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Now more than ever, traveling light really pays off

With many carriers now charging passengers who check their first bag, travelers are rethinking the way they pack. With many carriers now charging passengers who check their first bag, travelers are rethinking the way they pack. (joe raedle/getty images/file)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michelle Higgins
New York Times News Service / June 18, 2008

First came the liquids and gels crackdown, sending road warriors to their corner drugstores in search of that ever-elusive 3-ounce bottle of contact lens solution. Then came tighter weight restrictions for checked baggage, causing logjams at airport check-in desks as vacationers promptly unzipped their suitcases, transferring shoes and other heavy items into carry-ons in an effort to lighten their checked luggage.

Now, just as travelers were getting used to the idea of $25 fees for a second checked bag, American Airlines has started charging $15 each way, or $30 round trip to check even the first one.

And United and US Airways last week said they would start charging for a first checked bag too.

These moves are forcing many travelers to rethink the way they pack. Can I squeeze that extra pair of heels into my carry-on? If I wear my business suit onboard, can I fit my snorkel into my wheelie bag? What's more important: my hair dryer or workout clothes?

True road warriors never check a bag if they can help it, bragging about their ability to go more than a week with just three pairs of underwear and four pairs of socks. Infrequent travelers tend to over pack, stuffing suitcases full of a different outfit for every day of the week, plus a few extras - just in case. But it's possible to pack practically everything needed for a week's vacation into that one carry-on and personal item that airlines still allow onboard free.

Take it from Leah Rozen, an intrepid traveler and the movie critic for People magazine. To cover the Cannes Film Festival in May, followed by a long weekend in London, Rozen crammed four pairs of pants, one black silk skirt, four shirts, a blazer, a silk scarf, a brown belt, a cashmere sweater, sneakers, sandals, socks, and underwear, with chargers, plugs, and converters for her phone, laptop, and BlackBerry, into one standard-size carry-on.

In a shoulder bag, she had a laptop, magazines, a plastic baggie with cosmetics, and an umbrella. To help maximize packing space, she wore a layered outfit onboard consisting of jeans, a dress shirt, a beige linen blazer, a black belt, slip-on heels, and a raincoat.

"I am the queen of packing light," Rozen said in an e-mail message. But there is a tradeoff, she admitted: "Know that by packing light, you will always be dressed well enough, though you'll rarely be the best-dressed person in the room."

To get the most out of her travel wardrobe, she sticks with a basic color palette - black, white, and navy - that can be easily mixed and matched. She packs the night before, and then edits the next morning, removing one or two of the heavier, bulkier items that she said "you now realize that you don't really need." And she isn't above laundering reusable items in her hotel room sink and hanging them to dry from her balcony or window.

Phil Keoghan, host of CBS's popular reality show "The Amazing Race," lugs just one big suitcase and one backpack around the world for the entire monthlong shoot of the series. He has a secret for packing success. "I never pack for more than a week," said Keoghan. "No matter where I'm going, what I pack is different combinations."

To keep things simple between shoots, Keoghan carries photos of every outfit or, as he calls them, "idiot shots," to show him exactly what to wear for each episode. To keep his clothes organized, he uses Eagle Creek packing folders, which cost between $22 and $28, depending on size.

Such packing products have been gaining popularity among travelers trying to maximize their luggage. "Compartmentalization allows you to think about organization and get more things into more spaces," said Peter Cobb, senior vice president of eBags.com. Some carry-on bags are now designed with packing systems built in. Mother Lode, an eBags brand of duffels, offers detachable shelves that let travelers configure the bag in a variety of ways to allow, say, their catcher's gear to fit in one section of the bag and their dinner jacket in another.

Another suitcase designed to perform double duty is the ZUCA Pro. This odd-looking wheelie bag, with an aluminum frame that sits outside the bag instead of inside, has a built-in seat and removable packing pouches that stack like drawers. It zips open from what would be the long, narrow side of most suitcases rather than from the wider, traditional front, which makes the interior seem small at first, but it's possible to fit three pairs of pants, a couple of dress shirts, and workout gear, all with room to spare. Cost: $295.

For travelers who aren't used to hauling their wheelie bags over their heads and into the overhead bin, it's imperative to find a lightweight bag and never to fill it with more than you can easily lift. Nearly every luggage maker offers its own version, usually under 10 pounds, but weights can vary widely. Among the best-selling carry-on bags on eBags.com on a recent spot check: Heys Xcase 20-inch Lightweight (5 pounds, 4 ounces), eBags Mother Lode Mini 21-inch Wheeled Duffel (7 pounds, 13 ounces), and the Travelpro Crew6 22-inch Expandable Rollaboard Suiter (9 pounds, 8 ounces).

Families, especially those traveling with small children who tend to travel with a lot of gear, have a tougher challenge packing light. Renting items like car seats and making a grocery run, once you've arrived, for diapers and other bulky items instead of lugging them with you can help.

If you haven't gotten used to the 3-1-1 security rules by now, there is a growing array of prepackaged toiletry kits designed specifically to security specifications. Among the latest: Mysmartpac.com sells $10 his-and-hers toiletry kits of disposable tubes with up to six uses worth of face cleanser, hair gel, toothpaste, deodorant, and other items. (Information: travel.nytimes.com/2007/04/01/travel/01praccarryon.html).

To help squish more stuff into a bag, consider compression bags offered at eBags.com or TravelSmith.com. Designed to squeeze the air out of bulky items like down jackets to create more space, the bags are especially useful on homeward trips when you aren't concerned about wrinkled clothes and want more space for souvenirs.

If you really want to pare down your packing, TravelSmith.com sells $6 five-packs of disposable bikini briefs for women and $7 five-packs of briefs for men that are "lightweight and ultra-compact for easy packing."

Still, some expert packers are taking another approach to the luggage rules: checking more bags. Even though Susan Foster, author of "Smart Packing for Today's Traveler," has the know-how to squeeze her stuff into a carry-on easily, she plans to pay the $15 to check her bag the next time she flies American. "Picture the security lines for all the people who say, 'Well, harrumph, I'm not going to pay $15.' Every person, every little old lady with a carry-on bag that they can't lift," she said.

To avoid the stress of competing for an overhead bin, she added, "I think that's a bargain."

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