The rough guide to luggage

Leave the kitchen sink if you must, but pack everything else into your holiday suitcase.

I HAVE always assumed that, at some point in life, I would learn how to pack a suitcase. This would be a relief because, for starters, I could then quit reading those articles telling me how to pack a suitcase. You know the ones: they advise you to roll up everything into sausage shapes and insist that all you need for two weeks at the beach is a sarong, a floaty pair of shorts and a Swiss Army knife.

It has taken me decades to realise that this is complete rubbish and that articles on packing have nothing to do with reality. "It's aspirational," said a friend as I despaired over a "how to pack" piece in Conde Nast Traveller. The picture showed 19 items that make up your "easy-piece wardrobe" for two weeks "from beach to bar". It includes all of two pairs of shoes (one being a pounds 285 pair of Manolo Blahnik satin mules), one swimsuit (pounds 79 from Nicole Farhi), and a pashmina shawl for pounds 1,170.

This is not aspirational, it is madness. How can any human go on holiday with two pairs of shoes? I have never managed less than five. And what is the point of a pashmina woven from the hairs of the Kashmiri mountain goat if you don't have a beach towel in the most garish colours possible? In fact, until this I had thought it was illegal to leave the UK on holiday without a beach towel. Evidently this is not true, however, and another recent "how to pack" guide in the Mail had this daring alternative: "Take a sarong. This can be worn as a cover-up on the beach but can also be made into a short skirt, halterneck and dress. It can also double as a sheet for your bed or a towel." Practical or what?

"The problem with packing is that you are not on holiday when you are doing it," said a friend the other day. "So you really have no idea what you will need." Now I know this sounds obvious, but obvious is better than aspirational. Besides which, she is right. On a rainy day in Britain it is impossible to imagine that do not need three jumpers for a holiday anywhere in the world. Since there is no way to visualise your destination (ignore all that stuff about reading the weather reports, it is simply not adequate) then you have to expect mistakes.

So here is the only advice you will read about how to pack that is based on reality. Expect mistakes and ban all thoughts of light luggage. A light suitcase is an incomplete suitcase. Remember that you need to think in multiples. Do not even entertain the notion of going on a beach holiday without at least three swimsuits, preferably with enough strap variations to make your tanned body a conversation piece. Note that you only need to be able to swim in one of them and that one should be for "best" (ie the one you look terrific in and which therefore must be worn sparingly as it needs to last for the rest of your life).

Don't forget the mini-library. A typical holiday reading list should include:

l one classic that you have never read but should have;

l one inspirational book that you have never read but should have;

l one trendy Top 10 type book that you have not read but have pretended that you have and if you don't read it soon everyone will discover you are intellectually bankrupt;

l one important biography that you have never read but should have or one guidebook to country of destination;

l one trashy book with characters named Bliss and Amber.

Remember to plan for all medical emergencies. See your suitcase as a branch of Boots-on-Sea. Consider extending your mortgage so that you can take the full range of pre-sun lotions, sun creams with various factor levels (a selection such as 5, 12, 18 and 25 provides flexibility and is a source of endless discussion) and after-sun "relief" creams for when you get the factor wrong. Take a huge range of over-the-counter stuff to cover everyday ailments plus any old prescription medicines you have lying around.

Contact lens wearers who are paranoid (ie realists) will want to pack two of everything in the likely event that at least one will explode on the plane.

Think cheap. Why purchase a sun hat for pounds 25 when you are going to lose it on the first day? Remember, things only need to last for two weeks because, after the holiday, you will probably never want to wear them again. The only exception to this could be the beach towel. This is going to be your constant companion so don't be afraid to splash out. In fact, why should a beach towel be confined to the beach? Think about doubling it up as a sheet or even as a shawl. That way you could leave the pashmina at home. Just this once.

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