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What a Travel Writer Always Brings in Her Carry-On

And more shopping insights from someone who’s always on the go.

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Travel writer Cynthia Drescher on a plane, holding a camera to her face Photo: Cynthia Drescher

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After a few big trips, anyone can get good at building up a vacation wardrobe — the kind of stuff you might only need a few days or weeks out of the year. But what if you travel for a living, and live out of a carry-on instead of a closet?

To find out, we asked Cynthia Drescher, a professional travel journalist and digital editor. Cynthia’s been to all seven continents — plus the North Pole! — so she knows a thing or two or twenty about packing for drastically different climates. Here, she tells us about the most important things she brings with her on every trip, how she packs it all, and her strategy on shopping while abroad.

Do you do most of your shopping online, or at the places you travel to?

If I’m buying a product for the first time, I want to see it in person. Coming and going from New York and traveling through other major world cities means that’s often not a problem. What I’m finding I do need to turn to the internet for are books. Real bookstores are sadly such rarities now, and what’s next on my reading list isn’t always found in the usual mix of bestsellers and easy reads at airport bookstores. (Yes, I’m one of those people who is stubborn about having a real book versus downloading the e-book, and I like having the option of passing it on.)

For example, I sacrificed half my backpack space during a recent lengthy flight (the infamous “Island Hopper” that travels from Honolulu to Guam — read about it here) to bring along the thick book Pacific by Simon Winchester. I finished it during one of our small island stops and was able to pass it off to a local who was vending handicrafts and chatting with me at a tiny airport in the Marshall Islands.

What do you usually buy when you travel?

I’ll be direct. As a US size 16, the world doesn’t make a whole lot that fits me well. Even this sack dress featured here the other day doesn’t go to 16. I can’t even buy a sack dress! It’s impossible for me to shop for clothes or shoes in Asia (a large at a Uniqlo in New York is not the same measurement as a large at a Uniqlo in Tokyo); Europe’s offerings for me are the cheap trend chains; and it’s even slim pickings in the United States, where I’m considered average. As such, I pretty much never buy clothes while traveling.

Whether I like it or not, I have to be strict about keeping to carry-on only for the majority of my trips. A typical international itinerary for me can get quite complicated, involving several different airlines, different travel classes, airport changes, transfers via any sort of transportation, and potentially stand-by status on flights.

This trip I’m on now is a good example. I’m flying from Detroit to Chicago in economy on American on an award ticket; continuing to Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific first class on an award ticket; spending some days there, then flying on Sri Lankan to Colombo via Bangkok in economy on an award ticket; I’m spending some days there, then flying to Boston via Doha in paid Qatar Airways business class.

Once in Boston, I’ll connect to a paid American flight to Chicago and layover there before landing in Detroit, but I’ll be standing by on these final two flights to make earlier departures and cut down on layover time. That’s four separate flight tickets, with trains, buses, ferries, Ubers, and subways in between, and no desire on my part to add shopping bags to what I’m carrying.

Eating #sannakji (live baby octopus) is in no way flattering.

A photo posted by Cynthia D (@jetsetcd) on

It’s not always like this, but more and more I remind myself that I don’t have a permanent residence and can’t be buying things just to store them for one day when I “settle down” (if that ever happens), when my style or needs might change.

I do shop, though! I get the most delight from consumables. Grocery stores are my favorite for stocking up on foreign snacks, and I like cute Korean cosmetics or little specialty items like packets of bath salts or botanicals unique to a region in Japan. I keep these things in my luggage and, when I’ve got a beautiful soaking tub in a hotel room, that bath salts packet makes a hot bath that’ll remind me of the onsens I enjoyed in Japan. That’s a more powerful vehicle for my memory than, say, a tchotchke on a shelf back home.

I do appreciate how others shop while traveling, however; a good example is the time I was in Brazil with Jamie Beck of Ann Street Studio and she bought an entire service of hand-thrown tableware from a local vendor in the city of Salvador da Bahia, and had it all shipped home to New York. The experience was entertainment on its own, and her decision to commit to that delicate and serious of a purchase impresses me still. Meanwhile, I’m content buying a powder compact in the shape of a panda face.

What have you bought in the past few months that you would never want to travel without?

While I would love to regale you with tales of hidden boutiques specializing in made-to-order espadrilles or life-affirming visits to master perfumiers, the truth is that I’ve been most satisfied with upping my sunscreen game the last few months.

Typically, I rely on an SPF 30 BB cream and, when in seriously sunny places, an extra layer of whatever sunscreen is available. Now, I’m toting SPF 50 or higher, specifically loving Coola’s unscented, hypoallergenic, reef-safe sunscreen. I don’t want to contribute to the death of the coral reefs on which I so enjoy diving, I don’t want to get wrinkles any earlier than necessary, and I don’t need to return with a tan to prove I’ve been away somewhere awesome. In the end, it’s my good health that is a huge enabler of this travel-heavy lifestyle, and I’d like to preserve it.

Worth it.

A photo posted by Cynthia D (@jetsetcd) on

AND! I’m obsessed with my new swimsuits. Target made what I believe are its best swimsuits ever this year as part of the Marimekko capsule collection. The looks not only featured bright, attractive prints in coordinating separates with inclusive sizing, but the quality and cut was enough to have me creeping on eBay for months in pursuit of more. I need them to reissue all the swimwear and resortwear, if only because I’m constantly complimented and have to let other women down with the news that it’s all sold out. These are often women out on dive boats with me, frustrated at the lack of affordable, supportive, quality, fun swimwear for ladies who actually do things in the water.

I wore a bikini for the first time in my life this year because of that collection. The matching rashguard and rashpants are also permanent fixtures of my dive kit now, too.

What's the best suitcase or travel bag you own?

My medium duffle from Filson is my everything for short trips and car trips. Filson bags are beyond trends and look great in any era, on anyone, and in any setting, which is excellent because they last forever. This bag will be the one someone finds in an attic a hundred years from now and immediately takes out and puts to use once again.

For longer (four-plus days) or more intensive trips, I rely on my hard-shell carry-on with four wheels. I can’t even share the brand because it’s gone out of business, but it was a competitor to Rimowa. It’s seen me through probably 600,000 miles and it’s just about reached the end of its life. I’ve rolled that bag through all types of terrain, and now the wheels are punishing me by legit disintegrating. I’ve looked into wheel replacement, but it would all be for naught soon enough, as the hinge is also beginning to show signs of wear and tear that point to a forced retirement for the bag.

I can’t just buy any bag to replace it, though; my preferences are specific and based on successes I’ve had with my bag over the years. It must be hard-shell, four wheels (a “spinner” in luggage parlance), relatively lightweight, have a pull handle with two telescoping posts, a handle on the top of the case but preferably not on the side, be free of big logos or branding, and with a basic interior devoid of extra pockets and packing cubes.

Like, sometimes, when I go to Australia, I put an entire Akubra hat in there and pack around it. Having annoying dividers or pockets would inhibit my ability to bring such things. The most limiting requirement is that I want all this in a bag measuring no more than 20 inches high, when the vast majority of carry-ons measure 21.7 inches.

At 20 inches, I can fit it in the overhead bins of most regional jets and easily meet carry-on rules of obscure low-cost airlines on the other side of the world. I’ve looked at Away luggage, but its smallest measures 21.7”, and I’m having a serious problem with buying something larger than what I’ve had for years, when the trend in carry-on regulations is toward smaller.

When you shop, do you try to buy things that are versatile for no matter where you're traveling to/the season?

Yes, with the exception of resortwear. That’s where I have fun. I’m just back from the Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay, Jamaica, with the debut of the first overwater villas in the Caribbean. Aside from the outfit I wore on the plane (black leggings, cream button-down, gray sweater, black leather Keds), my bag was like poolside at The Raleigh.

Floral-print palazzo pant jumpsuit? Check. Palm-print shorts? Check. A Target x Marimekko hat that matched my bikini that matched my diveskin that matched my coverup? Heck yes. A tropical-weight Liberty London shawl and matching top and shorts that make me look like I have a million bucks in the bank and everything figured out? You know it. Anything with a bright, nautical, or vintage tropical pattern is my kryptonite.

How do you handle shopping for different seasons (i.e. if it's winter here, but you need to buy stuff for someplace warm)?

Swap hemispheres. Seriously. Go to Australia or New Zealand in the shoulder season, which would be spring for us and fall for them, or fall for us and spring for them. Everything I’d need to shop for in the northern hemisphere is on sale in the southern hemisphere during these seasons.

What's one thing you recommend anyone going somewhere very hot? Somewhere very cold? Somewhere very wet?

Very hot: Do not underestimate the power of a travel-size bottle of Gold Bond powder. It’s not as glamorous as packing a sunhat that’ll look great on Instagram, but heat rash is a very real and very uncomfortable and embarrassing thing that can be easily avoided. I suffered it in Thailand several years ago and now, after a sweaty day, I’m loofahing off in a cool shower, drying, and patting the powder where I was sweating the most.

Very cold: I went to the North Pole with Quark Expeditions this year and wrestled with the idea of buying waterproof pants. In the Arctic it’s a potential survival issue so my hand was forced, but I’ve grown to love them. Waterproof pants aren’t sexy, but wearing them means I can layer like crazy beneath for warmth and wind never reaches my skin. The idea of being able to fall back into fresh snow without suffering a wet butt is also super appealing.

Very wet: I have two words for you: waterproof socks. Having wet feet is just the worst, not to mention that it’s a recipe for developing foot health problems. I’m currently contemplating buying waterproof Converse high-tops, too. Yes, these exist, and they’re not ugly!

Cynthia Drescher is a professional travel journalist, digital editor, and a transportation enthusiast working with Condé Nast Traveler. She also has a column on air travel passenger experience design at Runway Girl Network. She’s probably the person on your flight who’s connected to the wifi to book yet another flight. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.