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luggageEvery 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 (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

We’re hitting the road in a new era of air travel, when excessive airline baggage fees have forced untold passengers to pack the kitchen sink into a carry-on and haul it onto the plane. The result? I don’t think I’ve boarded a single flight in the past year without hearing the airline staff announce that the overhead bins are full and some passengers will need to gate check their bags.

This announcement moves me to clutch my bag fearfully. In my carry-on, I pack a variety of things I intend to use during the flight — especially if it’s a long one — like books, snacks, hand sanitizer, magazines, even a pillow. I don’t want to gate check my carry-on bag, ever. But, if I’m last in line to board and I’m left with no choice to but to say goodbye to my precious rolling suitcase — there’s a simple solution.

Writes Ed Hewitt: “You never know if they’re going to start taking your stuff from you at the end of the gangway, so my recommendation is to pack a small bag inside your larger bag in case you are forced to check your carry-on. This way you can take your most valuable (and most easily stolen) items, and put them in a small bag you can keep at your feet if necessary.”

Put together a bag within a bag — a sort of nesting doll suitcase. Just pack the essentials you know you might need on the plane (including things like vital medications or anything else that you absolutely can’t be without) in a smaller sack like a purse or a plastic grocery bag, so that you can easily remove it in case your suitcase is taken away at the gate.

For more tips like this, read Seven Ways to Keep Your Stuff Safe When You Fly.

— written by Caroline Costello

stress travel stressed out traveler businessman suitcaseCountdown to departure: three days. Before I board a flight to Vancouver on Thursday, I have to finish packing, call my credit card company, do laundry, print boarding passes, clean out the fridge, confirm my reservations … so many details, so little time!

Am I curled up, knees to chest, in a stress-induced stupor? Not exactly. I’ve adopted a few strategies for handling the pre-trip panic phase:

1. Make a list — or several.
This weekend, I jotted down a clothing inventory for each day of my trip, a more general packing list (medications, umbrella, etc.) and a list of everything I had to do before I left. Having everything laid out in writing helped me get organized … and gave me the satisfaction of whittling down my mountain of tasks one by one. (Our handy interactive packing list can help with this step.)

2. Start early.
Dumping drawers on the floor in search of your passport hours before your departure is, to put it mildly, poor planning. I headed off last-minute panic attacks by starting the packing process several days before my flight. As it happened, I discovered that my passport was indeed where I left it — score! — but that I was missing a few other odds and ends. Luckily, I still have a couple of days to run to the store. Crisis averted.

3. Have a plan.
As Ed Hewitt points out in 10 Things to Do Before You Travel, the first day of a trip is often the most nerve-wracking as you figure out how to get around an unfamiliar new place. He suggests making a plan before you leave: “Sketch out a walk near your digs, which can help you get oriented as well as shake off travel fatigue and jet lag. Also, check out any nearby amenities — like a rooftop lounge nearby, a balcony with a choice view or a heated pool for maximum chill-out at the end of a harried travel day.”

As for me, I looked up public transportation options from the airport to where I’m staying, so I know exactly where to go once my plane touches down. And I’ve scribbed down a few yummy-sounding neighborhood restaurants for that first night’s dinner.

4. Let go.
Once you’ve taken care of all the important stuff (the passport is packed now, right? RIGHT?), try not to waste too much energy on the rest. Slow down, take a deep breath and focus your fevered brain on how much fun you’ll have on your trip, rather than all the tiny little details you might have forgotten.

If you’re looking for me on Thursday, I’ll be in one of those airport massage chairs — having my last few twinges of travel tension gently rubbed away.

What do you do to reduce pre-trip stress?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

man mountain lake view happy success arms raisedClose your eyes and picture the perfect traveler. Would she be toting the finest-quality luggage, speak a dozen foreign languages fluently and have a magical knack for never getting lost?

If you don’t resemble this paragon of travel perfection, don’t fret. I’d argue that the qualities that make for successful and memorable trips are much more mundane — and can be developed by any traveler.

Useful: The ability to read a map.
Essential: The ability to chill out when you inevitably get lost.

Sure, your companions will thank you if you have a knack for deciphering a subway map or navigating a flawless route from Point A to Point B. But even with a map, even with a handheld GPS, even with “you can’t miss it” directions from the guy at the local newspaper stand … I promise that sooner or later, you will wander off course. How you respond to getting lost spells the difference between a sour afternoon of arguing with your spouse over who’s to blame and a serendipitous detour to a place you might never have found otherwise.

Useful: A good bag.
Essential: A good packing strategy.

While I’d never minimize the value of a sturdy, well-constructed suitcase, what’s more important is what you put into it — and what you don’t. Even a “Miracle Bag” can’t save you from overweight fees if you’re a chronic overpacker, or help you remember the umbrella you always seem to leave at home in the closet. Forget buying some $400 piece of luggage and instead invest a little time in improving your packing strategy: create a packing list that you can customize for each trip, and think back over your last few vacations to evaluate which items you really could’ve left at home.

Useful: A stomach of steel.
Essential: An open mind (and a stockpile of Tums, just in case).

If you’ve ever eyed a steaming plate of mystery meat with trepidation, you might have wished you were one of those travelers with an ironclad stomach — like the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain, who munches his way through the street food of the world with almost nary a taste of food poisoning. But according to Bourdain, it’s not his biology but his sense of adventure that keeps him from getting sick on the road: “My crew — who are more careful and fussy about street food, get sick more often — almost invariably from the hotel buffet or Western-style businesses,” he told WebMD. While I encourage travelers to take reasonable precautions (see our Food Safety Tips for ideas), don’t let fear get in the way of trying those unique local delicacies.

Useful: Fluency in a second (or third, or fourth…) language.
Essential: Fluency in the universal language of hand signals and smiles.

According to a report in the New York Times last year, only 9 percent of Americans speak a language besides English. Guess that explains the sheer number of Yanks bumbling around the world asking, “Parlez-vous Anglais?” Knowing the local language can ease your trip in countless ways, which is why I’d always recommend learning as many basic vocabulary words as you can before a trip. (Hint: “Restroom” should be one of them.) But keep in mind that when you hit a language barrier, you can often convey just as much — if not more — with a simple smile.

Which qualities would you add to this list?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

carry-on bagI hate checking bags when I fly. I just do. I hate having to worry about whether my baggage will be lost or broken into, checked luggage fees are the pits, and I’m utterly impatient when waiting to spot my suitcase as it comes down the conveyor belt.

Needless to say, I’m sort of obsessed with space-saving packing techniques. I stuff underthings and socks into my shoes, roll each piece of clothing as tightly as possible and arrange everything just so. By the time my bag is zipped up, the insides closely resemble an untouched Jenga tower; I pride myself in this. In fact, some would say I brag about it. That said, I recently discovered that my packing proficiency could be enhanced by the right bag.

A few years ago, I purchased a tote dubbed “The Miracle Bag,” thinking it would be perfect for heading to the beach or taking a road trip. And it is. But on a recent weeklong trip to Belize, I realized it’s ideal for longer treks as well. The bag is constructed of a sturdy eco-friendly plastic-like material that is super-simple to clean, and it boasts a large main compartment, a small interior zippered pocket and six deep outside pockets. It zips across the top, and has handles and a long arm strap.

On this particular trip, I managed to pack the main compartment with three swimsuits, several dresses, four pairs of shorts, four tops, two skirts, a pair of skinny jeans, two pairs of flip-flops, a pair of sandals, underclothes and my quart-size bag of toiletries. Better yet, I didn’t have to use an overhead compartment once onboard, as my carry-on fit snugly under the seat in front of me. I worried a little about whether our checked bag would get lost — but I would survive just fine with what I had in my “Miracle Bag,” even if it was for the entire week.

Oh, and on our return trip, I even succeeded in squeezing in a few souvenirs! Now, I urge you onward … in search of your very own stress-busting satchel. If you have your own miracle bag, tell us about it!

— written by Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

egg cartonEvery 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 (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

You’ve cracked your last egg and devoured that delicious cheese and veggie omelet, but wait — don’t toss that empty egg carton in the trash just yet. You might be able to use it on your next trip! Writes Caroline Costello:

“A half-dozen egg carton tray makes an amazing travel jewelry box. It doesn’t appear enticing to thieves, it has segregated compartments to keep your necklaces from getting tangled and, best of all, it’s free. For an even fancier jewelry box, allow your child or pet to decorate the carton. The plastic container in which wet wipes are sold also makes a handy jewelry box, sans separate compartments.”

Even if you’re not bringing necklaces or earrings with you on a trip, an egg carton can be used to protect a variety of other small odds and ends — like hair bands and clips, earbuds for your mp3 player, or leftover currency after you’ve moved on to a new country.

Get more creative packing ideas in Top 10 Travel Essentials You Can Find in the Trash.

Which household items have you reused in your travels?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

suitcase pack packing travel tripEvery 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 (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

On the first morning of a recent trip, I found myself rifling through my suitcase and grumbling under my breath. Neatly folded clothes went flying as I tried to find the sweater and pants I had in mind for that day’s events. Of course, they were all the way at the bottom of my bag. The matching shoes were in a different compartment altogether. And where the heck were those black socks?

Keeping your suitcase neat and orderly can be a challenge, especially on multi-stop trips when you’re packing and unpacking in several different hotels. But fellow haphazard packers, take heart: There is a better way. IndependentTraveler reader Debbi G. explains how she stays organized when packing for a trip:

“I buy two-gallon zip-lock bags to use when packing. I pick out a complete outfit (shirt, pants or skirt, underwear and socks to match — all wrinkle-free materials) and pack them in the large bag, removing as much air as possible. This prevents having to rummage through the clothes to find coordinating items and messing up the suitcase. I make sure that I have one bag per day or event, then just pull out a bag and get ready!”

This tip would work just as well in reverse too — you can fold and seal dirty duds in the bags again when you’re done with them, keeping them separate from your clean clothing. (Just make sure you remember which bags are which!)

You can see more practical advice from IndependentTraveler.com members in Packing Tips from Our Readers. And don’t miss our essential list of What Not to Pack.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

africa children kidsGot a little extra space in your suitcase? You could use it to make a difference in the lives of kids around the world.

Pack for a Purpose is a charitable organization that encourages travelers to devote five pounds’ worth of their luggage weight allowance to school supplies, medical equipment and other necessities that can be donated to locals in need. Do you really need that third pair of shoes? Leave ’em at home and instead consider bringing 400 pencils or five deflated soccer balls for local school children (each option adds up to about five pounds, according to the organization’s Web site).

Here’s how it works: You visit the site and select your destination, then the hotel or lodge where you’re staying. You’ll see a description of the charitable project(s) offered by the property as well as a list of desired donations. For example, the Ritz-Carlton in Tokyo is seeking items such as stuffed animals, baseball gloves, bath towels and T-shirts to support local orphanages. In Zambia, Kapani Camp (a luxury safari lodge) is requesting educational materials for the Yosefe School Library Refurbishment Project.

In addition to supporting a local charitable project, there’s a bonus for travelers — once you donate your five pounds of supplies, you’ve suddenly freed up that suitcase space for souvenirs to bring back home.

The country and accommodation options on the Pack for a Purpose site are currently a bit limited (there are only five hotels listed in all of South America, for instance). But you can still use the site as inspiration for your own travels. Before your next trip, contact your hotel and ask whether it supports any local charities for which donations would be welcome. If so, make a contribution and then invite the property to submit a listing on the Pack for Purpose site — it’s free.

Want to make a difference in a more hands-on way? Check out our story on Volunteer Vacations.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

excess baggage payment sign airport overweight luggageWith airlines charging hefty fees for overweight bags, the small difference between a 49-pound suitcase and a 51-pound one could add up to a big hit on your wallet. (Delta, for instance, charges $90 each way to check a bag weighing 51 to 70 pounds.) But what if your bag’s excess weight isn’t caused by what you’ve packed, but by a quirk of the luggage scale at your airport?

A reader wrote to us a few days ago on this very topic: “An airline recently tried to charge an enormous fee for [a suitcase that was] five pounds over [the weight limit]. We moved one very light fleece vest to another piece and ended up seven pounds under. That vest did not weigh 12 lbs; maybe it weighed 2. If they are going to charge such prices, shouldn’t they have to calibrate the scales?”

Unfortunately, a recent report from CBS Los Angeles shows that this sort of discrepancy is not unheard of. While most of the scales tested in the report passed inspection, one faulty scale at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) displayed a reading of 53 pounds for a 50-pound weight, and 109 pounds for a 100-pound weight. Although scales at airports are supposed to be calibrated on a regular basis, missed maintenance or normal wear and tear can sometimes lead to flawed readings.

So what’s a traveler to do? We recommend purchasing your own small luggage scale to use at home when packing; you can pick one up at a travel supply store for $10 – $20. These offer a quick way to make sure you’re not getting too close to your airline’s weight limit. Just be sure to allow for a little variation between your scale and the one at the airport. (Is your suitcase tipping the scale at 48 pounds? It’s time to lose that extra guidebook or pair of boots.)

Once at the airport, if you suspect that a scale is inaccurate, ask the airline employee to test your bag on another scale nearby.

For more information, see Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

beach ball suitcaseEvery 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 (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

The one thing you should always pack on your travels is … a beach ball? In Must-Pack Items from Our Readers, Eileen H. says, “I never travel without a small blow-up beach ball. It can become a pillow of any size, a back support or a soft seat on a long journey, and is a great connector with little kids around the world.”

It sounds somewhat crazy to pack a beach ball unless your final destination is, well, the beach. Your travel partner might get confused when he sees you packing a deflated beach ball for that ski trip to Aspen. But Eileen has me sold. As I wrote in The Most Embarrassing Travel Gear, an inflated beach ball could function similarly to the SkyRest airplane pillow, allowing fliers to bend forward and rest their faces on a cushy pocket of air.

What’s your take? Will you pack a beach ball on your next trip? If not, what’s the one item you never travel without?

— written by Caroline Costello

scottevest delta ad Delta Air Lines evidently doesn’t want you to know about a certain travel jacket that transforms passengers into walking carry-on bags. The airline refused to print an ad featuring the 24-pocket fleece jacket by SCOTTEVEST/SeV Travel Clothing, which had been submitted for Delta’s in-flight magazine, Sky.

The ad, pictured here, shows an X-ray view of a travel jacket that has various items — passport, iPad, iPod, pen — stuffed into a multitude of pockets. Note the headline: “The Most Stylish Way to Beat the System, SCOTTEVEST Travel Clothing Has Specialized Pockets to Help You Stay Organized & Avoid Extra Baggage Fees.”

According to SCOTTEVEST C.E.O. and founder Scott Jordan, who’s been posting video commentary on this issue on his YouTube channel, Delta claims to have rejected the ad for two reasons. First, the “How to Beat the System” headline coupled with the image of an X-ray jacket implies that the “system” travelers are beating is the airport security system. Second, Jordan says the airline deemed the ad misleading because the jacket doesn’t actually help anyone save money on baggage fees, as each Delta passenger is entitled to one free carry-on bag.

Scott Jordan begs to differ. He argues that passengers can pack in their travel jackets what they would have otherwise stowed in checked bags, consequently saving them an extra piece of luggage in some cases. And, of course, this jacket is not designed to thwart airport security, says Jordan. Check out his response:

According to Tnooz, a Delta spokesperson released this statement: “Our discrepancy with this particular vendor was strictly based on creative standards. Delta and MSP Communications, publishers of SKY magazine, reserve the right to decline advertisements which do not appropriately represent Delta Air Lines or the travel industry.”

Whether or not Delta truly rejected the ad because of “creative standards,” the airline has gotten caught up in a blaze of bad publicity, fueled — in part — by Jordan’s clever promotional tactics. (SCOTTEVEST is the same company that paid for travel writer Rolf Potts to trek around the world with no bags and just an 18-pocket jacket, as we previously reported in our blog).

Ultimately, Scott Jordan — just like Delta — is making money from this modern epidemic of airline baggage fees. If we didn’t have to pay 50 bucks to check a bag, we probably wouldn’t need a 24-pocket travel jacket that sells for $140. Is Scott Jordan looking out for the little guy, or is he simply a shrewd C.E.O. taking advantage of public opinion to sell his product?

–written by Caroline Costello