France Italy Mediterranean Travel

Three Weeks in Europe with Carry-Ons

August 13, 2015

Today by popular request I’ve compiled a list of what I brought with me on my Europe trip in carry-on form. It’s been over a month since I’ve been back home from our three week trip – sorry it’s taken me so long to publish this post – it took me a while to figure out how to photograph and edit everything. I’m still missing Europe very much and it took me a while to get adjusted back to reality. I hope to go back again very soon.

To recap, my husband and I spent three weeks traveling through Europe. We traveled to 9 cities via 7 flights and one 7 day cruise. It was my husband’s decision that we travel with carry-ons only. His logic behind this decision was based on a number of things: we would avoid long lines at airport check-in, we’d save time from having to wait at baggage claim, we wouldn’t have to worry about lugging heavy suitcases around Europe, and we could try to look less touristy. I had no intention in participating and had plans to pack regular suitcases like normal people do. However after doing a lot of research on airline reviews (there are so many horror stories about bad experiences) I decided to make it work with carry-on bags.

I’ve traveled with carry-on suitcases that fit US Airline standards but European Airlines have different dimension restrictions on luggage. All the options in the US are larger than what European Airlines list as acceptable. I didn’t want to risk it so we decided to go the backpack route. My husband helped research travel backpacks and day packs. He picked out this Pacsafe Venturesafe 45L GII Backpack. It worked to fit all of his clothes, flip flops, and laptop. He’s over 6 feet tall and it worked for him, but I’m 5’3″ so this one didn’t work for me. We looked for one a bit smaller and I opted for the Ultimatesafe 22L version. This combined with my Tumi Voyageur Tote (mine is an old model, current ones here) is what I brought with me on our trip.

These two bags fit all my clothes and makeup. For reference, my two other packing posts for this three-week trip below (note my husband carried his own products in his own bag):

Left backpack fit clothes, flipflops and one makeup pouch
Right tote fit my laptop, electronics cables/cords and earphones + liquids

Inside each of my bags shown above, I used several things to organize and compact my items. If you order items directly from J.Brand they will send denim and tees packed in these nifty black pouches (shown on the far left). I’ve kept them from previous orders and brought 2 of them with me to keep tops in one and jeans in another. I know people usually say roll your clothes. I think it works with regular rectangular shaped suitcases. I found flat packing to be better for me, but there’s really no right or wrong. We also used a number of the Eagle Creek Packing Cubes. I brought three: one small one for electronics, one for clothes, one for small items such as socks, underwear and swimsuits. (My husband brought and packed the Translucent Specter Pack-It Cubes).

Another item I packed was the Eagle Creek RFID-Blocking Undercover Money Belt. I only used this a few days when we did sight-seeing activities where we wanted to be hands free. We used a number of Muji Clear Pouches (featured in this post here) that we found really handy. It kept things organized and easy to find.

Many have asked for a very specific list of everything I brought with me. I’ve split it up into categories to help make things easy to view. First up include electronic devices. I brought multiples of some items since both my husband and I had our phones, laptops and one iPad. For our flight I splurged on the Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones. They were well worth the high price. These make a world of difference and are really great for long flights. I brought one Tumi USB Travel Adapter and several Apple plugs, cords and the World Travel Adapter. For charging I had one for my camera. These Mophie Powerstation Chargers are lifesavers. I brought two and it was definitely worth bringing both of them on our trip. I use them in everyday life too. Having an extra one charged up in my purse is great for times I have super low battery. I kept most of our electronic plugs and cords stored in the smallest size of the Eagle Creek Black Pack Cubes.

Onto the clothes I packed. We spent our first week in Paris and second week in Rome, but my mind was set on our cruise through Greece. Here are the clothes I packed. Most items were thin in material and I’m petite so it was relatively easy to keep everything compact to fit into my backpack. Keep in mind I had one outfit on at all times, so everything pictured below minus one outfit was what was packed in my carry-on.

The tanks and tees worked really well for warm hot weather. The ones I brought were lightweight in material so they folded up easily and didn’t take up a lot of space. I brought two casual dresses with me. In hindsight we both should have brought at least one nice outfit but we kept thinking our vacation would be a relaxing trip. Also if we needed something more formal, we could just buy something in Paris or Rome. Due to the limited luggage space we didn’t buy any clothes. We had to pass on several restaurants we wanted to go to because we didn’t have anything formal enough. In the end though we had a really good time and had lots of fun so it didn’t matter. Next time we know to pack differently.

J.Crew Drapey Sleeveless Tee (Black, Pale Silver and Heather Sky)
J.Brand Natasha Tank (grey, second from left)
J.Brand Coronado Tank (fifth from left)
Banana Republic Tank (green)
Zara Low-Back Floral Dress
I brought two sweaters with me and two long-sleeved tees. One tee I threw away on the trip as well because I ripped it and it was beyond saving. J.Crew makes the best long-sleeve tees I’ve tried, they have lots of colors and I like the stripe ones. One soft cardigan was packed on day trips for places I needed to have shoulders covered. In the hot summer heat there were days I would have died if I wore long-sleeves the entire day so having a light weight sweater rolled up in my purse was a lifesaver. I packed one jacket which worked well throughout the trip.

J.Crew Boatneck Stripe Tee (old style, similar here)
Banana Republic White Woven Moto Jacket (in-store only)
For bottoms, I could have skipped one pair of jeans (probably would have left the white ones at home). Having four pairs of shorts was definitely good for me. I packed one skirt to wear out at night with any of the tops shown above and one pair of yoga shorts to sleep in.

J.Crew 3″ Chino Shorts (white, tan and grey)
J.Brand Cropped Rail (white denim)
Miscellaneous items include three swimsuits (I could have been fine with two), 1 pair of flip flops and 1 pair of sneakers. Many asked if I thought bringing the Pumas over Nikes was a good idea. Let me first say that I usually hate sneakers. I’m a flats or sandals kind of person, but I needed a good pair of walking shoes for our trip. The Pumas worked really well – they did take 2-3 days to break in. After wearing them for 3 weeks walking hundreds of miles, I have to say that I do like them and give them a thumbs up. If I were to do it over again though, I would have brought Nike sneakers instead. In my experience they just feel a lot better.

For an everyday tote, having something with fully closed zipper at the top was essential. I didn’t have to worry about pick pockets. A simple canvas material is also non-flashy and doesn’t draw unnecessary attention. I opted for the shoulder version which worked just fine. It’s small enough to fit my petite 5’3″ frame but large enough to hold my camera, wallet, water bottle, sweater and then some. Cross-body bags might be a good option if you have a very compact camera. I found it difficult to find one suitable for all my needs so the tote was the next best thing for me.

1 Pair of Flipflops (Havaina Flip Flops shown above, I actually brought a pair of Tory Burch with me, but they were ruined by the end of our trip so I threw them away while we were on our cruise)

I didn’t photograph my socks or underwear but I did bring enough for 10 days worth of wear. In our three weeks away, we did our laundry four times. Twice we hand washed items in our hotel sink. The other two times we had laundry service on our cruise ship. Ideally we could have done laundry once or twice but it was so hot there were
days we went back to our hotel to change mid-day so we went through
clothes quickly.
We made the carry-ons work. I brought one backpack and one tote. My husband brought one backpack. After our first week in Paris we decided to buy one Longchamp Expandable Tote to carry souvenirs and disperse some clothes so they weren’t all squished. It was the largest carry-on tote we could find at a relatively affordable price. The sales rep who helped us said he knew for a fact all European airlines would consider this acceptable so we bought it. I like it because you can unzip it around the middle to expand it. It comes with a large over the detatchable shoulder strap. My husband on the other hand hates it. He prefers bags that have some support, structure or decent pockets. This one is just an open nylon tote. It’s very sturdy and durable but it has no shape so you can fold it and put it away easily.

If we could go back in time and do it all over again there is not much we would change given our itinerary. We had a lot of stops and quite a few flights. I can’t tell you how relieved we were at the airport when we were able to skip lines to check and weigh bags. Most airlines have weight restrictions but as long as your bag doesn’t look heavy we found most didn’t weigh our carry ons. My backpack at the heaviest was 17.3 pounds (most weight limits were around 19-20 pounds). It was a bit challenging but it’s definitely do-able. We would have definitely packed 1-2 nicer outfits. I would have brought one nice pair of shoes. To make room for those I could have skipped a lot of the beauty or skincare items I packed. Paris has so much to offer, I could have relied on pharmacy minis for the entire trip.
Our next trip to Europe will consist of fewer destinations so we will definitely be taking regular suitcases. It was all our flights and stops that made us decide to do carry-ons only. Had we planned to stop in 2-3 places, suitcases would have been the way to go.

I hope you found this post helpful! I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to travel. I know many who travel with carry-ons only all the time and they make it work.

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  • Anonymous August 13, 2015 at 10:04 pm

    Thank you! Great post! I'm leaving for Greece in about a month and we are only taking backpack suitcases. Great advice. Cheers! Cherie

    • Sabrina August 13, 2015 at 11:16 pm

      Awesome! I'm really excited for your trip!! Greece is beautiful πŸ™‚

  • Anonymous August 13, 2015 at 10:10 pm

    So organized. Then to write a blog about it.
    I would stick the item into my luggage whichever corner could fit.
    How you manage to bring all the cosmetics back with you? I mean you must had some room for those goodies before you left. Wish I was organized.

    • Sabrina August 13, 2015 at 11:14 pm

      With my 2 bags, I had no room for our Europe purchases which is why we bought the extra Longchamp Expandable tote. After that we each had 2 carry on bags πŸ™‚

  • lipsticksanddreams August 13, 2015 at 10:34 pm

    Great post! I have no idea how did you manage to fit all this in carry ons, I'm amazed πŸ˜€ I'm wondering, did you manage to take that SPF thats in the picture with you? Looks like more than the allowed <100ml bottle.

    • Sabrina August 13, 2015 at 11:16 pm

      The sunscreen spray is larger than the liquid limit but it was purchased in Greece the day we left for our cruise so we didn't have to worry about getting it through security. By the time we left to fly back it was about 80% used up so my husband decided to stick it in between his clothes in his backpack. Nobody hassled us about it.

  • Monika RocailleWrites August 13, 2015 at 11:55 pm

    Fantastic and very detailed post, Sabrina. I'm leaving for Tuscany in a couple weeks, and while I'm bringing checked luggage, I bought a slightly smaller suitcase recently and was worried about fitting everything in. But seeing how you were able to do just carry-ons for three weeks made me assured packing my suitcase should be a piece of cake!

    • Sabrina August 14, 2015 at 11:45 pm

      Oooh your trip to Tuscany sounds amazing! Good luck with your packing!

  • nueyork August 14, 2015 at 1:17 am

    Going away for three weeks with just a carry on seems crazy to me, but you managed to use your space so efficiently! This is such a great guide for anyone who might be doing the same thing. x

    • Sabrina August 14, 2015 at 11:46 pm

      It is crazy! I don't think I would ever do it again lol.

  • Zeynep August 14, 2015 at 2:10 am

    Wow this post has really made me feel like a ridiculous over-packer! For a business trip to Boston in May, I took a huge clam shell suitcase and will likely do the same for a trip to Orange County next month. This was a great post and has inspired me to try to pack a little lighter in the future. It seems as though both you and your husband really put a lot of time into thinking your trip through and preparation. Excellent post!

    • Sabrina August 14, 2015 at 11:48 pm

      Glad you liked the post! I'm an overpacker by nature lol.

  • Jess August 14, 2015 at 2:16 am

    This was really interesting and informative, and it must have taken a long time to put together, so thank you, Sabrina! You've listed some really interesting travel products. I love packing efficiently, but liquids and gels tend to be the thing that prevents me from traveling with a carry-on, but you've inspired me to work harder at it.:) I don't know if you've already got good suitcases, but I have a Briggs & Riley one and I love it. The bottom is flat unlike most suitcases, because the tubes for the retractable handle are on the outside of the bag, not the inside. The have a lifetime warranty and the bag itself has a bar code which serves as proof of purchase, so there's no receipt to keep track of. I highly recommend if you're looking.:)

    • Sabrina August 14, 2015 at 11:49 pm

      The liquids rule is so ridiculous, I really wish they would do away with it! Thanks for the suitcase recommendation! We have a few Tumi ones that have held up a long time but I'll definitely check out the Briggs and Riley ones πŸ™‚

  • Emma August 14, 2015 at 2:34 am

    You are well organized dear. I am going on a weekend vacay this weekend and until now I still cannot decide on what clothes to bring. Now I have an idea…. Hope you have fun and enjoy!!!

  • Maria August 14, 2015 at 3:20 am

    Wow, well done post and packing! Keeping this for reference when I travel


  • Melissa A August 14, 2015 at 4:40 am

    What a brave soul! Great post!

    • Sabrina August 14, 2015 at 11:49 pm

      Thanks Melissa!

  • Anne August 14, 2015 at 8:56 am

    If I may, a French woman little piece of advice about "nice" outfit: just take a very basic black or navy dress that you can wear both casual during the day visits and more fancy at night, nice ballerina flats (my go to are Repetto in black patent, perfect to dress up anything!) and a statement piece of jewelry (a cuff or necklace). I would wear the dress with flip flop or sneakers in the day, without jewels, and change shoes, add jewels for the evening.
    I usually go to fancy parisian restaurants in jeans and black tee, I just make sure I have nice shoes, a nice cuff and small cute purse, and that's enough. Oh, and red lips. Always does the trick! πŸ˜‰

    I love the way you travelled, I find this brilliant, I'm going to save your posts for my next long trip and try to do the same. I hate having to wait for my luggage and always fear it didn't follow properly.

    Have a lovely day β™₯

    • Sabrina August 14, 2015 at 11:50 pm

      Thank you Anne! Such good tips πŸ™‚ I felt like my sneakers were out of place in Paris though!

  • Rachel August 14, 2015 at 9:19 am

    This is so comprehensive! Thanks so much for sharing.

    Rachel |

  • Someone who loves her name, you could tell me Sel. August 14, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Oh, that organizations skills! hahaha I hope I were like you xx

  • Eileen August 14, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    What a monumental post, Sabrina! πŸ™‚ Packing for such a multi-destination trip can be a real exercise in editing and self-control, but you and your husband pulled it off brilliantly. Bravo! I especially enjoyed that you mentioned your husband's preferences as well as yours, and that you mentioned what you'd do differently next time. I've thoroughly enjoyed all these glimpses into your vacation.

    • Sabrina August 14, 2015 at 11:50 pm

      Thank you Eileen πŸ™‚

  • Cynthia August 14, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    Great post, Sabrina. Impressive packing for a 3-week trip! I am guilty of chronically overpacking for any trip longer than 24 hours. Your ability to simplify is inspiring and I will try to keep this philosophy in mind for all my future travels.

    • Sabrina August 14, 2015 at 11:51 pm

      Thanks Cynthia! I think we went overboard on simplifying our packing. I would have really liked to have more options for clothes and shoes but we made it work πŸ™‚

  • ame August 14, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    FANTASTIC post. I have been waiting for this post and it did not disappoint. I use a similar packing cube from Eagle Creek for my electronics, the "small" specter version which is slightly padded.

    • Sabrina August 14, 2015 at 11:51 pm

      Thank you Ame πŸ™‚ Interesting that Eagle Creek has a padded version! I'll have to check it out. We bought a small one but it didn't have any padding in it.

  • Anonymous August 14, 2015 at 5:58 pm

    Thank you for this comprehensive post of your Europe trip packing. Your organization and planning are fantastic. I just returned from a long trip to Europe with one checked suitcase and found that I had brought too many pants and cosmetics. Since it was consistently very hot, I didn't feel like wearing make-up at all most of the time. I could have also taken fewer shoes since I ended up buying some. I so enjoy reading your blog. Thank you for all your efforts and this wonderful blog.

    • Sabrina August 14, 2015 at 11:53 pm

      Thanks Tanja πŸ™‚ I feel you on the pants and cosmetics thing! I can imagine how hot it was on your trip! It was very warm throughout June and I kept checking the weather reports after we returned to the US and it was even hotter in July!

      I too also felt like skipping makeup most of the time πŸ™‚

  • Kica August 14, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    Excellent post, that I will definitely save. There is another blogger named Jackie Aina (I'm in no way affiliated with her blog) who just returned from 2 weeks in Greece and also had some great tips. Between the two of you, when I 'm ready to go there, I 'll be well prepared.

    • Sabrina August 14, 2015 at 11:53 pm

      Thanks Kica πŸ™‚

  • Sunnykm August 14, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    This post was worth the wait πŸ™‚

    Thank you as you have inspired me for a trip to Orlando next month.

    Question: why the Tumi and Longchamp? They seem interchangeable so why two totes?


    • Sabrina August 14, 2015 at 11:45 pm

      Thanks Sunny! My husband actually said the same thing. I wanted to take a purse to carry around for day but most of mine are open at the top. I also didn't want to keep moving items in and out of bags for luggage vs. day trips – which is why I had the Tumi for luggage and the Longchamp for a purse-like accessory.

      The Tumi folds compact but full it's quite a bit larger. The material is thicker with lining and pockets inside making it heavier. It measures 14"W x 11 Β½"H x 7"D. On my 5'3" frame it's big.

      The Longchamp Small Le Pliage Tote has no lining inside. It's a lot thinner in material and measures 9 ΒΎ"W x 9 ΒΎ"H x 5"D. It's a better fit for my petite frame and since it folds up completely it took up almost no space. It's also super lightweight so for long touristy days it didn't weigh me down.

      Hope that answers your question!

    • Sunnykm August 15, 2015 at 12:41 am

      Yes it does! And your answer is one of the (many!) reasons I love your blog. Detailed and thoughtful.


  • August 15, 2015 at 4:06 am

    Loved this post. Thank you! I'm going to Europe for 7-10 days and want to just do carry-ons. I'm AMAZED you did it for three weeks! Sort of my packing idol, ha!–Angela