The Accidental Tourist: A literary guide to business travel, basically

AccidentalTouristbookcoverIt’s been a few years since I read The Accidental Tourist, but it’s a book that’s stayed with me — not because of its theme of embracing life and moving outside your comfort zone but because of what it taught me about how to pack a suitcase.

Anne Tyler’s book is about a guy named Macon (William Hurt in the movie), who writes passport-sized travel books for “accidental tourists” — business travelers, mostly, who have to leave home and want to make the trip as painless as possible.

Of course, the point of the book isn’t to give travel advice. Being an accidental tourist is really just a metaphor for Macon, who divorces his wife (Kathleen Turner in the movie) after their son is killed, only to get involved with a free spirit (Geena Davis), who brings him back into the world.

I think that’s what it’s about, anyway. I don’t really remember much about the plot. What I remember, every time I take a business trip, is the travel advice:

  • “Bring only what fits in a carry-on bag. Checking your luggage is asking for trouble.” This is absolutely true. Since I read the novel, I think I’ve checked luggage only a couple of times, and both times, it got lost.
  • “One suit is plenty… It should be a medium gray. Gray not only hides the dirt; it’s handy for sudden funerals and other formal events. At the same time, it isn’t too somber for everyday.” One suit (I go with dark gray), a couple of shirts and a couple of ties and I’m fine.
  • “Always bring a book, as protection against strangers.” I used to bring a book. Now I carry a Kindle. Either way, it’s good advice and worth following, even though it works only about 50% of the time. I don’t think I’m a rude traveler. I’ll smile, say excuse me and engage in small talk while we’re getting settled in, usually something like, “Boy, they don’t give us a lot of room, do they?” but then I’m done. I’d rather read. It’s amazing, though, the number of people who don’t notice or deliberately ignore basic social cues such as their seatmate’s refusal to make eye contact or his responding to their questions and comments with a simple, “Uh-huh.”

You might disagree and think I’m a jerk because I don’t want to talk for a couple of hours to the random person wedged into the seat next to mine, and that’s fine, you might be right, but trust me on taking only one carry-on bag.

18 thoughts on “The Accidental Tourist: A literary guide to business travel, basically

  1. I don’t think you’re rude; after all, you do broadcast ‘go away’ signals and it’s not your fault if people ignore them. But mostly I’d just like to voice my amusement at the word ‘protection.’ Strangers: Predators from Whom We Need Protection.”

    1. The protection line works with the theme of the book. I’ll put down my book if I have to. I sat next to 20-year-old once flying to visit her boyfriend. She’d never been on a plane and was obviously scared, so I talked her through it. “That’s the sound of the wheels being pulled back into the plane,” that kind of thing. It was a pretty smooth flight, as flights go, but when we landed, she called her mother and told her it was just awful, that there had been a lot of turbulence (there hadn’t been) and that the landing was rough (it wasn’t). She’ll learn (assuming she ever flies again).

  2. You remember more of the plot than I do. Having grown up just outside Baltimore, it’s probably a requirement that I read every Anne Tyler book. I read a few, but I didn’t keep up. I remember enjoying them. As for the book as protection, I get that. Either that means you’re not a jerk or I am too, and really I’m ok either way. 🙂

  3. I vaguely recall that movie. Did not read the book. But that is all good advice, if focused mainly towards men. Women can’t really do that, as we have shoes and clothing and lots and lots of personal hygiene items. Maybe if it’s just an overnight business meeting. Maybe. But I went to New York for 4 days, just me, and I had 3 bags. And I am not a shoe girl. I think I had 3 pairs. Add in the family, and there is no way that would ever work. The book/tablet is a good tip, though.

    1. I’m not going to pass judgement on your taking 3 bags on a 4-day trip, but I can’t even process that! 🙂 When we travel, everyone in the family, even my wife, gets by with 1 carry-on and a “personal item,” like a laptop bag. Sure, sometimes it’s a big carry-on that ends up getting checked when we’re by the plane, but, still, it would’ve been a carry on had it been a real, adult-sized plane. Packing light is just easier, and it saves time. You don’t have to wait 20 minutes for your luggage to come around the carousel (assuming it didn’t get lost).

  4. Good suggestions. With my son doing as much traveling as he is this year, I’ll pass them on to him. I doubt he’s read that book! As for not wanting to chat it up with strangers, he just pulls out his MP3 and tunes them out!

    1. I’m just saying I read it twentysome years ago because my girlfriend at the time liked it, and all I remember about it are the travel tips. Also, you’d be surprised at the number of people who ignore earbuds and start chatting away. (Man, I sound like a real curmudgeon. Get off my lawn!)

    1. I’ve only got sucked into one interesting conversation on a plane, and that was with a guy telling me about the collapse of the Orlando real estate market. Home values slashed by half or more and banks unable to track down the paperwork so they can foreclose, so people who can’t pay their mortgages are still in their homes, living rent free, basically. It was just insane.

  5. I am a woman who can pack for three days in only one carry on. I use one suit, but it has a skirt and pants, and I mix and match using other staples such as a turtleneck, a tank, tee, etc. I bring one pair of shoes in my carry on and have one on my feet. I wear a casual outfit on the plane that consists of separates I can mix and match with my suit. Beyond the packing advice, the book is a worthwhile read! Cool blog. Todd.

  6. I too can attest to the one bag carry-on rule. Makes the whole experience of leaving the airport so much quicker and less stressful. I made 13 round trips to Europe in one year and the speed and efficiency the this rule brings is great. It’s like parting the waters while the crowds of novice flyers are battling for space around the luggage conveyor praying their bags drop out of the chute next. Meanwhile I’m already in a cab on my way to my destination. Well done bringing light and efficiency to a subject that many travelers can find mundane and repetitious. Nicely done Todd.

    1. Thanks. The other trick I’ve learned is to put your wallet and keys in your carry-on before approaching security. Belt, too, if your pants will stay up. That way, you have a chance to cut in front if the bozos who don’t start undressing until it’s their turn to go through the body scanner.

  7. “The Accidental Tourist” is one of my all-time favorite books. I love Anne Tyler. I often wonder how many bags she uses on a book tour.

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