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How to Pack for a Trip to Europe

My husband and I recently returned from our first trip out of the country! I’ve been begging him to go with me for years and we finally took the plunge. It was awesome, scary, exhausting, uncomfortable, and wonderful. I highly recommend traveling anytime you get the chance.

We typically don’t stress much about packing for our adventures. Toss in your clothes, daily essentials, extra socks and undies, and voila! I always tell myself that the only thing you really need when you’re heading on a trip is your license and yourself. You forgot toothpaste? Chances are there’s a store nearby that’ll have some. Though it’s not fun to make store trips on a vacation, it’s convenient and takes some stress away from packing. That said, we generally try to remember everything we need to avoid those store trips.

Even though we’re seasoned airline packers, we had never packed for a new country and that somehow seemed so much scarier! We read articles online and purchased truly helpful travel guides. We felt we had a pretty good grasp on our wares. However, small things would pop up and we would say, wait! What about this? Do we need this?

So, I’m here to help ease your packing anxiety if you’re planning on taking a trip to another country anytime soon. Of course, your list may look different than mine depending on your destination and time of year, but I’m happy to share the things that came in handy and those that we wished we had. For the record, we visited London, Paris, and Amsterdam in early June.

How to Pack

Pack light. I remember reading that over and over and thought, BUT HOW? I’m not a frills lady. I typically don’t wear any makeup, but if I’m feeling fancy, mascara and light lip gloss might do. I rarely heat style my hair. I wash it and let nature take over (which works most days). I love shoes, but don’t feel the need to bring my shoe collection on a vacation. A pair of flip flops and sturdy tennis shoes will usually fulfill my needs. So, to say I pack lighter than most women is probably accurate and still I wondered how I could pack for a two-week adventure as light as possible.

Carry on. Rick Steves says you should fit everything you need into a carry-on size bag or suitcase. We ignored this advice for our first adventure and each took one checked bag. Next time we may try to pack lighter. As he said we would, we often found ourselves lugging our suitcases through cities, onto trains, etc. and the heavier and bulkier they are, the slower and more tired you’ll be. I considered dumping all of my possessions a few times and starting fresh. Seriously, Europeans walk or take public transportation a lot and you’ll be doing the same.

Socks and undies. He also suggested packing five pairs of socks and underwear, which blew us away. How? What? We packed all of our socks and underwear and knew at some point we would have to face the facts that we didn’t own two weeks’ worth. Keep in mind that this is the longest trip either of us has taken. That fact hit us in Amsterdam, our last European stop. I decided to try a Rick Steves suggestion — hand washing in the sink. You rinse your belongings, soak them in shampoo, rub them together, rinse until soap free, and hang dry. I felt very “travel-y,” scrubbing sweat and debris from our underoos. It took quite some time to accomplish, so I did it late one evening after we finished exploring. Luckily there was a hanging rack in the bathroom, because we didn’t bring a line (I think it was actually some sort of heater, but you do what you must). And boom, the following day you have yourself mostly clean, very crispy socks and underwear!

Bring those handy travel guides, or at the very least, rip out the important pages. They get heavy. We brought ours and studied them at night to solidify plans for the following day. Steves has wonderful, free audio guides for walking tours and popular tourist destinations. In the back of the guides he includes a popular phrase and pronunciation guide for each city. This came in handy often, but especially in Paris. We tried our best to use the guide to make basic conversation.

Pay attention to outlets and voltage. My husband, being the techie in our household, thought to purchase outlet adapters before we left. I’m sure this is something you can also buy over there, but it’s easier if you have it ready to go after the long flight. Make sure your products aren’t a higher voltage than your adapter can handle or your stuff will get fried.

Looky, loos. I love water and I drink it all the time. The only thing I worry about on vacation is drinking too much water and not being able to find a bathroom (water closet, loo, WC). We read that bathrooms are often hard to find in Europe, unless you’re a paying customer. Luckily, we generally didn’t have trouble finding bathrooms, but we did see a paid outdoor port-a-potty.

Water, water, nowhere! I was totally shocked at the lack of available, free drinking water! We brought a small, travel water bottle and figured we would fill it up all day, like we do here. But I can think of only a few situations where we found water fountains in any country. When we visited restaurants, I always ordered a water and they asked sparkling or mineral, to which I replied tap (guidebook trick). I received a water maybe every third time I ordered one. I would often look around and see very few tables with water. Most people were drinking alcohol. I honestly want to know if they drink water! From an outsider’s view, it would appear no. Bring extra water bottles (goes against packing light) or plan to purchase bottles along the way.

Bring an umbrella. We were supposed to have pretty mild temperatures and sunny days, but we were rained on at some point almost every day of our trip. They are definitely worth the space in your luggage. I don’t like to carry extra items during the day, but we were thankful to have them during unexpected rain storms.

Which leads me to weather in general. We packed with an initial glance at the 15-day forecast. Think about how often that happens here. Our weather often doesn’t match what is predicted, let alone two weeks out.

We packed light, summery clothes. We ended up wearing our jeans, tennis shoes, and long sleeves almost every day. We each packed one light jacket. We wore these almost daily as well. Amsterdam, our final stop, turned out to be the coldest. Our first day was lovely, cool, but sunny and mild. The following two days, our last two days, it was in the 50s, very windy, and rainy on and off the entire time. We so wished we had more than a thin jacket. I purchased a large scarf.

We made the best of it and stopped in for coffee and warmth whenever we could. You can’t stay in because of bad weather when you’re in Amsterdam! It’s such an incredible city! Next time we will definitely pack more layers, so we’re ready for varying temperatures. We brought a drawstring backpack and used it often. You can always toss an extra layer in there for when you need it.

It was a wonderful experience and we can’t wait to do it again, armed with the knowledge we gained from this first trip. Pack lighter, fewer undies, travel guides, adapter, water bottles, umbrellas, and layers! Oh, and don’t forget your license and passport. That’s all you really need.

What other things have you found useful? Where are you going next? —Katie

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1 Comment
  1. Ida Waterou says:

    We did a 3 week tour with only carry on. We did clothing that did not wrinkle easily and washed them in the sink. Only thing I wished I had brought some shorts. It was autumn but turned out to be very warm. Instead of a laptop I brought a small netbook. The bus had wifi and so did most of the hotels. The other thing I do for clothing is one solid color for slacks
    and just bring some scarves and costume jewelry to change things up.

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