Diary of A Professional Traveler: Packing

Over the last 4 years I have traveled on an international flight on average, about every 30 days. I’ve gone to areas of the world that are highly developed, right down to places where you have to pump well water for your shower. This series will share my insights on international travel, and will hopefully save you some hassles and headaches while making your travel experiences more enjoyable.

What to Pack?

This question is one of the most important ones you can ask yourself. Only you can decide if what you are packing is appropriate to where you are going, but let me list my essentials. First, let me break it down into 2 categories checked and carry-on.

Carry-on Luggage

I carry a personal shoulder bag. You may laugh and call it a pocketbook or a purse if you like – I don’t care. When Hui-chen and I traveled to the US I carried my personal bag around with me and nobody laughed. This bag is so important that even if the rest of my luggage is lost, I can still function with the contents of that bag. Here is my list for this bag:

Passport Wallet

  • I have a wallet that holds my passport (it actually holds 3). When traveling I place the passport in the wallet so that the back cover is inserted into the slot, leaving all the pages open. Whenever I have to show my passport to security, I simply whip open the wallet and flash the passport. It’s very convenient and also safe. This wallet also holds my boarding pass and itinerary in a single convenient place that is very easily accessible. I can produce my passport and boarding pass for inspection with one hand – a very important point when hauling luggage with the other hand. I also carry a photocopy of the ID page of my passport in this bag. Oh, I also carry a photocopy of my passport ID page somewhere in my checked luggage too.Passport Wallet


  • Although not everyone has a GPS, I always carry mine with me when I travel. There is a side pocket on my bag where it’s kept so that with just a touch I know where it is. A GPS can save you time and money when traveling in an unfamiliar place. Once I had a taxi driver take me 22 kilometers in the wrong direction, at night, hoping I wouldn’t be able to tell what direction we were going. His goal was to take me to a hotel where he would get a commission (of course, tacked onto my bill) for bringing a travel-weary customer who probably would be too tired to argue the point about it being the wrong hotel. My GPS confirmed that I was being hijacked.

Business Card Book

  • Normally I have business cards (called “name cards” in Asia) for hotels and businesses that I need to go to. Not having to open my checked luggage on the sidewalk at the taxi stand is an important consideration. I just hand the appropriate card to the taxi driver and off we go.

Pocket Items

  • I put every single pocket item that I carry in my shoulder bag. Mobile phone, pen, pocket change, keys – everything. When I hit the boarding security check, I simply place the shoulder bag on the x-ray machine belt and I’m clean to walk though the metal detector.


  • Fortunately I don’t normally have medication that I must take regularly. But this item is so important that it must be mentioned. I can’t tell you how many horror stories I’ve read where people with serious medical conditions put their prescription medicine in their checked luggage, and that luggage was delayed or lost. Use your head and carry your precious medicines on your person! Also, be sure to carry a copy of your prescriptions on your person, along with your other important travel documents. The reason for this might seem obvious, but in some countries, ordinary medications used in the treatment of cancer are controlled substances. Having a prescription written by a bona-fide MD may be the only thing that keeps you from being arrested as a drug user.


  • Ordinarily I carry a small pocket flashlight on my person, in a belt pouch. In order to pass through the security metal detector cleanly I place it in my shoulder bag. Once past security I put it back into my belt pouch. I cannot tell you how many times a flashlight has been useful in a dark aircraft, taxi, or walking along an unfamiliar road at night. A flashlight can also successfully be employed to repel aggressive dogs by shining it directly into their eyes as they approach you. This may also work on potential human attackers. Fortunately my size is usually enough of a deterrent.

Additional Passport Type Photos

  • Let’s say you’re vacationing in a foreign country, and you decide that you would like to take a short trip into a neighboring country – after all you won’t be passing through here again anytime soon. Now, all you have to do is find a local photo shop and have some new passport photos taken for your visa for the additional country. You end up not going because it’s just too much of a hassle to find a photo shop when you cannot read the local language. I always pack a mini photo-CD with a recent photo on file, as well as several passport sized prints, ready to use. Believe me, I’ve used them more times than I ever would have thought.

In addition to these items that I carry in my shoulder bag, I also carry:

  • Camera Bag
  • Bush Jacket
  • Bush Hat

Obviously I want to carry-on my camera gear rather than check it as baggage. The bush jacket can be rolled up for a nice lumbar support or used as a blanket during the flight. The bush hat can be used to cover the face while sleeping to block out the light, and it can be rolled up and placed behind the neck for support. Sometimes I carry an inflatable neck pillow for this purpose. I have a backpack that is designed to hold camera and computer equipment. What I like about this backpack is that I can have my notebook and camera equipment with me in a carry-on bag that doesn’t look like contains anything of value.

Unless everything I’m taking on a trip will fit into a bag that I can carry on in addition to my camera bag, I pack a single large hard case and check it as baggage.

Checked Luggage

Heavy Items

  • Common sense tells us to put the heavy items on the “bottom.” But, what is the bottom of your checked bag? It is the bottom surface when the back is open, or the bottom of the bag when it’s being rolled around? What about when the bag is standing on it’s side? All you can do is to wrap up your heavy items and then place them at the opposite end of the bag from the items that might be broken if they are crushed by a heavy object. Put towels or clothing items in between that will cushion the impact.

Security Items

  • By security items I mean anything that you know will not be permitted on board the aircraft as a carry-on. This would include things like my pipe cleaning tool. Check your airline’s website for a comprehensive list of things that are permitted in your carry-on luggage, but please keep in mind that some items are not permitted on the aircraft whatsoever. Make sure you know what these items are so you don’t run the risk of accidentally trying to pack something that is prohibited.

Roll Your Clothing

  • Seasoned travelers roll their clothing. When you unpack and unroll your clothing you will find that it has less creases than from being folded. Even the most neatly-folded clothing will be disturbed by the rigors of air travel. Rolled clothing will remain rolled up and will look better when you arrive. Personally I find that rolling my clothing also makes it easier to pack and move around to fit the spaces I need filled.


  • It may sound silly, but you may want to use your digital camera to take a photo of the contents of your bag before you close it up. Also take a shot of the outside of bag too. It’s very compelling evidence that you just happen to have photographs of the outside and inside of your bag should a dispute arise. Also, in a pocket somewhere inside the bag, you should keep a copy of your passport ID page. I usually put one of my namecards in the card slot on the bag. Don’t rely on those ID pouches that are attached by a keychain or strap – those fall off or are taken off by unscrupulous persons. Anything you can do to make your luggage unique will help at the baggage claim later. I usually put a cinch strap around the bag for extra support. I’ll use some wild color for the strap and it really stands out. Some people put a couple of pieces of duct tape on the outside to make their bag stand out. You get the idea.


  • After suffering from some embarrassing personal fungal infections while traveling in the Tropics, I now carry powder with me and I use it daily. It works! I highly recommend using an anti-fungal powder. Depending upon where you are going, there might not be any 7-11 stores where you can pop in and get things like tissues. Also carry a pack in your personal bag, but bring several bulk packs in your carry-on. I normally bring my own soap too because I don’t like hotel soap, or shampoo for that matter. My suggestion is that you bring whatever toilet items that you cannot live without, just in case you can’t get those items where you are going. Sure, you can get most things in the airport shops but I don’t want to arrive in a new place and have to go shopping for toiletries right away. Also the prices in the airport shops are too high for my liking.

My next article will talk about boarding and preparation for the flight.

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  1. Excellent post MJ. Wonderful tips for a clumsy traveler like me. Especially the ones about carrying pocket items in a shoulder bag and taking snaps of check in baggage is really helpful. I will keep them in my mind next time I go traveling. Looking forward to read next post in this series.

    Ashish’s last blog post..My Dream Machine

  2. Ashish » after losing items at security checkpoints, and holding up the line, i finally got into the habit of bagging everything beforehand and just sending the shoulder bag through the x-ray machine. the security people will always ask if you have a mobile phone and i just point to the bag. it makes their job easier too because there are less individual items for each traveler. normally it’s my camera bag, shoulder bag, and a tray for my hat and jacket and that’s it. thanks for your comments Ashish.

  3. I love travel posts like these! These are all great suggestions. I am always trying to pack smarter every time I travel. I love going to travel stores and looking at all the gadgets too.

    Sandy’s last blog post..I?ve been tagged!

  4. Sandy » i have 4 articles planned for this series. the next one will deal with the flight, and the last one is about what to do after you land and arrive in a new country. i hope you enjoy them!

  5. wow,,really educating!!! thanks for reminding me to take picture of my luggage in an out,,,uh,,i never do that but now i will…..

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