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7 things to leave at home on your next big trip
Frequent travelers face occasional questions about what we pack for a long trip, what we think is essential. A contrasting question that comes up less often is what we choose to ditch -- and why.
The answers to the second question are usually born out of experience and are combined with encountering other travelers on the road who have made different decisions. They've chosen, for instance, not to jettison those silly neck wallets (though they're wishing they had), and we'd have liked to have advised them: You don't need that thing, man!
Of course, the travel merchandise industry is significantly, though not entirely, based on things you don't really need -- TravelSmith is one online shop that traffics a lot in the unnecessary -- and people who travel less frequently or are about to embark on their first big trip are probably more susceptible to things advertised as must-haves.
The more you travel, the more you bring a calculus of practicality and function to bear on what you decide to pack, and that should fit into the overall aim of getting the most out of your trip. That means looking for ways to become more portable and invisible in the places you travel to -- blending in, to put it another way.
I was thinking today about some things I'd recommend leaving behind when you next hit the road, and made a list that is hardly exhaustive but one that I'd happily hand anyone.
At some point in time I've made the mistake of using or packing all of these items that follow, even the duct tape. Though I'm sure each has its supporters, you can easily do without these seven things.
I realize right now I'm taking on modern travel equipment's most sacred cow, but I've long been opposed to rollaboards and wheeled luggage. They're a manifestation of the kind of overall laziness in our society that, among other things, compels people to take Segway tours instead of just walking. There are few things more disheartening to me than to see twenty- and thirty-somethings turn up at a hostel, once the base camp for backpackers, dragging a bloated Eagle Creek wheeled duffel. If you're healthy, able-bodied and under the age of, say, 60, pick up your luggage (I am not the only one who says this).
But here's why you should really ditch that roller:
(A.) They're not all that practical if your itinerary takes you beyond the airport, hotel and conference center
(B.) You're much more likely to over pack if you use one
Remember how ridiculous Kathleen Turner's character looked when she was pulling her suitcase down that Colombian dirt road in "Romancing the Stone"? Try dragging a roller down a cobblestone street, or a busy city sidewalk, or through a European train or subway station at rush hour (picking it up two or three times to ascend or descend stairs), to say nothing of anywhere else off the beaten path. And since it's easier to drag than lug, you won't give as much thought to lightening your load. Faced with having to throw a bag over your shoulder, however, you might think twice about that second (or third) pair of shoes.
Alternative: Duffels have been around for decades and are hard to improve upon. There's the backpack, of course; I recommend anything 3,000 cu.in. and smaller instead of a big internal frame pack. And there are a number of shoulder bags on the market these days that marry the best of both a duffel and a backpack. My bag of choice is a Patagonia MLC (Maximum Legal Carry-on, pictured): It's roomy and transforms into a basic backpack if you need it.
2. The neck wallet
The badge of the first-time traveler and the avid tour package enthusiast, the neck wallet is a perennial contender for the most useless travel accessory you could ever buy. Worse, they're an example of the travel industry at its most fear-mongering, playing on a basic something wicked this way comes conceit that there be uglies out there in foreign lands that mean to do you harm.
Pack one of these with your passport, wallet, loose foreign change and hotel confirmations and you have a weight around your neck that is heavy and uncomfortable. Then there's going up (or down) your shirt whenever you need something, and the feeling of one of these things sticking to you on a hot day. Only slightly better are the neck wallet's cousins: the waste wallet and money belt.
Alternative: Theft does happen, I know, and I'm all for keeping your money, credit cards and documents secure. The best way is to keep them in a few different places (and keep photocopies of them). Invest in a pair of pants with a zipped front pocket. Consider making a dummy wallet (and put expired credit cards in it). Want something truly hidden? Try sewing a secret compartment for your money and plastic in your pants.
3. The phrase book
I know I'm not alone in thinking that the least any traveler can do is learn how to say "thank you" in the local language. Aside from that, leave the phrase book at home. Yes, most people appreciate your efforts to speak their language. But assessing their basic usefulness, phrase books come up short (and some, like Rick Steves' and their sections on romantic encounters, are plain ridiculous).
You'll seldom find yourself using one for any meaningful conversation. How could you? What phrase books don't really acknowledge is that if you manage to utter a phrase, or perhaps even a coherent declarative or inquisitive sentence, they have no real mechanism for helping you understand the reply, and certainly no tools to facilitate the follow up. You ask, in German, "Where is the nearest post office?" Someone responds, in German, "Well, do you see that street three lights straight ahead? Make a left there, go under the bridge and take your second right. It's on the south side of the square with the broken fountain." Huh?
Alternative: View the phrase book more as an emergency tool. Go to your nearest Borders and spend a couple hours copying out essential phrases (including those for help and the police) into a notebook. Leaven these with some Internet phrase research (which have audible elements that help with pronunciation). If you've got more time (and money), look into Rosetta Stone. After "thank you," numbers are the most useful thing to learn in any language.
4. The over-sized toiletry case
A favorite of many, a big toiletry case is one of the first things to ditch if your goal this time out is to travel a little lighter. You'll have more space in your bag and less weight to haul if you do. Men especially: Do you really need all this space for stuff you can actually buy wherever you end up? (These things have so much space that you're guaranteed to fill it, even if you don't need half the stuff.)
Alternative: Seriously consider purchasing your basic toiletries at your destination, if you're staying in one place. Or, go crazy at the $.99 sampler aisle at CVS and seek out a basic dopp kit to put them in. Eagle Creek's smallest PackIt cube (pictured) has all the room you need.
5. The tricked out camera case
Nothing says "expensive camera equipment in here" better than one of these bags. And I'm not just talking about the larger bags or backpacks. Even smart-looking, smaller shoulder bags for a basic digital SLR and a lens or two are heavy, difficult to pack and not all that handy for the other things you might want to carry with you. I love LowePro gear: strong, well made, etc. But unless you're a photojournalist on assignment, leave the stuff at home.
Alternative: And even if you are, think twice. I once heard David Allen Harvey, a longtime National Geographic photographer, tell an audience that all the gear he needed on assignment fit into a simple, discreet black school bag. The point was not to look like a photographer, so that he could get close and get the best shots. Try trading in that fancy bag for a classic LL Bean book bag. Worried about padding? Stuff your fleece or rain jacket in first.
6. The photojournalist's (or "travel") vest
I once had one of these, a well-worn version from Banana Republic. I got it after graduating college, when my first job was as a photographer on a newspaper. I liked it. The pockets were useful. But when I took it on a few extended trips I slowly came to the conclusion that it wasn't very functional as a garment (in hot weather, it was too similar to a jacket and in cold weather it was awkward over anything warmer, like a parka) and that wearing one, I looked absolutely nothing like the people I was moving among. Unless you're reporting from a war zone or are dying to look like a stereotypical tourist, ditch it.
Alternative: There isn't an obvious one. A cousin of the travel vest is the travel, or safari, jacket and they too get the whole hot/cold thing wrong. But I do understand the need for a few extra pockets. A good pair of cargo pants might be more functional.
7. A roll of duct tape
You'll meet travelers who say they never leave home without a big 'ole roll of duct tape. And it has a utilitarian ring to it, right? In reality you'll never need so much tape to justify carrying a roll, unless you're climbing the Nose Route on El Capitan. A roll is bulky and heavy to boot. Unless your name is Macgyver, leave the roll at home.
Alternative: What I do is peel off two or three large strips of duct tape and put them on the back of my bag. Or, if you travel with a Sigg or Nalgene bottle, wrap some tape around the base of it. This is always plenty to take care of those emergency patches and other needs on the road.