Art of Packing 1: Conference Packing

Some of these tips are repeatable for general packing, some are specific to conference-ing. I’ll follow up with a post on more general packing, adding in things learned by my husband from three years of working in Ukraine and flying several times a month.

The golden rule of packing, for my husband and myself, is: Take thee only two carry-ons. Let there be no checked bags. It’s especially important for Alex, because he travels internationally constantly, and CDG airport in Paris has a penchant for eating our checked bags. (As in, I think only once have we not lost a bag in Paris when we checked.) Plus, you can check in at a kiosk (no waiting in line for a boarding pass or to check your bags), and you can get off the plane and right into your taxi/shuttle/car/subway! This saves sooo much time and hassle.

The key is to pick a color scheme for your clothing. I usually limit mine to black, white, and red (maybe some grey thrown in) because I have a lot of those colors in my wardrobe, but on a recent trip to Arkansas I went with orange, black, and teal instead. Pick something where you have a lot of versatile options. Limiting the color scheme and packing separates (blazers, shirts and pants/skirts instead of dresses or full suits) allows you to pack less clothes and yet have more options. I am BIG on options–I never know what I’ll be in the mood to wear when I wake up, and this strategy satisfies both that and my desire to pack light.

For a typical 3-5 day conference, this is what I pack:

  • comfy-but-nice shoes (nice enough for conferencing, but low heels & cushy inserts–usually a dressy flat or a wedge heel, maybe dressy dark sneakers)
  • dressy shoes (for a fancy evening meal or party, not daily wear)
  • maybe flipflops for room/after-hours (warm weather only)
  • 2-3 scarves to help spice up the wardrobe (usually 1 scarf, 1 light wool shawl/pashmina that can work as a scarf, combats enthusiastic A/C, and acts as a blanket on the plane–I freeze when flying!)
  • 1 jacket/blazer (2 if I’m presenting, just because more blazers = more confident me!)
  • 1 cardigan (combats A/C during summer, gives dress-down option)
  • 1 skirt (I’m not a bit skirt person, but I like to have one reason just-in-case)
  • 2-3 pants/slacks (usually 1 grey, 1 black for 3 days; a 5 day trip means add a second pair of black pants)
  • 1 pair jeans or corduroys/casual pants (wear these on the plane-so you don’t actually pack them–& after hours at conference)… if a casual conference, I might substitute a second pair of dressy jeans for one pair of slacks
  • 1 shirt for each day, plus 1 extra (usually I pack a mix of oxfords, blouses, and a couple of “fun” t-shirts that I can dress up under blazers)
  • usually 1-2 of these t-shirts I’ll use as sleep shirts and after-hours conference wear, but I might toss in 1 more t-shirt for this purpose
  • track suit + gym shorts for sleeping, hotel lounging, and working out
  • extra pair of thick socks in case the hotel room is cold
  • coat, leather gloves, & pair of tights in cold climates
  • coordinating jewelery (not more than 2-3 options–I’m paranoid of losing my favorite earrings); I usually pack one delicate chain necklace and one chunky/long option, just to change things up–usually 2 pairs of earrings are sufficient

I only pack a travel umbrella if rain is listed as 70% or more likely for any day during the conference. If I’m staying in the same hotel as the conference (or adjacent to) I usually don’t bother with the umbrella at all. I’ve brought them too many times and not used them.

I used to bring a single plastic or otherwise sturdy folder to hold articles, presentation notes, conference materials, or work I’m doing. Now I try to bring as little paper as possible, and save most of it electronically. Most articles, conference stuff, and work things I can put on my e-book reader and even read on the plane. Before that, I was putting them on my smartphone and laptop (but I’m not taking my laptop to conferences as often now that my smartphone handles email, documents, presentations, etc.).  Plus, the e-book reader holds my pleasure reading (no books to pack, HOORAY!). However, the folder’s still handy to bring home any handouts (or a list of attendees, if your conference provides it). I typically ditch the conference book and exhibits guide when I leave–ALA’s is too big to keep–but smaller ones are helpful as a guide of what you attended (circle/highlight sessions) if you don’t have a daily schedule (I usually just put the sessions I attend in my smartphone calendar ahead of time so I know where to go). This depends more on if you need to keep track of professional development; if I want to ask the conference presenters a question later, I typically take a photo of their “contact me” slide instead of keeping the conference schedule.

I use my smartphone (iPhone 4, in my case) constantly at conferences (hence I carry my wall charger with me at all times):

  • media (TV episodes / movies / podcasts) to watch on the plane
  • calm/quiet music playlist for trying to sleep on plane or in noisy hotel room
  • taking photos of specific slides during presentations (charts, usually, or references)
  • business cards, vendor materials, anything I want to remember (but don’t want to write down or carry around)
  • alarm clock
  • taking notes during sessions
  • calendar/planner
  • email
  • instantly add new conference contacts to address book
  • point-and-shoot camera of conference experiences & walking around town
  • sports scores (the annual depository library meeting is always during either MLB playoffs or the World Series!!)
  • news & weather forecast
  • …oh yeah, and it’s a phone

I learned from my boss to take an extra bag with me to library conferences for all those handouts and free swag/books. She carries an expandable duffle bag. I usually try to get away with taking a disposable tote bag (usually from a previous conference), one that if I don’t need it (or find a better one) I can leave in the hotel room. When I pack to leave, it carries the conference swag plus my purse, so I still end up with just two carry-on items. If the swag is extra-heavy, I can check my roll-aboard and carry two tote bags on the plane–but usually the packing list above leaves extra room in my suitcase.

Put some extra ziplock baggies (and possibly 1 large plastic bag) in a flat pocket in your suitcase. These are great to hold receipts, replacements if your TSA liquids bag breaks, to organize small conference swag (pens, etc.), and just to corral random items. Include at least one gallon-size ziplock bag and if you end up needing more room in your bag, you can put some clothes in it and squeeze the air out–voila, you’ve earned yourself more suitcase real estate!

It’s good to balance between: what you need to make your trip quick and easy, and what you think-you-might-need-just-in-case but is widely available. For instance, I rarely pack soap, shampoo, or conditioner and I never pack a blow dryer, clothes iron, or hangers. All of that is standard in a hotel room–if you don’t see it (or a coffee maker), call the front desk and 90% of the time it’s available. Although lotion is always available, I do pack this because I usually need some on the plane.

In my purse or tote bag (the smaller carry-on that I keep under the plane seat in front of me) goes my wallet, lotion (in the annoying TSA liquids bag), an empty disposable water bottle (I fill it with water at a drinking fountain after going through security), my reading material (now my Nook), a travel pack of Kleenex, painkillers/meds, earplugs (some roommates snore!), eyeshade, sunglasses, shawl, noise-blocking headphones, my phone, and my phone charging cable (in case I need to charge it on a long/unexpected layover).

There are some affordable noise-blocking headphones (Phillips makes one for $60) but if you can afford them or beg your entire family to make it your Christmas present (and you fly a lot), the Bose headphones are actually worth the money. It’s superior sound (like a stereo in your head), but most of all it’s higher-quality noise blocking and for me they are cushier and more comfortable on my ears. My ears are kind big and stick out–I think I’m related to Will Smith–and it’s hard to wear headphones at all, so the cush of the Bose is wonderful. These make a HUGE difference in how I feel after a flight–I feel less tired, cranky, and beat-up if I don’t have to listen to the drone of the engines, the roar of the A/C, and the noise of fellow passengers for 3+ hours.

If I get in with a few hours before the conference or bedtime, I find the closest local drugstore (phone, online, or ask concierge). I usually buy a box of granola bars for breakfast and/or cheap lunch-on-the-go on busy conference days. (My other go-to lunch is Starbucks’ “perfect oatmeal,” which is cheap, fast, packed with protein, low calorie, and comes with nuts, dried fruit, and a free small coffee.) Later I might go back to the drugstore for bandaids or shoe inserts (if my shoes are unexpectedly uncomfortable), soda if I have a fridge in my room, etc. Finding close drugstores helps me feel more secure about not packing all those just-in-case items.

When it comes to dealing with dirty clothes, I stick them in a large plastic bag that I pack (or often I won’t pack that and will use either the disposable hotel laundry bag or the bag from my drugstore purchase). Just to be sure I know what’s what in case the bag breaks or in case I forget the bag altogether, I tie my dirty underwear in a loose knot (for boxers you can turn them inside-out and roll them if you fold the clean ones–just something different from your clean pairs).

What are your strategies for traveling to conferences?


4 thoughts on “Art of Packing 1: Conference Packing

  1. Laura says:

    Forget the drugstore for bandaids, start investing in New Skin! It’s a liquid bandage that you apply on your feet as if applying nail polish to your toes. Do it before wearing harsh heels or toe popping flats as a preemptive strike. Works like a charm. Of course, you need to pack it like nail polish for a carry on, but it’s worth it.

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