Be nimble, go simple, allow for serendipity and don’t weigh yourself down.
Sometimes I wonder why I lug my bag through airports, following my own recommendation to pack light enough to carry it on. It can be a drag, dragging your bag through airports. But once in a while I’m reminded of the joy of having everything with you — like the time I avoided a long layover by hopping on an earlier flight from Copenhagen to Bergen. After getting to my hotel two hours before planned, I enjoyed a jump-start on my Norway time with a lovely evening in a salty port town, where summer’s “magic hour” lasts until 11 p.m.
Why is traveling light important? Practically speaking, if your itinerary involves taking trains, buses, or ferries, you need to be able to carry your luggage on board and heave it up onto a rack or wedge it into a tight space between seats. At airports, if you don’t have your bag on hand, you can’t jump on the next available flight if yours gets delayed.
Too much luggage also marks you as a typical tourist. It draws scammers and pickpockets. It limits you. For instance, Europe’s most charming and characteristic hotels tend to be harder to reach — up a donkey path, down a back-alley staircase, or tucked deep in the Old Town, where cars aren’t allowed. Many of them lack elevators, too.
Here are some of my keys to traveling light.
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Bring one suitcase and one day bag. That’s it. That’s your world, whether you’re going for two weeks or two months, in summer or in winter, on a bus tour or cruise, or on your own.
Bring one pair of practical shoes. In Europe, it’s really important to have solid shoes with a good, comfortable sole, as you’re out every day walking on cobbles, climbing ruined castles, etc. You may have to sacrifice a bit of style, but your feet will thank you. Also, think long and hard about whether you need a second pair. You probably don’t. But if you can’t live without it, make it a light pair.
Pack a limited wardrobe. You don’t need new underwear and socks for each day. You just need to do laundry every few days. And don’t worry about repeating outfits: Nobody’s going to notice except for your travel partners — and they have the same problem.
Plan to do laundry. You have several options. You can pay the ransom and have the hotel do it, you can wash it in your sink, or you can go to the launderette like a local. If using the hotel sink, be tidy, wring out wet clothes well, snap them a few times, and hang them over the tub.
Slim down toiletries. I bring just the basics: shampoo, soap, comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, razor and blades, deodorant, sunscreen, and a few first-aid items. Don’t bring everything you think you’ll need. Look forward to running out of toothpaste. Now you’ve got an opportunity to go into a Bulgarian grocery store, shop around, and pick up something you think might be toothpaste. Make it a cultural experience.
Pack for the best scenario, not the worst. This is an American thing: We like to be prepared. We bring an extra coat or pair of sunglasses, just in case. Resist that urge. If you need another you can buy it.
Don’t skimp on electronics. A computer, tablet, or phone gives you access to information and helps you travel smarter. All you need is a couple of cheap adapters so you can charge them (don’t worry about voltage converters — it’s not an issue anymore). Although you can get universal adapters that work Europe-wide (or even worldwide), these tend to be bulky and expensive.
Rip up your guidebooks. Good travel guidebooks are worth buying and carrying, but a lot of people travel with an entire library. To lighten your load, rip up your guidebooks and bring only the information you need. This is my favorite pre-trip ritual. I get out a box cutter, slice out the pages I need, staple them back together, and put a big tape binding on them to create little booklets for just the places I’m going.
Pack a guilty pleasure. Mine is my noise-reduction headphones. I love these things. When I’m on a plane or train, I can slip these on my head and relax with my music or movie without hearing the rumble and noise around me. It’s worth sacrificing space to bring something that makes you happy.
Packing light isn’t just about saving time or money — it’s about your traveling lifestyle. Too much luggage weighs you down. Serendipity suffers. Changing locations becomes a major operation. Con artists figure you’re helpless. Being mobile lets you travel efficiently and flexibly. It allows you to experience the real Europe.