Have you ever read about or spoke to those people who seem to be able to wander around from country to country with little more than a single backpack for months on end?
Have you ever wanted to skip the baggage queues at the airport?
Do you think you’d love to go hand-luggage only but that it surely can’t be possible or that it won’t work for you?
Tired of travelling like this?
I was just like you a few months ago. Then I went interrailing around eastern Europe and a combination of easyjet’s baggage fees and the thought of lugging a massive suitcase round a railway station while I run between platforms searching for trains pushed me into the realisation that hand-luggage only wasn’t just an option – it was the only option.
And do you know what? It honestly wasn’t that difficult.
Now, personally, I am not the kind of girl who even owns a pair of trainers, let alone takes them around the world with me. I’m not exactly high-maintenance (I never really wear make-up, for example, and I am hardly going to take ten pairs of heels on a round the world trip) but I still prefer summer dresses to jeans and tshirts. I don’t think it’s vain to want to look remotely decent on the photos you send home. I think it’s OK to dread the thought of a month of sweaty trainers and the same four pairs of pants (and I’m talking British pants here, not American pants, just so you get a bit of perspective). I’m also pretty sure this describes a good proportion of girls out there – so how on earth do we go about combining thinking like that with fitting all our luggage in one tiny bag?
You’ve probably heard all the usual stuff before – only take things that match, buy your toiletries when you get there, wear your bulkiest clothes on the flight out – but how can you make this really work just as well for you as it does for those people who really do wear the same pair of pants all month long?
If you’re a jeans and tshirt kind of girl, great! You’re all sorted and you probably don’t need any packing help from me. But what if you’re not? Let’s get logical about it – a little summer dress takes up less room than a separate pair of trousers and a tshirt. I’m not saying you should wear dresses every day and everywhere, but it’s not vain to throw a couple into your bag – it’s practical. They take up next to no room, they can be formal or casual and they’re a lot cooler than a heavy pair of jeans on a hot day.
That said, it’s a good idea to take at least one pair of trousers for travel days (it’s quite difficult to sleep comfortably with your feet up on the chair in a train compartment when you’re wearing a skirt and you’re worried about everyone else in the carriage seeing your knickers). Linen trousers are great for hot weather and they’re a lot lighter than jeans. Depending on where you go, you have to be careful about exposed shoulders, short skirts and low necklines, but there are mid- or long-length dresses out there with respectable necklines and even if they don’t have sleeves, you can easily cover up with a thin scarf or wrap.
Talking of scarves, I’m pretty much convinced they are about the most useful thing on the face of the earth. There are walls and walls of thin summer scarves that fold out into huge pieces of fabric in most clothes shops right now for really reasonable prices. A scarf can cover your shoulders or your head if you enter a religious building or a particularly conservative area. It can keep you warm at night when it’s not cool enough for a jacket. It can double as a picnic blanket, a bed sheet, a towel, a sarong, a bag, you name it. If you’re having a rubbish day – perhaps you’re homesick, literally sick or just feel disgusting because the hostel showers were really unclean and you’ve been wearing the same tshirt for a week, or perhaps you just want to dress up for a fancy event – then a scarf can really brighten up your outfit and make you feel a little more put together, a little closer to the way you might dress at home.
A girl I met in Morocco used to say the same about earrings – she brought one or two dangly pairs along with her to make her feel a bit more feminine. It might sound silly, but earrings take up next to no space and much as I don’t want to admit it, there are some travelling days when you feel so awful that something as simple as feeling clean and remotely attractive again could really cheer you up.
Another consideration when going hand-luggage only is toiletries. You’re severely restricted with liquids and aerosols are a no-go – so what do you do about shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste? The list is endless.
Solid products are a godsend. You can get small liquid roll-on deodorants or, if you don’t want to compromise your liquid allowance, solid versions of many brands. Shops like Lush sell great solid shampoo and conditioner, even solid toothpaste and perfume. If you’re like me and solid perfume sounds brilliant but you’re not sure how much chewing your toothpaste appeals to you, then you can always wait and buy your toiletries at your destination to get around those pesky liquid restrictions.
And while we’re on it, those microfibre quick-dry travel towels are an absolute godsend. I had to shell out £22 for a decent-sized one, but it saved me SO much space and it dried so quickly that I never had to go from place to place with a wet towel in my bag. It was worth the money 100 times over and I don’t think I’ll ever travel with a proper towel again, even on overnight trips. I managed to find one for my hair too for a mere £2 – look in normal pharmacies/chemists/beauty shops for those.
After I tried to fit ten different books into one tiny bag and then realised I couldn’t fit my clothes in on top, I came to the inevitable conclusion that the Kindle is pretty much the best invention ever. Enough said.
Let’s be honest here – I’m lazy. I’m really not into outdoor sports, unless you call wandering down to Tesco to buy myself some cheesecake a sport. I don’t hike or walk for fun at home (I just don’t see the point in going round in one big circle to get back where you came from), so chances are I likely won’t be doing so abroad either – and if you’re anything like me, neither will you. Despite that, you’re probably going to be doing more walking than you’ve ever done in your life, so it’s important to get some decent shoes.
So, with this is mind, what did I pack for my three-week trip around eastern Europe?
Um, that would be a pair of ballet flats and a pair of flip flops.
My not-so-trusty ballet flats at the start of the trip
My travelling buddy was convinced this was a huge mistake, especially when it started pouring it down in Bosnia and just didn’t stop. Judging by the state of my shoes by the time we hit week two, she might have been right:
I’m standing by my decision to take girly shoes though. I just should have bought better ones. They fell apart because they were Primark shoes and I’d already been wearing them non-stop for a month before we set out – not because they were girly shoes. In fact, for Primark shoes I think they did pretty damn well. They went with all my clothes (trainers and dresses are not such a hot look – unless you’re Lily Allen of course, and even then I’m dubious), they dried out a LOT quicker than everyone else’s trainers, they didn’t smell, they were small and light enough to fit in my luggage even when I wasn’t wearing them. Next time, I’ll just make sure I get my ballet flats from a slightly more reputable shop. And while I definitely recommend trying your shoes out for a full day or two before you take them, perhaps wearing them every day for a month and leaving with shoes already worn out wasn’t my smartest ever move.
Now, my final suggestion is one most travellers would probably laugh at, but for me it was a long thought process and I’m perfectly happy with the decision I made.
I did not take a backpack.
I hate backpacks. I hate how even the women’s ones are often made for people with absurdly broad shoulders, I hate having everything on my back where people could steal it, I hate how heavy they are, I hate looking through everything to find one little thing, I hate how they make your back sweat as you’re walking along and I hate how they instantly identify you as a tourist.
So, instead, I took a massive shoulder bag. You know, like a handbag.
It’s deceptively roomy, I promise.
With a bag like this, I can blend in. I can look like a local shopper rather than someone carrying all their valuables with them at once (and I don’t know about you, but especially as an occasionally solo female, I definitely feel a lot safer when I at least look like I know where I’m going and what I’m doing). I can tuck it under my arm and keep an eye on it. I can rummage through my things without having to take everything out because what I want is right at the bottom. The friend I went with swore she couldn’t carry something like that on her shoulder for all that time, and while I understand that, I feel exactly the same about backpacks. I’m aware you can buy brilliant backpacks which pretty much meet all the above criteria (aside from not being an obvious tourist), but I’m on a tight budget and I’m a girl who carries a crapload of junk around with her on a daily basis – I already had several big shoulder bags hanging around.
Just make sure the straps are long (too short and the bag will stick out awkwardly, not to mention be uncomfortable) and wide and that the bag can take some seriously heavy stuffing without anything ripping. You don’t want to be half way through a plane check-in and have to lug your bag around on what is essentially a long leash because the straps broke. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this for actual, honest-to-God backpacking trips where you’d be carrying it all day, every day, but for interrailing or city-hopping it works just fine.
And one final tip – I kind of hate washing things in hostel sinks. People always look at you like you’re crazy, especially in mainstream party hostels, and you just never know what else has been in that sink. Three years of living in uni dorms taught me that. So how about washing your stuff in the shower? The water pressure is much better than from the tap and you don’t have to flash your knickers to your dorm mates.
What do you girls think? Am I totally crazy? Would you ever traipse round Europe with a glorified handbag? Weigh in at the comments section below.