Contributing Writer Cathy Healy is always looking for the perfect way to pack. So she asked her lunch pal Jim Bullard, the manager of National Geographic Expeditions, the Society’s tour arm, for his suggestions.
“Have you found it yet? I’ve just bought another mistake,” I asked him glumly the other day. “I can’t lift it into the overhead bins.”
“Huge mistake!” said Jim. “Never buy a bag that’s bigger than 23 inches. Remember, if the elevator is broken at your hotel, you may have to carry your bags up the stairs." Seeing my opportunity to score some advice, I launched into the question and answer portion of our meal:
So a 23-incher is the answer?
Listen, there is no perfect suitcase! It’s taken me 25 years to figure that out. If you’re going to Alaska or Antarctica, you need space for rubber boots and big, fat jackets. If you’re going to Paris or Sicily, you need a sports jacket and slacks. There’s no one bag that serves all those needs. I’ll bet between us, my wife and I have 20 to 30 suitcases.
THIRTY! You’re kidding--where do you store them?
We pack the little bags inside the big ones, but I never use the big ones anymore. We take soft-sided, 22- to 23-inch duffels, made out of sturdy fabric, with strong handles, skateboard wheels, and tops that completely open, so the duffels are easy to pack and easy to see everything inside.
Why soft-sided? I saw some cute, bright plastic carry-ons the other day at Reagan National…
Soft-sides are lighter and you can stick more things in them. We tell all of our [NG Expedition] travelers to leave their hard-sided suitcases at home. If you’re on a ship, hard-sides don’t fit under the bunk, and if you’re on an African safari, hard-sides aren’t even allowed on the little planes.
But doesn’t everything end up a mess in a duffel? You must be the king of cubes and packing folders.
(Mutters) Plastic grocery bags work perfectly well. Before I go, I take my shirts and slacks to the dry cleaners. I have the shirts boxed, so they put cardboard in the collars, which keeps the shirts looking good. I pack the slacks in the plastic cleaner bags so they don’t wrinkle.
What about electronics?
I put my cameras in a carry-on knapsack. I usually don’t bring a computer. If I do, I carry it in a regular computer case.
Any last tips?
I always pack a zippered, collapsible bag – you know the ones that fold into an envelope. On my way home, I store my dirty clothes in that, which leaves space for the stuff I buy in my regular duffel.
Photo: Jim Bullard