travel tips

New York design consultant Maxwell Ryan on how to pack light – after travelling the world on a bike

Founder of the pioneering design resource Apartment Therapy, Ryan shares his top travel tips for packing light and how to beat the flying fear

Ryan was a teacher before starting his business, Apartment Therapy, in 2001, which offers design lessons, DIY how-tos, shopping guides and expert advice. Image: Apartment Therapy

Maxwell Ryan is best known as the founder of pioneering design resource Apartment Therapy. He was a teacher before starting his business in 2001, initially focusing on home organising and design.

Three years later, he added a namesake website whose irreverent, relatable approach to interiors was an instant phenomenon, quickly making Ryan a ubiquitous expert in the field on TV and in other media. He now operates both that site and home cooking-focused Kitchn.

He's a creature of habit when it comes to airlines, crediting his dad for that routine. “Growing up in Manhattan, my father always went to the same two restaurants because whenever he walked in the door, they said, "welcome back, Dr. Ryan." I'm sort of that type of person,” Ryan says.

Delta is his go-to carrier as a result. “It’s a lovely airline, and it has a really nice app.” So far this year, Ryan has racked up 52,000 miles and counting in the air, from three trips to Europe, several domestic jaunts and a run to Jamaica.

The 57-year-old lives in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, New York, and has two children. Below, he shares his top travel hacks – including how to nail packing light.

When Ryan took a year to cycle around the world, he learned how to travel light – very light

When I got out of college, I travelled around the world on a bicycle for over a year. I set off with four panniers filled with everything: clothes, tent, stove. I very quickly realised I was going very slowly, and then a man came up to me. He was a Swiss doctor, and he had nothing on his bike. We rode together for a day and a night, and I asked him how far he was going, because he didn’t have any gear.

“I don’t need anything but my credit card and my toothbrush. I stay in a hotel to wash my biking shorts and shirt, and then it’s dry in the morning,” a Swiss traveller told Ryan

“Oh, I’m biking for three weeks,” he said, “I don’t need anything but my credit card and my toothbrush. I stay in a hotel to wash my biking shorts and shirt, and then it’s dry in the morning.” As an American, I was completely boggled by this. Americans tend to overpack, preparing for the worst, for every condition. But I sent almost everything home the next week after I met him.

If you pack like that, for every eventuality, in a sense you’re signalling that you don’t trust where you’re going. But depending on other people, meeting them and asking for help is the whole point of travelling. Even though it may sound counter-intuitive, I now don't worry about packing a lot of things because I know if I need it, I'll ask, I'll buy it, I'll get help. And that will be probably the most interesting part of the trip.

Booking a group holiday? Use Ryan’s hack to minimise stress

Every Thanksgiving, we do this big family holiday; it’s about 35 or 40 of us every year now. We go to the same place in Costa Rica, and when we leave, we book for the next two years.

They will let you book that far in advance if you’re booking up half of the hotel or so. And we always book an extra room or two, because you know there might be some friend who tags in.

Booking an extra room costs nothing, and typically you can cancel up to a week or a month ahead of time. But the idea is that you don’t know what’s going to happen in a year – you want some wiggle room. The extra room is for the fun friend, or the person who just went through a break-up and really is your best friend and needs a place to go.

Always leave this one thing behind when you travel – you can relax more on the road when you do

I moved into a doorman building for the first time in my life three years ago, and that changed everything. I needed a place that was low maintenance. I’m a single dad. And now, when I leave New York to travel anywhere, the one thing I actually never bring is my key fob with all my keys.

Apartment Therapy started off as a maintenance company. I worked in people's apartments for about seven years as we grew the website. I've always had a big keychain. And I have my house keys, my storage key, my gym fob, my work fob; my life is on that thing.

I’m afraid of losing all of them, and it terrifies me to carry them to another country. Now, there’s no reason. I leave them on my hall table because the doormen have my front door key. You could do the same thing in a house, the way that Airbnb renters leave a programmable lock around the back door.

Ryan recommends roaming America’s less-trafficked corners, not just far-flung places

Most of us travel to go to foreign places, and I understand that. But I think Americans don’t realise how good we’ve got it in this country. As a businessperson, I travel, but I tend to fly over the middle. And that’s what is surprising to me: The most amazing place I’ve been in the last few years was northern Iowa.

Decorah, Iowa. Image: Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum

I went for a wedding two summers ago, and driving down from Minneapolis to Decorah, Iowa, was mind-blowing; it was surprising, more relaxed and not overbuilt. The expansive skies and the light as the sun set across the prairie was something I had never really been conscious of before. There was also a stillness in the air that I can’t describe.

We stayed at a really cool old hotel in Decorah, the Winneshiek, which the king of Norway visited in 1935 – they still have pictures all over the walls of his and the queen’s visit, because that part of the country was filled with Norwegians at the turn of the century. It was built as a grand hotel in this tiny town, and I think it has an opera house. Time stands still in wide-open northern Iowa, and I felt like I saw 150 years pass before my eyes.

Afraid of flying, as Ryan once was? Try this tip

I used to have a fear of flying, and one day I was on a flight from LA to New York. I was in row 43 and was sitting next to this guy as we were bouncing out of our seats. And I was terrified. I was white as a sheet, and he was laughing.

“That’s what it’s like in the back of the plane,” he said. I had never realised that it was just like a car or a bus. So I started to fly in the front of the plane, wherever I could get to: the front of economy, the front of business. And now, when the plane bounces, it’s not a big deal to me.

Hotels will always have a ready supply of this item you’ll likely often forget

When you forget your cables, hotels will have them – people leave them behind. But the one thing a hotel doesn’t have is adapters for that country. I think people steal those. That’s something I bought a lot. But again, I don’t worry about that. This summer, my daughter and I had to go get some on our first day [in Italy], and that was our introduction to the neighbourhood.

Browse the home stores in this European capital for bargain-chic buys

When I’ve gone to Paris, I actually love the home stores. The stuff has a different sensibility. And by and large, you can buy it and they’ll ship it. I’ve been to the brocantes, the antique markets there, and you’ve got to do a lot of digging. I just like to hit the stores and buy a tabletop I’ve never seen before.

Caravane, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris

I bought a sofa from Caravane, which does soft, easy, super-sexy furniture. It’s a little bohemian and good for small starter apartments, a French-North African mix – lounging close to the floor and not like traditional furniture. Another is Merci. If you’re familiar with what ABC Carpet & Home in New York used to be, it’s like that.

You can get everything from there, from a watch to a plant to a sofa. It’s not huge, but it’s highly curated and can solve all sorts of different problems in your home. The guy in me likes the everyday stuff you just don’t find in New York City: a good new corkscrew, maybe. That’s what’s great about that store. And the Bon Marché department store? It’s a completely different animal from an American department store. It has great tablecloths, napkins, electronics and lighting.

Ryan recommends one-star hotels that might provide experiences that outstrip five-star fripperies

This year, I did another bike trip, from Florence to Rome. When I did a trip after college, I had a book and paper and maps, but now everything is GPS; there’s a great service called Komoot, which can guide you around the world, whether you’re biking or walking.

We bicycled a pilgrimage route called Via Francigena, which goes from England to Rome. We did it from Florence, and it’s off-road, so you’re on walking paths. They don’t mind the bikers. My approach is always to do challenging rides during the day – say, 60 to 80 miles. It was tough, because this trip was hillier than we expected. But then to stay in really nice places.

Again, you can carry less if you choose a really nice hotel. Or stay at a one-star, family-owned situation where they will treat you just as well because it’s their home. My friend Andrew and I stayed at one like that in Proceno, as we got closer to Rome.

Castello di Proceno, Corso Regina Margherita, Proceno, Italy

We went into this little town, and it was empty. Everything was boarded up. But this old woman ran a little hotel, the Castello di Proceno, which had been in her family for, like, 90 years. She explained that the town was empty because all the young people had left. That hotel was probably the most memorable stay of our whole trip.

Here’s why you should always book your return flight on a Saturday

If I go on vacation, I will always try to come back on a Saturday, because I don’t want to land and have to go to work the next day. You’re going to be tired. But when I land at JFK at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., I walk across to the TWA Hotel and have dinner there, at the bar. It’s easy.

When you’re travelling with friends, when you land in New York, it’s really nice to just have one more meal together. You’ve only got a 20-minute ride home, so have a drink with your friends and toast the end of the trip. Continue it for just one more meal.