About a month ago I was getting ready to go on my honeymoon. It was going to be my first time traveling on a plane in nearly 18 months and I was excited. So excited, in fact, that I decided to kick off the 10 days in Mexico by doing something I almost never do — getting a spray tan. I was vaccinated. I was married. I was prepared to get almost fully nude in front of a total stranger as they applied setting powder to the creases of my body. I walked into the new-to-me tanning salon nervous and sweaty, sporting a series of very bizarre tan lines and a stomach that hadn’t felt the rays of the sun since Laguna Beach was on television. I signed some forms and the woman behind the counter said to me, “So, are you packed?” For the trip she meant. I smiled, thinking back to days ago when the entire weight of my body was spread across my carry-on suitcase, willing it to zip. Of course, I told her. “Oh, we don’t hear that a lot!”
Side note: Shout out to Baked, the tanning salon I mention above! They made me feel completely comfortable throughout the whole tan. Plus (and this is key), I looked great afterwards.
I was baffled by this. You mean to tell me there are people who don’t enjoy packing for a trip? Who don’t find a borderline disturbing level of satisfaction into fitting 10-12 outfits in a single carry-on? Who don’t have their snack bags and water bottles and crossbody purses figured out before they even get the reminder to check in for their flight? I couldn’t believe it. You see, to me, packing for vacation is an art. Does this art sometimes involve me running out of room and forcing Jake to put things in his bag? Of course. Still, an art nonetheless.
The good thing about my love of packing the perfect suitcase (and personal item) (and purse) is that I’ve gotten pretty good at traveling over the years. As a generally anxious person, having a set of go-to travel essentials and packing strategies keeps me calm, comfortable, and confident about the journey ahead. Every trip is a bit different, of course, but here are the nine things I never travel without, no matter what.
The one, the only. The Calpak Luka duffel bag. My holy grail. I use this bag as my personal item on flights (and as my bag for weekend trips, short hotel stays, etc.), and it is really the thing that helps my carry-on suitcase go the extra distance (I can’t remember the last time I checked luggage anywhere). It has what seems like 145 compartments (it’s actually 9, but same difference), including a space for a water bottle (even my giant Hydroflask) and a shoe compartment in the bottom. It is stylish, versatile, and fits under the seat. I use it for weekend trips, too, and trust me when I say this bad boy is worth every single freakin’ penny.
This is a new-ish addition to this list, but it’s a game changer. Plus, it matches the Luka Duffel. I replaced my usual crossbody with this lightweight belt bag/fanny pack on my last trip and it was an excellent choice. I used the belt to pack things I needed within reach — my passport, wallet, a USB cord. Some Advil. My phone and Airpods case. A granola bar. It was still big enough to fit everything I’d need during the flight and small enough to be stored just about anywhere during the flight. Plus, if I needed to store it away, it was super easy to fit within the Luka duffel.
I bought my Hydro Flask in the same way I purchased any one of the other 236 water bottles I have scattered around my home: on a whim. But the hype is real — this one really is better than the rest, and I use it every single day. It keeps water ice cold and stores a whole lot of it. I usually fill it up before the airport and force myself to drink all of it before security (this means I usually have to pee before the flight, too, which is ideal because I hate airplane bathrooms as much as anyone else). Before the flight, I also fill it up at the airport. Plus, it’s great to have on my bedside in hotels to stay hydrated if I’m, say, consuming 3-7 margaritas per day.
This is more of a life essential than a travel essential, but I can’t imagine a single vacation in which I am not bringing my Birkenstocks. I can walk miles in these things and then wear them to a cocktail bar and still feel pretty damn cool (or at least as cool as a 28-year-old wearing Birkenstocks can ever feel). The rubber ones in particular are excellent (easy to keep clean and incredibly lightweight) — plus, they’re only $45.
If you’ve gotten to this one and thought, “Wow, boring.” Well, yes, of course. A clear plastic bag with tiny containers of liquid inside is never going to be groundbreaking. But really, what it represents is simple: Less travel stress. Let me explain.
Gather round, kids, while I tell you of a tale. The year is 2018. I was a beauty editor on a fancy schmancy press trip to London to visit a factory where shampoo is made. I traveled with a bunch of other New York-based beauty editors to London, all of us sitting in first class, feeling cool. I looked over at another editor and watched her take out a full-size skin care product from her carry-on bag to apply before we took off. My eyes went wide. Had I spent my whole life fitting miniature-sized products into a clear plastic bag for no reason at all? Had I agonized over whether to pack a tiny container of toothpaste or face wash a dozen times for nothing? What kind of world was this?
Cut to a few days later. We were in London Heathrow, walking through security. I unloaded my tiny, clear plastic bag onto the conveyor belt shaking my head. To think I could be carrying a full-size bottle of my beloved Weleda Skin Food. And then, it happened. “Who’s bag is this?” a man near the bag scanner said. It was a size-able tote bag… full of full-size, expensive beauty products. It belonged that that other beauty editor. What happened next is a cautionary tale. Every single one of those full-sized products went in the trash. Hundreds upon hundreds of dollars worth of lotions and toners and cleanser. I gasped. Then I felt a little smug. So my tiny plastic bag was worth it, after all.
And thus, I never, ever tempt fate and pack full-size products in my carry on. Eventually, this will end in disaster. Invest in a sturdy, TSA-approved clear plastic bag (or two, because you’re going to lose one almost immediately if you’re anything like me) for your toiletries and your life will be easier. You will go through security with a breeze, even in Heathrow. I suggest investing in the above option so you have it around next time you’re packing for a trip. That way you can avoid the whole “HAS ANYONE SEEN A ZIPLOC BAG I CAN USE?” thing in the hours before the trip.
If you’ve ever found yourself running around the house before a trip trying to find just the right, unused USB cord to unplug from somewhere to bring on a trip, then you know why this one is important. Having a USB or two that I *only* use for travel is key. This way, I can charge my phone during the flight If I’m able to (I keep a USB cord in my belt bag or purpose). I can connect it to a port in my hotel room ASAP. And if I lose it, it doesn’t mean I’m without a phone charger when I get home. Don’t want to buy a new USB cord just for this? Looking to save some money or be a bit thrifty? Find some lone ones in your junk drawer (trust me, they’re there) now (aka not in the 20 minutes before your Uber to the airport arrives) and throw them in your go-to travel bag for your next trip. You’ll thank me later.
I have been using, writing, and talking about this microfiber hair towel for probably four or five years. It was only until the last couple years, though, that I started bringing it on every trip. Whenever I would not bring it, I would notice an immediate change in the texture of my hair and how fast it dried. Having it on trips makes me feel more comfortable and prepared, and to be honest it’s always helpful to have a small, quick-drying travel towel when traveling (especially if you’re in an Airbnb). I have both the turban version and the regular towel version, and I prefer the latter but both are great.
And that’s pretty much it. Need more tips on packing light? Head to my “how to pack for two weeks in a carry-on” post.
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