Friday, August 20, 2010

Still Life with Robin: Are You Packing?

Until Labor Day we're still officially in the summer vacation window, and many of us will be packing for trips.  I'm a big fan of packing lists, and of checklists in general.  If you're not already convinced that checklists are the best prevention against mistakes, get hold of Atul Gawande's latest book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, and read his utterly compelling case for using checklists whenever safety is at issue.

I wasn't always a great believer in checklists, though.  I became a convert after one particular trip that I took, minus my wallet.  How could I make such a mistake? It's simple. The night before the trip I was transferring everything in my day-to-day pocketbook to my preferred travel pocketbook.  I left my wallet out as a reminder to add the cash for the trip that my husband had withdrawn earlier that day from the ATM.  I finished the rest of my packing but totally forgot to ask about the cash, and as a consequence of that, forgot that my wallet was not in my bag.  At the crack of dawn the next morning we set out on a family driving trip to the Adirondacks.  We were halfway up the New Jersey Turnpike when I realized I had my bag but there was no wallet in that bag. That's right: I was on a week-long driving trip without a driver's license. This was years ago when my children were eons away from driving age.  Bill and I are both straight arrows when it comes to obeying traffic laws, so Bill had to do one hundred percent of the driving on that trip.  On top of that, I had no credit cards, no ATM card, no ID -- nothing.  We were up near the Canadian border and that put an end to any thought of making a day trip into Quebec Province.
If I'd used a packing list, I would not have been able to walk out the door without checking off not one but three essential boxes on the list: 1. Wallet; 2. Cash for the trip; and 3. ID/credit cards/health insurance card.

Ever since then I've used packing lists, but I quickly learned not to rely on a generic list, the type you can readily find on any good web site of travel tips but to custom design your own list.  I maintain and regularly update 5 different lists, based on the types of trips I most frequently take, which I have titled as follows:

Quick trip #1 (1-3 nights away - no swimming)
Quick trip #2 (1-3 nights away, including beach/lake/resort with pool)
Trip Abroad #1 (Europe/cool or cold weather)
Trip Abroad #2 (Tropical/warm weather, includes beach) Long Driving Trip

I keep these lists on my computer so it's a snap to add and subtract things as needed.  If I'm on a new prescription, that goes on all the lists.  Certain items -- passport, voltage converter, and foreign plug -- are just on the Travel Abroad lists.  Now say I'm traveling to England: I just change the generic "foreign plug" to "English plug" and substitute "pounds" for "foreign currency."

My lists are checklists in the most literal sense.  Each item on my list is preceded by a small blank box that I can check off with a pen as I put that item in my suitcase, carry-on, or handbag.  The list also has a column labeled "Before you lock the door for the last time, did you remember to...?" with tasks to check off, such as "cancel the papers," "give contact information to the neighbors," "reset the house thermostat," and so on.

But packing lists, while helpful, are not perfect.  Every now and then I discover that I've left something important -- no, more than important, essential! -- off the list.  There was the time we drove off on a family trip to Maine and I had just my usual set of housekeys with me.  Whenever we go away without a housesitter, we leave the house even more securely locked, with a seldom-used extra deadbolt lock.  That extra lock takes a third key that I don't carry on my regular keychain.  Bill had that key with him, and it didn't occur to me that it would be prudent for me to have my own copy.  As we were leaving the house, I saw Bill lock that topmost deadbolt lock, and I saw him put his key away, and didn't give it another thought.

Midway through the trip, however, this key became incredibly important.  My younger daughter, then about eight, came down with some sort of a bug while we were staying on remote Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine.  By the time we got to Portland she had a sky-high fever and was sick enough for a trip to the emergency room in the middle of the night.  (Why is it that these things only happen in the middle of the night?) The ER doctor took one look at her lungs and said it was pneumonia.  He advised taking her home and letting her spend the next few days in bed.  So Bill dropped me off the airport with the sick one, while he and our well child finished out the car trip as planned.

It's a pretty quick trip by plane from Portland to National Airport.  And then a half an hour after that, a cab had brought us to our doorstep.  Where, with a sinking feeling, I arrived at the realization that the door was triple locked, and I had on me just two of the three needed keys.  The one that would unlock that uppermost bolt was still with Bill somewhere in New England.  The taxi hadn't left yet, so I was able to stash the luggage on the porch and bundle my sick child back into the cab, and we set off for the home of the relative who had a complete set of keys to my house.  It was just our good luck that he happened to be home! Then back again by cab to our house, and this time we were in like Flynn.

The very first thing I did at home was tuck my poor sick child into bed.  The very next thing was to revise my packing list, so that I could never again start a trip without that third key.  Now keys are on the packing list, not just once but as 3 separate items: Top Lock, check. Middle Lock, check. Bottom Lock, check.

Over the years I've added other things to the list, usually not necessities but just little things I've learned are nice to have along: a pad of Post-It notes, a roll of Scotch tape, a few alligator clips, some clean unused Ziplock baggies in varying sizes.  These never take up much room and quite often come in handy. Any good travel tips web site will alert you to all kinds of little conveniences like these and will even tell you how to pack them efficiently. Still, it's never a big deal to leave them out.  Your keys and your wallet, are of course, in a whole 'nother league.

Final note: As the coda to the story of that awful trip, I'm happy to report that my daughter quickly and fully recovered from her bout with pneumonia.  And I have recovered from my bouts of amnesia over what to pack by grace of the best cure, the packing list.

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