To quote Rick Steves, nobody ever brags: “Each time I travel, I pack heavier.” Our suggestions on what to bring with you, and what to bring back.
When in doubt leave it out.
For a week long trip, in general, you want to pack three or four rotating outfits. Wear your heaviest, most unwieldy items on the plane. Plan on washing items in sinks and air drying them overnight. Wear one pair of shoes and possibly bring a second, small pair in your bag (good walking shoes are actually the most important thing to bring). We’ve whittled it down to one pair each, and if we have a ‘shoe emergency’, we just buy another pair there. Pack your bag a week before and try taking it with you to the grocery store or on a walk around the block. That will help you whittle it down really quick. It’s a major drag to schlep heavy, unwieldy bags through the airport, on rental car shuttles, boats, trains, you get the idea. Don’t worry about packing an umbrella ‘just in case’, just buy a cheap one there if you need it. Trunks in small Italian cars are usually quite small too, and you don’t want to leave bags sitting out where everyone can see them. You want to leave the most room possible in your bag for all the goodies you will want to bring home. Your bag should be about 2/3 full maximum on the way over.
Never check a bag on the way over.
In almost every case, nothing you are bringing with you is worth having to wait at the airport for your bag once you’ve arrived, or worse still, have the airline misplace or lose it. If you only have a carry on, you can also transfer to any other flight in the event of a delay or cancellation (something we have done many times). If we arrive in Rome at 8am, we are in the car and driving away by 8:45, which includes a bathroom stop and, depending on the line, a coffee stop. Having lighter bags also means you can save time and get some much-needed exercise after a 10-hour flight by taking the stairs while everyone else mindlessly herds on to the escalators. Once you arrive you will need to go through passport control and customs, so the faster you can get there the better – it will be that much less time standing in line. Wait to use the restrooms until you’ve passed passport control or you will find yourself at the back of the line.
Bring an extra bag.
We each carry one carry-on bag, which is about half full, leaving plenty of room for bottles, gifts and whatever else we might like to bring home. We also each carry in our bags a good amount of bubble wrap, for bottles of liqueur and oil. Those bottles are wrapped in socks, and then bubble wrap. (We recommend “roller”-type bags, even the small ones – when they’re full of bottles on the way back, you’ll be glad for the wheels!) We also buy a good amount of dried beans (e.g. Zolfino, Purgatorio, Gigante, Borlotti) and farro (an Etruscan grain) which make great packing material to pad the bottles with, plus Zeneba turns them into delicious salads and soups over the year. We pack one empty duffel bag in one of the bags; this becomes our carry on for the way home and is filled with candy, ceramics and other breakables. On the way home, we each check a bag as by that time it’s quite heavy with bottles of oil and liqueur that would not pass security. It’s a good idea to put a few big pieces of duct tape on the duffel too, which you can peel off if you need a quickie repair. Buy a reusable grocery store bag when you’re there to use as another carry on, it makes a cute souvenir too. In Italy grocery stores charge you for plastic bags, so you’ll want a reusable one with you anyway.
Bring utensils, napkins, a corkscrew and salt.
Some of our nicest meals have been spent on the side of the road, at some incredibly beautiful overlook, having a picnic of local items we purchased at various small stores and bakeries. Of course you can find napkins, salt, a corkscrew and plastic utensils there, but these items are so light and easy to stow away in a small pocket of your bag, plus in the small towns, they may not stock plastic forks. If you bring a corkscrew you need to find a travel version, they are quite small, light and plastic, and the only kind that will be allowed past security in your carry on bag. If you pack a regular or waiter’s corkscrew it will be confiscated at the airport. Sometimes we also bring a collapsible cup, or just buy a mug there as a souvenir. In Italy, Ireland, and England, where we travel the most often, we often picnic, buying locally sourced foods. This is a great way to eat locally and healthfully, and it really cuts your budget too — and you don’t feel deprived at all.
Pack a little of everything, medicine-wise.
Of course you need to bring any prescriptions you need to take, but it’s also a good idea to bring antacid, diarrhea medicine, cold/flu pills, just in case. Hopefully you won’t need them, but if you do, at least you have one dose, which can tide you over until you get to a pharmacy. Ibuprofen is very expensive there so it’s a good idea to bring a few doses of that. Bring some band aids and tissue packs, which are light and easy to carry. Travel size versions of Qtips, sunscreen, bug spray and contact solution can be taken in a carry on.
Just buy toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, lotion and soap over there. It’s a fun way to try something new, and you might find that you like the new products. In Ireland they make “Euthymol”, a toothpaste that is hot pink and tastes exactly like Pepto Bismol. In Italy you can find toothpastes that are just mint, or ones that are mint, rosemary and fennel. Shampoo is the same word in Italian; conditioner is called “Balsamo”. Once we get out of the airport, we just stop at the first grocery store we come across and get toiletries, a snack, and plenty of water. Plus a local newspaper to make our car look like less of a rental.
Bring photocopies of passport and itinerary.
Bring a photocopy of your passport, driver’s license, and a few copies of your itinerary. You can keep these on a smart phone too, but that is less advisable as if the phone gets damaged, stolen or lost not only will you not have copies, but all your personal information will be available to someone else. Crime in small town Italy is virtually non-existent–I can’t think of a time we ever felt threatened there. Nevertheless it’s a good idea to be prepared. And obviously don’t put all your money in one place. Again, we’ve never had any issues, but if we did they’d get 40€ from us instead of 200.
Bring magazines instead of books.
We both love to read, and sometimes we’ll bring a book or two anyway, but usually we bring a big stack of magazines and newspapers with us that we’ve been saving up to read. Unlike a book, once you’re done with the magazine you can just recycle it, lightening your bag as you go. Ultimately you want to leave the most room and weight in your bag for all those bottles of oil, jam, honey, liqueur and other gifts you’re going to be sharing with your friends when you get home. If you want to bring travel books, restrict yourself to just one, or take photocopies of only the pages you will need. Or better yet, use e-versions of the books you want.
Camera, phone and converter tips.
Nowadays we don’t carry a camera at all - the built-in camera on our smart phones is more than adequate for our purposes, so this frees up a good bit of packing space. For those still carrying a separate camera: We used to carry a small, easy-to-carry camera that would fit in a pocket or a small bag. Over the years we have learned that it is wise to have an extra camera battery (or three), and make sure they’re charged at the beginning of each day. We also bring car chargers for both the camera and the phones, which relieves us of having to panic about low battery issues - we learned this one the hard way! It’s unlikely that you will need a converter — most likely the electronics you are bringing will only need an adapter to make it work with European plugs. Almost all phones and cameras are suitable for 110v (USA) or 220v (Europe) charges; check yours to make sure it works for both. If it does, all you need is a simple adapter (smaller and cheaper than a converter) so you can plug the cord in to charge. We skip bringing anything else electronic (e.g. hairdryer, shaver, iPad or similar) as those take up too much valuable space — we’re saving that space for the trip home, when we want to bring as much oil/liqueurs/ceramics/goodies as possible!
A thought on electronics: In general in our society today, we are pretty attached to our iPhones, iPads, e-readers, computers, etc. Take a moment before your trip to really think about how many of these things you need to bring. They’re fragile and expensive, and you’ll always have to keep track of them. More importantly, the more of them you bring, the more you’ll find yourself sucked into screens, and miss experiencing the incredible place around you that you spent so much time and money to visit.