I have come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of travelers.
First, there are the Blithe Travelers. These are the folks for whom traveling requires barely more thought than a trip to the grocery store. They pop online to make their reservations at a reasonable, though not excessively long, time before the scheduled trip. Once they’ve confirmed their flights (which took them about ten minutes to select), they return to their normal lives until the night before they leave, at which point they toss a few items into a carryon bag.
On travel day, Blithe Travelers continue with normal life until it’s time to leave for the airport—no last-minute errands or revising notes for the house sitters. At the airport, they breeze through TSA because they have the perfect pair of comfortable slip-on shoes and they’ve decanted all their toiletries into appropriately-sized bottles. They sail to their gates while hapless fellow travelers struggle to collect coats and footwear and laptops and electronics they had to unload into separate gray bins for inspection or argue with TSA about whether a half-empty four-ounce bottle of hand lotion should count as two ounces.
In the midst of passengers jostling to be first in line for their boarding group, the Blithe Travelers sit contentedly with their phones, tapping out quick texts to resolve crises in the lives of their less-fortunate colleagues. No matter when they board, a space for their bag in the bin magically appears right above their seat.
Those are the Blithe Travelers.
Then, there are those who might be known as the Excessively Prepared Travelers [“EPTs”]. I am a part of this group.
The hallmark of the EPT is that you don’t travel enough for the whole affair to be casual or automatic. Every time you try to book a flight, you discover that the entire booking industry has changed in monumental ways. Which site should you use? Kayak? Expedia? The airline’s own website? (The EPT’s decision-making skills are often less than optimal.)
You compare prices. You debate whether a thirty-dollar saving is worth a twelve-hour layover in Minneapolis. Except when you check further, you discover that you will only save the thirty dollars if you’re willing to travel in Extreme Economy, where a passenger is permitted only a “personal carryon item” (translation: purse); anything else needs to be checked at a rate of $50 for the first bag, and by the way, you’ll be in the very last boarding group and sitting at the very back of the plane so there isn’t a shot in hell there will be enough overhead bin space for your winter coat to be anywhere near you, meaning your choices will be: (a) wear the coat for the entire four-hour flight, or (b) let the flight attendant stash it somewhere toward the front and pray that nobody deplaning ahead of you picks it up by mistake.
Even if you know what flight you want, the questions continue. Do you need a rental car? A hotel? A hotel shuttle? Will you do better if you bundle all these things even though the bundle only lets you rent from Budget and you can get a discount on Hertz with AAA, and it only offers Marriott hotels that won’t let you use all your bonus points from Hilton?
Figuring all this out will likely take at least one full workday. At last, you select your flights, only to find that the only seats available are middle seats. More questions: is it worth sitting in the middle to arrive at 3:00 p.m.? Or should you start again and try for that aisle seat on the flight that arrives at 11:50 p.m.? Because while there was a time when middle seats were merely inconvenient, those days are past. Airlines now seem to believe that all passengers are the size of Tinkerbell, meaning that while all economy seats are cramped, middle seats can be downright claustrophobic. It’s no coincidence that people are willing to pay an extra $89 dollars for a seat with four more inches of leg room. Even as a fairly short person (5’3”), I find airline seats a cozy fit. I cannot imagine how tall people survive—and let’s not even get started on tall people who are also rotund. The choices facing these travelers are bad, worse, and obscenely expensive: squeeze into one seat, face the humiliation of buying two seats (also limiting your flight choices since the two obviously need to be side by side), or fly first class, where in exchange for a comfortable seat and an airline meal, you can pay three times what the economy people pay to travel on the same plane to the same destination.
Eventually, the EPT will say, “Oh, screw it,” (or something akin thereto) and will make the necessary reservations. At last, time to relax.
You see, today’s airplanes aren’t just designed for small passengers; they’re also designed for small luggage. When travelers decided to stop paying the ridiculous checked-bag fees, carryons became Big Business. As a result, space in the overhead bins became a precious commodity. To address this (and, let’s face it, to reduce the number of people who could circumvent the checked-bag fees), airlines began to impose increasingly stringent restrictions on the size of a bag that could be brought on board.
So, you go to the basement, haul out the ancient rollaboard you received for Christmas fifteen years ago, and measure it to see if it fits your chosen airline’s restrictions. Upon discovering that this suitcase exceeds the airline’s stated requirements by nearly two inches in length and one and one-half inches in depth, you face another dilemma: either gamble that this suitcase will sneak through, or ask for a new one for Christmas that complies with airline restrictions. (It helps if the rubber wheels on the old one have hardened and broken off so that dragging it through the airport with its metal wheels sounds not unlike machine-gun fire and everyone stares at you as you pass by. Just saying.)
So, you devote another three days to comparing the various attributes of rollaboards versus spinners, this material versus that, weights and colors and amenities. Finally, as with everything else, you say, “Fine. Whatever. That one.”
At this point, you’d imagine that even an EPT is now all set, but you would be mistaken. The planning is only just beginning. Now, it’s time for the lists:
- The main packing list (clothes);
- The other packing list (everything other than clothes, such as a mini-hair dryer if you’re staying at somebody’s house since you don’t want to relinquish space in your new rollaboard to a full-sized blow dryer);
- The packing list for the carryon (formerly known as the purse, except no fool carries a mere purse on board now when you can have an entire second bag as long as it fits under the seat);
- The documents to be printed and secured;
- Airline parking options to be scouted, decided upon, and reserved;
- Instructions for the cat sitters, complete with details about where each cat likes to hide, what they like to play with, and which flavors of food each will snub;
- Medications to be refilled;
- Items to be taken to the one-day drycleaner;
- Housework to be done so the cat sitters won’t be grossed out;
- Laundry to be done (so you have something to pack);
- Menu for the remaining time before departure so you use up all the stuff that will go bad before you return home;
- Shopping lists, including such essentials as cat food and litter, wine (you’re going to need it when you finally get home), a box of pasta and a jar of sauce (since you won’t have any money left to order takeout), personal items (travel-sized shampoo, conditioner, body wash, mesh sponge, moisturizers, cosmetics, and the myriad other things you use without thinking to make yourself fabulous each day);
- Work deadlines to be met before departure so you don’t have to try to work on the plane.
At some point in this endeavor, you may say to yourself, “I should have taken the train instead.” Trains are easy, the scenery can be wonderful, and there’s no bother about TSA or carryons. So, you pop into the appropriate website and learn that train fare would have cost one-third of the flight. But then, you click on “details” and discover that if you had chosen the train, it would have taken 3-1/2 days each way—in other words, an extra week just for travel. This doesn’t even count the time you’d actually spend at the beach house or wherever you’re going. Basically, a one-week vacation would cost you two weeks out of the office. (And unless you pay more than that minimal fare, you’re not likely to have things like a bed or a shower. If you wanted to spend a week without showering, you’d have piled your stuff in the car and gone camping.)
Suddenly, all that airline hassle isn’t looking so bad. Which is probably what they’re counting on.
I would love to be a Blithe Traveler, I really would, but it’s just not in me. Last fall, I had occasion to travel for a funeral, meaning I had very little notice. The downside of last-minute travel, obviously, is that you have to drop everything to navigate the maze of options. The upside is that there’s simply no time to be an EPT. You have to be a Blithe Traveler, because you have no choice. Pick the flight, book the car and hotel, figure out what’s clean and can be worn to a wake and a funeral with just a different top and maybe a silk scarf. On that trip, I was gone two nights, but I was fortunate enough to find a convenient Homewood Suites; unlike the one where I stayed two years ago after a house fire, this one included a bar so that after the wake, I was able to come back to my room, change my clothes, and head down the hall for a complementary glass of wine. (Later, while I was on the phone with my mother—it was her sister who had died—I went back down the hall, phone in hand, and secured another glass from the kindly bartender without Mom being any the wiser.)
Maybe that’s the answer to travel: pretend that you don’t have time for all the lovely long detailed lists we EPTs cherish. As long as you take your photo ID, passport, travel documents, and a credit card, there’s probably not much you can’t either do without or replace when you get where you’re going. If the cat sitters see a few dust bunnies, it’s not going to be the end of their world.
Yes. Definitely. That’s the secret to travel without stress. Next time, that’s precisely how I’ll handle my trip.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take my black sweater to the drycleaners, put in another load of laundry, pick up my prescriptions, and Roomba the bedroom so there’s no dust under the bed when the cat sitters get down on their hands and knees to see where the cats are hiding.