Having heard all the summer travel horror stories – delayed or cancelled flights, altercations, lost luggage – I’ve decided to take only what fits into a carry-on bag for an upcoming two-week vacation. A couple of factors prompted this fraught decision. The first, obviously, is that airlines can’t lose your luggage if it never leaves your possession. The second is economic. I fly basic economy and can’t stand the way the airlines nickel and dime you, including exacting a fee for checked bags. It seems only a matter of time until they find a way to charge you to use the lavatory.
I well recall the golden pre-cattle car era of flight when an economy ticket entitled you to a reserved seat, adequate legroom, checked baggage, a meal, alcoholic beverages, bonbons on Air France, milk chocolate on Swiss Air, wash-n-dries and sometimes even hot towels. These days the amenities are probably superior on a Greyhound bus from Tulsa to Tucson.
You may ask: why don’t just pay the extra cash for premium economy or “main cabin extra”? I’m frugal, to put it politely. But more to the point, there’s a moral issue involved. I hate to let the airlines get away with soaking you for what ought to be free.
I condemn travelers for behaving badly toward flight crews or fellow passengers. But airlines should treat the preposterous marvel of air travel with the majesty it deserves. Civilized treatment shouldn’t be limited to those who can afford a business class ticket or above. You can’t expect passengers to shower you with respect if you treat them like livestock.
You may also well discover that there’s no room left in the overhead compartment once you locate your seat, or that your bag is too bulky and the flight attendant wrestles it away to store with the rest of the checked baggage. To minimize that risk I just bought a lovely, tasteful dark green, lightweight, polycarbonate, hard shell carry-on that is allegedly sized to fit in the overhead of most major airlines. We’ll soon find out. It also includes a phone charger but not a tracking device, which I understand some bags have these days. I suppose that can be purchased separately. But being able to geolocate your suitcase to Malaysia doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll ever see it again.
My splendid new valise replaces an overstuffed soft shell carry-on that once or twice drew the derision of flight crews. But let’s get real. Whether it qualifies as a carry-on basically boils down to catching your flight attendant on a good day.
Just in case the bag gets confiscated I’ve tastefully applied silver masking tape to the sides and bottom – a trick my father taught me eons ago – so that I can distinguish it from everybody else’s bag coming down the conveyor belt at baggage claim. The decoration is also to prevent some bleary-eyed traveler from absconding with it by mistake.
I’m doing my best to be a model traveler and only packing the absolute minimum. I didn’t fully appreciate what a strenuous mental exercise that is. Complicating the issue is that I’m packing for two very different climates: the beach and the mountains. Shoes present a particular problem. There’s only room for hiking boots if I’m willing to forsake things like socks and underwear. I’m not.
I’m hoping sneakers will suffice. Walking sticks are obviously out of the question. Even collapsed they’re too long to conform to the dimensions of my suitcase. The bad thing about global warming; well, there are many bad things about global warming. But one of the only good things is that you can dress light.
A major bummer with limiting yourself to a carry on is that you can’t carry things like liquids larger than 3.4 oz. Or knives. I don’t mean machetes. Just my modest Swiss Army knife featuring an indispensable corkscrew and bottle opener. I’m still smarting from the time a security officer confiscated a penknife with a two-inch blade. When was the last time you heard of a terrorist taking hostages with a penknife? I’m not asking anybody to bend the rules. Just employ common sense.
I admit I often over pack. Shirts especially. To avoid that I’m trying to visualize myself in different scenarios – schlepping to the beach, having dinner in a nice restaurant – and what I’m wearing. There’s something therapeutic about being forced to strip down, literally and figuratively, to the bare minimum.
But all my contortions may be for naught. My spouse informed me that she’s checking her bag. That comes as an expensive relief. I can toss my Swiss Army knife in her suitcase, maybe even my walking sticks. If all else fails there’s my backpack. It’s incredible how much you can stuff in one of those things.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com.
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