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Road trip: Packing

Let me tell you about my packing challenge on my most recent travels.

My trip was a hybrid of travel by automobile, boat and airplane. I drove a rental car from Miami to New Orleans, took a steam boat cruise up the Mississippi River to Memphis, spent two nights in Memphis and flew back home. Total travel time: 16 days. 

I've never learned the art of packing extremely light. I've never backpacked across Europe. I can get along for almost a week on what I can fit into a roll-aboard if I have to, but why do that if I don't have to?

When I take a road trip, assuming I'm returning home in the same car I left in, I don't scrimp on luggage. If I think there's even a possibility I might do something that requires special clothing or gear -- hiking boots, a fancy dress, a case of bottled water -- I'll throw it in the trunk. I'll take extra clothes if I means I can skip doing laundry on the road. Why? because I can.

But what do I do when I have to cram everything into one suitcase and one carry-on for the flight home? When I need one kind of clothes for the road trip and a nicer kind for the cruise?

Here's what I did:

I packed a carry-on with all the electronics and gadgets I needed: camera, CD burner, notebook computer, iPod, hand-held GPS, audio books on CDs, noise-blocking headphones, chargers ..... You get the idea. 

I stuffed two duffel bags with the clothes I needed for the road trip. And stuffed is the operative word. I wouldn't interview anyone, see anyone I knew, go anyplace where I needed to dress up. My clothes would be clean, but that's the best you could say for them.

I packed nicer clothes for the cruise, including a couple of dresses and high-heeled shoes for dinner, in a suitcase chosen for its light weight.

A friend had given me a gift of large heavy-duty plastic bags made to be used in luggage. I could slide clothes into each, press the air out (mostly by kneeling on the bags), and zip closed. They worked as advertised, compressed into minimal thickness. Wow! I was able to fit a lot more clothes into my suitcase this way.

I counted on being able to do laundry once, near the end of the road trip, and transferring some of the freshly laundered clothes into the suitcase for the cruise.

I threw a large, sturdy cardboard box and packing tape into the car.

For three days, I wore clothes from the first duffel bag and only had to carry it and my carry-on into motel rooms. Then I switched to the second duffel bag. Duffel bag no. 1 became my laundry bag.

On the sixth night, I found a La Quinta in Biloxi, Miss., with a guest laundry, washed some of my clothes and added them to the suitcase, along with the lighter of the now-empty duffel bags -- just in case.

I packed my dirty clothes, heavy shoes, second duffel bag, a guidebook for the road and some souvenirs in the cardboard box, sealed it with the packing tape, took it to the post office and mailed it back home to myself. Then I turned in the rental car.

For the cruise, I carried one suitcase, which was unexpectedly heavy, and the carry-on with my gadgetry.

Everything worked fine til the end of the cruise, when I sealed all my clothes into the bags, along with more books and souvenirs I'd bought along the way.

The suitcase felt much heavier than usual. This was an unpleasant surprise. My clothes might take up less room in the vacuum bags, but because I could squeeze more in, the suitcase weighed a lot more. How much more I didn't know -- I didn't carry a scale.

I went to a post office in Memphis, got a box, packed up the books and some clothes, and shipped them home.

It wasn't just a matter of avoiding a fee for overweight baggage or a second piece of checked luggage (the duffel bag). The cost of shipping the items home cost almost as much as the fee for a second checked bag on AirTran. It was also a matter of not having to juggle three pieces of baggage and to avoid carrying the extra weight on my already-aching shoulder.

And a good thing it was that I sent those clothes home separately. When I put my not-quite-full suitcase on the airport scale, it pegged my suitcase at  48.5 pounds -- just 1.5 pounds shy of an overweight baggage fee. I sighed with relief and vowed to remember this lesson: Don't be fooled by the thinness of the sealed bags carrying clothes. They still weigh just as much.