Published January 1, 2024
Hello! After my undergrad, I moved from the US to Europe, taking all my earthly possessions. A year later, I have moved back to the US, taking, again, all my earthly possessions. I am extremely susceptible to the endowment effect and I'm not rich yet, so I put in a lot of effort and moved back nearly everything I took there and then some without paying much extra — the process took quite a bit of repacking and rethinking, so I'd like to share my insights with you, dear reader.
This will be mostly targeted at people who carry around a lot of extraneous stuff related to a hobby or maybe a medical condition. I do a bit of electronics and the components and heavy equipment comprise approximately 30kg of my possessions. For instance, these two machines (oscilloscope, function generator + power supply) constitute a basic electronics lab totalling ~15kg, which I brought back from Europe.
Before you start, it helps to mentally sort your stuff by density. For example, clothes are low density, books wood and weirdly shaped knick-knacks are medium, and metal/stone/ceramic stuff is high density. I also knew I would have two checked bags (23kg x 2) and a carry on (18kg in non-American countries) with personal item (no limit), with the total weight >64kg.
While you may think it makes sense to pack densely in the checked bags so you won't have to lug it around, you actually need to save the densest stuff for the carry-on and personal item. This is because they always check the weight of your checked bags but never your carry-on, so it doesn't matter if the carry-on is super heavy. Also, checked bags are bigger, and oftentimes you will have to pack the biggest, fluffiest stuff in there because they do not fit anywhere else.
Not all the clothes go into the checked bags. Anything potentially breakable should be padded with clothes, preferably fluffy items like sweaters or puffers. Think of the luggage like a sushi roll — the valuables are inside, guarded by many layers of cushy clothing. Valuables should also be insulated from knocking into each other within the luggage center.
If you're really tight on space, you'll have to do a bit more optimization, sorting the clothes by density to determine which luggage is padded with what. I packed all the low-medium density stuff in my large bags, padded with the lowest density clothing so it wouldn't go overweight. Higher density clothes like pants and shoes went into the carry-on. This means the carry-on is less protected, but you're not going to throw it around if you're handling it yourself, right?
When you pack clothes, ditch the rolling and the folding routine. Just think about it — clothes only waste space when they're folded. Flat fabric sheets waste zero volume, but you add empty volume in the crease once you fold it. Fold your clothes as little as possible. Ideally they go into a suitcase that is exactly their shape and lie totally flat, but this is an imperfect world.
Arrive early, your stuff is heavy and you'll move slower accordingly. Oh, and you will get stopped at the security checkpoint — they claimed they could not see through my bag and had to unpack everything to re-scan it, then I had to pack everything again at that little side counter where they make the suspicious people hang out.
You should also know your bag weight just so there's no head-scratching repacking in the check-in line. Try to bring a friend. A couple came with me to the airport, bringing a small sack in case I needed to shed some cruft. Luckily, both my bags werighed in at 22.8kg/23kg. The staff are usually a bit lenient to overweight bags by about +0.5kg, but I didn't want to rely on the kindness of the Swiss staff.
After checking my two big luggages, I had only my burgeoning backpack and carry-on. Usually nobody cares how big/heavy they are, but once I flew Swiss and a person actually stopped me after the check-in because they said my carry-on bag "looked heavy" — it was, and cost me 60 bucks to check it separately. Avoid people who look like they're patrolling. You must be careful in this crazy world.
Something that never made sense to me is at the check-in, you can pay money to check your bag, but once you're in the airport and they've filled all their overhead storage, all of a sudden it's free! We can exploit this little glitch to ditch our large suitcase.
At your gate when they start calling out group numbers to start boarding, just don't move. You just keep reading/crocheting/twiddling your thumbs, whatever you were doing before. You have assigned seats anyway.
When the line of fellow passengers diminishes to nobody, go check in. We've now saved ~30 minutes of just standing in line, and usually those early riders will have used up all the storage. If this is the case. the staff will take one look at your hulking, totally-regulation carry-on and check it for free. Voila, now you just have to get you and your personal item to your destination — all your earthly possessions will follow along your whole journey without you needing to worry about a thing.
Ah, you don't trust the airport staff with all your earthly possessions? Yea, they do have a tendency to misplace luggage ~1% of the time. I always keep an Airtag in my checked luggage just to make sure it's following along — also, if they lose it, we'll have the small comfort of knowing where it ended up.
My ticket had an included checked bag (75$), and I paid 100$ for the 2nd one. My two checked bags weighed 22.8kg each, carry-on weighed 20kg, and my backpack weighed ~10kg. 175$/75.6kg comes out to 2.31$/kg, beating out every shipping option I could find online. For reference, UPS charges approximately 9$/kg to ship a package (I'm using the weight of both my checked bags, since the carry-on is free anyway).
This blog post will be rendered unnecessary once an hour of my life spent repacking is worth more money than 9$/kg. I'll still think applying optimization to the feat of packing is an enduring skill though, which will serve me greatly in my other arenas of life. Also, fuck rolling your clothes.
If you don't want to remodel your whole life around travelling, keeping these lessons in mind is a nice compromise. Hope you enjoyed reading, and that my painful insights become your pro-tips.