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Packing Tips for a Trip to Europe: Carry-On Only

On a recent two-week trip to Europe, I decided to get a small, inexpensive rolling suitcase and take only a carry-on, and I'm lucky I made that decision. Little did I know that this summer would be an unprecedented year of lost baggage. When we arrived back home there were multiple news stories and awful images of hundreds of bags in large rooms in the guts of airports all over the world.

I wanted to use carry-on only because I knew I would be on and off trains, metros, and buses, and I wanted to have an easy, light time of it.

The Three Best Things I Brought to Europe

The three things I wore the most by FAR were:

  • A black/b&w print reversible dress

  • A black quick-dry wrap skirt

  • A light pink cozy sweater

The reversible dress (which I only reversed twice), I wore over and over. I bought it years ago from Athleta, I think. I wore it on the plane with a strapless bra which I promptly removed, turning said dress into a comfy nightgown. With my neck pillow and cozy sweater, the only thing that kept me awake was sitting upright in a Delta airplane seat. Darn.

A black wrap skirt by Rip Skirt Hawaii. No matter how hot it got, (and Europe had a terrible heat wave near the end of our trip), this skirt was fabulous. Made with poly/spandex, it is a quick-dry material. I will definitely be getting another one–a different color or a print–for my next trip.

This comfy pink sweater is by Barefoot Dreams. My sister-in-law gifted me this softy years ago, and I still use it. I used this sweater on planes, trains, and buses and most evenings until the unusual heat wave hit. It is very soft, warm, but at the same time, very breathable. I love it almost as much as my sister-in-law. Almost. (Nah, as much as I love it, not even close.)

Woulda, Shoulda, & Shouldn't Have

This SHOULD have been a great thing to bring. It is not normally as hot as it was, but I still wore this cotton khaki jumper twice. Ok, once, I sweat so much sitting in a café (in the Alps!) that it looked like I wet my pants–but such are the pitfalls of travel. No way I could have anticipated the heat that high into the mountains.

I did buy a very small travel umbrella. I didn't use it once, but it could have been the best thing I brought. You just never know.

I guess I brought a pair of jeans that could be rolled up at the bottom because I'm an American woman, and that's what we do. I did use them once in the evening with a spaghetti

strap top, jean jacket, and black Converse, but would never bring them again on a summer trip to Europe.

I also could have done without the jean jacket, which I mostly brought to wear over the dress and with the black skirt and t-shirt or spaghetti-strap top. I did use it once or twice, but with the heat, a light scarf would have been enough.

This dress from Urban Outfitters would have been used over and over, had I not left it in my laundry room. I hung it to dry and forgot to pack it. Note to self, do laundry a few days before and bring all clothes into packing area. Honestly, if I had brought this dress, the black dress, and the Rip skirt and a few tops, it would have been plenty.

The Shoe Dilemma

Since I was determined to use carry-on only, I knew I needed to take a maximum of three pairs of shoes (wearing the largest pair, packing two). I bought 3 new pairs of comfortable shoes before I found one I didn't hate, and that seemed great for using during the day and could be dressy enough for a dinner in a great Paris restaurant.

This was the clear winner: The Mirabelle

Unfortunately, I did not think to take a picture of them BEFORE they walked all over Paris, Grächen, Engelberg, and Zurich, Switzerland, and Munich, among other fabulous places. So these are my five-week old VERY worn shoes.

PS. Never, EVER buy a new pair of shoes for a trip unless you buy them at least a few weeks in advance to break them in, which I did with these.

After discussing with my daughter Lauren, who knows my penchant for heels, I decided to bring an older pair of black, espadrille-ish wedges. Her argument was that I would be disappointed if I wanted to wear heels to dinner in Paris, and they were home in my closet. I brought an older pair since I anticipated possibly needing to leave them there if I ran out of space.

Heels on a Plane

Sounds like a very bad movie, but I actually wore the wedges on the plane, with my black chucks in the bottom of my backpack that I pulled out right away for going to the restroom on the plane. That worked out very well. The little Converse® shoes had a little weight, but were very compact in my backpack. I would definitely use this strategy again.

Well, I never used the wedges. The flat sandal was great for walking everywhere, and was perfect with a dress for dinner out in Paris. So, here are my Nordstrom wedges, in their new home in Engelberg, Switzerland. Lucky shoes. Hopefully someone will find and love them.

So I was down to two pair of shoes, which was fine, but honestly, I needed another comfy-cute pair of shoes. By the time I got to Munich–6 days in–my feet were neither excited to see the chucks nor the strappy sandals coming. I just needed one more pair to put into the rotation. But I was fine with the two.

My Great, Cheap Everyday Shoulder Bag

I'm not a big purse person, just ask my husband who always carries my lip gloss. For this trip I wanted a durable, cross-body bag that had a zipper on the inside for my Passport. I didn't want a nice one, because I knew it might take a beating. I found this one on Amazon. It was very inexpensive and not completely tragic-looking.

This bag went everywhere: thrown on the plane floor for a footrest, tossed into trains and buses and hung on tight during a bike ride all over Munich, and I never even felt it on me. I was able to shorten the strap when I biked.

It had a lot of room for its size, and I could even roll my light sweater, windbreaker, or scarf and store in the bottom of the bag. Most of the time I just tied my pink scarf or green jacket to the strap if I thought I might need it.

Pouches Rock

Something I learned from Rachel Zoe: Pouches rock. I had a plethora of zippered and drawstring pouches with me on the trip, keeping my power bricks and cords–separate from my jewelry–separate from my lip gloss and sun block, etc. It's just so easy to find things if they are in categories, and packed away in pouches. (Gosh I sound so organized–ha! I have friends rolling with laughter, but I really put a lot of thought into packing for this trip, which is why I'm sharing.)

Other Cool Ideas That Worked


Yeah, I got sucked into this one by an Instagram ad, but I love them. Cadence is a company that makes leakproof, magnetic containers made from recycled, ocean-bound plastic (they had me at ocean-bound plastic). The .56 oz capsules have a wide mouth and they aren't effected by air pressure the way most bottles are. They stay closed, and they are TSA compliant. I had plenty of face creams, etc., for 2 weeks. If I were going for longer I would have needed 2 more (for extra shampoo and conditioner). They are also great for small jewelry and vitamins. The little labels on the top of the capsules can even be changed. It's a very smart concept.

Clear Toiletry Pouches

I bought these pouches from Amazon, and they were just fine, although not the best quality. I try to buy things that last, so I don't contribute to the landfill, and these had good reviews. The zipper on one of them started splitting, but it hung in there for the whole trip. Unlike my toiletry bag at home, I wanted something small and clear so that I could quickly find what I needed. These worked well. The Cadence vials fit easily into one, still leaving room for other items, and makeup went in the other.

Packing Cubes

Enough said. I feel like everyone knows about them, and mine were fine. I didn't have the type that really squeeze air out, but again, I was trying to keep my bag pretty light. I love packing cubes for organization. I kept all underwear, bras, and my sleep shirt in one, tops in another, and my jean jacket, windbreaker, long pink sweater, jeans and jumper in another.

Packing List

Off-white Puff 3/4 Sleeve

Black and white t-shirts

2 Spaghetti-strap tops (black & white dot, jungle colors)

Long-sleeve white gauze shirt

Black and white light sweater

Pink cardigan


Khaki jumper

Black dress

Black skirt


Jean Jacket

Large pink print scarf

Pink pashmina

Underwear, bras, sleep shirt



Pouch with toiletries

Pouch with makeup

Small drawstring pouch with minimal jewelry

Pouch with chargers, cords, charging bricks, ear buds


Final Thoughts and Packing Tips

Aside from avoiding the possibility that your luggage could get lost, there are a lot of other advantages to packing light:

  • It's less expensive, since most airlines now charge for checked baggage.

  • Traveling with less gives you more freedom. There were a few times that I wanted to stop in a cute bistro between hotels, and it was no big deal to stop for a coffee with my small bag.

  • It is so much easier to get on and off metros, trains, and other transportation

  • Having less makes unpacking and wardrobe decisions much easier

Packing Tips:

  • Remember to bring a power adapter if you are visiting a country that requires it.

  • Think color palette, and pack items that can mix and match.

  • Stick to a packing list. Don't just take things out of your closet you like most and then try to pare down.

  • Commit to three pairs of shoes, and wear the largest on the plane.

  • Use packing cubes for saving space and organization.

  • Pair down toiletries and makeup. Don't just take what you use at home.

  • Wear your biggest items on the plane.

  • Remember, you can wash out items you wear most and hang to dry. (I did this with the black dress and both t-shirts.)

  • If you are a reader, bring a Kindle or eReader. If you are a writer, bring a very thin journal, not your normal one, and not your laptop if you can help it. (You are supposed to be experiencing, not working. Find a lighter way to keep notes and observations.)

Please Share and Comment!

Share this story with friends and family who might find it interesting, and please let us know if you found this helpful.

Do you have other tips to share?

Are you planning a trip?

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