Introduction: Minimalist Packing for Travel in Europe

If you’re anything like me, the hardest part of any trip is always finding the right balance of packing too much or too little. In the past, I was always a classic over-packer. I needed a completely new outfit for every day of the week and why not throw in a few extras just in case the situation called for them? My luggage always looked like a not-so-mini version of my wardrobe, but at the end of my semester abroad in England, that was no longer an option. After my classes ended, I had one final trip planned to go on a two-week tour of Italy. Being too poor to be able to afford the cost of checked luggage for each connecting flight, I needed to fit everything into one small carry-on backpack. All of my friends thought I was crazy, until they had to haul around luggage and pay airline fees.

The truth is you need far less than you realize. Everything you need can be fit into a backpack. Cutting down what you pack to the bare essentials will not only save you the hassle of lugging around extra weight, but also save money and prevent lost baggage at airports. I will show you how to choose a bag, what clothes and additional items to pack and how to fold them to maximize space.

Step 1: Choose a Bag

The most obvious thing to do when you are about to pack your bags for a trip is to… well, find a bag to pack. There is no one answer as to what piece of luggage you should use, but here are some general suggestions to keep in mind before choosing a bag:

  • Use a backpack, wheeling luggage around is hard.
  • Make sure it is comfortable to wear over long periods of time.
  • Keep the bag size under the strictest European airline carry-on limit (21" x 16" x 8").

Step 2: Pick Your Wardrobe

Your wardrobe is something you want to absolutely minimize. Remember, if you need more clothes, you can always buy more! This list is what I personally found to be a sustainable wardrobe for me, but depending on how often you have access to doing laundry, you may prefer to pack more. This list could also greatly vary based on the climate of the region you are planning to travel to, the activities you intend to do, gender, and personal preference.

  • 5 t-shirts
  • 1 dress shirt
  • 2 pants – 1 pair of jeans and one pair of dress pants 2 shorts
  • 1 jacket
  • 6 pairs of socks and underwear
  • 1 sweatshirt
  • Flip flops
  • Multifunctional shoes (nice looking walking shoes)

The key to packing less clothes is to pack plain neutral colors that are can be worn with everything else you are bringing. Additionally, if all of your clothes look similar, people tend to not notice that you are rotating shirts. When it starts to get cold out, layering is essential so that you can pack fewer big items and also so that you can add and remove layers depending on the temperature.

One potential area for variation is shoes. If you plan to go to several nice restaurants, you may want a nicer pair of dress shoes to accompany your walking shoes, or if you plan to be in nature a lot, you may choose to pack hiking shoes. Just keep in mind that any shoes that you aren't wearing take up a lot of space in your bag, so finding shoes that can serve multiple purposes is a great idea.

Step 3: Decide on Other Miscellaneous Items

When deciding if you should bring an item or not, ask yourself what the worst situation you could find yourself in if you did not have that item. A general rule of thumb to use is that unless you can’t bear the worst possible situation, then leave it at home. Listed below are some things that I believe are at least worth considering bringing on an international trip.


  • Phone
  • Power bank
  • Universal Adapter
  • Chargers
  • Camera

When traveling, I do not think I could have survived without my phone. It held all of my boarding passes, rooming information, and allowed me to find my way around a city. This is why I highly recommend bringing a power bank to make sure your phone doesn't die and end up in you not being able to get back to your hostel at night.

Other Items To Consider


  • Lock
  • Travel size microfiber towel
  • Noise reducing earbuds
  • Small, collapsible backpack
  • Sunglasses
  • Rain jacket
  • Umbrella
  • Finger nail clippers
  • Journal

If you are going to be staying in several hostels on your trip, a lock and towel are useful, because many will not provide those to you without charge. Realize that you will be able to buy toiletries once you arrive at your destination, which may be a good idea to avoid breaking TSA regulations.

Step 4: Maximize Space With Packing Cubes and Folding

If you have a very small backpack or just want your bag to be more organized, you should purchase packing cubes. They allow you to pull out just what you need without making a huge mess and can create more space in your bag. Each cube should contain different items, in this case, one for clothing and one for all other items.

Whether you use packing cubes or not, you should fold all larger pieces of clothing using steps 5 and 6 to conserve space for all your other items. Specific styles of folding make clothes as small as they can be, so while it can take a minute to learn, the following steps can make the difference between choosing to bring home your favorite clothing or a new souvenir!

Step 5: Fold Tops

  1. Lay the top flat on an even surface.
  2. Fold the bottom of the top inside out and upwards about 2”.
  3. If the top has long sleeves fold the end of the sleeves up to the top shoulders of the shirt.
  4. Fold the sleeves of the top inwards to make a straight edge on both sides of your shirt and lay them flat.
  5. Fold the right side of the top over and align its edge with the center line of the shirt
  6. Now fold the left side of the shirt over to meet the far-right side of the shirt and create a more compact “rectangle” with straight sides.
  7. Roll from the neckline of the top to the bottom as tight as possible
  8. There should now be a small lip in the top that you can flip the shirt into to secure the roll.

Step 6: Fold Bottoms

  1. Lay flat on an even surface.
  2. Fold the waistline inside out about 2”.
  3. Fold the bottoms symmetrically in half.
  4. Roll from the bottom of the pants/shorts to the top as tight as possible.
  5. Flip the waistline over the rest of the roll to secure the roll.

Step 7: Make It Fit

Ultimately as long as you can get the zipper closed, that's all that matters. The bag will be easier to zip once you remove the clothes and pair of shoes you are wearing onto the plane, but make sure they can fit in the backpack with everything else too.

Reducing your load down to one bag will remove a lot of headaches that come with keeping track of multiple bags. All of these things will give you the freedom to do more on your trip.

Step 8: Go Explore!