June 26, 2023

Traveling Light: Testing the Limits of Consumption

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Earlier this year I booked a flight using frequent flier miles that ended up costing me about $20 total (a good deal on this route is typically at least $200). Needless to say, I was pretty excited about this. But my luggage would not be so lucky: it would cost $100 to check a suitcase roundtrip, or $130 to carry it on and store in an overhead bin.

Challenge accepted: I would bring only a backpack that could fit under the seat in front of me.

This meant taking an extremely minimalist approach to packing. As I have written about before, I have been flirting with minimalism for several years now, so I was looking forward to testing myself. This would be made easier by the fact that I would be staying with my mother and could easily do laundry and use toiletries that were already there.

This wasn’t exactly a true test of minimalism. Over the years, I have left a few articles of clothing at my mom’s house that I don’t wear regularly but don’t want to throw away or give away. Worn shoes stay there until it is time for them to go to a local store that recycles them. The plan was to leave another pair of shoes and two t-shirts behind, and if there was something I really needed I could buy it there and either leave it or ship it back home, presuming the cost of doing so would be less than the $100 checked bag fee. And the fact that the weather was warm meant I could wear lightweight clothes, and being on the small side means, well, my clothes are small.

Before packing, I checked the airline’s website for the approved dimensions of “personal items.” The backpack would have to stay within those limits when fully packed, so I kept the tape measure out as I packed the bare minimum: one pair of zip-off pants (that convert into shorts), a long-sleeve t-shirt, two short-sleeve t-shirts, a thin sweater, and stuffed socks and underwear into the lightweight tennis shoes I put at the bottom of the backpack (and would wear home). I’d also need to include my glasses, wallet, electronic devices (phone, tablet, earphones) and a meal and water bottle, since they would only be selling snacks on the flight. Of course, I wore my bulkiest clothes on the plane, layering a t-shirt under a sweater with a jacket with pockets to hold more stuff.

There was plenty of room for more in the pack, but to keep it within the airline’s dimensions I couldn’t add any more. Still, I was nervous when I got to the airport that the pack was too big since I’d never packed all my things in a “personal item.” I went to an empty gate and tested the backpack in the sizer and it fit easily. I could walk on the plane with confidence that I wouldn’t get charged for a carry-on (others weren’t so lucky when their bags failed the sizer test).

When I left it felt like I must be forgetting something important, but I had everything I needed for a casual family visit. No shopping required!

A few days into my visit, I picked up my nephew when he returned from his sixth-grade trip to a rural campsite. A bus carrying only luggage arrived first, and I watched as chaperones hauled off full-sized suitcases, then saw kids claim their bags, most having backpacks plus a full-sized suitcase, and in some cases more.

I marveled at all the stuff kids brought for just one night, after taking my half-empty backpack for an 8-day trip. Yes, they needed a pillow and sleeping bag, which I didn’t. But still….

Then I thought back to my own sixth-grade trip (which was for 5 days, not just overnight). I don’t remember how much I packed, but I do remember an extensive packing list was provided, plus there was no laundry service. Most of all, I remember the feeling of wanting to be comfortable for my first time away from home for so long. I didn’t want to be left out of any activities because I didn’t have the stuff I needed. It was cold at night (I think it was a late fall trip) and the clothes were bulkier. How much of what I brought then were comfort items to ease the stress of being away from home?

During this visit, I also helped a family member throw out old papers that had accumulated over the years. Occasionally the piles of papers would contain notes with to-do lists and phone numbers, reminders and addresses written down. All of this remained because they were afraid they might need one of the papers or notes one day. Piles of papers can even become “comfort items,” even though there were so many papers it was practically impossible to find anything.

This all got me thinking about how much our stuff, and purchasing more stuff, is about comfort—both physical and emotional. Certainly, some of it is necessary; if you’ve ever traveled and been without luggage, you know how uncomfortable that can be. But finding the line between just enough and too much can be difficult.

What does this teach us about consumption? Consumer goods are marketed with the promise that we will be happier and more comfortable with more. But carrying only a lightweight bag was freeing: no jockeying with fellow passengers for overhead bin space, no waiting at baggage claim, no lost luggage. In the past sitting on my luggage and hoping it would close was a pre-flight ritual, and unpacking might take a few days. Ironically, all of my just-in-case comfort stuff was weighing me down.

How might some of your stuff be weighing you down? Share in the comments below.


Good informative blog about travelling with ligth laguage.

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This is a great and useful post, thank you for sharing. I hope you will continue to develop your talents.

This is impressive and also great information. I personally liked going through your solid points on this topic.

This article made me reflect on our attachment to objects and how "seemingly unnecessary" things actually cause a mental and physical burden on our lives. The author's experience of only carrying a small backpack when traveling makes me see that life can be simpler and freer if we know how to eliminate unnecessary things.

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