Ah, to be in France! Stephanie poses in front of the Cafe des 2 Moulins in the Montmartre district of Paris on a mild August day. You know who the locals are — the ladies wearing scarves, one on the left and one in the right rear. My daughter is going TIF today, "tourist informal," in her California t-shirt.
What will you wear to Europe? This is a major concern, but it is secondary. The real question is — how much? You are infinitely better off going with nothing but an umbrella and a toothbrush than with the load you would typically throw in the trunk of your car and bring on a weekend sortie in the United States.
As every traveler and chronicler of the subject relates, pack light. Seldom does anyone define the meaning of pack light, except to present a list of clothes and accessories to bring, no such list ever being universally practical. One size or style does not fit all. To enjoy travel, you must pack light. To define pack light, travel with your chosen load and see for yourself if it is convenient and gives you the freedom you need.
Remember that travel clothes are not the same as office or school clothes. When you travel you can wear the same thing day after day. Nobody is going to see you twice, except your travel partners. They may get bored looking at what you wear every day, but they didn't go to Europe to see your wardrobe! And if they are smart they didn't pack a different outfit for every day of the week either.
Dress In Style
It pays to be well presented, with a European flavor. Europeans are clothes conscious. Northern European clothing is somewhat somber, while brighter colors are more common as you go south. Clothes represent personality and social status. The clothes you are wearing announce "This is me."
Europeans seeing you briefly for the first time will judge you completely by your appearance and will behave accordingly. Unfortunately for the traveler most of your personal contact in Europe will be with hotel clerks and cafe waiters. To secure a good room, good table, and good service, dress as if you deserve it. In fact, you may be stopped and turned away at the door of some places if you are not properly dressed. Riffraff is not welcome.
These girls talk and walk in San Sebastian in January, and all are wearing one thing in common. Hint — check the necks. I bet they are talking about their next pintxos bar. Pintxos are basically the same as tapas, tiny delicacies on a piece of toast, but this is in Basque country where many people speak the native euskara language, so it is pintxos in this jewel of a city in the north of Spain.
In addition, you must keep yourself comfortable. Northern European weather is generally cooler, wetter, and more variable than in the United States. South of the Alps and Pyrenees it can be warm and stuffy just about any time of the year. Walking in and out of museums, restaurants, and stores may force you to off and on your coat. In stores the heat from those little halogen lamps can be very uncomfortable. Be ready for rain or shine, morning chill or afternoon heat. In addition to your toothbrush and umbrella carry a light weight windbreaker at all times. See "layers" below.
The Pack Light Field Test
Nobody can say absolutely how much another individual should bring or how big or small your luggage should be. Everybody has different limits. That's why we have Olympic Games, to see who can lift the most. Stay within your own limits. To see what your personal limits are, whether you are a petite college girl or an NFL tackle, see Pack Light Field Test: Travel Europe in Comfort and Style. Unfortunately the usual case is that the college girl wants to bring as much as an NFL tackle can carry. My daughter Stephanie is a good example of this problem. Take a look at her packing list below.
Take it or leave it. For my comprehensive quick-check packing list see Last Call: Travel Prep and Pack Lists for Europe.
Rules for the easy traveler, then, are rather formidable:
Typical Tourist Clothing
The clothes worn by most American tourists announce them as Yankees better than any trilingual poster ever could. From the ground up you're wearing: tennis shoes, worn Levi's, collared tee shirt, and ski jacket. And all of your wordly possessions are in your humongous backpack.
Tourists line up to enter a monument in Rome Italy in August. For clothing it looks like anything goes. Notice the smartly dressed dude in the middle wearing blue bangos and camp boots. He probably has his dinner at McDumpster's.
Go Like a Local
For a number of reasons you are better off looking like a local citizen rather than a standard American tourist. Do not misinterpret this. I love the USA and all that it represents, but I try to avoid being an American billboard when I travel overseas. The primary reason is to avoid being a target of pickpockets, a breed endemic in Europe. You might also think that it could avoid being caught up in terrorist bombings. That is probably not an issue since the murdering sons of bitches just kill anybody, including fellow Muslims praying at their local mosque.
For many years my personal preference was a pair of black slip-on shoes, wool/polyester blend slacks, turtleneck shirt, and sport coat. This ensemble will get you through almost any door in Europe with reasonable respect, keep you comfortable under most weather conditions, and allow you to blend in without being instantly identified as "the American."
I have worn out a couple of sports coats in my travels. I prefer the black/gray herringbone style with as many inside pockets as possible. This travels very well without showing wrinkles or minor stains. If you do not want to buy a new one go to a Salvation Army store in an upscale neighborhood. There will probably be a selection in the mid size ranges going for about $25.
The wool/polyester blend slacks look more like wool than plastic, but they wash drip dry. You won't need to iron these if you care for them according to the label. Levi Strauss has introduced a new Dockers line available in several colors besides the normal khaki. A couple of pairs of the dark charcoal served me well throughout Europe on my recent trips.
Turtleneck shirts are ideal for the cooler climate in northern Europe, but they are not normally stocked in American stores. In fact I couldn't find a single one in my hometown in Michigan as I packed for a recent trip. The men's shops all said that they weren't in style this year. Booosh! I ended up buying a couple of good cotton T-necks at the V+D department store after I arrived in Holland. Many turtlenecks are available at Amazon.com year round. See my advert column on the right. An open collar dress shirt is a good substitute for the turtleneck in warmer weather. In very few restaurants is a tie required, though you'll see them worn often in better establishments. For winter travel, I also bring a lightweight turtleneck sweater. When it is really cold I put on an extra t-shirt or two.
Levi's and other brands of denim jeans became fashionable in Europe in the 1990's. Some of my critics dispute the date. It depends where you were in Europe at that time, but it doesn't matter any more anyway. This is the new millenium, 2000+. Levi's are now tolerated in many cafés and restaurants during the day. However, regular slacks are still much more common as street wear in major cities throughout Europe. Based on my observations of people walking through the central train stations of Europe, less than 20% were wearing denim jeans. The preference for the vast majority, men and women, young and old, was black slacks.
Slacks are also much more in harmony with packing light. Levi's are heavy and bulky, and take a day to dry out when they get rained on. If you do wear denim, select a lightweight pair with a bit of fashion. You might want to consider wearing Levi slacks rather than Levi jeans.
There are some people who wear blue jeans as if it was a religion. They insist on wearing them everywhere. I wear jeans if I am out on my bicycle or going to local pubs in Holland. But normally I dress a bit more upscale for the benefits it gives me. Fashions do change and fashions are different in different cities, but slacks, a dress shirt, and street shoes are always welcome.
I have no ambition of being a clothing cop so accept this chapter as you will. The advice is based on years of personal experience in Europe. Yeah sure, you can wear your back yard jeans or cut-offs, t-shirt or no shirt, and sneakers or flip flops. If that is the way you want to be viewed in the cosmopolitan cities throughout Europe, expect no respect. I am startled by some of the email I get on this subject. Some readers claim that I have never been to Europe and do not know what I am talking about. They are passionate and rather foul at times in proclaiming that jeans are the holy grail. If you are under 25, regard eating out as a quick stop at McD's, and jeans are the only drawers you own, then do it.
Dressing well does not have to apply only to Europe. I had drifted into wearing Levis at my local pub in Michigan a few years ago. One night last summer I was returning home from an event where I was wearing a jacket and slacks and decided to stop in at Oscar's, my regular place, to shoot some eight ball. It wasn't long before a young lady about half my age started bumping into me and making strong eye contact. After that I started wearing slacks and a dress shirt when I went to Oscar's. Approachments by young dames have happened again and again to the point that it has become embarrassing, but I won't brag on it. Guys, listen up here! Dress sharp and you won't need all those bull drop lines to meet a girl in Europe, or anywhere.
I would expect that a woman dressed in grungy denim would normally be approached by a man in more or less the same low-life outfit. It's only speculation, but I guess that if you want to meet the prince of your dreams in Europe you would dress to the nines. Why not? Besides, women in Levi's are about the most asexual creatures on the earth. I don't know why girls wear Levi's. They are so unflattering to the derrière. And it won't cost you much to dress better. It will probably cost you less than that name brand stuff. Think, have you been to your local second hand store recently. They have some great stuff at laughingly ridiculous low prices. You will want to tell your friends, as I have just done. Male speaking, I bought a London Fog brand, zipper-in liner, trench coat for $40. It looks better than the the one in my closet that I bought 15 years ago for $140. Well, I must admit that it is a bit out of fashion. Most coats in Europe are black and the length is just above the knee, so this thing is the wrong color and a foot too long per current styles. I had a seamstress cut a foot off. Another of my Salvation Army store buys was a $60 London Fog windbreaker which I bought for $3. Perfect.
I came back from Amsterdam a few years ago after participating in the annual Queen's Day party on April 30 and visiting the blooming tulips at Keukenhof in early May. It appeared that about 80% of the tourists of all ages and 95% of the young locals are wearing Levi's or something similar. Girls wear very tight jeans with a prominent belt around the hips. There is no excess fat on the Dutch girls. Men are wearing various sorts of jeans in various colors, black being very popular. I stick to my loose slacks with pockets that I can get my hands into. My Dockers "Pleated Classic Fit" charcoal slacks from J.C. Penny were perfect.
Leather jackets are fairly popular in Europe, especially in Spain. Leather looks good and is very practical. It resists drizzle and wind. Use mink oil to keep it clean and waterproof. I wore a bomber jacket on my spring 2009 trip around Britain and Ireland. It is cool and drippy in those countries much of the year.
Dress in "layers." This means dressing in items that can be added to or removed individually without changing everything when the weather changes. For example, instead of a heavy overcoat wear a sweater and a windbreaker. If it gets too warm in the afternoon take off the sweater and carry it in a shopping bag. Dressing in layers requires that all of your clothes be complementary and mixable. Dark, neutral, and earth colors tend to avoid fashion clashes, and do not need cleaning as often as lighter colors.
You can also dress in under-layers if it is really cold. On a winter trip through Scandinavia and the Baltics a few years back I would wear two or three T-shirts under my turtleneck and two pairs of socks. That extra insulation really helps and is not bulky. I was amazed to see the locals walking about with their coats open.
For those of you who wish to look fashionable, keep your neck warm, and not look like an American tourist, wear a scarf. In Europe a scarf is a ubiquitous fashion statement. Women and men from 15 years old and up wear scarves. Bring one appropriate for the season and climate.
Pack your scarf in your carry-on luggage or wear it. The cool dry air in airplanes can give you a chill. A scarf will help to keep you cozy.
Visitors relax in a Rome museum. The Europeans, even the young ones, wear their signature — a scarf — even in August. After you put your shoes on put your scarf on, gals and gents.
In Europe you'll notice all sorts of footwear — boots, clogs, tennis, joggers, sandals, army issue, camper clumpers, and Italian fashion. Many people will see and examine your shoes before their eyes come up to meet yours, if they ever do.
Appearance is important. Wear a good looking, durable, broken-in pair of shoes. Your average American department store shoes will probably be mistaken for Italian fashion. Perfect. An average pair of polished black slip-ons will get you in the door anywhere. Also, rubber soles will survive far better than leather soles on the rain soaked sidewalks of Europe.
House rules at my hostel in Riga Latvia required everyone to check their shoes at the door. This is what the patrons were wearing — fashion boots, tennies, flip flops, hiking boots, and street shoes. Flip-flops in Latvia in January? They raise some tough durable people up north!
Instead of shoes, I have become a convert to sandals, more specifically Birkenstocks, a German brand. Once you break in a pair of Birkenstocks you will never go back to shoes again, except for during stormy weather. You won't even want to go barefoot again. Birkenstocks have a half inch of cork between the hard rubber bottom and the leather part you rest your feet in. Cork is very easy to walk on. You can go all day in these things. I recommend black socks with the Birkenstocks, unless you are at the beach. Birkenstocks are expensive so you can make this one of your purchases when in Germany, at prices 50% less than the American prices.
There are other advantages to wearing Birkenstock sandals. At airport security check you can kick them off and slip them back on in a second. In hotels where the toilet is down the hall slip them on when making a trip. The same goes for overnight trains if you do not have a W.C. in your couchette.
Carry an extra pair of shoes since it is likely that your shoes will get soaked occasionally. If you invest in a pair with natural leather uppers, you can oil them to the point that they resist water like wax paper. Use mink oil or equivalent once a week.
My advice is do not wear any kind of sports shoes, e.g. tennis, jogging, or whatever else they call them these days. I was with some business associates in The Hague a few years ago and we decided to take a pub crawl. Two of them had just bought new jogger shoes and wore these out for the evening stroll. The doormen at several places would not allow my friends in the door. These places were just your average Dutch cafés and bars, not fancy or up-scale. And my associates were businessmen in their 50s, certainly good potential customers in any establishment. Those doormen want to keep their jobs so they keep the off-spec people outside. Nothing looks clunkier than fresh white tennies. I've heard that the French call them marshmellows. In my Amsterdam and Brussels train station observations, jogger shoes were worn by less than 5% of those passing through, usually by young people with backpacks.
An alternative for those who like tennies is the Florsheim line of shoes called "Comfortech." These are light weight black slip-ons with a cushion bottom. They look great, are super comfortable, and will get you past any maitre d' or doorman.
Hats are not very common in Europe. Do not let that stop you from wearing one. Hats are practical, whether to keep the sun or the drizzle off your head. I wore a black wool fedora on my last tour of Britain and Ireland, until I forgot it and left it on a train in Edinburgh. A more practical hat which can take some abuse is a golfer style hat. You can roll this up and stuff it in your shoulder bag so you won't forget it on a train.
I saw a mirror on a street in Wexford and paused for a self portrait, known as a "selfie" in the new American lingo. The wool fedora hat and the leather bomber jacket served me well on a drizzly May trip around Guinness Island, formally known as Ireland. Notice the X on my luggage. That is visible at a hundred yards so it is easy to spot on the airport luggage-go-round. So many bags look alike these days that it is hard to find your stuff. The bungie cord is very handy for keeping my shoulder bag tied down when I want to roll it rather than carry it.
Weather protection is essential. Bring a telescoping umbrella. You can find umbrellas which slide down to under 10 inches. But get a good quality device.
A lightweight hooded mackintosh is very handy for those frequent all day drizzles. A light pair of leather gloves and a hat are helpful for off-season travel, and can even be useful in northern Europe in the summer.
Friends who have read this book often say that it is overly male oriented. A major reason, perhaps, is my discussion of clothing, but the attitude probably surfaces in other areas as well. I've seen packing lists on the internet written by women who must have had a platoon on hand to carry their utterly essential stuff. Some girls claim that they simply can't travel with only a carry-on bag, and some bring everything but the kitchen sink on a weekend outing.
I used to travel like that but learned the hard way how to do it the easy way. Living in Haarlem at the time I drove to Paris with my Dutch girl friend for a weekend sortie. My two suitcases were packed with six days worth of extra clothes and other just-in-case stuff. When I picked her up I was amazed. She wore a black jumpsuit, a colorful scarf, a fashionable raincoat, and carried a slightly oversized purse with everything she needed. That was it. Although our room was a nice one in an above average hotel, there was hardly enough space to hang my things or stash the suitcases. My precious Paris time was wasted putting things away, deciding what to wear, and repacking everything.
Advice from Women
Female travel writers can give you plenty of tips on how to pack light. For encouragement and advice, ladies should consult the books of Mesdames Dena Kaye, Georgia Hesse, Louise Purwin Zobel, Eleanor Adams Baxel, and others. Some of these books are decades old but the advice is timeless. Another great source of clothing advice for women is on line at JourneyWoman. This is a collection of first-hand reader-submitted comments for countries around the world, with a generous helping for every country in Europe.
Three women wait for traffic to clear before crossing a street in Madrid. If you want to see the sites of Spain in moderate temperatures with fewer tourists getting in the way go in the winter. This was shot in January.
A Report from Stephanie
My then 19 year old daughter Stephanie spent half July to half August 2007 in Italy. She stayed with her aunt in a village north of Milan and then went to the beach and shared a hotel room with her cousin Annaperina. This is a part of Stephanie's report.
"The style in Italy right now is very preppy. Everyone looks like they're going to step on a yacht. Collared shirts, the jacket over the shoulders, and tied in the front. They wear jeans all the time, but only the best...Guess, Dolce, and Gabana...etc. It's like stuck up, but effortless. It looks like it took them two seconds to get ready, but they look good.
"I did not see a lot of speedos, just the old guys...and even less topless women. I think I saw like five and I was there [at the beach] for two weeks. Of course the little girls are still always topless. I hardly ever see a girl under ten with a top on."
An Update from Stephanie
Stephanie made her annual month trip to Italy in July and August 2012 at age 24. By email here is her packing list and commentary.
Hey dad, I just wanted to give you my packing list:
-6 pairs of shorts
-2 pairs of pants
-4 nice tops, to go out
-14 more casual tops for during the day and less exciting evenings
-1 pair of leggings
-2 jackets, one windbreaker type jacket and another one is a knit cardigan type jacket
-2 pairs of pjs
-2 pairs of toms
-2 pairs of high heels
-2 bathing suits
This is for four weeks in Italy during the summer.
...This is based on where I'm going though, I knew that I would be spending most of my time at the pool and that for about a week and a half we would be going to the beach. I actually bought another bathing suit because I do not think two for ten days straight at the beach is enough. The only thing is that whenever traveling the most important thing is to be comfortable in what you're wearing. I do not mean pick clothing that is physically comfortable (although, you can... I always do when I'm on a long plane ride), I mean pick clothing that makes you feel confident and that you think you look attractive in. Most of the younger generation in Europe just wear jeans, a regular t-shirt, and a scarf with Converse type shoes, which I do not think is very fashionable. It is also important to be prepared for any type of weather. It was raining here the other night and I did not prepare for that. I was just going to wear one of my sandals out with a pair of shorts and a jacket because I hate getting any kind of cloth shoe wet (like Toms or Converse). We didn't go out anyways, but I really only had the one option.
I wrote to Stephanie recently to ask if she would give me the dimensions for her suitcase if she still has it. She replied 'I do not unfortunately — it broke and it was just too big.' I believe it was 29 inches. I do know that it weighed 49.6 pounds on the Delta Airlines scale, just short of their 50 pound limit, and I was the beast of burden getting it to the airport. No wonder that the handle broke off, and good riddance.
My 20 Second Advisory for Mature Women
I get a lot of emails from women complaining, and rightly so, that I am overly male focused when it comes to clothes. Well, I'm a man yes I am, but not Lola. If I was a woman I would pack a couple pairs of black cotton Capri pants, a few white or pastel blouses, a scarf or two for the season, flats and/or sturdy walking shoes. That is for the day. For evening bring a black pants suit or jump suit or dress or skirt/blouse to complement the scarf. You do not need to empty your closet into your suitcase. Mix and match and you'll be fine. Bring no jewelry except the junk you can afford to lose.
If you are under 25 years old you can wear just about anything that you wear at home.
In January these girls posed for me in the Riga Latvia train station. Notice the things in common, a scarf and jeans, and no tennies. You can roll those jeans up to show off your boots.
Pack light girls. Yes, you can. Yes, you must.
In fact it is more important for women to pack light than for men. Remember — if you pack it you carry it, you burro you. And if you have too much and some helpful stranger offers to give you a hand in a train station or tourist office, chances are nine out of ten that he is helping himself. You might have nothing left to carry when he is done with you.
You wonder why a guy would steal a woman's suitcase? He probably has a girl friend who would be overjoyed with some American clothes and toiletries. This dude would be the hero of the month. If your suitcase takes a walk, I hope that you didn't hide your money and passport in it; cash, I.D., and clothes — what a score! This scenario is from the 1987 edition of my book "How To Europe" and is almost identical to a scene in the movie "French Kiss." In fact this story plot is the basis for a good piece of the film, produced 8 years after my book. It looks like the script writer read my stuff. Some of the rest of the movie is also pretty good. Kevin Kline plays a very believable French cad, and during the scroll sings a very respectable version of "La Mer," the original French version of "Beyond the Sea" made popular in the USA by the great Bobby Darin.
By the way, when the friendly helper is done with your suitcase, you might look to see if you still have a purse. One of his buddies standing nearby probably picked that off as the first cavalier distracted you with his charming accented English. This scenario sounds a little harsh but this is the real world, not the fantasy feely-good world created by most travel writers. See chapter 8, Pickpockets in Europe: They're Everywhere, for advice on avoiding Jesse James and the bandit gangs. They are everywhere you want to be. That is their team job. The scoundrels rarely work alone.
Casual is not cool.
No Dockers in the Office
Americans traveling to Europe on business must wear their best. Impression is critical in doing business overseas. If you wear khaki Dockers to work because they are so comfortable, put them aside for your trip. A dark plain lightweight wool suit will be accepted for all occasions. Use it for after work social events as well. See what the network news anchors wear. Do not wear brown or patterns unless you are a university professor.
The Tie Is the Thing
White shirts are fine and are always OK. You'll see many men wearing colors. I prefer a light blue. Ties from the top fashion names, or knock-offs, are the order of the day.
Women on Business
Ladies, please please please leave your Madeline Albright suits at home. Better yet just throw them in the trash. Those tight pastel skirts and jackets are screaming yuk, absolutely horrible. I can't even put the real words into print. Hillary Clinton and her pastel pants suits are just as bad.
I recommend that you pack a loose fitting black pants suit, a few of your best silk blouses, a couple of splashy scarves, and maybe a string of pearls. Have a look at Dr. Condoleezza Rice and what she wears. She looks right sharp all over the world, and presents an image that all Americans can really be proud of. She is cool. Imitate her and you won't go wrong.
Bring only the jewelry that you can afford to have stolen. Repeat. Bring only the jewelry that you can afford to have stolen.
Speedos had been the tradional beach wear for men in Europe. Younger fellows have taken up with California surfer style trunks which they wear over the speedos.
Women normally wear one piece and two piece suits as in the USA. However a significent percentage of women leave the top half of the bikini at home. Topless girls are everywhere. And the tonga is popular, showing 99% of the derrière and leaving not much to the imagination.
To leave even less to the imagination and not wear anything go to one of the nude beaches. Going naked is allowed on designated coastal beaches and inland waterways throughout Europe. This is usually posted "naturist" accompanied by the local word for beach.
Unfortunately, you do have to wash your clothes while traveling. There are several ways to get it done. In packing light you need only 3 days worth of everything plus the clothes on your back. This means a laundry job twice a week.
In standard tourist class hotels you rarely see a laundry bag, a normal item in American motels. When I have found the laundry bag in Europe I almost used it for something else after reading the prices. It would be cheaper to buy new clothes at American prices, but you won't find American prices in Europe. If the hotel does not have a cleaning or laundry service, the desk clerk will be able to direct you to a dry cleaner or laundromat.
If you are on an extended business trip you probably must use the hotel service because you do not have time to do it yourself. Some miserly Dilbert managers will single out this item on your expense report and try to disallow it. Stand your ground.
When having dry cleaning done, make sure that cleaning is done and not just pressing. Write down the native word for cleaning. If there are spots or stains, point them out to the attendant. Spot removal can't be guaranteed because the spot may be due to loss of dye rather than misdirected spaghetti sauce or wine.
If you are using hostels as you travel, for the economy or the camaraderie, you are likely to find a washing machine in a side room. This will be one of the most convenient and cheapest opportunities for washing your clothes. If you are traveling in high season you may have to wait in line to use the machine.
These facilities will be strictly self-service. If you do not understand the workings of the machine, ask. If you put your stuff in and come back six hours later you can expect to see your clothes dumped on any adjacent table or chair. Someone else needed to wash. Do likewise if you need to, but ask the manager first. Just because the machine has stopped does not mean that the wash is finished. It may be on one of its pauses.
Before starting ask what the fee is if it is not posted. You may or may not need to furnish your own suds.
The washing machines in my Riga hostel were the most modern Europe has to offer. However, the dryer was more traditional. Latvia and the other Baltic countries are great places to visit because everything is still so inexpensive.
Public laundromats are usually attended, sometimes are coin operated, normally have restricted hours, and are typically closed one or two days a week. European machines are smaller than American ones and take one hour or more per load. Part way through the wash cycle the machine pauses for an extended soak.
If you allow the laundromat to do the wash for you the attendant will set the temperature depending on the color of your clothes. Attendants follow the rules on the machine, period. Your permanent press white shirts will probably be boiled and returned as permanently wrinkled. I suggest that you do it yourself in a coin machine. If you can't read the directions, ask around to see if someone speaks English. If that fails, watch the others. Temperatures are in Celsius, a.k.a. centigrade. For information on Celsius see chapter 27, Europe's Metric System.
The price of one load of wash can be three dollars or more. Detergent will be available, either in single load sizes from a coin automat or free from a soap tub in the laundromat.
Dryers are similar to ours so you should have no difficulty. Dryers normally run on a ten minute cycle and the cost is reasonable. You'll probably have to come back every ten minutes to feed and start the thing again since many will not run multiple times with extra coins.
Lonely Planet is the only guide book series which locates laundromats in the major cities. Use their maps and legend to find a place to wash your clothes. You do not necessarily want to ask your hotel. The manager may direct you to one of his associates or sub-contractors. That is not always your best deal.
Wash Basin or Bidet
It's the old fashioned way. If you do not want to go to a laundromat then you must scrub, soak, rinse, wring, and hang to dry.
Many hotel rooms in France are posted, "Do not wash your clothes in the room, and do not eat in the room" — free translation from le français (French). My theory is that if no drip marks or crumbs are left on the floor, the spirit of the hotel keeper's request is honored. Hand washing clothes in your room will certainly save you money, will probably occupy less of your time, and will relieve you of the uncertainty of delay due to sometimes service. Picnicking in your room has exactly the same benefits. See chapter 15, Eating in Europe: Travel on Thy Belly.
Instead of doing your laundry in the wash basin, use the bidet. A letter from a reader asked if this is sanitary. The bidet is clean so why not? You can let your laundry soak for a while and still be able to brush your teeth and wash your face.
Wring out your underwear and hang it over the usually present radiator. It will be warm and dry by morning. But dust off the radiator first. And do the wash early in the evening since the heat is often turned off at night and then comes back on for a few hours in the morning.
One challenge for the scrub-it-yourselfer will be in hanging your clothes if they are still dripping. This applies to slacks, skirts, shirts, blouses, and other outer-wear. Inflatable hangars are ideal for drip dry shirts and blouses. If you have no bathtub or shower in the room, use a newspaper to catch the drips. Sometimes a bit of ingenuity will be needed to figure out what to tie your line on. Some rooms are almost impossible. Strapping tape can sometimes come to the rescue. See chapter 6, Pack Light Field Test: Travel Europe in Comfort and Style. Take your wash down in the morning so that the chambermaid doesn't observe. You do not need a confrontation with the hotel keeper. If your clothes are still damp just hang them in the closet, if there is one.
In the Bag
There are times when you just do not have enough time in one place to wash out the undies. Say you have to catch a train or drive to the next city pronto. No problem. Put your small stuff in a two gallon ZipLoc™ bag with a packet of Woolite™. Add water. Zip it up and shake it around a bit. You can let them soak until you find running water again to rinse them out. Then hang to dry.
On the Floor
Do not leave your clothes or anything you intend on keeping in a bag on the floor of your hotel room. Housekeeping hires from the bottom of the grade card. It is possible, even likely, that anything on the floor will be viewed as trash and thrown into the dumpster when maid service enters the room.
BUYING EUROPEAN CLOTHES
Buying clothes in Europe can be a challenge. Clothing is cut differently, partly for style and partly to fit the build of the average citizen. This varies considerably from country to country.
Size Conversion Tables
Take care in using the clothing size conversion tables presented in travel books. Tables differ. Sales clerks are seldom knowledgeable or helpful on this. They know less about American sizes than you can learn about European sizes. Size tables are posted in some of the large department stores, though in some stores I have seen conflicting conversion tables for American to European sizes on the wall and on garment packages. I have bought the same size under shorts with the same brand name in two different European countries. One was loose and one was tight.
The True Test
If you buy clothes in Europe, have yourself measured by a competent salesperson, if you can find one. Measurements and sizes will be in centimeters. See chapter 27 Europe's Metric System: Travel with Grams, Meters, Liters, and Centigrade if you slept through my math class and do not know about the metric system. Men's shirt sleeves are measured from the shoulders, not the spine. Also try the garment on. Ascertain whether or not it will shrink when washed. Cotton items purchased in Europe will probably shrink. Buy something a size too big.
Long dark coats are favored in Norway. This is Oslo in January and way up north at about the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, but there is no snow on the ground. The Gulf Stream keeps the climate temperate throughout northern coastal Europe.
Although it is not something that most of us pack for a trip, hair is an important part of your wardrobe in the context of your appearance.
The long grizzly look is characteristic of laborers and dopey students, just as it is in the United States. Before you go, get a haircut. Short hair is much easier to take care of, an important consideration while traveling. But, do not get a military trim. That's too short. If you get a full head shave you may be mistaken for a bar bouncer, except real bar bouncers may regard you as a punching bag.
The morning shave is probably the one thing most men wish they could do without, but it might be better to continue shaving. Beards invoke suspicion in many people (e.g., customs agents and airport security folks), fear in some (e.g., young women), and instant dislike in most of the rest (e.g., hotel clerks and maitres d'). You do not need hassles and rejections from these folks while you are traveling. But then again, wearing a beard saves time and trouble in the morning so make your own call on this. Try to keep it neatly trimmed if you have a beard. I have had a beard for many years, on and off. I put up with the hassles for the convenience of avoiding the morning scrape. See chapter 6, Pack Light Field Test: Travel Europe in Comfort and Style, to learn a better way to shave — with vinegar.
I'm preaching on this web site about not wearing Levis, keeping your hair trimmed, and controlling the facial hair. I am a sinner. This shows me in Buda overlooking Pest, Hungary in June, 1993. Mon Dieu! No wonder the security guys have been giving me a pat down at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport for decades.
Traditionally, European women do not shave their legs. But they seldom show much leg (except at the beach) since their dresses and skirts overlap their boots. An American woman traveling in Europe could easily escape the regular leg shaving. In addition, many European women do not shave under their arms. These traditions are crumbling and women generally shave these days. Whether or not to go traditional is a matter of personal taste.
A few people who have read this paragraph have gone ballistic, accusing me of saying that European women do not shave their underarms and legs. And some European women have emailed me to the effect that women in the next country do not shave but the women in their country do shave. That supports my observations – some do and some do not.
Here is something that I don't know anything about. A reader, Jennifer, wrote recently: "My daughter found that almost all of her friends from London and other European cities did not shave their legs, they exfoliate. I have done it for years and can't tolerate stubble now." Further comments from the fair side of the human race are welcome.
How do you select luggage for your 'pack light' trip? Chapter 7, Luggage for Europe: Pack Light, Let It Roll, gives my recommendations based on years of European travel.
NOTE TO READERS
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