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Packing for a Trip to Europe

Donna Capozzi

OK. It's vacation time. The one you've dreamed about, diligently planned, researched, endlessly talked about. The one where your husband is thinking, "If she mentions that damn leaning tower one more time, it's divorce court the minute we get back". The tickets are purchased, reservations are made and you've checked with Granny to make sure she can stay with the kids. You're good to go. You breathe a sigh or relief when all of a sudden you realize - MY GOD, WE'VE GOT TO PACK!

Packing is the job from Hell on par with going to the dentist or Costco at 5pm. It's because the possibilities are endless. And, if you're anything like me, I get confused between what I need to bring and what I want to bring (3" heels, truckload of books, more hair products than Cher). But after years of traveling abroad with all the wrong luggage packed with all the wrong stuff, not to mention more than my share of extremely bad and sometimes embarrassing fashion choices, I've finally got it figured out.

To Pack, but what to Pack. That is the question.


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What About the Luggage?

For the sake of simplicity let's say you're going for 2-3 weeks and it's just you and your significant other.

Well, luggage is a very personal thing. Some of us can't live without the super sleek, carbon steel, tamper-resistant suitcase while others can only travel with the entire line of vintage Louis Vuitton. Forget all that. I say you only need three bags if you're a woman and two if you're a man. All should be lightweight and two must have wheels. One 24" expandable Suiter to check, one rolling carry-on for the overhead and one nice, roomy tote (guys, you can scratch the tote if you want). Oh, and you can also carry a nice sleek backpack, but more on this later.

By the way, luggage you can find just about anywhere. I use a Delsey Suiter and carry-on simply because I find they are lightweight, I like their little extra pockets inside and they look nice. My favorite tote though is a black, 9" x 17" Briggs & Riley which fits perfectly under the seat in front of me on the plane and has a sleeve so it can ride on the wheeled carry-on when I'm running for connections.

What About the Tote?

The tote is my favorite piece of luggage because it holds all my necessities for the flight without me having to risk my life trying to get whatever I want out of the carry-on stowed in the over-head. Totes come in lots of different sizes but a squish-able, 9" x 17" with a outside sleeve seems to be a pretty good size to stash everything in and fit snugly under the seat in front of you.

What About the Carry-on?

The carry-on is very important, not only because it's yet another suitcase for all your stuff, but because it holds a change of clothes and all the important things you don't want going with the checked bag when the airline looses it. You might choose a rolling 14" x 21" expandable Delsey, which fits perfectly in the over-head compartment of most airlines. (Note: Airline regulations change all the time and are sometimes different for flights within Europe. Check with the airline for allowed carryon size and weight.)

What About the Suiter?

Ah, the Suiter. The bag that will inevitably be lost or arrive at your hotel days after you do. The bag we worry most about. Well, don't - you will have already packed enough clothing for a day or two in your carry-on just in case. I use a rolling 14" x 24" expandable Delsey Suiter clearly marked with a hot pink ribbon tied to the handle and easily seen at the carousel.

And last but not least..

What About the Backpack?

(And may I say right up front that I am NOT a lover of the fanny-pack and those things you hang around your neck, but, such is the beauty of life ... we all dance to a different tune.)

I've tried lots of different handbags, backpacks and, yes, fanny-packs in my travel lifetime and nothing really fit the bill until I found a slim, leather backpack made by HCL (sadly a company no longer in business) at Macys. Roomy without being bulky, comfortable without sacrificing style and very, very chic. I take it every time I travel.

What to Bring?

Ok. Now you've got the luggage, what do you put in it. Let's take a look. I made a handy checklist below of what you need for a European vacation.


__ laptop

__ iPod or CD player and charger

__ cell phone (see Cell Phones in Europe) and charger

__ camera equipment and charger

__ hairdryer/curling iron/straightener (hopefully not all of these)

__ adapters (plug and phone line adapters, see Bringing Your Electronics to Europe)

__ travel alarm clock

__ batteries

Personal Items

__ down travel pillow (trust me on this)

__ sunglasses

__ spare eyeglasses and/or contact lenses

__ travel size nail kit

__ cosmetics and pouch

__ jewelry roll (although I recommend you bring only what you wear on the plane)

__ toiletry kit

__ medications (include aspirin)

__ book light

__ travel first-aid kit

__ paperback(s)/magazine(s)

__ washcloths (facecloths) or loofah glove

Documents and Money

__ passport(s)

__ International Drivers Permit(s) (IDP)

__ two or three credit cards

__ two different ATM cards

__ medical and auto insurance cards

__ airline tickets

__ car rental and hotel reservation confirmations

__ itinerary

__ copies of everything

__ approximately 300 euro exchanged prior to departure (we do this at the airport)


__ travel guides/books (don't go crazy here, remember the weight factor)

__ files of downloaded Slow Travel information

__ phrase book

__ map(s)

__ medium to large fold-up nylon "extra" bag with handles

__ kleenex

__ handiwipes

__ woolite pouches

__ plastic gallon-size zip-lock baggies (perfect for holding damp things and potentially exploding stuff like shampoo, facial cleanser, etc.)


I don't know about you but I can pack a boatload of clothes and then wind up wearing the same three things the whole trip. Over the years I've become a real advocate of traveling light but trying to always have the right things to wear. So, I've really streamlined packing to basics and layers that can easily transform into evening looks with a sprinkling of stylish accessories.

But first, everyone should bring:

__ travel slippers

__ sleepwear

__ undergarments

__ socks/hosiery

__ rain jacket (depending on season)

Spring/Summer - Women

Ok, Gals. Versatility is key. Try to limit the colors of your basic pieces to just a few and let your accessories provide the color and flair. For this season I suggest cream, navy, pale pink, or pale grey with a sprinkling of white and perhaps a floral print (this could be a skirt). Some foolproof color combinations? Try navy and white, pink and pale grey, cream and olive or pale pink and powder blue. 80/20 linen cotton blend helps keep wrinkles at bay.

__ silk scarf (jazzes up any outfit and does double duty as a fabulous hair accessory)

__ two skirts

__ two pair slacks

__ one casual dress

__ one day-to-evening dress

__ assorted t-shirts

__ assorted tank tops

__ one pretty blouse (something in silk)

__ one light-weight cotton sweater or wrap

__ one pair comfy but stylish walking shoe

__ one pair sandals

__ small evening purse (perhaps a vintage clutch?)

__ bathing suit

__ pareo (can double as shawl for evenings out)

Spring/Summer - Men

Guys, as for women, you'll want to limit color as well but just for the pants. Your shirts and t-shirts can provide the color.

__ three to four pair trousers (one should be navy or black, one should be a pair of khakis)

__ one pair lightweight jeans

__ short-sleeved button down shirts (perhaps washable silk or cotton blend)

__ assorted short-sleeved knit polo's/crew necks

__ assorted cotton T-shirts (NOT the underwear kind, and they shouldn't say anything on them either)

__ one long-sleeve button down dress shirt

__ linen blend casual "dinner" jacket (this is optional but we've always brought one and it's come in quite handy for those special dinners out, attending the opera and other events - think Don Johnson but fast forward to the new millennium)

__ belt

__ swim trunks

__ one pair walking shoes (can be a nice pair of sneakers)

__ one pair "dress" shoes

Note the absence of shorts. If you must wear them, make sure they're not those hiking/camping things you find at Camp World. Better yet, don't bring them at all unless you're a professional tennis player or a male model for Abercrombie & Fitch.

Fall/Winter - Women

Again, think versatility. If you use black for all the bottoms and color for the tops you can't go wrong. Think knits for this season. Remember to pack light!

__ perfect little black dress

__ two pair jeans

__ two pair slacks

__ one skirt

__ pashmina or soft wool shawl

__ small evening bag (here's the clutch again)

__ stylish evening shoes

__ comfy but stylish walking shoes

__ comfy but stylish sneakers (no Air Jordan's or Converse High Tops please, somehow these just don't work on someone older than 12)

__ turtleneck

__ two V-neck pullovers

__ two crew neck pullovers

__ one cardigan

__ assorted 2-ply stretch tops in short and long sleeves

__ crew-neck, zip-front, hip length leather jacket (a very versatile shape) OR mid-calf length, warm coat (if you're traveling in deep Winter)

__ silk scarf

__ leather gloves

And I always throw in a black or cream wool beret.

Fall/Winter - Men

__ two pair jeans

__ one pair cords

__ one pair khakis

__ one pair black dress pants

__ long-sleeved button down shirts

__ assorted light-weight crew neck and/or v-neck pullovers

__ turtleneck

__ assorted t-shirts (my hubby wears these under his v-necks)

__ belt

__ wool blend "dinner" jacket

__ one pair walking shoes

__ one pair "dress" shoes

__ warm, hip length all weather jacket (this is a good versatile length)

__ wool scarf

A little comment about shoes. I'm a big believer that being comfortable doesn't have to mean giving up on style. You wouldn't know it though if you were shopping with me recently for comfy but stylish walking shoes. Everything I tried on made my feet look like submarine sandwiches. Finally, I snapped. "Show me something with comfy soles and style for God's sake! Someone tell them at Birkenstock that the 60's are over!" I won't bore you with the rest except to say my husband had to come get me and I can't shop at the Walk Shop anymore.

Anyway, I think I've figured it out now and I pass it on to you as an example. This Fall I will pack a terrific pair of Puma Low-cat P's in a black/white combination and a pair of Ecco City Striders, a comfy ankle boot with a touch of heel that looks great under jeans and pants. I'll also bring a pretty dress shoe with 2" heel. Actually, I don't bring a lot of shoes because inevitably my husband will say something like, "Gee Honey. You really didn't bring the right shoes for..(fill in the blank here). Come on. Let's go buy a pair!" See what I mean?

How Do I Pack All This?

Ok, so now you're thinking, whoa! This looks like a whole bunch of stuff! How's this going to fit in three bags? It will. It does. Here's how.


Here's where you pack everything that has great personal meaning to you. All your important documents and files, jewelry, laptop, camera, cell phone, adapters, etc. Include at least one change of clothing and nightwear. Think of the contents of this bag as saving the day if your checked luggage doesn't make it to your destination at the same time you do.


This bag should house whatever you think you might want easy access to while on the plane. This is where your down travel pillow, bottle of water, books and magazines, iPod or CD player and almost everything from the Personal Items section goes. The Tote bag also comes in quite handy for whatever you might need to take with you in the car on day trips.


Ok. Packing the Suiter is like an art form. How to do it without wrinkling all your clothes and fitting everything in? The magic word is tissue paper (and maybe those vacuum pack things you buy at Bed, Bath & Beyond that suck all the air out and leaves your stuff as flat as pancakes). Remember the "extra" bag from the miscellaneous section? Well, put that at the bottom and layer pants (tissue paper), knits (tissue paper), jacket (tissue paper), blouses (tissue paper between each one) one layer on top of another - you get the idea. Shoes go around the perimeter; toiletry kit at the head of the bag and undergarments, sox, hosiery, t-shirts can be rolled up and tucked here and there. Throw in all those things that are pointy (like tweezers) and that create fire (like cigarette lighters or matches - remind me to tell you my Bic and it's flame-throwing ability discussion with security at JFK story some day) otherwise you'll never see them again.

And that should do it!


  • Purchase small travel size plastic containers to hold all your toiletries. These are less expensive to buy at the drug store than the travel shops.
  • Make sure to alert all credit card companies and your bank that you'll be traveling. It's not a good day when your credit card is declined while in line at Prada - take my word for it.
  • If you plan on driving while on vacation, you MUST get an International Drivers Permit. Purchase these at your local AAA Insurance Company, which usually takes about 15 minutes. Prices vary. Ours cost $25.00 each (in cash!) Caught without one and you better be ready to fork over about 200 - 300 euro. And probably on the spot!
  • Take 2-3 adapters and get these in any travel store. Ask the clerk for the correct ones for the country you'll be visiting.
  • Wash cloths vs. Loofah glove. In my opinion, Loofah glove wins hands down (no pun intended) simply for the fast drying action. Seriously. These babies dry FAST. Buy these in any drug store cosmetic section.
  • Bring a bottle of Melatonin. This product is sold in drug stores and health food stores and works with your natural sleep cycle to help you rest. We take them to help with jet lag.
  • Don't bother with Travelers Checks. Lot's of places don't take them anymore.


Just a little background. I'm a parent of an almost 16-year old daughter who grabs every opportunity to tell me that I have zero fashion sense and no idea about much of anything. (But then again it's a big day when I can get her to wear a complete t-shirt and a skirt that actually covers her rear). Anyway, I can proudly say that my hubby and I pack and travel together a lot and use the above guide pretty darn successfully. It can be modified to suit anyone's age, lifestyle, fashion sense, pocketbook and destination. It works for us. It can work for you too.

And One Last Thing - Donna's Sure-Fire JetLag Remedy

I just know there should be some sort of disclaimer here.

Force yourself to stay up the entire flight. Then, at your destination and before you hit the sack, down two sleeping pills and two Melatonin with a double scotch chaser. You'll be out like a light in no time and pretty chipper in the morning. Do this three nights in a row eliminating the sleeping pills on the third night. Works for me!

Note: SlowTrav.com does not endorse this jetlag cure but thinks it sounds fun.

To Pack, but what to Pack. That is the question.


Read more about Packing Light and Packing Not-Light.

Want to talk about packing? Go to the Everything About Travel forum.

Bringing Your Electronics to Europe: All about adapters and converters and what you need.

Cell Phones in Europe: Different solutions for having a cell phone in Europ

Coping with Jetlag: A different approach to jetlag.

Europe Trip Planning Checklist: Checklist for preparing for a trip to Europe.

Donna Capozzi is currently a parent, writer/photographer, ex-fashion designer and lover of all things Italian.

© Donna Capozzi, 2005

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