Packing tips for a European vacation

Packing for a European vacation – or any vacation of two weeks or more – can seem almost as daunting as planning the trip itself but it doesn’t have to be. I have traveled to Europe three times for two-three week visits each with nothing but a 19” rolling carry on suitcase and a Rick Steves Civita day pack. Prior to our first European vacation, I worked for Hilton Hotels and went on conventions with other travel associates with this same carry on and a small purse. My travel companions were always astonished that I could pack dress skirts, suit jackets and heels for a full week with so little weighing me down.

I should caution you that I am not a clothes hound, I’m not a hair girl and I have no idea how to do a smokey eye. But I still think I’m representing America just fine whether traveling abroad or within our borders. Cortona

Me…in Cortona

The trick really is to plan your wardrobe around similar colors. Below is a detailed list of EVERYTHING I packed on our first trip to Italy Sep/Oct 2006. For example, my ‘Paris’ skirt matched three tops and another skirt matched two tops so there’s five outfits right there. I aim to pack half as many bottoms as days I’m gone. In other words, if I’m gone 15 days, I aim for a combination of 7-8 skirts/pants. Also, whatever outfit I choose to fly to my destination in is the outfit I fly home in. That’s two days I don’t have to think about and I try to wear my thicker outfit on the plane so I’m not packing it.

I am not shy about washing things in the evening or taking advantage of a washing machine if one is available (which I never count on) as opposed to packing 16 pieces of underwear. Shucks, that’s just no big deal when you consider how much precious cargo space that underwear is going to take up. It also doesn’t bother me in the slightest to wear an outfit two-three times on a long trip. Seriously, none of the people you’re going to meet wine tasting in the French country side will have a clue you wore that same outfit having dinner along the Cinque Terre. Isn’t the whole point that you had dinner along the Cinque Terre not what you wore doing it?

I love Rick Steves’ packing cubes. They come in a set of three but I only use two. I suppose I could use the second smaller one for my cosmetics but, since they’re mesh and have holes, it’s not ideal. You really can pack more in a suitcase with these cubes. I don’t understand it. It’s the same space but it works somehow. Another great thing is I put my day clothes in the large one and my night clothes, work out clothes, miscellaneous in the second one so it’s just easier to pack and unpack this way.

To roll or not to roll, that is the question. I roll most of my clothes but not all of them. If I’m packing jeans or pants, rolling just seems bulky to me so I lay them flat but I roll my shirts, sweaters, just about everything else. Oh, a word about these ‘pack able rain jackets’. I have a thick Columbia Sportswear rain jacket that’s made of PVC material and has a hood. I rolled it like a shirt, it flattened out perfectly, put it in a cube and was very glad I had it when were caught in Tuscany for a couple days in the wet and muck. My point? Specially designed clothing is often times not necessary. Try what you have first.

Can I just tell you how much I love my cosmetic bag? I bought one from Nordstrom when I was a teenager. It was ripped on the inside and starting to wear on the outside but I loved it because it’s clam shaped so it opens more fully than another designs. Plus, the inside material was durable and I was having a hard time finding a durable replacement. Finally, I found my bag on Etsy. It’s colorful and makes me smile whenever I reach for it. Measuring 2.5”x 6”x 9”, it comfortably fits everything I use. I keep my liquids in a quart-sized Ziploc and take that out before going through security.

My colorful cosmetic bag...and everything else.

My colorful cosmetic bag…and everything else.

When you’re a girl, container sizes become important for travel. We have a lot of liquids. You don’t think about it until you have to pack them in a quart-sized plastic bag. So, I’m always on the look out for just the right containers. I label them as to their content so I don’t use face lotion to wash my hair on accident.

A word about exercising on vacation. I exercise four-six times a week at home and I really try to fit it in on vacation but I’m not a jogger so sometimes you just have to let go, walk more briskly through towns, not go crazy at dinner every night and just look for hills to climb and fortresses to conquer. Some trips are more conducive to daily physical activity than others. Have another glass of wine and you won’t care as much.

Scanning my packing list you may think “I don’t need that” or “Why didn’t she list that” but that’s what makes me confident anyone can pack this way. I don’t have an advanced cell phone so I use paper maps, paper itineraries, a paper day planner, things someone more electronically inclined won’t pack. My husband carries the camera but, if I did, that would fit fine in my day pack. I don’t bring a blow dryer, hair spray or any other hair products. You might. I’ve packed hiking boots in place of Tevas, swimsuits in place of jeans. I’ve exchanged khakis for a skirt, tank tops for sweaters. Any trip I go on, these are the only two bags I use. I don’t go naked. If I run out of toothpaste, guess what, people in Germany brush their teeth and they buy toothpaste at this thing called a store. And if you’ve not been to a store in Germany, what a great excuse to go into one. I love stores in other countries. They have a lot of the same stuff but a lot of stuff we don’t have or it’s packaged differently. It’s just part of what makes leaving the comfort of your couch a fantastic adventure.

The end result. Everything you need for 2-3 weeks.

The end result. Everything you need for 2-3 weeks.

This list was for Sept 19-Oct 4, 2006 throughout Italy and created 12 separate outfits.

Wore on plane



1 white ribbed tank

1 long-sleeved button up sweater

1 pair jeans


2” wedge sandals

Inside 19” rolling carry-on

2 Rick Steves packing cubes (1 large, 1 small)

3 pair underwear

1 slip

3 short-sleeved shirts

2 short-sleeved sweaters

2 long-sleeved sweaters

1 long sleeved top

3 skirts

1 pair linen pants

1 pair Capris

1 zip up hoody

1 pair Grecian sandals (packed under packing cubes in plastic bags)

1 pair boxer shorts for sleep

1 t-shirt for sleep

1 pair of footies for walking around apartment/hotel room

1 exercise bra (??)

1 rain slicker

2.5”x 6”x 9” cosmetic bag

Suitcase interior zippered compartment

Deodorant (I use a solid not liquid)


Netline flexible clothes line


Laminated copy of passport (Make sure you have a copy at home also, just in case)

Suitcase exterior zippered compartment

Any printed trip information

Cosmetic bag -dry

Q-tips (in 3”x 4” Ziploc pouch)

Powder brush

Blush brush


Eyebrow brush

Eyeshadow (quad case)



Face soap (I buy an Aveeno bar, cut it in half & put it in Ziploc bag)

Cotton balls (16)

Toothbrush w plastic cover

Dental floss (small case)

Hairclips (3-4)

Cloth pony tail holder

Cosmetic bag – liquids (stored in quart sized Ziploc for security)

Baby oil in .25 oz container (remove eye makeup)

Toothpaste in 1.3 oz size (can always buy more in Europe)

Body lotion in 2 oz container (can always buy more in Europe)

Shampoo in 2 oz container

Conditioner in 2 oz container

Face lotion in 1 oz container

Face makeup in .5 oz container


Eye lubricating drops in .05 oz container

Hydrogen peroxide in 1 oz container (for astringent and/or first aide)

Eyeshadow primer in .37 oz container

Nasal spray in original 16 gram container (prescription)

Rick Steves Day Pack

Long-sleeved, hooded sweater jacket

Floppy hat

Teva sandals (wrapped individually in plastic bags)

Snacks for plane (ie homemade granola bars)

Key to our house (secured on O-ring sewed into bottom of this daypack)

1 really good guide book

Maps (I’m old fashioned and, if we’re driving, I want a map of the area)

Sunglasses in soft case with lanyard and cleaning cloth


Nail file

Nail clippers

Tube of Carmex


Euro (we always land with some ready to go)

Pocket planner (I’m old fashioned; it has phone numbers, etc)

1 credit card

1 ATM card

Medical card (Don’t know how useful this would be but it takes up very little space)



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