I take anywhere between 40 and 70 flights a year. 90% of these are for work as I give talks around the world. Unlike George Clooney in Up in the Air, I’m a woman so packing is a completely different affair.
It’s a niche expertise but I wanted to document how I travel safely and efficiently in case it’s of use to younger women starting to travel a bit more for work (#yougogirl).
Landing times & flight experience
I make a point of avoiding landing in the evening. I’m tired, its dark and I feel less in control. So I get 3am minicabs to airports to get to my destination during the daytime. Being there early means I can leave my luggage at the hotel and walk around to keep my legs moving, visit a sculpture park or modern art museum and stay up as long as possible to adjust to the local timezone.
I take a pair of super warm camping grade wool socks in my backpack and always wear the largest warmest alpaca scarf I own so I can get physically comfortable quickly on a super long-haul flight. When I get to my seat, the first thing I do is take off my shoes and socks and pop on the larger socks.
I say no to pointless meals that are given to me at an unreasonable pace and I don’t drink alcohol on the flight. Since that woman got sucked up out of the window seat, I now take an aisle seat so I can get up whenever I like. Call it superstition.
For a flight that’s longer than two hours, I’ll take the B&O noise cancelling headphones I’ve charged the day before my flight. I never thought they would, but they make a real difference even if they’re the bulkiest thing in my bag. I can just about sleep on the flight because of the noise reduction.
I somehow don’t really think much of suitcases. A lot of men do and in the past few years it’s all about rolled up messenger bags. Except I’m 38 not 28. I value my back and shoulders in ways I didn’t before. As long as it’s a light hard shell carry-on with wheels which means I can kick it up stairs and doesn’t weigh more than 5 kilos, it’ll do. My suitcase tends to weigh between 7–9 kilos when I check it in which is often (especially if someone else is paying for the flight). I’ll do almost anything not to fight with my fellow passengers about where to fit in my suitcase. I’d rather chill out at the baggage carousel quietly checking emails. My suitcase should be colourful so it’s harder for someone to steal and easier to spot while I’m waiting for it to come out. A great friend lent me her fluorescent green one for a while and I loved it. My current one is gold pink like some kind of ridiculous 22 year old but when you’ve just arrived in New Zealand after a 22h flight, the cognitive load of looking for my colourful suitcase is significantly lowered. It’s the little things.
How much to pack
If you’re leaving for more than 3 days, just pack for 3 days. Chances are there’s a laundromat near you, a washing machine in the Airbnb you’re staying in or a laundry service in your hotel. It’s not worth the harm to your body to try to carry a huge suitcase up 3 flights of stairs in the New York subway or the Paris metro. And you get to explore the cities you’re staying in, in a new way. I’ve used laundromats in Athens, Queens, Berlin, San Francisco and many other places. Laundromats are cheap, quick and friendly places that are still part of the commons.
Giving a talk? Plan on your formal outfit and commit to it. Don’t take 4 dresses for one formal event you’re attending. Just choose a dress before leaving and take jewellery options and perhaps a couple of scarf options. It’s not about Marie Kondo girl, it’s just about making more space for gifts.
Having a little suitcase can save you money too. I holidayed alone across rural Japan over the course of 3 weeks with my trusty Ally Cappellino cycle backpack and a carry-on wheelie suitcase. Every woman I encountered had that largest suitcase possible and really struggled between destinations. I would get to the station of my destination, drop the suitcase at the lockers for Y300 and be on my way to explore for the day. A larger suitcase would have cost me Y1000 a day.
You can rarely go wrong
I can pack 30 min before leaving for a flight no matter where I’m going or for how long. There’s two reasons for that: in my rush to pack I generally don’t tend to make bad decisions and the things I might forget are never the essentials. So it’s never that bad. As long as I have my contacts, glasses, money in a bank account somewhere, my passport, my phone and my house keys I can handle whatever life has to throw at me (ie. buy whatever I need somewhere else in the world). I once got delayed by almost 24h on my way to New Zealand so went shopping for underwear in Singapore. That’s the kind of story that makes travelling fun.
I have short hair which is not only nicer for the shape of my face but means I can shampoo at home with my non-SLS shampoo and then not shampoo for a couple of days without any noticeable difference. That means I don’t have to travel with as many liquids and just carry a little box with my favorite soap bar. Most shampoos and soaps in hotels are awful anyway, unless you’re in Japan. I got samples from my new favorite perfume place to smell nice and the rest is my makeup in a pouch. The liquids I do carry (toothpaste, argan oil, face cream, perfume sample, contacts) are in the airport-issued bag which I keep after my flight and reuse ad nauseum. Flying is already the most carbon intensive thing you can do as a human, let’s not add plastic to the equation.
A couple of years ago, Google sent me a free Asus Chromebook to thank me for taking a call with their sales people. I can’t believe how wonderful its been. The battery lasts forever, it’s light, covered in plastic and small. Perfect for my backpack. I carry an extra battery pack/USB cable and that’s it for short trips. Most hotels now have USB plugs and its unlikely my laptop will need to be recharged as I’m usually away for a couple of days max.
Hotels don’t get it
One thing you’ll notice as you travel more and more is how much the hotel experience caters to men. From the warmth of the bedding (always too thin/cold) to limited healthy options in room service, you can tell nobody who works in hospitality has understood women. All I want is for someone to realise that putting an ironing board isn’t an option and a yoga mat with wipes should easily replace the flat screen television noone is watching anymore. Hotel carpets are terrible for yoga (too slippery) and I really don’t want to use your gym. Also if spa treatments are available, why aren’t they available as room service? Foot massage after a long flight from my room? Take my money. Spa treatments that close at 6pm? Yawn. Hotels would make a killing selling great salads, detox/travel specific cosmetics brands and a wider range of things juiced. I’m not saying I’d buy all this, but it would be great to wake up and be faced with something more refreshing than than the equivalent of a fry-up at the breakfast buffet.
As more women move up in the world I hope airlines, airports and hotels learn to adapt to our lives and needs. I feel like the only thing I’ve been able to do is sacrifice or cut corners to adapt to systems that aren’t very safe or welcoming to women. This will change I’m sure and I hope some of my strategies are useful. They won’t work for everyone (I can see my best friend rolling her eyes at me already) but maybe it’ll inspire more women to travel for work and invest in making it easy and less stressful, even fun.