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Pack Light and Travel Happy

Think in Terms of What You Can Do Without

Pack light backpack
Pack light with a backpack and be very mobile.

You’ll never meet a traveler who, after five trips, brags, “Every year I pack heavier.” The measure of a good traveler is how light she travels. You can’t travel heavy, happy, and cheap. Pick two.

Limit yourself to 20 pounds in a carry-on-size bag. A 9” x 22” x 14” bag fits under most airplane seats. When you carry your own luggage it’s less likely to get lost, broken, or stolen. And when you arrive you don’t have to wait around for your bag. After you enjoy that sweet mobility and freedom, you’ll never go any other way.

Pack light . . . and pack smart. Post-September 11, you can’t bring knives, scissors, nail files, or cigarette lighters in your carry-on bag (though these items can be packed in checked luggage). Even before 9-11 some airlines were limiting carry-on luggage weight as well as size. Call your airline (or read the fine print on your ticket) for details. If you have to check your bag, mark it inside and out with your name, address, and emergency phone number. While many travelers lock their bags, I never have.

What to Bring?

How do you fit a whole trip’s worth of luggage into a small suitcase or backpack? Simple: Bring very little. Whether you’re traveling for three weeks or three months, you pack exactly the same.

Spread out everything you think you might need on the living room floor. Pick up each item and scrutinize it. Ask yourself, “Will I really use this snorkel and these fins enough to justify carrying them around all summer? Will I use them enough to feel good about carrying them over the Swiss Alps?” Regardless of my budget, I would buy them in Greece and give them away before I would carry that extra weight over the Alps.

Don’t pack for the worst scenario. Risk shivering for a day rather than taking a heavy coat. Think in terms of what you can do without—not what will be handy on your trip. The world’s getting really small: you can buy Dial soap, Colgate toothpaste, Tampax, Nivea cream, and Bic razors in Sicily. Tourist shops in major international hotels are a sure bet whenever you have difficulty finding personal items. And if you can’t find one of your essentials, ask yourself how 300 million Europeans can live without it.

Unless you plan to camp or sleep out a lot, a sleeping bag is a bulky security blanket. Even cheap accommodations provide bedding. If you’re hosteling, or if you’re traveling through Scandinavia, you can save money by bringing a sleep sack (a sheet sewn like a sleeping bag).

Backpack or Suitcase?

If you’d like the ease of a backpack without forgoing the “respectability” of a suitcase, try a convertible suitcase/backpack with zip-away shoulder straps. These carry-on-size bags give you the best of both worlds. If you want a bag that rolls, keep in mind that wider wheels are better for rolling over Europe’s cobblestones.

As for backpacks, sturdy stitching, front and side pouches, padded shoulder straps, and a low-profile color all are virtues. Many travelers figure an internal frame is worth the extra money and get a high-tech bag for $150 to $200. Packing very light, I manage fine without the extra weight and expense of these fancier bags.

Pack your bag only two-thirds full to leave room for picnic food and souvenirs. Use stuff bags (one each for toiletries, underwear and socks, bigger clothing items, camera gear and film, and miscellaneous stuff such as a first-aid kit, stationery, and sewing kit). Roll and rubber band or zip-lock clothes in airless baggies to minimize wrinkles.


The bulk of your luggage is clothing. Minimize by bringing less and washing more often. Every few nights you’ll spend 10 minutes doing a little wash. Choose dark clothes that dry quickly and either don’t wrinkle or look good wrinkled. Give everything a wet rehearsal by hand-washing and drying once at home.

You should have no trouble drying clothing overnight in your hotel room. I know this sounds barbaric, but my body dries out a damp pair of socks or shirt in a jiffy. It’s fun to buy clothes as you travel—another reason to start with less.

For winter travel, use heavier, waterproof shoes. Add a down or pile coat, long johns (quick-drying Capilene or superlight silk), scarf, mittens, hat, and an extra pair of socks and underwear since things dry more slowly. Think layers.

During the tourist season (April through September) most concert halls go casual. I have never felt out of place at symphonies, operas, or plays wearing a decent pair of slacks and a good-looking sweater. Women who prefer slacks don’t pack skirts and have no regrets.

Some churches, mostly in southern Europe, have modest dress requirements for men, women and children: no shorts or bare shoulders. Except at the strict St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Mark’s in Venice, the dress code is often loosely enforced. If necessary, it’s usually easy to improvise some modesty (buy a cheap souvenir T-shirt to cover your arms and borrow a nearby tablecloth for a skirt/kilt to cover your legs). In southern cities—no matter how hot it is—grown men look goofy in shorts.


Try to go without electrical gear. Travelers requiring electricity need a converter to make their American appliance work on the European current and an adapter (three flat prongs for Britain and Ireland, two round prongs for the Continent) to allow the American plug to fit into the European wall. Many travel accessories come with a built-in converter. Look for a voltage switch marked 120 (U.S.) and 240 (Europe).

Many budget hotel rooms have only one outlet, occupied by the lamp. Hardware stores in Europe sell cheap three-bangers that let you keep the lamp on and still plug in your toothbrush and Game Boy.

What to Pack for Europe

• 5 shirts. Combination of short- and long-sleeved in cotton/poly blend for fast drying and fewer wrinkles.

• 1 sweater. Warm and dark is best for layering and dressing up.

• 2 pair pants. One pair lightweight cotton and another superlightweight for hot and muggy big cities and churches with modest dress codes. Wallet pockets with buttons or Velcro closures annoy thieves.

• 1 pair shorts with pockets. Doubles as a swimsuit for men.

• Swimsuit (women).

• 5 pair of underwear and socks (lightweight fabrics dry quicker).

• 1 pair shoes. Well-used, light and cool with good traction.

• Jacket. Light and water-resistant windbreaker with a hood.

• A tie or scarf. For instant respectability.

• Money belt. Lightweight and low-profile beige.

• Money. Your preferred mix of a credit or debit card, an ATM card and hard cash. Traveler’s and personal checks aren’t necessary.

• Documents and photocopies. Passport, airline ticket, railpass or car rental voucher, driver’s license, student ID, and hostel card. Also bring photocopies of all of these plus a couple of passport-type photos in case you need replacements in a hurry—stash them apart from the originals.

• Small nylon daypack.

• Camera and lenses. Put in a new battery before you go. Store everything in a low-profile nylon stuff bag.

• Picnic supplies. A cup, plastic plate, small tablecloth, washcloth (to dampen and store in a baggie for cleaning up), and a Swiss Army-type knife with a corkscrew and can opener.

• Zip-lock baggies. They’re great for containing wetness and bagging potential leaks before they happen.

• Water bottle.

• Wristwatch and alarm clock (or watch with built-in alarm).

• Earplugs.

• First-aid kit.

• Sunscreen.

• Medicine and vitamins. Keep medicine in original containers, if possible, with legible prescriptions and generic names.

• Extra eyeglasses, contact lenses, and prescriptions. Many travelers find their otherwise-comfortable contacts don’t work in Europe. Bring your glasses just in case. Contact solutions are widely available in Europe.

• Sunglasses.

• Toiletries kit. A nylon kit that can hang on a hook or a towel bar works best. Use your zip-locks here and don’t forget soap and a little extra toilet paper or some tissue packets.

• Clothesline. The handy twist kind needs no clothespins.

• Small towel. Although $50-a-day travelers will often need to bring their own towel, $100-a-day folks won’t. While I don’t use them, many recommend the quick-drying synthetic chamois towels.

• Sewing kit. Clothes age rapidly while traveling. Add a few safety pins and buttons.

• Travel information (minimal). Rip out appropriate chapters from guidebooks, staple them together, and store in a zip-lock baggie. When you’re done, give them away.

• European map. Get a map best suited to your trip’s overall needs and pick up those for specific local areas as you go.

• Address list. Taking a whole address book is not packing light—bring a list of email and snail mail addresses. Consider typing a sheet of gummed address labels.

• Postcards or small picture book of your hometown and pictures of your family. Great for conversation with Europeans you meet.

• Small notepad and pen. A tiny notepad in your back pocket is a great organizer, reminder, and communication aid (for sale in European stationery stores).

• Journal. This will be your most treasured souvenir. Use a hardbound type designed to last a lifetime. Attach a copy of your itinerary.

Optional Bring-Alongs

• Robe or nightshirt. Especially for women.

• Inflatable pillow. For sun snoozing.

• Pillowcase. It's cleaner and possibly more comfortable to stuff your own.

• Hair drier. These are generally provided in $100+ hotel rooms.

• Light warm-up suit. Use for pajamas, evening lounging, and going down the hall.

• Teva-type sandals or thongs.

• Leather-bottomed slippers. These are great for the flight and for getting cozy in your hotel room.

• Small flashlight. Handy for reading under the sheets after "lights out" in the hostel, late night trips down the hall, exploring castle dungeons, and hypnotizing street thieves.

• Stronger light bulbs. You can buy these in Europe to give your cheap hotel room more brightness than the 25- to 40-watt norm.

• A good paperback. There's plenty of empty time on a trip to either be bored or enjoy some good reading.

• Radio, Walkman, MP3 player, or recorder. Partners can bring a Y-jack for two sets of earphones.

• Collapsible cup.

• Office supplies. Bring paper, an envelope of envelopes, and some sticky notes such to keep your place in your guidebook.

• Small roll of duct tape. Use to repair shoes or bags — or guard against blisters.

• Mailing tube. Great for art lovers, this protects the posters and prints you buy on your travels. Trim it to fit inside your backpack.

• Collapsible umbrella.

• Tiny lock. Use it to lock your backpack zippers shut.

• Spot remover. Bring Shout wipes or a dab of Goop (grease cleaner) in a film canister.

• Bug juice. Especially for France and Italy.

• Gifts. Local kids love T-shirts and hologram cards, and gardeners appreciate flower seeds.

• Poncho. Hard-core vagabonds use a poncho as protection in a rainstorm, a ground cloth for sleeping, or a beach or picnic blanket.

• Hostel sheet. Hostels require one. Bring your own (sewn up like a sleeping bag), buy one, or rent a sheet at hostels (about $4 per stay). It doubles as a beach or picnic blanket, comes in handy on overnight train rides, shields you from dirty blankets in mountain huts, and will save you money in other dorm-type accommodations, which often charge extra for linen or don't provide it at all.

• Adapters (electrical plugs).

Virtual Packing: See Transitions Abroad's Back Door Travel page and Rick's website for more packing tips (including advice for women travelers).

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