I should first of all say in my defence that it was the packing equivalent of Mission Impossible. I’d got pretty good at packing over the past four years in particular: micro-packing for baggage limits on humanitarian flights, speed packing when the flight was brought forward without notice, packing in the dark when there was a power cut. I’d reached the stage where I could pack for up to four weeks of work and play almost blindfold and in less than 13kg, leaving space in my luggage limit for the computer and whatever parcels and envelopes the local admin and logs teams would load me up with for colleagues on the other side of the country. In the Tetris of packing, I was at level five, easy.
But this was packing for five months, and for an itinerary encompassing an Italian summer and autumn in Canada; I was going to need clothes, shoes and kit suitable for cocktails in Manhattan and hiking in Peru. I was also going to have to adapt to the widely varying luggage limits of a range of airlines, from intra-European cattle transporters to trans-Atlantic carriers to domestic Peruvian airlines. This was Tetris level 27.
There are of course various strategies you can adopt at level 27. Over the past few months I’ve tried or witnessed quite a few of them.
There’s denial. You meticulously research the weight and size restrictions of every one of the eight airlines you’ll be flying with and reassure yourself, in the teeth of the evidence, that your compact and bijou case will be quite enough for half a year’s travel. All you have to do is wear all your bulky clothes to the airport, insisting to check-in staff that three coats and a fleece are absolutely essential to your in-flight comfort. Fill your coat pockets with any heavy items that won’t set off security alarms. And somehow squeeze your boots into the outer pocket of your hand luggage. Oh, and not buy anything while you’re away…
When denial finally breaks down, you buy a bigger case. In the best case, you do this early on, so you don’t spend half your holiday agonising over it. That also gives you time to get used to the new case; it loses the mental associations with double-decker buses and woolly mammoths and you eventually stop flinching involuntarily when you catch sight of it on a luggage carousel.
Then there’s precision packing. This is where you spend hours at each stage of your journey shoehorning your belongings back into every last square nanometre of space, until you need tweezers to extract them on arrival and your case acquires the density of iridium. If you don’t time the breakdown of the denial stage right, you can end up spending an inordinate amount of your holiday in this soul-destroying pursuit, only to give in and buy an extra bag right at the end. Unpleasant side-effects of precision packing include lumbago, excess weight charges and a strong desire for the whole lot to be irretrievably lost en route, enabling you to start afresh with nothing more than a toothbrush in a knotted handkerchief.
Borrowing is an excellent wheeze: it works especially well if your friends are of a similar size to you, but even if that's not the case, given that they live in the climates you’ll be visiting and are often given to the activities you’ll be indulging in, chances are they can lend you a large chunk of what you will need – making space savings in your luggage that can be filled with thank-you presents.
Parking is a less elegant but terribly convenient stratagem. It can require some long-range preparation, as it entails strategically locating close friends and family close to major airports, but once this is done you can plan your itinerary around them, depositing and retrieving plastic bags of hiking gear and swimwear according to what you’ll need on the next leg of your journey.
A secret cache of luggage space is a great stress reliever, if you can deny yourself the gratification of using it until the last possible moment. On a long trip, however luggage-phobic you are, inevitably your bags are going to fill up eventually. That means you need to keep some space in reserve for as long as you can: lie on your case to shut it, get someone else to sit on it with you, use a sharp implement to insert objects into the outer pockets – but don’t open up that expander zip until you have no other option. When every seam strains and the locks are ready to pop open at the slightest vibration, you release your secret weapon – and suddenly the tension is gone. Magic.
If all else fails, the postal service is your friend. Anything you’re not going to need between now and your final destination, assuming that’s somewhere with a functioning post office, can probably be sent on as a small parcel. (If you’re unreasonably lucky, you may even find someone willing to carry it back to your final destination for you – some kind soul who either has a larger luggage allowance than you or simply packs better.)
So in short, at Tetris level 27 – you cheat.
Trying to work out how to manage my luggage for this holiday actually kept me awake at night for a while at the beginning. (An excellent indicator of relaxation levels, given what used to keep me up at nights.) In a couple of days I’ll be checking in for my last flight of the journey with bags that now feel like home, equivalent to my full Air Canada luggage allowance, and still astonishingly full despite all of the above stratagems. I can't say I'll be sorry to set them down and return to my old 13kg formula. But they've neither multiplied, exploded in transit nor been traded in for a knotted kerchief on a stick - and I've only paid an excess fare once, so far...