Fashionistas pay attention. I’m about to make a startling announcement.
I did something quite amazing, and I couldn’t be more proud.
Are you ready? Here goes…
I traveled in Europe for 3 weeks in only a carryon!
And I’m NOT a guy!
I knowwwww. Scary, right?
I always thought this kind of thing was impossible – like unicorns that fart rainbows, or breakfast cereals that don’t contain sugar.
Let’s be clear: I did this on a dare and it was no easy task. Converting to the idea was really quite brutal. No woman in her right mind hands over her American Tourister without wailing and tearing a few clothes in the process.
But I had to admit, our travel plans consisted of far too many opportunities to crash and burn while commandeering anything bigger than a backpack. We visited 6 countries in 20 days. That’s 6 different airports, 4 different train stations, and 6 different hotels. There were also the requisite taxis, subways, buses and that day when we walked 2 km across London to a rental flat – only to be met by 3 flights of stairs.
(I’m sorry. That’s not “flat” at all.)
With such a large chunk of the continent laid out before us, it was clear that my luggage HAD to be small. After all, anything larger than 22″ usually comes with wheels…
and wheels are where the nightmares really begin….
Getting Stoned & Sizing It Up:
Europe On a Big Wheel
Overpacked tourists arriving in Germany are in for a real treat the minute they haul their wheeled steamer off the baggage carousel at the airport.
They don’t know it yet, but the bane of their European vacay waits just outside the turnstile door — in the form of this thing called a cobblestone.
One cobblestone isn’t bad – it’s like a lone jellyfish swimming past you in the ocean. Everyone screams but no one gets hurt.
Two cobblestones is definitely pushing it. Someone is going to turn their back and then they’ll be sorry.
More than two is just plain agony, and Europe is RIFE with them.
Cobblestones comprise 150% of the sidewalks in Germany – and are where people actually have the nerve to walk, stand, and suck face in your path. Having visited Europe numerous times before, I’ve found that the safest way to approach a cobblestone is in a flat shoe whilst sipping from a very large stein.
Still, it’s difficult not to wince at the poor girl schlepping her rolling suitcase in and out of the beer fest with taxis and vespas threatening every move she attempts toward the street.
If lucky, you can find areas where the cobblestones turn into actual slabs of concrete, but then someone throws a moat into the mix for a few extra laughs.
Ah, those madcap Germans.
Switzerland is even worse. The cobblestones are smoother, yet annoyingly they keep going UP. By the time you require supplemental oxygen, you might as well be dragging an ox behind you – one that is hopefully carrying your baggage and not requiring hits from your oxygen tank.
But once you escape the cobblestones, you can’t escape the fact that size really does matter in Europe – as anything over 28″ is cause for alarm.
Btw, I’m still talking about luggage. Relax, gentlemen…
The Roman empire may have at one time been vast, but it has been reduced to ruins along with itsy bitsy teeny weeny FAST AS HELL taxis with trunk space that at best can hold a pair of miniature dachshunds and a cannoli.
And know that ALL bohemian Paris hotels are tall, skinny and have elevators resembling a coffin turned on end. Either you OR your luggage will be staying the night. Not that it really matters. Your room has just enough storage space to accommodate your toothbrush and maybe a panty shield.
The coffee maker is in the tub, btw.
What’s troubles me the most is this crazy concept of “getting around” without your own car. Madness.
Europeans rely on mass transit in much the same way that Americans just want free wifi and ice cubes in their drinks. Subways are fast, efficient and cheap. They just aren’t conducive to a Samsonite 28″ Spinner that’s spinning out of control and taking out unsuspecting street performers. Once you finish your spinning spree, the mime-field that was Paris is left a desolate wasteland of accordionists and a few specks of white paint on the cobblestones. Tragic.
Londoners are also confused about the car thing. Did you know the GAP in the London Underground is quite REAL? It’s the rumored resting place of of broken heels, displaced wheels and perhaps a severed leg or two. When you venture around London with luggage, the Underground lifts are few and far between. Escalators fail or are full. Stairways abound with people abounding on them in all directions and at various speeds. Here’s a fun idea. Announce your presence with authority by bouncing a heavy wheeled duffel down 4 flights of stairs in one of the many Underground tunnels. Sounds just like a machine gun firing squad. Don’t be surprised if the Brits start crouching in corners. Nobody liked the blitz the first time, you know…
The Gilligan’s Island Theory
My initiation into “no checked bags, thanks” is summed in this harsh reality: I’m traveling to see the sites of Europe. Unless I’m married to Jay Z, it is highly doubtful anyone will consider me a site to see.
Does it really matter what I wear, how many times I wear it, or that I’m wearing my comfy combat boots with every outfit?
Remember, half the castaways on Gilligan’s Island had no luggage and they survived for 3 years. My aim is to simply NOT be the Mrs. Thurston Howell of my family.
What I really desire on vacation is to look decent for pictures, and…..well, that’s about it. My husband is a master pic sneaker, sometimes clicking 2-3 hundred images over the course of one day, from all of the most unflattering sides – front, back, above and below, double chins, flaring nostrils and panty lines. And just when I’m sure I can’t look any less flattering, he snaps an angle from the side in full panoramic view which shoots down my theory and leaves my self esteem waving a white flag and demanding photoshop.
To that end, I needed to look comfortably put together, cool and absolutely thrilled to be climbing 300 stairs to the top of the Arch de Triomphe, taking two trains on a warm day to Windsor Castle (cobblestones!!!), walking the ruins of Pompeii in 95 degree heat (hot cobblestones!!!) and traversing in the rain around Versailles (wet cobblestones!!!).
And now you understand why I crossed stilettos OFF the packing list FIRST.
Heat. Humidity. Hot flashes.
Italy in July. Inspiring destination. Perspiring frustration.
The only things that don’t sweat in Italy in July are those aforementioned mammals that fart rainbows. To which, I slashed my packing list of nearly everything 100% cotton. Instead, I selected lightweight fabrics that would wick moisture away. One of my fave staple items in the bag was a pair of black wrinkle-free poly blend cuff pants from Chico’s. I could vary the length on them and they looked fabulous with both sandals and my beloved combat boots. Amazingly, they breathed and kept me cool*** even in the more extreme temps.
***3 gelato servings a day didn’t hurt either.
Crepe You Need and Crepe You Don’t
Some may think of style as relative to the size of their luggage – whereby one must have different shoes each day, the perfect coordinating jewelry, and the appropriate handbag for each outfit.
I say “pack to NOT be naked and then STOP packing.”
And if naked got along better with non-naked, this article would be done. I could’ve just packed a few breath mints, a curling iron and my iPhone.
With destinations ranging from the chilly Alps to balmy Naples, I needed items that I could layer for abrupt temp changes. This was made even more evident when moving from the colder Paris streets to the Metro – always a 20 degree difference.
Aside from no high heels, I also withheld a lot of my usual girl items.
Instead of a more substantial handbag, I selected a small black cross-body zippered wallet that held my phone, cards and cash. It also had plenty of space for 4 passports (mom is always in charge of the important documents), a compact and lipstick.
It really doesn’t matter if you fly first class or coach, once you reach your destination, the pickpockets and bag grabbers don’t discriminate. It’s best to just leave your Gucci bag at home.
Rather than lug heavy accessories and jewelry, I sported weightless flag-inspired nail art that served as a focal point as well as the subject of a few concealed photos taken by those standing on the Metro – especially when Germany took the World Cup.
For my wardrobe, I began by selecting staple clothing in poly blend fabrics perfect for hand-washing and air-drying with little wrinkling. I stuck with the neutral palette, but blue was my complimenting color and I selected lightweight colorful scarves to accent.
In all, my modest carryon bag held the following:
- 5 short sleeve tops
- 3 long sleeve sweaters
- 1 raincoat
- 1 cardigan
- 1 denim jacket
- 2 pairs of wicking pants
- 1 pencil skirt
- 2 maxi dresses
- 2 camisoles
- 1 nightshirt
- 6 undies
- 2 bras
- 3 pairs of socks
- 2 pairs of sandals
- 1 pair of sneaks
- 1 pair of flats
- 3 scarves
So how did I fit all of this (along with a hairdryer and my makeup) into a 22X15 carryon?
I LOVE compression ziploc bags. Just tuck everything in, zip shut, and roll the air out of the bag. With so many hotels, I was unpacking and packing constantly. These fit the bill. Though I must note the larger bags were sometimes harder to maneuver when purging extra air. I found it easiest to put mine on a flat, sturdy surface and do my impression of a whoopie cushion. Sometimes it’s fun to just sit and let the air fly. It also helps if baby got back, if you know what I mean…
When changing destinations, I traveled in my heaviest items – combat boots, rugged rhinestone jeans, layering tee, a layering longer sweater, scarf and my fave denim jacket. The airport was the one place where my husband put his camera away, so it didn’t matter if I was wearing the same travel clothes each time.
For my actual carryon bag, an Ebags Motherlode was my weapon of choice. It could be carried multiple ways – even as a backpack. Though it was admittedly heavy when full – at about 30 pounds – it was far easier to lug than anything heavier on wheels that would’ve needed to be hand carried on trains and stairs.
And the most fabulous feature of all was when we walked right past the baggage claim in every single airport.
I also used a smaller carryon bag that fit under the seat in front of me. It also happens to be my regulator bag when we dive. I love it because it opens full like a small suitcase – no rummaging blindly for my earphones. This held all of my toiletries as well as my quart bag with 3.5 ounces of everything I needed. Trust me, you can buy anything in Europe to supplement smaller bottles of liquids. Even if it isn’t exactly what you use in the States, it won’t matter for the short time you are traveling. Think outside of your box.
Yes, Virginia. There IS a Santa….
and Laundromats in Europe
During weeks one and two, I found laundromats in or near our hotel where I could do a few loads of wash for my family. All 4 of us traveled with carryons so the wash load was substantial.
It’s a choice you have to make. Either travel heavy or do a bit of wash. You can’t have both. However, laundry time gave me a few minutes to rest between our day hikes, check email, or just chat up a local about where to dine that night.
I will admit that laundry machines in Europe aren’t cheap. It cost 10Euros each for the larger 15 kilo machines and 1Euro for every 10 minutes of drying time – on low heat machines. My total spent for two large loads was 26Euros (about $33).
One important note about the laundromats in the UK and Europe, most will provide plenty of washing machines, but the dryers are harder to come by. I was so excited that our UK flat had a combo washer/dryer unit, though it only held 5 kilos (essentially 1 pair of jeans and 3 shirts) and took around 2 hours to cycle through. After the wash cycle completed, the machine changed to dryer mode. It’s more like a centrifuge than a gentle tumble dry. I didn’t mind – my lightweight items dried fairly quickly – but my sons did NOT enjoy the callousness of air dried jeans. Their morning gripe was short-lived as we worked our way through London, with their focus changing quickly to “why isn’t there any wifi here?”
Doing laundry in Europe didn’t make me feel less on vacation. On the contrary, it made my return to simple US domestication much more magical. I only had two loads of laundry to wash when I got home and I’ve entered into a new understanding (I’ll NEVER take you for granted ever again”) with my LG large capacity dryer…
The Bad, The Worst and The FUGLY
Here’s where I expound on the negatives of my decision to go light in the luggage during our European Odyssey. There’s a few things that I would have done differently and a few things I will never do again.
- I could have packed even lighter. There were 3 shirts that I never wore and 1 pair of shoes that I really didn’t need.
- Don’t overlook packing one pair of gloves. Even in July, Paris can be downright chilly if you are operating a Vespa in a driving rain shower. Especially when the rain is driving better than you are.
- There was never any room for souvenirs, but that’s okay because there was never any cash flow left to purchase them. We did come very close to buying another sword in Germany. And there’s a funny story about buying the first sword in 1993 and carrying it through airport security in Paris…but I digress…. Suffice it to say, any souvenir bigger than your hand should be shipped directly to the States. Makes for a nice surprise when you arrive home.
- Doing laundry in a foreign machine can sometimes have a learning curve. My best advice is NOT to overload a 5 Kilo washer/dryer unit and then head off to bed for the night. It will eventually sound like someone is killing a cat in the kitchen. So much for uninterrupted replenishing sleep.
- Pharmacies and grocery stores carry everything you need, but not everything you want. Politely coerce your traveling companions into lending you some extra room in their TSA-approved quart bag for those second and third containers of the shampoo and hairspray you KNOW works. This helps if you are traveling with boys because they never carry enough personal hygiene products.
I won’t go into the details, just that there was a day when the hairspray I purchased in Germany got into a nasty fight with the hair conditioner bought in France. It was to be expected as they’ve never been the best of friends, but I never want to experience that again… EVER. (and my husband has assured me that those pictures HAVE been deleted…)
The Take Away
Pride is such a wonderful thing. The minute we touched down on home turf, I realized I had done something VERY special by going full carryon. But I did have one regret…
It happened while I was walking into the Louis Vuitton store on the Champs Elysee. I couldn’t help but feel like I was doing my own take of Pretty Woman – the moment when Julia Roberts “obviously” doesn’t belong in that Rodeo Drive boutique.
Not that I was dressed like a prostitute…but….
…it really boiled down to the fact that I was in Paris – city of glamourous people and haute couture – and there I was in LV wearing sneakers, wicking pants and drugstore sunglasses that fit neatly (with 9 other outfits of equal subtlety) into a $90 carryon. That no one rushed to help me was of no surprise.
However, there is this gem. Even in the absence of a Louis salesman fawning over me, I managed to visit 6 countries, impress with my French, drive 160 mph on the autobahn, spend quality time with my husband and children, ride Vespas through Versailles, stand where my grandparents stood in 1944 when the US liberated France, and eat a LOT of gelato, a LOT of French bread and a freakishly large number of these: