Thursday, December 11, 2014

home for the holidays: how to pack for holiday traveling

It's finals week just about everywhere right now, which means soon folks will be traveling for the break. Some people are lucky enough to live a stone's throw from their parents/grandparents/assorted relations, but a lot of us aren't. As someone who has lived far away from my family for about 4 years now, I've gotten the hang of this whole "fly in from another state and stay for 2 weeks in your childhood bedroom" thing. There's a lot that goes into traveling this time of year, from booking flights to packing sweaters and gifts to surviving winter weather delays. (Curse you, polar vortex!) I thought I'd share some general holiday traveling tips for making this Xmas season go as smoothly as possible—I can't control what your nutty uncle says after too much eggnog, but I can at least help get you there to witness it.


I'm cheap, so I try to avoid paying to bring a suitcase possible. Most airlines charge at least $25 dollars for a checked bag, which ends up being $50 round trip. That's a pair of new shoes, a couple good books, or about 2 reasonably priced date nights. I can think of a lot of ways I'd rather spend $50 bucks, and I'm sure you can too. So here are my thoughts regarding luggage:

  • If you're going for a weekend, skip the checked bag! You're allowed two carry-on items, and that is plenty to get you through a weekend. I've even stayed a week with just my carry-on, so it's possible if you're clever about what you bring. My suggestion: a large backpack and a duffel bag/rolling carry-on. Careful with what you put in your duffel bag, though, because during traveling season especially, overhead carry-on luggage is likely to be checked. A duffel bag is a good option if you're only bringing clothes.

  • If you're going for a week or longer, or you really want to bring a suitcase, see if you can fly through airlines that don't charge extra for a checked bag. JetBlue and Southwest let you check a bag for free!

  • If you're getting lots of presents at Christmas, you lucky lucky person, consider buying a cheap bag when you get there. You save money when you pay for a bag only one way (returning), and you can pick up a suitcase for dirt cheap at a thrift store. If there's an army surplus store around, they have huge duffel bags for not too much $$$ as well. I went that route after going to California this summer and buying my weight in clothes. ;)

  • Make your bag distinct. Holiday madness and winter delays/flight reroutes means a fair likelihood you could lose your bag, especially if you have multiple flights or are traveling overseas. Having a distinct bag makes it much easier to spot and much more likely that someone will find it in the abyss of lost airplane luggage and return it to you. You can stick stickers on the outside or attach a ribbon or duct tape to your handle to help you recognize your bag if you do have one that's fairly nondescript.  

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My advice is always: pack light. It's always a good idea to be sensible with packing, but it is especially important to pack only the necessities when traveling for the holidays; you're going to come back with more than you brought, so leaving extra room in your bag is smart. I know it's tempting to bring the three books you've been meaning to read, and four different pairs of jeans because you never know which wash you'll be feeling that day, and also three sets of shoes and your hairdryer and straightener, but resist the urge! Chances are, you'll be sitting around in Christmas-themed jammies more often than not anyways.


What to bring in your carry-on:

  • Fully charged laptop (or if you can bear to be away from your computer, I suggest only bringing an iPad). Make sure it is easy to grab, because you'll be whipping that bad boy out for security and nothing is more annoying than someone holding up an already super-long line.

  • Medicine, jewelry, and anything else you can't live without. It may be obvious, but be sure to bring your charging cables for your phone/computer too; if you get stranded in an airport, you'll want to be able to keep your electronics juiced.

  • Snacks. Airport prices are jacked to high heaven and the cheapo airlines in this country only offer you a measly bag of like 5 peanuts or pretzels. Be careful not to bring snacks that are too salty, as flying after eating lots of sodium can make tummies pretty unsettled. I like to bring snacks that are filling and nutritious, like almonds, an apple, or a Tupperware of whole wheat pasta (girl's gotta eat, okay!). Be sure to bring an empty water bottle, too, so you can fill it up after security and stay hydrated.

  • Something to entertain you. Your iPhone may be enough, but I recommend bringing something small too, like a book/magazine or a notepad to doodle on. Don't forget your headphones, too.

  • Comfort items. Planes are uncomfortable, and staying in airports (especially overnight!) is also uncomfortable. Bring whatever you might need, whether it be ibuprofen, earplugs, or one of those neck pillow things.

1. Journal
2. Portable phone charger

How to pack your suitcase/duffel:

Plan your outfits. If I could put a million stars beside this one simple piece of advice, I would! Before I began traveling every month, I just threw in a bunch of cute stuff that I wanted to wear, but didn't take the time to consider if:

a) I would have enough time (days) to wear them
b) they were appropriate for the weather of my destination
c) I needed extra items to make them work (strapless bras, belt, etc.)

Pack smart. Roll your clothes instead of folding them, bring maximum one other pair of shoes (wear your heaviest/bulkiest ones in the airport), and choose versatile items. Yes, maybe you wanted to bring the green skirt as well as the tan one because it looks better with that one blouse, but tough luck sister. Just bring the one skirt. You'll be fine. When I pack, I bring a color scheme that works well together so I can mix and match easily, I choose simple items that can be dressed up with jewelry, and I avoid packing multiple bulky items like sweaters and jeans.

Also, a quick note: I advise against flying with gifts. It's a pain, and you're out of luck if your suitcase gets lost. I recommend having items shipped to your folks' place so that they're waiting when you get there (this is super easy when you're buying online anyways), or buying things like monthly box subscriptions. You can also buy gifts when you arrive. If you're dead set on bringing presents with you, make them small like jewelry or video games, and make sure to bring them in your carry-on, unwrapped.


At the Airport:

Be prepared for long lines and lots and lots of cranky people. If you live in or are traveling to a wintry place, expect delays. I got out just in the nick of time last year from Detroit airport during another super storm, but the flights after mine were all canceled. If your delay causes you to miss a connecting flight, talk to a representative for your airline. During peak travel times, they're usually waiting at the gate when you arrive with new itineraries ready. To play it safe, you should try to book connecting flights with a bit of a layover, just in case.

flying through the Polar Vortex last year

Wear shoes you can easily slip off, bring socks because airports and airplanes are chilly, and take off your coat/sweater/belt while still in line. Avoid wearing lots of jewelry; keep it in your carry-on for less hassle. If you have a lot of electronics like I usually do (my cameras), they may pull you aside during security, so factor in time for that. Be sure to find your gate before you grab food/wander around, because some airports are tricky and you don't want to be scrambling last minute onto some connecting bus for another terminal.


I highly advise figuring out your transportation from the airport in advance. You may have a relative coming to pick you up, and if so, that's awesome. But if not, be sure you know your options! There are the obvious ones like standard taxis and car rentals, but there are also services like Uber, Lyft, and RelayRides. I also recommend looking into public transportation. When I lived in Oakland (the San Francisco Bay Area), the BART was super easy and only cost 8 bucks to get from the airport to my apartment. In Michigan, there's the wonderfully convenient Michigan Flyer which has ferried me to Detroit airport more times than I can count, and in Raleigh, you can take the bus from the airport to downtown Raleigh/campus for only 2 dollars. So be sure to consider your options, and plan before you fly! Check departures, payment (cash only? reserve in advance?), hours of operation, and total transit time.

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So there you have it! My tips for traveling home for the holidays. Fly safe, splurge on a glass of wine, and enjoy your time with your family! :)

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