The avarice of the old: it’s absurd to increase one’s luggage as one nears the journey’s end.
–Cicero, from Rand Lindsly’s Quotations and quotationspage.com
I love a good what-to-pack-for-your-international-flight list. Here’s mine, along with its intersection with Zipf’s Law.
la capuche (de jogging): Hoodie. This is the number one most important thing in my travel trousseau, and I basically never get on a plane without one. You want a pullover, not one that zips up the front, and you want a big hood. There are reasons for both.
A good hoodie serves multiple purposes. (1) A hoodie keeps you warm. It can get cold on planes, especially on long international flights at altitude and/or when you’re sitting by a window. If you’re worried about getting too hot: you can take your hoodie off if it gets too hot, but if you don’t have it with you, you can’t put it on when it gets too cold. (2) A hoodie provides storage. Remember that you’re going to get one with a big front pocket. You can stick your boarding pass in there, your phone, etc. Do, however, be careful about dropping things in the toilet–that big front pocket is convenient, but it’s not very secure. (3) A hoodie covers your eyes while you sleep. Remember the big hood. No point in wearing one of those dorky eye masks.
Dark clothes in case of spills: one big gust of wind while you’re in the air is all it takes to spill a cup of coffee down your front. Black clothes help to disguise spills. This includes the aforementioned hoodie. Plus, if you’re going to France, you will fit right in. Well, you’ll have to lose the hoodie.
Food: being hungry on a long flight is miserable. Showing up at your hotel at 2 AM, exhausted but too hungry to sleep, is even worse. You always want to have some kind of non-crumbly, non-greasy, non-messy food in your backpack.
Gum/toothbrush (small toothpaste only). You’re going to feel gross when you get off of that long flight, and if you’re planning to kiss someone when you land… Just remember that you can only carry on the little tubes. (I tried to carry on a mostly empty regular-sized one way back when liquid restrictions first went into effect, and was informed by the proud TSA agent that mostly-empty regular toothpaste tubes with maybe 3 ounces of toothpaste in them are dangerous in a way that 3-ounce toothpaste tubes apparently are not.
le pantalon de treillis or le pantalon cargo: (Loose) pants with cargo pockets: you’re going to be sitting in that airplane seat for a long time, and there are a number of things that you’ll want to get your hands on over the course of the flight–a phone, tablet, or iPod; your passport for filling out immigration and customs documents; headphones; and your wallet. Put them in the seatback pocket, and you might forget them. A pair of pants with cargo pockets gives you some extra storage on your person. Make them loose just because it’s no fun sitting in tight pants for 6-12 hours.
Organizer for storing cables, earphones, etc. I use a grid of straps like this one. The grid itself takes up some space, but it’s worth it to not have to find and disentangle your cords in four different pockets of your backpack.
Electrical adapter: one of the nicest things that can happen to you in an airport is discovering that United has put you on a Lufthansa flight to Europe. The only potential fly in the ointment is that your laptop battery is not going to last through the whole flight, Lufthansa has European plugs, and your European plug adapter is probably in your suitcase. Solution: if you’re going someplace where you’ll need an adapter, toss it in your backpack, not in your suitcase. This also prepares you for the hassle of lost luggage–when you get to where you’re going, you’ll be able to charge your cell phone if you thought to put the charger in your backpack, not your suitcase. The same logic applies to layovers in foreign airports, actually.
la multiprise, la prise multiple: Power strip. One of the biggest hassles in airports these days is finding an electric plug when you need one–an unoccupied one, that is. I carry a small, lightweight power strip with three regular sockets and a couple of USB plugs. If the only outlet that you can find is already occupied, just ask the occupant if they would mind letting you plug in the power strip. It doesn’t cost them any juice; not only have I never had anyone say no, but because there are three sockets, there’s yet another one for anyone else who’s been hanging around looking for an outlet, and you’re quite likely to make some random stranger happy. It feels good to make random strangers happy! You can find a small one at Radio Shack or similar places for about $8, or get a really light-weight and space-efficient one for about $20. (I should point out that the Guatemalan TSA once insisted on confiscating my power strip. I’ve never had a problem anywhere else, though.)
Sunglasses case: You don’t need a reminder to bring sunglasses, but might not think to put your sunglasses case in your backpack. What you’re trying to avoid is your sunglasses getting crushed in your coat pocket in the overhead bin, in your backpack–wherever.
Cell phone battery: this is the latest thing that I have no clue how I ever lived without. You can buy a spare external battery for your cell phone for about $20 to $50. This will get you enough juice to recharge your phone from one to four times, depending on how much you spend. I use it on planes, and on the long commute home, and in hotels rooms that don’t have a wall socket next to the bed, and… You get the picture.
les pantoufles (f.) slippers and/or chaussettes (f.) socks: This is a bit more of a judgement call. The problem to be solved is particularly a winter thing. You’re wearing your big heavy boots because it’s cold outside on the way to the airport, but you don’t want to sleep in them. You can’t go into the disgusting airplane bathroom in your stocking feet, though. Slippers are comfy, but they take up a lot of room in your backpack. My current solution to this is the kind of non-slip socks that they give you in the hospital. If you get the long ones, then they’re long enough to keep your ankles warm (i.e., be sure not to get hospital footies, which are too short), and I like to tell myself that the rubber strips on the bottom keep my tootsies out of the puddles of…I don’t want to know what…in the bathroom. You will also want to bring regular socks in summer to wear under your sandals. Yes, you will look like a little old man from the Midwest, but it’s better than freezing all the way through a transoceanic flight in the summertime.
les lentilles (f.) (pronounced [lɑ̃tij], transcription from WordReference.com): contact lenses. If you wear contact lenses, you might want to bring a contact lens case filled with solution and a pair of glasses for when you go to sleep on that long flight. This has plusses and minusses. The plus is that showing up somewhere with your lenses glued to the insides of your eyelids, unable to see if your taxi driver has turned the meter on or not, is a hassle. The minus is that if that little contact lens case leaks in your backpack and gets a lifetime’s accumulation of USB thumb drives wet, you’re going to be unhappy (voice of experience…).
Spare set of clothes: I once spent my first (and only free) evening in amazing Cambridge, England searching for someplace to buy clean underwear instead of wandering the colleges, as my luggage hadn’t arrived with me. Since then, I keep a zip-lock bag with a T-shirt, a pair of underwear, and a pair of socks in my empty suitcase when I’m at home, and I toss it in my backpack before a trip. It takes up a lot of space, but it’s better than dirty underwear.
Pen: sounds banal, but most countries today still expect you to fill out immigration and customs paperwork by hand, and the flight attendant is not going to be happy about lending you theirs.
Carrying it all
le cartable: you probably already know the term sac à dos for a backpack, but you might not know this one. You’re going to want a backpack to carry all of this stuff on the plane. (Backpacks are a dead giveaway regarding your Americanness, but (a) you probably ARE American, and why bother trying to hide it, and (b) I haven’t figured out how to do without one. For air travel, there are two or three things you can think about. One is width. You will often want or need to stick your backpack under the seat in front of you, and on some aircraft the aisle seat and window seat don’t have enough space between the brackets that hold them in place to accommodate a very wide bag. Similarly, depth is an issue. It’s tempting to buy a super-deep backpack that can carry half your wardrobe, but if you stuff one of those things full, there’s no way that it’s going to fit under the seat in front of you. Just don’t go overboard with either width or depth, and you should be fine. Compartments and pockets are another thing to think about. If you don’t mind having a bunch of little pockets, they’re good for organization. On the other hand, I would avoid a bag with lots of stupid straps and buckles that aren’t really necessary if you’re not mountaineering in the Himalayas–they just get caught on things.