Packing light for a trip to Europe: Tips for Women

Packing light is an essential aspect of a fulfilling, successful trip. Why?

First, if you take only a carry-on on the flight over, and don’t check a bag, you will be the most flexible in case of a flight delay or cancellation. Traveling with only a carry-on means you can take any flight, and in the event that your flight is delayed or cancelled, having that kind of flexibility can be the difference between getting to your destination on time, or being delayed by days. You’ll also be on your way and out of the airport while the rest of the passengers are standing around waiting for their bags (assuming the bags didn’t get lost).

Second, heavy, unwieldy bags mean it’s harder to get around airports, train stations, buses, and cabs. It takes more time to pack and unpack from hotel to hotel, and it’s not unusual that hotels in Europe won’t have an elevator, so you’ll be schlepping those heavy bags up flights of stairs by yourself.

Lastly, having a light bag means you can buy ceramics, wine, shoes, arts and crafts, jams and honeys, along the way as you travel, then bring those things home with you. I like to check a bag on the way home, full of wine, oil, and goodies. If the bag gets delayed by the airline, it’s their responsibility to deliver it to my house. I share the goodies I bring home with friends and family, which is a nice way to re-experience the trip.

Here are a few of my tips for successfully packing light:

For a week-long trip, pack three outfits, maximum

Choose materials that won’t wrinkle, and that match each other, so you can mix-and-match your outfits. In warmer weather, be sure to pack at least one lightweight, long scarf. On sunny days you can wrap your head and shoulders to shield from sun, and you can always use the scarf to cover your shoulders when entering a church, which is often required. As the night cools off it’s nice to have a wrap. Doubles as a pillow on the plane.

Bring a single pair of shoes. Yes, one pair. In summer, I wear flat, comfortable sandals, that allow me to walk for hours on medieval cobblestoned streets. In winter, I wear one pair of boots that have rubber bottoms like sneakers, perfect for long walks in the rain or snow.

Plan to hand wash some items and hang them overnight to dry. This really only takes a few minutes, and it’s no hardship – especially compared to the hassle of dealing with a huge heavy bag.

Another good aspect of a light bag: If you see a dress or sweater that you really like, you can buy it because you’ll have room in your bag!

Toiletries: What to bring and what to leave

In order to accommodate my “carry-on-only on the way over” scheme, I never bring liquid toiletries over 3oz. I have a few travel containers that I fill with hair gel or cream, and I bring a travel hand cream or two with me. I wear contacts, so I bring an emergency travel size bottle of contact solution. But once we arrive in Europe, one of our first stops is a big grocery store. There, I buy toothpaste, contact solution, shampoo and conditioner, mouthwash, and a bigger hand cream, if I want it. I saved myself the hassle of dragging a bag laden down with those heavy items through the airport, and personally, I have fun trying new things. I also buy travel size packs of tissues at this point, which I keep in my purse. Having a tissue pack has saved me many times in a bathroom with no toilet paper.

I have a small makeup bag with the usual suspects (I’m not a heavy makeup wearer, but I do like to have the option).

One thing I always bring from home: soap leaves. This is a matchbook-sized pack of dry soap leaves. They last forever, so you can use them trip after trip. Each leaf is good for a single hand washing. Very helpful when you encounter a bathroom with no soap available.

Overnight bathroom bags: essentials

I have a hanging bathroom bag, with all non-liquid bathroom necessities. This type of bag can easily get overpacked and out of hand, so it’s important to remember that pretty much everything you might need (except prescription pills) is easily accessible in Europe. So just pack one or two doses of common medicines — enough to tide you over until you can get to the pharmacy. You probably won’t need any of those medicines (if you are lucky!), so don’t burden yourself by carrying more than you need.

I bring Alka-Seltzer, cold medicine, anti-diarrheal, acid reducer, band aids, and sleeping pills. I bring extra doses of ibuprofen, as ibuprofen is very expensive in Europe. I also bring a travel sewing kit, Qtips, a few pantyliners and tampons. Feminine products are not really different in price there, so if you need them you can just buy them over there. (If you want to skip the expense and waste altogether, check out menstrual cups.)

Extras to bring along

I bring along an empty duffel bag, that I stuff in the bottom of my carry-on. When I arrive, I pull this bag out and leave it in the trunk of the rental car. Over the week I’m traveling, the duffel gets filled up with items that are appropriate for a carry-on bag, and the duffel becomes my carry on for the trip home. It’s also the bag I use to bring breakables and valuables (like ceramics, glassware, and the camera). Any extra space in the duffel is taken up by magazines for the flight, and dirty laundry. This frees up space in my checked bag for all the wine and liqueurs I bought on the trip.

I also pack a bunch of pieces of bubble wrap. This takes up about 1/4 of the space in my bag on the way over, but on the way home, I wrap bottles in socks, then wrap them in bubble wrap. This helps protect them on the flight home, and ensures that I get to enjoy that bottle of Chianti in my own living room! I also always pack a small knit blanket, for use on the flights. On international flights you are given a little pillow and a thin blanket, but it’s nice to supplement that with a knit blanket, which can double as a pillow. Sleeping on the flight is essential to avoid jet lag!

By following these tips, you can help yourself have a relaxing, fulfilling trip. You don’t have to worry about your bag getting lost on the way over, and you’ll waste the least amount of time in the airport possible. You won’t waste time unpacking stuffed bags once you get to your hotel, and you can just go out and explore this place you spent so much time and money to visit. And best of all, you can come home with bags stuffed to the gills with olive oil, wine, liqueurs, ceramics, honey, leather, or whatever your favorite things… mementoes and gifts from a memorable trip.