First-night bag

We recently had dear friends stay with us for the night. They had just gotten married and were making their way cross-country to their new home in California. Their car was packed. Our neighbor happened to have the same model car, so we could see just how weighed-down their car was!

We met them in the parking lot so we could give them our parking spot (after all, they had most of their earthly goods in their car!) and move our car to street parking. They brought in a few bags then, and assured us they’d get the rest later. When we got in for the night around 10:30, they dug around in the car for a big suitcase (one of several) and a few more bags. They started asking each other “Do you remember what bag my hairbrush is in?” and “Is this the one with my pajamas?” I remember those days.

The drive from our grad school town to Hubs’s New Jersey hometown is 13 hours, plus stops. We have made this drive about a billion times (seriously, at least 10 times in 5 years). The first several times, we were like our friends. Packed car. Everything was in there somewhere. And we’d get the suitcases later, which meant that no one could shower the next day until someone went out to the car in pajamas (or whatever we found to sleep in) and dragged all the over-packed bags upstairs.

And my Ohio hometown is along the way from grad school to New Jersey, so we used to stack those trips. Meaning that the suitcases would get haphazardly re-packed (as long as it zips, we’re good!) and the drama would repeat. I’ve slept in driving clothes because I was too tired to care, and I’ve reworn clothes to avoid dragging the suitcase in. Not pretty.

So if I had been there when my friends were packing, I would offer this advice: Pack one bag (duffel or carry-on) for your trip. Only things needed for the roadtrip go in this bag. Things like toiletries and underwear, you’ll probably have more packed elsewhere, but this bag is just what you’ll need for the next week. If you can’t fit all your clothes in a carry-on, don’t go to a bigger bag! Instead, use Ziploc Space Bags, gallon-sized Ziploc bags, packing cubes, grocery bags, or any other kind of bag to designate the next “batch” of clothes to pull from. Put all your batches of roadtrip clothes and some clothes for unexpected weather in one bigger suitcase, and keep it in an easy-to-reach spot where you can find things and get them out without taking the suitcase out of the car. If you run into unexpected weather or go through everything in your carry-on bag, then open your bigger suitcases, get out extra clothes, and stash your dirties (we like Space Bags for this).

After years of long road trips ended by too many bags, I’ve developed a first-night bag system. If I’m going somewhere with more than one bag, I make sure that our smallest (and easiest to reach) bag has the following:

  • Pajamas
  • Toiletries
  • Underwear/socks/bras
  • Next day’s clothing

Suddenly, getting in at night is easy. We know that we only need to grab one bag, and it’s a light one. Everything else can be dealt with the next day, after we shower and put on clean clothes, I get breakfast, and Hubs gets coffee. (But sometimes we still leave our big bag in the car until we’re completely out of clothes…planning can only help lazy so much) If we’re going on a one-bag trip, I make sure to pack the pajamas and toiletries on top or in a side compartment. The goal is to make the first night and morning of the trip go as smoothly as possible, so I try to anticipate what we will need.

Other things to consider for your first-night bag:

  • Layers (sweatshirt, shorts)
  • Slippers or flip-flops
  • Shoes for the next day
  • Swimsuit
  • Medications
  • Granola bars
  • Laptop or tablet
  • Travel guide
  • Travel binder
  • Book, magazine, Kindle
  • Water bottle
  • Jewelry

Even if you carry all your luggage into your destination the first night, it still helps flow to have one bag with everything you need for the night. And if you plan to leave the rest of your things in your car or another questionable location, make sure all your valuables are in your first-night bag.



Hubs is having a hard time booking a hotel.

On our last trip (turning apartment-hunting into a weekend shake-up), we got spoiled.

le meridien main

A lot.

le meridien bar
Photos from Le Meridien Chambers in Minneapolis.

Now we’re trying to turn our drive from Minnesota to New Jersey into a weekend shake-up. Not a long vacation, but a chance to experience a new place’s energy and shake off the doldrums. And poor Hubs is doing his best to find a good deal in Pittsburgh or Cleveland (including being flexible about our dates to find the best deal), but everything pales compared to Le Meridien.

I had to break it to him that Le Meridien was awesome, but it is unlikely to become our new standard. Cue the Charlie Brown sad music.

AD charlie brown
From the Arrested Development Wiki page. Hubs really did this walk in our kitchen. There really were lounging guinea pigs in the background.

My packing goal

From Car Gurus. This is a near-exact replica of my first car, a 1990 Plymouth Acclaim, which I got circa 2003. Mine had the rain-guard upgrade…after-factory.

As a teen, I (sort of) lived out of my car. That’s a pretty generous packing area.

I had lived with my mom, but after she died of cancer, I bounced around a few different houses. I changed locations to start taking college courses and settled into living with a wonderful couple who are now second parents to me, but I still visited my dad often. And a weekend visit would mean the trunk of my car would be packed.

I was afraid to miss something. I wanted all my entertainment, and as many outfits as possible, at my disposal. I didn’t use suitcases often; instead, I would just fill up a few laundry baskets and totes. I would bring huge bags of makeup and hair tools, even though I’ve always been one to wear the same products every day and my hair always ended up in a ponytail within half an hour. But who cared? I had a huge car to stuff.

When I moved to grad school, I would have my car slam-full for 3-week trips home to Ohio. Then Hubs and I started doing joint trips to both Ohio and New Jersey. Around our wedding, we would literally have an entire hatchback filled to the brim; the passenger seat wouldn’t even recline.

I was so worried about being bored. Or not having the right clothes. Or shoes. Did I mention that I wanted all my crafts and hobbies? And I needed to take tons of books and papers, because I was going to be super productive. And with all that packing…I rarely crafted, almost never studied, and still ran out of clothes and shoes.

I’ve slowly gotten better. I’ve started flying places, and as a cheapskate, I have yet to pay for checked luggage. Our 9-day trip to India in March 2012 was a crash-course in dragging stuff I don’t need halfway across the world. I started experimenting with leaving things behind. At the same time, I started simplifying across my life. I gave up on crafts like scrapbooking and  glass mosaics. I enjoyed them but rarely worked on them because they take too much space (and, because I wanted each thing to be perfect, too much time). I fell in love with the Kindle and have sold off all but a handful of sentimental books and a shelf or two of professional resources.

Most importantly for packing, I weeded out my wardrobe, time after time, layer after layer, until I became ruthless. I didn’t miss the clothes I gave away or threw out, because they all had issues. They didn’t fit well. They had stains or holes. They weren’t my style. They didn’t match anything. They were never right for the occasion. They didn’t work. 

It turns out that when you pack mostly clothes that don’t work, you end up “running out of things to wear” no matter how heavy your suitcase is. Same thing with shoes; when none of them are comfortable, or they only match this one outfit for this one occasion, you’re going to be packing a lot of shoes to get by.

I’ll talk more in the future about my downsizing (rightsizing?) process and how I’ve learned to pack (and live) with less. But for now, I want to show you my packing goal:

The Aeronaut, from Tom Bihn

One “maximum carry-on” bag with stow-away backpack straps. Without wheels. For me and Hubs. If the size doesn’t limit me, the weight will. (I imagine that Hubs and I will trade off carrying this and his camera bag.) I’m tired of being tied to bulky suitcases, even carry-ons. If we get to a city early in the day, I want the option to just go about our day, with our weekend suitcase in hand if we don’t want to swing by our hotel to check our bag.

And yes, Tom Bihn makes lots of custom-sized packing cubes. Yes, I want them. Especially the one that converts to a lightweight backpackI can’t wait to graduate so I can get this as my graduation gift!

New trip on the horizon!

Exciting news in the Shakeup house — we’re going on a trip!

We were always going to travel from Minnesota to New Jersey, but we had been debating between flying and driving. Now we have pet-sitters lined up and have picked out our travel stops. We’re going to spend one night at the Indiana Dunes and another night in Pittsburgh (or Cleveland…but probably Pittsburgh). Dates are still up in the air as Hubs is looking for great deals.

Once we have it planned, I’ll start researching places to eat, things to do, etc. I’m going to experiment with using the Arc system from Staples to organize our travel plans. Our last few trips have been under-planned, and although we had fun, I’d like to try doing more research beforehand. Hubs likes to go all digital, but I need to see things on paper when there’s a lot of info flowing.

We’ll be taking a lot of luggage, because Hubs is staying in New Jersey at the end of the trip. I’ll be in NJ for two weeks, then have a several-day trip back to Minnesota. I’ll probably pack in our fūl 30″ drop-bottom duffel bag and a carry-on, but I’ll try to keep our road trip stuff in the carry-on.

My goal is to keep all our luggage and bags in the way back of our Honda Fit hatchback, even with a 2-week stay. As always, I’m saving up podcasts for our drive, and I’ll try to pack snacks and drinks so we’re not completely dependent on gas stations.

I’m looking forward to planning (and blogging about) this trip!

Lodging: Location, location, location!

Although I love staying in a nice hotel, what I love most is staying in a central hotel.

The Comfort Inn we stayed at for our August 2011 “honeymoon” in San Diego (which was a combined vacation and conference…as most of our vacations so far have been) was tiny. We had just enough room to scoot around the bed. Most of the finishes were outdated and worn. But we got a great rate, and I would stay there again in a heartbeat.

Although it was small, it still met our basic needs. We didn’t need a work space, just a “home base” and sleeping area. They included a small fridge and microwave, so we picked up some microwavable meals from a local grocery store to save money and time on meals. (One of my biggest disappointments with going vegetarian 5 years ago is the loss of lunch meat sandwiches on trips. I’m a picky eater and haven’t found an equivalently easy/satisfying replacement yet.)

Comfort Inn
From the Comfort Inn website. Never trust a fish-eye lens. (I think our room was actually smaller than this, but it’s a similar set-up.)

There’s a difference between outdated and dirty; the comforter may have been old, but I didn’t feel afraid to have the sheets touch my body. (Unlike our Minneapolis-area Motel 8 experience in May 2013.) And the staff were as friendly and helpful as we could ask for. (Definitely unlike our Minneapolis-area Motel 8 experience.) They may have had a room labeled “Business Center and Laundry Room (Really)” (no exaggeration — wish I could find the picture from my old phone), but they had found a way to offer both services and were able to laugh with guests about the juxtaposition of washing machines with printer-ready computers.

CI business laundry
From the Comfort Inn website. The laundry machines are cleverly hidden behind the photographer. 

They also offered breakfast. We usually stay in places with breakfast, so I hadn’t realized how helpful it was until we stayed at Le Meridien Chambers in Minneapolis. Hunger is a trigger for migraines for me, so when we had to go out and find a good breakfast place, mornings got less pleasant. (Note to self–always bring protein bars, especially if the hotel doesn’t offer breakfast.) Again, the breakfast area was tiny, but it was well-stocked and very functional.

The main reason I would stay there again? They were in the heart of the Gaslamp district! We had a blast on foot, and San Diego’s great train system was just a few blocks away. We literally could have gone to Tijuana on that train.

Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 10.23.27 AM
From Google Maps. No idea what the blue points are.

The hotel was also a few short blocks from the convention center (I was there for a conference, remember?). And in San Diego, I really enjoyed the quiet, overcast morning walk. (San Diego was where I realized that full sun day after day bothers me. I have issues. And I realize now that bright sun is another migraine trigger. But I’m also a twisted Midwesterner who distrusts continued good weather.)

So although there were many reasons I loved our experience at the tiny, outdated Comfort Inn, the biggest reason was that it was exactly where we wanted to be, at a price that left money for us to do everything we wanted in San Diego. And by the end of our stay, I kind of liked having the sink outside the bathroom.

A room with a view…and a little flexibility

In May of 2013, we had a lot to celebrate. We had just marked three years of being contractually obligated to like each other. Hubs had just defended his dissertation and had a job all lined up outside New York City. I had gotten an internship outside Minneapolis. Time to celebrate! (And apartment hunt. But mostly celebrate.)

We divided the trip into two sections: apartment hunting and downtown Minneapolis. For apartment hunting, we reserved a really cheap hotel room and got what we paid for. (Our mantra of the evening: “This room cost less than fifty dollars.”) Going super-cheap for the first night let us start out where we were viewing apartments, and it didn’t matter much because we rolled into town late and checked out early the next morning. (OK, we checked out early because we didn’t want to spend extra time there, but whatevs.) That one night’s sacrifice also let us spend the next two days and nights in this room:

le meridien main

We stayed in the Executive Suite at Le Meridien Chambers in downtown Minneapolis. I loved everything about this room. (Ok, I didn’t love the bench at the end of the bed that claimed part of my leg-skin during a middle-of-the-night bathroom run, but I even loved the Cinq Mondes hotel soap.) And the room had a powder room. That officially makes it easier to live in than our current apartment. (At 600 square feet, it was about the same size.)

le meridien

My favorite memory from this room (other than how much I loved everything about it) was our first night there, hanging out on the balcony. We snagged an $8 bottle of red wine on our walk home from dinner (Black Sheep) and stuck my iPhone in a glass with Pandora going. Once we had a good buzz going, we walked up to the hotel bar, which had an even better balcony patio (seen below). We ordered a white wine and a beer, then nursed them for an hour on the patio. (Biggest disappointment? We were right across from a recording of NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, but it was sold out. We checked. And we didn’t see anyone famous.)

le meridien bar

We travel on a budget…so how did this swanky room work for us? We made it a priority. I’m going to live near Minneapolis for a year, so we’ll have lots of chances to see the sights, but this was our only chance to stay downtown. For this visit, we skipped museums and instead explored the farmer’s market and had my first YLS (local yarn store) experience at Bella Lana. I ordered marches on foot until we both got quite grumpy, then we found that public transportation is actually quite affordable in that area (note to self–always research public transit). We ate some great food, but we limited soda to once a day and alcohol to one night above. Even still, this room is outrageously priced. Right?

Not if you’re as patient as Hubs is.

He actually picked the dates of the trip based on when this room was at a price we could afford. See, Hubs loves a nice hotel. And he loves getting a great deal. So he does a lot of research before he books. And after this hotel, I’m (a) spoiled and (b) willing to do all the rest of the research for the trip…IF he can get me rooms like this! And I’m definitely willing to be flexible on our dates so that we can get the best possible room.