Travel Gear

My handy holiday guide

The art of packing – this is from somebody who spent years getting it wrong first

Some refer to this time of year as “the holiday season”; others, “the summer”. But what it really is, of course, is something much bigger, much darker, and more fraught than that: it is “the packing season”. Packing is a serious business. It’s not just about wanging six pairs of pants in a bag, and making sure you’re wearing a hat. Oh no. Packing reverberates on the deepest and most primal levels. You’re doing a micro-migration. You’re “on a break” from your house and everything in it; you are one piece of hand luggage away from having nothing at all, and being an itinerant holy man, wandering the streets and begging for bread. You have reduced your life – of working for money, and then spending the money on things – into something measuring 52 x 45 x 20cm. This is why “packing” is short for “panicking”, because it is a panicky business to step through what is basically a tiny existential exercise, thus: what things do we actually need? And what things do we simply want? Can life be joyful if we have everything we need (contact lenses, baby’s potty) but none of the things we just want? (No flamenco dress because your bag is too small, and you can’t have nice things now you have kids.)

However this task hits you – and we all have a different packing journey – there are a few immutable facts.

One The most forgotten items are deodorant, socks, floss, plugs and inflatable neck-rests, because all these things are just so incredibly boring, and the whole point of a holiday is that it’s not boring – so you just kind of murder these items in your head, and move on.

Two However many tiny travel pots you buy to decant products into, you never seem to buy enough of the most useful size, and end up decanting L’Oréal Revitalift into a tiny washed-out hotel-sized jar of jam at 2am, thinking, “I bet Kirstie Allsopp doesn’t do this.”

Three When packing your suitcase, you will place each piece of clothing into it in a pleasingly meditative state – remembering where you bought it, great memories had in it and how very much it pleases you that it is in your life. Hurrah for these trousers! Oddly, however, when you open this self same suitcase just four hours later, in your hotel room in Corfu, suddenly everything inside it seems to have just gone … a bit shit. Man, those shorts are disappointing. Oh, that dress is a bit … Something to do with your clothes cruising at an altitude of 35,000ft appears to have made them all lacklustre. As you scrabble around in your suitcase, depressed by your own crappy possessions, you will find just one item of clothing – the Packing Hero – that has not actually turned evil during the journey, and which you will wear every day for the entire holiday, until it’s so soaked in sweat, seawater, sunblock and calamari grease that it turns into actual flammable garbage and you never want to see it again.

Four The lifecycle of the suitcase is an understudied phenomenon, but one that is deeply fascinating and incredibly predictable. Thus: in the beginning, the suitcase is bought and used and has a productive life – until, one sad day, a strap or a wheel breaks. Instead of being sent off to the tip, the suitcase then enters a hibernatory stage, where it spends almost exactly a year in the loft/on top of a wardrobe, as the owner repeatedly says to herself, “I will get that suitcase mended! That’s a thing on my list!” The suitcase is not mended, of course, because there’s no such thing as “a place that mends suitcases”. That’s just not a thing. The suitcase’s year-long hibernation will end approximately ten hours before your flight takes off, when, at 10pm – just after all the shops have closed – you bring the suitcase out, knock the dust off it, and then shout, “ARGH! ARGH! BALLS! I FORGOT THE F***ING WHEELS ARE BROKEN! WHY DID I NOT MEND THIS EARLIER? AND WHY IS THERE NOWHERE THAT MENDS SUITCASES?”

You will think about how there are no places that mend suitcases tomorrow, as you have to carry a 40kg suitcase with no wheels across the departures concourse at Heathrow in your arms, like a huge square baby full of shoes. You’ll think about it a lot.

As packing is something that happens every year, and involves basically Sophie’s Choicing your entire collected souvenirs of consumerism/body dysmorphia/intellectual delusion, plus flip-flops, it often works by way of a neat stage-posting of your life.

Over the years, I have gone through four distinct packing phases, each of which chronicled a distinct developmental epoch.

As a child, packing was easy – because we didn’t have any stuff. Or, indeed, anything to pack the stuff in. People didn’t really have suitcases in those days. We would just put our “other jumper” and our “other jeans” into a black bin bag, put them into the back of the VW caravanette and head off to Wales.

travel bag

In those days, it wasn’t the packing of clothes that caused problems – but the “other stuff”. There were several “pivotal” houseplants my mother was loathe to leave for such a long period of time – “Once you’ve known leaf drop, you won’t let it happen again” – and so a huge Swiss cheese plant had to be effortfully rammed into the back of an already packed van. There was also a 10-litre casserole dish of lentil stew that “could not be wasted”, and which met a spectacular end when Dad hit the brakes on the M54 just outside Telford and invented a new kind of Scotch egg, which was “all the humans in the vehicle” instead of an egg, and “a thick and viscous coating of lentil stew” instead of meat and breadcrumbs.

In 1988, we took two cats on a camping holiday to Scotland. Cats are not a good thing to pack and take to a rainy country. They will run away from you, and start shitting in your sleeping bags and shoes in protest. They will also really not enjoy CalMac ferries, and one of them will die, which is sad, but also a relief.

In my late teens, packing took a new twist, as I went on my first adult holiday with the man who is now my husband.

When he proposed a winter driving holiday through Scotland – “This time, you won’t have cats falling off a ferry! So you’ll enjoy it!” – for some reason, I believed it imperative to bring as little stuff as possible. Like, the best way to be sexually attractive to this man was to bring the tiniest piece of luggage possible – certainly no more than one bag.

Over the next two weeks – because of the “bringing nothing” – I had to borrow from my sexy friend the following: his jumper, his socks, his shirt, his toothbrush and, eventually, his penis. Looking back now, I had just broken up from an abusive relationship, had heard people talking about “women with baggage”, knew that “women with baggage” were bad news, and had almost certainly confused “emotional baggage” with “taking some things with you on holiday, ie, actual baggage”. The best way to look sane, I reasoned, was to go to Scotland in the middle of winter with only one dress, some marijuana and a pair of tights. Either way, in the end, he married me, so I think I have the last laugh.

My mid-to-late twenties – early motherhood – were dominated by Trunki. Trunki, for those who have not come across it, is a tiny wheeled suitcase for children into which you can fit approximately one atom, and which “doubles up” as a small wheeled vehicle that children can “ride” on – dragged by Trunki’s lead, by a parent. Because of this, the trip hazard on Trunki means around 200 families at every airport in the world are essentially carting around one of those stingers police throw across the road to catch joyriders. Trunkis are lethal. Trunkis are also evil – for it is also one of those immutable facts that, in the same way everything you buy from M&S’s Per Una range makes you look a little bit mental, every child who owns a Trunki is a little bit of a bastard. There’s something about having a small wheeled elephant/car – and I would suggest that it is “having a small wheeled elephant/car” – that makes the child veer towards the “precious and unbearable” end of the spectrum. For this reason, our family refers to Trunkis as “Arseys”, because they make the owner arsey.

In 1988 we took our cats on a family camping holiday to Scotland. One died, which was sad, but also a relief

Now 42, I feel that the art of packing – like so many things in life – is something I am just beginning to master, even as the Moran arthritis starts to kick in, travel becomes impossible and I start having to make practical arrangements for becoming totally bed-bound by the age of 62, taking lovely weapons-grade heroin and watching the box set of Mad Men. Although I have written many books – five, all still available from good bookshops – the works I am most proud of are a series of laminated lists entitled “Packing list surfing holiday Cornwall”, “Packing list festival with kids”, “Packing list festival without kids”, “Packing list holiday Med” and “Packing list Northern Hemisphere City Break”. These lists mean that, wherever I am, I have the weird rock-climbing shoes, the rounders bat, the tick-remover, the cystitis medicine, one nice, non-crease dress, floss – no poking a tiny piece of pork out from between my teeth using the shaft of an earring in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Rome ever again! – and that the Kindle has already had all the books I want downloaded onto it, so no roaming charges for me as I suddenly want to read the entire works of Karl Ove Knausgaard at 4am!

I can, now, finally, reduce my life down to a single piece of hand luggage and a second, small item, which can be stowed under the chair in front. I guess the maths is that it takes decades to learn who you are, and what you need, and how to strip it all down to one small, emblematic bag. I am that person now.

Note This piece was written on Tuesday, the day before Caitlin flew out to Corfu from Stansted airport for her holiday. On Tuesday evening, she told her husband that maybe they should buy an extra piece of check-in luggage online, in case “the kids” needed some extra things. “Those kids!” she said, rolling her eyes. By Wednesday morning, she’d put into “the kids’ ” carry-on: a scarf (in case of chills); two Elena Ferrante novels (too heavy to fit in carry-on); a bottle of Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse (nice to have oily, sparkly legs); whitening toothpaste (red wine stains!); Boots Extra Volume Mousse (literally no point in being on holiday if you have small hair); Batiste Dry Shampoo Tropical (literally no point in being on holiday if you’ve got greasy hair), and a panic wanging-in of Mrs Dalloway, because, “Maybe reading a novel about a Mediterranean country while in the Med is too obvious and I will want contrast.”

Then, at the airport, she bought deodorant, floss, sunblock (body), sunblock (face), more toothpaste because she couldn’t remember if she’d brought that whitening toothpaste or not, a mains adapter and a hat from Accessorize (£12), which she knows doesn’t suit her, but all her friends were buying one and she wanted to be part of the hat gang.