Expat packing

Like many expats, when I visit my “homeland” I’m traveling a long way, and staying there for more than the usual week or two. Although we usually have access to laundry facilities, these days we all have severe restrictions on checked luggage, which calls for some very strategic packing.

Here are some tips from a few experienced expat packers:

• A few weeks before departure, start a list of what you plan to take. Add to it as you remember things and don’t be afraid to cross things off. (Keep this list in a safe place, by the way!)

• Pack your “important” items first, to make sure you have room. For example, I’m attending a family wedding and a posh cocktail party on this trip, which involves two completely different outfits, plus shoes, bags and jewelry. (Ideally, the one outfit would do double duty, but alas, not this time.) I am also taking three summer birthday gifts, which go in first.• Don’t pack any garment that can only be worn with one other thing. You can really stretch your “wardrobe” by making sure that trousers have at least three tops/shirts to go with them, and that each of those tops can be worn with something else.

• No matter how much you love shoes, it’s not feasible to pack too many pairs. Plan the shoes you’ll wear for any special events, and then pack a few more pairs that go with everything. Organize your packing list around your shoes if need be, and make sure you have at least one comfy pair.

• Check the long-range weather forecast. I travel to the UK, which has changeable weather, to put it mildly. There have been years when I only took sandals, the weather was cold and rainy and a shopping trip for closed-toes shoes was my first outing. Unless you don’t mind going out and buying new clothes, pack for every weather eventuality, which often means layers.

• Except for destinations where you know you know you won’t be able to buy what you need, take small, plastic, travel-size containers of toiletries. Glass facial creams add significantly to the weight of your luggage

• Jennifer Howze, American in the UK and co-founder of BritMums, has a few strategies if you’re traveling to a place that’s cheaper than where you live: “Take the MAXIMUM allowance of bags, despite the fact that the kids take 5 t-shirts, 2 shorts and 2 swimsuits. Loads of space is taken up with gifts I cart home, which in turn leaves space for all the stuff I buy to take back as souvenirs, new clothes and gifts for friends. … I never pack basic white t-shirts or that much underwear; when we travel back to the States that’s when I buy new basics cheaply”.

• Weigh your luggage before getting to the airport. Seriously, those check-in people can be strict. In some instances, you can offload items into your hand luggage, but many small European airlines also weigh the hand luggage, as I found out a few years ago.

• Words of wisdom from blogger Potty Mummy, currently a Brit in Moscow – “Take a good look at the pile of clothes you have on the bed, ready to go into your suitcase. Lose a third; that’s more or less the amount that I seem to bring home unworn from every holiday we go on (with the exception of a ski trip, when there are never enough socks).”

• If you are traveling with children, there are some golden guidelines worth embracing. Potty Mummy advises to minimize the amount of toys that children take. “Almost everybody we visit has a store of toys we can rifle through, so they get a couple of small toys each, a maximum of 3 books (none of which shall be from the school library so help me god), and one cuddly soft toy. That way you can also find room in their luggage for snacks and electronic paraphernalia (and btw, I only ever pack 1 charger for their DS’s etc., not two – not only does that minimize space taken up, but we can be guaranteed there will still be one at home when we get back if the other gets lost).”

• Potty continues – “If you are going on a sunshine holiday, bear in mind that as long as they have cover-ups, the kids don’t need an endless supply of clothes; just enough for 3 or 4 days. As long as you have 2 or 3 sets of swimmers for them and the cover-ups, they should be fine.”

• Finally, leave room for the unexpected. Susanna Scott, American-in-UK blogger and co-founder of BritMums says – “Each time I visit my parents (me and the girls go for the whole summer hols) my mother gives me something to take back with me – always last minute of course– after we have packed. Last time she shoved a 30-year-old cheerleading outfit in my hands as we were leaving… “I’m not keeping this here anymore… You take it”. And indeed, this year so far, I have managed to accumulate a Royal Jubilee china cake stand and a cup and saucer, and I’ve only been here a week!

There really is an art to packing for a long trip “home”, and after 22 years I’m finally getting the hang of it.

Toni Summers Hargis is the author of "Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom", (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.