Don’t you hate those smug seasoned travellers (I’m looking at you, Rick Steves!) who jet off to Europe with a small backpack and no checked luggage? It’s almost as if drip-dry shirts, tiny toiletries, and hand-washed underwear somehow make them superior examples of the travel species. What if I don’t want to wear the same thing for two weeks? What if I need more than toothpaste and hotel soap to complete my daily ablutions?
The paragraph above was definitely me. But after traveling for years, I must grudgingly admit that Rick Steves is right. Traveling light really is the best. With every passing year my suitcase gets smaller. I mean, who wants to lug a huge bag all over the continent?
But there’s a happy medium between overpacking and being an international hobo. I’ll start by admitting that I always check a bag. Lugging a bag around airports and fighting for overhead space messes with my happiness. So valuables go in my man-purse/sling bag and everything else goes into the hold. The list below is a combination of sudden realizations and time-tested practical advice.
- Find a great small roller bag. Mine is a Timbuk2 Copilot (medium). This is a combination hard/soft bag with two spacious compartments and a quick access external pouch. It fits in the overhead if you refuse to check. But the genius of this bag is the wheels; skateboard wheels which can even be replaced if they wear out. It glides absolutely silently on most surfaces – airport floors, pavement, etc. And while it is not entirely silent on cobblestones, it’s still only a fraction as loud as other bags with no “clackety-clack”. Over the last two years it has been extremely durable, if a bit prone to getting dirty. This company also makes some roller/backpack hybrids.
- No matter how long your trip, only pack 4 days of underwear & socks. With the ones you’re wearing on the plane, that makes 5 sets. So every fourth day of your trip you need to find a washing machine. This actually makes a nice hour-long coffee/reading break in your trip. On google maps, search for laundromat, waschsalon, laverie, lavaderìa – you get the idea. Unless you’re in a very small town, you’ll find one. And some of them are actually pretty cool technologically. I mean, if you’re a geek for cleaning technology… If there’s no laundromat, there may be a stand-alone laundry which will help you avoid the exorbitant cost of hotel laundry. This is especially true in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Turkey.
- It turns out you can buy things in other countries. I know, right? Here’s an example; I frequently travel in shoulder seasons, so the weather can be changeable. In addition to packing layers – a merino layer, a waterproof shell, etc – if I arrive in Europe and its colder than expected, I’ll just pick up a cheap warm jacket at the local department store or discount store. I’ve purchased virtually identical chunky, warm, synthetic jackets in places as diverse as Edinburgh and Cluj-Napoca, and never spent more than $20. That’s one less thing to cram in your bag, and at the end of the trip (or when it warms up), you can donate it at a local charity box.
- When you’re traveling, nobody cares if you wear the same thing every day. Indeed they won’t know, unless you spend a long time in one place. You don’t have to smell (see #2), but who are you trying to impress? I just pick 2 looks that make me feel good and reasonably neat, and that’s that.
- I pack too many electronic devices. You don’t have to. But I have to. I take my phone (obviously) and a computer if I’m traveling for more than a day or two. Less obviously I also pack a kindle because I read constantly on trips, and reading on the computer/phone screen is tiring. Even less obviously, I pack my music player because I’m an HD audio nerd and can’t stand the sound of music on my phone. This is way too many things, but so far so good.
- If you’re reading this blog, you’ve noticed that I love to take pictures. My phone is good enough for selfies, but not for this. But I don’t carry around a huge DSLR either. I am in no way a pro, so I’ve found that I take my best pictures with a good, compact all-in-one camera. In my case it’s a Panasonic DMC-ZS100. It has a great sensor, decent Leica glass, and an automatic-plus mode that is reasonably idiot-proof, while still giving me quick toggles for exposure, shutter, etc. Best of all, it’s only 4.5″x2.5″x2″ and solidly built. You can find similar cameras from Sony and others.
- Shoes. You can’t just travel with one pair – whatever the now thrice mentioned Rick Steves says. Especially in cobbled Europe, you’re going to walk a lot – miles and miles every day. Rotate between two pairs of shoes and leave one pair in the hotel to dry. If a pair of shoes isn’t working for you, or hurting your feet – chuck ’em and buy another pair. They sell shoes in Europe (see #3). Indeed I’ve purchased some of my favourite shoes in Europe (Check out thelisbonwalker.com. They make great shoes that come with a bottle of wine!) Bad shoes that cause blisters or prevent you enjoying yourself – don’t put yourself through that.
- Here’s a way what you pack can make you a friend; I usually put a can or two of hometown craft beer in my (checked) bag. I then bring the cans to the best craft beer shop/bar at my destination as a gift for the owner or bartender. It strikes up a conversation about beer, and creates a new local friendship. I’ve done this all over Europe, and have not only made friends but also received great local tips about restaurants, shopping, excursions, etc. I’ve had bar owners take me to beer festivals and even invite me to their homes. Beer nerds are friendly! And I’ve also of course received a lot of free beer in return. And I think I might actually be personally responsible for the import of Canadian craft beer into Portugal – but that’s another story. Additional bonus: the space freed up when you unpack the beer is where your souvenirs can go. Those souvenirs can even be beer!
- Finally, if while packing you say to yourself “but what if I need _______?!?!”, unless the word in that blank is “Insulin”, realize that you can get it where you’re going. I once saw a woman hold up the security line because she was trying to take 24 individual yogurts onto the plane. When asked about it, she told the screener that she was worried they wouldn’t have yogurt in Europe.
Well, for now that’s 9 things. I’ll update this post once in a while as more occur to me. At which time I’ll also update the number in the first sentence of this paragraph. Maybe I have already.