Last Updated on June 20, 2021 by Nina Ahmedow
One of the easiest ways to travel more sustainably is to pack light. The more weight a plane carries the higher its carbon emissions are, making packing light one of the best ways individual travelers can directly impact the eco-friendliness of their flight. When you learn how to pack light for Europe you can easily adapt this to other destinations and reduce your carbon footprint. All while making your trips more comfortable.
Travel With Carry-on Only
The first step to figuring out how to pack light for Europe is to ensure that you travel with your carry-on bag only. If your bag is small enough to be stored in the overhead bin that also makes traveling a lot faster and easier. No more waiting for your checked luggage, no carrying heavy suitcases up the stairs to your accommodation in some European old town. You simply get off the plane, onto public transport, and start exploring your destination.
Note that if you’re flying within Europe some airlines like Ryanair only allow a handbag on board. If you want to bring your carry-on into the cabin you have to pay for priority boarding. Otherwise, you only have carry-on luggage but still have to wait for it at the baggage claim when you arrive.
In general, flying with carry-on luggage only is going to give you access to cheaper tickets so there’s another advantage of packing light when you travel to Europe.
And while the idea of only bringing hand luggage might stress you out trust me when I say that it can absolutely be done. And you don’t even have to sacrifice your style and fashion sense. Most of the time when people overpack it’s because they pack for eventualities that really don’t occur.
If you spend a week in Europe you probably won’t get invited to a fancy wedding so you can leave your evening gown at home. And if you’re walking around every day you want comfortable shoes, not high heels, especially if you have to walk cobblestone streets. Even if you plan on going out there are plenty of flat shoes that still look good enough for a nice bar.
In fact, the key is to find a balance with most things. Don’t bring an entire hiking outfit if you don’t plan on going hiking. Exploring European cities can be done in comfortable ballet flats so leave your sneakers at home. If you’re coming to Europe in the colder season comfortable ankle boots will probably be your best bet.
If you’re traveling to Europe for the first time you may think that you need a ton of stuff. But actually, if you’re still a bit insecure about your trip that’s the best reason to find out how to pack light for Europe. Having only one bag, knowing where it is at all times, carrying it yourself – these are things that will all make you feel more confident about your trip. And not only does this make you feel better, your confidence is a deterrent to anyone with less than good intentions.
Another thing people are often worried about are personal care items. Not being allowed to bring liquids that exceed 100ml per bottle and 1l in total makes some people panic. They check in a bag only to be able to bring their favorite shampoo. But this is completely unnecessary. First of all, many places you stay at have personal care items. But as a sustainable traveler, you should be trying to switch to solid products anyway. Shampoo and conditioner bars can go in the cabin with you, take up less space, and are usually better for the environment because they need less water.
But if all else fails you can always get whatever you need at your destination. I’ve seen bloggers recommending people bring toilet paper, tissues, and wet wipes, as if you can’t get those in Europe. While we may not have the same brands as in North America, I can guarantee you that we also take showers, wash our hair, and brush our teeth. Who knows, you might even discover a new favorite sustainable product that will also serve as a useful souvenir.
So now you want to know how to pack light for Europe if you’re only bringing a carry-on. Isn’t that going to be too little space? Not if you use a few tricks like packing cubes. I have to admit I was a bit skeptical at first, but they really make your suitcase more organized, leaving more space for things like chargers or souvenirs.
If you’re worried about running out of clothes try to find out in advance where you can do laundry on your trip. When booking accommodation you can always look for places that have a washing machine.
How to Pack Light for Europe
The smartest thing you can do actually doesn’t have much to do with how to pack but what to wear on your flight. I regularly make use of this little trick to take additional items with me that won’t fit in my carry-on. Simply layer a few clothes (it can get cold on the plane!) and take a jacket or coat so it doesn’t take up space in your luggage! Layers will also be your best friend throughout the trip if you’re traveling to different locations in Europe that have different climates.
Items like jeans can be worn more than once so if you wear a pair when you fly in and out you can still wear it a few times during your stay. But since you didn’t pack a heavy item like jeans you have saved some space.
I love dresses, but it’s not only because I find them beautiful and comfortable. In terms of packing, they’re great because you pack one item and are fully dressed.
If you usually dress up to go out to eat then fancier clothes should be included as part of your packing list. But it takes too much space to pack sportswear for the day, evening clothes for going out, and the matching shoes for each outfit. The problem of not being appropriately dressed for a restaurant really only occurs if you wear super touristy outfits (tank tops and shorts) during the day. But a casual chic outfit works for both sightseeing and drinks at a bar.
Too often I see packing lists that include things like windbreaker jackets only to also suggest cocktail dresses later on. Likewise, I see people suggesting rain jackets. It really doesn’t make sense. They take up so much space even though you can simply bring a small umbrella.
Even if you don’t pack an umbrella you’ll probably be fine. Many accommodations have umbrellas. And if you’re out and about and get caught in the rain you will see people selling umbrellas outdoors or shops that will display umbrellas prominently. They know that this is the time people want to buy umbrellas, they’ll take advantage of that.
Finally, I really don’t see the point in packing a pair of shoes in addition to the one you will wear on the plane. As long as you have a comfortable pair of flat shoes that go with all your outfits you’ll be fine. You can go dancing in flats as well. The only reason you’d need more shoes is if you plan to go hiking. Otherwise, there will be one type of shoe that can do it all.
This packing list is going to help you with your packing for Europe. Of course, the exact items you pack will depend on the weather in the places you go and the activities you plan on doing. If you plan to spend your days on the beaches and in the villages of Greek islands you will need different clothes than if you go skiing in Norway or sightseeing in the major French cities. But while the exact things you will pack will differ the idea is still the same: bringing a few items that you can mix and match to create different looks.
And don’t underestimate the power of jewelry and other accessories. These barely take up any space but can really take your outfits to another level.
Another key aspect of figuring out how to pack light for Europe is paying attention to the materials your clothes are made of. Make sure you avoid materials that wrinkle easily. So while linen is one of the least problematic fabrics in fashion it doesn’t really work well when you travel unless you will have access to an iron and don’t mind taking time out of your day to iron your linen clothes. I also wouldn’t bring clothes that are difficult to care for or wash.
What to Wear on the Plane
- top (I prefer short sleeves because you can always add a cardigan whereas a long-sleeved top can easily feel too warm in warmer temperatures)
- jacket (I prefer denim or fake leather)
- scarf or other accessories you want to bring
- sunglasses (have them in your purse)
- hand sanitizer
What to Pack
- 3 tops
- 2 bottoms
- OR: 2-3 dresses
- beach towel and bikini (or other beachwear), if needed
- gloves, hat, tights, if needed
- slippers (for your hotel room)
- outlet converters
- e-book reader (if you have time to read on vacation)
- notebook (if you journal)
- water bottle (this does take up a bit of space but it will make your trip more eco-friendly, plus you’ll save money because you won’t have to buy water as you’ll simply refill your bottle with tap water which is fine for drinking in most of Europe)
- bamboo cutlery
- power bank
- safety razor (buy blades once you arrive, I also have a post on how to shave with a safety razor)
- perfume sample (don’t carry a bigger bottle, it could also break!)
- contact lenses and solution
- makeup brushes
- menstrual products (there are different zero-waste period products though I’d say a menstrual cup is probably best for travel)
- toiletries (decant these into smaller bottles, or, depending on how much time you spend at your destination, it might make more sense to buy things after you arrive)
- ziploc bags to pack all these smaller items
- any and all documents you need
If you’re looking for an example of a packing list for a weekend city break in Europe check out my minimalist packing list for Madrid.
Let me know what you usually pack for a trip!