Traveling Light - And Not So Light

EVERY vacationer faces two primary decisions - where to go and what to see. However complex those choices might be, they can pale next to a third and even more daunting consideration: what to take.

Standing before a full closet and an empty suitcase, a prospective traveler confronts a challenge. Anyone jetting across time zones must anticipate changes in climate and terrain. Then there are the vagaries of weather. Hot, cold, wet, dry - who can predict? Finally, add the sartorial needs dictated by diverse activities - tourist by day, theatergoer by night - and luggage bulges.

Travelers can be divided into two groups. Those in the first group - call them the Small-Suitcase set - sprint off the plane with only a garment bag flung over their shoulder. Their fantasy is to arrive at their hotel before the encumbered passengers in the second group, the Big-Suitcase crowd, have even left the baggage-claim area.

Among my acquaintances, the award for minimalism goes to a former colleague and her husband. They managed to squeeze all their possessions for a four-month trip to Africa into a single, shared backpack. What planning! What freedom!

By contrast, the award for excess goes to a friend who, exhausted by the burden of too much luggage, once abandoned a small but heavy suitcase and all its contents on a street in Edinburgh. Those were the days before luggage carts and suitcases on wheels, and carrying it finally proved too much. In desperation, she simply left it in the middle of the sidewalk, "walking swiftly onward as if I had no connection to it at all." She adds, "I don't recall feeling any loss, just relief."

It is that kind of relief that prompts travel writers to preach the virtues of packing light. One author limits readers to a single carry-on weighing no more than 20 pounds. Forget anything electrical, he commands. Leave jewelry at home. Let T-shirts double as pajamas, and use a trench coat for a robe. He and other advocates of the Small-Suitcase theory of travel sum up their philosophy in a catchy phrase: "When in doubt, leave it out."

To which defenders of the Big-Suitcase approach are tempted to retort: "Pay no heed. Pack all you need." For travelers who insist on being prepared for every eventuality, the proud, defiant motto becomes: "You can take it with you."

As proof, they can point to a 50-page catalog geared to the needs of international travelers. Many items rank as useful necessities: money belts, sewing kits, tiny flashlights. But then there are the tempting extras that quickly add weight and bulk - electronic language translators, electric fabric steamers, portable smoke alarms, hot beverage makers, deluxe travel Scrabble games. All the comforts of home - on the road.

But even the comforts of home can come under new scrutiny when returning travelers unlock the door and cast a cool eye on all the possessions they left behind. One recent vacationer, shopping with a friend in an upscale Boston store last month, was overheard explaining that whenever she returns from a trip, she starts cleaning closets with a vengeance. As she put it, "After you manage just fine for two weeks with almost nothing, you come home and think, `Who needs all this stuff?' "

Good question, and one that can apply to much more than closets. Yet "stuff" is what a consumer culture thrives on, and paring down, for whatever reason, can be hard.

Even so, bringing a Small-Suitcase mentality to everyday life, not just trips, may be the new ideal for the '90s. Minimalism appears to be gaining favor. Excess is on the wane.

"Travel light" remains good advice. Still, some of the heaviest burdens on a trip have nothing to do with the size or weight of a suitcase. Perhaps guidebook authors should accompany their usual practical tips with a list of more rarefied suggestions for truly lightweight travel: Leave prejudices and stereotypes behind. Don't pack worries and cares. Above all, leave the office where it belongs: at the office. Easier said than done, of course, in an age of laptops, fax machines, and voice mail.

As the vacation season approaches and would-be tourists dust off their suitcases, the test, as always, will be to find a balance. In the meantime, some entrepreneur could probably make a fortune, marketing luggage under the label the "Golden Mean."

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