The lighter your bag, the happier you'll be on a trip, and European travel guru Rick Steves shares his tips for traveling with very little
Wearing a green T-shirt under a blue work shirt, I’m about to depart for Europe. At my farewell breakfast — one last eggs-any-style — my stylish, college-aged daughter says to me, “You look like a scrub. OK if you’re painting a house.”
Scrub or not, my bag is light. As compartmentalized as a TV dinner, it includes a folding board with four shirts and an extra pair of pants; bags for small garments, such as underwear and five pairs of socks (wear for two days, wash every 10 days); a tiny toiletries kit; electronics (iPod, cellphone, camera, laptop, flash drive, chargers, adapters, and batteries); and that miscellaneous bag filled with security-blanket extras I probably won’t need (spot remover, sewing kit, extra glasses, and so on). I also throw in a sweater, light jacket, and day bag. All my shoes are on my feet. That’s it.
Even when traveling in winter, I pack just about as light. I wear heavier, warmer, high-top, waterproof shoes. I add a warm coat, long johns (quick-drying Capilene or super-light silk), scarf, gloves, hat, and an extra pair of socks and underwear since things dry more slowly. I layer my clothing for warmth, knowing I’ll be outside in the cold for hours at a time.
Don’t pack for the worst-case scenario. For a spring or fall trip, risk shivering for a day rather than taking a heavy coat (or buy a sweater in Europe for a useful, fun souvenir to layer under your jacket). Whatever time of year you go, minimize the amount of clothing you pack, choose dark clothes that dry quickly, and plan to spend 10 minutes every few nights doing some wash.
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I bring my luggage onboard, by limiting my load to 20 pounds in a carry-on-size bag (a soft 9-by-22-by-14-inch bag will fit in the overhead bins and under most airplane seats). With some airlines charging a fee to check even one suitcase, bringing just one carry-on bag can save you money and time. Quick, last-minute changes in flight plans become simpler. When I land in London, I’m on my way downtown while everyone else stares anxiously at the luggage carousel. When I fly home, I’m the first guy the dog sniffs.
If you’re traveling with only a carry-on, remember not to pack liquids (unless in bottles of 3 ounces or less). Check www.tsa.gov/travelers for the latest on what you can or can’t bring on the plane.
Packing light helps me be mobile in Europe. I use a convertible backpack/suitcase with zip-away shoulder straps, giving me the best of both worlds — a suitcase when in town and a backpack when I’m on the move. I live out of this bag for three months each year — and I absolutely love it. If you prefer to not have a bag on your back, consider a carry-on-sized suitcase with wheels (this is what my wife and daughter travel with). Base your decision on the strength of your back.
Another advantage of packing light is that you’re unlikely to leave something behind in a hotel. Packing up to check out of a room is a kind of ritual for me. Putting on my socks, I wonder if I really need to wear them again, considering my laundry level like checking a battery or a gas tank. I spread out the cover of my bed so nothing gets lost in a big wrinkle, then corral stuff scattered around the room onto the bed before tucking everything into my bag. For a one- or two-night stop, I don’t use the closet or drawers, so they don’t need to be checked. I carefully survey the electrical outlets to be sure I didn’t forget some recharging cord.
Most important, I physically feel my money belt to confirm that my passport — the only item easy to feel without opening it — is in there. A money belt is a small, nylon-zippered pouch that fastens around the waist under your pants or skirt. With a money belt, all of your can’t-lose items (such as your passport, railpass, credit/debit card, and cash) are on you as securely and thoughtlessly as your underpants. Ever thought about that with underpants? You put them on in the morning, don’t think about them all day long, and every night they’re exactly where you put them. Wearing a money belt, all my essentials are just as securely out of sight and out of mind. It’s luxurious peace of mind.
Remember, packing light isn’t just about the flight; it’s about your traveling lifestyle. With only one bag, you’ll feel lean and in control. After you enjoy that sweet mobility and freedom, you’ll never go any other way.