Katherine Gibson and partner, Bob Unwin, travel light on trips abroad.
Weeks before catching the 747, I meticulously organized a wardrobe for a month-long journey to Europe – my first trip overseas. Two large suitcases held what I thought was essential – stuff I now call travel clutter. It took the sharp eye and quick fingers of Barcelona thieves to teach me just how unnecessary most of it was. Regrets? Just one. I wish they’d done it sooner.
Although a few years have passed since that inauspicious event, the details are as vivid as a summer sky in Spain. The morning began with anticipation as I heaved my two burgeoning suitcases, and a mound of souvenirs, into a rented Fiat to motor over the Pyrenees Mountains, separating France and Spain. I’d spent two weeks immersed in the splendor of French vineyards, ethereal chateaux and provincial cuisine. But the promise of El Greco, gypsy caves, and castanets spurred me across the border to Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city.
First order of business: a place to stay. A small hotel, crammed among merchant shops near the harbor, caught my eye. I carefully parked my car close to the front entrance, ducked inside, and negotiated a three-day stay. As a final assurance, I scrambled up the two flights of stairs to inspect the room of this waterfront hostelry. In those few extra minutes, this trip, and my future travel experiences, changed forever.
I never suspected that while I peered under beds and into closets, my little car, locked and clearly visible, was having an adventure with Barcelona’s darker side. In the time it takes to pop the cork of a lively Cordorníu, thieves pried open the trunk and helped themselves to my luggage-all of it.
A gathering of regulars at a café across from the hotel watched the drama. “What could we do?” they said with unconvincing looks of helplessness. “Look at us. We’re old men.” True, these geezers were long past their flamenco-dancing prime, but surely they might have alerted someone?
Now, what was I to do? Gone were my suitcases with the essentials of any well-intentioned traveler. I could just see my skirts and tops (with matching shoes and purses), short and long pants, coordinating sweaters and jackets, and a weighty selection of belts, jewelry, shoes and scarves for sale in a dusty, Barcelona flea market.
And along with my traveler’s checks and airline ticket, they also scoffed my French keepsakes, and an excellent bottle of Burgundy. I visualized those nasty folks toasting their productive day with my vintage wine.
The situation called for a really good cry. Or did it? When the shock subsided, I felt surprisingly elated, calm, released. Other than my toothbrush, I didn’t miss a thing. My burden had disappeared. It had been a drag lugging my stuff up and down hotel stairs and in and out of the car, not to mention schlepping around train stations and crowded airports. Those thieves were my saviors. My heroes. I’d kiss them if I could.
The next day I prowled through Barcelona’s shopping district. With “Essential” as my mantra, I purchased just one skirt and blouse, a sundress, some underwear, a towel, a handful of toiletries and a swimsuit. My petite ensemble fit easily into one small bag. Instead of buying souvenirs, I took pictures. I was learning.
For the next two weeks, I explored Valencia and Madrid, all with one very small, very light bag. Losing my luggage — my travel clutter –changed everything. Gone was the fear of having my stuff stolen. Gone was the daily chore of heave-hoeing my middle-class identity around Europe. And choosing what to wear was as easy as putting on what I took off the night before.
Now when I take a trip, all I take is my little bag. There’s something smugly satisfying about strolling off that too-long flight, breezing through customs and out the door, while the uninformed traveler hangs around the luggage carousel, waiting and hoping.
Books abound with light-packing tips but my number one rule is BE RUTHLESS. I’ve yet to meet anyone who moaned about not taking enough.
Pick a bag that qualifies for carry-on luggage status and is easy to identify by color. I swear by my pumpkin-colored, ultra-light roller bag made by Skyway. It is also 60% lighter than most conventional bags.
Each clothing item should do double or triple duty. It should also be lightweight, easy to launder, and coordinate with absolutely everything. For example, women may pack a lightweight, multi-colored shawl to do double duty as an evening wrap or bathing suit cover up. Shawls make it easy to “glam-up”. A two-month trip should require no more clothing than a two-week trip!
Choose grime-hiding, dark-colored clothing made from fabrics that wick away perspiration, keep the body warm, don’t crease, and dry overnight.
Consider one pair of walking shoes and one lighter-weight pair of dark shoes.
Current security regulations will prohibit sharp, metal-edged carry-on items that could be potential weapons. That said, in my recent travels in North America and Europe, I’ve had no trouble taking with me nail clippers that contain a small fold-in file. Once at my destination, I buy scissors and tweezers if required.
Other than a plain wedding ring, valuables stay home. I take a “knock-off” watch and bits of faux jewelry.
Pack for the purpose. If it’s business, forget the Birkenstocks. If it’s pleasure, forget the pinstripes.
Pick pockets. Clothes with Velcro or button closing pockets, especially deep ones, hold maps, gloves, tips, a money belt to protect against light-fingered encounters. A fisher’s or photographer’s vest also have excellent pockets for traveling.
To unclutter the outside of your suitcase, remove previous flight tags so as not to confuse baggage handlers.
A plastic checkbook folder is ideal for carrying stamps, boarding passes and other easy-to-lose pieces of paper. Use the register to record names and phone numbers, reminders, emergency information and accommodation contacts upon arrival. Leave the address book at home by bringing pre-addressed sticky labels for mailing postcards.
Pack a few zip lock bags of various sizes, a small towel and toilet paper. Store baggies and other compressible items inside the toilet roll. And while you are on a mission to unclutter your suitcase, consider uncluttering your travel plans. Take time to wander and explore. Unexpected, serendipitous moments often make the trip!
Katherine Gibson is the author of the best seller, Unclutter Your Life: Transforming Your Physical, Mental and Emotional Space (Atria Books, 2004). She is much in demand as a speaker and seminar leader. For more information visit: www.clutterbook.com. Unclutter Your Life is available through most bookstores and online. It has been translated into Japanese, German, French, Turkish, Indonesian, Hindi and Korean. For an autographed copy, contact the author at email@example.com.
Katherine is also the author of another book which clearly indicates that she has not abandoned her mission to improve the quality of all aspects of life. Its title is Pause: Putting the Brakes on a Runaway Life published by Insomniac Press. Available at most bookstores and online.