fb-pixel Skip to main content

Going on vacation? Pack for who you are, not who you want to be

Adobe Stock; Globe Staff

Roll your clothes. Use mesh packing cubes. Tuck socks in shoes. Make a list and edit ruthlessly. Choose a travel palette.

At this point, I’ve read so many “how to pack a suitcase” stories I could recite their lessons in a coma. Slip tissue paper between garments to prevent wrinkling.

So why do I still stink at packing? Because my challenges, I’ve finally come to accept, aren’t logistical. They’re emotional.

My name is Beth and I am an aspirational packer. I pack the person I want to be, not the person I am. If you saw Vacation Beth’s suitcase, you’d think she was an avid tennis player who reads 600-page histories, in hardcover, and cheerfully wears high heels while touring. If only.


The next time I’m getting ready for a trip, I should visit a shrink, not the Container Store.

That’s according to Cambridge therapist Kyle Carney. “Packing stirs up underlying, unresolved issues,” she said.

“People will come in and talk about how they are going away with a group of college girlfriends on a long weekend,” she said, and figuring out what to bring surfaces issues of self-confidence and appearance. “How do I look compared to my friends? Who has aged better?”

She also sees patients heading to a family trip, hoping on a subconscious level that if they just take the right clothes they’ll be able to better deal with difficult family members.

“If you can talk through these issues in therapy,” she said, “the packing is less of an issue.”

Even those without clinical packing problems face challenges because, whether or not we wish to believe it, some part of us is defined by the things we carry.

“All choices involve closing doors, foreclosing on a vision,” said memoirist Kelly Corrigan, the author of “Tell Me More.”


“A trip is nothing but potential,” she said, “but then you start putting clothes in a suitcase. If you don’t bring a raincoat you are not going to go out if it rains. If you don’t bring a bathing suit, you are not going to swim in the hotel pool. You are making decisions before you even get on the plane about what’s possible for this trip.

“Packing forecloses on spontaneity,” she added (unless you want to spend your whole trip shopping). “If you get there and you find out you can get opera tickets for $12 in the balcony but you don’t have a dress to wear. . . . ”

But many people bring items almost intending not to use them. They’re given valuable space in the suitcase so the packer doesn’t have to face certain truths, such as: I am not going to exercise on vacation.

“I always bring workout clothes as if I’m going to go to the gym,” said Jennifer Goemaere, a patient experience representative at Boston Children’s Hospital.

She routinely packs leggings and a sports bra and then, upon her return, puts them back in her closet, unworn. The only way to ensure that she would work out, Goemaere said, is to leave her gear at home. “Then I’d want to exercise.”

AnaMaria Musterer’s variation on the theme involves fancy clothes. When she’s packing, the Northeastern University grad student imagines herself at nice restaurants. Into the suitcase go the skirts and dresses. But when she’s actually away, she has no interest in dressing up. “Vacation mode sets in,” she said.


The airlines aren’t helping the problem, by the way. As they ramp up charges for checked and carry-on luggage, the pressure is on to take even fewer poorly chosen items.

Instagram is also a culprit, confronting us with images of beautiful people who trot the Globe with no more than a carry-on, said Sherry Kuehl , author of the Snarky in the Suburbs books.

The in-your-face minimalists give her packing shame. “What is wrong with me that I am paying checked luggage charges?” she asked. “It’s like I’m a hoarder and can’t make a decision.”

But if she doesn’t bring everything her family needs, she said, she fears she’ll be judged as a bad mother. “So I pack like I’m never going to see a Target again.”

The packing problem is part of larger vacation syndrome, one mocked by Adam Sandler in a fake TV commercial for Romano Tours on “Saturday Night Live.’’

He played an Italian tour guide warning vacationers to manage their expectations.

“If you were sad where you are,” he tells viewers, “and then you get on a plane to Italy, you in Italy will be the same sad you from before, just in a new place.”

Here’s the clothing version of Sandler’s ad: If you are an insecure dresser at home, on the road you will also be an insecure dresser. There aren’t enough mesh packing cubes in the world to fix what really ails you.


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.