Following a recent travel webinar that I presented, I received this seemingly simple question: what are your packing tips for a trip to Europe? There’s so much to say here that I’ve decided to dedicate a whole article to this practical topic. Much of this will apply to any trip, though Europe is somewhat unique as it is a) a tad more fashion conscious, and b) a travel destination that invites multiple itinerary stops, some in large cities.
I usually dread packing. On the face of it, it’s a task I really don’t enjoy. Precisely because of this dislike, however, I’ve developed several strategies to make packing more enjoyable and to feel well prepared. Here are my tried-and-true travel packing tips for Europe and beyond.
Let me begin by observing that most of us are not traveling with butlers and steamer trunks, so it’s a given that we should try to pack light. Before you dedicate precious luggage space, be sure to consider an item's weight, bulk, and necessity.
Carry-on or checked luggage?
Your critical first decision is whether you’ll need a standard-sized checked suitcase or if a carry-on will do. If you’re traveling for under seven days, are heading to multiple countries, and your travel wardrobe is generally casual, then I say go for a carry-on suitcase if you’re able to (though I’d probably still check my luggage on flights for ease). The smaller your suitcase, the more mindful you need to be about how much to bring, of course.
Soft-sided or hard-sided luggage: both work.
I love the look of hard-sided cases, but have always opted for soft-sided for practicality. A tight fit in the trunk of a cab or overhead compartment can often be made to work by shimmying in a soft-sided case, and I would also be fearful of a scratch marring the surface of a hard-sided case. That said, I don’t have a very firm opinion on this point and would love to hear from more hard-sided luggage fans on why they love that type.
Organizational nirvana: packing cubes.
If you are new to the wonderful world of packing cubes, welcome to Type A heaven. I have yet to meet a traveler who hasn’t loved packing cubes once they’ve tried them. These lightweight, softly structured pouches and folders will gently compress your clothes, minimizing wrinkles and keeping your whole suitcase neatly organized. Packing cubes are the best!
When you arrive at your hotel room or cruise stateroom, you simply remove your cubes from the suitcase and place them in drawers, maybe hanging up a few items as you go. You'll be finished unpacking in a few minutes, and it’s just as easy to repack when you’re off to your next destination.
Eagle Creek is my favorite packing cube brand: I use one small- and one medium-sized zippered rectangular pouch, along with a “Pack-It Original Garment Folder” for pants, dresses, sweaters, and blouses. If you’re sharing a suitcase with a companion, you can each get a different packing cube color. Bonus: most packing cubes are washable.
Reconsider jeans and sneakers.
I love jeans, but for European travel, you may get less use out of them than you think. For one thing, jeans are pretty heavy and bulky, so they take up a lot of space in your luggage. Also, jeans are not quite the same versatile wardrobe component in Europe as they are here at home. If you do bring jeans, I would recommend only one pair in a darker wash: try pairing them with shoes other than sneakers for a more international style. For women, combine them with cute but comfortable flats, a blouse or solid-colored t-shirt casually tucked in at the very front (a so-called French tuck) , maybe with a light sweater or pashmina for warmth.
As an alternative to jeans, take a look at hiking pants in neutral colors: they’re lightweight, dry quickly if hand-washed, and can even be dressed up a bit. Patagonia, REI, Athleta, and Columbia are examples of brands that have a good selection of hiking pants. For women, slim leggings in solid, dark, neutral colors can also be a nice option.
Three keys to travel style.
The three best ways to fashionably stretch your travel wardrobe are to bring versatile layers, coordinate your colors, and throw in some fun accessories.
For versatile layers for your top half, pack lightweight t-shirts, blouses or collared shirts, cardigan or pullover sweaters, and a jacket according to the season. For ladies, a pashmina in a soft or vibrant color is a great layer that can pull together an outfit when worn as a scarf or wrap. For gents, bring one or two ties and dress shirts if your itinerary will call for them, perhaps with an unstructured navy travel blazer or a crewneck sweater. Alternatively, you may be fine with just some crisp, collared long-sleeved shirts (which you can roll up to make more casual). For pants or skirts, go for subdued neutral colors for maximum versatility.
In terms of colors, everything you bring should coordinate. For example, you could go for clothing in hues of plum, berry, navy, olive, black, gray, and white: no matter how you combine these shades, they all harmonize, so you’ll have plenty of different combinations. Pack neutral-colored, comfortable shoes that should go with anything.
For ladies, jewelry is a compact and simple way to add style. Costume jewelry is fine, and you won’t need to worry too much if it’s misplaced. I wrote a separate article about traveling with jewelry, which you can access here.
Don't forget a day pack or small zippered purse.
When considering which purse or daypack to bring for exploring cities, it should have secure zippers and be designed for front carry (and please no fanny packs, no matter how you wear them). Be aware of pickpockets, especially in pedestrian zones or on public transportation. Also, if you plan to do any grocery or drug store runs, take along small collapsible tote bags, as European stores rarely provide free plastic bags.
Clothespins, you say?
Yes, absolutely. Clothespins are excellent multitaskers. I always bring a half dozen plastic clothespins when I travel. From hanging up a hand-washed garment, to clipping closed curtains for better morning sleep, to saving an opened bag of cookies for later, clothespins have multiple uses and take up very little space. Also, if you anticipate hand washing items, bring along some Tide sink pods (available on Amazon) or other travel-sized laundry detergent.
Some final golden rules...
1. Remember, Europe is for exploring, so comfort is essential, especially when it comes to your shoes.
2. If you’re in doubt about bringing along an extra clothing item, chances are you’ll be fine without it.
3. Don’t stress if you forget to pack something: it’s a great excuse to go shopping! Just be sure to pack your passport.
Happy Travels Always,
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Photo credits: statue of David by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash, jeans by Maude Frédérique Lavoie on Unsplash, plums by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash.