By Rick Steves
Here's a rundown of what should go in your suitcase:
Tops. Bring a mix of short-sleeved and long-sleeved shirts or blouses. Shirts with long sleeves that roll up easily can double as short-sleeved. Look for a wrinkle-camouflaging pattern or fabric. Synthetic-blend fabrics (such as Coolmax or microfiber) usually dry overnight. Lightweight, light-colored clothes are more comfortable in very hot weather.
Bottoms. I suggest one pair of lightweight cotton pants and another super-lightweight pair (or a skirt) for hot and muggy destinations. If you prefer jeans, choose the lightest-weight pair you have (heavy denim can be too hot for summer travel and is slow to dry); you can wear comfortable jeans on your flight to save room in your bag. Some travelers like convertible pants/shorts with zip-off legs. While not particularly stylish, they're especially functional in southern Europe, where you can use them to cover up inside churches while still beating the heat outside. Button-down or zippered wallet pockets are safest (though still not nearly as thief-proof as a money belt). Shorts can double as a swimsuit when swimming in lakes or the sea.
Underwear and socks. As with most clothing I recommend, lighter material dries quicker. Bamboo, cotton/nylon-blend, and merino wool socks dry faster than 100 percent cotton. Double-layer socks can help prevent blisters.
Shoes. Comfortable walking shoes with good traction are essential. Mephisto, Ecco, and Rieker look dressier than sneakers, but are still comfortable. Sturdy, low-profile tennis shoes with a good tread are fine, too. If you bring more than one pair, consider sandals in summer or waterproof shoes in winter or rainy weather. Flip-flops are handy if you'll be using bathrooms down the hall. Whichever shoes you bring, make sure they're well broken in before you leave home.
Sweater or warm layer. Warm and dark is best for layering and dressing up. Vests and cardigans can be mixed-and-matched to give you several different looks as well as layers. Art museums can be surprisingly chilly — a good reason to include a sweater in your day pack, even in summer.
Jacket. Bring a light and water-resistant windbreaker with a hood. A hooded jacket of Gore-Tex or other waterproof material is good if you expect rain. (For summer travel, I wing it without rain gear — but always pack for rain in Britain and Ireland.) For travel to cooler climes, come repared to add an insulating layer, or consider a super lightwieght puffer coat that can squish compactly.
Swimsuit. To use public pools, you'll need a swimsuit (men can't just wear shorts; and in France, men need to wear Speedo-type swimsuits — not swim trunks).
Sleepwear/loungewear. Comfy streetwear — such as shorts, leggings, T-shirts, tank tops, yoga pants, and other lightweight athletic gear — can get triple use as pajamas, post-dinner loungewear, and a modest cover-up to get you to the bathroom down the hall.
Accessories. For instant respectability, bring a tie or scarf, which can break the monotony and make you look snazzy. Consider a light, crushable, wide-brimmed hat for sunny days, especially if you're prone to sunburn. Don't forget a belt if you need one.
Winter travel. Even in winter, you can pack just about as light. Wear heavier, warmer, waterproof shoes. I wear my heaviest pair on the plane to save room in my suitcase. Add a coat, long underwear (super-light silk or other quick-drying fabric), scarf, gloves, hat, and an extra pair of socks and underwear, since things dry more slowly. Layer your clothing for warmth, and assume you'll be outside in the cold for hours at a time.
Documents, Money, and Travel Info
Organizing your possessions, travel documents, money, guidebooks, and maps is just as important as assembling your wardrobe. Be sure anything you'll need at the airport or absolutely cannot lose is either on your body or in your carry-on — not in checked luggage.
Money belt. This flat, hidden, zippered pouch — worn around your waist and tucked under your clothes — is essential for the peace of mind it brings. You could lose everything except your money belt, and the trip could still go on. Get a lightweight one with a low-profile color (I like beige). A neck wallet or hidden pocket (which attaches to your belt and tucks into your pants) are other alternatives, as are specialty clothing items with secure hidden storage. For more, see my article on money belts.
Money. Bring a debit card, a credit card, and an emergency stash of hard US cash.
Documents. Bring your passport, driver's license, and any other required or useful documents (entry visa, vaccination record, student ID and so on). Bring any necessary health or travel insurance contact info. Scans or photocopies of key documents and a couple of passport-type photos can help you get replacements more quickly if the originals are lost or stolen. A printed copy of key reservations such as flights, hotels, trains, or rental cars, are handy as back-ups if technology isn't cooperating when you need it.
Guidebooks. Pack the travel info you'll need on the ground, whether in paper or electronic form. I like to rip out appropriate chapters from guidebooks and staple them together or use a special slide-on page binder.
Notepad and pen. A small notepad in your back pocket or day pack is a great organizer, reminder, and communication aid.
Journal. An empty book to be filled with the experiences of your trip will be your most treasured souvenir. Attach your itinerary. Use a sturdy journal designed to last a lifetime, rather than a floppy spiral notebook. A great brand with a cult following among travel writers is Moleskine.
Consider insuring particularly high-ticket items.
Phone. Your smartphone can serve as your camera, alarm clock, flashlight, magnifying glass, GPS, white noise machine, and more. Use it to keep in touch with folks back home, and access email, travel apps, and maps on the road.
Camera. Your phone may be all you need to get great photos, but if you bring a separate camera, take along an extra memory card and battery, and don't forget the charger (and a cable if you plan to download images).
Tablet/ebook reader. Download apps, ebooks, and music before you leave home (or download on the go with a Wi-Fi connection in Europe).
Laptop. If you're traveling with a laptop that accommodates a flash drive, you can use it to back up files and photos (in case the internet connection is too spotty to access cloud storage).
Headphones/earbuds. These are a must for listening to music, tuning in to audio tours, or simply drowning out whiny kids on the plane. (I never travel without my noise-canceling Bose headphones.) If you and your partner have wired headphones, pack along a Y-jack so you can listen together.
Chargers/batteries. Bring each device's charger, or consider a charger capable of charging multiple devices at once. Portable chargers are a handy way to keep your electronics running throughout a long day of sightseeing — just remember to charge the charger at night.
Car phone charger and mount (or GPS device). If you'll be doing a lot of driving and plan to use mapping apps on your phone, remember a car charger and car mount. Or bring your GPS device (preloaded with Europe maps).
Toiletries and Personal Items
Even if you check your suitcase, always carry on essential toiletries, including any prescription medications (don't let the time difference trick you into forgetting a dose). Because sinks in many hotels come with meager countertop space, I prefer a toiletries kit that can hang on a hook or a towel bar (there are also TSA-approved toiletry bags for carrying on liquids in case you don't want to use a plastic baggie). In-flight pressure changes can cause bottles to leak, making it a good idea to seal all squeeze bottles in plastic baggies, whether you carry on or check your bag.
Basics. Hotel bathrooms usually have tiny toiletries or "green" dispensers for soap, shampoo, and conditioner, but you may prefer to pack you own. Other essentials include a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, sunscreen, deodorant, hairbrush/comb, razors, and nail clipper. Before cramming in every cleanser, lotion, and cosmetic you think you will use, ask yourself what toiletries you can live without or simply buy in Europe for a longer stay.
Medicine and vitamins. Keep medicine in original containers, if possible, with legible prescriptions. For a list of items to pack in a first-aid kit and advice on handling prescriptions, see my article on getting medical care in Europe.
Glasses/contacts/sunglasses. Contact-lens solutions are widely available in Europe. Carry your lens prescription, as well as extra glasses, in a hard protective case. If it's a sunny destination or season, bring your sunglasses.
Face masks. Smart to have on hand in case you find yourself crowded into a poorly ventilated space with someone exhibiting signs of something you'd rather not catch — or if you aren't feeling tip-top yourself.
Hand sanitizer. A small container of hand sanitizer keeps hands clean when you don't have access to soap and water.
Small towel/washcloth. You'll find bath towels at all fancy and moderately priced hotels, and most cheap ones. Some people bring a thin hand towel for the occasional need. Washcloths are rare in Europe, so you might want to pack a quick-drying microfiber cloth. Disposable washcloths that pack dry but lather up when wet (such as Olay's Daily Facials 5-in-1) are another option; cut them in half to make them last longer.
Sewing kit. Clothes age rapidly while traveling. Add a few safety pins and extra buttons.
Packet of tissues. Stick one of these in your day pack, in case you wind up at a bathroom with no toilet paper.
Personal care items. If you use disposable personal hygiene products, bring a supply to avoid buying full boxes in Europe.
Earplugs. If night noises bother you, you'll love a good set of expandable foam plugs. They're handy for snoozing on trains and flights, too.
Consider the following:
Small day pack. A lightweight pack is great for carrying a sweater, camera, guidebook, and picnic goodies while you leave your large bag (with most of your belongings) at the hotel. Don't use a fanny pack — they're magnets for pickpockets.
Laundry supplies. Bring a bag for dirty laundry (such as a mesh bag or a plastic baggie). Travel-size packets of detergent or a squeeze bottle of concentrated, multipurpose, biodegradable liquid soap is handy for laundry. I find hotel shampoo works fine as laundry soap when I'm doing my wash in the sink. For a spot remover, bring a few Shout wipes or a dab of Goop grease remover in a small plastic container. A small clothesline lets you hang laundry in your hotel room (the twisted-rubber type needs no clothespins)
Small umbrella. Consider bringing a collapsible umbrella or plan to buy one in Europe. Umbrella vendors, like worms, appear with the rain.
Travel alarm. Make sure you have an alarm to wake yourself up up (your phone or watch likely has an alarm function, or bring a travel clock). At budget hotels, wake-up calls are particularly unreliable.
Sealable plastic baggies. n addition to holding your carry-on liquids, these are ideal for packing leftover picnic food, containing wet clothes, and bagging potential leaks before they happen. The two-gallon jumbo size can be used to pack (and compress) clothing or carry laundry. Bring a variety of sizes, and extras for the flight home.
I don't advocate bringing everything listed here. Choose the items that fit with your travel style and needs. When in doubt, leave it out: You can buy most of these in Europe if you need them.
Hairdryer. These are generally provided in $100-plus hotel rooms or are available from your hotel's reception desk. If you can't risk a bad-hair day, buy a cheap, compact hairdryer in Europe or bring a travel-friendly one from home.
Picnic supplies. Bring a plastic plate (handy for dinner in your hotel room), cup, spoon, fork, and maybe salt and pepper. Fozzils dishware folds completely flat. My picnic set has utensils for two and a compact corkscrew. You can also buy a Swiss Army–type knife with a corkscrew and can opener in Europe (or bring one from home if you're checking your luggage on the plane).
Disinfecting wipes. These are handy for sanitizing surfaces as you travel, such as the seatback tray table on an airplane or train.
Water bottle. The plastic half-liter mineral water bottles sold throughout Europe are reusable and work great. If you bring one from home, make sure it's empty before you go through airport security.
Fold-up tote bag. A large-capacity tote bag that rolls up into a pocket-size pouch is useful for laundry, grocery shopping, picnics, and those extra souvenirs.
Small flashlight. Handy for reading under the sheets after "lights out" in the hostel, late-night trips down the hall, exploring castle dungeons, and hypnotizing street thieves. Tiny-but-powerful LED flashlights — about the size of your little finger — are extremely bright, compact, and lightweight. Your phone's flashlight function also does the trick.
Small binoculars. For scenery or church interiors.
Inflatable pillow/neck rest. These are great for snoozing in planes, trains, and automobiles. (Sticking a sweater in a small stuff bag can double as a pillow.) Some travelers also swear by an eye mask for blocking out early-rising or late-setting sun.
Duct tape. A small roll of duct tape can work miracles as a temporary fix — mending a punctured bag, solving an emergency shoe problem, and so on. Conserve space by spooling only as much as you might need (less than a foot) around a pen or dowel.
Insect repellent. Bring some along if you're prone to bites and are going somewhere especially buggy.
Anti-blister/anti-chafe balm. Your feet will thank you. Look for a travel-size stick.
Tiny lock. Use it to lock your backpack zippers shut. Note that if you check your bag on a flight, the lock may be broken to allow the bag to be inspected. Improve the odds of your lock's survival by buying one approved by the Transportation Security Administration — security agents can open the lock with a special master key. Or use zip-ties or flight locks to secure zippers — be sure to pack nail clippers or TSA-approved scissors so you can open them when you arrive.
Office supplies. Bring paper, pens, and sticky notes to keep your place in your guidebook.
Address list. If you plan to mail postcards, you could print your mailing list onto a sheet of adhesive address labels before you leave. You'll know exactly to who you've written, and the labels will be perfectly legible.
Reading material. There's plenty of empty time on a trip to either be bored or enjoy a good book. Popular English-language paperbacks are often available in European airports and major train stations (usually costing more than at home). An ebook reader or tablet app makes it easy to carry and buy books -- or borrown them from your hoetown library -- as you go.
Gifts. If you'll be the guest of local hosts, show your appreciation with small, unique souvenirs from your hometown.
Universal drain stopper. Some hotel sinks and tubs have no stoppers. This flat, flexible plastic disc — which works with any size drain — allows you to wash your clothes or take a bath.
Hostel sheet. Bed linens are usually included in the price of a hostel, but if they aren't, you can rent a sheet for about $5 per stay. Still, you might want to bring your own sheet (silk is lighter and smaller, cotton is cheaper), which can double as a beach/picnic blanket and cover you up on overnight train rides.
A guilty pleasure. It's worth sacrificing space to bring something that makes you happy. My guilty pleasure is my pair of Bose noise-canceling 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.