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Packing for Europe

Man with luggage in Venice

ABOVE: A man with too much baggage takes a break in Venice. INSET BELOW: Most railroad stations have left-luggage offices, but the price may be five euros or more per day.

Left luggage office signPacking and luggage receive more attention than they deserve. Many travelers agonize over which baggage to buy, what clothes to pack, and whether to fold trousers over jackets or vice versa. Yet the only really important thing to remember is Imboden's First Law of Packing:

"Don't take more than you can carry, or less than you need for your trip."

Having said that, I'll ignore my own advice and discuss the three basic philosophies of packing:

1. Less is more.

At its extreme, this philosophy is exemplified by the reader of an Arthur Frommer travel guide whose only bag was a lightweight tote. Her summer travel wardrobe consisted of nylon underwear, a black synthetic top and skirt, and (as I recall) a black sweater for chilly evenings. Every night, she stripped off her clothes and washed everything in the sink of her hotel room. By morning, her wash-and-wear clothing was dry (or so she hoped), and Ms. Basic Black was ready for another day of sightseeing or travel.

The one-outfit-for-all-occasions approach won't work for everyone, and I suspect that it might get tiresome after a few mornings of slipping into damp or mildewed undies.

A more realistic approach is to use a carry-on bag or backpack of standard under-the-seat dimensions, perhaps with a small travel bag for a camera, guidebook, maps, etc. This works best if you're a budget traveler in summer and don't need many clothes.

2. More is better.

Years ago, a British acquaintance told me how his grandmother always traveled to the Continent with a maid, a steamer trunk, and a rubber toilet-seat cover. And when I was a boy, my mother always traveled with a Samsonite cosmetics case to round out our family's collection of Pullman bags and two-suiters.

Today, the "more is better" crowd is likely to pass up the steamer trunk and toilet-seat cover, but it isn't unusual to see well-heeled tourists arrive at the airport with expensive suitcases, garment bags, and golf-club cases. Rick Steves and Arthur Frommer might frown at such conspicuous excess, but let's face it: How often does a budget travel writer have to face the Savoy's receptionist or the headwaiter at Maxim? And if you're on a golfing tour of Scotland, doesn't it make sense to bring your own golf clubs?

There is one obvious downside to the take-it-all philosophy: It can be a nuisance to deal with porters at every turn, and there's an airline formula that says (suitcase) x (number) = (increased likelihood of loss). If you decide to travel heavy, spend a little extra on baggage insurance.

3. Enough is Enough.

This is my approach. If I'm exploring the Faroe Islands, I'll pack differently than I would for a German opera itinerary. And if I'm staying in one city, I may take a 24" TravelPro suitcase that might be inconvenient on a whistle-stop tour of European capitals. (For what it's worth, I normally travel with a 21" or 22" wheeled upright bag, which is easy to lift onto luggage racks and to maneuver in crowded city streets.)

A number of years ago, my family and I rented a vacation cottage on the North Sea coast of Denmark for a week. We took sheets and towels with us because the rental didn't include linens, and it was cheaper--and easier--to take an extra suitcase than to buy expensive new linens on a Saturday in Denmark when all the shops were closed. (In case you're curious, we left our threadbare linens in Denmark and used the empty suitcase for Danish toys, books, and chocolate bars on the trip home.)

Bottom line: Don't take more than you need, but don't shortchange yourself, either. If you like dressing for dinner, or if you're an ice dancer who visits a new skating rink on every trip, then by all means take the clothing or equipment you need to enjoy yourself.

Next page: Random packing tips

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Packing for Europe
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