Travel a lot? Here's how to stay organized, like professors do

By Charles Sutton on December 2, 2017

We had a fun time on the professors’ Facebook the other day, swapping stories of the dumbest travel mistakes that we’ve made. You know, booking flights to the wrong country, forgetting to book a hotel, registering for the conference twice, and other such hilarity.

Let’s face it, professors travel a lot. We are also very bad at remembering things. This is a combination that makes for comedy, unless you’re the poor sod who has to live through it. (That’s Professor Sod, to you.)

What this means is, from long and painful experience, I’ve learned how to not to forget things as often when I travel. And now I will tell you my secrets, if I can remember them.

I keep a packing list (shocker!) that I reuse every time I pack my bags. I have a master list that I keep electronically and make a copy of for each trip. The important part is: Every time I arrive somewhere and forget something (toothpaste, underwear, etc), I add it to the master packing list for next time. After many years of this, I am now convinced that this list now contains everything I could possibly want to bring, and now I will never forget to pack something ever again. Well, hardly ever.

For toiletries I have an additional system, as they are too easy to forget. I keep a separate complete set of toiletries in a drawer, for travelling only. When I pack, I just unload the drawer into my luggage, and I know I have everything. When I return, I return the toiletries to the drawer, checking to see if anything needs to be replenished. This includes medicines; I always travel with paracetamol, just in case, except when I travel to the US, in which case I bring acetaminophen instead.

But the packing list can’t keep track of everything. For example, if you try to list “make sure hotel is booked” or “tell wife that I’m travelling” on your list of what to pack, it turns out that you see that a little bit too late to be useful. Or that’s what my wife says, anyway.

So now I have a “travel prep list” as well, which lists the things I need to do weeks in advance, or after I return. I have a document that keeps track of the lists for all of my upcoming trips: book flights, book hotel, register for conference, submit travel reimbursement, etc. This dramatically reduces the chance that I will book two hotel rooms for the same conference.

And finally, there is TripIt. TripIt is an amazing service that I have used for over a decade. Every time you get a confirmation email from an airline, hotel, travel agent, etc, you forward it to a special email address TripIt parses all these emails and collects them into a single itinerary, using the dates to figure out which emails belong to the same trip. You never have to root around looking for a confirmation number again. It’s great! Especially clever: to sign up, just forward your first confirmation email to

Now this leaves one more question. Why are professors always so forgetful in the first place? There’s a very good reason for that, actually. But that’s a different post…