First: Don’t check luggage. I have a dozen flights in these three weeks. That’s a dozen chances for four separate airlines to lose my luggage. If you give them that many shots on the goal, they will score, and your luggage will be lost, and as you’re rarely in the same place for more than one day, your luggage may never catch up. So: Carry on. I have a roller bag, in which are my clothes and toiletries, and a travel bag into which I put my electronics and other things I want to be able to unpack at a moment’s notice.
Second: Decide to have a casual look, which is to say you’ll do better with clothes you can tightly jam into a carry-on, like tee-shirts or short-sleeved polo shirts and jeans, all of which de-wrinkle on their own after about ten minutes of you wearing them. I’m going to be the first to admit that this is much easier to do if, say, you are a dude writing science fiction, as I am, since the level of expected sartorial sophistication for science fiction male is “Don’t show up with Kool-Aid spilled down the front of your tee shirt.” Yes, this is a very low standard. When I am on the road for three weeks, I am happy to let a very low standard work for me.
That said, you can pack better clothing than I do into a carry-on and still make it work. Mary Robinette Kowal can pack as many days worth of clothing into a carry-on as I can, and still — unfathomably — have space for a ball gown. No, I have no idea how she does it. Ask her. I do think an iron is involved somewhere. But in a general sense, casual is better if you can get away with it.
Third: Have a scheduled laundry stop somewhere in the tour, which means that what’s on the schedule for some portion of one day is you shoving your clothes into a washer (and then a dryer), either at a laundromat or at the residence of a sympathetic friend. I don’t care how good you are at clothing Tetris, if you’re over a meter tall, you’re not fitting three week’s worth of clothes into a carry-on. At some point you will need to wash things. You must put this on your schedule; if you don’t schedule it, it won’t happen.
For what I think are obvious reasons, it’s best if the laundry day is scheduled at (or just after) the halfway point in your tour. My laundry day on this tour is on Day 12, which is slightly less than optimal for a 21-day jaunt, but still perfectly doable. This means I have twelve days of clothes in my bag plus the clothes on my back that I wore the first day of the tour (13 days in all). This means a very tightly packed carry-on.
Laundry day is also another reason to pack casual clothes: I’ll be jamming all my shirts and socks into one load and all my jeans and underwear into the other. Two loads, done.
Fourth: Rolling is magic. The key to putting twelve days of clothing into a single carry-on is have each bit of clothing take of the smallest amount of room as possible, with a minimum of surface area. The means taking every bit of clothing and rolling them into a highly compact tube, and then pushing them as tightly as possible next to each other. There are other ways to make your clothes small and compact, but this is my favorite, for two reasons: One, it’s easy to do — you don’t have to be a scientist to roll a pair of jeans — and two, it makes it easy to both extract and replace clothing during the trip: Pull out one clean tube, replace it with one worn tube (I turn my worn clothes inside out before I put them back into the carry-on so I know at a glance which things are clean and which are not).
So, having said all that, what’s in my bags?
Six pairs of jeans (plus one pair on my body at any one time): You can wear jeans for more than one day (provided you don’t make a mess of yourself), they’re durable and they can take a fair amount of abuse. This makes them excellent tour clothing. They can be bulky but again you can wear them for more than one day so it evens out.
Seven polo shirts: Easily packable but can be worn to places where t-shirts are not appropriate. I have business meetings during this trip, for example, so I’ll be wearing those then.
Five tee-shirts (plus the one I wore on the first day): These are good for travel days and other casual events; I’ll mostly be wearing t-shirts when I am at Phoenix Comic Con, for example.
12 pairs of socks; 12 pairs of underwear (plus the pairs I was wearing on the first day). Because you do need these. Really.
Toiletry bag: Which includes toothbrush, floss, Q-Tips, razor, beard trimmer, Claritin, tissues and underarm deodorant plus a couple other things. I don’t tend to bring my own shampoo or soap because those are generally available in the hotel rooms; also on the road I tend to use soap for when I shave.
Laptop: because I am doing writing/doing other computing-intensive things on the road and want a fully-capable computer.
iPad: for more casual use (tweeting on planes, reading books etc)
Phone: this stays mostly in my pocket but occasionally gets stuffed into the bag. Aside from all the things a modern smartphone can do, it’s also a portable 4G hotspot, which means that in general I do not have to suffer at the hands of terrible hotel/airport wifi. Also, this phone is a Razr Maxx, which means that it has an extra large-capacity battery, which is handy when one is on the road.
Battery: This is a 9900mAh outboard battery that I use to recharge my phone and iPad; it can charge each of these a couple of times (or one of them a few times) before it’s totally drained. This is great for travel because I never worry about not having a charge for my portable electronics (except the laptop). It also means that I don’t have to do the Sad Airport Wall Socket Walk, desperately looking for someplace to plug in my phone.
Paperback book: Because they still make you turn off your electronics on the plane, which is stupid, but whatever. I will replace the paperback a couple of times over the course of the tour; fortunately, I’m often at bookstores, where doing this is easy.
Extra pair of glasses: Because it would suck not to be able to see.
Pens: For signing books and writing on other things. Not every store that has me come for a signing remembers that in order to sign a book I need a pen. Also, in a general sense when I have a preference for medium-weight gel ink pens, and not every store has those, so I bring my own in case.
Sweatshirt: Because planes and other spaces can be cold, and casual shirts are good at keeping one warm. Also makes an acceptable pillow for air travel if necessary.
Baseball cap: For when I am out in the sun and don’t want to get a sunburn on my bald spot and/or for mornings when I need to briefly leave my hotel room before I take a shower, because then my hair looks like hell.
Snacks and gum: For long plane rides and times when I’m so busy I will forget to eat, which happens more often than you might think. The temptation is just to stuff Snickers bars in there, but in fact I do try to snack more responsibly than that. I’m also careful to balance out snacking with a) counting calories so I don’t gain a bunch of weight on tour b) actually eating well when I’m taken places to eat. Be that as it may, it’s not a bad thing to have something to eat at your fingertips, especially if, like me, low blood sugar tends to make you cranky. This is no good when you’re supposed to be nice to people, as, for example, one is supposed to be on a book tour.
The one drawback of traveling so compactly for such a long period of time is that I have almost no space to add anything to my packing. This can be a problem because fans do occasionally like to give me gifts, which is awesome (usually) but then presents the issue of what do I do with the gift. If I have a handler at the stop (someone who drives me around, makes sure I’m where I’m supposed to be, and keeps me on schedule), I will ask them to mail that stuff home for me; otherwise I might have the bookstore do it. So if you are a fan and you give me something, be aware it’s not going with me to the next stop; it’s being shoved into a box and will catch up with me at the end of my travels. I don’t think this will bother most folks but you never know, which is why I note it.
And that’s how you (or at least, I) travel for a three-week book tour.