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How To Pack for Europe Using Only a Carry-On

When I began planning my eight day vacation across Amsterdam, Brussels, and Cologne earlier this year, I knew that I would be spending much of my time on airplanes, walking miles across uneven streets, and hopping on and off trains. I wanted to pack as light as possible, and decided to use my old college book bag as my only piece of luggage.

With a little bit of creativity, I was able to comfortably stow all of my belongings in a typical book bag, with enough space to bring some small souvenirs home for my family, friends, and coworkers. If you’re willing to value comfort over style, and need over want, you may be surprised by how simple it is to carry everything you need for an eight-day trip in the same amount of space you use to tote textbooks across campus. I explain my packing tips and choices below in hopes that it will be of use to you in your own travel adventures.

1. Choose your clothes carefully.

Clothing easily accounts for the majority of your luggage weight, so choose your outfits strategically. For this to work well, you’ll need to be content with wearing your outfits more than once. I packed enough to wear the same jeans every other day, and wear each shirt twice, something that not everyone may be willing to do.

I chose my two most comfortable pairs of stretchy skinny jeans (I wore one pair to the airport, and packed the other), four basic t-shirts in solid colors, pajamas, a few bras, and plenty of underwear and socks. I chose clothing that was basic in fit and design, so that everything I brought could be paired into an acceptable outfit. For pajamas, I took leggings and a long sleeved t-shirt, both of which could be used as additional layers if the weather was cold. By utilizing a smart packing technique that I learned from The Feminist Breeder, I was able to roll all of my clothing into two pillow cases, which kept my outfits wrinkle free and compact. I placed both rolls of clothing into a small dust bag, stuffed my socks in, and cinched the bag tight. My clothing was light, compact, and separated from the rest of the items in my backpack.

Since I traveled to Europe in the beginning of February, and the weather was still very cold, I needed warm outer layers. I chose a basic zip-up hoodie, and an athletic winter coat that was light, compact, waterproof, and had plenty of inside pockets for stowing my passport and other valuables. Because I had plenty of pockets to separate my money, credit cards, and other personal items, I was able to leave my purse at home.

I was only willing to bring the shoes on my feet, so I chose my most comfortable, versatile sneakers. If you know you’re going to be doing a lot of walking, particularly on cobblestone, I would suggest a good pair of walking shoes with sturdy soles. My Vans were excellent on the flat sidewalks, but my feet felt every curve of cobblestone under the thin soles.

2. Take only the essentials.

At home, I have two cabinets full of lotions, cosmetics, and other toiletries that I use on a daily basis, but on vacation I only took the bare essentials. For me, this meant a small tube of toothpaste, a travel-sized floss, some trial packets of shampoo and conditioner, a mini deodorant, and a small tube of mascara. I also took a travel hairbrush, a few hair ties, and some band-aids. I was able to fit all of these items into a very small zippered case and only had one regret: I should’ve traded the mascara out for a small bottle of lotion.

My primary advice here is to take the smallest amount of toiletries you can while still maintaining a high level of comfort. If you know you can’t live without your foundation, eyeshadows, and night cream, then it’s probably best to take them, and save room somewhere else.

3. Pick your preferences.

If you’ve done well, you should have some room left over in your pack. I chose to bring a book of poetry to read on the plane, and a notebook full of city maps and itinerary ideas. These items were invaluable to me, weighed almost nothing, and took up very little space.

The key to surviving a multi-day trip with only a carry-on is to pack for comfort. Choose comfortable, simple clothing, and keep your backpack light so that it’s easy to grab when hopping on trains and pushing into the overhead compartment. Now that I‘ve experienced the feasibility of carrying everything I need in a small carry-on, I’ll never pack any heavier!

About the Author

Dana Johnson

Dana graduated from Central Michigan University with her B.S. degree in English-Creative Writing and Broadcasting. She enjoys dancing around in her bedroom, reading and writing poetry, and going for long walks. She'd like to work in the publishing industry, and be surrounded by literature always.