Travels with Charlie, the suitcase
How do you cram enough stuff for two months of travel – during the changing weather of fall – into a 50-pound bag? That was my limit, imposed by most international airlines, and specifically Lufthansa, which flew me from the United States to Frankfurt, Germany, in late September.
This was a smart weight limit anyway. I was not going on a tour bus, nor preparing to sit in a resort. I would wheel and carry my luggage through Europe – France, Germany, Italy, Greece – on planes, trains, buses, subways, a barge, and three ships, including one that eventually would cruise me back across the Atlantic to the United States.
Pulling 50 pounds of suitcase on wheels along city streets is not so tough, even in hill towns. Lugging 50 pounds up the steps of budget hotels is a bit of work. Carrying it up and down the steps of Europe’s train and Metro stations is a serious strain. I would have fared better with a 40-pound limit.
The 50-pound bag I named Charlie. It’s made by High Sierra, with three compartments, and actually can convert to a backpack. Fat chance.
My wheeled carry-on remains unnamed, but way too heavy as well. Not only does it house a computer and equipment, camera and work files, but also a pair of dress shoes, which tipped Charlie past the 50-pound mark at home. As I faced some dressy events, I refused to wear my brown walking Ecco shoes with a dark suit.
So, I brought the black Mephisto shoes. Most of the trip, the blacks ride with Charlie; for planes with a 50-pound limit, I stuff the Mephisto pair into my carry-on, which, I suspect, is way over the weight limit that airlines say they allow in the cabin. It’s a chore to lift that bag into the bins above my airplane seat. I travel also with a small lightweight backpack.
Weighing each item while packing
Charlie was packed over several weeks at home. The suit and two dress shirts were necessary, and so was a flannel shirt, a fleece windbreaker jacket and a Gore-Tex rain jacket, all for wearing in layers during cold weather. I also packed my three-pound bag of essentials – a foreign travel kit that includes everything from knife and wine/beer bottle opener to sewing kit, medical supplies, flashlight and Shout packets for cleaning stains.
Everything else I weighed on the bathroom scale as I filled Charlie with shirts, shorts, slacks and cordoroys. Too heavy and they were replaced by something lighter. Thank goodness for the nearly weightless Crocs, which triple as slippers, beachwear and feet protectors during walks in muck.
I fantasized that during the air travel portion of the trip the airlines would handle Charlie, and I would glide from place to place with my wheeled carry-on and light backpack.
I was unprepared for dozens of airport steps, when wheeled luggage becomes simply bags to be lugged.
Oh, no, not another flight of steps
In the U.S., most of the time you walk onto airplanes and scoot through airports without climbing a step. Airport elevation changes are an easy matter of taking an escalator or elevator.
Not in Europe, where airports are designed for smooth transit of checked baggage – even the luggage carts are free and usually will fit onto escalators – but are not prepared for the American custom of toting heavy and bulky bags onto the plane to cram into overhead bins.
When I arrived at the airport in Frankfurt, the plane parked in the middle of nowhere. Down a set of steps we walked – carting our carry-ons – to step up onto a bus for a ride to the terminal, step down from the bus, followed by a flight of steps at the terminal. Next I flew to Paris. More steps, in and out of the airport.
All trains await atop or below a set of steps
In Frankfurt and Paris, the train and metro systems will take you from airport to city centers efficiently and for a price of about $10. If you get confused by language and need help finding the right route, pick out a young person – they all speak English – and ask. One young fellow detoured his route to lead me all the way to my train platform, which was up a serious pile of steps.
I find rewarding the opportunities to travel by myself in foreign countries, using public transportation, mixing with local residents and feeling part of the flow of a new city. Taking stock of fellow passengers on a train car or subway is a treat. Taxis, on the other hand, seem so insular, so like traveling in a bubble. Besides, taxis are expensive; I’d rather spend my travel money elsewhere.
But be prepared to lug your luggage up and down flights of steps, especially at train stations. Much of Europe’s efficient rail transportation system is not friendly toward travelers with heavy suitcases.
When you’ve got a 50-pound bag in one hand, and a heavy carry-on in the other, each step is a reminder that you packed too much.