The Carry-On Challenge: a new way to pack travel clothes

photo by Elliot Margolies
photo by Elliot Margolies

The last time I packed for a trip to Europe, I was going to Italy to attend a writers conference in Positano. Traveling there from New Jersey would necessitate a flight to Rome and another to Naples, then a drive down the steep, winding, breathtaking roadways to the Amalfi Coast.

Before my trip, the very mention of international travel elicited quite a flurry of advice. “Oh dear, the crime,” “be careful of the pick pockets,” “say ciao to your luggage.” Under no circumstance should I check my luggage, I was told. The “lost” luggage rate had never been higher.

If I decided to heed this advice I’d need to pack a carry-on with two weeks’ worth of clothing.

I was up for the challenge. I laid my clothes on the bed to see how many outfits I could make with the least number of components. Superfluous garments were flung to the floor. In the end, all the pieces of my tightly edited wardrobe worked beautifully together. Leggings worn on the plane could become pajamas if there was a chill in the air, yoga wear if I fancied some fitness, or thrown under a tunic for dinner. A cosmetic bag could become a clutch purse. A mini dress could become a tunic to be paired with the pajamas−I mean, leggings!

I was astonished that I could zip that suitcase closed.

I sauntered up to the Alitalia counter to check in. A lovely Italian woman greeted me warmly and asked for my passport. She told me to place the suitcase on the scale.

“Oh, no,” I said, “I’m taking it on the plane. I’m not checking it—it’s a carry-on.”

Don’t they have the greatest accents?

“You still-a have to weigh it.”

Hmm. Why would that be? Shouldn’t a carry-on be more about volume than weight?

Regardless, I did what she said and placed it on the scale. I must admit it was difficult to heave up there. They really should build the scale into the floor so you don’t pull your back out.

The lovely lady with the accent said, “Signora, you have to check this suitcase. It is too heavy.” She reached for a luggage tag for me to fill out.

“No, no, I can’t.” My hand went up. “I have to take it with me.” Then I lowered my voice. “I’ve been advised not to check bags. No offense, but I can’t risk it getting ‘lost.’”

I shouldn’t have added the air quotes, in retrospect.

“Then you have to remove 4.5 kilos,” she said without her heretofore warmth.

4.5 kilos, well, that’s easy. I yanked at the suitcase and let it drop to the floor. I couldn’t believe we were quibbling about a mere 4.5 kilos. I pulled out a few things and put them in my tote bag/personal item. My dopp kit was first. That thing must’ve weighed at least 4.5 kilos on its own, but just for good measure I grabbed my round brush with the solid wood handle—that had to amount to something. Then back on the scale.

I should point out that when I lifted it back onto the scale, I was not impressed by how light it had become. I smiled in spite of that.

She smiled back. Friends again! I understood her boundaries, she understood mine. Everything was buono!

“3.5 more kilos,” she said stone-faced.

What? How can that be? What’s that in pounds, exactly?”

“8 pounds.”

8 pounds! 8 pounds! I yanked the suitcase back and threw it on the floor. And by “threw” I mean “shoved” and then “kicked.”

“You will have to move-a to the side now, senora.” She waved me off so she could help the next passenger. She was moving on, without me.


I became woozy from the distant smell of espresso and maybe even pizza, as I went through the bag again. I wish I could tell you it was for the last time. It wasn’t. She sent me back twice more. Okay—I don’t know how much the fat lady at the fair weighs either! The last time she sent me away, it was with a big plastic bag to carry my tote and dopp kit, my round brush, jewelry bag, and two pairs of shoes. This see-through bag would be my new “personal” item.

When I finally worked the contents down to the acceptable weight, I was wearing 30% of my clothes. I slipped a dress over my “travel” outfit and over that, two sweaters. I cinched this gorgeous ensemble with two belts, accessorized with a scarf, three necklaces, and chunky bangles. And replaced my ballet flats with boots. I removed my three-hundred page manuscript and held it close to my chest—which wasn’t very close since my actual chest was four inches away.

I held my head high as I proceeded through security, confident that all the many pieces of my ensemble were, simply, bellissimo.

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  1. Only you Eva. Too funny. Would have loved a picture.

  2. hmm, yes, I shouldn’t have taken a selfie…that would’ve been a keeper.

  3. Haha! Funny the stereotypes people hold onto. I am currently visiting the Dolomites (Northern Italy) and it is so different from what I expected. Lovely people, beautiful, clean towns, and no (visible) sign of crime at all.

    1. You are so right! However I’ve never met warmer, more generous people than in Italy! Have a great time and thanks for visiting!

        • Peggy Natiello

        • 11 years ago

        This had me in stitches! And I know how brilliantly you packed in the first place as I witnessed the cosmetic case becoming the purse, the twisty necklace that you could form into various shapes, the black leggins that went from boudoir to beach!

  4. I think you beat me this time, Peg. 3 weeks worth in one tiny carry-on! nice job!

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