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The Ultra-Minimalist Packing List: How I Packed for Europe

“Ideally packed!”

That’s what a London Gatwick Airport security agent told me when my bag got tagged for a manual inspection. She was completely impressed because she couldn’t believe how efficient and well-organized my carry-on bag was!

[If you've ever had one of those, you know that they take everything out of your bag. It got flagged because I had a bag full of wires and electronics, so after that leg of the trip, I just removed that baggie and put it in the bin next to my toiletry bag, and I had no further problems.]


It’s been three days since my return home, and my body clock is still very off. They say it takes a day to adjust to each hour change, and it feels pretty close. I’ve managed to stay up a bit later each night and not wake up as early in the morning, but still, I was up by 5:00 a.m. today and am not able to snooze anymore.

So now that I’m wide awake, I may as well be productive and finally share with you how I managed to travel with just 13 pounds for my Europe trip.

Oh just a warning: Today’s post is going to be long. Grab a cup of coffee.

Details, details, details

First, the foundation: We were originally planning on traveling with another couple whom we’ve traveled with in the past, with an itinerary that included France, Germany, and Luxembourg. As a return favor for my providing a fair bit of translation and cultural knowledge about Japan on a trip we’d all made to Tokyo Disneyland a few years ago, our guide was going to be the husband of the other couple, who had spent a few years in France.

However in an example of how our current bad economy affects us in direct ways, Alex and I were hit with unexpected news: The wife, who is a small business entrepreneur, was forced to decide between going on vacation with us, and keeping her business afloat.

At that point, we could’ve decided to just scrap the trip altogether, except for one minor thing: I’d already bought Alex and myself nonrefundable tickets on Virgin Atlantic.

Getting over our disappointment at not being able to travel with our friends, Alex and I looked at each other with “Oh my god, what the hell are we going to do now?” drawn on our faces. With zero independent itinerary, zero French/German language skills, zero travel knowledge of the area, we were at a complete loss.

It wasn’t until a few days later that I’d had an idea: Check to see if Rick Steves had any tours that would fit our schedule. We were in luck. There was one tour that fit our schedule exactly: His Best of Rome in 7 Days city tour. [How many people chose to go to a destination because they looked over a list of tours and picked the one that fit their flight schedule?!?] The tour was spendy but since we were completely noobs we felt it was worth the price.

Once our main destination was set, everything else fell into place, with plans to spend a bit of time in London (since we were flying in and out of Heathrow), as well as in Paris for a few days so we could see both the city as well as Disneyland Paris.

If you’ve never seen Rick Steves’ PBS series on traveling through Europe, he is a firm believer in low-key immersion travel. Pack lightly, stay in smaller hotels run by locals, focus more on learning and absorbing the culture in smaller groups rather than being shuttled around like cattle and spending all your stops in tacky gift shops. Rick Steves also happens to be one of my personal heroes because he was the one who originally inspired me to learn to travel lightly. That, combined with the fact that Alex and I would be on all sorts of public transportation with our luggage, meant we were going to avoid check-in luggage at all costs.

Traveling with just my carry-on? No problem! Not even a challenge!

…except there was. It was called “Virgin Atlantic’s unusually small weight restriction for carry-ons.” If you read my previous entries, you know that we had to limit ourselves to no more than 13 pounds (6 kilograms). Most full carry-ons will probably run you at least 20-30 pounds depending on the weight of your bag, so getting our stuff together in the weeks before our trip became almost like a game for us.

We were successful, but not without a lot of adaptation and sacrifice.

My Packing List

I based my initial packing list on the one Rick Steves recommends for women. I provide the original list here, with my notes on how I adjusted it for the trip. Some assumptions I made included October weather in Europe, which ranged from the low-40s to the low-70s. Each item is followed by a description, and any pertinent comments (negatives are in red, positives are in green). Those I did not pack, are crossed out.

Clothing

  • 1 pair of walking/comfortable shoes – This was the single, most important decision I was going to make. After reading the “Best Walking Shoes” section for personal recommendations at Rick Steves’ site, I chose a pair of Keen Seattle shoes. Since Keen no longer makes them, I had to do quite a bit of looking around online before finding one. I also took a spare pair of insoles with me, and swapped them out daily to keep my feet feeling less tired. At the end of the trip, I tossed the spare insoles away. These shoes worked out great for my feet, which are wide.
  • 1 pair of sandals (weather permitting) – I couldn’t afford a second pair of real shoes, so I took a pair of Pocket Slippers from Magellan’s. They roll up and tuck into a little pouch that weighs just a few ounces. This was a waste of space for our particular trip since I only wore them on my flight to London. But they are keepers for future trips.
  • 1 rainproof jacket – I picked up an LL Bean Storm Chaser 3-in-1 jacket, which has an inner fleece that zips out so you can wear it as a fleece jacket. And since the two zip up into one jacket, it was less I had to carry if I wasn’t wearing it. I applied Scotchguard on it to get a little more protection on it, although it should do OK in light showers. This jacket is terrific! Big pockets, zippable pockets, secret inner pockets, and comfortable. Highly recommended.
  • 2-4 pairs of shorts/capris/skorts – I assumed it would be too cold to take shorts.
  • 2 pairs of pants (one dressy, one casual), 1 belt – I wore one pair of slacks, and packed a second pair. The second pair was a Slinky brand from HSN.com, but it’s very similar to the Travelers line from Chico’s. That means no ironing, easy to wear.
  • 1 swimsuit (packed in a plastic bag) – I assumed it would again be too cold.
  • 5 1 pairs of socks (cotton blend) – The Keens can be worn with or without socks, so I chose to take just one pair of very thin Smartwool socks that I picked up from REI. Smartwool socks dry fast and don’t smell. I highly recommend them.
  • 5 pairs of underwear (silk, lace, or micro-fiber dries quickest) – I took some that were the lighest I could find (if you are comfortable wearing thongs, they save a ton of space)
  • 1 extra bra
  • 4-6 shirts (long/short-sleeved, various colors) – Assuming it would be cold, I took 3 long-sleeve nylon/polyester shirts, a button shirt, and a layering overshirt. I really wish I packed for warmer weather. My shirts were way too hot in Rome. Lesson: Check the weather right before your departure, and be prepared to adjust your wardrobe at the last minute.
  • 1-2 light cardigans for layering – Instead of a cardigan, I used the fleece jacket from the LL Bean 3-in-1. So glad I just used the fleece lining instead.
  • 1-2 skirts (wrinkle-resistant) – With colder weather I assumed this wouldn’t work well.
  • 2 dresses (optional) – No special dinners, and no space in my bag.
  • 1 hat – My jacket had a hood, but I also took a neoprene Headgasket visor from Croakies. I kept the visor in my daybag and used it all the time. It worked out great, especially in those sunny days in Rome!
  • Scarves (to wear with clothing or hat) – I took a warmer scarf. This is one of the best things I took, since you can wear it instead of packing it when you fly. The wider ones work as a wrap on your flight, too.
  • 2 vests (optional) – Completely unnecessary, and didn’t miss not having them.
  • 1 pair of pajamas (or long shirt to get you to the bathroom down the hall if necessary) – No room, no need.

Toiletries/Medicine

  • Body soap/puff (washcloth); most European hotels do not supply washcloths –The single best wash cloth I have used all my life is the Salux nylon wash towel from Japan. Anything else makes me feel like I’m not getting clean, so I made sure to take one. It’s better than any scrubber ball because you can scrub your back easily. I also took a large Japanese bathtowel. These things barely take up any room because of their thinness and loose weave. I probably didn’t need the bath towel. I never travel without one! [Fortunately it weighs next to nothing.]
  • Toothbrush/toothpaste/floss – I wound up not taking enough toothpaste with me but we made do with the baby containers of toothpaste we got from our Premium Economy amenity kits.
  • Shampoo/conditioner – I took 1 ounce of shampoo and 0.5 ounce of Paul Mitchell leave-in conditioner. We augmented the shampoo with hotel shampoo, and it worked out perfectly.
  • Brush/comb –I took a folding travel brush, which was small enough to carry in my day bag.
  • Lotion –I took a tube of face lotion with SPF, which worked out fine.
  • Vaseline (for feet) –Unnecessary; I just made sure I pedicured my feet nicely right before the trip.
  • Razor (non-electric)/shaving cream or soap – I didn’t bother (since my leg hairs are almost nonexitent) but for most women it’s probably easier to get a professional wax before a trip. My husband just bought some razors when we got to Rome, and that worked out well. Alex used either soap or shampoo for his shave (after a shower so his skin was moist).
  • Sunscreen, insect repellent –See lotion, above.
  • Prescription drugs (in original container with your name and your doctor’s name, write down generic name) – I had a small prescription bottle with me that didn’t take up much room.
  • First aid kit/moleskin/blister kit – I used a lot of Band-Aids preventively but I purchased them all when we got there.
  • Feminine hygiene products –Assumed I could buy them during the trip if I needed.
  • Deodorant – We actually didn’t take any. Shaving/trimming underarm hairs does wonders to keep the odor to a minimum. Given how warm it was in Rome, I wish we’d taken some. We used a lot of Febreze instead.
  • Nail clippers/file/tweezers –I took a nail file and tweezers, and just made sure our nails were clipped before we left.
  • Spare glasses and/or prescription, mini-eyeglass repair kit, or contact lenses and supplies –Neither of us wear glasses anymore, but we did take our sunglasses.
  • Hand sanitizerI didn’t take any, but I wish I had. I couldn’t find any in Rome, either.
  • Vitamins –Didn’t take any.
  • OTC remedies (whatever works for you): Pepto, decongestants, etc. –Took ibuprofen and acetaminophen; glad we did, since it took the edge off our sore feet at the end of the day.
  • Clothesline, sink stopper, soapThese came in handy for washing our clothes in the bathroom.
  • Baby powder (dry shampoo for hair) –Didn’t take any.

Money and Security

  • Moneybelt: Passport, plane ticket, debit card, credit cards, traveler’s checks, railpass, driver’s license (if you’re renting a car) – Rick Steves tours make you sign an agreement saying, among other things, that you will use your moneybelt. This is not only for your peace of mind but also so the tour guide (and their travel office) doesn’t have to deal with the hassles of one of its customers having to deal with the U.S. embassy and banks during the trip. It was the one thing I made sure we followed, and our entire group in Rome did great during the tour, and nobody lost anything to pickpockets. We did have numerous attempts made on us, though!

Other things I took

  • Guidebooks – I went to Kinko’s and had them cut the binding out of all our guide books. I then selected the pages and sections we needed, and rebound them into smaller books. This saved quite a bit of weight since we took guidebooks for Rome, Paris, and London. As we were done, we tossed the books.
  • Moleskine notebooks – I’m one of those people who uses Moleskine books, so I took a Rome Citybook as well as a sketchbook.
  • Drawing and writing utensils – Pencil, pens, small ruler, eraser, and so on… didn’t take up too much space but I wanted the opportunity to do some sketches.
  • Various electronics, including an iPod Touch, a Sennheiser noise-cancelling headset, AC adapter. I tried to take items that were as small as possible, and I managed to fit them all into one liter-size Ziploc bag.

Things I wish I’d taken

  • Addresses – I ran out of time, and wasn’t able to put together an address booklet of people I wanted to send postcards to. What would have been easiest was to hand write the addresses on a strip of adhesive mailing labels.
  • A pair of capri pants –Given how warm it was, I probably should have traded my Slinky slacks for a pair of capris.
  • Short-sleeve shirts – I really wish I’d swapped some of my long-sleeve shirts for short-sleeved ones. I was completely prepared for layered clothing for cold weather, not hot.
  • More podcasts, books on tape (MP3 format), and albums for the iPod – I wound up mostly playing Bejeweled and Jewel Quest.
  • A tiny digital camera – I didn’t take one because Alex was taking his SLR; as it turned out, he mostly took “photographs” whereas I would’ve taken more snapshots of things like our tour group (who were a terrific bunch, by the way).

Items packed for the Europe trip.
Items packed for the Europe trip include Ziploc baggies for electronics, for miscellaneous junk (medicine, pens, earplugs, etc.), toiletries, clothes, a very thing Japanese bath towel, and a couple of Platypus brand collapsible water bottles.

What I picked up and brought home

One thing we collect when we travel, are refrigerator magnets of the places we visit. We adhere to a strict guideline (for example, we have to both go together, and we they don’t count if they are souvenirs given to us from friends). Normally, these barely take up any room, but after a while they add a bit of weight. I was prepared to carry them in my jacket pocket for our flight home if necessary.

Refrigerator magnets
Refrigerator magnets from some of the places we visited on our trip. Can you guess where all of these magnets may have come from?

One thing I was looking forward to was purchasing Moleskine Volant softcover notebooks—they are currently available only in Europe. I found these in a bookstore in London. Don’t let your eyes deceive you; the larger notebooks in the photo are the small index card sized versions. The smaller ones are slightly larger than credit cards. Each Volant packet includes a pair of notebooks of the same color scheme (one lighter, one darker). If you look carefully, the small green one is by itself; I unwrapped it and started using the lighter green one during the trip!

Moleskine Volants
Moleskine Volants, purchased in London.

These weigh a bit so I was also prepared to just stash them in my coat pocket for my flight home.

Finally, I kept various paper receipts, tickets, and such so I could eventually put together a trip report and remember where I went. These take up almost no space or weight.

Used tickets and other souvenirs
Used tickets and other small, flat souvenirs.

How I packed

Ziploc baggies – More than anything, I used a lot of Ziploc baggies. I normally use fabric ditty bags and cosmetic bags and such, but the only non-disposable one I used was my Paula Begoun makeup bag, to hold my toiletries. While the dimensions are approved for air travel, her bag is gussetted, which lets me carry way more stuff than in a Ziploc liter-sized bag. I used Ziplocs to separate clean underwear from used, to hold my electronics, to hold our fridge magnets, and so on. Where I would have used a net fine-washables laundry bag, I used a Ziploc bag. In addition, I went to a local craft store and picked up some smaller resealable baggies (2″x3″ and 4″x6″) for things like holding Band-Aids and Q-tips. Speaking of Q-tips, I normally take the little travel container but I did away with the container to save on weight. Instead, I counted how many Q-tips we were likely to use (1 per person per day, with a few extra thrown in), saving a fraction of an ounce.

Weighing every item, and taking only what I planned to use – I had to make some tough decisions about my wardrobe. In hindsight, I wish I’d gone with two short-sleeve shirts and a long-sleeve instead of three of the latter, but I really didn’t expect weather in the high-70s all week in Rome. That said, I still chose the most lightweight of my shirts; they were even lighter than cotton T-shirts. Every liquid toiletry item was carefully scrutinized. Did I need a full ounce, or could I manage with half an ounce?

Using the smallest version of everything – Instead of large and clunky AC adapters, we took a USB-to-AC adapter that was as small as a film canister. A laptop was out of the question, but the iPod Touch gave us the option to send email in wi-fi hotspots (including a free one in a small part behind the Notre Dame in Paris!).

Tom Bihn Convertible Cube/Shoulder Bag – This bag turned into my everyday daypack, and it was awesome beyond words (see one of my earlier posts for a full review). I carried this thing everyday full of stuff, and it never saw any wear or unraveling at all. I routinely packed two soda bottles, notebooks, and various other sundries, and the unstructured form meant I could just toss things in willy nilly and have everything settle in easily. I cannot speak highly enough of this bag as a travel daypack.


The Tom Bihn Convertible Cube/Shoulder Bag.

I used this bag as a packing cube when I flew, stashing a lot of the assorted things in my carry-on bag that would otherwise get loose or scattered around in my bag. It’s where I put my underwear, socks, and other stuff that I put in my Ziploc bags. And once I passed security, I’d move stuff around in my carry-on, moving my toiletry bag and electronics baggie into the packing cube. When I get to my airplane seat, I just remove the packing cube to keep by my feet for easy access, and stow my carry-on in the overhead bin. Easy as pie and a wonderful solution without trying to shove the carry-on by my feet.

Traveling with a partner

One huge benefit to having a travel partner is your ability to share some things during the trip. For me and Alex, that meant sharing toiletries. He actually managed to fly without a toiletry bag at all! Alex is a very low-maintenance traveler anyway, and he just shared things like shampoo with me (or used the hotel supply).

He kept his packing list as short as possible, and did a great job swapping out a lot of his clothes for travel-friendly items. A couple of items that worked particularly well include:

ExOfficio Trip’r line of travel shirts – He picked up a few from REI, but you can buy them directly from Exofficio online as well. The fabric is the typical travel shirt feel, but they make them in checkers and plaids, so you can completely avoid the “Hi, I’m wearing this khaki travel shirt” look altogether. The shirts are adequately vented, the chest pockets have zippers, and best of all, their buttons aren’t sewn on but instead, they are secured on with a little piece of fabric. It’s hard to describe; let’s just say you won’t worry about losing any buttons.


Very attractive ExOfficio Trip’r shirts are available in patterns that don’t make them look like ordinary travel shirts.

He also picked up a few pairs of travel-friendly underwear, which dried really easily on the clotheline.

One item that weighs down a carry-on bag for the guys is their big shoes. So for this trip, he took just the pair he wore on his feet (a pair of nubuck New Balance shoes). He made sure to break it in for a few weeks before the trip.

Alex’s biggest challenge was his camera gear. He has a pretty nice Canon digital SLR that he wanted to use for his trip, but wanted to avoid using camera bags that were too easy to identify (and which also tended to weigh too much). Up until right before the trip, he was planning on taking a Tom Bihn Large Cafe Bag, although we were a bit concerned since the fabric is thin for a camera.

At the last minute, he chose to take my Timbuk2 mini Metro Messenger bag, and that turned out to be a great decision. The biggest reason he changed his mind was that Cafe Bag doesn’t have the ability for you to  remove its shoulder strap; this turned out to be a huge disadvantage. In order to save even more weight, Alex used the luggage strap for his carry-on once we were in Rome, to carry his Timbuk2 bag with—he couldn’t do that with his Cafe Bag. The Timbuk2 is also pretty water resistant, which worked out well on one day in Paris when we met with some foul weather.

For packing purposes, Alex put all his smaller items (underwear, socks, etc. around his camera gear) in the carry-on itself so that the Timbuk2 bag was safely packed in the carry-on.

Timbuk2 Metro Messenger bag.
Timbuk2 Metro Messenger bag. Although this bag isn’t padded, it’s very sturdy, making it an option for carrying camera gear. If you bang up your camera in this bag, though, don’t blame me; do so at your own risk!

We had both planned to use the Outdoor Products Carryon Bag, however we discovered that the bag was actually too big for the items we put together to pack! Instead, I wound up using the discontinued Sierra travelpack from Uphill Down, and Alex used a discontinued travelpack model from MEI in Canada. We could have used the Outdoor Products bag but we both felt that we might be tempted to pack more stuff in it during our trip, so we abstained. I’m sure we’ll use the Outdoor Products bag in future travels where bag size—and not weight—is the limiting factor.

Final thoughts

All in all, the 13-pound weight limit imposed by Virgin Atlantic was an awesome challenge, and we wound up thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to test our packing abilities. For years, I’d become pretty complacent and not being particularly fastidious in my carry-ons since it had gotten to be old hat, so being forced to face a new test kept me on my toes and more excited about the trip than originally expected.

I don’t know that I’d pack that lightly again unless I’m forced to do so. I wouldn’t have minded taking a third pair of pants (or capris or skirt/skort), and maybe a T-shirt. That said, let me tell you—a 13-pound bag is a breeze to carry! I think in the future I may try to keep it down to around 15 pounds or so, just to make it easy for me to carry through the airport.