If you love something, set it free — by packing it into your checked bag.
Meaning: You might not ever see it again.
Flying with checked luggage is a gamble this summer, especially if you’re traveling internationally. Airport staffing shortages during a summer of pent-up travel demand have not only delayed and canceled flights but are conspiring to foil the intended journeys of suitcases containing all of our favorite things.
“I would tell travelers who are flying to or connecting through major airports like London Heathrow, Amsterdam and Paris that you might as well flip a coin as to whether your bag is going to make it to where you’re going,” said Kyle Potter, editor of Minneapolis-based Thrifty Traveler.
Social media is rife with horror stories about bags that have permanently vanished, been sent to faraway locales, or were reunited with their owners weeks after they returned from their vacations. In May, nearly six out of every 1,000 checked bags were “mishandled” — either lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered — according to the most recent federal data available.
While that doesn’t sound terrible, it “doesn’t capture the true start of the summer travel season,” Potter said, “and it also doesn’t capture just how bad things have been in Europe.”
Earlier this month Delta sent a plane from London to Detroit with zero passengers — but about 1,000 pieces of lost luggage, which were then shipped to where they needed to go.
The advice that travel experts keep dispensing this summer is to pack only what you need in a carry-on. If you can pull this off, you are a deity in my book. Other than the period in my 20s when I was backpacking through Asia and washing my socks in hostel sinks, I tend to prepare for every possibility when I fill my suitcase. It’s even worse now that I have kids because I fear moral judgment if I’ve failed to plan for the improbable.
I asked Potter and other carry-on crusaders for their tips on minimalist packing. Here’s what they said:
Wear the bulkiest items on the plane
Space-saving sandals go in the bag, clunky gym shoes on your feet. Also wear thicker clothing like jackets, sweaters, hoodies or jeans on the flight. While packing, opt for fast-drying clothing from outdoor stores like REI that can be squished into your carry-on.
Roll your clothes
My friend swears by rolling her clothes, army-style, like little Twinkies. You can also buy TSA-friendly compression packing cubes that can help you squeeze more clothing into your bag, or at least help you stay organized.
Ruthlessly assess your outfits
Another friend says she interrogates each piece of clothing. Can it be worn multiple times, multiple ways? Items that can’t be “team players” stay at home.
Potter, who admits he’s a “pretty plain dresser” by nature, chooses versatile clothing — basic T-shirts and quasi-athletic wear that work well on a hike just as much as at the pub. “People have this impulse to bring as much as they can,” he said. He encouraged me to think back to the last time I checked my bag “and do a mental inventory of everything you packed that you never wore.” Eek.
No better gift than cash
I have childhood memories of my mom packing her suitcase with containers of Pond’s cold cream to give as gifts for relatives on overseas trips. Sorry, Auntie — this time you’re getting cash.
When Gatachew Teklu, owner of Admas Travel, flies back to Ethiopia to see family, “I just give them money instead of buying them all this stuff from T.J. Maxx and Marshalls,” he said.
Make the most of your personal item
Don’t waste the space under the seat in front of you on a tiny purse. A midsize bag or backpack with multiple compartments can store electronics and headphones, a fresh set of clothes, and airport essentials. Just measure the dimensions and check the airline’s restrictions to make sure you can stow it under the seat.
You can always do laundry
No matter how long your trip is, pack only a week’s worth of clothes. When selecting your accommodations, consider an Airbnb that has an on-site washer and dryer or a hotel that offers a wash-and-fold service, Potter advises.
Traveling with kids
When Allie Hawley March of Oakdale travels, each child gets her own backpack. E-books are a must. If your kid is old enough to use a booster seat for the car, consider inflatables like the BubbleBum to save on space. On her last family trip, Hawley March said, “The booster seat literally fit in my carry-on, along with all my clothes, and was in my bag under the seat in front of me. No overhead bin or checked bag. It was amazing.”
How’s that for winning the bonus round?
“I don’t want to try to wrangle kids AND a rolling suitcase,” said Hawley March, who hasn’t checked a bag in 20 years. “I want both hands free so I can hold onto small people — hence a backpack. And then if the kids all have backpacks, they can be responsible for their own gear.”
If you must check a bag …
Make sure to store essentials in your carry-on: medications, toiletries (travel size, bien sûr!), clothing and shoes, valuables, contact lenses and any attire you plan to wear to special occasions such as weddings.
Apple AirTags or similar wireless tracking devices “are pretty close to an absolute must right now,” said Potter. It won’t prevent your bag from getting lost, but it may help you get it back faster since you’ll be able to pinpoint its location. I found them on Amazon selling for $27.50 apiece, or $89 for a set of four.
Buy your plane ticket with a credit card that includes baggage protection, which can reimburse you for the costs of a change of clothes and toiletries during your trip if your luggage has been significantly delayed or lost. While airlines may be on the hook for some of these costs, sorting it out can take time, Potter said. Make sure to get documentation from the airline about your lost luggage, and save the receipts from your purchases.
Another option is purchasing standalone travel insurance. But be sure to read the fine print and make sure your policy includes baggage coverage.
Converted yet? Potter said most travelers have their routines and don’t want to be told there could be a different way. But he has faith that in this unpredictable and potentially stressful travel season, some of us might open our minds — and our carry-ons — to the beauty of packing light.
“The only thing worse than going somewhere for two weeks and not having all the clothes you want,” he said, “is going some somewhere for two weeks and not having any clothes, period.”
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