The Non-Existent Right or Wrong of How to Travel: How to Pack for Europe

By Margo Millure

How to Pack for Europe

Much has been written lately on the topic of “packing light.” For some “packing light” has become a bit of an extreme sport. More power to these people. I just don’t happen to be one of them!

Some light packers carry on, both literally and figuratively, about their mad packing skills as if to do anything other than pack in a 22” wheel-aboard is a sin equal to forgetting your passport or to register your frequent flier number.

In defense of the checked bag

My definition of packing sometimes means checking a bag. Before any light packers get all “judgy” out there, in my opinion some of these carry-on champions are the same people who have made boarding and de-boarding a plane the new national nightmare. Littering the narrow artery that passes for an aisle with their stress and baggage, they wheel stuffed suitcases that exceed the allowed 22” and clog overhead bins that aren’t made for them. Determined to defy basic laws of physics, they wrench backs and break sweats in an attempt to stuff their pride and joys, which are packed to the density of lead, into spaces designed for briefcases and purses.

There is a perfectly fine cargo holder underneath the plane to hold that suitcase. From the looks of things on recent overseas flights, it appears that many people are unaware that on international flights, the first bag can still be checked for free. As a safeguard against lost luggage, I always pack one change of clothes in the reasonably sized bag I do bring onboard with me.

Fear of being the “ugly American”

As far as what exactly to pack for a domestic or an active vacation, American women seem to have it down. We find it’s usually a matter of packing clothes that we already own and feel comfortable in, and choosing or buying an appropriate outer layer or two. Isolationist Americans we are, it seems we become a bit more self-conscious when we finally make it off the island. Based on how many Google hits my website gets on these topics, there’s a bit of teeth gnashing involved when it comes to wardrobe planning for a visit to Europe. We hold a vision of an otherworldly ideal of how European women dress.

For the most part Americans traveling abroad understand that we are ambassadors for our home country whenever we travel, and the last thing in the world we want is to stick out as an “ugly American.” In truth I find that the stereotypical “ugly American” barely exists these days, and if he or she does, so does the “ugly European.” In pretty much any major European city you will find people from many countries who are wearing sneakers and baseball caps and who are loud and don’t speak the language. (Except for Milan, anyway, which is so full of tan, gaunt, well-dressed people, you shouldn’t stay there long unless you enjoy a little self-loathing.)

European women generally do indeed dress better than us, but rest assured we’re not talking about an entire continent of women dressed in this year’s couture and ready to wear. We notice the elegant French matriarch in Chanel or the model-esque Italian sidestepping cobblestones in four inch heels. But if you pay attention, invariably you will also see plenty of European women wearing things that you wouldn’t be caught dead in.

Modern classic, meets comfort

If Europeans are Armani and Americans are yoga pants, think of the meeting place firmly ensconced in between. The best American looks capture the essence of both worlds, classic European, well cut pieces combined with more American styles featuring comfort, balance and simplicity.

Here’s my basic clothing and accessory packing list for a 10 day to two week European vacation. If you are visiting a warmer climate, obviously leave the jacket at home and take only one lightweight sweater and perhaps throw another dress in your suitcase instead. Ignore the media message that you have to spend a lot of money to dress well. Cut and silhouette are important concepts. So if shopping for clothing items ahead of time, lean towards items you are most comfortable in, while at the same time focusing on this year’s silhouettes. For instance, a big thing I’ve noticed this year is the narrower cut of pants, both Capri and full length. As a general rule, always pair the narrow cut top or bottom, with its opposite.

It will also serve you well to pick a color palette before starting to pack. I know it may sound boring but for me, black is always a given. Then I pick a neutral, such as grey or khaki, and one favorite seasonal color to mix and match. And do I even need to tell you to forgo white items? Red wine magnets they are! Choose easy care items that don’t need ironing and can be rolled up and packed easily.

Lastly remember, even though you can sometimes make everything fit in a carry-on, doesn’t mean you should. After all you’ll want to have room to bring a few items home!

Basic clothing and accessory packing list

• 2 pairs of pants: one no wrinkle black and one dark wash jean, perhaps a pair of capri pants if the season is right.

• One pull on black skirt

• 3-4 shirts. Nicely cut tees or otherwise easy care

• 2-3 tailored, but comfortable, easy care dresses: One little black travel dress; others in styles and shades that make you feel 10 feet tall

• Tailored jacket or blazer, or if it’s more your style, a fitted jean jacket

• 2 sweaters – one cardigan, one pull-over

• Pashmina for the plane that can double as a travel blanket

• One or two scarves that you absolutely love.

• Shoes: I take at least 2 pairs and up to 5, including one pair of boots, depending on the season. One pair of non-stiletto heels, several pairs of others that are broken in and good for walking and various activities. I have learned not to skimp on shoes, as my feet appreciate it when I change them often. There is a lot of walking involved in most European vacations, and I rarely wear the same pair for the whole day.

• Non-fussy stud earrings.

• Opt for a classic cross-body purse that can hold your wallet, camera and a bottle of water. I carry a large camera around, so my bag is actually a camera bag that looks like a purse.

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6 Responses to “The Non-Existent Right or Wrong of How to Travel: How to Pack for Europe”

  1. Krista says:

    Such a great article, Margo. :-) Not only because you made me shake with laughter several times, but because it’s helpful and bang on. :-)

  2. Margo says:

    Thank you, Krista! What a nice comment! My work here is done. Now for just deciding where in Europe we’re going to go next, because hey, every travel adventure starts with a dream. :)

  3. Jody Keisner says:

    I love the humor in this essay and that you debunk the Americans-in-tennis-shoes-and-elastic-waisted-jeans myth! We aren’t the only ones–I knew it!

    • Margo says:

      Thanks, Jody – and you’re welcome! Definitely a myth I’ve felt the need to challenge for a while now. And as I think you’ll agree, I have found that keeping a sense of humor is always the best way to travel. :)

  4. Camille Bosley says:

    Great post! I’m planning my first trip to Europe in the coming months and this is all good to know. Do you recommend a specific type of bag for international travel (i.e. suitcase, large duffel, etc.)? Thanks!

    • Margo says:

      Hi Camille, How fun! I like traveling with a 24″ suitcase with wheels. I also have a large duffel bag (also with wheels) that my husband and I packed in together on a cruise a few months back. Have fun planning (and going on) your big trip! :)

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