This family's travel rule: Take what you can carry, even if it means no pajamas

Sascha, Susan and Berns Rothchild on the way to Los Angeles Airport for a girls’ trip to Seattle.
Sascha, Susan and Berns Rothchild on the way to Los Angeles Airport for a girls’ trip to Seattle. Matt Kay

While recently waiting for a flight at Los Angeles International, I saw a lady have a meltdown in the dreaded customer service area. Because of delays, her airline decided to reroute her and her bags through Philadelphia. And although she did not want to go to Philadelphia, she was given no choice since her checked luggage was already onboard, forcing her to join it. No one should ever be forced to go to Philadelphia.

I watched this woman’s saga play out and felt a mingling of pity and superiority. Because of my packing habits, this horror would never happen to me.

I have my mother to thank. I was raised in a carry-on only family. No matter the length or purpose of the trip, checking bags was out of the question. It adds time and annoyance, battles with the metal millipede merry-go-round, struggles with maneuvering oversized luggage into tiny airport bathroom stalls — not to mention the all-too-common theft or misplacement. And by not checking bags — Philadelphia lady being a prime example — changing flights on a moment’s notice is far easier.

But for me, traveling lightly goes way beyond avoiding these unpleasantries. My mother is a packing anorexic and she passed down this glorious disorder to me and my sister. I live in Los Angeles, by way of Miami; my sister is in New York City and my mother is everywhere, in constant motion, even at 77 years old.

We often meet in some odd city to take a girls trip. I don’t like going anywhere I have to get vaccinations. My sister specifically likes going places where one needs vaccinations. My mother, a chameleon, is as comfortable in a tent in Timbuktu as in a Four Seasons in Paris.

Despite these differences, we travel well together. My mother is in charge of panicking. My sister is in charge of schedule. And I am in charge of doing all the driving. And whether we are standing on a precipice overlooking the alien landscape of The Dakota Badlands or getting scrubbed down on slabs of marble in an ancient bathhouse in Istanbul, we laugh and laugh and laugh together. Until my mother thinks she will pee in her pants. Or perhaps already has. Just a little.

For as long as I can remember, starting when I was about three years old in 1980, my mother has had a traveling rule: you can take what you can carry. She had other rules too, like always have a quarter in case you need to make a phone call. And always have a valid passport in case you need to flee the country. Also, bargain shop ‘til you drop, but never buy discounted meat or theater tickets.

But back to the first rule: Take what you can carry. As a three year old, this was very little.

And she had an addendum: Pack your own bag. My sister, older, was already well versed in packing lightly. The smaller the luggage the better. The fewer items needed the more impressive.

We are dangerously never satisfied. “Why did I bring that extra bra?” “Do I really need pajamas at all?” “One pair of jeans is fine since they are sort of self-cleaning. Right?” If I return from a trip having not worn something I brought, I am filled with a dread, a regret, a missed opportunity to pack even lighter. That damn extra pair of socks! A mistake I will be sure not to make the next time.

A two-week trip to Greenland? All we need is a puffy coat that can be squished to the size of a Go-Gurt cup, muck boots we can wear on the plane and a few changes of long underwear. For Death Valley, some sunscreen, sneakers and a wide-brimmed hat pretty much covers it. And for a wedding in the Orcas Islands — one nice dress that doesn’t wrinkle, some yoga pants and a few T-shirts is plenty.

Mascara is a must. Medication is counted and organized down to the pill so as not to take up too much room. Outfit options are an extravagance no one needs while traveling.

The fun for us starts weeks before the trip. “What are you not bringing?” We can discuss for hours how small our bag is, how few items we need, all the clothes and toiletries we are leaving behind.

The competitive spirit is invigorating and bonds us instead of tearing us apart. It’s like the Olympics; we each want a personal gold, but the team win is also important. I bring face cleanser pads, so my sister doesn’t have to also carry them. She will bring moisturizer. My mother will bring the perfume we all love to wear.

We would rather pack lightly, swing our tiny duffels over our proud shoulders with ease, than actually be comfortable on our trip or have what we might need. There is no room for maybes. No room for back ups in case red wine is spilled on a dress, or a heel breaks or we gain so much weight we can’t fit into our pants on our return home. (This happened to me after three weeks in Ireland.)

I know that, like a real eating disorder, packing light is a false sense of controlling the chaos of travel, and life, and the world. But it fills me with a calm, and false or not, it’s worth a blister from time to time from not having also brought my comfy sandals.

When my mother and sister and I first spot each other at various airports, we all long to hear those five magic words. Not “Wow, you look so skinny!” Or “Really great to see you!” Or “My how I’ve missed you!” We want to hear, “Your bag is so tiny!”

The more people who comment on how light we travel, the more it feeds our need to travel even lighter. A cab driver, a tourist, a gift shop clerk, a bellman who can see he’s not needed. When surly TSA workers notice how small our luggage is, that’s when we know we’ve really hit the mark.

Like so many women, I struggle with body image issues. I can’t live up to the unrealistic standards of air-brushed models on magazine covers. But I can live up to those emaciated metal boxes that sit at ticketing lobbies and in front of gates, to show how small bags must be to carry-on.

Airlines constantly seem to make them tinier and more misshapen, creating unrealistic packing standards for everyone. But unlike my battle with those unattainable magazine images, I can conquer the metal box. Any airline, any airport, every time. My bag is so clearly small enough that I’m usually not even asked by the gate check-in person to publically and — for some people — humiliatingly prove it.

Sometimes my baggage anorexia is paired with baggage bulimia. A pair of sneakers flat and dead, fit to be donated, will be brought on a trip, the last layer of sole support sucked out of them while walking through Mount Rushmore. And then upon checkout, left at the hotel on purpose. To me and my sister and mother, purging the second pair of shoes brought on the trip so the journey home will feel even lighter is a glory tantamount to having a malignant tumor fully removed.

As for shopping while traveling? Forget it. Unless the store can ship the items, and perhaps knock off state sales tax in the process, we are not a family that enjoys tourist trinkets, memorabilia, or anything sentimental. Because that stuff can weigh a lot. Weigh you down. Take up precious room. Better to keep the memories of the trip where they belong, in our minds and on our cell phone cameras.

Like all expert outliers, once you make the rules you can break the rules. And sometimes my mother’s eccentricity supersedes the need for a light load and she will schlep a coconut across the country. Or bring someone a cactus plant, wedged in between her cashmere sweater and hand washable travel underwear.

Once, she decided to bring a few tomatoes from point A to point B but thought best to put those in my father’s suitcase. Without telling him. He discovered his hidden stowaways upon arrival, having turned his clothes into a red-seeded mess.

It has occurred to me that perhaps there is a different kind of freedom in bringing way too much, in having tons of options and backups and the knowledge that no matter where I travel I will have everything I need. But the illusion of freedom in lightness prevails.

So what does that mean? Why are my mother and my sister and I like this? Perhaps our emotional baggage is so heavy, we are forced to pack lightly to even the scales. But I do know I will never be forced to fly through Philly.

Sascha Rothchild grew up in Miami Beach and now lives in Los Angeles, where she writes for film and television. She is the author of the memoir, “How To Get Divorced by 30.” Her father John Rothchild, also a writer, and her mother Susan Rothchild, still live in Miami Beach.