It is a too-accepted gospel to the modern travel writer that the savvy tourist always packs light. In my home paper, The San Francisco Chronicle, travel editor John Flinn has written that vacationers should limit themselves to a "a duffel the size of a gym bag. If that third wool sweater or the hair dryer and socket adapter kit won't fit, leave them behind." An American travel guidebook recites the oxymoron, "Less is more."
European travel guru Rick Steves has recommended that, regardless of the length of a trip, that the savvy male tourist pack only three pairs of socks and underwear, a pair of shorts, two short-sleeved shirts, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater, a windbreaker and one pair of shoes. On his website, he tells vacationers they should fit everything they are taking into one "carry-on size bag."
When it comes to packing philosophy, the Lightweights rule.
Pish tosh, I say. If God wanted travelers to fit a vacation's worth of clothes into a teensy rucksack, she wouldn't have invented luggage with wheels.
Packing light is a great idea for students who want to travel from youth hostel to youth hostel, but for the adult traveler, it is a dated notion. In the age of little wheels, the suitcase is your friend.
Ignoring the lectures from cab drivers and sneers of my colleagues in journalism who believe that waiting at a luggage carousel is for losers, I have long believed that overpacking (unless done by my husband) is in fact a virtue. Let others leave their dainties to dry stiffly by the sink each night. When I go on vacation, I would rather bring too much than too little. Better to not wear something you packed than wear everything over and over again.
Start with shoes. One pair? I don't even want to think about what Rick Steves' only pair of shoes smells like at summer's end. Didn't his mother ever tell him that wearing the same shoes day after day is sole abuse? I took four pairs, as well as some flip-flops (which I never used, by the way), for a 16-day trip to Paris, London and Ireland this year. No sneakers. Hiking boots are better on cobblestones. Tan walking shoes served for museum days, black walking shoes for evenings. On the plane, I wore pumps because they are so easy to slip off. And after a day of tramping across town in confining shoes and well-tested socks, it's nice to treat the feet to the airy world of nylon and leather.
My friend Carla, who is spending five weeks in England and France this year, packed a measly three pairs of pants for her trip. Even though I planned on having the laundry done mid-trip, I packed one pair of jeans, two pair of khakis, one pair of dress pants and two pairs of Capri pants. (I wore the black Capri pants, but ugly weather kept the lighter pair in my suitcase.) I also threw in two skirts, which take up little room because they roll up like face towels. Thus, I spared myself repeated mornings of stepping into ripe fabric and zipping a sweaty waistband around my middle. What's more, I had light or heavy pants to wear in accordance with whatever the weather did.
Carla hasn't returned yet, but when she does, I'll have two words for her: cigarette smoke. Maybe the Lightweights haven't noticed, but there is no shortage of European smokers, and a visit to a bistro or pub makes a shirt unbearable until washed -- in a washing machine, thank you very much. I tend to wear once-used shirts at night, because once a shirt has seen the inside of a European watering hole or restaurant, it is finished. Which is why I packed four shirts and three sweaters.
As I said to Carla as we debated what to bring: What is the down side to packing an adequate wardrobe? Yes, back when luggage was weighty and unwheeled, packing light was a necessity for us peons who can't afford porters. Consider those days the Dark Ages. My husband and I brought one humongous suitcase on wheels, a smaller one on wheels and a carry-on each.
We managed to cart our bags through London's Underground, transfer from the District Line to the Hammersmith & City Line -- the Circle line was misbehaving -- to Liverpool Street Station, where we boarded a train to Stansted Airport. I won't say that we didn't sweat, but so what? We pay money to a gym for the same result. Besides, we had plenty of clean clothes to wear when we got to Dublin.
The Lightweights live under the delusion that they have more freedom because they carry less baggage. Au contraire, they are prisoners of wash-and-wear, short-sleeved shirts that stand up even when not worn because hand washing doesn't provide the softness that comes from machines. To spare themselves 15 minutes of waiting for their luggage at the airport, or the minimal inconvenience of wheeling an extra bag, they deny themselves the lovely option of wearing what they feel like wearing on any given day.
These remarks might leave one with the impression that I am a traveling clothes horse. Not true. I don't pack my best clothes, lest I forget them or tear them. When possible, I pack older clothes that are ready for Goodwill, so that if I need room for souvenirs I can leave them behind. I'm also someone who does not spend her vacation shopping in department stores and doesn't want to.
More clothes allow the happy traveler to dress better than the average tourist. That is not to say that we don't look like tourists. Hey, everyone at the Louvre is a tourist. It does mean that we are able to escape the uniform, and throw in a little style. (It helps if you bring four scarves.) It means that a man has a jacket and tie -- missing from the Rick Steves wardrobe -- so that a couple can dine out as well as eat out. Maybe it's a small victory, but when you don't go everywhere in jeans, the locals at least wonder, if only for an instant, which nationality you are. Why go to Italy -- a country that celebrates style -- with a sartorially challenged wardrobe that does violence to the very notion of style?
I don't see the advantage in being a Lightweight. It's not as if the tourist with a rock-solid backpack (with no room for souvenirs) is light as a bird, while I -- with a suitcase on wheels and carry-on -- am grounded.
At the end of a flight to Europe, both Lightweight and Heavyweight have to schlep their belongings to customs. Both break into a sweat that develops into a fine paste during the course of the flight. The Lightweight, however, must spend an inordinate amount of time packing and repacking to cram everything into a small space, running to the post office to mail home purchases, perhaps finally bowing to the inevitable and buying a (no doubt small) bag for the extras.
I, on the other hand, can pack quickly, can separate clean and dirty clothes in different compartments and have no anxiety about my clothes. I have enough books to last for the vacation and room for my Palm Pilot to call and e-mail family. I also carry umbrellas for light rain, slickers for deluges, and a small pharmacy for allergies, colds and blisters.
Best of all, at the end of the vacation, my husband and I don't feel a strong craving to burn the clothes we have worn day in and day out. That alone is worth the extra baggage.