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.

Luxury for Less: 10 ways to save on a trip to London and Paris

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I’m sitting here sipping English tea and nibbling on galettes, reminiscing on the incredible vacation we had last week.

Two years ago when we went to Europe, we spent two weeks there and it cost a good deal of money. This time around, we had limited vacation days and also a limited budget. But I REALLY wanted to go to Paris, and a stop in nearby London seemed to make sense—we’d never been to either city.

We were able to make the trip work for less than $1,400 per person (including flights, train tickets, accommodations, meals, and sight-seeing costs)—for what I would say was a pretty luxurious week-long vacation in Europe. Below are a few of the tricks we used to score some great deals!

  1. Go in the off season of winter or early spring. Bonus to going in off season? Way smaller tourist crowds! I dislike cold weather and was worried about being miserable, but I was fine. It was definitely cold (in the upper 30s some days in Paris), but the key is dressing appropriately—layers under a warm coat, gloves, and scarf. Going in December is especially charming with all the Christmas decorations.
  1. Use your airline miles to book flights. Even off-season flights to Europe are running $1,300+ roundtrip, so we used our miles to save a bundle. It only took 20k miles per person, per flight, (so 80k total) to book direct flights to/from London and Paris. These discounted mileage rates are available from November through about mid-May. (Tip: Always avoid British Airways when booking with miles—they charge hundreds of dollars in fees.) Don’t have enough miles? Apply for an airline credit card that will give you bonus miles for signing up—we have one that gave us 50k just for joining, plus we earn miles on purchases.
  1. Use credit card points to help pay for hotels. Lots of cards offer travel rewards, so find one that works for you. (Preferably one without an annual fee.) We used $500 in travel rewards to book our London hotel, which was $515 total—so we only paid $15 out of pocket.
  1. Book an apartment rental instead of a hotel in Paris. This may sound more like a splurge than a save—but surprisingly, beautiful apartments in Paris rent for the same or not much more than nice hotels. Our rental worked out to about $260 night. It had a full kitchen, so we could save money on meals out—which can be very pricey in Paris. We ate at a nice restaurant once a day, and had our other meals at “home.” We found shopping in a Paris grocery store or food market to be fun and a great way to feel immersed in the culture.
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The living room of our apartment in Paris

  1. Book accommodations with free wifi. We didn’t need any pricey international plans for our phones because we always had wifi at our hotel or apartment. We survived just fine without internet access when we were out and about. (Some airports and cafes have free wifi if you’re desperate.)
  1. Use discount passes or go to the free-entry museums and sights. In London, you can spend hundreds of dollars just visiting a few museums and churches. Instead, we went to the free museums like the National Gallery and British Museum. Many of the churches (like Westminster Abbey) charge for tours—but you can attend a service, such as evensong, for free—which can be a more special experience than just a tour, anyway. In Paris, the museum pass (http://en.parismuseumpass.com/) is a great deal and covers nearly all the major sights.
Scott in front of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, on display at the National Gallery in London

Scott in front of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, on display at the National Gallery in London

  1. Take public transportation. Instead of pricey cabs or car services, we used the Underground in London and the Metro in Paris. (The key to comfortably doing this is to pack light, which I plan to talk about in another post.) We even took a public bus to the airport in Paris. I was very skeptical when my husband first suggested the bus—but it turned out to be super easy and uncrowded and probably a third of the cost of a cab.
  1. Use Rick Steves audio tours. No need to pay for guided tours or the audio tours they sell at the museums—Rick Steves audio tours are free when you download his app. These were a huge help at places like the Louvre and British Museum. (You don’t need an internet connection to play the audio once you’ve downloaded it.)
  1. Use a credit card with no international fees and get local currency from an ATM. I recommend Capital One for no foreign transaction fees (and great conversion rates). Before you leave, call your bank to find out which international banks it partners with—you can use your debit card at those ATMs to get local currency without paying an ATM fee.
  1. Research, research, research. Planning the vacation is part of the fun. We looked at dozens of hotels and apartments before booking. Great values are out there, you just have to find them—so try not to get your heart set on a particular place before thoroughly researching all options. Use TripAdvisor and other review sites to make sure what you’re booking isn’t just cheap—it’s a value.

Bonus Tip: Don’t go into debt to pay for a vacation. There’s no point in getting a great deal only to end up paying a ton of credit card interest.

A note on when to splurge
Our general spending philosophy—not just for travel but in life—is save ruthlessly on the things that matter least, and splurge on what you love. Friends and family sometimes will look at us strangely when we talk about our latest luxurious vacation—then see us clipping coupons and unplugging appliances to save on the electric bill. But we’d rather scrimp on things like groceries on utilities and spend the difference on what we love—like traveling. Here are a couple things we splurged on this trip:

Afternoon tea in London. I was so excited to have a traditional English tea. I tried and tried to find an inexpensive place to go, but couldn’t find one that didn’t sacrifice the experience. So we booked an elegant afternoon tea at the Wolseley for about $75.

Apartment with a view of the Eiffel Tower. We could have found a cheaper apartment rental, but to have the Eiffel Tower sparkling out the kitchen window while making dinner? That was priceless.

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Kitchen with a view of the Eiffel Tower

If we’d had the time, we could have easily extended our trip to 10 or 14 days. A week definitely only gives you a taste of these two great cities. (But now we have a reason to go back!)

Traveling is so personal based on your own tastes and preferences, but hopefully a few of these tips help. I know I learned a lot by reading others’ experiences—I’d love to hear what YOU saved/splurged on in Europe!

Sightseeing in Santa Barbara

For seven years in a row, I’ve traveled to Santa Barbara for a conference I plan there for work.  It’s such a beautiful, unique place. Despite visiting so many times, I rarely have time to explore and enjoy the city. This year my event happened to fall on Columbus Day weekend, so Scott flew up Friday night and we stayed through Monday. The weather was perfect and after a stressful couple weeks, it was nice to enjoy California wine and food, get some pool time in, and take in Santa Barbara’s beautiful vistas.

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Every year I stay at the Harbor View Inn, located right on State Street and across the street from the beach and pier. It’s hard to beat the location, and the hotel itself has that unique Spanish/Santa Barbara feel. The rooms are spacious and have patios or balconies with great views.  And after seven years, I FINALLY had time to enjoy the heated pool and hot tub at the hotel.

Here’s a few snaps of the hotel, located right at the corner of State and Cabrillo.

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This little canal runs through the hotel property.

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Sun-drenched patio surrounded by palm trees? Yes please!

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On Sundays, dozens of local artists set up shop along Cabrillo Boulevard as part of the Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show. You can find everything from paintings to pottery to jewelry. Last year I bought a necklace/earring set from a vendor named Sylvie Terrell. I’ve gotten so many compliments on it that I bought another necklace from her this year.

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One of my favorite things to do in Santa Barbara is just stroll State Street with all its cute cafes and shops. This year I finally made it far enough up State to see the historic Santa Barbara Courthouse. We went up the observation tower for the best views of Santa Barbara.

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I have to throw in a pic of this flower shop we stumbled across. It made me feel like we’d stepped back in time. I love the pink exterior and retro sign.

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We couldn’t go to California without enjoying some great wine, so we stopped by AVA Santa Barbara, one of the many tasting rooms on the Urban Wine Trail. It was $10 for five pretty generous tastings. Here’s a link to all the wineries in the area: urbanwinetrailsb.com/wineries/.

Of course we had a lot of great meals as well while we were there. Below are some of my favorites in downtown SB, combined from years past.

Jane
1311 State Street
http://janerestaurantsb.com/
Five start restaurant with prices that aren’t outrageous. Try the Sangria and save room for the to-die-for coconut cake.
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Sambo’s
216 Cabrillo Boulevard
www.thxforvisiting.us
Casual breakfast spot across from the beach with generous portions—try the pancakes!

Eladio’s
28 W. Cabrillo Boulevard
www.harborviewinnsb.com/default.aspx?pg=eladios
Normally I’m not a huge fan of hotel restaurants, but Eladio’s is surprisingly tasty and has gorgeous views of the ocean and pier. They also have some good happy hour specials.

Carlito’s
1324 State Street
www.carlitos.com
Mexican food with a nice outdoor seating area on upper State.You can see below the generous portions!
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Casa Blanca
330 State Street
http://casablancasb.com/
Good Mexican food at reasonable prices.

Natural Café
508 State Street
http://thenaturalcafe.com/
I love this place for a quick, cheap lunch with lots of vegetarian options!

Enterprise Fish
225 State Street
www.enterprisefishco.com/santabarbara/
The grilled artichoke appetizer was so delish I’ve been replicating it at home for the past couple years.

Mony’s Mexican
http://www.yelp.com/biz/monys-mexican-food-santa-barbara
Mony’s is the definition of a hole-in-the-wall, but just read the yelp reviews to see that they serve the best tacos in town. They’re only open until 4:30p though and closed on Sunday (which we learned the hard way).

Tomorrow I’m going to post about a really special place we visited while in SB!