I have taken several trips to Europe, lasting from two weeks to six weeks (and in between!) and used only carry on luggage. Get my tips on how to easily pack for Europe using only a carry on bag!
How to pack for two weeks in Europe using only carry-on luggage. Hubby and I packed for 17 days in Europe using only a carry-on bag each. This is how we packed for our 17-day trip, and how you can easily do carry-on only luggage to Europe too! We went to Italy, which was very warm (80° – 85°F), and France, which was very cool (42° – 60°F). Below is the updates on how I have used carry on only for a five week trip (PLUS a transatlantic cruise), and a six week trip!
How to Pack for Europe Using Only a Carry On Bag
When Hubby and I first started planning this trip in early April, Hubby suggested we go with carry-on only luggage as he felt it would give us maximum flexibility in case of plane snafus, and prevent any lost luggage issues. It would also make it easier for us to walk from a train station to our hotel.
Well, I nearly fell down I was laughing so hard at the very idea! “Me!? Using only a carry-on!? Surely you jest.”
And then I got to thinking about it and how much easier it would make our trip since we planned on stops in four cities.
After due consideration, and making no firm promises, I decided to give it a go. If I couldn’t fit everything I wanted to take in a carry-on, I reserved the right to bail on the idea.
The first thing we did was research the airline carry-on luggage restrictions. We had a Delta flight out of the United States, and an Air France flight out of France (they are partners). The size restrictions for each airline were very different. As of this writing, Air France has more restrictive carry-on luggage sizes and Delta’s international carry-on requirements are pretty liberal. However, Hubby did a little more research and discovered the plane metal (who actually owned the aircraft and had their logo on it) on all legs was Delta.
We ordered a number of suitcases as I had nothing that would work, and Hubby only has one that was “close”, but if something happened and the metal changed, there was no way he could carry on. I think Hubby returned them all. After a lot of research and finding the one I ultimately chose and only ordered the suitcase, I took on the trip. Hubby ordered at least four suitcases.
We flew business class, so for us, weight was not an issue. If our stuff fit in our bag, no one cared what it weighed. (When we got rebooked due to a flight snafu, we flew Alitalia. When we got our carry-on tags from Alitalia, they actually weighed the carry-on bag. We both exceeded the Alitalia carry-on weight limits, me by quite a bit. The clerk looked at us and said, “It is ok in business class you have leeway.” YMMV of course, but it may have to do with the class of our ticket.) In coach, the weight could be an issue (people in the Alitalia non-priority lines were taking things out of carry-on luggage that was flying coach) so it is best to check the guidelines for your carrier, and pack accordingly.
We ended up with these two suitcases:
● Delsey Luggage Helium Aero International Carry On Expandable Spinner Trolley (in blue)
● Dimensions: 19″ x 13″ x 9.5″
● Weight: 8 lbs, 3 oz
● This has an expansion zipper that could open it another inch up if necessary.
● I placed my iPad in the front which has a zipper opening so I could access it easily (I loaded a lot of eBooks on it before leaving so I’d have plenty to read while traveling).
● Delsey Luggage Helium Hyperlite Carry-On Expandable 2 Wheel Trolley
Product Dimensions: 9 x 20.5 x 14 inches
● Weight: 7 pounds
● This has a 2″ expansion zipper
● Hubby ended up placing his laptop in the front to take the weight off his shoulder laptop bag when we traveled by train.
I purchased the hard case. My bag is a bit smaller than the one Hubby chose, but the hard shell should make it a bit more durable. I went with the spinner wheels, and Hubby worried they might be a challenge on the cobblestone streets in Europe. They actually were not, and on a smooth surface, they were a lot better than two wheels.
Hubby chose the soft-sided suitcase. It is a bit larger than the one I took and has two wheels. He slipped his laptop bag sleeve over the luggage handle and had no issues whatsoever on the cobblestone streets or on smooth streets.
We looked at a LOT of luggage, and actually decided independently of one another which bag to buy. It is pure coincidence that they were both the Delsey brand. We are in the habit of buying Briggs & Riley as their durability and warranty are unmatched, but they didn’t have anything small enough that would work for us.
Now as I had said, I made no promises to Hubby about the one carry-on bag. I knew I also got a personal bag (like a laptop bag, camera bag, or purse), so I felt that if I fit all my clothing in the carry-on, I had a chance to make it with the personal bag.
This was my personal bag:
● Pacsafe Citysafe LS400
● Product Dimensions: 18.8 x 12.5 x 4.9 inches
● Weight: 1.8 pounds
I needed something for my camera. I ended up using this as my camera bag/purse. I wanted something secure, and this bag is anti-theft. There is a cable that goes through the cross-body strap. It is cut-resistant. It has hooks on the zipper. Inside it has more pockets than you have ever seen in your life!! Some may feel I went overboard on the anti-theft, but the size was right, and once I pulled out the padding from my camera bag and wrapped my camera and lens to go into this bag, the camera fits well. I was able to put in my 3-1-1 baggie, my make-up, and my personal papers too. This bag was loaded with room, safety features, and pockets. Not to pat myself on the back, but this was an excellent choice for my requirements!
In my suitcase, I packed:
8 pair of socks
1 straightener (travel size that could handle to 220V of Europe with an adapter)
1 compact umbrella
Some personal items like deodorant, a small sewing kit, and a few other random bobs and bits
1 shawl (OMG I was so glad I had this in Paris!)
Also, all of my clothes were interchangeable (including what I wore to travel). By that, I mean every shirt I brought could be worn with every pair of pants I brought. I had 3 pairs of black slacks (1 summer weight, 2 medium weight) and 1 pair of jeans. This included what I wore on the plane (medium weight, nonrestrictive).
And I had plenty of room leftover in that suitcase! When we were in Europe, I ended up buying a large purse and stowed it in the suitcase easily.
To pack, I laid all my shirts flat one on top of the other in a stack and then folded them in thirds. It was nice and compact, but nothing wrinkled!
I did the same for my black slacks and jeans! I ended up having room leftover using this method!
I chose to bring the clothing that I did while knowing that in Paris we had access to a washing machine. I wanted to be able to get to Paris without doing a lick of laundry. Alas, it was so darned hot in Italy, that didn’t happen. In Florence, I sent out my jeans (let NO ONE kid you – jeans are worn all over Italy and France! I wore my jeans 9 out of 17 days!) and two summer-weight shirts to dry cleaning.
Hubby and I took the gamble of only wearing one pair of shoes, and not bringing a second pair. Since we decided to do this, I spent a LOT of time trying to locate the best walking shoes I could possibly find. I ended up ordering the Munro American Women’s Traveler Slip-On. I messed around with three different orders in various lengths and widths, and then ended up finding a pair of Aravon Faith Shoes (by new balance) in the back of my closet!! I kept the Munro American Women’s Traveler Slip-On because they are comfy, but those Aravon Faith Shoes were excellent. They went with jeans, black pants you name it! I did make an effort to break them in before we left as I wanted to be absolutely certain they were comfortable, and would not pinch or hurt my feet. They did not.
Hubby decided to go a different route with his pack job.
2 polo shirts
3 light long sleeve
4 white undershirts
2 colored t-shirts (that could be an undershirt or by itself)
4 pair socks
Clothesline, cloths pins and laundry soap packets
collapsible suitcase (which we never used)
my spare camera lens in a case.
That was what he packed in his carry-on bag. In his personal carry-on, he packed his laptop, toiletry bag, electronics bag (we had cell phones that worked in Europe as well as European electrical adapters), and computer.
Hubby packed only hand-washable wicking clothing. He did laundry every few days and waited for his stuff to dry.
He also wore a security vest the entire trip. This kept all our paperwork together and kept his hands free. Security vests were a VERY popular tourist item. We saw them all over Italy. We did not see them in Paris.
Hubby packed his clothing together for each day in a bundle, having a few shirts leftover.
He then laid his slacks on top of one another, the shirts, put his bundle of clothes in the middle of it and then folded around the middle.
He had tons of room leftover in his suitcase since he took half the clothing I did, but his method only works if you are willing to do your laundry by hand in the hotel room (I was not willing), take the time to find a laundromat (I was not willing), or paid for dry cleaning (which I did in a pinch, but he couldn’t as he had wicking clothing).
Hubby and I were both very pleased with our pack jobs. I wore everything except one pair of slacks and one shirt. I just didn’t need them. The jeans helped though as I re-wore them several times before washing. If I had not brought a pair of jeans I would have had to have dry cleaned more often.
I was skeptical at first whether or not I could get through 17 days in Europe using only a carry-on. If you could see me pack for a cruise (big suitcase, garment bag, purse and computer bag), you would understand my doubts. However, after having done it, I sincerely doubt we will ever go to Europe any other way.
When our plane issues arose, it was simple for Hubby and me to reschedule our flight after we deplaned and to move up a flight instead of incurring a long wait in the airport terminal. We didn’t have checked luggage to worry about, so everything was smoother. We were easily able to walk from the train station to our hotel in Sorrento and in Florence. Our trip from Florence to Paris meant we needed to take a local train, get on a train in Florence to Milan, then we took a train from Milan to Lausanne Switzerland where we caught our connection to Paris. All of this was done with ease since we were not struggling with luggage.
I highly recommend not over-packing and giving a carry-on only suitcase a try on your next trip to Europe, or anywhere really! I am definitely glad we did it.
Edited to add (10/24/19):
Hubby and I just got back from SIX weeks in Italy where we only used carry-on luggage. When we told people, most of the male reaction was “smart!” and most of the women were aghast! “HOW can you only use carry-on!?”
Honestly? It was pretty easy. My bag this time was a little different as I packed more bras, more shirts (we were going from hot to cold), and I bought a travel camera (the Canon PowerShot) instead of packing my big camera and lenses.
Since we were gone for six weeks, we of course, needed to do laundry. I purchased some laundry detergent sheets They worked very well, were lightweight, and were fabric softening too. We did find laundry sheets on display in several grocery stores in Italy. I am not sure if I would chance it, but it is possible.
The one thing I am not certain I would do again is not bring a second pair of sturdy footwear for this long a period (six weeks versus two weeks). Folded ballet flats are all well and good for going out, but Hubby had me walking between 5 and 10 MILES per day (average was 7.5 miles), and one pair of sneakers got a tad rough.
I did have enough extra space to purchase several summer weight shirts and a summer weight slacks (the temperatures were running 10-15 degrees above normal in September!).
Where did we go in Italy? Turin, Rapallo, Florence, Sorrento, Sicily (Palermo and Taormina), Rome, Venice, Verona, and Bologna. Some stops were for 5-6 days, some only 3 days. Having carry-on only made train travel easy. It also made life VERY easy in Venice (no cars, no bikes, you are walking and moving your suitcases up and down a million stair bridges).
We next go back to Europe in February and March (Spain this time). Since we are staying in the same place for five weeks, I was thinking about taking a larger suitcase, but we are also taking a side trip to Morroco so once again, I’d like the ease of a small suitcase (I weighed in at under 25#s this time!). It will be carry-on only again for me!
Edited to add (11/17/22):
Hubby and I just got back from five weeks in Italy, PLUS a two week transatlantic trip home. The reactions on the cruise ship home were interesting – a number of people did the same thing! However, when they found out we had boarded with only carry-on after five weeks in Italy, that produced some stunned reactions.
I changed my suitcase for this trip wanting a lighter casing. I went with this Sherpani Meridian, 22 Inch Travel Hardside Luggage. When checking out the Delta website for carry on luggage size I found that business class allowed up to a 22″ case. I wanted to take advantage of that, so purchased this piece.
We also a packed a folded piece of luggage in case we needed it.
We decided in Rome to purchase four bottles of wine to bring onto the cruise ship (Celebrity allows two bottles per person). While they would have waived the corkage fees due to our beverage package, we were also given several openers on the wine tours we took, so why not take advantage of nine sea days with a nice bottle of wine?
So, Hubby wrapped a jacket and my sweater around the bottles so they wouldn’t clink, took the candy and cookies he had not finished, and packed the bag.
Honestly? If not for the wine we would not have used it, but we figured we had it, so why not use it? It slipped over the handle of my suitcase and I walked on board ship with it. To go home, we simply refolded it and stuck it back in my suitcase.
I used a pac-safe bag crossbody for my purse, but only used my camera phone this time as it was a food and wine trip, and that was good enough for those photos.
This time, we wore sneakers and I brought a second pair of shoes. I knew I would want them on the cruise ship at the very least, and I did.
In 2015 when we were in Italy no one wore sneakers, it was all shoes. In 2019 when we went to Italy, it was 50-50 sneakers and shoes. This time? Hubby and I decided to wear black sneakers just in case it went back to more shoe wearers (so we didn’t look out of place), but I would say it was 95-5 sneaker wearer to shoe wearer ratio! Even in Rome people mostly wore sneakers. Granted, we did not go to Milan, but if you are worried about looking out of place with sneakers in Italy, worry no more. Only in Sorrento and Sicily where it was beachy and touristy did we see non-sneakers, and those were sandals on women.
For shampoo and conditioner, we had an order waiting for us at an Amazon locker in Verona (our first stop). However, when I tried to reorder in Italy we could not… they locked out accounts for possible fraud as we did not have access to the text phone number attached to the Amazon account for two-factor authentication in Europe. If you decide to place an Amazon order while in Europe, make sure you have access to your text messages to confirm it is really you ordering. We had no problems with the account once we got home, and since my iPad was already signed into the Amazon account for books that was fine (I couldn’t place an Italian order though!) All it meant is we had to find a store and a hair salon for goods instead of having that Amazon order waiting in the next town.
As we have done this more and more, we have gotten better and better at folding, the method that works for us (Hubby and I do it completely different; there is no wrong way!) The important things to do is PLAN what you are going to wear and make sure every top matches every bottom (and vice versa *smile*). Make certain you have access to a washer and dryer (pack laundry detergent sheets so you don’t have to lug detergent!) or be prepared to find a laundromat where you are traveling. This time, all our BnBs had a washer, but we had a hotel in Sicily and dropped off the clothes in the morning at a laundromat and picked them back up in the afternoon. There were no self-serve laundromats we could find in the town, so we paid up a little, but we also gained time not having to wash and dry our clothes.
The other thing we do is ship home most souvenirs. This trip we shipped home wine and artwork. I bought a small fabric purse in Majorca, and we did have a stop in the Bahamas when I bought a small fan and change purse at the Straw Market. These all fit in the carry on as they were small or flat.
Where did we go in Italy? Verona, Florence, Sorrento, Sicily (Siracusa), Rome. All the stops were for at least six days (Sorrento), the longest we stayed in one place was Florence (nine days).
Our next few trips are cruises where we can bring on large suitcases if we like. Honestly though? The walk-off with carry on was so smooth and easy that I doubt I will do much more than the next size up suitcase. Once I learned how to pack lightly, it is difficult to go back to packing extras.
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