ELISE HU, HOST:
It's time for a vacation. You deserve it. Let's leave behind the drudgery and drain of daily life and do something different. But if we're going to travel, let's do it better. Let's travel like professional travelers.
JADA YUAN: There's infinite ways to sort of enjoy yourself along the road and not get so frazzled by delays.
HU: Good preparation gives you peace of mind, and packing hacks will let you take what you really need.
JOHANNA MASKA: Someone just accused me of having a Mary Poppins bag.
HU: And yet still carry around less baggage.
DOUG DYMENT: If you've thought about travel and you've actually worked out a way to do travel well, then you have a lot more free time. You're not wasting energy. You know what you have. You know that what you have is going to be enough.
HU: We found road warriors and mine their experience to give you their best tips for packing and planning for a trip. That advice is now on its way to you in this NPR LIFE KIT.
I'm Elise Hu. I logged hundreds of thousands of miles a year as an international correspondent for NPR. Going away was my job, too. So whether it's a short weekend getaway or a journey with an indefinite end, we're going to pack you up with knowledge you need to plan better and pack smarter so your trips go more smoothly. Learn how to pack and plan for travel like a pro after the break.
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HU: Hey, Jada. It's Elise over here in California.
HU: For this NPR LIFE KIT guide to travel, we're getting you prepared for a trip with tips from the pros. One pro became pro through a job posting that sounded like a dream - or a joke.
YUAN: So The New York Times puts out a list every year called "52 Places To Go." Fifty-two travel destinations that they just think are the hottest things you should go to, or a train just started going to this place so it's finally accessible, or maybe the government is going to build a dam and then it's going to get flooded in two years and so this is your last chance. And they were offering a job for one journalist to go to all 52 places in a year.
HU: A longtime magazine writer, Jada Yuan saw the ad and submitted an application, not knowing just how much competition there would be.
YUAN: You know, people were sending in songs. One of the people who dreamed up the project had said she was looking for a unicorn, and then people started sending her, like, unicorn balloons, which she had to send back because at The Times you can't accept a gift over $25.
You know, I didn't know until after I got the job how many people had applied, which was 13,000.
HU: Thirteen thousand people wanted to travel around the world and write about it, and Jada ended up with the gig. But she had less than a month to prep and plan for her year-long trip around the globe. And after all the adventures and misadventures, she offers us takeaway No. 1 - you never need as much stuff as you think. Eliminate extra baggage before you leave.
YUAN: You just don't need that much on the road.
HU: And even if you're not on the road for a while, you're just leaving for a short time...
YUAN: The same thing - you pack, and then you remove a third of the things that you packed. (Laughter) That's just - you pack, and then you just - you have to think about it. You're like, how many days am I going to be gone? Can I wash any of this stuff in a sink? And then you take a third of it away because schlepping things around is a great way to kill your buzz on a vacation.
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HU: To dig into lightening our loads, I went to engineer and experienced world traveler Doug Dyment. He's the road warrior behind the site onebag.com. His concept is, well, exactly what it sounds like - one bag is all you need. And that's one carry-on-sized bag if you're traveling by air. One time Doug flew to Moscow, then spent a week there on business and then flew straight to New Delhi for another week; opposite climates, and he still managed to fit everything in just one bag.
DYMENT: It's absolutely a skill that can be mastered by almost everyone.
HU: Is it a magic bag?
DYMENT: (Laughter) No, not at all. In fact, the bag is the least important.
HU: If you have already completed the first tip, which is to leave more stuff at home, then Doug's big takeaway is our tip No. 2 - reduce the weight with lightweight versions of what you need and with items that perform multiple purposes. For instance, Doug doesn't leave home without a scarf.
DYMENT: So I could literally go for five minutes giving you a list of all the different things you can do with a scarf. I will give you protection from sunburn and dust and sand and linen (ph), that which is what it was designed to do, but it's also a headband and a hat and a napkin and a towel and a handkerchief and a dust mask. And I could literally go on for five minutes.
HU: Ooh, this is fun. What's another one of these MVPs for your one bag, Doug?
DYMENT: Something like dental floss. Dental floss can be repair thread. It can help you to lock your luggage. The little cutter on the box - if you're a knitter, you can use that to cut things in the airplane without having to take scissors on the plane. You can slice cake and cheese and pastries and things with it; that you can use it as an emergency shoelace or - yeah, you can use it - if you've got a finger ring that's stuck on your finger that you can't get off, there's a little trick you can use with dental floss that'll very easily take the ring off your finger.
HU: Oof (ph). This is a lot of ways to use floss. And (laughter) it's still going.
DYMENT: If you've got a drippy faucet in your hotel room at night, you can tie a piece of dental floss around the end of the faucet and let the water dribble down the dental floss so it won't drip, drip, drip anymore. So there's just no end to these little clever ideas.
HU: Who knew dental floss was such an unsung hero of travelling light?
DYMENT: It's amazing what you can do with some things.
HU: Floss or scarves or otherwise, when it comes to packing your things, jet-setters (ph) agree on this - use packing cubes, which is tip No. 3 for packing like a pro.
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HU: Packing cubes are these lightweight, expandable zip-up pouches that don't cost a lot of money. They come in these rectangular shapes, and they let you stuff a bunch of clothing in them to save space.
DYMENT: You can get packing cubes made out of really high-tech, super thin material that are very strong and weigh almost nothing at all. So that's the sort of organizational side of things.
HU: Packing pros have different preferred methods of getting their clothes in their cubes - so the folding method or the rolling method or bundling. But they agree on the cubes. Jada, the "52 Places" traveler, endorses cubes for that organizational sense.
YUAN: I like having a lot of bags inside my bags.
HU: But also because they solve luggage weight problems in a cinch.
YUAN: A lot of times, you're going on budget airlines, and they'll weigh both a checked bag and your carry-on bag, and you have to sort of even out that ratio. So you might have a couple kilograms to spare in your checked bag, but your carry-on bag is over, and then you're going to have to pay for it - to check that as well. But if you take a packing cube out of the carry-on and just stick it in your checked bag, then you sort of even out the weight.
So I had one cube for clothes. I had one cube for, like, seasonal things, like hats and swimsuits and then a bunch of other smaller ones for, like, toiletries that are liquid and toiletries that are not liquid (laughter).
HU: Those liquids bring us to takeaway No. 4 - lighten your load of liquid toiletries.
DYMENT: Water is just about the worst thing to be carrying. It's heavy. It's bulky. The security people don't like it. It can leak. There's just a huge amount of weight and bulk in there that doesn't need to be there because almost everything in a toiletries-slash-cosmetics bag, you - there are solid versions of it that don't weigh as much and don't have any of those other problems.
HU: So powders, not pastes, in order to lighten those liquids, or dry shampoo instead of the real stuff. But that's not the only way to lose liquids. You could just leave them at home, as Jada suggests.
YUAN: I would have actually set out with almost none of my toiletries. I would have just left them all at home and then slowly built up a toiletry kit when I was on the road because it turns out that, like - that most of the time, you don't miss the things you're carrying around.
HU: Most of the time, pick up the things you need while on the road, except for the five items you can't necessarily find everywhere.
YUAN: Among the things that are hard to find, always - sunscreen, bug spray, some kind of bug bite relief, the tampons you like and then hair conditioner.
HU: OK, so we're packed with the lightest-weight one bags we can imagine, stuffed them with packing cubes and only the most essential travel-sized versions of liquids. And we've got our dental floss, since, you know, it's so multiuse. But where are we going? What are we doing when we get there? How do we make the most of that? Let's advance our trip, as they say in diplomatic or political parlance, with an advance person for former President Barack Obama.
MASKA: I traveled with him to 42 countries and...
HU: Oh, my gosh.
MASKA: ...Almost every state, which was incredible.
HU: Johanna Maska was director of press advance for President Obama from 2007 until 2015. The thing that advance people do is get to locations in advance, scout them out and plan for what happens when big-name business people or politicians get there later. She plans for every possible contingency, including delicious ones.
MASKA: Like Buffalo, N.Y., for example.
MASKA: President Obama went to eat buffalo wings in Buffalo.
HU: (Laughter) OK.
MASKA: But before that ever happened, there were three of us, all women, who went to taste the buffalo wings at all the different three locations. But we weren't just trying to taste the best buffalo wings; we were figuring out which parking lot had enough room, which had a back entrance for the press to come through. And they had no idea. Like, the restaurants are none the wiser...
HU: (Laughter) Sure, sure.
MASKA: ...That we are testing them to figure out where he's going to, you know, eat the buffalo wings.
HU: When it comes to planning ahead, we normals, we regular people don't have staff taste testing our meals in advance, but Johanna says you can apply some advance principles to your own trip. Her tip is No. 5...
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HU: ...Do a simple scope out of your destination with reliable sources - not sponsored content, not those paid-for-by-the-convention-and-visitors-bureau pages in the in-flight magazine.
MASKA: Whether you've been there or not, someone has. The importance of looking at your sources of reliable information on a place - there's a lot of people who are paid to write about different places that you should go. That's probably not the most reliable source of information.
HU: I mean, look at what happened with Fyre Festival (laughter).
MASKA: Yeah, right? Like, all these people sign up to - oh, yeah, let's go do this.
HU: So let's don't do that. Steer clear of sponcon (ph), since it can go wrong. And just because an Instagram tag or Instagram ad make places look pretty, do your homework. Independent reporting - content that isn't bought and paid for by the destination - is going to give you a more unvarnished look.
MASKA: I also think you should ask people if they've gone. I mean, that's the beauty in social media.
HU: Once you've figured out enough about where you're going, another advance trick from Johanna is this - align your activities with the weather forecast. That's tip No. 6 - match your activity plans to the forecast.
MASKA: I always write it down on paper. So I'll map out where I'm going to be on which day, and then, 10 days in advance, when the weather is available, I start putting down the weather forecast. The weather forecast is the No. 1 thing that I'm looking at and then figuring out what I'm going to do on those days based on the weather forecast.
So when we recently planned a little getaway for our family to Hawaii, I, you know, methodically planned out (laughter) what day is it going to be good weather? So that's the day we should take the boat trip to, you know, the other little island. And making sure that you're maximizing your family's time together. And so I do it by figuring out the calendar.
HU: And aligning it with the weather or checking a destination's average monthly weather patterns in advance because weather can really, well, dampen things. Here's Jada Yuan.
YUAN: I was on a walking tour in La Paz, Bolivia, and getting dumped on, and I didn't have any of my rain gear. And there were several people on that tour who were all - they seemed to be much more seasoned travelers than I was, and they just all immediately whipped out their rain jackets. And I was like, oh. Oh, OK (laughter), so the thing that you always need to have on you is, like, a rain jacket, an umbrella and a rain cover for your backpack.
HU: Takeaway six is plan for the weather. But if you didn't see the forecast, at least be prepared.
YUAN: Rain will always get you.
HU: Soggy or dry, world leaders typically have three stops in one travel day, or at least that's true for our advance person Johanna's former boss, President Obama. But for family travel or travel for pleasure, she says one main thing a day is enough.
MASKA: The last thing I want is for me not to be able to relax in a situation that's just so much fun because I'm overbooked.
HU: Yeah, or you're sitting in traffic trying to get to the next...
MASKA: Yeah, I've overbooked everything, and now I'm stressed out. That sucks.
HU: Which gets us to takeaway No. 7, the one main thing rule - when traveling for leisure, keep it to one major activity per day, then build complementary activities around it or just leave room for discovery. The unexpected, the surprises are part of the beauty of exploration.
MASKA: We did this vacation in March, and we did a hike with a waterfall. We had the most delightful day. And it was - there's no pressure because there's nothing else that you needed to do. It was just, like, enjoy that day, and then find some food on the way home at, you know, like, a cheap roadside stand - which we did - and it was delightful.
HU: How did you learn this whole one-major-thing-a-day rule? Because the president usually packs, like, 14 different things in his days.
MASKA: He didn't have a 7-year-old with him.
HU: All right, time for the takeaways. Let's recap. Takeaway No. 1 - you never need as much stuff as you think.
YUAN: You can live with less and less stuff.
HU: No. 2 - reduce the weight and try and swap out heavier versions of things for lighter ones. Takeaway No. 3 - and all the pros are using them...
DYMENT: Packing cubes are the way to go.
HU: Takeaway No. 4 - liquids will weigh you down. No. 5 - scope out your destination with reliable sources. No. 6 - match your activities to the forecast. Don't learn the hard way.
YUAN: Rain will always get you.
HU: So be prepared. And our final takeaway - don't over-engineer your days. Remember the one-main-thing-a-day rule.
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HU: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out other episodes in this guide. There's one on navigating group travel without ruining your relationships and another on what all this travel is for - how to travel meaningfully. If you like what you hear, make sure you check out other LIFE KIT guides at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything. We've got more guides coming every month on all sorts of topics.
And these podcasts, they can go wherever your phone goes. So leave your liquids at home, take us with you, and you can pack us in that one bag. And don't forget that dental floss.
DYMENT: You can cut an umbilical cord with dental floss, too, you know. So...
HU: Oh, my goodness.
DYMENT: So just in case you're ever in that situation, yeah. (laughter).
HU: If I am in a situation where I have to emergency deliver a baby...
DYMENT: There you go.
HU: And here, as always, a completely random tip, this time from LIFE KIT's own Doctor Mara Gordon.
MARA GORDON, BYLINE: If you rinse out the mug with hot water before you pour in your hot coffee, it heats up the mug so that the coffee doesn't get cold when you pour it into the mug, and it stays hotter way longer. I love it.
HU: So do I. If you've got a good tip or want to suggest a topic, email us at email@example.com. LIFE KIT is produced by Sylvie Douglis, Alissa Escarce, Chloee Weiner and Katie Monteleone. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Carol Ritchie, and our project coordinator is Clare Schneider. Special thanks to Jada Yuan, Doug Dyment and Johanna Maska. Music by Nick DePrey and Brian Gerhart (ph). Neal Carruth is our general manager of podcasts, and the senior vice president of programming for NPR is Anya Grundmann. I'm Elise Hu. Thanks for listening.
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