Below are my suggested packing list and tips for your trip to Europe (which presumably includes London!). It’s based on the assumption that you’ll be travelling in spring or autumn where the temperature is likely to fluctuate but you’re unlikely to experience extreme heat or cold. Note that this is geared towards someone who is going on a holiday for a month or two, not a long-term trip (as such, it will probably include things that many long-term travellers would consider indulgences, because they need to pack for every scenario).
NB: Note that I often review and refer to Kathmandu products because this is what we already own in many cases. We are also members of their Summit club and often get good prices through their member sales. Kathmandu can be a bit expensive at full price, so we normally do our shopping there during their end-of-year and winter sales when they often have heavy discounts.
Carry-on or Checked?
The first thing you need is a bag. When you read forums, blogs and travel websites you will repeatedly come across people who urge you travel with carry-on luggage only. There are times when this is a good idea, and times when it isn’t necessary.
When is carry-on only not necessary?
If you plan to fly to Europe (from Australia, New Zealand, the US – wherever you may live) and not use another plane until you return home, carry-on luggage only is less important. This is because, in my experience (which includes Malaysia Airlines, Oman Airlines, Vietnam Airlines, British Airways, Turkish Airlines and Atlasjet), all long-haul airlines include checked baggage in your fee. Unlike domestic or many short-haul international flights, it won’t save you money to travel carry-on only. Yes, you will need to wait for your baggage at the baggage carousel, but you probably don’t have any big plans to rush off to straight after stepping off a 15 – 30 hour flight anyway.
When is carry-on only useful?
If, however, you plan to make use of short-haul flights where you do need to pay extra for checked-in baggage, then carry-on only will save you money (and time waiting at baggage collection). Each airline can set their own carry-on size restrictions, so it’s a good idea to double-check the restrictions on your airlines before choosing a bag. However, the average restrictions are normally about 50-55cm x 35-40cm x 20-25cm, and you will normally be restricted to 7 – 10kg. Many airlines will also let you bring a smaller item on board too (eg. handbag/laptop bag sized), but not all.
Another benefit of a small bag is that it is easier to carry. Unless you are hiring a car, you will be carrying your bag between train stations, accommodation, bus stops, airports etc. You don’t want to be dragging around 20kg.
Suitcase or Backpack?
Next you have to decide what kind of luggage you want. If you are going to hire a car and won’t be carrying your bag much, a suitcase will be ok. I would always encourage a suitcase with wheels though, especially if you’re bringing (bigger, heavier) checked baggage. If you’re not driving though, I would always encourage a backpack (unless you have a bad back and this isn’t physically a good idea for you). You don’t want to be dragging suitcases (even if they have wheels) over cobblestoned streets and up staircases. I would also recommend staying away from backpacks with metal frames (ie. hiking packs) as these will make your bag heavier (eating into baggage weight allowance). Hybrid backpacks which include wheels are normally heavier than regular backpacks too, and wheels add a couple of centimetres onto the length of your pack (which takes up space in your carry-on allowance).
Type of backpack?
Backpacks generally come in two general designs – top-loading or panel (front)-loading. In short, I can’t think of any good reason why you would want to use a top-loading backpack for a trip such as this. Of course, if that is what you already own, by all means use your existing pack rather than going out and buying a new one. This advice is for people choosing a new one.
Top-loading backpacks are generally designed for hikers who are carrying their pack all day, and so have especially good weight distribution, lumbar support, shoulder and waist straps, etc. While you want a comfortable backpack for your trip, you’re not going to be carrying it six hours a day. A top-loading back is inconvenient to pack and unpack – to get to anything at the bottom, you need to pull out everything on top of it. They are also normally very tall and so often won’t fit within carry-on guidelines, when a panel-loading pack of the same volume could. Top-loading backpacks normally don’t close with a zip – they have a draw-string closure with a hood that clips over the top, which means you can’t lock your bag closed. Being able to lock your bag is a plus when you are staying in hostel dorms. There are also many panel-loading packs on the market with good straps and support systems.
Andre and I travel with Kathmandu Litehaul backpacks (I have the 38L and Andre has the 50L) and my sister travels with a 65L Black Wolf Cuba backpack, both of which we have had no problems with (although my sister admits hers is unnecessarily large). The smallest version of the Cedar Break backpack is 55L though, so you couldn’t use this as a carry-on pack. Andre’s 50L Litehaul is technically too big for carry-on, but a check-in agent once offered to let us carry it on because it was so light (we declined though, because we had packed it expecting to check it in, so it had things in it you’re not allowed to carry on). My 38L has always been allowed as carry-on.
Packing cubes are one of the best travel inventions ever. They are not cubes at all – they are more like rectangular prisms – and they allow you to pack your luggage into separate sections. This helps keep your luggage organised and makes it easier to find stuff where you packed it (because it hasn’t fallen to the bottom of your bag or become tangled in something else). It means you always know where everything is… providing you remember which packing cube you put it in! It also means if you have to get to something at the bottom of your bag, you can pull out one or two packing cubes easily to get to what is underneath, then put them straight back. They are light and thin, so the extra space and weight they take up is negligible. They are produced by many different companies and come in many different sizes. You can also buy special padded ones for breakable items (my sister uses one for her DSLR camera rather than a bulkier specialised camera bag). I pack them nice and tight which means the clothes in them don’t move which helps reduce crumpling. I highly recommend these.
Toiletries bags are something that will change depending on the stage of life you are at. If you have a couple of kids you’ll probably need a big one. If you carry your first-aid stuff in your toiletries bag you’ll need a bigger one than if you carry them separately. Whichever bag you get, you will want one with a hook or loop that you can hang up. Too many shower stalls don’t have benches in them! While sometimes the floor outside the shower is clean, and sometimes the cubicle is constructed well enough that the water doesn’t drench the floor of the whole cubicle, often this is not the case. The floor is too wet or too dirty to put your toiletries bag down. I would also recommend one that you can open while it is hanging up without everything falling out.
We currently have this one. We used to use a bigger and bulkier one, which we do still own. It’s now discontinued, but is a bit like this – ours doesn’t have the removable clear bag, and the two halves don’t each open up the whole way like these ones do- they have zippers only around the top section of each half. Because it is basically a cube when zipped up, I find it is a bit bulky and often packed it unzipped and opened flat. I thought having it arranged in two halves would make things more accessible, but it doesn’t really. We don’t need quite as much space anymore because since Andre had his eye surgery, he no longer needs contact lenses so doesn’t need to bring contact lens solution etc with him. Our new bag is only a bit smaller volume-wise, but far less bulky. Access to stuff inside is easier, when open, than our old one was.
For a single person, I think this one looks interesting, although it would depend largely on how well the middle tube section stays velcroed to the outside when it’s hanging up. You could probably get away with not using the middle tube section at all.
Right – you now have your pack, packing cubes and toiletries bag. What to put in them?? Have a look at my Packing List for ideas.