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Secrets of the Super Packer: She never checks a bag, but still travels in style

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Detroit Free Press (MCT) - "Which was better? Take all you own, and struggle to carry it? Or travel light, and spend half the trip combing the shops for what you've left behind?"


By Ellen Creager
McClatchy Newspapers (
4/27/2009 (1 decade ago)

Published in Travel

_ Author Anne Tyler in "The Accidental Tourist"


Two years ago, Annabel Cohen had what she thought was a great idea.

Visit Japan with no luggage at all.

Pick up what she needed by shopping at vending machines in Tokyo, which, she'd heard, sold all of life's necessities, even underwear and toothbrushes.

Actually, it wasn't true.

Cohen, 47, ended up wearing the same clothes for nine days straight and never found a vending machine toothbrush until the second-to-last day.

"What I couldn't buy in a vending machine in Japan was what I needed," says Cohen, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., who nevertheless survived her no-luggage experiment.

"I can be inconvenienced for a couple of weeks," she says cheerfully. "A trip is not about my clothing. It's about how lucky I am to be traveling."

But even she recommends that you bring at least SOME luggage, if only for hygiene's sake.

Until December, Cohen was marketing manager for an automotive supplier, but she's now freelancing as a food writer and chef and spending a lot of time traveling. She's a single parent with a 19-year-old college daughter.

She's been many times to Brazil, where she has family. She's recently traveled to India and Mexico, Florida and New York.

In late March, she returned from three weeks in Rome cat-sitting for a friend. She took a single carry-on bag. She paid for the trip with frequent flier miles and cooked at a restaurant in Italy in exchange for meals.

Among her more unusual packing items? Several Sharpie pens, liquid bandage, Twizzlers licorice ("I always take Twizzlers: they're chewy and you make friends sitting next to you," she says.), fake pearls she bought at the dollar store but which look real, a book of matches, a red umbrella _ and an extra toothbrush.

The downfall for heavy packers "is they pack for every contingency," she says. "I take only whatever fits in the bag."

Into her 21-inch Pathfinder roll-aboard suitcase and medium-red purse go these basics: underwear, socks, two dressy black blouses (one with a gold accent), one black T-shirt with some kind of Detroit logo for a conversation-starter, two plain white T-shirts, two pairs of black pants, one pair black stretchy pants, one lightweight short brown jacket, two black chef's coats for cooking jobs, silver shoes for evening and nice black shoes. (She wears her sensible Dansko clogs on the plane.)

She also packs plastic Ziploc bags containing tiny creams, deodorant, toothpaste, ChapStick, liquid bandage, Advil, antihistamines, antibiotics for an emergency, Sucrets, disposable razor, a few Q-Tips and Band-Aids, hair elastics, extra batteries, sample-size perfume and makeup. She also fits in a camera charger, MacAir computer, Food and Wine magazine, a book, jewelry, Chi hair straightener, notebook, Casio pocket digital camera, Flip video camera, passport, wallet and another very small purse.

Her discreet black clothing takes her everywhere, even once admitting her to an elite Morocco hotel salon for a manicure where her friend in shorts was turned away.

But packing light shouldn't mean looking sloppy, she insists. She mixes clothes from Target and Chico's with designer pieces. But she tries to look nice. And her age.

"I'm not a backpacker," she says. "At this point, I'm a lady, not a kid."

She thinks any man should be able to pack even lighter than she does. No makeup. No high heels.

"Men are even easier," she says. "They can wear the same thing and same shoes every day and nobody will notice."



_Bring only dark clothes that can be worn together.

_Take one nice thing to dress up the dark clothes, such as a great necklace, tie, scarf or shoes.

_Bring only three pairs of shoes and wear the heaviest pair on the plane, along with your heaviest clothes.

_Bring clothes you can part with, so you can discard them along the way if you need to.

_Bring only an ultralight computer, such as the MacBook Air.

_Employ Ziploc plastic bags to pack not just toiletries but also underwear, batteries and even matches.

_Leave hardcover books, shampoo and hairdryer at home.

_Limit gifts you buy. Most people back home don't really need a gift.

_Blog from your trip. (Cohen's Japan adventure:

_Bring a small U.S. map to show people where you live.



A carry-on is useless if your bag won't fit into the overhead compartment. So follow these rules:

_Buy a light suitcase. For one with wheels, look for one 7-9 pounds and no taller than 21 inches. For a carry-on bag without wheels, try the Rick Steves convertible carry-on (3 pounds, $79.95,

_Measure your suitcase. Most airlines allow 45 inches (length plus height plus width). That usually means a bag no more than 21-inches-by-14-inches-by-10-inches.

_Do not unzip the "expander" on your bag unless you plan to check it. It will be too fat to fit into the overhead.

_Weigh your bag full. Most airlines won't accept carry-ons over 40 pounds.

_Make sure you can lift your full bag over your head.

_Put liquids, gels and creams (each 3 ounces or less) into a 1-quart clear bag. (For carry-on rules see

_Double-check carry-on rules for your particular airline. Check airline Web sites or


© 2009, Detroit Free Press.

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