Packing 101: Wrapping it all up

So, it's time to wrap up my information on packing, and show you how everything fits into the suitcase. Remember: my packing list really doesn’t change, regardless of whether I’m traveling for one week or for two months. Normally I pack for a week and expect to wash as I go. Traveling this way does take a lot of discipline and effort while you're deciding what to pack. Let's face it, it would be a lot easier just to throw a bunch of stuff that you think you might need into a huge suitcase, but then you'll pay the penalty of this short-term convenience for the entire trip.

I think one of the biggest causes of overpacking is that people ask themselves: "Will I need this?" That's the wrong question. You should ask yourself, "will I need this enough to justify taking it along?" Not will I need it once or twice, but will I need it enough to justify carrying it all the way to Europe and back? If I'm planning to spend one day at the beach during a two week trip, do I need to take a beach towel? Absolutely not. I'll assume that my hotel has beach towels. And if they don't, there will be half a dozen shops selling beach towels for less than $10. I'd rather pay this, use it once and leave it behind than drag a towel around for 13 unnecessary days.

And what if you get to Europe, and find you forgot something? Europe is a very civilized place. I guarantee you will be able to find whatever it is you might need, and this provides a great opportunity to learn something about their culture by going into a store you might not otherwise visit. And if there's something you need, and you can't find it? You have to wonder how 300 million Europeans get along without something you consider to be essential.

Download my comprehensive Packing List, but keep in mind that I don’t expect you to take everything on the list. Use it to jog your memory and decide whether or not you need an item. I go over the list with a high-lighter and mark the things I plan to take. Then, I check them off as I pack.

Main Suitcase, laid out

I start with my main suitcase, which includes:

  • Jacket (will be worn on the plane)
  • Pants (two pair packed, one to wear)
  • Shoes (will be worn on the plane)
  • Belt (pack this to save time at airport security)
  • Hat with visor
  • Umbrella
  • Shirts, long-sleeve (three packed plus one to wear)
  • Shirts, short-sleeve (three)
  • Thermal underwear
  • Toiletries Kit
  • Day pack
  • Pajamas
  • Underwear (six pair packed, one to wear)
  • Socks (six pair packed, one to wear)
  • Guide bag
  • Money Belt
  • Cubes and folders

Clothing folder, openClothing Folder, closed

Pants, shirts, thermal underwear and pajamas go into the clothing folder, and get bundled up.

Main suitcase, compartmentsMain suitcase, almost done

Underwear, socks and other small bits go into the cubes. I then stash the clothing folder on the bottom of the bag, and nest the smaller cubes on top of and around the folder. Long, thin items like the umbrella and large tripod go on the sides.

Main suitcase, ready to close

I put my guide bag on top of all this, and in the picture I've also included a day pack. I don't usually take both of these (I use just the guide bag), but have included both to show that I actually do have a little extra room even in my undersize 20" suitcase. Liquids, gels and pastes go into a zip-close bag, which I keep in an outside pocket of the suitcase to have ready when going through airport security.

Main suitcase, closed and ready

And here's the end result, everything packed into the main suitcase (except what I'll wear on the plane).

Electronics, laid out

In my briefcase I carry enough electronics to run a small country. This includes:

Electronics, packed

Here are all of the electronics packed into my briefcase.

Ready to go

And everything ready to go, including what I'll wear onto the plane.

Yes, it really is possible to get all that stuff into one carry-on size suitcase and a tote.

If you know of anything I missed, or have suggestions you'd like to see included in my packing list, let me know by leaving a comment.

Packing 101: Choosing the right wardrobe

Everything for a trip

In the last two installments we looked at choosing the right suitcase for your trip, and how to keep everything in the suitcase neat and organized. Now with our 22" carry-on size bag, packing folders and cubes ready to go -- how exactly are going to pack two or three weeks worth of clothes into this little bag?

The answer is simple. We aren't. Regardless of whether I'm traveling for ten days or two months, I pack for a week and plan to wash things as I go. Every two or three days I wash two or three days worth of stuff. Pictured here is everything, and I mean everything that will go into my main bag. This was for a five-week, cold weather trip in early spring that would include the Netherlands, northern Germany and Ireland.

"But washing is a hassle and a lot of work," I hear you say. Yes, you're right. But the questions is: do you want to deal with a little hassle of washing once or twice during the course of the average trip? Or do want to hassle with lugging around heavy suitcases every time you move? Twenty-five years of my own travel have made the choice clear.

Self-serve laundromats are catching on in Europe, but they can still be hard to track down. Hotel laundry service is convenient, but expensive. I do most of my wash in my hotel room sink or tub, preferably on the day I arrive in a new place so that I can hang it to dry. It takes me twenty minutes or less, and I'm done.

As I'm choosing what I'm going to pack, I first decide on one or two basic colors and build around that. You don't need to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe before a trip, but you should carefully analyze every item you're packing and why. Choose things that will dry quickly. Choose things that don't wrinkle (like knits), or that look good wrinkled (like seersucker).

Listed below are the items shown in the picture. This is about my minimum, but honestly this is all I take for 90% of my European trips. As part of my last installment on packing I'll include a copy of my full packing list, which goes beyond the items mentioned below and includes many items that I don't need and don't take, but others find essential.

  • Jacket
  • Pants (two pair packed, one to wear) Light weight slacks like Dockers™ are ideal. Women may want to substitute a skirt for one pair of pants, but it isn’t necessary for any place in Europe.
  • Shoes, walking (Must be broken in before the trip, they need to be comfortable enough for lots of walking. Looks are secondary. White tennis shoes will instantly brand you as an American, but then, so will everything else about you. Merrell, Rockports, Mephisto and others make excellent walking shoes that are also nice looking.
  • Belt
  • Hat with visor
  • Umbrella
  • Shirts, long-sleeve (three packed plus one to wear)
  • Shirts, short-sleeve (three) Seersucker is the ideal travel fabric for shirts and skirts, usually available from TravelSmith
  • Thermal underwear
  • Toiletries Kit
  • Day pack
  • Pajamas
  • Underwear (six pair packed, one to wear)
  • Socks (six pair packed, one to wear)
  • Guide bag
  • Money Belt
  • Cube and folder

Next time: Packing wrap up, with my full packing list

Packing 101: Organizing your bag

Suitcase Chaos

Once you've picked out the perfect suitcase -- sturdy, light, and small enough to handle easily -- it's time to fill it. A suitcase is basically a big, empty hole. If you just toss things in, they're going to wander around until it's a complete mess. Your bag needs a little help keeping things organized.

Clothing Folders
When packing for a trip, most people lay everything nice and neatly folded in the suitcase, tie it all down with the built in straps, then stand the suitcase up — and all of the clothes promptly end up in a heap at the bottom of the bag.

Clothing Folder, open

This is actually the cause of all those wrinkles in your clothes. A few years back, experts in packing pushed the "bundle" method, where you would lay out all of your clothes, flat on top of each other, and then inter-fold them to form a bundle. That kept them neat, but meant that whenever you wanted something from the bundle, you had to take the whole thing apart, then re-fold it again. It was just more hassle than it was worth.

Clothing Folder, closed

In step these genius little packing folders, which hold everything in neat, orderly and wrinkle-free bundles. Fold your clothes as you normally would, stack them onto the folder and then close up the flaps to complete the bundle. This forms the core of what goes into the suitcase. Other, smaller items will nest around this core. Folders come in a variety of sizes, including 15", 18" and 20". The 18" folder is perfect for my 20" suitcase (remember that the 20" dimension is the exterior measurement, including wheels). For a 22" suitcase, the 20" folder is better. If you're using a 24" or 25" suitcase, get a couple of the 15" version and lay them in sideways.

Once in the hotel I'm perfectly happy to leave the folder in my suitcase and get things out as needed, but I know many people like to feel a bit more "moved in" when they check into the hotel. With a clothing folder, this easy. Pull the clothing folder out of your suitcase, open the flaps and lay the whole thing in a drawer and, voila!, you're moved in. Packing up again is just as easy.

Packing Cubes

Packing cubes

Basically zippered versions of the clothing folders, these cubes (and half-cubes and quarter-cubes) are perfect for all of the little things that roll around in the suitcase looking for a place to hide. I stack them in groups on top and around the core formed by my clothing folder. I have one for my underwear and socks, another for electrical adapters, spare AA or AAA batteries, and non-camera-related electronics, and a third that I use to hold spare camera batteries, memory cards, a card reader, and other photo-related gear.

Toiletries kit
OK, I admit that there are going to be major differences here, and not everybody will take to my minimalist approach. My wife's toiletries kit looks vastly different from mine. Being a male, with very short hair (what's left of it), my needs in this department are minimal. Some would say Spartan. That extra 2" of suitcase (the difference between my 20" and the maximum carry-on size of 22") should be plenty to accommodate for a larger toiletries kit and still keep you under the carry-on limit.

Toiletries kit

I like to be able to hang my kit, since many European hotels have limited or no vanity space (pedestal sinks). This also keeps it out of any water that may splash onto the vanity. There are quite a few toiletries kits that include a built in hanger, as well as other nice features like a removable mirror.

To keep your toiletries kit on the smaller side, everything you take should be travel size. Current TSA requirements for liquids, pastes and gels limit you to containers no larger than 3-oz., all of which must fit into a single, 1-quart clear plastic bag. You can purchase travel sizes of things like shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, deodorant, etc. at most grocery stores, or you can buy empty bottles and fill them with your favorite brands.

The question is, just how much of anything (shampoo, conditioner, etc) are you going to use in a two week trip? Find out now by measuring out a specific amount, write down the date, and see how long it lasts. This is how I know that a standard 0.85-oz. travel size toothpaste will last one person 15 days if they use the recommended pea-size amount twice a day.

Day bag
In addition to your main suitcase, you'll want a smaller piece, like a tote bag or day pack, that will rest on top of the main piece. The small piece should slip over the handle or hook on in some way, otherwise it will constantly want to fall off while you're walking.

Day bag options

Once you board the plane your main bag is going to go into the overhead. This smaller piece will go under the seat in front of you, so use it for things you want access to during the flight, like reading material, a pen, eye glasses, medications, etc.

I use a briefcase, since I'm always carrying a laptop and other electronic gear, but you might prefer a day pack. This can double as your day bag, which you'll carry with you when you're out sightseeing to hold camera, maps, sunglasses, lip balm, etc. The only drawback to a day pack is that many museums will require you to store this in a locker or a secure luggage area while you're visiting the museum. For this reason I use a smaller guide bag (my man purse), which can be taken into most museums.

Locks are useless for airplane travel. Unnecessary for carry-ons, and often cut off or opened for security checks on checked luggage. They are handy to keep prying eyes out of your luggage while it sits alone in your hotel room, though none will stop a determined thief.

Luggage tags
Use a business address, if possible, and luggage tags with a flap covering the address section. Thieves have been known to hang around airports, checking tags to see who’s going to be gone for a while. Bright colors and unique designs make it easy to find your bag on the carrousel.

1qt. zip-close plastic bags
Zip-close plastic bags have multiple uses, starting with putting your liquids, pastes and gels in one, and then putting that in an outside pocket of your suitcase. You’ll need to have this out and available when passing through airport security. Also great for storing receipts, transporting wet wash clothes, and protecting electronics in damp environments.

Next time: Choosing the right wardrobe

Packing 101: The Suitcase

The Suitcase
First of all, I think most people approach packing for a European vacation the same way they would a weekend get away by car. That is, they throw a bunch of stuff they may need into a suitcase, thinking they'll haul it ten feet to their car, hoist it into the trunk and drive off to their hotel, where they hoist it out and roll it along smooth walkways and up ramps and large elevators to their room. This is how I travel on weekend jaunts, too. This does not reflect how you'll be traveling in Europe.

A better test would be to pack your suitcase, carry it down the stairs (if you don't have a two-story house, borrow one), walk two blocks with your suitcase -- going up and down a few curbs along the way -- then, once you're back home again, carry it up the stairs. Are we having fun yet? Now it's time to rethink what you pack and how you pack.

I personally prefer to carry my bag on to the plane, which means sticking to the maximum size allowed by most airlines: 22"x14"x9". But even if you plan to check your bag, this is not a license to go hog wild on packing. Regardless of whether you plan to carry your bag on or check it and put your fate in the hands of the baggage handlers, you'll need discipline in choosing and packing your suitcase for a European trip.

Eagle Creek 20

Rather than laying out everything you think you may need and then finding a suitcase to hold it all, pick your bag first. Choose a bag that you'll be able to lift and maneuver easily. Stick to one main piece, plus another small piece, like a tote bag or day pack (more on that later). Hard-sided bags weigh a ton empty. Soft-sided bags are a lighter choice. Look for rugged, in-line skate type wheels, a handle that extends and retracts smoothly, and a comfortable grip and handle height.

My perfect main bag is a 20" rolling bag like the Hovercraft 20 or the Tarmac 20, both from Eagle Creek; or the Swiss Army WT-20 from Victorinox. I have never had a problem carrying on my 20" bag, even on smaller commuter planes. You won't find these at your local discount department store, and they're not cheap, but my Eagle Creek roll-on has served me well for over 10 years. Considering that I am on the road for 3 to 4 months of each year, that probably equates to a life time of use for most people, which is pretty amazing. I admit to being on the extreme end, but years of experience have taught me that small plus light equals happy.

For those who want to carry on their luggage, but need just a bit more packing space, all three of the bags listed above are also available in 22" configurations: Eagle Creek's Hovercraft 22 and Tarmac 22, or Victorinox's Swiss Army WT-22. A cheaper alternative to these, and the bag that my wife prefers, is Rick Steve's 21" Roll-Aboard. It easily fits into the overhead bin on most airplanes, has all the features of more expensive bags (in-line skate type wheels, smooth handle action and a comfortable height), and that extra inch equates to a lot of space. Hundreds of people have taken my tours, where I limit the suitcase size to 22", so believe me, it can be done. Some of these bags have an expansion feature, which is meant to accommodate some souvenirs you may pick up along the way. If you start out with your bag expanded, you're in trouble . . .

If you go bigger than 22" you'll have no choice but to check your bag, but I still recommend sticking to something 24" or smaller. I've hefted a few of these over the years and, trust me, when fully loaded a 24" suitcase weighs a lot. Swiss Army makes a 24" bag (WT-24), as does Rick Steves. Eagle Creek stretches it a bit more (since you need to check it anyway) with their Hovercraft 25 and Tarmac 25. I strongly discourage anyone from taking a bag larger than 25", unless you're traveling in high-style, with door-to-door delivery and bellhops to carry your bags for you.

Next time: Organizing the inside . . .

Packing 101: Confessions of a radical packer

"Hi, my name is Bryan. It's been 26 years since I last checked a suitcase."

My first trip to Europe, some 28+ years ago now, was on a typical bus tour: eight countries in 30 days, with 40 high school-age students and three teachers (who got free trips for recruiting us and pretending to be chaperones).

Never having been to Europe before, I assumed I needed to take enough clothes for a month, plus everything else that a person could possibly need when heading to such a wild and uncivilized place. Of course for a teenage boy, a month's worth of clothes meant two pairs of jeans, some shorts and t-shirts, plus a few pairs of underwear and socks. Still, my suitcase was literally big enough to hold four bags the size of the one I travel with now. And it was crammed full. There was no thought of carrying on luggage like that. The bag had to be checked.

Thanks to a variety of misadventures that I won't relate here, our trip from central California to Rome took 36 hours. Our luggage obviously decided this was still too speedy, and would not join us for another three days. I had carried on a small day bag with a change of clothes, so during our first day of touring I was the only member of our group who didn't smell like an Italian.

On my second trip to Europe I was packed even heavier than on the first trip. Since I was heading there to live for a year, I took my big suitcase plus a convertible backpack/suitcase bursting at the seams. I'm apparently a slow learner. My suitcases didn't arrive until a week later.

Since then, every trip to Europe has been done with a carry-on size suitcase. Most airlines allow you to carry on one main bag, no larger than 9"x14"x22", plus a small personal item, like a purse, day pack or briefcase. I know that for some people packing this light is a radical concept, but with the airlines now charging $15 to $25 or more for a checked bag, limiting yourself to one carry-on makes more sense than ever. In addition to the cost savings, you don't have to worry about:

  • Waiting in line at the airport to check your bag
  • Anything in your suitcase breaking
  • Your suitcase being thrashed by baggage handlers
  • Something being stolen
  • Standing at the luggage carrousel after 14 hours of flying . . . waiting, wishing, hoping your luggage will arrive
  • Filling out a bunch of paperwork when your luggage DOESN'T arrive
  • Waiting in line at the customs exit, taxi stand, bus station or train station with all the people from your flight who got their luggage before you did.
  • That's a lot of worrying and waiting saved for just a little pre-trip discipline. But you're still skeptical.

When I'm leading tours, I'm on the road for six to eight weeks at a time. My trip could start in London in April and end up in Italy in June. I have to have clothes for a wide range of climates. And because I'm still working when I'm on the road, I travel with way more electronic gear than the average person. I carry a laptop, an iPhone, a GPS unit, a digital camera, a video camera, plus various tripods and accessories. Yet somehow I manage to fit all of this stuff into one carry-on size suitcase and a briefcase.

In posts over the next week or two, I'll show you how to limit yourself to what will fit into a carry-on, and how to go from your suitcase being a chaotic mess, to a model of organization and simplicity.

"A Thai monk told me, 'You know why you like to travel? Everywhere you go nothing belongs to you. When you’re home surrounded by your possessions, you’re weighed down.' I think he was right. It is liberating being stripped down to one suitcase."

-- Joe Cummings, author of Lonely Planet's Thailand guide

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