Susan Orlean is the best-selling author of such books as The Orchid Thief and most recently The Library Book, and a regular contributor to The New Yorker. She is also obsessed with luggage, is a firm believer in carry-on luggage, and prefers to travel without any plan. At all.
“It puts you in touch with how ignorant you are and how wrong you are,” she says. “I think it’s the only authentic way to travel.”
What does your travel schedule look like?
I travel a lot—I do a lot of lectures, and that’s separate from the book tour. Probably 10 - 12 a year. And then we [Susan and her husband and son] go back and forth to New York when we can. It would be a very rare month that I didn’t travel. I don’t want to complain because obviously it’s a marvellous thing but there are times when I think, oh my god, I really want to be home.
Do you ever just go to a beach to relax?
We’re not beach people. We’re not good at going and doing nothing. It’s much easier for me to relax if I’m somewhere interesting.
Do you keep a packing list?
I’ve tried lists and they never work for me. The closest I’ve come to a list is to have a short list of the things that I absolutely can’t travel without, like my contact lenses and my prescriptions. But as far as planning my clothing and that kind of stuff I have never been able to make a list work there. There’s so much work involved.
And every trip is so different. This weekend I’m going to Palm Beach, last week I was in Edmonton and Vancouver. Except for in the case of bringing underwear, I don’t see how there’s any overlap. If the list is so generic to apply to every situation it’s probably not going to be very helpful.
Are you an overpacker or an underpacker?
Well now I’ve sort of got it down. I was an overpacker for sure. I would picture a million eventualities and want to be prepared for all of them. I would also have a failure of imagination where I would be going to a different climate and I literally could not imagine what that weather would feel like. I’d read the weather report and I would think OK it’s going to be 50 — what does 50 degrees feel like? Does that mean you wear a sweater, do you wear shorts? I would feel completely dumbfounded.
But now a few things have happened. One is I have come to understand the enormous benefits of carry-on luggage only. I also had a realisation that it really doesn’t matter what I’m wearing. I mean, I love clothes, I always want to look good.
But when you’re travelling it really doesn’t matter; you can wear the same thing over and over and over again. And you’re not seeing the same people over and over and even if you do, so what, you’re travelling. This is probably obvious to many people but for me it was a revelation.
Does that mean you’re taking a carry-on for your upcoming two-week trip to Australia?
Well, that’s a little—I mean, that’s a long trip. I would be very impressed with myself if I could really do two weeks in Australia with just a carry on. I’m not sure I’m that much of a hero.
Years ago before my husband and I were married, we were going to Istanbul for about a week and he travelled a ton for work at that time and never went with anything other than a carry on. And I said something to him about bringing a suitcase and he was horrified. And then he challenged me to do it with just a carry-on. So that was the first big trip I went on with. And, you know, I impressed him and he proposed to me.
And it was the carry on that did it.
I think it was the carry on.
Tell me about your luggage.
I’m a luggage fanatic. I’m obsessed with luggage; I feel like the right luggage actually informs the quality of your travel. I’ve spent many years trying and becoming disenchanted by and pursuing luggage and looking for perfect luggage. I want it to be really roomy.
I want it to be easy for me to manoeuvre, I want it to be light. But I also like it to look distinctive. I feel like I’m with it so much, I want to like it. I like it to look different from what everybody else has. I’m a demanding customer.
I feel like I’m still looking for the perfect luggage, but I’m now using luggage that I really like that I got in Japan. I’m currently using this luggage that I found in Japan. There’s a store in Japan called Tokyu Hands. It’s kind of a department store, kind of a hardware store—there’s no comparison to a U.S. store. They have household stuff and stationery and luggage and kitchenware and that kind of stuff. Anyway, this is their house brand.
I can talk about luggage for hours. I’m really into it. It’s so weird. It’s something I love and I loved it even before it became such a part of my life. I’ve always been really into luggage. When I was a kid my dad used to take me—my dad was really into luggage, and we would go to the luggage store together, which is funny because he didn’t travel that much.
On the plane
What do you always bring with you on planes?
This is a recent discovery — this little foot sling that you can use in an airplane. It absolutely changes your ability to be comfortable in your seat. It hooks onto the tray table. If you’re tall this isn’t an issue, but if you’re short it’s an amazing, amazing thing.
Secondly, I always bring an eye mask because you’re in a new place and maybe you’re in a different time zone. An eye mask is always really helpful for dealing with sleeping. Plus an iPad with some downloaded movies because I never trust that the in-flight entertainment is going to entertain me.
Are there any special snacks that you bring or buy?
I always throw a couple of granola bars in my bag. Not only for the flight—a lot of times I don’t want to have to get up and get dressed [at the hotel] and if I’m not thinking of doing room service I don’t always want to leave my room first thing in the morning and I’m really happy to have something to eat. And these have saved me many times when I’ve also gotten in too late and there was no food available.
Do you talk to your seat mates?
I usually don’t. I used to when I was a more nervous flyer—I would always talk to people, it would help me help distract me. Now that I fly so much I usually sit down and I have my routine. I pull out my iPad. I start watching a movie. I generally don’t end up chatting with people. Every now and again, somebody for whatever reason seems sort of interesting, I’ll strike up a conversation. But I’m always afraid to begin a conversation in the beginning of a flight in case it goes on for too long.
Tell me about your fear of flying. How did you get over it?
I went to a hypnotist. This was many years ago. I became really really afraid to fly, to the point that I was cancelling attendance at things because I dreaded the idea of flying. So I was about to start my book tour for The Orchid Thief and I thought, I’ve got a real problem. I don’t know how I’m going to handle flying day after day and being completely worn out with anxiety and dread. It was a horrible way to live.
I went in for, I think it was five sessions. The first time I flew after doing my five sessions, as the plane was taking off, I said to my friend I was travelling with—out of the blue, I said, “I think I’m going to get a pilot’s licence.”
And he said, “What did that guy do to you?” It was the strangest thing, I don’t know where it emerged from. It was like I was possessed. I mean, I still don’t love rough flights; it’s not as if I never ever have a moment of discomfort. But now I’m one of those people who I never could have imagined being—I get on the plane and I don’t even look up as we’re taking off.
General travel tips
What do you do as soon as you check into your room?
I unpack. Even if I’m only staying for a night, I unpack. If it’s one night I don’t always unpack every single thing but I unpack so that my things are laid out, I can see what I’ve got and it gives me a little sense of feeling connected.
I then check out the coffee situation because I know in the morning when I wake up I’m going to want to know if I’m going to be able to have good coffee or if they have a crappy in-room coffee service. I know that I’m going to have to order some room service coffee or figure out a better coffee nearby.
Are there any apps you depend on when you’re travelling or to help you prep for travel?
I use TripIt to store and organise all my travel. I have all the airline apps on my phone—even ones that I rarely travel with. I feel like you should download them all and have them all.
I have SeatGuru which I also really recommend, because it helps you pick seats that are going to be comfortable on different planes—it actually tells you which model of aeroplane you’re going to be travelling on and advises you if certain seats don’t have power or don’t recline. It’s really indispensable.
And then I have a world clock app because keeping track of the time is always important. I have a [currency] conversion app. I always figure out a quick mind hack for converting the money in my head, so I don’t have to use the app all the time.
Even if it’s a rough estimate, if it’s like, oh the currency is worth half what a dollar is or if you divide by five you roughly get the value. It’s nice to not constantly be grabbing for your phone to convert.
What do you buy when you’re travelling?
I used to buy [local brands of] toothpaste. I loved taking one really mundane item and seeing versions of it from as many countries as I possibly could. I ended up having a large collection of toothpaste from all over the world. When it really got to be almost like too big of a collection. I stopped. Now I tend to buy paper goods, like little notebooks or a little notepad, that feel truly of the place. Those are products that are made locally, or in the country. So I have little writing notebooks and pads from many different parts of the world
What was your biggest travel splurge, and was it worth it?
I had gone to Bhutan on a story and fell in love with a guy there. I flew home from Bhutan and then basically turned around and flew right back. It’s a very expensive trip. It’s the biggest trip I’ve ever taken for a reason that was so particular. It was crazy but at the time it felt very valuable, so I have no regrets. But when I think about what that cost me and how crazy it was it seems so romantic and youthful—although I wasn’t all that young.
Have you made any notable travel mistakes?
I’ve had many trips, before I converted to carry-on luggage, where my luggage got lost. Expecting that you’re going to have your luggage is a huge mistake, because there’s every reason to assume you won’t. I’ve lost luggage flying to England, to Italy, and to Brazil where the luggage disappeared for days before I got it. I’m now incredibly careful even if I happen to be going on a trip where I need to check my luggage. I would never check anything that I can’t do without.
I’m a great believer in not over-preparing when I travel. I want it to be an experience and a surprise and a journey. And so I don’t prepare—at all. And while I believe in that and I believe in the reason for doing that, there are times when there’s a cost involved which is you might completely misperceive the place you’re going. I think that in order to have an authentic travel experience sometimes you need to make mistakes and you need to have problems and you need to scramble.
So one hand I could say to you those are some of my big mistakes and yet philosophically, I believe that in order to truly experience someplace it requires some element of danger—not like physical danger, but emotional danger. I think it’s useful to have a minute where you think, oh my God, I wasn’t expecting this. This is so different from what I imagined. But I think that I think that’s a good outcome. It just means that there are times where I’ve been caught completely off guard and somewhat unprepared.
It can be very disconcerting to be in a new place and not know what to expect, not arming yourself by looking at the place on Google Maps in 3D and reading every guidebook and having a list of where you’re supposed to go. I would rather miss the big tourist attraction and instead take a walk on my own and see things unexpectedly. I like the rawness of landing and saying, “OK, what do I do now?”