how to pack for a month in Europe

Gosh, doesn’t that title sound a bit pretentious?!

But, after three summers in a row of month-long jaunts across the pond, I feel I’ve FINALLY figured out the packing game.  (Not that I executed it perfectly this time, but at least there is hope for the future!)

Packing for a Month in Europe isn’t Impossible

A month-long trip anywhere (except maybe to your parents’ house!) comes with unique challenges, from the size and kind of your luggage, to how often you’ll do laundry.  Throw in a language barrier, unpredictable weather and an ambitious sight-seeing schedule, and all of a sudden packing turns into the most stressful part of the trip!

With this post, I hope to provide some insight into what should go into the bag, and what can stay home.

Here I am, halfway through the trip, loaded with bags (one of which was a souvenir purse, which came in handy for the rest of the trip, as all of my European purse purchases have).

First, a word about your bag.  Unless you’re 75 years old and/or physically unable to carry a backpack, please don’t bring anything with wheels.  In Europe, streets are often made of cobblestones and are anything but smooth; a wheeled suitcase just isn’t practical for most destinations.

Our bags (below) have been with us for ten years and seven trips.  Mine is the blue one with an interior support, Andrew’s is the larger one with an exterior frame. In addition, we bring smaller backpacks to use on a daily basis. Check out this post for my new favorite ‘daypack’ for travel.

Unfortunately, I think this summer’s trip was the last one for our bags.  We’ve finally realized they are  too big.  Even though we try not to fill them up before we leave, by the time we’ve added a few souvenirs and unpacked and re-packed them over and over, they are bursting at the seams.  They get heavy.  We walk A LOT.  We’re getting older (gasp!).

(*Edited to add: I DID get a smaller pack, which I wrote about in a post about traveling while pregnant.  I originally wrote most of this post in 2017, it got lost in my drafts, and I picked it back up in 2022.  The publish date is back-dated to reflect the original post.)

So, after meeting another couple in Bruges who pack smaller bags and ensure they’re never more than a couple days away from a washing machine (which is easy to do using Airbnb), we’ve decided to do the same. They also buy their toiletries once they arrive and simply leave the unused portions at their last lodging for the next guests to use. And, they ship their souvenirs home, which we did this year after hearing how much they liked it.

And here, without further ado, are my recommendations by category.

Guide for Packing for a Month in Europe

Europe isn’t a third-world country and stores abound in all but the smallest villages and towns.  If you forget something, it’s pretty easy to pop into a Casino or a Carrefour or a pharmacy to get what you need.  It may not be your brand at home, (or it may be!) but you’ll definitely be able to buy whatever you need.  A good guide book will include locations of laundromats, ATMs, internet cafés (becoming obsolete these days) and grocery stores, so don’t sweat it if you land and realize you forgot your deodorant.

A big part of packing is knowing your itinerary and what kind of weather to expect (not that it’s guaranteed; we’ve had cold spells in Italy and a heat wave in the Netherlands). Planning to rent bikes or do some hiking?  Bring clothes and shoes for those activities.  More art museums and cafés?  Try to blend in with the locals–this means no athletic sneakers or shorts (although these days it seems anything goes).

Clothing

Europeans are fashionable and will always look very put together no matter what they’re wearing or doing.  This is not the time for your college t-shirt and jeans; instead pick a color scheme (neutrals, black or brown, brights, etc…) and choose items that pair well together.  I was particularly proud of a trip in which I stuck to black and gray neutrals and brought a few pieces in either coral or teal and accessorized accordingly.

Also, because weather can be so unpredictable, layering is a good idea.  Make sure the pieces you bring fit and go well with your light jacket and raincoat.

Assume you’ll do laundry every 10-12 days if you’re using a laundromat, or more frequently if you have a washer in your rented apartment.  Knowing your itinerary and planning ahead will help you decide how many of each item to bring. As a general guide, plan for a fresh shirt each day (give or take, some things are easier to wear again, or you may end up sweating your rear end off on a hot day), fresh socks and underwear daily (obviously) and 3-5 different bottoms total.  Thank goodness leggings are in!  Not only are they comfortable with long tops, they’re also great for layering under skirts for added warmth.  Ladies, don’t forget a couple bras!

Will you be working out?  This summer was my first time running while on one of these trips, and I was SO GLAD I did.  The laundry situation was very manageable, so don’t let that stop you!  I’d noticed some of my workout gear was getting a little tired shortly before the trip, so instead of ditching it right then, I decided to bring it with me and DISPOSE of it along the way!  Absolute genius, I tell you.  I planned for 4 workouts per week, washed the gear once per week for the first two weeks, then slowly started throwing it away after each sweat session.  This opened up valuable room in my bag, AND came in handy after my half-marathon when I could ditch some items in a café bathroom instead of carry it around for the rest of the day.

Outerwear

The weather will surprise you, and it will definitely rain.  We tend to travel in late spring, and I’m always colder in Europe than I think I’m going to be.  I have had to layer a rain coat over a jean jacket over a long-sleeve shirt just to be warm enough!  I also made the mistake of wearing a summer skirt up into an area with high winds and it was miserable.  Bringing a couple light jackets, one of which should be a rain coat, should be sufficient.  Additionally, women, scarves do double-duty for fashion and warmth; bring a few that work well with the outfits you packed and you won’t be sorry.

Shoes

Footwear can be a little tricky, since you’ll likely be walking a ton and need something comfortable, but they take up so much room in your bag.  Europeans DO NOT wear sneakers like we do here.  Americans, generally speaking, wear sneakers almost every day.  Europeans choose their footwear with fashion, rather than function, in mind.  You’ll see men in leather loafers and women in heels walking the cobblestone streets like it’s nothing.  So, what does a tourist do? Choose a supportive ‘non-sneaker’ that is similar to a sneaker.  Does that even make sense?  Good examples include Allbirds, or Clarks.  I’ve had good experiences with both of those, including a heeled leather sandal from Clarks that I’ve taken with me on multiple trips.

You may also want to have something ‘dressier’ to wear on your feet for dinner, perhaps a leather wedge.  After being on your feet all day, it feels glorious to change shoes.  Again, don’t forget about all those cobblestone streets!

Lastly, make sure you pack the right amount of socks!  If you’re traveling in the summer and plan to wear sandals, perhaps you don’t need very many.  My favorite sandals for travel are Chacos.

Toiletries

Most Airbnbs and hotel rooms will supply hair dryers and plenty of towels; some will even have travel shampoos and soaps.  You can decide to pack your own, or purchase products once you arrive; we’ve done both.  Generally, I prefer to bring my own, and use travel-size containers for my shampoo and conditioner.  I also bring a toothbrush, lotion, hair detangler spray, body spray (I like to smell nice!) and bar soap with its own little pouch.  Purchasing a full-size tube of toothpaste to share with your travel companion is a good choice as a travel size may not be enough, depending on the length of your trip.

Women, your makeup routine should be adjusted for both space and time concerns. That being said, do what you need to to feel your best.  For some people, that’s nothing.  For others, it’s a full-face of makeup.  As I’ve gotten older, I find that while I may not use MORE makeup, I use it more frequently i.e. every day.  My travel routine includes skincare (with SPF!), foundation, eye makeup and a lip gloss.  I tend to bring one small multi-shadow kit, plus a liner and tinted eyebrow gel.  (Once you start doing your brows, you won’t go back!)

Bottom line: Just because you’re traveling light doesn’t mean you should look (or feel!) like a scrub. You’re traveling to have fun, make memories and you will TAKE PICTURES.

Miscellaneous

Can you believe that the clothes and toiletries you pack are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what goes in your bag? There are so many other little items to consider that make traveling easier. Here’s a short list of our go-to’s for trips:

-Ziploc baggies: We pack our clothes in the two-gallon size (XL), which is convenient to keep outfits or like items together.  A few in a selection of sizes is handy to stash things in your backpack, protect items from the rain, or put leftover food in.

-Eating: Obviously, bring a few snacks and a water bottle.  In addition, especially if you like picnic meals and/or shopping at markets, consider bringing a reusable plastic ‘spork’ and a wine opener.  We’ve even gone so far as to bring small plastic food storage containers (for those bright red strawberries you bought at the market but don’t want to get squashed in your bag), plastic wine glasses and fabric napkins.

-Comfort: Don’t forget the basic ones: your phone charger and a pair of head phones (for audioguides and movies on the plane)!  We also bring a pen, sunglasses, travel toilet paper (trust me, as a woman, it’s a MUST HAVE ITEM) and hand sanitizer.  If you like ear plugs or an eye mask for sleeping, be sure to bring those.  I’m a really finicky sleeper, so I bring anything I think will help me sleep in a foreign bed.  Ha! If you like essential oils, bring a couple in roller form for before bed or to calm anxiety.

-Convenience:  We’ve felt the INCONVENIENCE of closed laundromats, as well as stores that sell detergent.  Check out this post about how we had to wash our clothes in the sink–maybe add ‘clothespins’ to the list, too!  Alway carry a couple Shout wipes (for that splash of red wine on your shirt!) and either your rain coat or a tiny umbrella–getting caught in the rain is NO FUN!

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