It was the trip of a lifetime; I was going diving in Indonesia with a dedicated group of bubble blowing shutterbugs. Most of my previous trips were bare bones, comfortable but budget level and I’ve enjoyed every minute, but now I was to be a guest for a week in a dive resort in a remote location. With all the gear necessary, packing as light as possible was necessary and I needed some travel packing tips to do it well.
Our tour leader recommended that since we’d be spending so much time in the water, swim suits, shorts and t-shirts would be all I needed. My boyfriend and dive buddy, the reason I was going, agreed. So I slung a couple of swim suits (one to wear and one to dry), a cover up, shorts, a sarong, a skirt/shirt to wear in Singapore (our one urban stop) and what I’d need to be warm on the long flight. We’d be in the tropics, so light and simple was best for fabrics. That much I knew.
But to my dismay, we arrived at Kasawari Lembeh Resort and unlike any other dive trip I’d been on, this was a four star experience. Our host had it right for him but even then he showed up in crisp, collared, polo shirts and khakis to dinner. I should’ve talked to his wife about what to pack, came to dinner in the best outfits I could muster while the rest of the ladies floated through in lightweight (that much I’d gotten right) long dresses, accessories and coordinated outfits. I felt messy, self-conscious and have been determined to not let that get in the way of enjoying my travels ever again.
1. Where are you getting your advice?
Now, admittedly, I have a thin skin, but it’s part of travel to revel in the new and connect with people and places out of the ordinary and that requires a certain sensitivities. Sometimes what you’re wearing can get in the way when you’re a stranger in new circumstances.
You may have packed sweaters and spend the journey over-heating, mopping your brow and dripping, unable to really follow conversations because you are so uncomfortable. You may be on a business trip, not have golf clothes packed and miss out on a valuable t-time meeting. Wearing a light summer dress instead of slouchy cut-offs could get you a seat upgrade, entrance to the airport lounge, a better seat in a restaurant or quicker service checking in at your hotel. No kidding.
There’s lots of packing advice out there. Who do you listen to? What my resort experience taught me is to get advice from someone you resonate with. That might be a blogger you’ve been following, a tour operator or better yet, a friend who’s been to your destination before and would love to talk about their trip. Just make sure it’s a good match for your travel style and for the location.
2. Know your destination
Chances are that you’ve been planning your trip for months or dreamed of it for years. The internet makes it much easier to know where you’re going but make sure to get a variety of opinions and perspectives.
What time of year are you going? Know what the season may hold. June may have an average temperature of 80 and you plan on hiking daily but didn’t realize it was the rainy season. Disappointment may lead to other possibilities and connections, so look for a silver lining.
I once planned a camping trip using a triangle fare from home in Alaska, to San Francisco and ending with a few days in Hawaii. The first night on a beautiful Maui bluff I woke up in the tent, soaking in 3 inches of water as the worst storm in decades hit the islands. However the trip wasn’t a disaster as we made new friends among other stranded travelers at the local hotel and the airlines allowed us to return to San Francisco for the last 5 days of the trip before going home.
That kind of flexibility is easier to manage if you’re a solo traveler or couple, but add a family or team to the mix and it’s harder to rearrange and get everyone on board. If we’d known more about weather patterns or forecasts for Maui at that time of year, we might not have had the soggy experience.
3. Research cultural norms.
You may not have a problem with looking like a camping store mannequin and tromping around dressed for safari but does it work in an urban environment? In Europe and Japan for instance (or the South American cities I’ve visited) people dress more formally, dressier, than we do in America. I never saw anyone but Americans in baggy, worn jeans, Yoga pants or hoodies in Tokyo, outside of the workers in the fish market. May have been the neighborhoods that I frequented but I felt better dressing daily as if for casual Friday at the office – slacks or skirt and no running shoes. Denim may be fine, depending on cut and fit but it’s also heavy to pack.The bottom line is wearing what makes you comfortable and adjusting to your location.
Safety is a consideration as well. While you don’t mind standing out as an American on holiday, you may look like a wallet to the wrong people.
Consider Mirroring: This is a technique in business networking and sales. You observe and mirror the rhythm and energy of the person you’re speaking with and it makes them feel more comfortable with you. Better for business and I think, it has value in lots of other interactions, especially when traveling.
3. Know yourself.
Experience works but honesty is better. You may need to travel to become a better traveler, but part of it is attitude and personality too. Be honest and think about who you are, not just what kind of traveler you’d like to be. The key is to know what works for you before you leave home.
I just loved a pair of silver sandals that looked perfect with the dress I was taking to Brazil recently. They looked great, felt great in the store and I packed them. After just two hours however at my destination I developed blisters between my toes and they dogged me for a week of the trip. The sandals ended up in the suitcase until I got home. They were heavy too. It was a poor choice that could have been avoided if I’d been honest with myself.
I knew I had sensitive feet but didn’t wear the shoes enough before leaving home. The same can be said of anything you bring on the journey. Don’t relinquish valuable packing space or risk hampering your trip by packing something that theoretically works but practically won’t.
4. Pack early and light.
If a big trip is on horizon, especially to a new destination, consider what you’re going to take early – even weeks before you go. I’m not of the school that packs two weeks before, there’s just too much going on, but leaving packing to the last minute will guarantee poor choices and lack of integrity. Why? You’ll be most susceptible to throwing things together that don’t work well together and be too scattered to fully consider where you’re going and again, what’s most comfortable. With everything demanding your attention before leaving, give yourself the grace of time and start packing before you’re exhausted and overwhelmed with last minute preparations in an effort to catch your flight.
Consider 3 Colors:
If you choose three main colors for the trip, it can help simplify the packing process. On my last trip to Japan I planned on blue, white and black, then added scarves and a red jacket to liven things up. Everything mixed and matched well.
Admittedly this is geared towards women primarily. Guys pack differently and need different options, but still 3 primary colors can make it easier.
5. Know your options.
I once packed for Thailand in a rush. A window of opportunity had opened up, so my then fiancée and I grabbed a couple of guidebooks, fast-tracked visas and took off for three weeks. It was my first time in Southeast Asia and I knew we’d be in Bangkok for a while, then wandering. I got the clothes right but didn’t realize that given language barriers, things like toothpaste and cough drops would be a challenge. We eventually worked it out and found help to get what we needed, but there was an opportunity cost – time spent searching and shopping versus experiencing more of the country.
The opposite though can be true if you know your destination. Don’t pack everything you might possibly need if the country you’re going to will have it and you know, or have help with the language. Another veteran traveler spends a lot of time in SE Asia and he gets on the plane carrying only a small bag. How? He knows that he can find what he needs to wear, from flip flops to shorts, inexpensively at his destination. I admire his flexibility but while that works for a millennial, it wouldn’t as well for a boomer woman, or at least this one.
6. Accept the changes.
I used to travel with a backpack and my shoulder bag, roughing it with abandon. It was gloriously freeing but today, decades later, wouldn’t be as much fun. I know my preferences, what works for my body and my comfort level has changed. The squat toilets I managed as a backpacker wouldn’t be as accommodating now! If you haven’t traveled for a while consider the gap and adjust your preparations accordingly. By accepting it and moving on instead of trying to recreate what once was, your life and journey will be richer for it.
7. Do your best and let go.
I recently went on an extended family trip. On the day after arriving we were attending a large wedding reception. Unfortunately one of the suitcases didn’t arrive in time for the party. Happily Grandma was able to put together an elegant outfit from clothes and shoes others brought and she looked radiantly happy. I’m not sure I would’ve been so relaxed but learned from her adaptability. Things happen. She knew it would work out and it did, her suitcase showed up well before we left for the next leg of our journey.
After preparing well, we need to find ways to let go. There’s a point of surrender and letting the journey carry you forward can make all the difference.
Travel can lead to glorious experiences. The world is basically a kind and welcoming place if we let it be. Preparing for that, respecting each step leading away from home and back again, is the best preparation for a great trip; helping you to return with confidence, a sense of accomplishment and great stories to share. Packing with integrity is an important place to start.