this friday is our one year blogiversary! come back then to see our rundown on year one of our next life, and to give us some feedback on how we can keep improving in year two. and now on to today’s post…
we are definitely not what you would call minimalists. coming into our home, you would find plenty of things on our shelves, almost no empty surfaces generally, and books… books everywhere. (i think on some level, i’ve always been skeptical of any approach to living that includes getting rid of most of your books.) rather than proclaiming to be minimalists, we would say that we are more about living simply, which to us means being super careful about acquiring anything new, being choosy about what we take on in terms of time, and doing as many things as we can ourselves, instead of outsourcing the labor.
but even though we don’t consider ourselves to be minimalists, we’ve learned a lot about minimalism — and life generally — from one particular thing that we do a lot: travel for work.
work travel has become an ever-present force in my life, especially. i do it virtually every week, sometimes more than once in a week (like this week and next!), and even though we work from home, i think of the drive from our house to the airport in the nearest city as “my commute.” i know everything about my travel routines in detail — how long it takes to drive from our garage to the airport parking garage, how long i need to get through tsa precheck and to the gates at my home airport, which stand makes the best almond milk latte, which water fountain shoots up the highest jet of water for filling my water bottle after security, which gate agents are the nicest, which seats i prefer on which aircraft, and almost all of that same info at the airports i most commonly connect through and fly into. it would be easy to see all of this as too much info cramming my brain, but i’ve come to see it as making travel easier, because it removes the decisions.
for years, when i was traveling gradually more and more for work, i was all about adding. adding better luggage. adding travel gadgets and gizmos to make things “easier.” even adding a second set of luggage so i had one for longer trips, and one for shorter trips (but all still carry-on size). but now that travel has become a force in my life more like weather — closer to an everyday occurrence — all i want to do is subtract. to find the essential in the things i bring and the things i do, and get rid of absolutely everything else. and through that desire, i’ve connected powerfully with the notion of minimalism: omit needless things.
the most obvious aspect of minimalism and travel is to lighten one’s load. for years i have been a proponent of bringing only what you can carry on, for a lot of reasons: less luggage to have to manage at your destination and on public transportation, the flexibility to stand by on other flights, avoiding checked bag fees, avoiding time spent arriving at the airport early to check bags and time spent waiting at baggage claim, etc. but it was only when i switched from a rolling bag to a backpack that i truly embraced the principle of bringing less rather than more, hearkening back to eat the financial elephant’s guest post on the weight of your decisions.
literally carrying the weight of everything i bring, and not just once in a while, but in multiple hikes up and down long airport corridors each week has made me question before each trip, did i use that thing last time? is that something i could take out of the backpack? there’s now a bin of things under our bed that i once bought for travel, and have since decided they aren’t worth their weight. things like a lint roller, an immersion coil heater, a travel hair dryer, a small power strip, an extra pair of reading glasses.
a minimal packing list. the things that do make the cut now are only the most obvious: as few clothes for meetings as possible (with a bias toward things i can wear multiple times), a shirt and pants that as pajamas and workout clothes, a pair of folding ballet flats, underwear, a cloth bag for dirty clothes, a small bag of toiletries (soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, argan oil, mascara, deodorant), eye mask and earplugs, an insulated water bottle (for coffee and water), my laptop and power cord, my kindle, my phone, charging cords, a backup power brick, reusable bamboo utensils, a pen and notebook, sunglasses, lip balm, house keys, wallet, jacket and/or umbrella only if necessary. that is everything.
i now frequently have cabbies and hotel bellman ask, “where’s your actual luggage?” because i usually have just a small backpack and a small purse. and yet i feel perfectly well equipped by what i bring with me, even though it’s less than i used to carry, and far less than the giant bags i see people struggling with frequently at the airports.
it’s easy to let travel become a time suck outside of the actual travel time, and as i’ve done it more, i’ve tried to streamline this too. i just got tired of spending so much time packing and unpacking and repacking, picking the perfect outfits, and basically thinking about every trip from scratch. so i minimized that routine too.
never unpack. this is my best tip for you, if you want to travel with greater efficiency. when a trip is done, don’t unpack. the entirety of my routine when i get home a trip is to pull my laptop and any dirty clothes out of my travel backpack, and then put the pack under the bed (don’t worry — i’m diligent about checking my hotel rooms for bed bugs, and i never put my backpack on upholstered surfaces). then, when it’s time to pack for the next trip, all i have to do is add some clothes and underwear, and put my laptop back in. and i never get stressed anymore that i forgot something.
adopt a minimalist wardrobe. while i haven’t gone for a full-on minimalist wardrobe at home like des has, i have adopted a tiny capsule wardrobe for travel. this cuts down on “outfit planning” time, and makes it easy to manage laundry. plus, it has helped affirm the idea that most people really don’t notice what you wear, so long as you are presentable. now i bring only a pair of yoga pants from athleta that pass for work pants and are wrinkle-proof, two black tops, a black knit blazer that is work-passable, a nicer printed blazer only when necessary, a reversible shift dress that can be either black or gray, and a cardigan that can go with any of the other items. if i’ll be somewhere for a whole week, i might add one more top. packing all of this up takes at most two minutes per trip, and i’m grateful to get that time back.
do less at the destination. while i’m a huge fan of multipurposing work trips as fun trips, for places where i go often, i am much happier doing as little as possible so that i don’t add time stress. this is a big one for me: to avoid having to figure out multiple meals out, i’ll hit up a local whole foods or coop once, and buy food i can eat for the whole trip. (bonus: much healthier too. most business travelers rapidly become unhealthy from so much restaurant food.) whenever i see other chances to do less, i take them.
just like with lifestyle inflation (and blog comment inflation), travel ego inflation is a real thing. the airlines and the hotels get a whole lot nicer to you, the more you travel, at least in terms of benefits they throw at you. checking into my hotel last night, they gave me a free breakfast voucher just for my loyalty and a whole bottle of wine (i turned it down), in addition to upgrading me to one of the nicest rooms in the hotel. when i fly, i get upgraded more than half the time. it’s easy to start feeling like you deserve this stuff. like there’s something about you that’s more worthy of the perks than the infrequent travelers around you. so this one is more of an aspiration and resolution for me: i’m determined not to let any of this stuff go to my head. mostly because traveling a lot doesn’t change anything fundamental about me, but also because this is temporary. once we quit our jobs in two years or less, we will lose all of preferential treatment. we’ll have to ride in the back of the plane like everyone else, and settle for the most basic hotel rooms.
one of my early career mentors is an incredible woman who treats everyone with respect and dignity. i recently traveled with her — it had been many years — and saw that she leaves not only a tip for housekeeping every time she stays at a hotel, but she actually writes them a note thanking them for preparing her room and making her stay special. she is an astonishingly successful woman, the type for whom housekeepers would often be invisible, and yet she takes the time to write that thoughtful note whenever she travels. i decided to adopt that habit, and it strengthened my resolve to thank everyone i encounter with the hotels and airlines. because i want to appreciate people, not take them for granted, and part of that means never getting too big a head about whatever travel status i might have.
what i’ve learned
after the longer trips especially, when i’ve functioned just fine with a small bag of clothes and not much else, i often get home and think, we don’t need all this stuff. and that’s true. and maybe one day we’ll downsize a lot of it. traveling has absolutely helped me connect in a very real way to the principles of minimalism, and i now see it as an entirely realistic philosophy that isn’t actually about getting rid of all your books. through it i’ve learned that i can almost always make due without something, and that subtract is usually a better answer than add.
any traveling readers want to weigh in? any other tips you’ve adopted in your travel routine that you want to share? or on minimalism generally — any great lessons you’ve learned other ways? think you’ll try any of the tips we mention here? please share in the comments!
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