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airport shoppingPeople who discover that I travel often, long-haul mostly and for weeks at a time, say, sagely, during cocktail chat, “You must be a genius at packing.” Actually … no. I’m a graduate of the school of “But what if I need…”

As a packer, I’ve cut back on the books, thanks first to Kindle and now to iPad, though not so much when it comes to movies (Netflix doesn’t transfer out-of-country). Fashion-wise, I have found ways to maximize variety while minimizing outfits. But I’ll confess: Give me too much time in an airport and all hell breaks loose.

On a recent vacation jaunt from Newark to Helsinki, which took a whopping 22 hours thanks to late departures and missed connections, my most egregious problem was neither sleep deprivation nor travel annoyance. It was the extra time for shopping.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Once I got bored with sitting in the Newark lounge, it occurred to me that I could buy presents. In the airport’s expansive mall, I found a slinky New York-themed T-shirt for my teenage niece, a Big Apple-decorated onesie for the latest addition to my spouse’s Finnish family, and a couple (okay, a bulky wodge) of magazines to support me through the three-week-long English-language desert that is a vacation in Finland.

And that was just Newark. Once we arrived in Frankfurt, where we’d just missed our connecting flight and had four bleary hours to kill, the airport’s liquor stores offered quite the bargain-hunger’s justification. Finland’s taxes on alcohol make otherwise reasonable prices for wine, vodka and Champagne ridiculously expensive, so we loaded up. My husband’s impulse purchase of German sparkling wine put us over the top.

The Ultimate Travel Packing Guide

Suddenly, we were carting seven bags of carry-on stuff onto an airplane (these in addition to the two very chunky suitcases, full of American gourmet items, DVD’s and other necessities, that we’d already checked). Boarding the two-hour flight from Frankfurt to Helsinki, I felt like — to paraphrase my Finnish husband’s charming interpretation of American aphorisms — one of the “Beverly Hilly-Billies.”

So no, I am not a great packer. I will invariably have too much of one thing and not enough of another. But I can offer one silver lining: the things you scramble to buy because you don’t pack well will be the souvenirs you remember the most.

— written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

galapagosBe you bucket lister or wildlife buff, the idea of cruising the Galapagos is imbued with animal magnetism. It’s evocative of a science fiction adventure — ship as time machine transporting travelers to a prehistoric land of black lava, alien cactus trees and giant tortoises.

It turns out that planning for such a voyage, which includes ticking off items like “underwater camera housing” or “quick-drying pants that magically become shorts,” is oddly satisfying. So with the determination of a flightless cormorant who hasn’t had eel in a week, I began researching, prepping and packing for a July Galapagos cruise aboard Metropolitan Touring’s 48-passenger La Pinta.

As I dug through travel message boards and guidebooks, and picked the brains of past passengers, there emerged four cornerstones of the successful Galapagos cruise: protection from the sea and weather, proper footwear, a touch of pre-cruise study, and a means to record the experience of wandering onto a beachhead littered with groaning sea lions and thousands of fluorescent orange crabs.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

Protection from Sea and Sun
The packing list skewed more backpacker’s trek than cruise. Instead of a blue blazer and dress shoes, I stuffed my carry-on with quick-dry shirts, zip-top bags to protect equipment and a floppy hat to repel the equatorial sun. Also part of the regimen: two large tubes of sunblock, one SPF 45 for the delicate face, the other a waterproof 30 for the rest of the body — plus aloe, should I forget to re-apply either.

The sea poses its own problems — the wind-drawn Humboldt Current can bring with it nauseating, choppy waters from July to December — so I scored some Dramanine (which I later found that La Pinta offered in an all-you-can eat basket). Other passengers ultimately went with the prescription motion sickness patch, the dot-behind-the-ear option not available in South America.

Simply put, lava, over which many of the hikes take place, is unforgiving. Still, I left my hiking boots at home, opting instead for the TEVA sandals I’ve taken over rocky Greek Isles, European cobbles and dessert sands. However Galapagos visitors roll, they should make sure they’re properly out-footed. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I’ll just bring my oldest pair of shoes and then dump them at the end of the trip,'” said John, one of our guides. “If there’s one tip I can offer, it’s to bring a solid new pair.” (Break them in pre-trip to avoid calluses.) Sure enough, one French passenger suffered a dual sole-ripping on a single walk. His well-worn boots literally ripped in half. Given his propensity for mocking American dining habits, no one seemed too upset for him.

How to Pack for an Active Outdoor Vacation

Pre-Cruise Enrichment
The Galapagos is a place where pre-knowledge enriches the experience — or so I was told. “On the Origin of Species” felt a little too “Challenges of Modernity,” a 200-level class, so I tapped Dominic Hamilton, Metropolitan’s Head of Communications, for something less collegiate. He suggested three: “The Beak of the Finch,” a non-fiction look at a pair of evolutionary biologists who watched natural selection, in real time, shape a colony of finches; “My Father’s Island,” a memoir written by a woman whose family colonized Santa Cruz in the 40’s; and “Galapagos, the Islands That Changed the World,” a photo-laden companion book to the BBC documentary of the same name. My public library had them all and all were winners.

Capturing the Tortoise
travel packingThough the local wildlife remains bizarrely apathetic to encroaching, camera-wielding homo sapiens, a colleague’s husband suggested renting a telephoto lens. I discovered LensProtoGo, which ships the lens in a waterproof, nearly indestructible Pelican case. The Nikon 80 – 400 millimeter telephoto lens costs about $1,600 new but only $15 a day to rent, and is ideal for framing the red-rimmed eye of the swallow-tailed gull or spying on other expedition ships. If you do bring the “bazooka” and plan on switching lenses, don’t forget the accouterments (a sensor cleaning kit). Jumbo-sized zip-top bags, procured from Amazon.com, would shield my camera equipment, already in a water-resistant bag, during wet landings (when Zodiacs pull up to a beach rather than a natural “dock”).

A second splurge, inspired by Galapagos cruise vets who shared regrets, was an underwater camera. I opted for a waterproof case for my Canon S90 point and shoot, which cost about $150. The video I took underwater, including a spiritual moment with a baby sea lion, was worth the cost.

The one thing I didn’t pack? My cat, a plague-like invasive species, had to stay.

— written by Dan Askin

packing suitcase travel frustratedAs frequent travelers, we at IndependentTraveler.com like to think of ourselves as expert packers … but even experts make mistakes. As our special Packing Week continues, we’re taking a look at all those important little things that somehow didn’t make it into our bags.

My own personal bugaboo is sleepwear. I’ve accidentally left my pajama pants at home on a couple of trips, and discovered that sleeping in jeans is just not fun. But I’ve learned my lesson; these days, pajamas are the first thing I check off on my packing list.

Of course, I’m not alone in my forgetfulness. Below are stories from six other IndependentTraveler.com staffers who left home without some vital item — or, in one case, whose luggage left without her! Read, laugh and share your own packing story in the comments.

“As a bald male, I’m generally very conscious to always pack a hat in the winter. But upon arriving in Chicago, in March, I realized I forgot my hat. No problem, I thought. There must be hats aplenty in Chicago. So I walked across the street to the Oak Brook Mall (oddly enough an outdoor mall in Chicago). There were no hats to be found. Store after store, nothing. Finally, I went into Neiman Marcus. I did not want to go in here as I strongly debated if there were any level of frigidity that would cause me to spend what they might charge for a hat. Sadly, I did in fact find a hat, succumbed and bought it. The hat was an enormous furry thing, and I looked like I belonged to the Royal Order of Water Buffaloes (remember the ‘Flintstones’?). My wallet was lighter (read: empty), my pride was hurt, but boy, was I toasty!” — Matt Leonard, Director – Traffic

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

“I once forgot my toothbrush for a week of camping (ugh). On a different trip, I forgot my shoes — tennis shoes with a suit, anyone? And I once forgot my ID. The only thing I had with my picture on it was a credit/debit card (Bank of America — they take your picture). We went round and round and the TSA finally just let me go through! My mom overnighted my ID to me for the return.” — Jim Walsh, Sales Manager

“I’ve been on several cruises where I didn’t bother to pack a sweatshirt and was freezing. On one, I broke down and bought a sweatshirt in Cozumel. On another, I spent a sea day huddling under the covers because my bed was so comfy and there wasn’t much to do.” — Erica Silverstein, Features Editor for CruiseCritic.com

“I forgot the all-important undergarment: underwear! I ran to Walmart (only store open at 11 p.m.) and was the proud new owner of Fruit of the Loom briefs in fruit-stripe colors. Not my usual style, but it was the only thing packaged in plastic wrap that hadn’t been fiddled with and looked safe for immediate use.” — Kim Gray, Director – Sales

“Back when I was younger I went to the beach with my girlfriends for the weekend. We took two cars because some of us worked later that Friday. Since we arrived late, my friend and I went straight to a local bar to do some dancing with our other friends who were already there. We all had a great time but my friend with whom I drove left early, assumingly to go back to the house. When we arrived back to the house, her car was nowhere to be found and there was no answer on her cell phone. She finally did call us the next morning. She went home — two hours away — with all my luggage still in her trunk. So I got to spend the weekend at the beach with nothing but the clothes on my back . Lesson learned!! Unpack upon arrival.” — Jennifer Kuhn, Community Support

5 Common Packing Problems and How to Solve Them

“On my first river cruise, I forgot my hairbrush — and wondered how Eastern European women ever brush their hair because the stores don’t carry any. And that was when we were in ports that even had stores (many were in the countryside). So, for several days, I went from port to port looking for one (with a rat’s nest above my head, natch). Actually, I did find a makeshift brush in Croatia that was literally a wooden stick with some bristles glued onto it. I charged this one item on my credit card at the supermarket, which netted nasty looks from the cashier. It was a piece of crap. Finally, Serbia saved my butt. I bought a great hairbrush in Belgrade that I still use.” — Melissa Paloti, Director – Product Development

What’s the worst thing you’ve forgotten to pack?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

villa cross body bagIt’s Packing Week here at IndependentTraveler.com, and we’re celebrating by giving away a free handbag. One lucky blog subscriber will win a Villa Cross Body bag from eBags.

This is a great bag for travelers because the strap across the chest makes it more difficult for would-be thieves to snatch. It’s also got plenty of pouches and zippable pockets, including interior sleeves for smartphones or sunglasses. The removable strap is 1.25 inches wide and can be adjusted to suit your torso. At 10.5 x 10.5 x 2 inches, the bag gives you plenty of storage space without being too bulky. And it comes in six different colors: black, navy, sunset, eggplant, sandstone and espresso.

Choosing the Right Travel Luggage

villa cross body bagThe bag retails on eBags.com for $29.99, but if you want a chance to pick up a free one, just subscribe to our weekly blog mailings. Enter your e-mail address here or in the top-right corner of this page before Tuesday, June 19 at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time for a chance to win. All readers who are already subscribed are eligible for the giveaway.

We never share reader e-mail addresses. Read our Privacy Policy for more information. You may unsubscribe at any time if you decide our blog mailings are not right for you.

For lots of great Packing Week content, check out our Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

zipper suitcaseIn The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time, I offer advice on how to avoid checking luggage even on long vacations. Here’s how I put my own tips into action on a recent two-week trip.

I was visiting New Zealand in the springtime, and temperatures fluctuated from the upper 30’s to the low 70’s. To cope with the changing conditions, I packed the following clothing:

-Two pairs of pants: jeans (worn on the plane) and lightweight hiking pants
-One set of lightweight thermal pants
-Five long-sleeved T-shirts (including one worn on the plane)
-One lightweight hooded sweatshirt
-One heavy hooded sweatshirt (worn on the plane)
-Water-proof rain jacket with zip-in fleece liner (worn/carried on the plane)
-Two pairs of shoes: hiking boots (worn on the plane) and walking shoes
-Seven days’ worth of undergarments and socks
-One set of lightweight sleepwear
-Gloves, scarf and knit hat (stuffed into pockets of rain jacket)

This was enough clothing to get me through the first week, at which point I did laundry. To save carry-on space, I wore all the bulkiest items on the plane — jacket, hiking boots, jeans, heavy sweatshirt. And during the trip, I was like a Russian nesting doll, adding and shedding layers of clothing as needed. In the colder regions of the country, I wore both my sweatshirts plus my jacket every day, changing nothing but the T-shirt underneath.

In addition to clothes, I also had a camera, travel-size toiletries, a snack-size plastic bag full of medications, a baseball cap and sunglasses, a plastic rain poncho, a travel journal, a guidebook, an MP3 player and, of course, the essentials — passport, credit cards and air/hotel/car confirmations. All of this fit easily into my carry-on (a roll-aboard suitcase) and personal item (a backpack), leaving room for souvenirs.

Poll: Do You Check Bags When You Fly?

A few things I didn’t bring: a laptop or tablet (I paid a few bucks to visit Internet cafes twice during the trip), dressy clothes (I ate only in casual restaurants) and a hair dryer (I used the ones supplied in hotels). I don’t have an e-reader, so I packed a few used paperback books that I’d picked up at my local library for 50 cents each. As I finished each one, I left it in my hotel room or at the airport for other travelers to enjoy.

This is just one strategy for traveling without checked luggage. What tips and tricks have you used?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

suitcase bag floorWhat’s the first thing you do when you arrive home after a trip? For me, it’s usually catching up on e-mail, downloading photos off my camera or taking a shower to wash away all those hours on a plane. But one thing it isn’t is unpacking.

Some travelers are fanatical about unloading their suitcases as soon as they arrive home. “I can’t relax until I’ve put everything away,” says fellow IndependentTraveler.com blogger Jodi Thompson. “I do it immediately.” Meanwhile, I might leave my own bag sitting on my bedroom floor for a week or more, pulling out an item or two at a time as I need them.

My partner, who generally unpacks within a few days, has accused me of being a slob. And, well, it’s a fair accusation. (I have a similar problem putting away my newly clean duds on laundry day, or putting junk mail in the recycling bin instead of leaving it strewn across the kitchen counter.) But I don’t think that’s the whole story.

4 Signs You Have a Packing Problem

For me, it’s always a little depressing to come home from a trip, and unpacking is the final sign that my vacation has reached the end of the road. Refusing to unpack is my subconscious way, however futile, of pretending that my trip isn’t truly over.

Or maybe I’m just a slob.

Check Out Our Interactive Packing List!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

On a recent trip, I test-drove a set of packing cubes for the first time — and discovered that despite all the raves I’ve read about them, they’ll never make it into my “must-pack” pile. To paraphrase an old break-up cliche, the problem wasn’t the packing cubes. It was me.

Packing cubes are lightweight fabric bags that you can use to separate your suitcase into manageable sections. The ones I tried were an attractive green three-piece set from eBags, with cubes ranging in size from 17.5 by 12.75 by 3.25 inches to 11 by 6.75 by 3 inches. The set is currently available for $26.99 both from eBags and Amazon.

ebags packing cubes

One of the main advantages of these packing cubes is their versatility. You can put pants in the large one, tops in the medium and socks/undies in the small. The Baby Bear-sized bag could also make a good home for a pair of shoes or some toiletries; meanwhile, Papa Bear can hold a decent-sized pile of dirty duds. For the organized traveler, the possibilities are endless.

Trouble is, I’m not a particularly organized traveler. Or, to be more precise, keeping things organized is less important to me than maximizing every inch of suitcase space. I typically roll my clothes into compact bundles that can be wedged neatly into gaps between other items, a strategy that’s allowed me to travel solely with a carry-on even on trips as long as two weeks. With the packing cubes, I found myself trying to work around three bulky rectangular shapes that, yes, kept things compartmentalized — but also left me with lots of wasted space.

And frankly, I didn’t really need a special organizer for my dirty laundry. Instead, I used what I always use: a plastic bag from the grocery store. (Cost: free.)

4 Packing Mistakes You’re Probably Making

That said, here are a few examples of travelers who might benefit from using packing cubes:

-Partners who share a suitcase: Stow your clothes in blue bags and your hubby’s clothes in red ones so you can easily tell whose stuff is whose.

-Travelers who will be moving a lot from one hotel to another: Sort your outfits accordingly and you’ll only pull out what you need in each place, rather than turning your whole suitcase inside out.

11 Versatile Travel Essentials You Can’t Do Without
The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time
The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

— written by Sarah Schlichter

airport travelersAfter another year of covering the highs and lows of the travel world, we’re taking a look back at the stories that really got our readers talking — or ranting, as the case may be. Below, we count down our five most popular blog posts of 2011.

5. It’s no secret: The airlines are one segment of the travel industry that our readers love to hate. But which ones are truly the bottom of the barrel? Earlier this year, Consumer Reports put out a list of the Best and Worst Airlines. More than a dozen readers responded, including a wry Matt Leonard: “The worst airline to me is generally whatever airline I last flew.”

4. We polled our readers back in April to discover The Hotel Amenity Travelers Want Most. (Hint: The answer is something you’re more likely to find at cheap hotels than at luxury properties.) If you missed the initial vote, it’s not too late to weigh in with your own preferences in our poll.

3. Readers were up in arms over European carrier Ryanair’s plan to remove all but one toilet from its planes, which carry up to 189 people. (Can you imagine the line?) “I wonder if they will be selling ‘piddle paks’ or just ‘Depends’ in the in-flight boutique? Anything to make a profit,” quipped reader Debra in the comments. Reader Jackie said simply, “I will be voting with my feet — which will carry me to a different airline check-in.”

2. More than 550 comments poured in for our post about The Suitcase That Beats Baggage Fees. This petite powerhouse of a suitcase is sized specifically to help travelers avoid Spirit Airlines’ fee for carry-on bags (up to $40), and we gave one away to one lucky commenter. Didn’t win? You can still check out our Five Ways to Beat “A La Carte” Airline Fees.

1. Readers sick of paying big bucks for bland chain hotels flocked to Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay, in which we suggested creative alternatives like monasteries in Italy and farmstays in New Zealand. Reader nassautravellers chimed in to agree with our vacation rental suggestion: “We travel a lot around the Caribbean and most often rent vacation properties — condos, villas etc. We find this to be the most cost-effective way. Usually, the rates are cheaper per night than hotels and we can get our own groceries saving on restaurant meals (and the waistline!!).”

Which topics will get us talking in 2012? Check out our Nine Predictions for Travel in 2012.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

My carry-on bag and I had a long-term relationship. I don’t know our anniversary, but I must’ve traveled with the same plain, green, cheap-brand rollaboard for at least 10 years. I knew how to pack it so all my clothes would fit perfectly for a weeklong trip, and I was confident that it would fit in the overhead compartment of any major airline because that bag had already racked up serious frequent flier miles. It was love.

And then, this summer, it died.

Once I got over my grief, I realized I would need a new carry-on. While my trusty suitcase had probably been a hand-me-down from my mom, I was now overwhelmed with the choice of picking out my own. At eBags.com alone, you can choose from 570 different rolling carry-on bags. From wheeled duffels to colorful hard-sided bags, spinner wheels to roll-aboards-cum-backpacks, the choices were endless. Which would make the best travel companion in the years to come?

Choosing the Right Travel Luggage

Just as I was going cross-eyed from reading too many customer reviews and considering therapy for my loss, I got an e-mail from a PR rep for Lipault of Paris, touting a new bag making its U.S. debut. The Lipault Travel Buddy was described as “light as a feather, ultra-durable and accessibly priced.” (It retails for $189.) I was attracted to its bright colors — red, orange and purple — as I hate straining to figure out which bag is mine on the carousel. And I was most intrigued by the claim that it squishes down to fit into a four-inch case for easy storage. When you live in an apartment and cruise a lot, compressible luggage is key.

lipault travel buddy

So I got a free sample from the company to test out on a recent cross-country flight — a carry-on bag blind date, if you will. While I don’t think the Travel Buddy is the new love of my travel life, here’s my review of its, ahem, performance.

What I liked:

– The bag is definitely lightweight and compressible, made of strong 210-denier nylon twill fabric (I don’t know what that means either). I expected a thinner, floppier material (a la LeSportsac bags or ultra-light camping equipment), but it’s actually pretty sturdy. I carried it onboard one way, and could easily lift and carry the bag, while simultaneously pushing a stroller and carrying a backpack. I checked it on the way back, and it came back to me with no scuffs or tears. And it truly does squeeze down into a compact storage case that would fit easily under a bed, in a closet or in the corner of a cruise ship cabin.

– It’s very stuffable. I used it as my family’s laundry suitcase on the way back from our trip and just kept cramming more dirty clothes in, and the little bag just kept taking them. Though the bag looked full, I think I could have added even more with a little extra squishing.

– The carry-on fit easily in the overhead compartment with room to spare, even in the odd space over the lip between two compartment openings.

– The bag stood out, not only for its bright purple color but because it didn’t look like the typical carry-on. I even got a comment on it from the airline rep at bag check — and you know she sees a lot of luggage every day!

lipault travel buddy

What I didn’t like:

– The bag has official dimensions of 21.6 x 14.2 x 7.9 inches (the PR rep calls it a 22-inch bag, while the Web site lists it as 20 inches). But as you can see from the photo, it appeared much smaller than my husband’s bag, the REI Tech Beast (official dimensions: 22 x 14 x 8.5 inches). As a tall person, I’m not sure I could fit a week’s worth of clothes in there (especially once you add in shoes). The next size up, the 25-inch bag, is not carry-on friendly.

– The outside pocket is in the middle of the bag, yet the pocket runs the length of the bag. It was awkward to pack, and once the inside compartment of the bag was maxed out, it was nearly impossible to squeeze anything into the exterior pocket. Also, while the bag expands to the limits of its flexible material, it does not have a zippered expansion section.

– The $189 price tag is a little high for a small-ish carry-on whose only real feature is its compressibility.

Final verdict: I enjoyed my time with the Travel Buddy, but I think we can only be friends.

11 Versatile Travel Essentials You Can’t Do Without

If you know an eligible bag good for a former frequent flier, now toting a tyke, who likes international travel, outdoor adventures, urban escapes, extra legroom seats and long walks through a terminal, let me know in the comments section below.

— written by Erica Silverstein

suitcase packingEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our newsletter.

Last week, we explained how old nylons, ratty towels and empty egg cartons can be converted into useful travel gear. (Check out Top 10 Travel Essentials You Can Find in the Trash if you missed it.) But our ideas were just the tip of the garbage heap.

We asked our readers to weigh in with their own thoughts about how to transform trash into travel treasure — and you responded. One of our favorite tips came from member lynclarke, who wrote:

“Save that big oversized shopping bag from one of the ‘good’ [department] stores. Put it in the front flap of your suitcase. It will be an instant raincoat for yourself or your suitcase. [Also], save those ‘Mylar’ mailing envelopes which seem to be the rage these days. Make sure your travel documents, receipts, reservations, all important papers and ALL ELECTRONICS are wrapped in one. There is nothing more discouraging [than] to find your carry-on bag will be stored underbelly in one of the small planes BUT right now it is sitting on the tarmac in the pouring rain.”

I’m also a fan of reusing those simple plastic grocery bags that always seem to proliferate in my kitchen. They’re ideal for padding fragile items, separating dirty laundry from the rest of my clothes, and wrapping up wet swimsuits or muddy hiking boots.

How do you put your trash to good use when you travel? Weigh in on our message boards or leave a comment below.

— written by Sarah Schlichter