Usually when I head out on my travels, I worry about what to pack and how much I can really fit in my suitcase. And, truth be told, when traveling with our family of four, my bag always out weighs the other ones - by a lot.
I know you're supposed to lay out your clothes, shoes and other necessities and then take some out, put it back in the closet or drawer it came from, and step away from the bag. But, I just can't do it. What if I end up really missing that one shirt or pair of shoes or skinny jeans that I decided to leave out at the last minute? It's not worth playing the "what if" or "why didn't I" game when I'm on vacation. So I don't. Hence the big suitcase I always check at the gate - and hope it doesn't exceed the airline's checked-baggage weight limit.
After all my many travels for business and pleasure, I've completely accepted the fact that I will always overpack in the clothes and shoes departments. But that's totally okay, at least for me, and so I don't stress about it at all these days. If only I could say the same about my other travel bag, which I refer to as my "urban tourist" bag. It's the one that's smaller in size, but takes up most of my packing time as I always spend hours and hours assessing, plotting and agonizing about what to squeeze in before I head out for a trip abroad or a visit to a Chicago neighborhood.
My Urban Tourist Bag Necessities
What is an urban tourist bag? It's the one bag I take with me and my family on our adventures throughout the city each day. While it may be small in size, the pressure is big to make sure it has everything my family needs that day - no matter what surprises the day has in store for us. It needs to hold everything that will keep us happy, healthy and sane. No pressure at all...
While our travels have taken us to cities with pharmacies and other stores that carry some of the very same items tucked away in my urban tourist bag, the products are often more expensive or not quite right. Since I don't want to waste any of our precious vacation time worrying about where to go and what to buy, I take extra care in packing my urban tourist bag with all of our daily family travel essentials. At this point, I think I've started to get it down pat. At least for now.
Here are the current contents of my urban tourist bag:
1) Smartphone Apps: As an urban explorer, I've become reliant on many of the apps on my iPhone (or iPad). From maps, to a translator, to the weather, my iPhone has become an easy way to navigate any city we're in, be ready for whatever comes our way, and understand where we're headed. A few apps I currently recommend are:
- Google Maps: No matter if I'm walking, driving or taking the bus, it's always good to be able to see exactly where I'm going and how to best stay on the right path. My family and I used this app a lot in Paris to get us from place to place, and make sure our taxi was taking us the right way. Here in Chicago we use to it find new addresses and I even proudly used it to direct my mom back on her intended route when she recently called me in a panic because she got lost in the 'burbs. (For anyone wondering, I have the iPhone 4 and have not yet updated its operating system since I don't want to give up my Google maps. And, no, my mom doesn't have a smartphone - yet.)
- iTranslate: This is an amazing app that lets you translate words or short phrases from one language to another at the push of a button. What's best of all is that it says the translated word in an audible voice so you stand an even better chance of pronouncing it right too! - Word Lens: I found out about this app when I was in Paris and it proved to be very handy. I love that you can translate a sign, menu or other multi-line set of text in one fell swoop. All you need to do is hold up the camera to the text you want to translate and it does it all at one time. It's super quick and oh so convenient. While the app is free, you do need to pay for each "language pack" you choose to download and use - so choose and download wisely.
- Postagram Postcards: After writing postcard after postcard and taking photo after photo during our time in Paris, I was thrilled to learn that there was a way to instantly turn my iPhone, Instagram and Facebook photos into postcards and send them to friends and family anywhere in the world. It costs $.99 to send postcards to addresses in the U.S. and $1.99 for those in other countries, but it can be totally worth it. It was fun and easy for us to use and it helped ensure our friends and family got their postcards in real time, which beats the traditional postcard my sister got a few weeks after we got home!
- Public Transit Tracker: No matter where your travels take you, it's great to always have a way to navigate the public transportation system in the easiest way possible. For my travels in Chicago, I recommend using the RedEye app, which lets you track CTA trains and buses and even taxis. Plus, the app lets you find the best spots for brunch, lunch and dinner, and stay up on the latest local news too.
2) Guide Books: My days of lugging around loads of big, heavy guide books are long gone. Instead, I search local blogs for recommendations of all those not-to-miss places in the city where we're heading that day. For that very reason, I recently started the "An Afternoon Exploring..." series on this blog to help locals and tourists alike know what places they should be sure to hit during their family excursions to some of Chicago's amazing neighborhoods. I figure it's a great way to "pay it forward" to my fellow travelers.
For my travels to other cities, I also look for small, lightweight, concise guide books to take with me in my bag. In Paris, we used City Walks with Kids: Paris Adventures on Foot as one of our main "guidebooks." Each small box comes with 50 adventures printed on small, easy-to-carry cards. Each morning, I grabbed whatever cards we needed for the areas we were heading and stuffed them in my bag. They helped us make sure we didn't miss any of the best kid-friendly sites in Paris. I also recommend the Fodor's Around Paris with Kids: 68 Great Things to do Together guidebook, which is small and convenient as well. They also make a Chicago city and other city editions of both. Just be sure to also have a detailed map of the city readily available to help you get from place to place.
3) Active-Boy Kit: I have two very active young boys and that means most of our daily travels are not complete unless someone gets a bruise, cut or scrape. In addition to packing bandaids with me, I also always have wipes, hand sanitizer, Neosporin and Aquaphor.
During our last trip to Paris, a father offered us Hemoclar to use on our younger son's head after he hit it on the cement floor during a pick-up soccer game in the Jardin du Palais-Royale. We later bought a tube of Hemoclar for ourselves at a Parisian Pharmacy after our older son ran into one of the poles that are all over the streets and sidewalks of Paris - right at kid-head level. And, now we're on the hunt for an medical miracle equivalent in the U.S...
4) Snacks: Everyone knows a hungry kid can quickly turn into a crabby kid - and when we travel, we try to avoid having that transition occur at any cost possible. To help stave off hunger, we always keep a ready stash of individual-sized dried fruit and nut packs with us at all times. In Paris, we also started carrying around a small jar of peanut butter and a plastic knife so we could always grab a baguette and have an easy lunch. And, in the spirit of complete honesty, I also find it to be helpful to have lollipops readily available as well. Not only do they keep kids happy, they also give them a jolt of sugar that's sometimes needed to combat jetlag and the like. Sometimes dire circumstances call for drastic mommy measures!
Keeping it All Together and Organized
At this point, you must think my bag is huge and a complete a mess. Let me reassure you that it's not. I'm actually proud at how well organized it is - at least for me. So what's my secret? Pencil cases from Target. Yep, for just a few dollars, I can keep my wipes, kleenex, bandaids, aquaphor and more completely clean, dry and organized. It's not fancy at all, but it totally does the trick. And the good news is that they're inexpensive so it's not a big deal if I ever need to replace one.
The same goes for my urban travel bag too. I'm not an expensive, designer bag-touting kind of a gal. I'm hard on my bags and always want something that's durable, but I won't feel devastated if it gets dirty, spilled on, or worse. And, trust me, it's all happened to me and my bag on my travels here in Chicago and aboard. For that reason, I tend to like to choose bags from Puma, Adidas and other sporty brands. I always find the bags I get from those companies to be durable, lightweight and fashionable too. And, no matter the brand, my bag is usually dark if not black - all the better to hide the dirt, coffee and other stains that could only come courtesy of our boys.
So what's in your urban tourist bag? I'd love to know and learn your tricks too! Feel free to include your top tips in the comments section below.
Here's to world citizens!