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Apr 30, 2024


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Guest Essay

By David Mack

Mr. Mack is a writer and a former reporter for BuzzFeed News.

I’m terrible at packing. Laughably terrible. Concerningly so. On a recent trip to Las Vegas with my boyfriend (I’m gay) and both our mothers (again, we are extremely gay) to see Adele (you get the idea), we both packed so much that you’d be forgiven for thinking we were moving there. I doubt Adele packed more, even though she semirelocated there for several months.

My boyfriend is, somehow, even worse than I am. His philosophy when it comes to luggage is progressive: Leave no shirts behind, lest they feel excluded from our vacation. He doesn’t want anyone at a hotel to see him in the same outfit twice.

With our traveling circus of luggage, we are hangers-on to an old way of life. Long gone are the days when you wouldn’t think twice about checking a bag and waltzing onto a plane empty-handed, knowing it was someone else’s problem. Today, there is intense pressure to pack light and travel exclusively with carry-on, leading to boarding processes so stressful they can feel like the wildebeest stampede from “The Lion King.” We’ve been forced to become our own baggage handlers — and we often have to pay for the privilege.

What other industry could get away with that?

None of us fully trust the airlines to get our bags to our destination. One 2013 survey found just 19 percent of passengers traveled exclusively carry-on; by last year, a separate survey had found that this carry-on-only group had climbed to 41 percent of travelers.

There’s good reason for that skepticism. For the past two years, news stories have spread of luggage meltdowns leading to a mountain of missing bags, thanks to systems becoming overwhelmed by a surge of people traveling again after the worst of the pandemic (a practice termed by economists as revenge spending to refer to our compulsion to spend feverishly on, among other things, the vacations we dreamed about during lockdowns).

Things were so bad last year, The Guardian called it the “summer of lost luggage,” and the stats back that up. After years of improved baggage arrival rates, a report in May by the aviation data company SITA found the rate of mishandled bags almost doubled globally from 2021 to 2022, to 7.6 bags per 1,000 passengers. International passengers had it especially bad with a rate of 19.3 mishandled bags per 1,000 travelers — almost eight times the rate for domestic passengers. Alarmingly, SITA predicted that the industry won’t return to “precrisis levels” until next year.

There’s no escape from the contradictions of capitalism. Just as decluttering experts want you to buy their books and storage solutions, the travel industry now has a whole bunch of stuff to sell you so you can travel with … less stuff.

Entirely new technologies and markets have sprung up. Is it just me, or did packing cubes emerge seemingly from nowhere in the past decade? Somehow, our ancestors once voyaged across continents and oceans without these things, but now I seem to be given a new set each Christmas.

Of course, you also still need travel-size bottles of every liquid product you might ever imagine. (Don’t worry, because companies exist to sell you mini travel versions of everything from toiletries to salad dressing.) And make sure to purchase some AirTags or even a set of smart luggage, so you can track your bags digitally as if you were in the National Security Agency.

Then there are the strategies. TikTok is full of them. Have you tried rolling your clothes before packing them? Or perhaps folding them, KonMari style? Or treating them as if you were playing Tetris? Or secretly filling a travel pillow with clothes? Or even stuffing everything you’re traveling with into a fishing vest, wearing that on the plane and hoping others on board don’t become suspicious and alert an air marshal?

I’m exhausted, and I haven’t even started packing for my summer trip yet.

Gabby Beckford, 27, has amassed hundreds of thousands of social media followers posting under her brand, Packs Light — a name she chose because it captured her zeal for flying with only carry-on baggage, as well as a deeper spiritual approach to travel that involves leaving behind things that might weigh her down.

Ms. Beckford’s philosophy is simple: They sell underpants everywhere in the world, so why are you packing extras?

Having more clothing options, for Ms. Beckford, can actually feel limiting. Overpacking means overburdening yourself. When we spoke by phone, she was in London, bragging about how she’d been able to easily carry her luggage alone through the Underground and up three flights of stairs to her Airbnb.

My proclivity for overpacking, Ms. Beckford told me, comes from a place of pessimism and a “scarcity mentality,” whereby I’m constantly imagining everything that could go wrong on a trip and trying to pack accordingly. That negativity can color a trip from the start.

Sure, plan ahead, research the climate at your destination and pick a few fun outfits you want to wear in your Instagram upload, she advised, but don’t stress too much. It’s a vacation, after all.

In one video she posted in May, Ms. Beckford urged any followers traveling to Europe this summer to leave half their suitcase empty and instead pack $350 in spending money so as to fully take advantage of the shopping opportunities there.

Now that’s something any gay man can get behind. If I have to buy something, let it be a bunch of new outfits at my destination that bring me joy, even if I’ll probably be stressed again one day as I worry how to bring them all on future trips.

David Mack (@davidmackau) is a writer and a former reporter for BuzzFeed News.

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