Two months, ten countries–one carry-on

Small tourist collects things in a suitcase for travelWe’re heading off for a European sabbatical soon, and we know from previous trips that dragging along a lot of luggage is a bad idea. If you’ve ever tried to roll a heavy bag down a cobbled street, or had to haul it up five flights of stairs because your quaint rented flat had no elevator, then you understand.

But we’re going to be gone for nine weeks, exploring cities, beaches, caves and countryside. Packing just shorts and flip flops isn’t an option.

Getting everything I think I need into a carry-on has been an interesting challenge. It’s kind of like writing blog posts and 400-word columns for Bankrate and DailyWorth after having written mountains of 1,800-word pieces for MSN. You lay it all out, and then you edit, edit, and edit again. And then maybe you sit on it and squish.

Here’s some of the best advice I’ve found about packing light:

It’s worth it. No checked-bag fees, no long waits at baggage carousels, no lost luggage. The time, money and back strain saved are all well worth the effort of figuring out what to leave behind.

Everything should go with everything. So far, I’ve got the wardrobe down to one pair each of khakis, capris and shorts, in addition to the jeans I’ll wear on the plane. Five tops, two jackets, one sweater and one lightweight dress, plus a scarf or two, will allow me to create about 25 different outfits.

Think double-duty. My lightweight robe works as a swimsuit cover-up. My sandals work at the beach or a nice restaurant. My running shoes are low-key enough to work as casual dress shoes. Speaking of shoes:

Ease up on the footwear. They take up huge amounts of space. I’m trying to limit mine to the sneakers, a pair of black leather walking shoes and the flat-soled sandals.

Don’t bring what you’ll find there. I’m skipping most toiletries and hair appliances (which need adapters and converters to work over there, anyway). The hotels will have what we need and if they don’t, there will be shops.

Embrace digital. Not too long ago, every trip with the kiddo would mean packing a DVD player and DVDs along with books and games. I’d have a stack of novels and guidebooks. Hubby would bring much of the New York Times bestseller list. Now it’s all in our iPads.

If you’ve traveled long and light, I’d love to hear your trips for what to bring—and what not to bring.

UPDATE: We left for Europe with three carryons–and came back with two of them, plus two larger pieces of luggage. (One of the carryons, stuffed full of purchases, went home early with our niece.) My hubby’s penchant for buying big heavy art books, my daughter’s love of souvenirs and my flea-shopping habit quickly doomed the idea of traveling that light.

We should have consulted Will’s aunt, a retired travel writer, who roams the world with a medium-sized spinner. It’s big enough to bring what she needs but small enough for her to handle it without help.


  1. rubin pham says

    great tips liz!

    for me, i must have these 3 things before i go, everything else is optional:

    1. debit/credit cards
    2. smartphone/in-ear headphone
    3. passport

  2. Mary Hunt says

    Hope your trip is as great as these tips. Enjoy!

  3. We travel once a year to Europe (to visit family and friends and sometimes accompany my husband for work). We have travelled to France, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Italy with all three of our kids. Packing light is definitely important.

    However, do not forget a lightweight packable rain jacket. If you will be in Britain or many parts of continental Europe it can rain on you in the summer and a “pack a mac” is easier to carry than an umbrella (plus it doubles as a picnic blanket). I’m an Angeleno too and I only bring mine out when we go to Europe!

    iPads are the greatest invention for travel.

    • Liz Weston says

      Good tip! As a birthday present, hubby got me a stylish Cole Hahn raincoat that not only looks awesome, but that stuffs into a tiny little pouch. I’ll probably be too protective of it to use as a picnic blanket, but that is a great idea.

  4. The first time I traveled around Europe I made the mistake of packing an enormous suitcase. I was so embarrassed when kind people tried to help me carry it when they saw me struggling up stairs in subways and train stations. The second time I went carry-on and told my friend to do the same. So much better! I also had the peace of mind knowing my luggage would arrive at my destination when I did! I bought solid shampoo and conditioner to get around the liquid restrictions on airplaned and take up less space. I also wear my bulkiest outfit on the plane to save suitcase space. Enjoy your trip with your family!

  5. Underwear or are we going commando?

  6. I suppose that, since it is a sabbatical, you will try to refrain from working. Do you plan to take only an iPad or something else as well? I have a love/hate relationship with my iPad. It’s handy to have, but without a keyboard, it’s a pain to use for anything complicated. It shouldn’t be too hard to find international USB chargers, but the Apple cables could be a problem. I would assume only Wi-Fi would be available overseas.

    Will our credit cards work in Europe? I have one with a chip, but the others have magnetic stripes.

    • Liz Weston says

      I’ll be working–I have a Logitech keyboard that works quite well with the iPad. And just below this post is one that deals with payment methods in Europe. I’ll be following up with a more detailed post shortly about exactly which cards we’ll be bringing with us.

    • Liz Weston says

      Apple cables have a built-in converter, which means we don’t have to pack a bulky step-down converter. So that just means bringing a few adapters. As for WiFi, I’m told we’ll typically access to much, much faster broadband than what we have at home…and Europeans pay a lot less for it.

  7. Meghan Pembleton says

    Great tips! I’m bookmarking this page for future reference when packing.

  8. I did a nine-month trip around the world with one soft-sided backpack that folded into a suitcase. It was easier to maneuver in subways and along cobblestone streets than luggage with wheels, though luggage with wheels has come a long way. You could maybe get a backpack suitcase with wheels today.

    I took jeans, but they are heavy and you can’t wash them out in the sink and dry them overnight. Instead of a sweater, I had a long-sleeved shirt that I could use as either a shirt or a jacket and a raincoat with a lining.

    Have a wonderful time.


  9. Myrna Lende says

    Someone said, “Take twice the money and half the clothes”! So true. The Europeans don’t go naked and have washing machines! No one cares that you wear the same top four times. One 22 inch carry-on is more than enough room. You can buy your toiletries there! One doesn’t need a raincoat, two jackets and a sweater. Cut out a jacket and make sure you have a long sleeved polo along for cool days and spelunking. Dark clothes get more uses than light colored items. I carry a smaller carry on bag on the plane while flying. In it goes a very small purse with a long strap that I use while traveling, reading material, snack and anything I’ll want at my fingertips while I travel! Buy some Tide packets to wash out clothes in the sink.

    • Liz Weston says

      The jackets are more for sartorial variety than pure function, but I understand your point. It’s all too tempting to add something here, something there, and wind up with way too much. In my case (literally), the second jacket helps create at least eight more outfits, so it’s well worth the small footprint.

  10. Ro in San Diego says

    A recent trip I finally packed light enough for four days in a carry on. I’m hoping to do the same in a few weeks for another short trip. Right before a trip when I’ve already pack I quickly unpack half of it and that’s what I take.

  11. For a three-week trip, I packed two skirts that I ended up mailing home.

    A money belt is vital. We kept our cash and passports in them, in a small plastic bag. My husband found a slit in his back pocket–maybe someone hoped to steal something?–but lost nothing.

    It was cold where we were, and I bought a coat and scarf, which made nice souvenirs, too.

  12. The clothes space saver bags are well worth it. When we traveled to 3 countries the bags were great to create even more space in our luggage and dirty clothes went in one as well. We didn’t wash anything over there though or we may not have needed the additional space saver bag. The roll up kind not requiring a vacuum is the way to go.