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This week’s topic relates to the logistics of work travel (or, honestly, any travel!). Short version: last week, I traveled for a week-long interpreting assignment, with only an underseat bag (including bringing my laptop!) and I’m now pretty much a convert to this style of packing. Read on if you’d like to know the details!
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For a long time, I traveled primarily on Southwest, where overhead bin space is rarely an issue because it’s free to check bags. I’ve always been a pretty minimalist traveler and I essentially never check luggage other than something like a bicycle that absolutely cannot be carried on. I got into the habit of taking a rollaboard suitcase and my laptop backpack and those basically always fit in the cabin on Southwest. However, lately I’ve been flying United a lot more, and baggage suddenly became a huge problem. United doesn’t check bags for free, and they really want you to pay for an upgraded boarding group; if you don’t do that, there’s a high chance of ending up having to check your bag at the gate (which is free, but also annoying and time-consuming) because the overhead bins are full. With two week-long interpreting assignments and the ATA conference coming up, I decided to investigate some better options.
As luck would have it, various luggage companies have capitalized on this phenomenon and now make underseat bags with approximately the same carrying capacity as a rollaboard suitcase. This works, because you’re eliminating the bulk of the suitcase itself. After doing some research, including watching this YouTube video, I settled on the Underseat Pro backpack, which costs about US $50, and according to the company, has been tested to fit under the seat of most major airlines as long as it’s not overstuffed. I purchased the one with the laptop sleeve since I’m often traveling with a computer.
Cut to the chase: it worked! I was able to fit a week’s worth of work clothes (more on this below), my laptop, and everything else I needed into the backpack, and with a little jiggling, it did fit under the seat on a United flight! Better yet, I was in boarding group four, and the gate agent was checking all rollaboard bags in that group, while I got to breeze onto the plane with my Underseat Pro!
Here are the details on how I did it:
- It goes without saying that if you’re trying to travel for a week with an underseat bag, you’re paring down to the must-haves, not the nice-to-haves. I really love my B.R.U.S.H curling iron (…there, I said it), but it was definitely not making the cut. You also need really good shoes because you’re probably going to wear a pair and take a pair, and that’s it. My Naturalizer Flexy ballet flats go with pretty much any outfit, and are comfortable enough that I can wear them for an entire week, then I took my cream-colored Vans Ultrarange shoes, which are comfortable enough for long walks after the work day, but can also kind of/sort of pass as “business casual” shoes.
- For work clothes, I took a “capsule wardrobe” consisting of one pair of plain black pants, one plain black skirt, and four dressy shirts that could be worn with either the skirt or the pants. I wore the black pants and one of the shirts on the plane, and packed everything else. Pro tip on shirts: as part of my year-end bonus to myself last year, I splurged on some made-to-measure wrap shirts from OdaLux, and they are my absolute favorite thing for work trips. They’re super comfortable but also dressy enough for work purposes, and the wrap belt is great because it’s sturdy enough to hold a microphone transmitter/battery unit, which we use the entire time at one of my travel interpreting assignments. I rounded the clothing out with a pair of yoga leggings and two light, long-sleeved t-shirts to wear in the evenings, a small purse to use during the day, a bag of toiletries, pajamas, a book, and my interpreting notebook and pens, plus my wallet and phone and a small bag of electronics accessories (phone charger, earbuds). All of this fit in the Underseat Pro with even a little room to spare.
- Obviously, a lot of this is situational and personal. I didn’t need to bring heavy outerwear or very warm clothes on this trip, and personally I’m OK with wearing pretty neutral, nondescript clothes that look professional but aren’t anything special. If you’re the person who wants to be wearing a different snazzy outfit with different shoes every day, this technique will definitely not work. For the record, one of the attendees at the conference I was interpreting for came up to me in the cafeteria on about the fourth day, and said, “You came with only that tiny backpack and you’re always wearing different outfits! Where did you put everything??” So, if you’re worried that people will notice that you brought a limited wardrobe, I would let go of that fear! I think most people don’t really notice or care, and the technique of totally plain pants/skirts with different shirts seems effective!
I’m looking forward to continuing this packing technique on my other upcoming trips. The Underseat Pro backpack is 18 inches long, by 14 inches wide, by 8 inches deep. Not surprisingly, these are the exact dimensions allowed by many major airlines. Interestingly enough, United’s dimensions are actually significantly smaller (17 x 10 x 9) so I think you really don’t want to overstuff the bag, but mine fit quite well. I think that sometimes, you’ll encounter some annoying obstacle (literally and figuratively). I flew on Icelandair in June, and on the return flight, my underseat space had the cable box for the entertainment system, and even my very small backpack had trouble fitting. But otherwise, I highly recommend this style of travel!
I hope these tips are helpful in your upcoming travels!
Corinne McKay (email@example.com) is the founder of Training for Translators, and has been a full-time freelancer since 2002. She holds a Master of Conference Interpreting from Glendon College, is an ATA-certified French to English translator, and is Colorado court-certified for French interpreting. If you enjoy her posts, consider joining the Training for Translators mailing list!