For those of you who have recently traveled to Europe or plan to do so soon, you are likely aware of the many challenges travelers have experienced with their checked bags. Between rising baggage fees and bags arriving late to a destination or not at all – checking a bag is not as appealing as it was before. It also makes traveling with just a carry on seem better and better.
So, several months ago, I decided to give “carry on only” packing a try for our trip to the Florida Keys. This really forced me to rethink the way I pack. Instead of packing everything in my wardrobe – just in case – I became very thoughtful and strategic about what I packed, making sure everything had a purpose. I even convinced my husband and two teens to do the same. Let me tell you, after experiencing the freedom of NOT having to wait for your bags at a carousel and NOT worrying if your bags will arrive with you – we never looked back.
We decided to give this packing approach a try for our recent 6-night trip to Barcelona and I can wholeheartedly say we were quite successful! We were all able to fit 6 days/nights of clothes into a standard (22” x14” x 9”) roller suitcase, plus an additional carry on handbag/backpack and still had room for a few small souvenirs on the way back.
But packing light is not for the faint of heart. For those anxious packers who like to pack everything for an emergency (which was me, several years ago), I can honestly say, I didn’t miss having everything. I had just enough and was happier for it.
Travel and Packing Considerations
If you’re looking to avoid checking luggage on your next European adventure (or any vacation for that matter), start with these travel and packing considerations:
- Size of your clothes – For years, I would ask my husband why he was not able to pack for a long weekend getaway with just a carry on. His response was always that his clothes and shoes were bigger than mine. Ok, yes, size does matter in this instance. Men or even taller women may have a harder time containing all of their clothes in one carry on suitcase. However, for our last three trips (The Keys, Disney World, and Barcelona) my husband was able to pack with just a carry on suitcase and backpack…so it can be done, gents!
- Your destination and the season – For warmer destinations, you can usually get by with fewer, less bulky items, while cold destinations require bulkier clothes and more layers.
- Events/excursions – If you know your trip will only include laying on the beach in Croatia with a drink in your hand, you probably won’t need to pack a lot of active wear. However, if your itinerary has you hiking along the Cinque Terre along Italy’s coast, you’ll want to take appropriate clothes and shoes for that. Likewise, if you are traveling for a business meeting or to a destination wedding, which may require you to bring fancier dresses/clothes, packing light may not be an option for you this time.
- Washer/dryer availability – If you are renting a house/villa that has a washer/dryer combo, this is a huge bonus! You can pack even fewer, everyday items, like socks, underwear, tshirts, etc (with plans to wash them onsite) and save room for additional items that you may have left behind due to spacing issues.
13 Tips for Traveling to Europe with Just a Carry On
Even with these considerations, it is still possible to pack light – even to Europe – fitting everything into a standard carry on roller suitcase plus an additional personal bag.
- Wear your bulkiest items on the plane – If you are bringing a coat, sport coat, vest, boots, etc, wear these on the plane so that you don’t take up space in your luggage. You can always remove the items and squeeze them under your seat or in the overhead until you get to your destination.
- For colder destinations, bring a packable coat and plan to layer up. Packable coats are highly underrated and can be just as stylish as other coats. They are also light enough to pad on layers underneath. Patagonia, North Face and LL Bean make great packable coats in a wide variety of styles and colors – all packing down to fit into a carry on if needed.
- Use packing cubes!! I can’t stress this enough how essential packing cubes are for efficient packing. Whether you fold or roll your clothes, packing cubes allow you to pack your clothes tightly, taking out most of the air between clothes. You can also use one of your cubes as your dirty clothes bag on your return home.
- Stick to one or two main, neutral colors for your clothes – Using jeans, black pants or khaki shorts as a base, I pair them with shirts and sweaters that are black, navy and tan. Having a basic color scheme will help you mix and match much easier and can help you limit the shoes you bring.
- Plan to rewear some of your outer layer clothes, like pants, jeans and shorts. Unless they get really dirty, most can be reworn at least once (although you may need to spot clean appropriately). Shirts and sweaters can also be reworn if you pair them with an undershirt, tank top or cami underneath. Even casual dresses can be worn more than once if you are careful with them. For clothes that you choose to rewear, you can always change up the look with a cashmere wrap, scarf, vest or different jewelry.
- Along those same lines, avoid items that you would only wear once (other than socks and undergarments). Don’t be tempted by packing that silk button down if you know it will only last one wear (due to wrinkles or sweat). I’ve done this before and had big time space regrets.
- Be thoughtful about shoes – Now, we all love shoes, right? But if you’re trying to pack light, the key is to pack one really great, comfortable shoe that you know will go with almost anything. Like clothes, you’ll also want to wear your bulkiest shoe on the plane, and then pack your less bulky ones in the carry on suitcase or handbag. For Barcelona, I wore a gray pair of Chelsea Thursday Boots on the plane, and then packed a flatter shoe and my running shoes in my carry on.
- Get creative on where to stick smaller items – Things like socks, underwear, bras, gloves and hats can be put inside each other and then snuck in the small zipper compartment of your suitcase or they can be put inside shoes if needed.
- Bring a wool or cotton wrap/poncho on the plane – It can keep you warm on the plane, at night while walking around, or can be used as a blanket in your room. And, most importantly, it is a super easy way to dress up a basic tshirt and jeans if you suddenly find yourself going to the hottest restaurant in town.
- Buy select toiletries at your destination – Now I don’t do this all of the time, but for larger items over 3.4 ounces that won’t pass through security as a carry on item, I will pay a little extra to buy onsite. This especially includes sunscreen for beach destinations!
- Pack a lightweight pillowcase in your carry on – You can stick your coat or other soft items inside it to create a pillow and use it as a laundry bag on the way back.
- Invest in a lightweight but sturdy, multi compartment bag or backpack to act as your “personal item” on the plane. Use it to carry your smaller, everyday purse, toiletries, snacks, and any other smaller items you don’t mind getting squished a bit. I use my large, black Lululemon gym bag all the time on trips. There are three main compartments – two with full zippers. The main compartments will sometimes hold a smaller packing cube, running shoes, and a cashmere pashmina, while the smaller compartments will hold toiletries, phones, wallet and snacks. And because of its size and soft material, it fits easily under the seat in front of me.
- Remember, you don’t need to pack for every situation – In most cases, you don’t need to plan for a snow storm in London in June nor do you need to pack shorts for your trip to Ireland in December (just in case). Also, most places in Europe will have some items you need in an emergency – like an umbrellas, that beach hat or sunglasses you forgot to pack, or even a shirt/sweater if you need an extra. Bonus – these can easily double as a souvenirs and will always remind you of your trip.
Ciao and Happy Travels Everyone!