Thursday, December 1, 2016

On travelling, travelling light... the what, why, and where

Breakwater at Doctor's Cave Beach, Montego Bay, Jamaica
Jamaica... let's go to the Reggae festival!
It's taken me many, many years, and more-than-many failures, but at last, I may have mastered the art of "travelling light and efficiently", meaning... equipped for the trip, clean and comfortable and relatively pain-free. Whether you are photographing a band on tour, being a superfan and following a tour or festival series around the country or continent or world, touring the world for fun, or travelling on business, some of these tricks and tips might be helpful. And they might save your back, knees, bank account and good temper.

Know Your Climate
The person I learned most from about travelling light--though it took many years to sink in--is my youngest sister. We were in the Sinai desert (a beautiful place if you haven't visited yet), staying with Bedouin and exploring the beaches of Nuweiba and Dahab. My sister had a beach bag with a change of clothes, her passport, and a large sarong. She knew that the desert air would dry the rinsed sarong in five minutes flat. It was her dress, her beach towel, and extra bedding at night, was incredibly light, and rather pretty. Me? I was struggling under the weight of a huge, framed packpack, full of heavyweight western towels, "what-if" clothing, about ten weeks more underwear than I had days on the trip, and random gadgets that I would never use in the Sinai--most of which could have been left somewhere-else for the duration of the desert adventure. The difference? My sister knew the climate and what to expect, and I didn't have a clue. And you don't need a business suit to swim with dolphins.
Landscape of the desert
Judean desert, Israel
Only Take What You Can Lift
No one else is carrying your stuff. If you can't lift it over your head into an airplane bin, or up the stairs into a train, or into the storage area under a bus, don't take it. Don't expect help. Everyone else is struggling with their own overstuffed bags, cases and kitchen sinks.

Check It
Airplanes have cargo areas specifically for your luggage. Use them. Check your bags in. Just keep what you'll need on the flight, and fragile/precious/electronics, in the cabin. Seriously. Don't be that person trying to stuff an expanded roll-on bag into a far-too-small overhead locker, holding everyone up from boarding and disembarking. Yes you might have to pay a fee for checked luggage, depending on the airline and your frequent flyer status. If you have a roll-on bag and it's a tiny plane, they'll often offer free ramp checking because the bag won't fit anyway.

LAX to BOS, southern route
Stuff Grows
I have no clue how this happens, but many years informal-but-regular experimentation shows that it happens, every time. The stuff you take on a trip expands and doubles in size before you return, even if it's identical to, or less-than, what you set out with. Dirt and sweat? Maybe. Poor folding? Perhaps. Whatever. It happens. TIP: if you are using a hard-shell suitcase with an expansion zipper, make sure that you can close the suitcase without opening the expansion zip when you leave. Then you have the extra room for the inevitable Grown Stuff on the way back. If you start out with an overstuffed case, you'll need to buy an extra bag or case for the return.

If you expect to buy things on the trip, pack an extra, light-weight, checkable bag so that when you go over the weight limit and don't find out until you're late at the airport, you have somewhere to put the extra... otherwise you'll be chucking stuff in the bin, or paying a ridiculous overweight fee, rather than an extra bag fee. #beentheredonethat

You Don't Need Clean Pyjamas Every Night
Seriously. You can wear them more than once. #ihadtolearnthis You don't even need pyjamas, unless you're sharing a hostel dormitory with unknown strangers or similar sleeping arrangements. But if you plan on sleeping au naturel, be sure to have some clothing easily findable in the dark, for that time that the hotel fire alarm goes off at 3 a.m., there's no power, you can't find your glasses, it's midwinter, and the fire brigade make you stand in the parking lot in the snow for an hour and a half until they determine that some prankster pressed the alarm button when returning from the pub. #beenthere #itwasseriouslyfreezingoutide

Bilingual road sign, Ireland
Many roads to travel
Everything is Disposable
It's cheaper to buy a tourist T-shirt or hoodie than it is to pay for hotel laundry. (If you don't believe me, check the price list next time you are in a hotel.) If you're travelling to tourist destinations, use the inexpensive tourist T-shirt shops as your wardrobe. So what if you arrive in Seattle wearing an I Love Paris T-shirt. People will just think you're cool. Or a dumb tourist. Whatever, You're clean, warm, and have enough cash for a coffee. Same with toiletries, accessories, shoes, handbags, books... the works. If you leave home with the idea that everything in the suitcase is throwaway, you'll make better choices about what, and how much, to pack.

Layers are your friend, especially if you are taking in more than one climate on the same trip. I once did Beijing (freezing, foggy-smoggy winter) and Singapore (sunny, equatorial-humid and hot) in the same week. That was tricky. My suitcase was ridiculous. I should have read this before taking that trip.

Of course, if you're a superfan following a band around the world, the merch stall is your best friend ever!!!

I have a huge, heavy, black I LOVE SACRAMENTO hoodie in my closet. It rescued me when I arrived at Sacramento airport with a few minutes to spare, and realised I'd left my ready-to-go winter coat on the chair, at home. It was spring: beautifully-warm in Northern California, but still a freezing-and-bitter midwinter at my destination. The inexpensive tourist hoodie allowed me to survive the trip, without breaking the bank or my schedule. Sometimes you have to improvise.

Know Your Size and Have a Backup Plan
Business travel: there will come a day when your suitcase, and the outfit you were expecting to wear for that very-important presentation, is stuck somewhere at Heathrow or Denver airport, and you're in Beijing or San Francisco, and who-knows if you'll ever meet up again. If you have a go-to outfit that can be replicated in any chain store, anywhere in the world, and you know your size in the country that you're in, it's easy to replace. Better an inexpensive-but-smart black-pants-black-shirt outfit from a Target or Tesco, than crumpled, travel-weary clothing with 24-hours on a plane and the excuse that your suit and tie is somewhere-else. (Just remember that if the airline finds your missing bag within 24 hours, you likely won't be reimbursed for the replacement purchase.) Don't forget the shoes: depending on the audience, business-casual sneakers might be fine, but in some places they will draw negative feedback from an audience member or seminar attendee. #yesthathappened  (Of course, buying a replacement outfit isn't an option when you arrive at 1 am and are the first to present at the next morning's conference. That's when you really wish you'd ignored the advice about checking luggage.)

Desert between Sacramento and Dallas
The world is a wonderful place... never stop exploring
(Don't) Feel the Burn
If you wear contact lenses and use peroxide lens cleaner, calculate how many hours you have to let them soak and neutralize. If you have to upload and edit photos before sleep, and then leave on an 8 am bus/train/plane, you likely don't have the needed six hours... take some other cleaning solution that doesn't need to neutralize, or daily lenses, for the short-sleep nights. Or have two sets of lenses and switch them every other day. And don't forget your spares...

Practice With That Backpack
If, like me, you're lugging a heavy set of camera, computing or video equipment around on your travels, make sure it's protected and safe, but also check the comfort of whatever you're carrying it in. Remember Only Take What You Can Lift: you are going to be carrying/moving this, no one else. If your backpack hurts after five minutes, find another. I recently bought a new pack with room for a 17" laptop, two camera bodies and multiple lenses. Everything fit, beautifully. However, the pack was designed for a person over six feet tall and with no boobs, and after lugging it onto and off of planes and trains it managed to break a small cyst I'd had for ages on my back. Which brings me to the next topic...

Deal With the Niggling Health Things Before You Leave
A niggling toothache can become a full-blown tooth abscess mid-flight, so get that toothache seen to. Now. Before you leave on the trip. Believe me... an abscessed tooth is agony, it wrecks your plans, and finding a good dentist isn't always easy in the middle of the desert! My middle-east-abscess wasn't preventable--it was under a crown that had been fitted just a few days earlier--but if you have experienced dental problems in the past, do get a checkup before you leave on that trek-around-the-world's-music-festivals. Your dentist might prescribe a course of antibiotics, just in case you need them. Oh and that little, ugly-but-harmless, cutaneous cyst on your back? It could be crushed by your heavy, uncomfortable backpack and wake you up the next morning, the size of an infected goose egg. #yesthathappened  Make sure you have all your medical insurance info with you. Know where to find emergency medical help on your travel route, whether it's local hospitals, emergency rooms, clinics provided by chain pharmacies/drugstores, or through information provided in your hotel. One day you might need it.

Chicago from above at night
Today is Wednesday... must be Chicago? Boston?
And May the Power be with you!!!
If you have a bunch of kit that needs to be charged during your trip--camera batteries, laptop, cell phone, etc. etc. etc., remember that not every lodging has the same number of power outlets as at home. Some hotels hide outlets behind furniture; some disguise them in lamp bases; some only have one outlet for the entire bedroom, and you'll have to disconnect the TV to use it. I always travel with a power strip--plug in one end, and you have five or six extra outlets. However... don't take the advice I once saw, to use a "home" power strip in a different country, together with a converter. It doesn't work. The hotel won't like you, not one bit! I have tested it, several times. I have fused the power in a single hotel room (twice, same night, Warsaw, Poland) and an entire hotel (can't remember where, pleading innocence, but it did happen). IT DOESN'T WORK. Better idea: pick up a local phone or battery charger or three. They are no longer expensive and you can often find them at those tourist shops, including for SLR camera batteries.

And talking of power... look at your itinerary and work out the worst-possible moment to be without a charge on your phone. 2 a.m. outside a remote concert venue, when you need to call an Uber or cab? The moment you arrive, over-tired and confused in a city half-way around the world, and can't remember the name or location of your hotel, and you didn't make a print out because you have it on your phone? Yep, that's when the phone will be dead as a doornail. Good thing you have a couple of fully-charged USB battery packs, right? You did put them in your pocket? With the right cable? And you remembered to charge them last night? Cool... you're all set!

Safe travels everyone. Have fun out there... and travel light! I'll see you on the road!

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