How to pack…what book to take…giving that couple shadowing you the slip – enjoy a stress-free break, courtesy of Tom Meltzer
1. The lost art of packing a suitcase
The secret of good suitcase packing is to fold as if your life depended on it. Fold each item as tightly as you can and then crush it a bit for good measure. Think of packing as a game of Tetris played with bits of sponge; be careful not to leave any empty space, and avoid taking awkwardly shaped green things.
2. The passport
The first hurdle here is working out where you left it last time. Classic passport hiding places include last year's suitcase, a folder full of bank statements, and the drawer in the kitchen with all the screwdrivers and bits of string in it. Check these first. Once you've found it, keep it on you at all times. If you're holidaying with friends they will ask to see your passport photo. This request is to be refused at all costs.
3. The aeroplane question
Strictly speaking of course as a Guardian reader – and a global citizen – you shouldn't be flying. However, like the rest of us, you are. Welcome aboard the hypocrite plane. Be sure to prepare a suitably moralistic explanation. "I read that high-speed rail actually produces twice as much carbon," is a good one, if completely false. "Ultimately I felt we were doing more for the world's poor by spending money there," also works wonders. Any sentence beginning with "ultimately" in fact will do at a pinch. "Ultimately, do we really want another Titanic?"
4. The armrest conundrum
Conventional wisdom has it that the first person to stake a claim to the armrest is its owner. There are, however, two ways to combat armrest loss; by force or by stealth. Force requires you to be comfortable with a simultaneous armrest sharing situation, and to withstand the awkwardness of arm-to-arm contact for longer than your neighbour. Stealth requires patience of a different sort. You must wait until the armrest is vacated, even just momentarily, and then, in one motion, rest your arm, slump your head and pretend to be asleep. Both are high-risk strategies. But worth it.
5. The language barrier
Any serious attempt to learn the language of your host nation will invariably end in tears. Even if you master the basic greetings, to the point where locals are mistaking you for a fellow countryman, you are never more than a single unknown word away from the collapse into "I'm sorry, do you speak English?" Why get people's hopes up? Better to open with the apology, conduct the conversation in English and then surprise them at the end by attempting to say their versions of thanks and goodbye. Like in The Great Escape.
6. The souvenirs
The first rule of souvenir-buying is never ever buy the thimble. You do not sew, and you wouldn't use a thimble even if you did. You would certainly never find yourself mid-sewing wishing you'd bought a small china finger helmet with a picture of a pastoral scene on it. Other souvenirs to steer clear of include shot glasses, baseball caps, key rings, bizarrely over-sized pencils and hourglasses. Mugs, tea towels and even socks are acceptable at a stretch.
7. The impossible science of re-packing a suitcase
If packing is a game of Tetris, then re-packing is a game of Theme Hospital, which is to say, maddeningly impossible to complete without cheating. Begin by leaving some gifts out for the hotel to find; the thriller you've now read; a broken pair of sandals; that hat you bought with the corks on it. While these are no longer any good to you they're sure to brighten the cleaning staff's day considerably. That done, cram everything left into the suitcase, give up, go out, buy another travel bag and cram the rest into that.