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Carry-On vs Checked luggage
I recommend you carry-on, especially to begin your trip. Checked luggage is lost by airlines on about a quarter of my trips. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes a few days, several times for a full week, and on one trip the airline just flat out said they were not going to send a lady’s luggage over.
Wheeled luggage vs Travel bags
Wheeled luggage allows one to pack without having to worry about weight, other than airline weight limits. But it gives us the idea that we can take all those just in case items. So we often overpack.
I know that backpack style travel isn’t for everyone. But forget what you remember from backpacking days through Europe,
Four-wheeled vs two-wheeled luggage
I only have experience with one four wheeled suitcase and I think it wins for smooth surfaces and airports. But it’s a disaster on cobblestone. Two-wheeled suitcases do much better on cobblestone because the wheels are usually bigger, rollerblade-style wheels.
I am all in on Tom Bihn. Excellent quality and made in America. I’ve been using their products for over a decade. I’ve traveled many times with the Tri-Star and both the Aeronaut 30 and Aeronaut 45.
I love the organization of the TriStar, but sometimes I want the ability to just throw in a bunch of stuff, and that’s when I prefer the Aeronaut 30. For me, the Aeronaut 45 is just too big for what I carry.
I’ve also traveled quite a bit with the Synapse 25. Mostly on trips under a week or so. It’s a little too small for one bag travel, but the Synik 30 could be a full time suitcase.
I spent a few months and five international trips testing Away luggage. I tried out the Carry-On without the battery pack – electronics change too often for me to be sold on having a suitcase built around a battery pack. I went with white, because that’s a really cool and unique travel color. This was my first ever four-wheeled suitcase. As most of my travel has been to Europe, I always shunned the four-wheeled luggage, because I don’t think those were made for cobblestone. But this was nice, especially in airports. I had a few times when I spent the night in airports, and when I’m that exhausted and walking around, it’s nice not having my luggage on my back.
My wife travels with both the TriStar and the Synapse 25. My kids travel with a TriStar and Synapse 25 / Synapse 19. But they’ve all been eyeing my Away suitcase for when wheeled luggage is move convenient.
I’ve tried all sorts of packing cubes, including those from Tom Bihn. But I much prefer to keep things organized with stuff sacks.
I generally trust the hotels I use, but I still always keep my valuables locked up when I’m out of the room – that includes my toothbrush. I prefer the TSA Cable Locks.
I’ve always loved bags. I have a lot. I’ve been through even more. If it’s something you carry every day, you need something that’s excellent quality and works for your lifestyle. Your day bag is one of the most important things you can bring.
I think most backpacks are too big for your everyday carry. Do you really need that much stuff for a few hours of touring? They are also hot in the summer, covering your whole back. I don’t know that backpacks will ever be completely banned, but many museums and churches are cutting back on the size they will allow. Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice doesn’t allow backpacks at all. On the other hand, smaller messenger bags never have any trouble.
I’ve been carrying the Tom Bihn Medium Cafe Bag forever. Literally daily since 2018. I also have the small and the discontinued large version. It’s very lightweight. It has plenty of interior rings that I can clip things in to make my stuff difficult for pick pockets. It also comes in fun colors, like black.
I also have some bags from Filson, which I think look really cool in an Indiana Jones sort of way. They are heavier, but you can tell they will last a few generations.
The women in my life all love Baggallini travel purses.
Clothes are very personal and I’ll be offering some more thoughts and suggestions soon.
In the case of men, I recommend you avoid most clothes that are geared towards travel. For some reason “travel” too often means fishing in the fashion industry. This is the most popular shirt I see on American men in Europe and the Holy Land. FYI, PFG = Performance Fishing Gear. Although everyone seems dressed for it, I rarely see Americans fishing in Europe.
Instead, shop somewhere like Outlier or Bluffworks who offer clothes you can wear to a nice dinner in Paris, a Papal Mass in Rome, or a walk on the beach in the Riviera.
Most of my shirts and pants come from Outlier. I have a travel suit from Bluffworks, which I had tailored by the same guy who makes the Swiss Guard uniforms. I’ve worn it to meet the pope, while giving speeches, and on TV.
For years I wore ExOfficio (men/women). Their underwear can be washed at night and dry by morning. Their tagline used to be something like “17 countries. Six weeks. One pair of underwear.” A little extreme perhaps, but the point is that you don’t need six weeks worth of cotton underwear when you travel.
I now only have underwear from Mack Weldon. I personally like their AirKnitX better than the ExOfficio, but ExOfficio is cheaper and still excellent for travel. AirKnitX is such a dumb name, and now they have AirKnitX HD.
You can stop looking… the best socks for travel and for daily wear are made by Darn Tough. They have socks for men, women, and children. You can wear them for days without losing shape or getting smelly. You think that’s gross because you only know cheap cotton or synthetic socks. But these are mostly wool, so they are naturally anti-microbial, odor resistant, and stay dry. I don’t own anything else. Trust me on this one. Made in Vermont.
This is my favorite ‘luxury’ item.
Doing your laundry
Packing light often means doing laundry along the way. I prefer to not waste time going to a laundromat or waste money using a laundry service. Plus there’s no way I’m letting strangers wash my black t-shirts.
So I recommend doing laundry in the sink – it’s not just for young backpackers. Grab something like the Scrubba Wash Bag, use your Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap, and spend a few minutes cleaning your clothes every few days.
When traveling in Europe or the Holy Land, you are going to be walking a lot. I cover five to seven miles with my groups on most days. You need to take care of your feet. And even if you are a skilled walker, the cobblestone is going to introduce you to muscles you didn’t know existed.
I’ve been wearing this series of Ecco Shoes for at least eight years. The big soles are great for cobblestone and other uneven paving stones you are sure to come across. I have a GoreTex version that keeps my feet dry in the rain. My current pair also doesn’t squeak on marble church floors, which is a huge plus in my book.
I’ve also been wearing Birkenstocks for nearly 30 years. But always the London or Boston because I prefer closed-toed shoes.
I know a lot of people say sneakers make travelers look like Americans, but people all over Europe and the Middle East wear sneakers. The most popular sneakers I see in Rome, worn by the locals, are Adidas Stan Smith, Converse All Stars, and Vans.
For Your Flight
When I’m on a long flight, I wear a hoodie (I’m always cold on airplanes) with these amazing noise cancelling headphones. I don’t use a pillow or blanket. I usually don’t watch movies. I don’t eat the food. I just sit there and contemplate my mortality.
I keep all the things I need for the flight in a Tom Bihn Side Effect. This holds my rosary, notes from my family, Altoids, hand sanitizer, and snacks.
A lot of airlines hand out sleep masks. They are garbage. If you want a decent rest, invest in a good sleep mask.
For those who want a travel pillow, lots of my people use the Turtle Pillow.
If noise bothers your sleep, earplugs will come in handy on the flight.
You should know that just about everything you might need, even many of the same brands, can be found when traveling. So don’t stress over how much to bring. Just bring what you need for a week or so and enjoy the shopping experience if you run out.
Soaps and shampoo
Even when I’m staying in five star hotels, I bring my own stuff. I also prefer to use the same things I use at home. For me, that’s Aveda and Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap.
This is my hair product. I use an old film canister to bring just the amount I need.
Toothbrush and toothpaste
I hate travel toothbrushes. Cheap plastic that folds and never really holds it shape? Ridiculous. When I travel I take a bamboo toothbrush.
I mostly use Marvis Toothpaste. It’s an Italian brand so it’s way cheaper in Italy than in the US.
When traveling, most people are outside way more than when they are home. The sun shines year round, protect your skin.
Most of the hotels I use have hair dryers. But, probably not as powerful as you have back home. If you want to bring your own, be sure to get a dual voltage hair dryer.
Carrying it all
Tom Bihn makes several accessories for toiletries, but I prefer to toss everything into a stuff sack.
Most modern phones have cameras that are plenty good for travel. I do not recommend you go out and purchase a fancy DSLR just because you are going on a once in a lifetime trip – unless you are planning on learning how to use it first. I see too many people travel with amazing cameras but they have no idea what they are doing.
Whether you are traveling with a DSLR or an iPhone, you should definitely figure out how to use it. My friend Amanda Donaho offers occasional online photography courses for DSLR and iPhone. Plenty of my people have taken them and love them.
You most likely do not need a converter when traveling to Europe or the Holy Land, but you will need an adapter.
This adapter one will work in most of Europe and the Holy Land. It also lets you charge up to three things at once, two via USB. FYI: some companies sell the three pronged adapter for Italy, most outlets do not have that third prong, so it’s best to have the two pronged, which will work even in outlets that have three holes.
Buy this adapter if you are traveling to the UK or Ireland.
Apple makes it’s own travel kit, but it’s probably more than you need.
If you are traveling with a tour group, like one of mine, most buses have USB chargers. Usually they are located above your head. So I recommend you pick up a long USB charging cable. Otherwise you have to hold your phone in the air or let it hang in front of you.
We use headsets for many of our group tours. New headphones are provided, but I always find it’s best (and more comfortable) to have my own. Keep in mind if you have a newer iPhone, the lightening connector will not work on the headsets, you’ll need the traditional 3.5 mm connector. Something I tested was the AirFly which allows you to use your AirPods with a Whisper system or even the airplane entertainment system. I do not recommend.
Eating & Drinking
I keep everyone well fed on my group pilgrimages, but when traveling, it’s good to have snacks for long days on the train or bus, travel days, and even when out and about exploring.
I found long ago that I could live on nothing but Peanut M&M’s for about three days.
I now usually travel with Clif Bars. I prefer the Chocolate Mint Builder’s Bar. I’m also enjoying the RXBAR, which has a lot less junk than most protein bars. And if you just want the protein, Epic bars are great.
I also love to go to the local market or grocery store and stock up on fruits, nuts, and seeds. It’s one of the first things I do in a new city. I make my own snack mix and keep it in something like these reusable snack bags.
It’s important you stay hydrated. Water in most of Europe is perfectly safe to drink. In Rome, there are fountains all over the city with wonderful, clean, cold, free water. So it’s great to travel with your own water bottle. But do you know what’s sad? Going to a papal event and seeing thousands of dollars worth of metal water bottles lined up. They are not allowed. So people leave them at security, hoping to collect them after the event. But security has better things to do than to keep up with which bottle belongs to which person, so smart thieves will pick up their new water bottles before you have a chance. Do yourself a favor and leave the fancy Yeti at home. Pick up a CamelBak instead. Or maybe one of these packable silicon bottles.
Medicine & Vitamins
Keep in original containers, if possible, with legible prescriptions using generic drug names. Remember to bring any medicine in your carry-on luggage on the plane.
Do you get motion sickness?
Peppermint Altoids are my go to product.
I’ve also found that Sea Bands are magic on boats, planes, cars, and buses.
While I truly believe essential oils, like peppermint, can help with motion sickness, not everyone enjoys strong smells. So when traveling on a plane or bus, I recommend a more subtle way of dealing with your motion sickness. Although, I’m pretty sure everyone enjoys the smell of peppermint over vomit, so if it’s that bad, do what you need to do.
Money, Credit Cards, & Passports
The best way to exchange money is by using an ATM at your destination. Just be sure your bank knows when and where you are traveling. Your bank can usually get you some Euro before you leave. If you are traveling to the Holy Land, everyone accepts US Dollars. No need to bring Shekels. Try to avoid exchanging US Dollars for Euro in Europe. Those cash exchange places have terrible rates and you’ll lose a lot of money.
MasterCard and Visa are accepted most everywhere. Expect some looks if you try to use a credit card to buy a water or something small. Be sure your credit card company knows you are traveling. Keep a photocopy of the front and back of your credit cards in your luggage – a photo on your phone works too. This makes things a little easier if your cards are stolen. You can also put your credit cards in RFID blocking sleeves.
Europe is way ahead of America in terms of security and has accepted contactless payments for years. Pretty much anyone that accepts credit cards will accept Apple Pay. I use it everywhere.
I keep mine clipped in my day bag using the Tom Bihn Passport Pouch. If an aggressive pick pocketer grabbed my bag, I’d spend a day having to replace my Passport, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.
I recommend the type of money belt you wear around your waist and under your clothes. The kind that goes around you neck not only looks silly, but also can be easily ripped off your head. The one I linked also has RFID blocking, this keeps your cards protected from high tech thieves.
When it’s rainy
I’m not one for bringing an umbrella everywhere I go. But if it’s a particularly rainy season, or anytime in Ireland, a good travel umbrella is a must.
When it’s hot
I’m sold on the Cooling Towel. When it’s hot these things keep you cool, and if you are traveling in the desert, they keep the sand out of your mouth.
When it’s cold
Don’t forget the scarf, hat, and gloves. The puffy coat is very popular in Europe. It also packs well.
Colmar (women/men) is a popular European brand. They have a better shape than North Face.
When there’s swimming
Don’t forget your swimsuit! We Americans are much more modest when it comes to swimwear. It’s not uncommon to see both the young and old in tiny two piece swimsuits. All body types are welcome. No one cares. Read what my friend Sarah has to say about what to wear on a European beach.
I wear Outlier New Way Longs. They also make shorts and trunks. These are not your typical swim shorts but rather daily wear shorts that can double as swim shorts.
If you plan to swim in the Riviera, swim shoes are a must. This is something you can easily and cheaply purchase at your destination so you don’t have to carry them around on your whole trip.
If you are swimming in the Dead Sea, I don’t recommend you bring your best swimsuit, as the salt water can destroy anything.
Journal & Pen
I read The Importance of Being Earnest many times growing up. I always loved this quote “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” Expect some powerful moments when you travel on pilgrimage and never pass up the opportunity to journal and take notes. I am a huge fan of Field Notes – Made in America.
Mailing addresses of family and friends back home. People love postcards and they are so unexpected these days.
The Bible makes an excellent travel guide for trips to the Holy Land. You should also pick up a copy of the Holy Land Magnificat.
My friend, Father Charles Samson wrote a Catholic guide to the Holy Land.
Whatever you are reading, don’t be afraid to leave it behind for someone else to enjoy. You’ll free up some valuable space in your luggage for souvenirs.