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Some things about traveling really suck. Like packing. (Unpacking, however, is kind of fun.) Which is why I tend to leave it until the last possible minute, not always the best strategy. I always start off a trip with a nagging feeling in my head – what did I forget? So I’ve developed a few crutches to help myself through this menacing task.

The Right Tool for the Job

Packing involves making a lot of decisions – which is probably why I dread the whole process. The first decision is what you’re going to be packing in.  On a true adventure, going place to place with no home-base for weeks at a time, I want a pack which can sit comfortably on back. Obviously, the lighter it is, the happier I’ll be. And I’ve learned that I can carry everything I need in a daypack.

On the other hand if I’m going to be staying with friends, why not have wheels and be more comfortable in the airport. Choosing the right tool for the job, and investing in quality gear, luggage etc. is the first step in successful packing. Next is figuring out what goes inside.

The all-inclusive packing list

The all-inclusive packing list

The List

Was I this list-dependent before reaching middle-age? Can’t remember. But my packing skills have definitely evolved over time an I’ve learned a few things from experience.

Make a list. And start making it ahead a few days in advance. You’ll think of things over time. Be thorough. Nothing is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be put on the list. Trust me, more experienced travelers than you have forgotten their underwear. Write it down. The list can be in whatever format works best for you. I had an excel sheet with every possible travel item listed. Then I could just check off the ones that were appropriate for that particular trip. This worked great as long as I had a printer. These days I just have a list hand-written on a piece of cardboard. I re-use the same list over and over. Another possible format is a photo, as in the example below.

The main thing about getting the list right is to think in categories. If getting there is a long haul (i.e. five hours on the plane, four hours in the airport, eight hours on another plane), then the plane is one of your destinations and you should pack with it in mind (blanket, eye-shade, earplugs, etc.). These are some of the categories that typically show up on my list:

  • Documents
  • Toiletries
  • Clothes (two categories- warm and cool)
  • Recreation (swimming, diving, camping, etc.)
  • Entertainment (books)
  • Sleep (PJs, earplugs, sleeping bag)
  • Travel Stuff (pocket knife, laundry kit, guidebook)
  • Health (medications, extra glasses, First Aid kit)
  • Food (spork, re-useable water bottle, tea bags)

Once you’ve got the list down. Packing becomes a simple matter. It can also be helpful to keep previously assembled kits (laundry: soap, clothesline, sink plug) in a bags or pouches that are ready to go at a moments notice.

cmor15's packing

Organized packing means not too much! And the right gear. Checkout cmor15’s photo in Flickr for a complete pack list.

Other Packing Considerations…

For traditional traveling, the stuff that really is traveling, the content of your pack will stay more or less the same throughout your trip (other than accumulating dirt and BO). But some trips have special circumstances.

If I’m going somewhere where I know I want to purchase a bulky souvenir, I may pack clothes that are on their last leg. Then when I can buy that fabulous weaving the day before I leave, deposit some well worn and ready to retire pants in the trash bin and have room to spare in my pack.

You may make regular visits to friends or family and have the luxury of leaving stuff “there”. The problem is remembering what you left when you make the next trip a year later – ripe opportunity for taking way more than you need. Help yourself out. Make a list of the items being left (or take a digital photo) and put it somewhere you can find it.  I make regular visits to family in Hawaii and keep an “Already in Hawaii” list the drafts folder of my email, also home to “Get in Hawaii” list.

Finally, there are the really weird packing habits of expats . Seasoned travelers, we’re usually pretty good at packing light for an adventure. But going “home” is another story which typically involves a small empty suitcase packed into a large empty suitcase on the way there, and two overstuffed-with-our-favorite-groceries suitcases on the way back.

eyesogreen's photo of successful packing

Relaxing after a job well done! Photo by eyesogreen.

A final word – After packing, I always hang out all the clothes I’m going to wear to the airport/bus/train station (money belt included) before going to bed. The fewer decisions I have to make before an early departure, the better.

Aloha! Welcome to Paradise! The Hawaiian archipelago is the most isolated in the world and contains over 100 islands.  Of course, not all of those are populated or accessible.  But the eight main islands each have their own “personality” and are all worthy of a visit. But how does Hawaii inter-island travel work?

Sadly, the answer to that question includes a few stories of things not working out quite the way they were intended.   But don’t get discouraged.  There are good options for Hawaii inter-island travel.

Super Ferry, Super Debacle

At the turn of the millennium, some one decided that it would be a good idea to put in a ferry system.  Seems reasonable.  Big bucks were spent, terminals built, boats constructed.  But something (or some things) went terribly wrong.  The ships couldn’t cut the mustard, or maybe they would have done fine in mustard, but they couldn’t manage some of the conditions in the Pacific.  And some how the project was well underway, one route had been operating for over a year, before doing an environmental impact study.  Operation was suspended in 2009 due to the requirement for an environmental impact statement, and under this duress the whole “Superferry” project imploded.

So much for that.

Chdwckvnstrsslhm's photo of Waimanalo Bay.

So many islands, so few options! Photo by chdwckvnstrsslhm.

Fare Wars Gone Bad

I was house sitting on the Big Island when I heard the ad.  Inter-island flights for as little as $50. That’s an unheard of price and it made me feel both excited and uncomfortable.  Would $50 really cover the cost of flying me from point A to point B? I was tempted. But I also want to be a responsible consumer.  It takes a lot of people, pilots and air traffic controllers, mechanics and security guards, ticket agents and luggage handlers, to make flying possible.  I want all of those people to receive a good salary that keeps them stable (experienced) and motivated in their jobs.  Then there are the non-labor costs- things like insurance and the big one -fuel.  Hawaii inter-island travel can be ridiculously expensive.  Prices to “hop” to one of the neighbor islands can literally be as high as the price of crossing the Pacific to the US mainland 2,500 miles away.  It all comes down to the fact that jets are just not a practical choice for traveling such short distances.

For decades, travelers would arrive in Honolulu from all over the world and one of two local airlines, Hawaiian and Aloha, would shuttle them over to one of the other islands.  Then in 2006, a new carrier, go! decided it wanted a piece of the action.  Go! was the airline offering the inter-island flights for $50.  A while later they offered flights for one dollar.  This time I wasn’t tempted.  Something about that was just wrong.

Go!’s fare war (and rising fuel prices) had the desired effect.  In 2008, Aloha Airlines, which had been operating in Hawaii since 1946, closed down.  And as of April 1, 2014, go! has also left Hawaii.  Apparently offering flights for $1 wasn’t a sustainable business model.  Go figure.

Aero Icarus' photo of the traditional Hawaii inter-island travel option.

Big name in Hawaii inter-island travel. Photo by Aero Icarus.

Current Options for Hawaii Inter-island Travel

With Aloha gone and go! now leaving, Hawaiian Airlines is the last man standing as far as the major carriers go.  However, there are a few small companies, Mokulele Airlines and Island Air, which are picking up the slack.  They use smaller, turboprop planes and are therefore able to offer much better fares.

It is also possible to travel by ferry between Maui and Lanai, and between Maui and Molokai .

Or you could just enjoy the island you’re on.  It’s great undoubtably great too!

Beware the Expat’s Suitcase

Returning to Mexico after visiting family in Hawaii, I was not surprised to see the slip of paper indicating that TSA had inspected my luggage.  But it did make me wonder what they thought.  Among other odd items, my carry-on-sized suitcase held a piano stool.  Part of my strategy of moving to a new country one suitcase at a time.

It’s not just me.  A friend of mine recently returned from Florida with brass plumbing fixtures in her luggage.  Expats are like that.  We don’t waste precious space on mundane things like clothing.  Stateside visits are opportunities to stock up on those items from home that we miss.

Luggage! Photo by Katy Warner.

Luggage! Photo by Katy Warner.

Can’t You Get the Same Stuff Everywhere?

What with globalization and all, isn’t everything available everywhere? Yes and no. I live in a relatively small city (around 150,000 inhabitants) that is nestled in the mountains.  Roads are narrow, windy and frequently underground.  So there aren’t any triple-tractor-trailers bring in loads of goods.  Reaching the convenience of a Big Box store (Costco, Home Depot, etc.) means going to a larger city about an hour away.  I don’t have a car, so this doesn’t happen often.  It’s just as easy to pick things up when I’m visiting family in the US.

Language and culture can also be challenging.  Asking for something means knowing the word for it (or at least being able to describe it), and presumes that your new culture deals with the problem the same way your old one did.  I once brought fireplace bellows down for a friend.  She hadn’t seen any here in Mexico, and was considering having some made.  Imagining her explaining that she wanted a leather and wood apparatus to help her blow… well, it just seemed like a better idea to throw them in my suitcase.

Then there’s the cost/quality ratio.  Some big life items – housing, education, health care – are relatively more affordable here in Mexico.  But stuff, the kind of stuff George Carlin talks about – costs as much as it does in the US and is often of poorer quality.  I know what you’re thinking.  Don’t we all get the same cheap crap made by some poor exploited worker in China? Yes, but I’m convinced that the best of that cheap crap gets sent to first world countries and the worst of it to other places.  In my experience, the same product, of the same brand, will likely cost as much and be of poorer quality if I buy it in Mexico.  A sort of global, commercial discrimination on the part of the manufacturers.

What Makes the Cut?

So, aside from freak items like bellows, what makes the cut? Often enough, it’s something from the kitchen.  My most important US item is lemon juice.  I’m sure lemons could grow quite well in Mexico, but they are not part of the cuisine and I can rarely find them.  Limes are ubiquitous, small and sweet.  But when my recipe calls for lemon juice, I need sour, not sweet.  Frijoles, beans, are also abundant.  White beans, black beans, Peruvian beans.  But no red kidney beans.  A friend had her sister send some down from Gringolandia so she could make chilly.  After many attempts to make cornbread from masa (the corn-based dough which is used for tortillas), even going so far as taking fresh corn to a mill and asking them to grind it in a courser texture, another friend carried down cornmeal.   So there you go.  We bring corn and beans to Mexico.

Among non-edible items, nothing is more precious than books.  A good portion of my suitcase represents a successful trip to the used book store or literature I’ve managed to inherit.  Books in English might as well be bars of gold.

So that’s how I pack.  I’m planning a visit to see my father in February.  There’s a band saw collecting dust in his garage.  Maybe I’ll relieve him of it…