Tips, tricks and hacks to help you pack and travel smarter
By Amanda Burgess, Editor, JourneyWoman
Whatever our pre-pandemic level of packing prowess – overpacker, underpacker or expert – the world has changed for all travellers. We’re not only going to be travelling differently, we’re going to be planning and packing for it in ways we may not have previously. We need to up our game.
That’s why I sat down with Anne McAlpin – a travel expert and author who has been a featured guest on Oprah, The View & CNN with her travel tips – on a special packing-themed episode of our monthly talk show Solo Travel Wisdom. Our goal? Getting you ready for travel’s new reality.
“It’s going to take more planning, absolutely – planning for your items that you’re taking with you, your PPE. Planning to see if your favourite restaurant is still open. Everything needs to be double-checked now. It’s a new world, frankly,” says McAlpin. “I’m starting with a checklist, which I’ve always done, but it’s even more important now to find out what’s open, what’s not open and what the requirements and restrictions are. Not just TSA.gov for the airlines, but COVID maps, the State Department. I have always registered my trips when I travel, but everybody should register their trips, so that if there is a situation, they get alerted.”
Catch the replay of our Solo Travel Wisdom talk show on Packing Tips:
Our new travel partner – Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
The need for a different level of planning is something Carolyn and I experienced firsthand on our #TravelAtHome road trip adventure across Ontario last summer. There was simply so much more to pack – from masks to hand sanitizer to wipes. Even when the world opens up, it looks like PPE will be here to stay.
Whether you’re planning to travel locally, domestically or internationally in the coming months, a little forward PPE planning can help ensure you’re never caught without the protection you need. Plan ahead. Check to see what the regulations are where you’re headed, as they can differ widely by municipality, state/province/territory, and country. Think about what makes you (and others) comfortable.
“I start with PPE. I like to keep my personal protective equipment in my car,” says McAlpin. “When I get back to travelling on planes, I’m going to keep a little bit of everything in different areas, but I’m going to be planning.”
You can save time and headaches by preparing full PPE kits – medical masks, re-wearable masks, mask filters, travel-sized hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray/wipes, hotel soap bar – in small travel cases and stashing them in all of your on-the-go spaces. Backpack, handbag, suitcase, car. Think like a scout and always be prepared.
Plan to take along a comfort item
Whether you’ve flown during the pandemic or not, getting back into the rhythm of regular travel will be an adjustment for many travellers. The first time I hopped back on a plane in 2020 was July 2020 – three-and-a-half months after returning from two months of international travel in March. I’m not a nervous traveller by any stretch of the imagination, and yet a near-empty Pearson International Airport and the prospect of a near-full WestJet flight was discombobulating.
So, I did something I rarely do anymore while travelling: I bought a book at a Gateway Newsstand. While I adore printed books, I long ago saw the space-saving value in downloading a selection on my phone and/or iPad for trips. The comforting weight of it in my hands got me through a flight where being packed in with a bunch of strangers was suddenly a lot less thrilling than it used to be.
McAlpin always travels with a comfort item, but makes hers pull multipurpose weight: “I travel with my comfort kit, which includes an inflatable neck pillow, inflatable lumbar pillow and ear plugs, all those comfort items,” she says. “I have a big scarf that I can use as a blanket. I need a comfort item on the plane, I really do. I need to be snuggly. I need to stay warm – I sleep better when I stay warm. The nice thing about this is, it’s really a microfibre towel. I can use it on the beach. I used it at a villa in Tuscany where we had no pool towels. It’s three feet by five feet, and yet it packs down to the size of a paperback book, and keeps me so cozy on the plane.”
Bonus: You can roll a microfibre towel into a little sausage and use it for lumbar support if needed.
My favourite brand of microfibre travel towel? Nomadix.
Their range of towels come in patterns and prints so stylish you’ll want to use them as wraps, scarves or blankets too.
Packing tips to tuck into your travel bag
The bulk of the packing tips that McAlpin and I discussed on Solo Travel Wisdom aren’t specific to pandemic-era packing – they’re evergreen tips gleaned from our combined millions of solo travel miles. McAlpin once travelled 21 days around the world with only a carry-on bag. I exclusively travel with carry-on, regardless of trip length.
When McAlpin heads out on a river cruise from Amsterdam to Basel in December, she says she’s going to pack lighter than ever before. “When I did the three weeks around the world, I actually took a shirt I never wore, so you know, we can do it,” she says.
Enjoy this snapshot of the packing pointers we shared on the show, and put them to work when packing for your next adventure.
1. Make a checklist. Check it twice. Print off your checklist. Check off each item as you pack it. At the end of your trip, write down what you didn’t use/need and anything you wish you’d brought. You can also keep packing lists for different kinds of trips/climates in a folder on your computer for easy reference on future travels.
2. Use a 3:1 ratio for clothing, and pack no more than three pairs of shoes. McAlpin packs a maximum of three bottoms, pairs each bottom with a selection of three tops, and does laundry on the go. I’m a fitness fanatic who will find a sweaty class to attend in almost any country, so I need more wardrobe variety. I too bring more tops than bottoms, and for trips to warmer climates, dresses pull double-duty. As long as it all fits in my carry-on and leaves room for a purchase or two, I don’t sweat it.
3. Pack items that pull double duty:
- A “washing machine”: McAlpin packs a gallon-sized Ziploc bag, a small laundry line, and some single-use Woolite packs (you can use shampoo in a pinch). “I get all my suds going, I put it through the rinse cycle and it’s just the best thing to rinse out,” she says. In between washes, you can use the Ziploc for wet swimsuits or as a laundry bag.
- A cashmere or Merino wool sweater: It’s a dress-up/dress-down item with versatility. “I could put a necklace with it, I could put a spark with it. It kept me very warm on the plane, I could layer under it, layer over it, and it’s very comfortable,” says McAlpin.
- A scarf or microfibre towel: A scarf can double as a wrap, hair turban, beach coverup or blanket. The towel can also serve as a blanket or a pillow for long bus rides. I bring both – I wear the scarf on flights and stash the towel in the small backpack that serves as my personal item.
4. Use bag space wisely. Your running shoes can double as mini packing cubes, storing socks, underwear or a small bag of jewelry. Thread your necklaces through eco-friendly drinking straws (also simplifies drinking on flights while wearing a mask) to keep them from getting tangled.
My favourite packing cubes from Gonex.
They come in a variety of colours to complement your luggage!
5. Use compression bags to save space on bulkier items. It’s the secret to packing cold-weather clothing when a single trip includes both tropical climates and mountaintop adventures. You can pack a puffer jacket, lightweight Merino wool sweater, hat and gloves and compress it all flat to lay at the bottom of your carry on or in your backpack.
6. Pack your toiletries a couple of days in advance. Go through your skincare and beauty routine to ensure you have everything you need. McAlpin and I have both forgotten makeup remover pads several times. I’ve since moved on to reusable, washable bamboo remover pads and ensure that a couple of them and a travel-sized bottle of makeup remover is always in my travel case. Soft as a cloud, eco-friendly and space-saving! If you want to save space on toiletries, you can use contact lens cases to hold foundation, eye cream or other serums that you don’t need a full bottle of.
7. Pre-pack your supplements and medicine by day (and take extra for emergencies!). You can use Ziploc bags or pill cases for supplements, but keep prescription meds in their original containers when travelling internationally. Keep these items on your trip checklists, and when going on a longer trip, ensure that you have pre-ordered enough medication from your pharmacy. Pack extra in case your trip is unexpectedly extended. If you’re travelling with medication that needs to be kept cool, be sure to ask your pharmacy for a cooling kit (last 12-24 hours) and keep that medication in an accessible location in your carry-on. You can also request ice during your flight if needed.
8. Organize – and document – your documents. McAlpin photocopies everything: her passport, identification, itineraries, etc. “I take photographs of it all, I email it to myself, I leave a copy with my background person. I’ve got all those extra copies on my phone if I need them, and on my email. If I lose my phone, I can pull that up,” she says. I keep everything organized in a Dropbox folder that I can access from my phone or any device and print out anything I absolutely need when travelling to remote areas.
9. Bring two credit cards. You don’t want to be stuck abroad with no credit card in the case of left, loss or fraudulent charges, so bring a backup. Keep them in different places. If you’re travelling in an area where pickpocketing is a concern, consider bringing a false wallet with some expired debit cards and a banknote in it.
Want to pack some travel safety tips in your bag? Check out our new Safety page.