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Keep Calm and Carry-On: How to Attend a Literary Conference Without Checking a Bag


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I’ve spent the last several months rekindling an old relationship. We have sneaked off to hotels in Philadelphia and Minneapolis, and to the quiet mountains of Vermont. We’re already plotting another getaway in November.

Before you get too concerned about where I’m headed with this post, please note my travel partner isn’t an old flame — or a scandalous new one. I’m referring to my carry-on roller bag. And those weekend getaways? Think literary conferences.

My no-frills roller bag and I are out of practice after two years of Zooming into literary conferences instead of traveling. We’re both a little older. My needs have changed, and I now expect more out of our 10-year relationship. Covid has altered how I travel, in big ways and small. I’m now obsessed with flying without checking any luggage because of the increase in flight delays, cancellations, lost bags, and missed connections. I want to get in and out of the airport, bus, or train station as fast as possible. And I don’t want to lose my bags.

I’ve assembled a list of my favorite travel hacks that allow me to comfortably pack for at least five days at a literary conference or on a book tour without checking anything. I realize these tips and hacks won’t work for everyone. The types of fabrics, the size of the clothing, and the season will impact how much can fit in any bag. This list is meant to share ideas that work for me. Hopefully, you will find some of them useful. Some items are relatively cheap; others are more expensive. They’d make thoughtful gifts for the writer (or any traveler) on your shopping list — including yourself!

My favorite travel hacks:

  1. A carry-on roller bag. It doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive. I don’t need numerous compartments or high-tech gadgets. Just give me an airline-approved carry-on with a collapsible handle that rolls easily. A zipper to expand capacity is a plus.
  2. “Hi, I’m Julie. Can I tell you about my hanging compression shelves?” If you have spent any time with me at the bar during a recent conference, I probably started the conversation with a
    image of women's clothes hanging in a closet next to a set of hanging shelves.

    All the clothes in this image fit inside the hanging shelves, which compress to fit in a roller carry-on bag.

    very sexy line like this one because, honestly, I can’t shut up about this packing system. Imagine collapsible mesh shelves that hang from hooks in your closet. Lay your clothes flat on the shelves, then tighten the compression straps. The mesh shelves collapse into a tight, compact package. Unlike packing cubes, the shelves are wide, so you don’t have to fold clothes as much, thereby reducing wrinkles. You will be shocked at how much will fit, yet the compressed bundle will still slip into a carry-on bag with room to spare for shoes and other items. I know it sounds crazy, but I can easily fit more than five days’ worth of clothes — two dresses, four pants, one skirt, six shirts, pajamas, underwear, workout clothes, two light (and easy to layer) jackets, and two scarves. When you get to your hotel, release the compression straps and hang the shelves in your hotel closet. You’re already unpacked! I love this particular model because it includes a compartment for dirty clothes. Make sure to compare the dimensions of the compression shelves with the interior dimensions of your carry-on bag before picking the right model for you. This photo was taken at my hotel at Bouchercon in Minneapolis.

  3. Up next is the Cadence capsule system for packing items such as shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, medicine, jewelry, etc. Forget about disposable travel-sized products that create tons of plastic waste. These ingenious hexagonal containers never leak and can be used over and over. They are
    A rectangular metal tray holding six interlocking hexagonal cells to fill with carry-on liquids, and a compact stack of discs that fit together, each disc holding a different type of makeup.

    Cadence capsules and a SubtleBeauty stack

    sturdy, easy to fill and clean, and fit together magnetically, so they won’t roll around the counter at the hotel. You can choose from several colors and can customize labels for each capsule.

  4. SubtlBeauty makeup stacks. I love this brand of makeup because it’s so compact. Each layer of the stack has a different product in it. You can customize the colors and the number of items in your collection. When I travel, I bring a stack with a concealer, a combo lip/cheek color, an eye shadow duo, and lip balm. They offer products for a variety of skin tones and the whole stack fits in the palm of your hand.
  5. I’m quite smitten with Bite toothpaste tablets. They come in an eco-friendly refillable glass jar. When you run out, you resupply with tablets sold in recyclable paper packages. Each tablet is the size of an aspirin. Pop it in your mouth and chew it a few times. Brush as usual. You can pick flavors, quantities, and whether you want fluoride. They taste great, require less space than a tube of
    A silver tray holding a green travel oothbrush and gray container full of chewable, white toothpaste tablets.

    Bite toothpaste tablets in a Cadence capsule.

    toothpaste, don’t make a sticky mess, and create less trash. Two weeks’ worth of Bite tablets fit inside one Cadence capsule.

  6. Solid conditioner bar. I haven’t found a solid shampoo bar that works for me because I have a finicky scalp, but I love this conditioner from The Earthling Co. I break off a chunk and put it in a Cadence capsule to get me through a full week. The packaging is minimal and it will last longer than bottled condition, which contains mostly water.
  7. A sweat-proof undershirt. These lightweight undershirts by Numi are amazing. They absorb sweat but magically don’t retain odors. You can wear these soft, comfy shirts under dresses or sweaters, allowing you to wear clothing items more than once, which is helpful when you’re on the road. For me, these are a must on every trip, particularly during winter when my clothes are bulkier, I can pack fewer items, and want to layer my clothes.
  8. Ballet flats that fold up. I tuck these emergency back-up shoes into my purse for events when I’m wearing heels or shoes that might hurt my feet. You can absolutely swap these compact flats into just about any outfit in a pinch, and they cute fit easily in a purse.
  9. Good shoes. In addition to the ballet flats, I pack running shoes for the gym, dressy shoes, and boots or booties, depending on the season and my outfits. (Pro tip: Wear the boots on the plane or train because they take up a lot of space in a carry-on.) Shoes won’t pack in the compression shelves, but they easily fit in the roller bag alongside the shelf bundle.
  10. A phone case/wallet on a strap. I’m constantly taking pictures at literary conferences and book events. I love this particular phone case because it gives me easy access to my phone, business cards, hotel key card, cash, ID, and credit card. The strap is thin and can be adjusted to hang long or short.
  11. Laundry detergent sheets. If you plan to be away for an extended time and have access to a laundry machine, I recommend Earth Breeze laundry sheets instead of liquid detergent or pods that might leak. These sheets, like dryer sheets, take up almost no room. Consider using them at home as well as on the road because they have a much smaller impact on our planet than traditional detergent. Less water required, no plastic, the packaging is recyclable paper, and they pack easily. I recently spent eleven days at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and packed Earth Breeze detergent sheets so I could do laundry. Added bonus: the laundry sheets smell great, which made everything in my bag smell nice too.

Other literary conference necessities I carry in my purse/personal carry-on item:

  • My laptop and chargers.
  • An extra pair of glasses.
  • A sturdy, compact umbrella.
  • A book, obviously.
  • A notebook and several pens, including two good pens for signing books.
  • Business cards, bookplates, bookmarks, etc, to give away.
  • A lightweight scarf or wrap so I’ll be prepared for chilly, air-conditioned conference rooms.
  • A bag that folds up into a small pouch. If you’re like me, you probably buy a lot of books at literary conferences. I always bring a foldable bag, so I can transport those books home with me. In some cases, I even check my roller bag on the return trip, so I can carry the bag of books.

I derive a lot of satisfaction from zipping in and out of the airport, bus, or train station without having to maneuver a big suitcase. But carry-on-only travel has its limits and its downside. These strategies get tricky when packing winter clothes. And compression packing adds weight to your bag, making it harder to lift that roller bag into the overhead bin. Many international airlines have weight restrictions on carry-on bags, so always check with your airline to make sure you are adhering to their guidelines.

Safe travels to you all. If you see me at a literary conference, be sure to say hi and ask me about my compression shelves. In the meantime, keep calm and carry-on!

Do you avoid checking bags when possible? Do prefer to check your bags and travel hands-free without a carry-on? Do you have a favorite travel hack? A product you swear by? Share your tips in the comments.

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About Julie Carrick Dalton

Julie Carrick Dalton’s debut novel WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG has been named to Most Anticipated 2021 book lists by numerous platforms including CNN, Newsweek, USA Today, Parade, and Buzzfeed, and was an Amazon Editor’s Pick for Best Books of the Month. Her second novel, THE LAST BEEKEEPER will launch in March 2023. As a journalist, Julie has published more than a thousand articles in publications including The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Chicago Review of Books. A Tin House and Bread Loaf alum, and graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, Julie holds a master’s in literature and creative writing from Harvard Extension School. She is the winner of the William Faulkner Literary Competition and a finalist for the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature. Julie is a member of the Climate Fiction Writers League and is a frequent speaker and workshop leader on the topic of Fiction in the Age of Climate Crisis. Mom to four kids and two dogs, Julie also farms a gorgeous tract of land in rural New Hampshire. You can connect with Julie on Twitter @juliecardalt, on Instagram @juliecdalton, or at juliecarrickdalton.com

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