Top 10 things you must pack first before going abroad

In two days, my husband, 4-year-old daughter and I are going to be leaving for a two-week trip to visit my in-laws in England. And I am panicking: not because I don’t like my in-laws (I do) or because I don’t like the cold (I don’t, but I’ll deal) …

… I’m panicking because I haven’t finished packing.

I know some of you are thinking, “Dude, you have TWO DAYS. What’s the rush?” And, in fact, you do have a point — two days should be more than enough time to pack for a two-week trip. But the thing is, with a four-year-old little girl and a 39-year-old husband, who, if “Being Forgetful” were an Olympic sport he’d handily take gold, all of the “remembering what to pack” rests on my shoulders. Luckily, (1) I’m a list-maker, and (b) I like to share. So as I make my packing list right now, as I type, I thought I’d share with you the Top 10 Things I Pack First Before Going Abroad:
10. A book/magazine/or any other type of riveting reading material. The thing about travel? There’s a lot of sitting. And waiting. And sitting while waiting. It seems like a minor thing to pack right now, but trust me: when you’ve got hours to kill on the plane or in the train, and the too-friendly greaseball sitting next to you wants to talk (and talk and talk), you’re going to want that book to tune him out. And good luck buying any reading material in your native language when you’re in a country where no one speaks it.

9. A universal plug adapter. Nothing is more annoying than arriving at your destination and realizing that you’re not going to be able to plug in your laptop, phone, or blow dryer because your plugs won’t fit into the wall sockets. I’m a big fan of this one. But also, remember — before you use this, it’s not only the plugs that might be different, the power supply might be different too. Be sure your appliance has a transformer on the power cord before you plug it in, even with the adapter. If it doesn’t, then you might be better off asking your hotel if they have a blow dryer you can borrow.

8. Medicine. Okay, if you’re on prescription medicine, hopefully I don’t have to remind you to take this with you, right? But the same is true for over-the-counter medicine: I always take at least a pain reliever and an anti-diarrheal (in case I get more adventurous with local cuisine than my stomach is ready for). Of course, you can probably get over-the-counter medicine wherever you’re going; however, often dosages in different countries differ. And don’t forget the pediatric versions if you’re traveling with a child.

7. Camera and related accessories. Okay, so I’m a photographer, and related accessories for me include my laptop with Adobe Photoshop installed (since I like to download images every day), a few camera bodies, a few lenses … but I realize that for most, this might be a bit of overkill. If you’re not like me, at least remember to take an extra memory card, if you’re not planning on downloading images while you’re on holiday. Just don’t lose it. And while we’re talking about it …

6. Chargers. There is nothing more disappointing than arriving at your destination, ready to get out there and see the sights, and realizing that your camera is dead, and you forgot your charger at home. Or you want to send a text message to your friends back home telling them what a great time you’re having, and you forgot your charger at home. Or you want to send an e-mail to your friend who is picking you up at the airport that you’ve met someone and you’ve decided to stay in Kuala Lumpur another week, but your laptop is dead, and you forgot your power cord — which charges your laptop — at home. Moral of the story: don’t forget any of your chargers at home.

5. Guidebooks/phrase books/maps. Yes, of course, you could probably pick up a mediocre map at the front desk of your hotel or at the rental car kiosk, but why, when you’ve been so excited about your trip? Do yourself a favour and grab a couple of guidebooks (or download some maps and other local information from your favourite online source), and tuck them into your carry on. I’ve found some of the best restaurants, scuba diving spots, and places to watch the sun go down in the world primarily because I’m fastidious about taking some research with me. And by the way, this goes for phrase books to help teach you a few idiomatic expressions of the local language, too — in my experience, nothing opens doors like showing an effort to learn the local tongue.

4. Travel documents, and photocopies of travel documents. If you’re going to travel overseas, you’re going to need a passport. Without exception. If you’ve never applied for a passport, be sure to give yourself plenty of time ahead of your trip to apply for one. And then once you have it, hold on to it like Grim Death: this is your way in and out of foreign lands. Also, be sure to check if you are also required to have a visa to visit your vacation destination — in some countries, such visas are mandatory. Check with your country’s state department to see what countries require a visa (often this information is available on the web).

What if, however, you lose your passport? That’s where your photocopies come in: Make copies of your passports and keep them in some back other than the one you’re keeping your passports. A friend of mine is careful about doing this, and when, one day, he was robbed, he was able to contact his local embassy and get a temporary passport issued relatively quickly, primarily because he was able to show proof of citizenship (albeit a copy).

3. Cell phone. It might seem a bit staid to carry a cellphone on vacation — after all! you’re immersing yourself in a whole new land! a whole new culture! — but even if you never plan to turn your phone on while you’re vacationing, it’s good to have it, if only to make sure your ride will be pick you up when you return, or you plan on meeting someone locally, and they need to contact you, or, God forbid, you find yourself traveling during a state of emergency (I was traveling both during the chaos during September 11, 2001 and when Hurricane Ike hit Houston a few months ago — it was good to be able to stay in touch).

2. Small travel bag. This is something that I never leave home without. I’m not talking about carry-on luggage; I’m talking about a small bag that holds nothing more than my wallet, my cell phone, my travel documents and my passport. With the number of times you have to whip one or all of these out just in the airport alone, I find a small, accessible bag is much better than trying to rummage through the bottom of my backpack looking for my wallet. And when it’s time to go through security, and I get a glowering look from a TSA officer, presto-change-o, I shove the small bag into my backpack, and I’m down to the number of carry-ons I’m permitted on the plane.

And finally, the Number 1 thing you must pack first before going abroad

1. An open mind. Remember, you’re traveling because you want to experience a whole new culture — and sometimes, that whole new culture doesn’t include things like a fast New-York pace, or McDonalds, or even Starbucks. Relax, and soak it all in. Plan your travel agenda with contingencies (delayed flights, unreliable rental cards, etc.), so that if things go wrong (and they just might), the result isn’t catastrophic. And when all else fails, just remember: the experiences will all make great stories in the future.

Incidentally, I asked several friends what they would add to this list, and some items were so good, I think they deserve an honourable mention:

  • Lip balm and moisturizer. It was startling how many people, men and women, said that they would die without their lip balm and hand moisturizer. “It’s the airplane air,” was the common statement. “It dries me out.”
  • Earplugs and/or MP3 player. If you’re a light sleeper, these can be invaluable. If you’re a person with an uncanny ability to sit next to boorish greaseballs (see #10, above), ditto.
  • Journals. There’s something about travel that brings out the Ernest Hemmingway in everyone. Even if you’re not much of a journal writer, go ahead and toss a small one in your bag — you never know when inspiration might hit. In fact, check out these from Moleskine — not only does it provide a place for you to capture your memories on your trip, they include maps and space for other information about your city destination, before and after your journey, rendering it a great keepsake of your trip, and resource for a return visit.