Academic Travel 1: Preparing for the Trip

JR ticket from Osaka Umeda to Kansai Airport. The exit gate machines swallow your ticket so I took pictures of each one as I went in order to claim them on expenses.

This year I’ve been travelling a lot for work. It’s been deliberate — I decided that being mid-contract, 2011 was my best year to do all the conferences, talks, workshops, and courses (as both teacher and student) as I possibly could. Getting into the groove of semi-constant travelling, and getting into a routine that meant I wasn’t constantly forgetting my passport or being too jetlagged to remember my name, has been a learning experience. So I thought I’d blog about what has worked for me. I seem to have a lot to say on this topic so this’ll be a series, the first of which is Preparing For The Trip. There’s a lot of generic travel advice in this first bit, but I hope that’s useful too.

In this post I introduce you to:

1. The Amazing Conference Spreadsheets of Planning and Packing
2. The Delights of Two Pieces of Good Luggage, or, Why I Don’t Admire You and Your One-Bag
3. Packing So Hardcore Even My Naval Dad Was Impressed
UPDATED 23/10/2011

1. The Amazing Conference Spreadsheet

One of the delights of being an academic is the multitude of transferable skills one has to have (*insert wry grin*), including those of travel agent and event planner. This got a lot easier for me once I came up with the Amazing Conference Spreadsheet (ACS). This is a GoogleDoc spreadsheet with two parts.

The first is a PLANNER where every event, including potential and unconfirmed events, has a column in which I list the details of, and check off, various steps such as “enter business trip request form”, “book hotel”, “submit conference registration form”, “check out location on Streetview”, etc. I can look at this and at a glance see the things that are outstanding for a given trip. I also use it for keeping track of advances, and expenses on the go.

The second is a PACKING CHECKLIST tailored to business travel and includes things like “video cable connector for Mac”, “map of venue”, and “business cards”, but also includes each item I individually take, rather than a generic catchall like “Toiletries” or “Shoes”. If you, like me, are the kind of person who remembers the toothbrush but not the toothpaste, then this level of detail could work for you too. People often think I am organised. I’m not. I just have good coping strategies.

I’m more than happy to share a copy of these if anyone wants one, just let me know.

Part of the ACS procedure is choosing how to get there, where to stay, transport to your venue etc. Sometimes those choices are restricted (which makes life easy), sometimes not (which means you spend a morning playing travel agent instead of doing science). Here are five questions that I ask myself as I plan my trip:

1. When are you going? Morning flights are tricky for me once the 2 hours travel to the airport is added to the 2-3 hours at the airport. I also feel that life is stressful enough without panicking that I won’t wake up at the five AM alarm. It’s a trade-off though: if I’m going somewhere unfamiliar and won’t arrive until after ten PM then I either budget a hotel near the airport or a taxi to the venue. Again, conferences are stressful enough without wandering around some strange town at midnight with a suitcase and a serious case of jetlag. More on evil jetlag in another post.

2. How are you getting there? Travel by train if you can, but realistically I only do if it’s going to take less than a day. Your time is important too, and your laptop battery doesn’t last forever.

3. Where are you staying? Stay in (one of) the conference hotel(s). More chance of casual networking opportunities. If you can, stay in the one nearest to the venue. You get to sleep in a bit longer. Carefully read online what the hotel has available as services and in the rooms so you can plan accordingly. Is there an iron? Can you go swimming? Do you really need that hairdryer? IS THERE WIFI?

4. Where are you going? Do a dry-run of getting from the airport/station to your hotel using GoogleStreetview AKA the Greatest Use of The Internet Ever. Print or download PDF maps of the relevant local transport system to your phone / e-reader. Carry these, along with the hotel address in the local language, wherever you go. When you get to the hotel, ask them to write the name and number of two local taxi companies on their business card and carry that. I’ve rescued myself with this more than once.

5. What will you be doing? Exploit the internet. Read TripAdvisor or similar travel advice sites before you go for info and reviews of:

  • The hotel you’ll be staying at (I’ve cancelled a booking based on reviews of a scummy hotel)
  • Things to see and do close to the venue/your hotel, especially museums, parks, and places to stretch your legs. Leisure is important!
  • The boring logistics of getting around the city/town.
  • Restaurants — remember, the person who leads the way to dinner, nay, even knows the name of a restaurant in a strange town, is universally admired 🙂

2. The Delights of Two Pieces of Good Luggage, or, Why I Don’t Admire You and Your One-Bag

My life was physically transformed by purchasing a four-wheeled, lightweight, hard-case suitcase. While I apologise to those on restricted incomes for whom purchasing new luggage is a bit of a luxury, I truly think a good rugged suitcase is a necessary investment for an academic. You will travel, and you will travel to cities with ankle-twisting cobbled streets, to towns whose public transit has no lifts or escalators, and to out-of-the-way campuses where the bus drops you on a gravel road. You need good luggage. Comparison shop, look for sales, and buy as high-quality as you can.

The four-wheeler is great for:

  • Not giving you shoulder/back strain
  • Keeping an eye on your luggage (I generally push it in front of me)
  • Navigating down aisles of trains
  • Not tipping over in the middle of a crowded concourse
  • Not giving you shoulder/back strain (Did I mention that? It bears repeating)

In my opinion, you actually need two pieces of good quality luggage: the four-wheeled suitcase and the carry-on. The carry-on can vary depending on your height, upper-body strength, and tolerance for hauling crap around on your shoulders. I tried a backpack for a while and although I liked the hands-free nature it was causing me back strain as well as not being a good footrest (see below). Now I have a little wheeled briefcase/cabin bag similar to what the flight attendants have (like this) that is much smaller than the standard carry-on suitcase but as roomy as a good backpack. In this goes:

  • Laptop, e-reader, vital cords/connectors for both
  • Travel pillow (this one from Muji, BRILLIANT)
  • Toiletries for the plane*
  • Comfy trousers for the plane, extra top & underwear, travel socks*
  • Wallet, phone, travel wallet with printouts
  • Crochet for take-off when I can’t use my e-reader

* these double as emergency stand-ins in case of luggage loss/delay

(More on my onboard procedure in another post). This bag sits on top of my bigger suitcases so they can be wheeled around as a unit. Importantly, it’s also the perfect size to fit under the seat in front of me on the plane. This is advantageous for three reasons:

  • It’s much quicker to grab your stuff from below if you have to transfer quickly.
  • You can saunter on the plane later and not worry about fighting for the overhead cabins.
  • When you’re a short person, not having a footrest on an eleven hour flight is simply painful. My bag does double duty.

Note: Lots of people pride themselves on the “carry-on only” trip. Hooray for you if you can not only get a week’s clothes into your carry-on as well as your laptop, another pair of shoes and your toiletries, but also carry it. I can’t. Part of this is because I don’t want to wear the same trousers for four days. Part of it is because I don’t really have a problem standing for ten minutes waiting for my checked suitcase. But mostly it’s because I have enough to worry about on a business trip without pulling a muscle in my bag carrying my insanely heavy carry-on. Your mileage may vary, of course 🙂

UPDATE: Make sure you remove the barcode stickers that get affixed to your luggage. A check-in desk attendant told me that nowadays the vast majority of luggage is sorted by laser-read scans of these barcodes, not by a person checking the tags. Any bags that make the scanner confused get put to one side and only dealt with with ground crew have time, which mostly means “too late to be on your flight”. This is apparently the number one cause of misdirected or delayed luggage. If you can’t get the stickers off, black them out with a marker. And don’t buy luggage with stripey/complex  patterns! 

3. Packing So Hardcore Even My Naval Dad Was Impressed

There are plenty of online resources about packing efficiently. Some of these are aimed at cruise-ship matrons whose greatest concern is not to wrinkle their silk. Some is aimed at backpackers who are going for maximum stuff/minimum space and weight. Some of it is for participants in the “one-bag” sport. Some of it is aimed at people who travel rarely or only travel on family holidays and are daunted at not being able to fit the entire contents of their wardrobe into their suitcase “just in case”. You and I, being business-travel academics, are none of these, and so I will link to none of the above. You can use Google. Here are my packing tips, I hope they may be useful to you.

A Justification:
Earlier this year when I visited my Dad, who is ex-Navy and thus with Experience and Opinions on packing, I packed the suitcase the night before my flight home and left it out in the living room. When I got up for breakfast Dad told me that he had looked at how I packed and felt not only proud to call me his daughter, but that he’d picked up a few tips. 🙂

Having said all that, my system is pretty simple.

(1) Take versatile clothes
(2) Lie them flat
(3) Use vacuum bags for small and dirty stuff

Versatility: Here are some guidelines for clothes, I think they should be pretty unisex:

  • Pick three colours that go together and only take clothes in those colours (blue jeans = neutral). That way everything can be worn with everything else.
  • If N = the number of days you are going for (including travelling days), calculate in terms of tops and bottoms. Take N+1 tops. Take N/2 (rounded up) bottoms. For a week you need three or less top-second-layers (i.e. jacket/cardigan/sweater).

Flat: On the bottom of the “clothes side” of the suitcase:

  • Trousers can be folded leg-to-leg and placed on the bottom with the leg hanging out. Alternate the placement.
  • Everything else should be flat. DO NOT FOLD ANYTHING. Even when you are tempted. FLAT.
  • Dresses (skirt out), jackets/sweaters (arms out), long-sleeve tops (arms out), skirts/shorts, other tops. Then fold the long sleeves over the other tops. Then fold all other hanging-out parts over everything. Lay a scarf/sarong/PJ top over all this and tuck in.

Compression roll-up vacuum bags: Socks/undies should go in these guys. They are like ziplock bags with one-way valves. You zipper them then roll and squeeze all the air out. They are utterly magic. Get them from travel goods companies, or cheaper at the equivalent of poundstretcher/dollarstores. Then the rolled bag can go on the sides of the suitcase. Take two extra – your dirty tops will go in these on the way home.

In each quadrant of the other half of your suitcase should go: your 1-3 pairs of shoes in bags (for smells and dirt), your toiletries bag, your bag of electronic stuff (converters, camera etc), and your umbrella/drink bottle/hair straighteners/space for local alcohol/notebook/whatever other items.

I have been rocking this system over four continents and seven pages of my passport so far this year, and it works a charm. Lying things flat, especially if you pay attention to the sleeves, means no wrinkles. If you unpack as soon as you arrive and hang stuff up, you will look fresh and presentable without having to do the world’s most boring chore, ironing.

Buy a scale to weigh your luggage at home. Don’t bother with the fancy travel ones — I got a fishing scale for about a third of the price.

Finally, let me vent on a pet peeve related to one-bag/poor packing. Dear colleagues — you are not backpackers. Conferences or other professional gatherings are not places to act like backpackers. If you look wrinkled, smell damp (or worse), and I recognise your shirt because you’ve worn it four times, I do not care how brilliant you are or whether you have just had your fourth paper in Nature or Science, I don’t want to talk to you. Be professional. This doesn’t mean formal. Just clean and presentable. Excitement, anxiety, and ambition are always present at an academic gathering, and it kills me how rank the average conference room ends up smelling, and how the average conference participant looks a bit wretched by the end of the week. Take care of yourself!

Okay, towards that end (taking care) the next post will be on Getting There and Being There i.e. airplane travel, exploiting your hotel, and what kit to take (or not).

Let me know what you think, and if you have any travel tips for academics of your own.

12 thoughts on “Academic Travel 1: Preparing for the Trip”

  1. “If you look wrinkled, smell damp (or worse), and I recognise your shirt because you’ve worn it four times, I do not care how brilliant you are or whether you have just had your fourth paper in Nature or Science, I don’t want to talk to you. ”

    … so this is why you avoid me!

  2. If you frequently travel, as I do, where the locals are deluded and imagine that instant coffee is, in fact, coffee, then you need a travel French press. I have a metal one that holds 2.5 good mugfuls of coffee. Yes, it takes up a chunk of luggage space. But. I don’t care. Coffee is vital.

    I also always travel with a corkscrew, sharp knife in a sheath and a flexible plate with pop-up sides which does equally good duty as a chopping board. All utterly valuable to those of us who regard wine as a substance as vital as coffee, and who have complicated food issues and can’t guarantee successful communication with restaurants.

    Yes, my travel essentials are largely food related (although I’m also desperately fond of my noise-cancelling headphones). I have a travel box into which all travel-specific items are placed upon my return (including a ziplock bag of cash for each country). The unauthorised touching of travel box results in bloodshed.

  3. I am in the process of buying new luggage and having the debate on wheels versus well-designed carry-on-sized backpack – good timing! I also have for a number of years been rolling my clothes up into sausages (i.e. as many as will fit together) instead of folding – as long as you hang them up they don’t look wrinkled. Looking forward to KIT tips – i never leave without spare clear sandwich bags so I don’t have to pay for the damn things at the airport and so I can bag stuff up on the way there! but I await your pearls on the subject 🙂 x

    • Ah, the rolling versus flat debate. I submitted this to the test of science and packed a suitcase both ways once. Flat = more stuff. Collars are hard to roll, too. Though rolling is quite zen, I’ll admit.
      There possibly is a good backpack solution out there, but another reason to avoid them is back sweat :-/

      • Re: backpack v. small roll-on carry on, I am firmly in the no backpack camp. We are not undergrads or backpackers any more; there is a visual and psychological association there I think that would be detrimental to getting into the business-traveller professional conference headspace right from when you shoulder it on….

        But to note: unless you go with the 4-wheel rolling big suitcase, it can be difficult to wheel a suitcase and carryon at the same time. (Another vote in favour of the 4-wheel suitcase — even if you love your two-wheel, seriously consider the switch!)

  4. Hadn’t really considered ever NOT taking a backpack for my carryon, but perhaps it is time to get a wee suitcase! (But it won’t match my lovely flowered main suitcase!)

  5. Excellent tips. I’m a 5th year grad student and and just now coming to realize I shouldn’t be taking my giant backpack abroad (though I took it last time). Not having a pack puts you into a different frame of mind. Kind of like wearing heels or a nice skirt rather than pajama pants and your boyfriend’s t-shirt. I’d love to see your spreadsheet, if you wouldn’t mind sharing!


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