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Luggage for Travel to Europe

Revised May 6, 2011

The best advice is pack simple and pack light for your trip to Europe, carrying the lightest single suitcase possible.

Unless you are greeted at the airport by a limousine and then travel by taxi or car to your other destinations, you can expect to tote your luggage down many streets and up flights of stairs. Even if you have a car, you are likely to park blocks from the hotel and have to carry your bags. Make your life easy, spare your back, and have a great time by packing light and choosing a very small but durable bag.

I travelled with enough clothing for a three week trip and temperatures ranging from the low-30 degrees at the top of Mount Blanc to the mid-90 degrees in Rome in a relatively small wheeled backpack. The key was taking lightweight clothing that could easily be washed by hand and didn't wrinkle and making sure I didn't take more than I needed. I found the rolling feature to be useful at airports but generally, I liked the ease provided by a backpack for the hikes we took down streets and the stairs we climbed to our rooms.

If you are going to travel by train, you may want to select a traditional camping backpack because of the comfort it will provide when walking. With an internal or external frame, real backpacks are designed to ride on the back/hips more comfortably than the suitcase model backpacks. The advantage of suitcase model backpacks is that they typically have a place where you can stow the backpack straps that reduces the chance of your bag getting caught in an airport conveyer.

You may be tempted by the many modern gadgets that will help you squeeze more clothing into a small bag. Remember that it is not only the space you must deal with, it is also weight. Before you buy that extra bag or organizer, ask whether it will really make your life easier or just cost you money and add weight.

Be cautious when you pack a backpack to keep valuables in hard to reach places, especially if you are going to travel by public transportation. Outside pockets are temptations to pickpockets, so even though it is convenient to stick the camera in that easy-to-reach spot, it's not smart. If you want to have your camera accessible, put it in a more observable, secure place. The new, thin digital cameras store great in neck pouches or in small fanny packs. They can be securely stored around you neck inside a shirt or blouse.

Also, keep in mind that every piece of luggage you pack is going to require your attention at the airport, on the subway and as you wander down the street, so that if you can limit yourself to one bag, you can relax a bit during your vacation. And because of airport security, you may be tempted to leave your bags unlocked Carry the luggage locks with you to use when you travel through the cities, especially if you are getting there by public transportation.

Don't solve the single bag issue by carrying a larger purse. If you really need a second piece of luggage, take one. It will let you check those things that are best not carried on a plane and give you a place, if it is not filled to capacity, to stow souvenirs on the trip home. And even if you are packing very light, you might want to consider carrying a lightweight, canvas or polyester suitcase to for the flight home. If you are traveling with someone else, a reasonable way to keep your loads light is to each pack as much as you can in a carry-on bag and then share a bag with the overflow. Still, if you do, be fair about the division of space and don't fill that space with things you really don't need. Remember, if you forget anything except your medicines, it should be easy to find the product in Europe, possibly before you've left the airport.

Fanny packs or a small day pack are very convenient for trips around town. You can stow a picnic lunch and drinks (plus a lightweight guidebook) in your pack. The downside is that if your height and speech haven't given you away as a tourist, the pack will. On the other hand, the convenience of having your camera and guide book and other essentials, like sunscreen and bottled water in Rome, in one place outweighs the telltale sign of the "tourist." If you do choose to use a fanny pack:

  • Be sure it is secure by sliding the belt through a loop in your pants
  • Use a shoe lace to secure your valuables inside the pack...it is not uncommon for thieves to slit the bottom of the fanny pack to snatch your wallet or camera.
  • Wear the pack as a "tummy pack so you can see your valuables at all times.

For information on what to pack, go to the section on Clothing and Cosmetics

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