We travel to Europe 5-6 times a year, usually for one week at a time. We pack very lightly on the way over, each taking one carry on bag. I also carry a shoulder bag, and Matt carries a computer bag for our mini computer.
Over the years we've learned how to pack and arrange our bags so that we spend the least amount of time schlepping bags around. On the way home, our bags are filled with wine, liqueurs, soaps, ceramics, honeys, jams, candy, and gifts that we share with friends and family throughout the year. Here are some of our tips for dealing with bags while you are on a trip to minimize the time you spend dealing with luggage.
Never check a bag on the flight overseas.
We cover this in more detail in our "travel tips" section. But the short version is, on the flight over, you do not want to check a bag. This guarantees your luggage won't be lost, gives you flexibility in case your flight gets delayed or cancelled, and gets you out of the airport quickly. In one bag, I pack a bunch of bubble wrap. I use this to protect bottles of olive oil and wine for the flight home. In the other bag we pack an extra empty duffel bag, and also a reusable grocery bag. On the flight home, we each check our bags (every passenger gets one free bag on an international flight). The checked bags are full of olive oil, wine, liqueurs, and anything liquid that wouldn't pass security. The duffel bag is used as a carry on and is full of candy, chocolates, and breakables.
Share your suitcase.
We used to designate one bag as mine and one as Matt's. But these days, we share both bags. Sometimes, even though we don't plan to check a bag, and our bags are carry-on size, the airline forces us to check them anyway. Our method of sharing both bags means that if the airlines lose one bag, neither one of us is stuck with no clothes/socks/underwear. It also helps with our next packing tip, which is.....
When you arrive and get your rental car, take a few minutes to rearrange.
I carry a shoulder bag on the flight, which is full of magazines, gum, earplugs, ear buds, snacks, and clorox wipes (if you've seen what people do on those airplane tray tables, you would want to wipe it down before you use it yourself).
When we pick up the rental car, Matt takes a minute to look for scratches and dents, and familiarize himself with the car. While he is doing that, I rearrange the bags. I take out all the things I used on the flight and leave them in the trunk of the car, to be put back in to the shoulder bag when we take the flight home. In their place I put maps, a car charger for the phone and camera, and anything else I'll want in the car or hotel.
At this point, I also take one suitcase and remove everything but whatever we will need for the time we are staying in our first hotel. If that is a one night stop, it's a very light bag. Two or three nights, a bit more, but not by much.
We then leave the extra stuff in the trunk, safely locked away. That way, we don't have to schlep all of our belongings all of the time, but only the things we'll actually need. This saves us a lot of effort and time.
Use the reusable grocery bag when you stop for supplies.
On the first day, we always stop at a larger grocery store to buy a few supplies. Since we don't check a bag, we can't bring large toiletries. We stop off and buy shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, contact solution, mouthwash, water, wine, and some fruit. When we check in to our first hotel, we bring this in with the luggage. We take the duffel bag out of the luggage and leave that in the trunk of the car. Over the week, as we buy items (like ceramics, candy, or other non-perishables), we put them in the duffel and just leave them in the trunk, so we don't have to worry about them until we leave.
As the week progresses, shift to using only one bag.
In small towns, it's not unusual to have to park a block or more away from your B&B-- these aren't Holiday Inns with big parking lots and valet parking. Also, it's not common for hotels in small towns to have elevators, so you may have to go up a few stairs. If you're staying in a hill town (which we love to do), it's a hill town, so there will be... wait for it... hills.
We've learned over time to leave as much as we can in the trunk of our car. Crime is virtually non-existent in these small towns, so as long as your luggage is in the trunk and not visible it should be perfectly fine. We'll try to leave one bag in the trunk with dirty clothes and/or clothes we don't need, and consolidate what we do need into one bag. This lets us get in and out of the hotel quickly, and spend more time exploring the town or just resting, and less time fiddling around with stuff we don't need.
This packing and re-packing in the trunk takes me 2 or 3 minutes each time, and saves us lots of time and effort over the course of the week.
At the end of the trip...
On the last day of the trip I usually try to take all the bags into the hotel and pack them, making sure the bottles are sufficiently covered in bubble wrap and laundry. That said, I have been known to just leave the bags in the car and pack them in the parking lot! Just so I could do it quickly and avoid the hassle. Packing light allows us to do this, and also gives us the freedom to stuff our bags (and extra duffel) full of gifts and mementos that we enjoy for years to come.