If you've ever waited patiently (or impatiently) by an airport gate, you know that just about every pilot rolls up to his or her plane with a perfectly compact little carryon that is meant to suffice for what could be several days spent flying or stationed at a destination. We have always wondered how that computes.
What kind of magical training do pilots get that allows them to both fly enormous aircraft and pack the tiniest luggage imaginable? We caught up with a pilot we'll identify as Tim to give to abide his non-disclosure needs — he flies for a major commercial airline — to get the scoop.
"The important thing is not to overpack, there's really no reason to have three pairs of shoes or four types of hair conditioner," Tim says. "You have to kind of pare yourself down to be lower maintenance in a fashion way, but higher in technology so you have all the things you really need and love to have access to. Technology is better than a T-shirt anyway, and is usually smaller."
Here are the rules Tim says the pros follow when packing those tiny bags:
1. You only need one pair of shoes (really).
"Quick trips of three days or less don't require us to pack like we're going to a fashion show. You only need one pair of really good-looking shoes with rubber soles so you can walk, maneuver, and still look nice. One of our favorite tricks is to take great black shoes and ask the shoe repair guys in our home neighborhoods to add an additional layer of rubber to them. This way our feet don't ache after long walks through the airport, to cars, and after helping our friends and passengers." Genius.
2. Streamline the wardrobe.
Tim explains that cardigans, clean underwear, and clean underpinnings are the name of the smart, light travel game. "You don't need lots of denim or pants or dresses because you can rewear [your stuff]. Only pack the undergarments you might really need." Tim is basically your mother.
3. Go easy on the beauty stuff.
"Even my female colleagues never pack those big cases of makeup and skin items. You can pack something to clean, something to hydrate, and maybe a few small sample-size items of your other products. The only one most of us really get attached to in full size is deodorant because you never know how long you're flying for."
4. Noise-canceling headphones are a must.
Most of us are bright enough to pack headphones when we're traveling, but pilots apparently splurge on space with this one item. "Noise-canceling headphones are definitely a must for just about all of us. A lot of us love catching up on movies when we're hands-free, and even on the ground we have time to kill and don't want to hear a ton of chatter. We don't spend tons of money on these though because they get lost almost as often as sunglasses." Wireless versions this one are are becoming increasingly popular for pilots, because "tangled wires are a waste of time," according to Tim.
5. It's all about the snacks.
"If we're flying domestic, most of us pack a few small packages of our own favorite health bars, packaged nuts, or cookies, because buying them at duty-free is just about half our salaries if we do it every time. Way too expensive to have a $7-a-day cookie habit, and they really don't take up too much room in our bags." We agree with you, Tim: Home-baked cookies are better than an extra pair of socks.
6. Everyone packs or wears a scarf on board.
It gets pretty chilly when you're 30,000 feet above the ground, and both male and female pilots agree that packing an easily-washed scarf is the key to looking good and feeling warm in a practical way is the key to comfort on short and long haul flights. "The women usually opt for a color that matches their airline's logo or official colors, and the men almost always stick to navy or black. Just make sure buy a wide, flat scarf so you can pack and store it easily."
7. Bring a power pack.
"I always carry an extra device charger with me. I can watch movies on my iPad, use my phone, or charge whatever else I need and they take up so little space in my bag. Most of us carry at least one to two in our bags for long-haul flights." Tim recommends a slim, pocket-friendly model like this one.
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