Travel tips: packing for mobility

This summer, I’ll be spending about six weeks traveling around west Africa learning about the social protection programs being implemented in the region. I’m actually trying a new model of travel planning for this trip.  Rather than picking specific dates for each country in advance, I’m going to be based in Accra, and take cheap regional flights to other countries as promising opportunities come up.

This puts a premium on packing lightly while still looking professional.  The last time I tried to check any luggage on a trip of this length, in 2012, Kenya Airways lost my checked bags on two separate occasions and I nearly missed a connection in London after pulling my overladen suitcases through multiple Tube transfers.  Since then, I’ve been refining my carry-on only strategy, and thought I’d share it here as the latest installment in the travel advice series.  Check out the rest of the posts as well!

How to Pack

  • Invest in a waterproof duffel bag.  Having to carry the bag puts a natural limit on how much you’ll pack, as Jan Chipchase points out.  It’s also quite useful if you’ll be arriving in a place where many of the streets aren’t paved, since this undermines the purpose of a wheeled bag.  I have a duffel that’s slightly larger than regulation carry-on size, and it’s always been allowed on the plane.  There are some classic styles at Poler and REI.
  • Pack no more than five days’ worth of clothing.  Everything should be business casual, with perhaps one or two pieces for more formal meetings.  Rewear what you can, or commit to doing laundry every three days.
  • Rethink your toiletry bag.  Skip the liquid shampoo and conditioner, which won’t last more than a few weeks, and pick up some solid shampoo instead.  Fill the space that this frees up with things you might have a hard time finding on arrival, like waterproof sunblock, hand sanitizer, and stain remover.
  • A tablet is the ideal travel accessory.  You can download guidebooks at the last minute with Kindle, install the local version of Yelp, and use the maps application to navigate without paying for data.  (When you’re connected to wifi, open the map to the area you’ll be visiting and zoom in and out to make it load at different levels of resolution.  Once you’re no longer connected to wifi or data, the app should keep the pre-loaded image on the screen, and will use GPS to track your location.)
  • Get a power bank Perfect for recharging when you’re on the road.
  • Bring a jump rope and resistance bands.  They’re a good in-room substitute for the gym if you’re staying in a budget hotel.

Other Considerations

  • Check the visa policies of all the countries you might be visiting.  The decision to offer visas on arrival or not appears to be completely random.  Don’t assume you’ll be able to get one at the airport.
  • Use a free ticket reservation to get visas for countries which want proof of a return flight.  But, you are asking, how can I get that five-year multi-entry visa for Ghana if I don’t know when I’ll be there and haven’t purchased my return ticket?   Most airlines will allow you to reserve a ticket for 24 hours without having to buy it.  Send this in as proof of your return flight.
  • Call local airlines the day before your flight to confirm your seat.  They often have small fleets and need to reschedule flights due to delays or maintenance issues.
  • Book your hotels at least a day in advance.  No good has ever come of trying to find a hotel on arrival, unless for some reason you really enjoy driving aimlessly around a new city looking for places that aren’t closed, dirty or fully booked.  AirBnB is also an increasingly good option, particularly in larger cities.
  • Pretend you’re in primary school and always bring a snack.  Good for long flights with inedible meals or late night arrivals after all the airport restaurants have closed.

What other tips do you have for staying mobile?