The Carry-On Challenge: a new way to pack travel clothes

photo by Elliot Margolies
photo by Elliot Margolies

The last time I packed for a trip to Europe I was going to Italy to attend a writers conference in Positano. Traveling there from New Jersey would necessitate a flight to Rome and another to Naples, then a drive down the steep, winding, breathtaking roadways to Positano.

Before my trip, the very mention of the word Naples elicited quite a flurry of advice. “Oh dear, the crime,” “be careful of the pick pockets,” “say ciao to your luggage.” Under no circumstance should I check my luggage on a plane to Italy, I was told. They have the highest “lost” luggage rate in the world.

If I decided to heed this advice I’d have to pack a carry-on with two weeks’ worth of clothing, since after the weeklong conference, my family would meet me for a week of traveling.

I was up for the challenge. I laid my clothes on the bed to see how many outfits I could make with the least number of components. All my pieces worked beautifully together. Leggings worn on the plane could become pajamas if I was cold, or yoga wear or thrown under a tunic for dinner. A cosmetic bag could become a clutch purse. A mini dress could become a tunic to be paired with the pajamas−I mean, leggings!

I couldn’t believe I actually zipped that suitcase closed.

I sauntered up to the Alitalia counter to check in. A lovely Italian woman greeted me warmly and asked for my passport. She told me to place my suitcase on the scale.

“Oh, no,” I said, “I’m taking it on the plane. I’m not checking it–it’s a carry-on.”

Don’t they have the greatest accents?

“You stilla hava to weight it.”

Oh. Why would that be? Shouldn’t a carry-on be more about volume than weight?

Regardless, I did what she said and put it on the scale. I must admit it was difficult to heave up there. They really should build the scale into the floor so you don’t pull your back out.

The lovely lady with the accent said, “Signora, you have to check this suitcase. It is too-a heavy.” She reached for a luggage tag for me to fill out.

“No, no, I can’t.” My hand went up. “I have to take it with me.” Then I lowered my voice. “I’ve been advised not to check bags to Italy. No offense, but I can’t risk it getting ‘lost.’”

I shouldn’t have added the air quotes, in retrospect.

“Then-a you have to remove 4.5 kilos,” she said without her usual warmth.

4.5 kilos, well, that’s easy. I yanked at the suitcase and let it drop to the floor. I couldn’t believe we were quibbling about a mere 4.5 kilos. I pulled a few things out and put them in my tote bag (my one personal item). My dopp kit was first. That thing must’ve weighed at least 4.5 kilos, but just for good measure I grabbed my round brush too, with the solid wood handle, that had to amount to something. Then back on the scale.

I should point out that when I lifted it back onto the scale, I was not impressed by how light it had become. I smiled in spite of that.

She smiled back. Friends again! I understood her boundaries, she understood mine. Everything was buono!

“3.5 more kilos,” she said stone-faced.

What? How can that be? What’s that in pounds?”

“8 pounds.”

8 pounds! 8 pounds! I yanked the suitcase back and threw it on the floor. And by “threw” I mean “kicked.” For obvious reasons.

“You-a will have to move to the side now, senora.” She waved me off, so she could help the next passenger. She was moving on. Without me.

“Fine.” I went through the bag. I wish I could tell you it was the last time. But it wasn’t. She sent me back twice more. Okay! I don’t know how much the fat lady at the fair weighs either! The last time she sent me away with a big plastic bag, into which I could fit my tote bag and my dopp it, my round brush, my jewelry bag and two pairs of shoes. Ironic that this see-through bag was my new “personal” item.

When I finally worked it down to the acceptable weight I was wearing about 30% my clothes. I put a dress on over my “travel” outfit and over that, two sweaters. I cinched that gorgeous ensemble with two belts. I wore a scarf and a few necklaces, chunky bangles, and I switched into my boots. I took out my manuscript and carried it close to my chest−which wasn’t very close since my actual chest was four inches away.

I held my head high as I walked through security. I had to remember, at least all my pieces worked beautifully together.

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6 thoughts on “The Carry-On Challenge: a new way to pack travel clothes

  1. Haha! Funny the stereotypes people hold onto. I am currently visiting the Dolomites (Northern Italy) and it is so different from what I expected. Lovely people, beautiful, clean towns, and no (visible) sign of crime at all.

      1. This had me in stitches! And I know how brilliantly you packed in the first place as I witnessed the cosmetic case becoming the purse, the twisty necklace that you could form into various shapes, the black leggins that went from boudoir to beach!

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