Suitcases hold more than just the stuff we need to travel — they hold memories.
I recently cleaned out a storage unit I’ve had for years, and I rediscovered several luggage pieces I almost forgot I had. I ruthlessly purged them but found myself nostalgic for one bag in particular, which I ended up rescuing from the “donate” pile at the last second: my very first suitcase ever.
I bought it near the end of my senior year of high school in preparation for a big move to college. My mom took me shopping for essentials, and I scored it for a song at Big Lots. I wasn’t particularly blown away by it or anything. I remember wheeling it through the store with an air of indifference as if it were as mundane as the cart carrying my new shower caddy, notebooks and bedsheets.
The suitcase isn’t especially notable, except it’s almost offensively hideous. It’s not a spinner. It has two wheels — the old-school fixed kind — so you have to tilt the whole thing in order to roll it. This means it ends up smashing into the backs of my legs more often than it doesn’t.
It’s also soft-sided with fabric reminiscent of thick, woven furniture upholstery or, perhaps, curtains. Did I mention that it’s tiger print? It’s downright tacky, as if “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” sacrificed a couch to make it.
So, why keep it, you ask? I’ve purchased and subsequently watched many flashier and more expensive pieces of luggage come and go — a busted wheel here, a no-longer-retractable telescoping handle there. Ultimately, my first suitcase symbolizes many things I never want to forget.
For me, there was something decidedly “adult” about having a suitcase of my own for the first time. When I was a kid, we didn’t travel much, and when we did, we took drive-to trips that didn’t involve flying or anything more than a weekend bag.
I didn’t realize it at the time but having something to over-stuff for trips where I called the shots was pivotal.
My first flight
It usually shocks people to learn that I didn’t fly for the first time until I was 21.
I’ve more than made up for it the past dozen years or so, but I got my wings on a JetBlue flight from New York City to Tampa. My roommate and I were traveling to visit her grandfather for spring break, and that suitcase was right there with me.
My first cruise
The following year, another college friend and I decided to book a last-minute cruise to the Bahamas for spring break — a sailing (on Royal Caribbean‘s now-scrapped Majesty of the Seas) that was so cheap our flights to Miami cost more than the cruise fare.
It was only a three-day voyage, but that didn’t stop me from packing my tiger-print luggage like I was permanently relocating. The irony is that the airline lost the bag, so it never actually made it to the ship. (See below.)
My first lost bag
This is where I share a tale of newbie traveler stupidity: I got a crash course in liquid rules during that first cruise. The pre-cruise flight was my second time on a plane, and I unwittingly tried to bring the suitcase through security, complete with full-sized bottles of shampoo. When it was flagged, I had to run back to the desk to check the bag, and I nearly missed my flight in the process.
The agent let me skip the line to check it while she was halfway through checking in someone else. Because of the confusion, my bag got tagged to the other person’s destination (and theirs likely tagged to mine). When I landed in Miami, it wasn’t there, so I cruised for three days with the clothes I was wearing, a bathing suit and an oversized Royal Caribbean T-shirt the ship’s front desk graciously gifted me. I was finally reunited with the lost bag when it arrived on my doorstep, cash on delivery, a few weeks later.
The expansion of my worldview
The summer after I graduated from college, I was accepted into a program that took me to Poland for a month to teach English to high schoolers. Given that I previously filled my behemoth bag to overflowing for a three-day trip, I worried about how to pack for this much longer one.
That suitcase came along for the ride. I toted clothes, a slew of American DVDs for the kids to watch to practice their English, my softball glove (to teach the kids the game) and all the other things I needed for an extended stay in another country with a group of complete strangers whose language I barely speak.
It was my first real foray into travel abroad. It gave me confidence, taught me how to adapt to a new place and showed me just how similar people are — across cultures, languages and religions.
A job that would become a career
I fell into my role as a travel writer completely by mistake. After graduation, to the dismay of my parents, I scrapped my pricey advertising degree to take a gig as a freelance newspaper reporter. One day, in a job listing e-mail from my university, I spotted a cruise website looking for an associate editor.
Long story short, I didn’t get the role, but I did so well on my copy editing test that they offered me a job as an in-house copy editor. A year later, I was cruising and writing about it for the same site. That suitcase accompanied me on my very first assignment, and it’s mostly been by my side ever since.
When I purchased the suitcase, I didn’t see myself ever needing it for anything besides transporting my clothes to my dorm room, but it’s funny how life changes direction so drastically. Twenty years later — 15 of which I spent as a travel writer — and this bag is still kicking.
Toward the end of my time with that company, they asked me to take a temporary role in London to cover for a coworker’s maternity leave. I ended up living abroad for 10 months, which absolutely changed my life.
Not only did the experience allow me to live by myself in a big city, but it taught me some valuable lessons. I learned the difficulties of being away from family, how to use public transportation and the nuances of a western culture that, while similar to that of the U.S., is still rather different.
When I went, I severely overpacked, not knowing what would be available in the way of everything from seasonal clothing to toiletries. My tiger bag proudly held all of the health and beauty products I could fit inside it.
Adventures with people I love
Travel is always special when you can experience it with those closest to you. On one particular trip, I cruised with one of my best friends to cover the rollout of Carnival Cruise Line‘s Fun Ship 2.0 enhancements.
We ate burgers until we felt like we’d explode, danced at the club until the wee hours of the morning and made a couple of friends with whom we’re still in touch. (We made a couple of enemies, too, but that’s a story for another day.) Of course, the suitcase went with me, and it was one of the best sailings I’ve had to date.
Adventures without people I loved
After the great suitcase rescue of 2022, I decided that ugly tiger-print bag would accompany me on my next trip: a Windstar cruise from Tahiti.
It wasn’t lost on me that, reeling from a recent breakup, I’d be in one of the world’s most romantic destinations alone. My bag was my companion that carried everything I needed for my time in paradise (which I made as intentionally unromantic as possible). It was a hard week, but it taught me a lot about myself — and about other people.
I’m not sure how many frequent travelers can say they still have their very first suitcase. I’m lucky I still have mine, and it hasn’t let me down yet. I admit that I have taken it for granted on many occasions, though.
I’ve been angry when hoisting it into my car, pained when a wheel has run over my toes and sad when it didn’t show up on the belt at the end of a flight. However, I’m also happy just to have it around, carrying pieces of me in every small scuff, scratch and rip.
More than anything, the suitcase is a symbol of resilience and growth. From some of the most exhilarating times in my life to some of the most infuriating and heartbreaking, this bag has seen it all. It reminds me to always keep moving and protect what’s on the inside, even when I’m feeling lost in transit.
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