For those of us who live in northern Europe, we're so used to the volatile weather that we hardly give it a second thought. Over the past 2 years, I've received many emails inquiring about how one should pack when traveling around Europe for 2 to 4 weeks. The aim is to pack light but with clothes that you can layer, create multiple outfits and be prepared for good and bad weather without having a neon sign above your forehead that screams tourist.
1. The destination and time of the year
Packing the right clothes is very much dependent on where and when you'll be traveling. For example, cities such as Florence or Paris can be a lot colder compared to Nice or Rome. And the fashion is different too. In my experience, the closer one gets to the cities near the Mediterranean, the more colorful the clothes tend to be and the reverse if you're heading north where black, beige, navy and grey rule. One year, we returned to Tuscany and Florence with our friends just after Easter. It was barely 13˚C on the hill town but at least 5˚C warmer in Florence.
2. Travel light
I've seen many tourists who lugged around huge suitcases only to discover to their horror that there was simply no space on the Eurostar, bus or local trains to store their luggage. Seasoned travelers will specifically request for smaller and more compact rental cars because the roads in Europe are ridiculously narrow. It's a nightmare trying to navigate the narrow pavements while trying to avoid the crowd and cars when you've got large suitcases.
I've always believed that as long as I've got my passport, tickets, cellphone, credit/bank card and cash, everything else can be purchased along the way. There's really no need to carry big bottles of shampoo, conditioner, cleanser etc because they're incredibly bulky and heavy. Either transfer some into small plastic bottles or bring along samples. Personally, I belong to the second camp. I chuck away the empty samples at the end of my trip, leaving more space in my suitcase if I feel the urge to shop.
I backpacked throughout my 20s and now refuse to walk around looking like a tortoise. Been there, done that. I prefer to leave the "shell" (aka backpack) behind and take a small 4 wheel trolley suitcase that glides through cobbled and tiled European streets like a dream. Both Lil L and I shared a small suitcase for a 2 week summer vacation recently. Mine's a cabin sized suitcase from Marks & Spencer which costs £65 and is incredibly light and durable.
I'm also a comfort loving creature with a low pain tolerance when I'm traveling so comfortable clothing is a must. If you're from New Zealand, North Island in particular (like me) or Australia (other than Melbourne), layering is as alien as a.....well.....Martian. The temperature in Europe can dip and rise depending on the time of the day but it also differs from day to day, just to make life more interesting and keep us on our toes.
I prefer thinner layers preferably made of natural fibers. Say, merino wool sweaters because they're breathable and easy to wash and dry. If I'm traveling during the colder months, I tend to bring thermal vests (Uniqlo heatech or Icebreakers are good) and woolen/cashmere sweaters - both fitted and over-sized for layering.
5. Waterproof or water resistant
I've mentioned this a million times to my family and reiterated it again before they made their way to England but they still managed to pack all the wrong clothes. Arghhhh....!! There's a reason why the countryside in England is so lush and green and the residents walk around looking as pale as the Cullen family (Twilight).
If northern Europe is your port of call, remember that sunshine can be as rare as an Hermes Birkin and rain is plentiful so pack something waterproof/resistant and a pair of boots. Unless you have a windproof umbrella, it's far easier to wear a waterproof (or water resistant) coat with a large hood. It's safe to say that we're a little obsessed about leather jackets here. Most of us have at least a black biker leather jacket hanging in our closet for the same reason. Besides, they're wind/waterproof and chic.
This is probably a good time to talk about shoes. I've found that flats can be a killer on the feet after a day of walking. Something with a cushioned insole or an inch heel will save yourself a lot of unnecessary pain.
I have friends who bring 1 to 2 outfits for EACH day they're away. Unless you're traveling in luxury with a chauffeured car, it's just impossible to move from one city to the next easily while trying to deal with the logistics of transporting large suitcases. It's unnecessary to bring half of your wardrobe because you can just wash every other day. I always bring a travel size tube of laundry liquid or laundry powder in a zip lock bag. I prefer to wash my clothes at night, hang them and usually, they're dry in the morning.
Accessories can make a whole lot of difference to a simple plain sweater and jeans outfit. Pop on a hat, scarf, jewelry and swap your shoes and you get a completely different look. Personally, I like to bring a large cashmere shawl because it doubles as a blanket when I'm cold on the plane/train/bus or cover my head if I'm entering a mosque or turn it into a sarong if I'm visiting an Orthodox church.
As a general rule, I tend to leave anything expensive at home unless of course, if you're intending to spend your vacation in St Tropez, Cannes or Isle of Capri, in which case, pile them all on.
There's a reason why my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Thankfully, my addiction is under control these days. I prefer to leave most of my designer bags at home with the exception of my Louis Vuitton Speedy Bandouliere and vintage Coach Court bag which I won on eBay for a song. The Speedy is actually more of a duffel and doubles as an overnight bag.
However, if I'm out for the day, the Longchamp le Pliage or the vintage Coach are pretty nondescript bags. I don't suffer from mini heart attacks if I unknowingly bang it against walls and sharp surfaces. I prefer crossbody bags which is handy especially for those of us who are moms with young kids. Having had my money and passport pickpocketed in Genoa 16 years ago, I now leave my wallet in the accommodation (locked up, of course) and just carry some cash, a card or two in an internal zipped pocket.
10. Some handy tips
Sometimes you're asked to show your passport at the stores if you want to claim your VAT refund. I refuse to carry around my passport particularly in places like Paris, Barcelona or Rome. I prefer to photograph the first page with my smartphone and show the photo when I'm asked for the document. So far, I haven't had anyone said no to me yet.
I keep backup photocopies of my (husband's and daughter's too) passport and bank/credit cards (front and back so that you can also see the phone number if you have to report a stolen/missing card). I can't tell you how handy it was when my husband lost his wallet and I was able to whip out a photocopy of his cards in an instant. He managed to call the bank and canceled the cards immediately. Also, if you have an unlocked phone, it's cheaper to buy a local sim card rather than pay an extortionate sum when your phone's on roam.
Okay, this may be bizarre to some but I do chuck in a few packets of ramen noodles in my suitcase before I leave for the airport. Why? Well, sometimes we arrive late and we're exhausted, hungry and grumpy. It can be inconvenient to head out in search of food when it's dark especially when you're traveling with young kids. I tend to book apartments these days so anything that can be microwaved or boiled in a jiffy is a lifesaver.
**this post is dedicated to Lyn. Hope this helps! I'm by no means an expert on packing and traveling. So please chime in and share your tips that have worked for you.