What to pack for your trip to Europe - title
Travel,  Travel tips

What to pack for your trip to Europe

I live in Europe. At least now I do. Yet, I grew up in Australia and have travelled back and forth between the two more times than I can count. I have also travelled extensively throughout Europe, for both business and pleasure, and before and after Peter and I married and Miss M was born. Over time, I have developed a list of things that I always make sure to pack. This is my “Master list of what to pack for your trip to Europe”.

A couple of brief notes before we get to the actual list.

  1. This list is for a trip in Spring/Summer.
  2. I won’t go into detail about the travel documents you will need and assume that you will think to pack toiletries, any medication and jewellery and accessories.
  3. With a couple of exceptions, this is not a list that tells you what clothing to pack. Your personal style will affect which clothing you should take. We also assume that you will include clothing (and shoes) to suit your planned activities.

The master list

Without further ado, here is our master list of what to pack for your trip to Europe.

What to pack for your trip to Europe: an expandable suitcase

1. An expandable suitcase

If you are like me, you will go shopping while you are in Europe. Make sure you have space in your suitcase for those extra goods. Pack some things that you would be happy to leave behind, just in case. If your suitcase is expandable, even better.

Make sure you pack light. Navigating trains, underground and metro station stairs in Paris and London (the escalators and lifts have a habit of breaking down) and cobblestones in old towns is no fun with a heavy suitcase. All of these are common in Europe.

What to pack for your trip to Europe: Day pack

2. A day pack

Typically, this will be a backpack that you can also use as your carry on during your flight. It should be lightweight and waterproof and, if possible, have zipped or concealed inside pockets. It should also be big enough to carry everything that you will need each day.

Alternatively, I have had a lot of success with a small messenger bag that can be worn across the body. I have one that I purchased 20 years ago and it is still going strong. It should be big enough to hold your camera, guide book, water bottle, purse, sunglasses and a number of other small items.

You may also wish to take a small handbag, preferably one that will fit inside your backpack. Depending on your plans, you may want to wait until you get to Europe to find a handbag. I have had much success handbag shopping at the end of season sales in Paris, and in Tuscany and the north of Italy, in Poland and in Scandinavia.

What to pack for your trip to Europe: comfortable shoes

3. Comfortable shoes

Again, cobblestones… add church towers, old towns, museums such as the Louvre in Paris and underground or metro stations with broken down escalators and you will have a lot of stairs. Make sure you have decent, comfortable shoes that will let you view the sights at your leisure.

Pack a spare pair in case you get blisters or the shoes get wet. Pack band-aids too.

Europeans joke that one way to tell an American is their shoes. Bright sneakers will let others know you are a foreigner. Middle-aged travellers wearing New Balance shoes are almost definitely going to be American. Keep this in mind when choosing your shoes.

What to pack for your trip to Europe: clothing

4. Clothing

While clothing is a personal choice, you should try and pack clothes that will do at least double-duty, in order to keep your luggage to a minimum. You can always buy some clothes here if you find you have not packed enough.

Jeans and other denim clothing takes longer to dry, especially in humid summer weather. Most places in Europe do not have a dryer. You might want to keep this in mind when choosing your outfits.

I would also recommend not choosing articles of clothing that will make it obvious that you are a foreigner. Hawaiian shirts, for example, tend to stand out. Bright colours are also giveaway as Europeans tend to wear more neutral clothing. Sportswear, especially on females, also screams “foreigner”.

What to pack for your trip to Europe: Accessories

5. Accessories

A scarf or shawl

Pack a scarf or shawl, preferably one that is big enough to cover your shoulders. Many European churches will not let you enter with bare shoulders. If you have a scarf in your day pack, you can easily throw it over your shoulders to ensure entry. (The same churches will also not let you in if your skirt is not over your knees. Pack a longer dress or skirt, or even a sarong to solve this issue.)

A raincoat or poncho

It often rains in Europe, even in Summer. June is the wettest month on average in Brussels. June to September are the months with the highest rainfall and number of rain days in Copenhagen. Third time’s a charm: I had to visit Hamburg three times before I had a weekend without rain.

A simple raincoat is best. It should preferably be one that breathes well as it is likely to be quite warm and humid at the same time. A cheap, lightweight poncho will also serve you well. Alternatively, you can take a compact umbrella, although some places have rules about you taking an umbrella inside. Most bag scans will also flag an umbrella – whether airport or Eurostar security or on entry to the Museum of Natural History in London. You might be asked to pay extra for a locker to store the umbrella.

Hat and sunglasses

The air quality in a number of major cities means that the light can be quite blinding as it filters through the pollution. Whether cloud cover or brilliant blue skies, the European sun can also put a strain on your eyes. Pack your sunglasses, especially if you need prescription lenses.

A hat is also a good idea, particularly if you will be touring around the Mediterranean countries. Stalls in major tourist spots in those countries will often sell hats. I recently purchased a hat in Venice in front of San Marco. If you don’t feel like bringing a hat, you will have ample opportunity to buy one as a souvenir.

While we are talking about the sun: pack sunscreen. You probably have a brand and sun protection factor that you prefer. In most cases, that brand will not be available in Europe.

Swimsuit and towel

Depending on where you are going, you are likely to have a number of possibilities to go swimming. This could be at the beach or in a hotel pool. Many major cities also have a ‘city beach’ set up just for summer. Pack your swimsuit.

You will also need a towel. I would suggest something lightweight and not too bulky. A microfibre towel such as this one or Turkish hamman towel such this one work well.

What to pack for your trip to Europe: sleep stuff

6. Sleep stuff

Where are you planning to stay? If you are staying in hostels, you may need to bring a sleep sheet as not all hostels provide them.

Depending on where you live, traffic might be significantly louder at your destination. Most of us tend to choose hotels, which are close to the main sites. By default, they are also often in the louder parts of town. Cleaning staff and elevators can also be quite noisy. Likewise, a tired roommate who had one too many Maß at the Hofbräuhaus will undoubtedly snore. Earplugs take up little room and can easily solve any noise problems.

Some people sleep better in a totally dark room. I am not one of those people. However, if you are, pack an eye mask.

Especially if you are sharing a room, you might also find it useful to pack a small torch. Put it in your toiletry bag or your day pack so that you can access it easily. This will mean you won’t have to turn on all the lights when you are looking for something or have to get ready to depart at the crack of dawn.

What to pack for your trip to Europe: Electronics

7. Electronics

There are many blogs and magazine articles detailing what electronic equipment is best to pack for a trip. Much of it depends on how long you plan to be away, whether you will have access to WiFi (e.g. in hotels) and how serious you are about your photography. Without going into much detail, and keeping in mind that the objective is to pack light, these are the electronic goods I would pack for a trip to Europe:

Musthaves

  1. Mobile phone, with a sim card that will work in Europe
  2. Headphones – remember the adaptor if you plan to use them on the plane
  3. A camera, unless you intend to rely on your phone’s camera
  4. An extra battery pack (or two) for your phone. Battery packs must be in your cabin luggage during flights. While IATA has released recommendations, there are no international rules on how many and what voltage of battery packs may be taken on a flight. Rules, therefore, differ depending on the airline. However, battery packs with more than 160 Wh are generally not allowed on aeroplanes. Some airlines will only allow battery packs with a maximum of 100 Wh.
  5. An extra memory card for your camera
  6. All the cables and plugs needed to recharge your camera and the phone (and kindle and tablet) UPDATE: If your cables are longer than 1.2 m, do NOT put them in your hand luggage. My brother had his confiscated by security on his way to Europe (albeit the fourth security check he had been through) because his phone charger cable was 1.5 metres long and, in the reasoning of the security team, it could be used as a weapon. Yes, apparently, 1.5 metres is long enough to choke someone, but 1.2 metres is not…
  7. Adapters. Even if you live in the UK, you will need an adapter for mainland Europe. Italy and Switzerland also have different plugs. A multi-plug adapter is easiest.
  8. Voltage converter. Most of Europe has 220-230 Volt power outlets. If your devices support the European voltage, you should be fine. If not, you will need a voltage converter. How-to-Geek has a good overview of power outlets and voltages.

Nice-to-haves

  1. If you have a tablet, bring it (but don’t use it for taking photos!)
  2. A kindle or other e-reader, loaded with more books than you expect to read.
  3. A power strip. Many hotels – even large chains – fail to provide enough power outlets in their rooms. This is compounded by the fact that we now often have multiple devices to charge. Adapters/voltage converters also need more space so that you cannot use two plugs that are too close together. Consider taking a power strip if you have a lot of things to charge. A tip: many flat-screen televisions in hotels have USB points, which can be used to charge a device.

Leave your hairdryer, curling iron and hair straightener at home as they take up too much space in your luggage. In most cases, they will not work with the voltage anyway.

What to pack for your trip to Europe: Money

8. Money

While you should carry some cash in the currency of your first European destination, we do not recommend that you carry too much. Many banks now have reasonable fees for withdrawing money abroad. Bring a bank card that you can use to withdraw money, as you need it and in the currency that you need.

We recommend that you let your bank know of your travel plans before you leave. This will help your bank track any questionable charges and avoid your card being cancelled when you use it abroad.

During Dad’s most recent trip to Europe, his card was fraudulently used for an expensive purchase in Australia. It was not him; he was in Italy at the time. His bank stopped the transaction but had to cancel the card to prevent further fraud. This left him in Europe unable to access his main account. Fortunately, we were there. Moral of the story: have a second account or other means to access funds in case your purse is stolen or your card is cancelled.

Not all places in Europe accept credit cards. Not all credit cards are equally accepted. Visa cards are favoured in the UK and Scandinavia. In the rest of Europe, Mastercard tends to be more popular. The next most popular card is American Express, though use may incur an additional fee. Diner’s Card, JCB, etc are rarely accepted. In almost all cases, a pin number will also be needed to use a credit card in Europe.

Most places in Europe no longer accept traveller’s cheques. There are also limited possibilities to exchange these for cash.

What to pack for your trip to Europe: carry bags and maps

9. Travel guide and maps

Pack a guide book. There is something about holding a guide book in your hand, following the map or flipping a few pages forward or back to check some details. Some people like to highlight or write notes on their guide books. I like to slip the tickets and brochures between the pages.

If you want to save on weight, you can load a guide book or two onto your kindle or phone, or bookmark any relevant websites. I am still not used to having the guide book in electronic form, but do bookmark hotel or booking details. I will also bookmark blog pages with great suggestions of what to see or do.

Depending on where you are going, you might like to pack a printed map. Most hotels will have some available. However, a map can be particularly useful if you are planning to take public transport or walk to your first hotel, as your phone might not work when you get to your destination.

Have a system for keeping notes on your trip. What was the name of that small town we visited in France? The one with the great church on the hill? Or the dish we had last week in Barcelona? Yeah, I don’t remember either. Take notes. Whether you want to take a notebook (like a Moleskine) and a pen or use Evernote or another app on your phone, does not really matter.

Take a pen, too. You can write notes or postcards, jot down information when you are on the phone and complete entry or departure cards required by immigration (e.g. UK).

What to pack for your trip to Europe: carry bags and water bottles

10. Carry bags and water bottles

Yes, I know this sounds like a random suggestion. Many places in Europe now charge for store bags. Not only can plastic bags be used to carry your shopping, but they can also be used to corral dirty clothes or keep dirty shoe soles away from the rest of your suitcase. If you don’t like using plastic, net bags work wonderfully too – except for the dirty shoe soles. Ziploc bags are useful for any shampoo or other bottles that might leak or to keep hair accessories or jewellery together. They are also needed for any liquids in your hand luggage.

Some also recommend that you take a water bottle, especially collapsible ones, such as this one. They can be useful and definitely save you money. However, you will save almost as much by buying a bottle of water (or any other plastic bottle) when you first arrive and refilling it. Please note that tap water is still not safe to drink in all places in Europe. While mainland Greece is generally safe, for example, you should avoid drinking the tap water on the islands.

What to pack for your trip to Europe: a stroller

11. If you are travelling with a small child: take a stroller.

I can’t count how many times our fold-up stroller saved us during our travels. Cheap and lightweight are key.

What do you think? Did I miss anything?

To make things easier, we have created a simple checklist, so that you can check items off as you put them in your (expandable) suitcase.

While each European trip is different, if you follow these tips of what to pack for your trip to Europe, you will be off to a good start.

Enjoy your trip!

What to pack for your trip to Europe

5 Comments

  • Raphaela

    So much good advice in your post. It’s been years since I’ve traveled out of the country but I remember how Americans stood out. Wonderful job! If I get lucky enough to travel again I’ll be re-reading your post🙂

    • Rachael Matthews

      Glad you liked it! Somehow, most of the Americans who have lived here for years still stand out…

  • LaZiaRo

    As a European, I start reading this post thinking “how on Earth is she going to explain how to pack in a CONTINENT where you can go from 40+ degrees to -10 on the very same day, depending on where you are???
    Well, I still think it’s slightly pretentious 😉 but you left it vague enough to actually be fairly correct! 😀
    I would only point out that if you don’t want to stand out with your clothing as you pointed out, then you should definitely NOT wear a poncho (unless you’re cycling). That screams “I’M A TOURIST” like nothing else! Especially an Asian tourist, for some reason! 😀 A waterproof light rain jacket is way better!

    • Rachael Matthews

      I think the poncho depends on where you are. I have seen lots of Germans in Austria and Switzerland hiking with ponchos… but I find a jacket easier, generally. I didn’t want to dive into the specifics of clothing precisely because it really depends on where you are going and what you are doing, and what you would normally wear. Though with the temperatures here at the moment, it doesn’t really matter where you are going, it is going to be over 35 degrees (air conditioning depends on where you are going too!).

    • Rachael Matthews

      By the way: we saw middle-aged Dutch ladies wearing ponchos while in Amsterdam this week. The weather caught almost everyone off-guard and ponchos were much cheaper than jackets.

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