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3 Weeks in Europe: A Complete Guide to Packing Light & Printable Packing List

How-to-pack-light-for-holiday-in-Europe---Step-by-step-guide-for-women---with-printable-packing-list

Pack for three weeks in Europe with a single carry on. Plus: capsule wardrobe packing system, what’s in my bag, travel tips, printable packing list.

For a long time I’ve been whittling down my travel luggage. If broken roller bags, sore shoulders, a feisty baggage fee episode en route to Zambia, and the mental image of a single suitcase languishing on the tarmac of the Madrid airport have taught me one thing about exploring this world, it is this: Pack light to travel well.

How light? Whether a trip is three days or three weeks, my max is a 10 kg / 22 lb duffel bag paired with a little backpack. Twenty-two pounds is the limit for carry on luggage on most smaller airlines, and according to seriously old school backpacking experts it’s also my ideal pack weight.

For me, traveling well means having enough clothes, toiletries, and travel essentials to be comfortable without dragging along anything I could do without. The fewer things I carry, the less I have to worry about keeping track of, and the more I am really grateful what does make it in the bag. Not to mention, packing light is eco-friendly!

Last time we bopped around Europe I saved a detailed list of what traveled with me, what I didn’t need, and what I wished I’d packed. Since then I’ve worked out a system that’s served me well whether headed out for a long weekend music festival or couple of weeks exploring the Pacific Northwest. It all comes back to packing light.

Next week we leave for a three-week trip to Europe. Between work meetings in Belgium, sightseeing in Galway, kayaking Western Ireland, and five days of whiskey tours on the Scottish Isle of Islay, there’s a lot to see and do – and wear.

By combining my go-to packing list with the idea of a capsule wardrobe, I’ve created a comfortable formula for packing well that maximizes your choices and minimizes your luggage.

The Capsule Wardrobe Packing System

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[1] A Bit of Research
First, gather up a rough idea of your daily itinerary. Take a look at what you’re doing the majority of each day, wherever your schedule may take you – flying, sightseeing local villages, hiking mountains, exploring museums or shopping in a city – and note any repeat themes.

Spend a few minutes checking the weather forecast, jot down any special items you know you’ll need, and search Google Images for “your destination” + “street fashion” to see how stylish locals dress. It’s also worth hunting around to find out what might not be locally available. Who knew that in Europe, most hotels don’t supply washcloths or that you might need a prescription to buy certain remedies like antibiotic cream?

How-to-pack-for-two-weeks-vacation-in-a-single-duffel-bag-carry-on-hand-luggage---be-sure-to-check-the-weatherHow-to-pack-in-a-single-carry-on-for-three-weeks-in-Europe

[2] Group Outfits into Themes

For our upcoming trip, I was able to narrow everything down to four basic outfit themes:

  • Sightseeing: elevated essentials
  • Travel Day: cozy + casual
  • Outdoor Exploring: athleisure gear
  • Going Out: simple, luxe tops with nice pants

How-to-pack-for-two-weeks-vacation-in-a-single-duffel-bag-carry-on-hand-luggage---with-printable-packing-list

[3] Decide Number of Combinations for Each Outfit Theme

Next refer back to your daily itinerary themes to tally up total wardrobe changes – mine totaled 19 over 17 days. On any given trip I know like to wear everything at least 2-3 times, but also try to avoid wearing the same exact outfit two days in a row so that everything can breathe a bit. I also plan to bring some Dr. Bronner’s into the shower to hand-wash items as needed since that worked out well last time we traveled around Europe.

So for our three week trip, I work out that the following 10 outfit variations should be enough to keep things fresh while keeping luggage light. Bear in mind that each outfit variation might mean just changing a single piece out – a top, jacket, or bottom – and that many pieces could also cross over into different categories. For instance, I’m only bringing two pairs of pants and plan to wear them for almost all of my Sightseeing and Going Out variations.

  • Sightseeing: x7 = 3 outfit variations
  • Travel Day: x6 = 2 outfit variations
  • Outdoor Exploring: x2 (back to back) = 2 outfit variations
  • Going Out: x4 (2 back to back days) = 3 outfit variations

How-to-pack-light-for-two-weeks-in-europe-in-a-carry-on-bag---vacation-holiday-light-packing-for-stylish-women---grana-silk-top

Combinations for “Going Out”: 3 tops, crop jacket, pants, booties, delicate gold jewelry, and a solid deep berry lipstick.

[4] Create Your Outfit Variations

Now for the fun part – building out the capsule travel wardrobe! Be pragmatic in what you’re assigning for each outfit and think about your go-to pieces that you love to wear all the time.

Leave behind anything that doesn’t fit quite right, anything that’s uncomfortable, and anything that you don’t think you’ll wear more than once – fussy dresses and fumbly stilettos are not going to mix well with cobblestone streets on a laid-back trip. When in doubt, leave it out.

Over the years I’ve realized that you really don’t need to pack a dozen different outfits – you just need to a few really great ones that you can wear everywhere. Above all, I like to lean into nice, comfortable classics in a limited color palette so that everything matches everything else.

Sightseeing: 7 times = 3 outfit variations
[Silk tank or Cotton tank] + [Cardigan or Sweater] + [Black skinny jeans or Blue skinny jeans or Joggers] +[Booties or Sandals or Sneakers]

Travel Day: 6 times = 2 outfit variations
[Cotton tank or Tee] + [Down vest and/or Sweater or Cardigan] + [Dress Coat or Light Jacket] + [Running tights or Joggers] + [Sneakers or Booties]

Outdoor Exploring: 2 times = 2 outfit variations
[Tee and/or Swimsuit] + [Down vest and/or Light jacket and/or Rain jacket] + [Running tights or Running shorts] + [Sneakers]

Going Out: 4 times = 3 outfit variations
[Silk Tank or Dress] + [Cardigan and/or Dress coat] + [Black skinny jeans] + [Sandals or Booties]

And you’re off!

[show_ms_widget id=”34467876″ image_id=”39828427″ width=”800″ height=”1275″]

Hover above to shop what’s in my bag.
I also am loving Grana for silk tanks and shorts, and love, love their pima joggers.
They offer 2-3 day free shipping in case you’ve waited ’til the last minute to shop.

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And a few final tips and techniques for organizing it all:

  • Pack neatly to save lots of space: Before you get started, put everything in one place and look at what you might be able to cut. Then pack your heaviest, least-used, and will-be-used-last items in the bottom of your bag. Stuff any shoes and hats with smaller items like socks, scarves, tee shirts. Layer a few tops or pants on top of one another then roll each stack into a bundled tube to keep things compact and wrinkle free. Be sure to place any in-flight essentials up top along with anything you’ll need to take out at airport security.
  • Freezer bags are your best friends: Pack like with like and stash your toiletries, electronics, first aid kit, in-flight essentials, and any other similarly grouped items into separate gallon or liter bags. Pack a few extra bags to separate out dirty laundry and in a pinch, use gallon Ziplocs as light compression bags to open up extra space in your bag.
  • Take nothing precious, and get ready to adapt: When in doubt, leave it out! Whittle away and you’ll be surprised how little you really need to have a great trip. It may also open your eyes to the kindness of the universe. A few years ago while I was staying in a small village in rural Africa, my lone pair of boots began to literally disintegrate from bush walks, sole and all. Our house manager sent them over to a nearby cobbler who had them repaired in an hour’s time. Spare yourself of keeping up with a heavy bag and you might even make a new friend along the way.
  • Layer, layer, layer: Weather permitting, wear your bulkier clothes and heaviest shoes when you know you’ll be walking a lot with carry on in tow. It’s easier to wear the weight than keep it all on your shoulders, plus you’ll be able to save a few precious pounds of baggage on any budget airlines.

And last but not least, here’s a handy printable packing list I’ve pulled together to help you get a jump start on everything:

Complete Europe Womens Packing List - Packing Light In One Carry On Bag For Two Three Weeks Vacation Holiday

Later this week: What’s in my beauty bag.
Until then, bon voyage!

May 2016 update: I’m back from holiday… and still whittling down. Encouraged by the fact that my husband survived the entire trip living out of a single backpack, I’ve built a revised list that crosses off a few more items and narrows it down to the absolute (and coziest) essentials that were well-used this trip and will be joining me on the next one:

How To Pack Light Revisited Ultra Light Comfortable Packing List for Europe Vacation

Travel diaries from this trip:
Galway, Ireland | Killarney & Dingle, Ireland

Islay, Scotland | Edinburgh, Scotland
My Camera Kit

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  • Caroline Shyu

    This post is so handy! Brian and I have been thinking about doing a Europe trip (but that might be put on hold for a bit because of the house), this will be super helpful when it comes time to pack!

  • This is a great post! I’m always looking to downsize my packing, and have definitely gotten better over the years. I like your formula for # of outfits to days/activities- thanks for sharing!

  • CSB

    Hi! Beautiful blog and your fit details are always so helpful — can you give some please for the Grana joggers? I’ve been eyeing them too. What size did you get? How tight are they (any risk of panty lines?) and where do they hit on your leg? (Do they reach your ankles?) Thank you!

  • Sure! I ordered the XS Grana pima joggers and they fit like a dream. I’m 5’8″, 125 lbs, 32x34x32 with athletic frame and typically wear a US 2-4 pant, 27 jeans, and small or xs shorts/stretch pants. They are slim fit but are not super tight in any spots on me, and the fabric is nice and thick so no panty lines on me (Grana’s new seamless panties are also really nice! I got smalls for those). The joggers do reach right at my ankles – perfect for me as I hate croppy capris and don’t like bunching up joggers that are too long. Hope this helps!

  • Of course 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Ohhh Chad and I have a ton of recs when you’re ready to start planning. So excited you’ll be back in the A soon!

  • CSB

    Thanks so much!

  • kmckeed

    Hi! I’m a new reader. Really enjoying your blog. Starting the process of minimal & ethical wardrobe. I like the idea of silk basics but not the dry cleaning bill. You mention hand washing clothes in the shower–will you do that with your silk? Do some companies have silk that holds up to hand washing better than others? Thanks for any thoughts!

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  • This is a FANTASTIC post! I’m definitely bookmarking it for later this summer has I have a 3 week vacation planned to Portugal, the Greek Islands, and Budapest. This will totally help me stay organized! Thanks for the tips Jess!

  • Of course, and have SO much fun in Portugal, Greece, and Budapest. Can’t wait to see photos when you return.

  • Same! I used to dry clean all of my silks and have since gotten much better about just handwashing in the sink or on delicate cycle in the wash with a little laundry detergent, then I let them air dry on a bedspread. If they’re wrinkled I hit them with this little steamer: http://bit.ly/1U9TpQW (sidenote: the first one I received sometimes spat out water as it steamed – I emailed the seller and they immediately sent a new one which is still working well a year in).

    I do have a few vintage silk tops that I still get dry cleaned as they are more delicate than my other tanks, but find that any thicker new silk top is easy to handwash. I am loving Grana tops as they are nice and thick with a bit of a sueded silk hand feel, so they don’t wrinkle as easily as thinner tops or Habotai silk. They’re also super affordable and ethically made in Hong Kong. The sizing on their website is super helpful, too. I got XS tanks and they fit really well. Everlane is another great source for great silk!

    For washing on trips, I can wear a silk tank at least 5 times before it needs a wash (so long as I give it a day to breathe between wears and it’s not boiling hot out), so most trips I just wait til I get home to wash. If something catches a stain or starts to smell, I take it in the shower and gently wash it with my Dr. Bronner’s or the hotel’s shampoo – the trick is to make sure not to wad everything up else it will crease badly. Then I rinse thoroughly and gently twist it lengthwise to wring out dripping water. Then I lay the top on a hotel towel, smooth out wrinkles, and roll the top and towel up lengthwise into a burrito so that the towel soaks up any extra water. Unroll it and put it on a hanger or dry towel and it will be dry by morning!

  • kmckeed

    Thank you!! This is so, so helpful & just the info I needed to feel comfortable ordering a silk tank.

  • Elena Holl

    That post is just awesome!!! I am the badest packer ever and always forgot the half of the things I want to put into my lugage, haha!
    XO from Germany 🙂
    Elena
    ________________________________
    http://saintjeans.de/

  • Great system for packing for some very different occasions and locales. Thanks for the amazing packing lists. I’m a sucker for a good printable list 🙂 And lovely picks. That alpaca sweater looks delicious.