Packing- Boxing Up Some Awesome and Being Prepared for Anything

I’ve been watching James Bond movies with my kids this summer, and my favorite part is always when he pulls out some sort of gadget that is perfectly suited to save the day. I’d like to think I’ve got a little bit of James Bond in me, even if I encounter few car chases or assassins. In my my line of work, I need to be prepared for almost anything. I could start a blog simply recounting crazy problems, disasters and near-misses from these last 15 years and I’d never lack for material. As any travel professional can tell you, EVERYTHING happens on tour, and I mean everything. Don’t even get me started. So I’ve learned to be prepared for the issues that come up on the road.

I’m required to carry a first aid kit in my work, which is necessary and used steadily. Bumps, bruises and minor injuries are common and easily fixed. But there are often other little annoyances that can bog down travels, ones that can be pretty easily taken care of with a little thought ahead of time.

This is where my little box comes in. I like to call it the “Box of Awesome”, a name  which should be heard in a voice like a wrestling announcer. My little first aid kit packs a good punch against travel inconvenience, and here’s the recipe to assembling your own.

 Start with a small, basic first aid kit with a hard case. I have one from Johnson and Johnson, for sale at Target for about $.99. It has a variety band-aids, ointment and sterile cleaning wipes. To that I have added a few extra first aid items, butterfly bandages, sting relief pads and a few more band-aids in unusual sizes. For foot ailments, I have a patch of moleskin and blister bandages.

I keep a tube of pills of commonly needed medications. Tylenol, Ibuprophen, Aleve, Tylenol PM, Migrane aspirin, and, most importantly, Benadryl. A miracle drug in my opinion, Benydryl works on allergic reactions, bug bites or stings, stuffy noses and sleeplessness. I also carry a liquid Benydryl pen in my bag for mosquito bites as I’m terribly allergic.

Dental woes are common with travelers, so I try and keep something in my bag for emergencies. An amount of floss or toothpicks for stuck food. For crowns or veneers that have fallen off, I asked my dentist for small packets of emergency adhesive. I’ve also carried tubes of Fixodent for this reason. Occasionally I have tour members with fillings that have fallen out, and for this reason I carry Temparin, a tooth filling material that can patch a tooth for a few days until a dentist can be found.

To this I add my fix-it supplies. I have tweezers, small nail files, a screwdriver for glasses with extra screws, sewing kit, buttons, safety pins, tiny super glue packs, small scissors, nail clippers, bobby pins, twist ties and glue dots. At the travel supply store I recently found bug repellent wipes that fit nicely in the kit, as well as a stain removing pen for messy travelers like myself.

If assembling a travel emergency box seems like a bit of a hassle to you, Rick Steves has one that’s already put together and comes in a nice little pouch. It’s got a sewing kit, moleskin, compass and a few other travel aids that can be handy. You can pick one up at, $20.

It may not be a pen that shoots tranquilizer darts or a Porsche with an ejector seat, but my little kit can often save the day, if maybe not save the world.

Have some ideas for adding to the Box of Awesome? This box has been a work in progress for some time with other travelers and I’d like to hear if there’s something I’m missing. Please leave comments and I’ll add ideas to the list.

Packing- An Empty Bag is like an Empty Canvas

These days, packing doesn’t have to be just throwing a bunch of things in a bag. There are lots of ways to be organized so that you can easily find things without emptying the everything out.

Today I’m going to give you a tour of my empty bag and packing gear. The organizing accessories have become pretty crucial for me to keep my sanity while I’m on the road for weeks at a time. My bag has a tendency to explode all over my hotel room and this method helps to tame (not solve, sadly) the problem. I also need to pack quickly on occasion, these organizers are great for helping with that too.

The suitcase or backpack you choose can make a big difference, as well as organizing bags and pouches called “packing cubes”.

My particular bag, the TriStar from Tom Bihn, has three compartments and four pockets, along with loops that can have smaller pouches snapped in to it. I like to seperate my things like this-

This compartment is for flat folded things. I put my dresses, pants and dress shirts here. I also keep my down pillow in this compartment, under the clothes, and strap it all down tightly.

On the opposite side, I use the zip-up divider to create a two sections. One is for a cube with my tops in it, the other is for my shoes.

The center section is for everything else. I put my toiletries, underwear cube, electronic accessories, as well as paperwork and job related items there.

The snap-on pouch system on the bags from Tom Bihn is really handy. They make organizing pouches in many sizes that clip on for easy retrieval. For example, this yellow pouch is where I keep contact lenses, medications and small loose items. I have other ones I use for electronic cords, pens and pencils and one for jewelry. After traveling with this bag for 4+ years, when I need something it’s almost a reflex to reach in to find the pouch I need.

The packing cubes are where the magic in this system lies. I have started using these ones from Eagle Creek because they are the lightest material available. The silky fabric also slides in and out of the bag with no effort, and they just happen to fit the compartments in my backpack perfectly. Rick Steves also carries low cost cubes I like, lightweight and made of mesh. These are superior in some ways as you can see all of the contents of the cube before you open it.

The large white cube will be for tops, all folded and rolled. When I open the cube, I can quickly see what tops are in there. The smaller green cube is for underwear, socks and pajamas. I don’t bother with folding here, I just stuff it all in and zip it up. The blue cube is a flat-fold packing cube. It comes with a plastic sheet that supposedly helps you fold dress shirts. I don’t bother, but it does keep folded pants and dresses neatly stacked. I’m just starting to use one of these folded cubes again because my flat-fold clothes kept falling out on my last trip and caused quite a wrinkled mess.

The small cube on the bottom is my toiletries kit, another Tom Bihn find. This is the maximum size container for carrying liquids on to a plane, like those travel zip-loc bags. This one has clear plastic sides and a hook on the inside for hanging it up in a bathroom. It’s pretty minimal for a toiletries kit, but I find being restricted to that small size is helpful since this is where a big chunk of a bag’s weight will lie. Also consider that if you bring a typical toiletries kit bag, you’ll have to get a smaller bag like this for the liquids anyway while you are in transit. I prefer to just keep it small and all together.

The last bag is one that I won’t pack anything in- yet. It is a Rick Steves folding tote bag. This is a lightweight bag with a zipper on top that unfolds to a pretty decent size. I’ll keep it in my backpack until the end of my trip, when my backpack is overflowing from purchases. On my return flight, I’ll stuff my backpack full of wine and treats and more wine (observe the wine stains on the inside of my bag 😳), then I’ll use the tote bag as my carry on for going home. It’s also a good grocery shopping bag for European picnics.

So this is my basic set up before packing. Next up will be deciding what to put inside.

Packing: Choosing a Bag

The first item in a packing list, whether it’s a trip to China or a trip to Grandma’s, is choosing a bag to bring. I typically travel for 4-9 weeks at a time, am constantly on the go and travel to many different climates. For my lifestyle as a tour guide, being light on my feet is essential. Choosing the right bag can make a huge impact on my comfort and flexibility.

The first constraint is keeping things sized to fit airline carry on rules. This is the golden rule of travel for me. ALWAYS carry your bags on the plane. Nothing can ruin a trip more than a lost bag. Believe me, I’ve seen it. Travelers who’ve checked their bags usually get them, but for the people who don’t (and let me tell you, it’s more common than you think) it means being distracted and concerned about tracking your stuff down when you should be enjoying what you traveled to see. The frustration isn’t worth it. Carry your bags on the plane. It will increase your chances of a snag-free trip dramatically.

That means that you are starting your packing tasks with some constraints. Every airline has different restrictions on size and weight. Following airline carry on rules can be tricky as they are all different. Most U.S. based airlines have very generous carry-on policies. They usually allow a suitcase of about 22″ x 14″ x 9″ along with a “personal item” which amounts to a purse or smaller day bag. The weight of the bag usually doesn’t matter, although officially they cap the weight around 22 lbs.

Europe has different airline carry on rules, however, so it’s a good idea to check with your airline. Lufthansa has a very inflexible 8 kilo weight limit, they actually weigh your bag before you are allowed to take the bag on the plane. I’ve almost had my bag confiscated because I bought water in the airport and put it in the bag…which they weighed a second time right before I got on the plane.

Budget airlines play games with carry-on bags to make it pretty hard to meet the requirements. Easy Jet and Ryanair weigh and measure every bag. When I’ve been slightly over weight on these airlines, I’ve just headed to the bathroom and put on as many pieces of clothing as I could until the weight met the restriction.

The bottom line is this, before choosing a bag, check the rules on each airline you plan to travel with and pack with the tightest restriction in mind. It’s actually a good thing. It keeps you committed to packing light.

Backpack or Rolling Bag?

Without hesitation, I highly recommend a backpack for travel. Backpacks keep you light on your feet, which comes in very handy when you are trying to catch trains or planes. They are much easier to carry up steep stairs. They tend to fit into airline carry-on standards better because there’s no handle or wheels. No problem with toppling over when waking on cobblestone streets. They help you travel like a stealthy ninja rather than an obnoxious tourist with a clacking bag rolling behind them. And most importantly, they weigh much less from the beginning. The frame of a wheeled bag is heavy, no matter who made it. A backpack will always be the packing light choice.

I realize many people can’t carry a backpack. If you do choose a rolling bag, be very careful. It’s so easy to over pack a rolling bag. Since it rolls, the weight may not seem to matter, but it does. You still have to be able to lift it over your head in the plane, carry it up stairs, and right it when it falls over. The airline weight restrictions are the same whether it’s a backpack or roller, so you’ll likely be able to bring more in a backpack.

My Bags

I have two bags that I suggest, from different companies. Which you choose will also depend on how demanding you are on your luggage.

For the casual traveler, gone for a month a year, I think my employer makes a darn good bag for a good price. I have the rolling bag from Rick Steves in my arsenal and it has performed well, most recently for my son on a two week trip to Europe.

It’s relatively lightweight, has nice features such as deep pockets and it rolls smoothly. At $160, it’s a good value. You can find it at

My go-to backpack is from Tom Bihn, a local bag designer. All bags are handmade in their Seattle store. They are extremely durable and have superb features, but they come at a price. Most bags are between $200-$300. They have a system in place with little loops where you can hook on small sacks and lanyards to organize things. All of their travel bags and day bags have these loops, so accessories are interchangeable.

My bag is the TriStar, their mid-sized carry-on. I picked it because it fits European airline carry on rules. I’ve been living out of this bag for about four years now, and I still adore it. My only gripe with it is that the fabric is so durable that it is a little heavier than I’d like. They have recently come out with this bag in a lighter material. I love to buy it but at about $300, it is hard to justify. I can tell you this is a good bag, it’s been really put through its paces and, despite my efforts to destroy it, it still looks almost new. I’ve never had any problems.

In my next post, I’ll give you a tour of my TriStar and how I set it up for packing.

Packing Up and Packing Light- How a Tour Guide Does It

The fall tour season is quickly approaching and I’m looking at 6 weeks of travel with one bag. With less than a week to go, have I packed anything yet? Nope. I have packed two “fake” bags for packing lectures I’ve been doing this month, but the real thing is going to be constructed in the next few days. So I thought this would be a good time to write down my philosophy and ideas about packing light.

Over the next few days, I’ll be writing about choosing the right bag for you, bag accessories, choosing shoes, clothes and deciding what should stay.

The goal is this- keep the bag under 8 kilo (about 16 pounds) and bring enough of everything I need to feel at home anywhere for as long as I need. It’s going to be tricky. Fall is a tough time to pack right. I’ll be in Italy the whole time, but I’ll be starting in Rome at 80 degrees and eventually hiking in the Alps at 50 degrees in October. I’ll need to be careful to bring both warm and cool clothes and shoes. 

So how does one pack for the beaches of Sicily as well as the mountain peaks of the Dolomites? Stay tuned….

Oh, Pope Francis, can you say more things like that?
Is Pope Francis the Pope I’ve always dreamed would come along? As a life-long Catholic Feminist (that’s awkward), I’d love to say yes. So far I’d say maybe. But today he certainly won points with me and possibly humanity in general.

My impression of this pope is complex and I won’t go into all of it, but it is mostly like this- he is a deeply conservative man in a deeply conservative institution who is trying to get in touch with the original mission of the church as he sees it. Despite today’s nice words, he’s not been all that much of an advocate for women. No female in the clergy! No surprise there. No birth control in the third world, though, is a disappointing move as this is what impoverishes, enslaves and overpopulates our most impoverished countries. 

Today’s statement is interesting to me especially in the way that it actually appeared as a whole, just a statement woven into a much more conservative speech about the awesomeness of marriage. This seems to be his way of dropping the bombs, just little statements that mean an awful lot sandwiched in between conventional dogma. I enjoy imagining his handlers and Vatican authorities when he does that. Must be a lot of hand-wringing behind the scenes.

As far as the equal pay item goes, well duh. But thank you very much for saying it. I was shocked when I started work as an architect and one day realized that I was being paid, and occasionally treated, like a second class citizen. Men with the same education and skills were payed more and got respect immediately. I betcha none of my male colleagues had their hair smelled by a firm partner. And there was that one time a firm hired a gray haired man to present my work because it wouldn’t look right for a young girl to present a project. Seriously. And I got payed less for all of that?

It was shocking to be of my generation and be treated like that, I thought it was something that happened to women in the past. You aren’t told what you should be payed, you guess and hope you’re right. I didn’t know what to ask for. I was chronically underpaid. I was too shy to ask for what I was worth. And I think that is what the system bets on. Nobody discusses their salary because it isn’t “polite”. This creates mystery and plays to an employers game in which they hold all of the cards. It’s like playing Marco Polo but at really high stakes. Francis is right, we are underpaid, but we have ourselves partly to blame. 

One of the things I love about my employer is that our salaries are transparent. It’s a hierarchy with goals. You want to make more? Work more. Earn seniority. Age and gender are irrelevant. Maybe not every business and job can do that, but I am glad mine does. It’s just fair. 

So here’s an idea. Make salaries transparent. Make it a movement. Everyone, right now, go to the fridge in your office and post a list. Let everyone write their name and salary on it. There will be embarrassment, surprise and maybe anger. But you’re breaking the system of secrecy. Once everyone sees to lay of the land, compares their skills and has a chance to truly understand their worth, fair pay would be the result. Nobody loses, except maybe the employers who have to be more honest. But maybe this thing catches on and employers of the future will boast that they have a transparent salary system. That would attract people to work for them, it would certainly attract my attention.

 So go, post your salary on the office fridge, or a sign on your cubicle or write it in Sharpie on your forehead. Whatever. Tell everyone that the Pope himself told you to. Break the system, you never know, you may get a raise out of it. If you’re a woman you probably will. There is only one certainty, knowledge is power.

Shoes, the eternal, infernal quandary

The most common packing question I get, and in fact the most common question that the Rick Steves office gets, is what kind of shoes to bring when traveling. I wish I had the magic answer for that. Every season I wrestle with this beast. We all have our crosses to bear.

The perfect shoe has to be all of these things: comfortable, stylish or even sexy, light, packable. Oh, and hopefully not tooooo expensive. I sift through pages of shoes every spring looking for something that meets all of these requirements and end up as I am now, confused and headachy. I have enormous feet, so I can’t buy shoes at the regular store, I have to order them online. That’s sort of a bonus though, I can read reviews and get exact specs before deciding. Trimming down the selection to the lightweight shoes really narrows the field. 

The normal wisdom is to bring 2 pair, one sandal, one waking or running. I don’t do that. I’m on my feet all day. I’ve learned over time that even the most expensive comfort shoes will hurt if you wear them all day every day. So I bring at least 3 pairs. My feet appreciate variety, just as the rest of me does. So I’ve been bringing sandals (black or brown), running shoes (assuming I’ll be running, which, let’s be honest, probably not), and either ballerina flats or thongs (flip flops to all of you who are not from LA). Sometimes I’ve even thrown in heels or knee high boots if I’m feeling spicy. But I usually live to regret that decision.

So here I am, again reinventing the wheel. Can’t use last year’s shoes, they are close to death. I loved Dansko sandals in the past, they are the unofficial female tour guide shoe. But they’ve changed their sizing and my clown feet are just too big. As I often do, I’ve decided to Google that problem. Ultralight shoes. I’ve found two potential winners, although both are a bit radical, and neither cute enough to pass in Italy. But I might go out on a limb this year. 

My possible new “running” shoe is Adidas MetroLyte, simple and black. No laces or tongue and coming in at less weight than a single Dansko sandal for the pair. They are a bit odd and the reviews are mixed but I might give it a shot. I’m not super convinced about these athletic shoes that are all knit, even if extremely light. The ones I’ve tried in stores feel like Crocs. I hate Crocs. (I love them too but don’t tell anyone)

My possible new sandal is really out there, Xero sandals. You can order them all made or get a kit to make your own. They are made to make you feel like you are barefoot. I’d be barefoot all day, every day if it wouldn’t get me kicked out of restaurants, so this might be the ticket. They aren’t sexy though 🙁

On the wish list is a pair of the ultra expensive, super trendy Tieks. I have been desiring these ballerina flats for a couple of years. They are just perfect for me, light, cute, foldable, and they mold to your feet to become perfectly comfy. Wantwantwant. But at close to $200 a pair, it’s more like dreamdreamdream…..

Ok, enough writing, back to the tough work of shoe shopping. Here’s to hoping the perfect pair falls in my lap off of the shoe tree.


In my 15 years of working for Rick Steves, I’ve spent time doing lots of different jobs. I’ve worked on the phones selling tours. I’ve researched and written chapters for the guidebooks. I’ve led tours. I’ve stuffed envelopes and licked stamps… it isn’t always glamorous in the travel industry.  One of my favorite jobs that I do up in Edmonds is lecturing. I do slideshows on all kinds of topics, mostly Italian cities.

One day a few summers ago I was called at the last minute and asked if I could do a packing lecture- the next day. I always like a challenge so I gave it a shot. I don’t think that they realized that I’m a little, um, specific when I pack. I had such a lot of fun showing people my way of creating a Mary Poppins-style backpack, and I guess the audience did too because I’ve been asked to do it again and again. My nutty packing style is even posted on the Rick Steves web site as their packing video. Pretty exciting. And totally not something I expected to have anyone take interest in. People who have seen the video recognize me at events and ask me packing questions, occasionally questions about my underpants, which kind of makes me giggle. What a funny turn of events in this strange life of mine.

All of this is to say that I am thinking about packing right now, as I often am at this time of year. I take off for Europe in 2 weeks, so I need to get on top of this packing thing. Seeing as how I need to pack everything I need for 7 weeks in a small, carry-on bag, I am a stickler for size and weight in all things. But I also don’t scrimp on the things that make me feel at home in my travels.

Over the next two weeks, I’m going to try (notice I say TRY) and blog about my thought process concerning packing. Hopefully some of it will be interesting rather than just sounding crazy. Because it is, I totally own up to it. But, as in all things about me, I hope it’s the good kind of crazy.