a tossed-hair Instagram pose?
But despite the uncertainty about all of these exciting, if unlikely, scenarios, there’s a deeper issue underlying what I like to refer to as “packing paralysis” (staring into the closet, grabbing a pair of jeans, putting it in the “take” pile by the suitcase, removing it from the “take” pile and depositing it in the “maybe take” pile, decide to start packing toiletries instead, repeat cycle above…). And I believe it has something to do with our “vacation-doppelgaenger”. The vacation-doppelgaenger is you, only way, way better. Like a better-haired, better-bodied, better-dressed, better-moneyed, better-spoken, better-drunk you. Vacation-doppelgaenger drinks Veuve, not Bud; is beach-babe bed-headed, not frumpy flat-headed; has a maxed bank account, not a maxed-out credit card; wears fitted jeans, not shapeless jogging pants; parents perfect little angels, not perfect little devils; and strolls the beach with a six-pack (not the beer kind). Vacation-doppelgaenger sips wine on fancy beach-side terraces; gazes dreamily from a sunlit wrought-iron balconies; steps daintily along romantic cobblestone streets in chic ballet flats; and drinks milk-foam art cappuccinos while lounging on a king-sized bed of white meringue down comforters. (Vacation-doppelgaenger also has a perfectly-curated Instagram account with 10,000 followers.)
So with these daydreams in our heads, we pack for this self-apparition. Of course, this better-self requires things that don’t exist in our humble clothes closets, so we go shopping. A couple Chloe blouses, G-star jeans, Lululemon leggings (because yoga on a beach cliff, of course), and APC sandals later, it’s time to pack—and come to the realization that we’re going to have to pay for an extra carry-on after all. But whatever. Our metamorphosis awaits!
The day of the flight arrives. We head to the airport in faded athleisure, not the smart jeans/white oxford/oversized sunglasses combo we had originally planned. Too uncomfortable and too high the chance of spilling the house airline red wine down our fronts. We arrive at the hotel. We couldn’t exactly afford the junior suite with the shabby-chic balcony and old town views, but the economy room has a balcony! It might be a 10 sq-ft slab of concrete overlooking a trash-strewn alley, but whatever. Filters do wonders.
Over the next week, we realize vacation-doppelgaenger has gone on vacation somewhere else. The ballet flats gave us blisters, so we’re wearing the grey Keds. The high-waisted jeans no longer button because of all the fried street food and ice cream we’ve been consuming. The breezy shirts haven’t left the suitcase because we’re afraid we’ll ruin them with sweat stains. Ditto for the yoga gear because waking up for sunrise salutations isn’t fun after a late night of gulping cheap margaritas. And don’t even get started on the failed attempts at effortless bed-head beach waves…
We get back on the plane having worn only a quarter of what we packed, that quarter being our pj’s, the athleisure outfit from day one, and a few other old threads we packed just in case. All that extra money and physical effort and time wasted, all because we overpacked because of grandiose daydreams that were because we’re hooked on the seductive notion that we can redefine ourselves through material possessions—in this case, clothes. And this is where the real baggage comes in.
This may not ring true for everyone; perhaps I am one of the few who doesn’t turn into my own version of wonderwoman the minute I don something sleek and sophisticated. But I suspect otherwise. I am always convinced that if I pack the clothes, I will do the things and be the person that those clothes inspire. But that’s never, ever the case–and that’s a good thing. Travel should change us a bit, give us a new perspective, take us out of our comfortable element—but fancy stuff isn’t the catalyst. Being open to new and foreign experiences, paying attention to the odd and novel details, and noticing how the person we took with us (ourselves) moves and relates and adjusts in a new space are what facilitate the change. Cluttering up our mental space with superficial tokens just gets in the way of truly “being there”.
These days, when I pack, I try to be honest about the activities I will actually do and the corresponding clothing appropriate for those activities. Usually this means not much more than a solid pair of shoes for walking; a pair of comfy loose jeans; a pair of dual-purpose black athleisure pants; and a couple neutral-colored tops that can be mixed, matched, and layered. I try to avoid bringing dressy footwear and fancy skirts and sparkly tops because travel these days (baby in tow and on a budget) does not include leisurely walking along lampost-lit streets, stopping for tapas and a bottle or two of wine. I’m not great at it yet—this last trip I brought a few things I could have done without (and a few things I wish I hadn’t left at home). It’s a learning experience, and it gets better with each trip as I get better at being honest with myself and keeping in mind the aspects of travel that will actually make a small (and hopefully better) change in who I am.
At the end of the day, there’s no “minimalist packing list” that will help you make good packing choices. Extra stuff will sneak its way into the suitcase regardless because the real problem isn’t trying to avoid extra airline baggage fees—it goes much deeper. The real problem is trying to avoid bringing our genuine selves with us. So just maybe what we really need is to make a list of all the things we want to do, learn, experience, feel, and only then pack accordingly.