Travel Light: Packing for Europe in winter in a carry-on

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Before we left for our trip to London and Paris, I told Scott I wanted to bring only carry-on bags. He was skeptical we could do it—after all, we were going in winter and pants and sweaters take up way more space than shorts and tanks.

I spent a long time writing out packing lists and whittling it down to necessities. And when the time came to fill the suitcase, everything fit right in.

So why bother packing in a carry-on only, especially when international flights have free checked bags?

One day on the Metro in Paris, we saw a couple with two HUGE suitcases plus carry-on bags. The husband was hauling the two big bags through the crowds down a flight of stairs and the wife was juggling everything else. We took public transportation everywhere around London and Paris, which is convenient and saves a ton of money. But it definitely would have been a hassle with a lot of luggage. So unless you have a personal driver or car service that will be taking you door to door, you will be SO thankful you packed light.

Here’s a summary of what I brought:*

Packing List for Europe in Winter--Carry-on only

*The one notable exception is that I brought a pair of flats instead of walking shoes. I thought my boots would be comfortable enough to walk everywhere in. But after just two days (walking at least 8 miles) my feet were in real pain. My biggest packing mistake was not bringing sneakers. A few other tips:

  • Make a list. Don’t wing it, or you’ll end up with too much or too little of something.
  • Wear black, neutrals and solids that you can mix and match. This will help you blend in in Paris anyway, where you don’t see a lot of loud colors or prints.
  • Make sure your coat is both practical and stylish–it will be in the large majority of photos you take.
  • Since tops will usually be covered by your coat, mix up the look with different scarves.
  • Bring a small crossbody purse with a zipper compartment for your cash and credit cards. Not only will a crossbody be easier to carry around all day, it will protect against pickpockets. Just be sure to your purse is in front of you and don’t put anything valuable (like your phone) in your outer coat pocket.
  • Pack warm but non-bulky fabrics, like merino wool. For extra warmth, pack a couple tanks to layer under your shirts.
  • Instead of packing a thick guidebook, copy or take photos on your phone of the key pages you need.
  • If your trip is longer than a week, bring a bit of detergent and hand wash some items to re-wear. Or better yet, stay in an apartment rental where they have a washer and dryer. (As I recommend in this post about ways to save money on your trip.)
  • Stuff your socks into your shoes before packing them.

So how does all this stuff actually fit in a carry-on? First, wear the bulkiest clothes and shoes on the plane. For everything else, use the rolling technique. It not only makes the most of space but prevents wrinkles. Here’s a photo of how it works (this is from a beach vacation we took last year, but you get the idea). I group items into similar types (shirts in one pile, pants in another) and then tightly roll them up.

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Put the rolls into the suitcase. I use shower caps to cover the yucky bottoms of shoes and then lay the shoes on top. Then fill any empty nooks and crannies with items like scarves and underwear.

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Voila! (As they say in France.) You’ve just packed for Europe in winter in a carry-on bag. Here we are about to leave for the airport with all of our luggage. Notice how good-sized my personal item is—I was able pack my toiletries, ipad, kindle, and a small crossbody into that bag. It has a shoulder strap and can also be hooked to my roller bag.

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Along the way, we picked up a few items like jam and mustard which can’t be carried on. This is when it’s helpful to have an extender on your bag. If you need to, unzip the extender, pack in your souvenirs, and then check the bag on the way back.

I received a SwissGear bag seven years ago as a wedding gift. I’ve carried it all over the globe and it has held up so well. SwissGear is sold at Target and really reasonably priced—a great value. Here’s a similar version to my bag.

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