Packing for Europe

Packing is a topic that receives more attention that it deserves. Many travelers agonize over which baggage to buy, what clothes to pack, and whether to fold trousers over jackets or vice versa. Yet the only really important thing to remember is Imboden’s First Law of Packing:

“Don’t take more than you can carry, or less than you need for your trip.”
Having said that, I’ll ignore my own advice and discuss the three basic philosophies of packing:

1. Less is more.
At its extreme, this philosophy is exemplified by the reader of an Arthur Frommer travel guide whose only bag was a lightweight tote. Her summer travel wardrobe consisted of nylon underwear, a black synthetic top and skirt, and (as I recall) a black sweater for chilly evenings. Every night, she stripped off her clothes and washed everything in the sink of her hotel room. By morning, her wash-and-wear clothing was dry (or so she hoped), and Ms. Basic Black was ready for another day of sightseeing or travel.

The one-outfit-for-all-occasions approach won’t work for everyone, and I suspect that it might get tiresome after a few mornings of slipping into damp or mildewed undies.

A more realistic approach is to use a carry-on bag or backpack of standard under-the-seat dimensions, perhaps with a small travel bag for a camera, guidebook, maps, etc. This works best if you’re a budget traveler in summer and don’t need many clothes.

2. More is better.
Years ago, a British acquaintance told me how his grandmother always traveled to the Continent with a maid, a steamer trunk, and a rubber toilet-seat cover. And when I was a boy, my mother always traveled with a Samsonite cosmetics case to round out our family’s collection of Pullman bags and two-suiters.

Today, the “more is better” crowd is likely to pass up the steamer trunk and toilet-seat cover, but it isn’t unusual to see well-heeled tourists arrive at the airport with expensive suitcases, garment bags, and golf-club cases. Rick Steves and Arthur Frommer might frown at such conspicuous excess, but let’s face it: How often does a budget travel writer have to face the Savoy’s receptionist or the headwaiter at Maxim?

And if you’re on a golfing tour of Scotland, doesn’t it make sense to bring your own golf clubs?

There is one obvious downside to the take-it-all philosophy: It can be a nuisance to deal with porters at every turn, and there’s an airline formula that says (suitcase) x (number) = (increased likelihood of loss). If you decide to travel heavy, spend a little extra on baggage insurance.

3. Enough is Enough.
This is my approach. If I’m exploring the Faroe Islands, I’ll pack differently than I would for a German opera itinerary. And if I’m staying in one city, I may take a 24″ TravelPro suitcase that might be inconvenient (though still manageable) on a whistle-stop tour of European capitals.

A number of years ago, my family and I rented a vacation cottage on the North Sea coast of Denmark for a week. We took sheets and towels with us because the rental didn’t include linens, and it was cheaper – and easier – to take an extra suitcase than to buy expensive new linens on a Saturday in Denmark when all the shops were closed. (In case you’re curious, we left our threadbare linens in Denmark and used the empty suitcase for Danish toys, books, and chocolate bars on the trip home.)

Bottom line: Don’t make more than you need, but don’t shortchange yourself, either. If you like dressing for dinner, or if you’re an ice dancer who visits a new skating rink on every trip, then by all means take the clothing or equipment you need to enjoy yourself.

Random packing tips
Take one rigid-frame bag. One of my family’s most-used suitcases is a carry-on that my wife bought in 1975. It has a rigid frame of laminated wood or fiberboard with soft canvas sides, which means the suitcase is light in weight but sturdy enough to protect fragile items. It’s perfect for loading up with gifts and souvenirs when we come home.

Don’t overspend if you’re inexperienced. Quality luggage may be a good investment if you know what you want and travel frequently, but why commit yourself to a $300 suitcase when a three-week European trip may convince you that you’re a backpacker at heart?

Avoid packs with external frames. Kelty and other external-frame backpacks are great for mountain trails in the American West, but they’re too big to fit the luggage racks on most trains. They’re also awkward on crowded buses, subways, and other public places. You’re better off with an internal-frame pack that’s designed for European travel.

Use plastic bags. Every bottle that contains liquid should be packed inside a plastic bag. Throw in a few large, lightweight bags to hold dirty shoes, soggy clothes, dirty laundry, or wet bathing suits.

Don’t pack colored plastics next to each other. My wife learned this the hard way in Switzerland, where her new vinyl rain boots picked up the ink from a plastic store bag.

Wheels are handy-sometimes. European airports often have stairs, and so do hundreds (perhaps thousands) of railroad stations. Also, many European cities have cobblestoned streets. If you’re going to bring a wheeled suitcase, make sure it has sturdy wheels and is well-balanced. A handle on the side is also important, since you’ll often find yourself carrying the bag instead of relying on the wheels.

Two can be better than one. If you have enough possessions for a large suitcase, consider dividing the load between two smaller bags. This will make it easier to walk long distances without developing a permanent list or yanking your arm out of its socket. (Note: This works best if you aren’t also carrying a large handbag or travel tote.)

Copyright (c) Durant Imboden at Europe for Visitors,
// Used by permission.
For more information on packing, see the following articles on
“Men’s Travel Clothing”
“The Ultimate Travel Bag for Travelers” And for luggage information, see the following web sites:
Irv’s Luggage Warehouse: