Europe in a Carry-On | A Marathon, Not A Sprint

Disclaimer: This is a loooong post. Just saying.

When J and I planned our honeymoon, we wanted to see Europe, but didn’t want to be bound by a strict timeline or rushed schedule. A decision was made: the best way to really enjoy our trip was to pack light. Really light. One carry-on + one personal bag.

*Spoiler Alert* It totally worked. It was AMAZING to move swiftly and deftly through Europe without the stress or weight of an enormous bag. Our three floor walkup in Luxembourg didn’t faze us. The train connection we almost missed to Bruges wasn’t death defying. We were free from stuff which left more time and energy for experiences.

Full Disclosure: This system works because you’re going to do laundry. Don’t look at me like that, you can do it. We did laundry in a laundromat where all the instructions were in Dutch and it still turned out fine. You’ll be okay. Get over it. 

After a lot of research and hours of packing and repacking, I’ve come up with something of a guide for anyone crazy inspired enough to try minimalist packing.

Step 1: Understand your wardrobe and choose your palette.

Chances are, if you really pay attention to your clothes, you tend to gravitate toward certain colors. Black, white, and olive-green basics are the foundation of my wardrobe. I punch them up with bursts of color like poppy or royal blue. It’s not a rule, but enough of my favorites fit this description that I intentionally packed those colors for our trip. Stick to a unified color palette; your clothes will match each other, meaning more outfit choices with fewer pieces.

Step 2: Consider what you really need, and shop!

Be honest about your needs. Which pieces must you bring with you? For our July trip, over-sized cardigans stayed home in favor of lightweight layers. A sweater for the plane isn’t the same as four, bulky but-what-if-it’s-chilly-at-night pieces.

Be honest about your style. While it can be fun to wear new clothes , avoid completely new styles that will make you feel uncomfortable. If you don’t love it at home, you won’t wear it on vacay.

Shopping is an optional step. If you must, try not to buy a whole new wardrobe for one trip. Stay away from clothes that wrinkle easily or that require dry cleaning as you’ll probably end up doing laundry in a hotel sink or at a laundromat.

Step 3: Assemble

Here’s what I brought to Europe:

4 dresses
2 skirts (1 stretchy pencil skirt, 1 maxi skirt/ cover-up) | 3 pants (2 crop pants, 1 jean)
7 tops (2 tee shirts, 3 sleeveless shirts, 1 tank top, 1 3/4 length sleeve blouse)
2 cardigans | 1 set pjs | 1 swimsuit | 2 camisoles

Also (but not pictured #boundaries) 2 bras | Spanx | 7 pair underwear

I opted for sandals (two pair) and flats (one pair) because they’re the most comfortable for me. We walked a lot (19,000 steps a day on average) so comfort was key.

A cross body bag just big enough for my wallet, phone, sunglasses, and the tiny journal I carried with me was the unexpected hero of the trip. It was the perfect size, an easy place to stash train tickets and city maps, and left my hands free for taking photos or holding by new husband’s hand. A huge bag isn’t worth the hassle. I got this tiny curling iron off Amazon and it was mercifully light and easy to pack but still quite powerful. A mesh zippered bag held my charging cords, outlet adapter, and a flash drive of important documents (copies of our passports, IDs, etc.).

Step 4: Pack it up

packing cubesI found these amazing packing cubes on Amazon (not affiliated, just a fan) that have revolutionized the way I pack. They compress your garments a little bit to keep everything tightly packed, but are slightly mushable to fit in your bag. You’ll get the most bang for your buck if you also get strategic with your folding.

For Pants: Fold in half and lay flat, then fold the hem toward the waistband about 3/4 of the way. Starting at the waistband, roll tightly toward the fold. The waistband is the bulkiest part of the garment so rolling it tight results in a smaller roll overall.

pants (1)

Dresses and shirts: Lay face down. Fold the sides in to the middle in thirds and fold up the hem toward the shoulders. Then roll from the fold toward the shoulders. I fold the hem up to avoid rolling the hem of garments too tightly.  Hems don’t want to lay flat when unrolled if they’re under too much strain.

Shirts fold

Sort your little rolls into groups and fit them into the cubes. Pants, skirts, and dresses went in the largest packing cube, shirts and sweaters in a medium one, and undergarments in a small cube. Of the 5-piece set, I only used 3 for this trip.

Toiletries went in the sweet “Bride” bag my matron of honor gifted me for my wedding.

Step 5: Put it all together

In the bottom layer of the suitcase, I fit the large packing cube. It took up about 3/4 of the space, so I still had enough room to slide in my shoes and cross body bag.


The second layer was my other two cubes, toiletries bag, and small objects nestled between like a brush and my curling iron.


Lastly, I used the zippered pocket inside the suitcase lid to store my swimsuit, electronics, and the limited jewelry I took.


In the front pocket of the suitcase went my bag of liquids, easy access for security lines.

Step 6: Enjoy your vacation!

That’s it! If I had to do it all over again, I could scale back by at least a dress, a top, half my toiletries, and almost all my jewelry (I barely even touched it). I never used my swimsuit or coverup since we were nowhere near the beach (oops), so those could have stayed home, too. I do wish I’d brought a lightweight rain jacket. It rained a good bit while we were in Belgium and we had to purchase umbrellas. If you’re going somewhere that rain is likely, I’d take one. Otherwise, they’re cheap to pick up from souvenir shops.

Our trip was a massive success, in large part because of our bags. I can’t say enough about it. We’ve been bitten by the bug; a week after we got home, J went on a week-long business trip and only packed a carry-on.

Look out for our honeymoon recap coming soon!


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