Why I Pack Like a Victorian Lady When I Travel

I’ve grown to love packing for travel. Which is odd, because I really don’t like the act of traveling itself, at least not on airplanes.

For normal folks like me, who most often travel in coach, airplanes are simply cramped, overcrowded, flying buses. My travel packing has evolved and adapted—I travel a lot, and I now pack with the aim of getting in and out of planes and airports as quickly and efficiently as possible. Never mind all the advertising—for the general flying public the romance of air travel has been well and truly crushed between the seats and mauled at the security checkpoints. The less time I spend in and around airplanes and airports, the better my trips turn out to be.

But even if I traveled most often by train or ship or some other more civilized conveyance, I’d pack the same way. Because the main purpose of packing is, of course, to have what you need with you when you arrive at your destination. And my interest in packing lies in my assessment, every time I pack, of what I really need to have with me wherever I’m going.

Let me tell you, the list has gotten considerably shorter over the years, and I seek to shorten it more every time I pack.

That’s because, somewhere along the way, I learned about the woman who would become my packing hero, Elizabeth Cochran Seaman.

She was better known by her pen name, Nellie Bly…a pioneer female journalist and investigative reporter. In 1889, she convinced her editor at the New York World to support her attempt to better Jules Vern’s fictional travel-around-the-world record from Around the World in Eighty Days.

She did it in 72 days, and her packing was impeccable. Aside from what she wore, everything else she carried—including what she needed to do her job and file her stories—fit in a leather satchel smaller than a modern airline carry-on bag.

“One never knows the capacity of an ordinary hand satchel until dire necessity completes the exercise of all one’s ingenuity to reduce everything to the smallest possible compass,” she wrote. “If one is traveling for the sake of traveling, and not for the purpose of impressing one’s fellow passengers, the problem of baggage becomes a very simple one.”

My hero.

I’ve always kept Elizabeth’s wise words in the back of my mind.

Over the years, we’ve met thousands of expats and folks who have retired abroad, and the things they have packed and shipped and toted around the world on their adventures runs the gamut—literally everything from the clothes on their backs to entire households of furniture, appliances, art, toys, vehicles, books, and so on.

There are good reasons and bad reasons for dragging a lot of stuff with you when you move abroad, and there are good ways and bad ways to do it.

But every chance I get, I try to urge people to think long and hard about what they will really and truly need when they get where they’re going. And I’ve come to the conclusion that, for me, what I really and truly need no matter where I am or what I’m doing really can’t be that much different from what Elizabeth Cochran Seaman needed to go around the world 128 years ago.

On my back and in my hand is whatever I need for planes, trains, ships, cars, taxis, vans, oxcarts, horseback, helicopter, or canoe. Whatever I need for city, town, village, or country. Whatever I need for houses, condos, apartments, hotels, condos, staterooms, tents, yurts, or lean-tos. Whatever I need for sun, rain, snow, sleet, drizzle, wind, dry, or wet. Whatever I need for mountains, valleys, beaches, deserts, plains, forests, or jungles.

Even if you are only going to one destination and staying for a long time, like most retirees, why would you really and truly need more? The space you actually live in and anything you acquire to fill it once you get there is just icing on the cake.

And the best side-benefit of such a packing routine is, right now for me, getting on and off planes and in and out of airports as quickly as possible.

I’ll share my packing list with you one day, but it’s still so much longer than Elizabeth Cochran Seaman’s that I am a bit embarrassed by it. Her one luxurious, non-essential item was a jar of cold cream. I don’t need cold cream, but I am still attached to some things that “dire necessity” has not yet squeezed out of my satchel.

I’m learning, though.

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