My Rick Steves’ Europe tour members are often amazed at how small my suitcase is, and that I manage to fit in everything I need for a trip that’s ten days, three weeks, or even longer.
How can I carry so little? It all comes down to laundry. I pack the same no matter how long I’m traveling, and just wash as I go. When I’m solo, I wash clothes by hand in my hotel-room sink every night, and hang them to dry. And every few weeks I give everything a deep clean at a laundromat. (It can be a fun challenge to figure out how to work a coin-op washer when the instructions are in a different language…and when you still can’t decipher them, it can bring about some interesting conversations with helpful locals!) As a couple or family, you’d use up too much vacation time (and get serious dishpan hands) washing all of it by hand. Just wash out the few pieces needed to get you through a week, then take turns doing weekly laundromat duty.
And why do I carry so little? The praises of packing light have been sung by many before me. To me it all boils down to the delicious feeling of independence I get when everything I need is in one easily portable bag. Yes, you’ll avoid airline baggage fees with just one carry-on…you’ll be able to dash to your train when they announce that the track has been changed and it leaves in three minutes…you won’t have to pass up the rooftop view room at an elevator-less hotel…you won’t be stymied by the inevitable escalator outages at European subway stations. But more than that, you won’t have to rely on anyone else when you have one small bag that you can hoist yourself.
My list is obviously geared towards women, but is easily adapted for men. And let’s face it, I’m middle-aged. I still want to look good, but my feet, my back, and my health need more coddling than when I was 25, and my packing reflects that.
My boss has a great packing chapter in his travel skills book Europe Through the Back Door, and every backpacker or jetsetter with a blog seems to have posted their take. This is just what works for me after fine-tuning through 18 years of guiding.
Skip the 100% cotton t-shirts. They’ll stretch out if you hand-wash and hang them to dry, and you’ll never get them unwrinkled. T-shirts in blends (cotton/rayon, cotton/poly) work fine—although they can get pilled quickly when you hand-wash them—as do 100% cotton or blended woven shirts. Sometimes I take even fewer shirts, and enjoy the excuse to shop for more in Europe. Then whenever I wear one back at home, it brings back happy memories.
Two pairs of pants
I bring jeans only in the off-season (and even then they’re a lighter-weight denim); otherwise it’s cotton/lycra twill pants. I used to bring quick-dry pants made for traveling or hiking, but have decided they’re too hot, and they make an embarrassing swishing sound as you walk. And no zip-offs—I don’t want to look like I’m going on safari.
A neutral skirt (I like black or denim) that can be combined with any of your shirts will give you much more use than a dress. Plus it’s impossible to access
your (required!) money belt when you are wearing a dress. Once, leading a tour in Paris, I ignored my own rule and spiffed up with a sundress. I felt pretty cute…until I needed my credit card to buy Metro tickets. In desperation I had to grasp my money belt through the dress fabric, shimmy it down my hips, and step out of it like a pair of discarded undies. Not my most sophisticated moment.
Five pairs of undies
Avoid cotton, ladies—wicking synthetics rule. As with shirts, when you hand-wash 100% cotton, not only does it take forever to drip dry, but it stretches out. I can imagine few things less comfortable than walking through Naples when it’s 90 degrees and your skivvies have become sweaty and three sizes too big.
Again, the sweat factor. You need one to wear while yesterday’s is drying. My kind of travel means lots of walking and stair-climbing, and perspiration happens year-round. In the winter when you’re bundled up for a 40-degree day and hop on a crowded city bus heated to 80, it won’t be pretty.
Five pairs of socks
Synthetic, of course. And since I’ve occasionally gotten blisters with even the most comfortable, broken-in shoes, my fifth pair is the individual-toed style that looks bizarre, but protects painful toes. On off-season trips I also take black tights.
I take lightweight PJ pants, and on top wear a…
…which also works as a daytime layer when it’s chilly. In winter, I take a silk long underwear top and pants instead. They’re worth the cost. They weigh next to nothing and don’t add any bulk under your regular clothes, yet they’re surprisingly warm.
One pair of walking shoes
I really do take only two pairs of shoes–one walking, one sandal/flat. My holy grail: comfy but cute (although my teenage daughter and stylish European friends may question what I think passes for “cute”). Your trip can literally be ruined if your feet are in pain. My wonky, sensitive feet absolutely must be comfortable, but I also don’t want to look “frumpy.” For me that means hiking shoes that look more “sneaker” than “Appalachian thru-hiker” (my current faves are Clarks), or stability-model running shoes (New Balance and Asics work for me), which I Scotchguard to resist stains and drizzle.
I once tried those spongy “walking-on-a-cloud” sneakers that felt like heaven at home, but they didn’t have any support, and after a day on European cobblestone streets and marble museum floors, I couldn’t take another step. (On that trip, I actually bought better ones at a Foot Locker in Florence–yes, they have that there–and asked my hotels’ staff to donate the old ones to the local equivalent of Goodwill.) Instead, I now know that what’s most comfortable and supportive for me is actually the stiffest and least cushy shoe. My podiatrist taught me to hold a shoe’s heel and toe and try bending and twisting it. If it bends easily only between the ball of the foot and the toe; if you can barely twist it lengthwise; and if you can’t squeeze the sides of the heel together, that spells the best support.
Fall through spring, waterproof shoes are a must. I live in rainy Seattle, yet I’ve never been drenched more thoroughly than in downpours in Paris and Florence, where I was so grateful that at least my feet stayed dry and comfortable.
One pair of sandals or flats
Again, comfort is king, but cute is a close second. They must be supportive and absolutely cannot rub or pinch anywhere; even if they’d be passable in my “regular life” at home, a day of sightseeing often results in swollen, sweaty feet for which every tiny irritant will be magnified. My go-to’s are Danskos, Tevas (the ones with built-in arch support–not their traditional pancake-flat rubber soles–and with thinner leather straps that look a little less “whitewater rafter”), and BioNatura (a cork-soled brand available in many shoe stores in Italy).
In colder months, I take ballet flats instead, which I wear with tights. Or, I’ve even taken a pair of low-heeled boots, which actually fit in my bag when I stuff them with my undies, socks, and scarves.
See: my Paris and Florence rainstorm experience. In cooler months I add a lightweight down jacket that fits under my waterproof shell.
Sweater or lightweight wrap
Even if you’re going to the warmest country in the warmest month, airplanes are notoriously chilly, and you could end up in an over-air-conditioned restaurant. (Or, as happened to me recently, your room’s A/C could be stuck at about 50 degrees when the hotel staff is off duty for the night.) I used to pack a fleece, but decided it looks awkward with skirts. Now I take a cardigan (cotton in summer, cashmere in off-season), or a lightweight safari- or moto-style cotton jacket.
You’ll need one for hours in the sun on walking tours or exploring ruins. A baseball cap will mark you as undoubtedly American…but then, so will lots of other things: water bottles, loud voices, friendly smiles to strangers. So maybe don’t worry about it. But I take either a crushable woven hat or a logo-free visor. For wintertime warmth, I substitute a knitted cap or a wool beret (my favorite: packs flat, looks dressier, and doesn’t give me hat-hair).
Two or three scarves
They’re the key to looking like you’ve packed more outfits than you actually have, and making your hiking outfit theater-worthy. I replenish my stock of scarves annually at the Florence street markets, where they’re cheap and make great wearable souvenirs and easily packable gifts to take home.
Throw it in–you’ll never forget going for a dip in the Adriatic, gazing at the Alps from a Swiss pool, or relaxing in a sauna with other travelers after a day of skiing or hiking. And want to fit in with the Europeans? Then make it a bikini! Truly every age and size wears them. In fact, I’ve never been more self-conscious in a bathing suit in recent years than when I wore my middle-aged-American-mom skirted tankini to an Austrian pool, and every bikini-clad local “mutter” and “oma” seemed to regard my full-coverage suit with horror.
…because just when I think I’ve lost weight despite all the pasta, wine, and pastries, I realize it’s more likely that my pants have stretched out after six wearings.
Coming soon in Part 2: toiletries and surprising extras.