How To Pack For A Week Vacation In Europe With Just Two Carry-On’s (and still look great!)

My boyfriend and I are heading to Europe this Friday for a nine-day adventure!

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Our plan is to go from London ⇒ Amsterdam ⇒ Bruges ⇒ Brussels ⇒ London. That said, given the amount of plane and train travelling we’ll be doing, we decided to challenge ourselves to only take carry-on luggage this trip…SCARY!!!

Growing up I was always the teenager who stuffed her bright blue, monogrammed L.L.Bean XL duffle to the 50 lb. maximum weight in order to fit as many outfit options, makeup, toiletries, and hair supplies as possible. Checking a bag was always a given. However, after most airlines started charging extra for checked baggage, I had to quell the urge to pack my entire closet. Additionally, I started visiting more destinations with robust public transit systems, and the benefit of travelling light became exhaustingly evident.

But, let’s be honest here – learning how to travel light was a long journey in itself. My 21-year-old self would never believe that my 26-year-old self would have been able to go to Ireland for a full week in wintertime without checking a suitcase. However, last March my best friend and I did just that (and we were thankful all four times we got on a train to a new city).

Ladies – it’s do-able, I promise!

The Cold, Hard Truth:

Bringing a checked bag on a budget trip to Europe is cumbersome.

It means you wait longer at airports to check and retrieve your luggage. Also, you have to carry your bags through crowded train stations and subways when you’re travelling between cities. Further, it costs money every time you have to check your luggage – adding extra expense to your trip.

That said, you want to look cute….and fashionable…because let’s face it, you don’t want to stand out as an ugly American. When you pack for a trip that involves sightseeing and numerous types of activities, it is very convenient and reassuring to have attire at hand for anything that comes up. Looking good is a must, because the other Europeans on the cobblestone sidewalks can be almost unattainably trendy.

The Goal:

Consolidate and reduce your luggage to two carry-ons in order to save money, time, and energy.

Sub-Goals:

  • Try not to sacrifice style.
    • NEVER bring ugly, boxy sneakers or anything resembling those khaki waterproof pants that zip off into shorts. (I’d rather pay the extra money for a checked bag than resemble a tacky American tourist every day.)
  • Avoid needing to buy new clothes or toiletries when you arrive. Be mindful of the amount of shopping you want to do while there, and how much room you need for souvenirs.

 

How To Achieve It:

Step 1: Invest in the right equipment

ROLLING DUFFLE BAG

Several years ago I bought a cute light-blue carry-on sized rolling duffle on sale for $15 at the Tucson airport.  It was originally $60 and it’s lasted around five years. That’s $3 per year. Let’s just say, I love this bag because it holds A TON.

This bag has taught me that even though a rolling duffle looks smaller than the maximum size carry-on suitcase, THEY STRETCH! Also, when you have to fit your duffle into the TSA sizers, they can shrink! If you don’t completely overstuff the bag, it can feel revolutionary. I read an article recently that the majority of suitcases labeled carry-on in the stores are actually not regulation carry on size for all airlines, so it’s good to do your research and check the measurements of bags before you purchase.

Here is an option I found on Overstock.com that is 22x11x12 (which fits American Airline’s requirements):  Rolling Carry-On Duffle Bag

RE-USABLE TRANSPARENT QUART-SIZED BAG (WITH GOOD ZIPPER)

London Heathrow and other European airports are even stricter than the US when it comes to needing to put your liquids and gels into a baggie. After my Ziploc baggies ripped during several past trips, I decided to invest in a high quality, re-usable, zipper-closure transparent baggie from The Container Store (upon my flight attendant best friend’s suggestion) to avoid having to purchase new Ziploc baggies while travelling. Note: I tried the cheapest option first and its sliding closure broke very quickly after one use. That said, the high quality baggie fits perfectly in the lower front pocket of my rolling duffle, which allows me to quickly remove it during a security check.

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TOILETRIES BAG

I always use one of the beautiful makeup bags that I get for free during Clinique bonus time to pack all of my non-liquid and non-gel toiletries/makeup. Sturdy bags such as those keep my suitcase organized without adding a lot of weight.

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LARGE BACKPACK

We all know your giant leather tote bag would be much cuter for your second carry on, but this is a time to be practical. I ALWAYS take a high-quality backpack with a lot of storage when I travel. I’m not suggesting you take an outdoor backpack. Instead I feel a cheaper and more fashionable school bag option will do.

Let’s just say my shoulders have thanked me for it over and over and over again. This is the Embark backpack I just bought to replace my old Jansport from college.

TABLET

I own a Microsoft Surface Pro and an HP laptop. I always leave the laptop behind when I travel because of the extra weight and hassle at security. When it comes to tablets, I’m practical. I know that having an iPad/Kindle/Nexus/Nook is great for consuming content, but my personal preference is to have a tablet as powerful as my laptop that can perform all of the functions of Microsoft Office.

CAMERA

I strongly suggest buying the highest quality camera you can afford because the pictures you will take will be priceless. At the same time, be mindful of camera bulk. My boyfriend and I have a Sony HD camera that is nearly as good as a DSLR but much smaller in size.

Step 2: Start with the toiletries

HAIR TOOLS

First thing’s first – hair. If you have long hair, make sure to book lodging with a guaranteed hair dryer. Most hotels have them and I’ve seen hostels with loanable ones even! Hair dryers take up way too much space and weight in your suitcase to bother bringing them. Also, I’ve heard many American dryers have blown out when plugged into European outlets due to the voltage difference (even with converters!). Resign yourself to the fact that your hair will most likely not look like you came straight from a Dry Bar appointment, and that’s OKAY. You will live, and still look fine.

With that said, I usually bring a straightening iron and use it on one of its lowest temperature settings to avoid voltage issues.

HAIR PRODUCTS

I never use the free shampoo and conditioners at hotels and do not expect you to either. I’ve tried it before and found the products very drying and unsatisfactory (caveat:  my boyfriend is usually fine with using them). Instead, I’ve invested in 1-oz jars from The Container Store for my Argon Oil and Smoothing Cream. Depending on your hair type, the Container Store has other options as well (i.e. small spray bottles for hair spray, etc.). I have long, thick hair so I use either two or three ounce bottles for my shampoo and conditioner.

SKINCARE

I do not cut corners here. I have prepped mini 1-oz versions of my Clinique 3-step as well as my Origins face mask. Touring cities all day exposes you to a lot of free radicals in the air, which can clog pores easily. I’ve found that many people (including myself) are much more prone to breakouts and dry skin when travelling.

MAKEUP

Only take what you consider necessary. I’ll admit I’m a makeup girl so that still means a fairly full makeup bag for me. The way I cut corners here is by choosing one day-time look for the entire trip and two night-time options. I also pack my makeup brush set and tweezers in this bag.

LAUNDRY SUPPLIES

I highly recommend packing a 1-oz spray bottle of Febreze fabric refresher, a 1-oz spray bottle of Downy Wrinkle Release, and a 1-oz leak-proof bottle of Woolite. That combination of three ounces of laundry products will really help keep your clothes fresh during the trip.

MEDICINE

After I realized when studying abroad that none of the medicine brands are the same in Europe as they are in the US, I began bringing a tiny makeup bag of various pills on each trip. It’s amazing to not worry about finding a pharmacy if you get a headache, and it eliminates guessing which brand would work best for your needs.

EVERYTHING ELSE

The items in this category will depend on your habits, but for things such as eye makeup remover and deodorant, I invest in travel size versions or more mini jars from The Container Store. Also, I always bring a mini toothpaste and my normal toothbrush from home in a protective case. That said, I’ll caution that the less excess toiletries you have, the better.

Step 3: Try to only pack the must-have attire

In the summer, Europe is colder than most places in America. In the winter it’s warmer than most. I have to be very conscious of that fact when packing, and I always check the forecast and historical average temperatures online before departure.

My last two trips to Europe were to Ireland and Wales, and I learned the importance of packing for rainy weather. Those trips taught me how valuable waterproof shoes can be and that sometimes you need to sacrifice style a little for warm, dry feet.

With that said, make sure you understand what the other essentials are that you need to pack, depending on the climate(s) you’re visiting. Just because you’ve been wearing dresses and shorts all summer in the US doesn’t mean you’ll be comfortable in those in London when the high is only 72 degrees. I also recommend trying to pack a few days in advance so you have time to sleep on your decisions.

If it helps, for my upcoming trip I’m taking:

2 – machine washable sundresses 2 – pair of jeans (one blue and one non-standard color) 1 – pair of shorts (cobalt blue) 8 – machine washable shirts in various colors 3 – neutral-colored cardigans (black, gray, brown) 1 – thin, gray, zip-up sweatshirt 1 – sleeping outfit (soft t-shirt and stretchy black capris) 10 – pairs of socks and undies 3 – bras (one strapless, one convertible to halter) 2 – pairs of tights (black and gray) 2 – belts (brown and black) 1 – fold-up waterproof windbreaker 1 – pair of sandals 1 – pair of Clarks waterproof walking shoes 1 – pair of fashionable metallic sneakers

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Yes- ALL of these things and more fit in my  carry-on duffle and backpack. For simplicity, I ensured my top layers were neutral colors, and tested that all shirts and sweaters would match the bottoms/dresses I packed. I also was mindful to choose fabrics that would not wrinkle easily, and could take well to Febreze fabric refresher and Downy Wrinkle Release. (Mostly cotton, light-weight wool, and faux-silk this trip!)

Lastly, I find it important to wear my heaviest items on the plane for ease of transport AND in case I get cold. It can get chilly when you’re high above the Atlantic!

Step 4: Re-evaluate all items using ONLY your practicality lens

I’ve learned over time that hats are more of a burden than a benefit to me on trips. I also have a money belt that has never been opened. Along with realizing that some typical “must haves” didn’t work for me, I simultaneously found that remembering my umbrella and wallet with a large coin pouch was invaluable on my Europe trips. It’s important to assess your own needs and habits when it comes to evaluating your packing decisions.

With that said, when I first started packing for this trip, I set aside four pairs of jeans and twelve shirts that were “potentials.” After stepping away for an hour, I returned and slowly thought through each piece’s versatility, when I would wear it, what it pairs well with, etc. That allowed me to narrow down the pile.

My personal tactic is to bring only two pairs of jeans to cut down on luggage weight (one to wear on the plane and one for the duffle). Next, I adhere to a strict rule that I can only bring one shirt or dress for each day that I’m travelling. For this trip I packed two dresses and eight shirts for a total of ten travel days. This means that I have a new, pretty outfit each day. DONE!!!!!

Step 5: Make sure your bag closes

This is (obviously) the most important step. Zip very slowly the first time to ensure you don’t over-stress the zipper if your bag is too full. I’ve never been opposed to sitting on my suitcase if needed. J

If your bag doesn’t close, try taking out a shirt or two and bank on using your laundry supplies towards the end of your trip.

Re-Cap:

Now that you’ve read through my suggested packing process, you can see that I am NOT recommending sacrificing style or re-wearing clothes numerous times just to fit everything in your bag. I had read another blog post online that recommended re-wearing the same black shirt and just packing loads of colorful scarves to “mix things up” – which I found uninteresting and a bit gross. As an alternative, I’m happy that I have now shared my field-tested recommendation for packing light, fashionably, and practically on your next Europe trip. Smart packing occurs when you minimize all excess and are mindful of what you need.

I hope I have now proved that you can pack enough outfits in your carry-on to look amazing throughout your entire photo montage!

Bon voyage! Cheers!

– Eliz

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Caveats:

  • I am 5’1” (size XS petite) so the amount of fabric on my clothes will be less than the average person. This means that my clothes will take up a little less room than average. The same goes for shoes since I am a size 7M women’s. However, my 5’10” best friend has been able to pull off only taking a carry-on before as well for a one-week vacation.
  • I did not include clubbing clothes in this post because I prefer to go to local bars/pubs when I travel. That said, for those of you who wish to go clubbing, my recommendation would be to trade out the fashionable sneakers for high heels as well as replace one of the sundresses with a bodycon minidress.

Disclaimer:

  • I work on the P&G account at a New York-based media agency. P&G manufactures Febreze and Downy.

 

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2 comments

  1. I think you could cut things down quite a bit. Most budget European airlines will only let you take one bag, not one bag and a backpack. One way to do that is with a capsule wardrobe of tops and bottoms that mix / match / layer all together. It’s much easier creating cute outfits when your clothing pieces are part of a coordinated color story.
    One thing you didn’t mention – wear heavy items on the plane. So wear jeans, boots, leather jackets, instead of packing them.

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    1. Thanks for your comment and insights!!! Wearing your heaviest items on the plane is such an important point to reiterate from Step 3!

      In regards to budget airlines, I agree it’s extremely important to pack for their carry-on rules if you plan to take a trip on RyanAir or EasyJet. It’s a “least common denominator” approach to packing where you adhere to the standards of the most strict airline you will be flying.

      That said, for this trip we are using British Airways to fly to Amsterdam (which has a more lenient baggage policy) for several reasons:
      1) We purchased our BA tickets in advance so they only cost ten pounds more than the budget airlines (plus a free checked back if we choose). We resigned to paying extra money upfront to avoid any potential fees for bags, food, etc.
      2) The flight leaves from London City Airport rather than Stansted or Luton, which saves a lot of time and expense.
      3) BA is part of the Star Alliance so our American Airlines AAdvantage memberships will be referenced.
      4) The seats recline. It’s the little things. 🙂

      Even though the budget airlines can have fantastic deals, I recommend researching ALL flight options and weighing the pro’s and con’s of taking flights on EasyJet or RyanAir in terms of logistics and potential incremental fees.

      Like

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