Packing Smart and Traveling Light
Learn how to pack smart and travel light with Rick Steves' packing tips. Find out what luggage is best, what to bring, and how to make it all fit in one carry-on-sized bag.
Too much luggage marks you as a typical tourist. It slams the back door shut.
By Rick Steves
The importance of packing light cannot be overemphasized, but, for your own good, I'll try. You'll never meet a traveler who, after five trips, brags: "Every year I pack heavier." The measure of a good traveler is how light he or she travels. You can't travel heavy, happy, and cheap. Pick two.
One Bag, That's It
My self-imposed limit is 20 pounds in a 9" × 22" × 14" carry-on-size bag (it'll fit in your airplane's overhead bin). At my company, we've taken tens of thousands of people of all ages and styles on tours through Europe. We allow only one carry-on bag. For many, this is a radical concept: 9" × 22" × 14"? That's my cosmetics kit! But they manage, and they're glad they did. After you enjoy that sweet mobility and freedom, you'll never go any other way.
You'll walk with your luggage more than you think you will. Before flying to Europe, give yourself a test. Pack up completely, go into your hometown, and practice being a tourist for an hour. Fully loaded, you should enjoy window-shopping. If you can't, stagger home and thin things out.
When you carry your own luggage, it's less likely to get lost, broken, or stolen. Quick, last-minute changes in flight plans become simpler. A small bag sits on your lap or under your seat on the bus, taxi, and airplane. You don't have to worry about it, and, when you arrive, you can hit the ground running. It's a good feeling. 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.
These days, you can also save money by carrying your own bag. While it's still free to check one bag on most overseas trips, you'd likely pay a fee to check two. If you're taking a separate flight within Europe, expect to be charged to check even just one bag.
Remember, packing light isn't just about saving time or money — it's about your traveling lifestyle. Too much luggage marks you as a typical tourist. It slams the Back Door shut. Serendipity suffers. Changing locations becomes a major operation. Con artists figure you're helpless. Porters are a problem only to those who need them. With only one bag, you're mobile and in control. Take this advice seriously.
Pack light...and pack smart. You can't bring anything potentially dangerous — such as knives, lighters, or large quantities of liquids or gels — in your carry-on bag. These days I leave my Swiss Army knife at home, bring smaller bottles of toiletries, and carry on my bag as usual.
Be aware that many airlines have additional (and frequently changing) restrictions on the number, size, and weight of carry-on bags. Some European budget airlines, such as Ryanair and Air Berlin, use smaller carry-on dimensions than major airlines. (Restrictions can vary from airport to airport, even on the same airline.) Check your airline's website for details.
When you carry your bag onto the plane, all liquids, gels, and aerosols must be in 3.4-ounce or smaller containers, all of which must fit into one clear quart-size plastic zip-top bag. There are exceptions for certain prescription and over-the-counter medicines, as well as contact-lens solution (see www.tsa.gov for details).
If you check your bag, mark it inside and out with your name, address, and emergency phone number. If you have a lock on your bag, you may be asked to remove it to accommodate increased security checks, or it may be cut off so the bag can be inspected (to avoid this, consider a Transportation Security Administration-approved lock). I've never locked my bag and never had a problem. Still, just in case, I wouldn't pack anything particularly valuable (such as cash or a camera) in my checked luggage.
Backpack or Rolling Bag?
|Rick Steves Rolling Carry-On|
A fundamental packing question is your choice of luggage. Of all the options, I consider only three: 1) a carry-on-size convertible backpack/suitcase with zip-away shoulder straps; 2) a carry-on-size roll-aboard bag; or 3) an internal-frame backpack.
A convertible backpack/suitcase gives you the best of both worlds — a mobile backpack for traveling and a low-key suitcase when in town. I travel with this bag and keep it exclusively in the backpack mode. While these soft bags basically hang on your shoulders and hips, and are not as comfortable for long hauls as internal-frame backpacks, they work fine for getting from the station to your hotel. And, at 9" × 22" × 14", they fit in the airplane's overhead lockers. I live out of this bag for four months each year — and I absolutely love it.
Carry-on-size roll-aboard bags are well-designed and popular. Many of my staffers prefer this bag; its compact design makes it roomy while keeping it just small enough to fit in the plane's overhead bin (if you don't stuff any expandable compartments). The advantage of a roll-aboard over a convertible is that you can effortlessly wheel your gear around without getting sweaty. The drawbacks: Bags with wheels cost $40-50 extra, weigh several pounds more, are awkward to carry up and down stairs, and delude people into thinking they don't need to pack so light. They are cumbersome on rough or uneven surfaces (crowded subways, hiking through a series of train cars, walking to your hotel in villages with stepped lanes, cobbled streets, and dirt paths, and so on) — but they're wonderful in airports, where check-in lines and distances to gates stretch longer than ever. A spin-off option is the hybrid bag, which has both wheels and backpack straps — but the wheels add weight when used as a backpack, and having both wheels and straps eats up interior space. Personally, I'd go with either one or the other.
Some younger travelers backpack through Europe with an internal-frame backpack purchased from an outdoor store. These are the most comfortable bags to wear on your back, as the internal frame keeps the weight off your shoulders and balanced over your hips. However, these bags can be expensive and are often built "taller" than carry-on size.
Base your decision on the strength of your back. The day will come when I'll be rolling my bag through Europe with the rest of the gang. But as long as I'm hardy enough to carry my gear on my back, I will.
Pack your bag only two-thirds full to leave room for souvenirs, or bring along an empty, featherweight nylon bag to use as a carry-on for your return flight, and check your main bag through. Sturdy stitching, front and side pouches, padded shoulder straps (for backpacks), and a low-profile color are virtues. I'm not wild about the zip-off day bags that come with some backpacks — I take my convertible backpack and supplement it with a separate day bag that's exactly to my liking.
How do you fit a whole trip's worth of luggage into a small backpack or suitcase? The answer is simple: Bring very little.
Spread out everything you think you might need on the living-room floor. Pick up each item one at a time and scrutinize it. Ask yourself, "Will I really use this snorkel and these fins enough to justify carrying them around all summer?" Not "Will I use them?" but "Will I use them enough to feel good about hauling them over the Swiss Alps?" Frugal as I may be, I'd buy them in Greece and give them away before I'd carry that extra weight over the Alps.
Don't pack for the worst-case scenario. Pack for the best-case scenario and simply buy yourself out of any jams. Bring layers rather than take a heavy coat. Think in terms of what you can do without — not what will be handy on your trip. When in doubt, leave it out. I've seen people pack a whole summer's supply of deodorant or razors, thinking they can't get them there. The world is getting really small: You can buy Dial soap, Colgate toothpaste, Nivea cream, and Gillette razors in Sicily and Slovakia. Tourist shops in major international hotels are a sure bet whenever you have difficulty finding a personal item. If you can't find one of your essentials, ask yourself how half a billion Europeans can live without it. Rather than carry a whole trip's supply of toiletries, take enough to get started and look forward to running out of toothpaste in Bulgaria. Then you have the perfect excuse to go into a Bulgarian department store, shop around, and pick up something you think might be toothpaste.
Whether you're traveling for three weeks or three months, pack exactly the same. To keep your clothes tightly packed and well organized, zip them up in packing cubes, airless baggies, or a clothes compressor. The Flat Pack allows you to pack bulky sweaters and jackets without taking up too much space or creating wrinkles. Simply put the item in the bag, roll it up to force the air out through the one-way nozzles, and pack it away. I like specially designed folding boards (such as Eagle Creek's Pack-It Folder) to fold and carry clothes with minimal wrinkling. For smaller items, use packing cubes or mesh bags (one for underwear and socks, another for miscellaneous stuff such as a first-aid kit, earplugs, clothesline, sewing kit, and gadgets).
Go casual, simple, and very light. Remember, in your travels you'll meet two kinds of tourists — those who pack light and those who wish they had. Say it out loud: "PACK LIGHT PACK LIGHT PACK LIGHT."
What to Pack
The bulk of your luggage is filled with clothing. Minimize by bringing less. Experienced travelers try to bring only things that will be worn repeatedly, complement other items, and have multiple uses (for example, since I don't swim much, I let my shorts double as a swimsuit). Pack with color coordination in mind. Neutral colors (black, navy, khaki) dress up easily and can be extremely versatile.
To extend your wardrobe, plan to spend 10 minutes doing a little wash every few nights, or consider a visit to a local launderette, which is in itself a Back Door experience. Choose fabrics that resist wrinkling or look good wrinkled. If you wring with gusto, lightweight clothing should dry overnight in your hotel room.
Many travelers are concerned about appropriate dress. During tourist season, the concert halls go casual. I have never felt out of place at symphonies, operas, or plays wearing a decent pair of slacks and a good-looking sweater or collared shirt. Some cultural events require more formal attire, particularly outside of high season, but the casual tourist rarely encounters these. Women who don't pack a dress or skirt will do just fine with a pair of nice pants.
Ultimately — as long as you don't wear something that's outrageous or offensive — it's important to dress in a way that makes you comfortable. And no matter how carefully you dress, your clothes will probably mark you as an American. And so what? Europeans will know anyway. To fit in and be culturally sensitive, I watch my manners, not the cut of my clothes.