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Luggage for Europe
Let It Roll

Don't be a burro. Pack light. A guide to practical luggage for traveling in Europe.
Carry-on luggage, checked luggage, back packs, suitcases, wheeled luggage, locks, security.

Chapter 7

HOW TO EUROPE: The Complete Travelers Handbook


John Bermont

A page of enjoy-europe.com by photographer and author John Bermont, with help from my daughter Stephanie.
Click here for the Table of Contents of How To Europe.
Updated 10-April-2014. Use your F5 key to refresh this page.

Carpe diem. Gratia Deo. Vivere bene!



One carry-on bag makes for a happy traveler.

LUGGAGE VERSUS THE AIRLINES

The first stop for you and your luggage is going to be the airline check-in counter. Here you will see the initial rewards of packing light. Traveling with only carry-on luggage eliminates the hassle of standing in line at baggage check-in.

Your disposition at the other end of your flight is the real payoff for those who do not check luggage. If you do not check any luggage, you don't have to wait a half hour for the carrousel to deliver your bag on arrival. Your luggage does not get mutilated by man and machine. It doesn't get lost (funny how bags often take free rides all over the world, or no ride at all). You don't want to wait a day or two on arrival in Europe for your luggage to be found and delivered, perhaps interrupting plans and forcing you to change onward reservations.

These things have all happened to gazillions of travelers and have cumulatively caused untold centuries of grief. Even though it might sound like it, don't think that airline people are bad — they're just human.

Other pack light advantages for those who do not check luggage are to be pronto in line at customs and first out of the terminal. Then you're at the head of the line for train tickets, taxis, buses, car rental, hotel space, ATMs, and other amenities. When 300 passengers get off a jumbo jet there are long lines everywhere.

Carry-On Luggage

When following the rule of pack light, all that a traveler has is one carry-on bag. The maximum dimensions are 21" x 16" x 8", or maybe 23" x 13" x 9". Check with your airline for their exact dimensions. The general rule is that the total linear dimensions may not exceed 45". The fundamental requirement is that your luggage must fit in the overhead bin. You can also stow it under the seat in front of you but then you have no room for your feet.

In actuality, carry-on had often been whatever you could talk and walk your way on board with, especially for the return trip. Those were the old ways. Airlines have started enforcing the rules very strictly, especially certain European airlines. Bins at the check-in counters and/or cutouts on the security belt machines have been installed to verify the size of suitcases going on board with you. If your bag doesn't fit in the bin or through the cutout you must check it. If you happen to get an oversized bag on board, you could find that the overhead bin has a 9" opening, whereupon you do have a problem.

And if you sneak past the check-in counter with an extra bag you will probably be stopped at the gate and requested to check one of them. This is common. I see a row of gate-checked bags every time I board a plane. You might as well get it right at check-in or the airline will get it right at the gate.

Airlines have various limits on the maximum weight allowed for carry-on luggage. This is not much of a concern when flying across the Atlantic but if you have a connection within Europe it could be a wallet thinning experience. The limits are lower and it is very likely that your carry-on will be weighed. Excess weight will cost you, excessively. Ask your travel agent or airline for cabin luggage restrictions within Europe. See Airlines for Travel to Europe: TRAVELERS YELLOW PAGES, find your airline, and find the section on luggage to get specifics for your flight.

Starting in August 2006 the Transportation Safety Administration, the "TSA" for short, now prohibits all but sample size bottles of liquids and gels in carry-on luggage. The major exceptions are baby milk, if you are traveling with a baby, and prescription medicines that you need during the flight. There are other TSA provisions regarding weapons and anything that could be used as a weapon, e.g., certain sports equipment. Each airlne has additional slightly different provisions some of which depend on your class of service. Check with your airline if you want to bring anything unusual on the plane, you know, stuff like the starter cannon for your yacht race.

Checked Luggage

If you must carry more with you than you can fit in a carry-on or you are traveling with items that are not allowed in the cabin, you can check your bags. Most people seem to check as much luggage as is allowed. I think that if the limits were ten times as much, many people would take the limit. Please see chapter 24, Shipping Your Treasures Home: Travelers Options from Europe, for more complete information on airline luggage allowances. You can also ask your travel agent or surf the website of your airline.

Most airlines are now charging for checked luggage, another reason to leave a few things at home. Fees start at $50 per bag and up from there. Oversized and overweight bags are also assessed an over budget fee. The days of two 70 pound checked pieces are long gone.

Airlines within Europe have particularly tight restrictions on luggage, checked and carry-on. If you are changing planes after arrival find out what the rules are before you load up the burro (you).

RECOMMENDED LUGGAGE

Specifications

My recommendation for a traveler's bag is:

  • Carry-on size:
    The maximum linear dimensions must be less than 45" (114 cm) and one dimension must be no more than 9" (23 cm).
  • Soft case with zippered openings:
    You can stuff this into odd shaped tight places. It won't break your kneecap when walking, and it is lighter than a hard case.
  • At least three separate compartments:
    Ideally each section should be accessible from the outside. If not, or even if you have separate compartments, make liberal use of plastic zip-type bags or packing cubes to segregate your goods. Organize well and you'll be able to get at anything in seconds. Pack separately:
    • clothes
    • toiletries and hardware
    • maps and guidebooks.
  • Handle and shoulder strap:
    Shoulder strap is the key word, unless you have wheeled luggage. Carry more with less fatigue and have two hands free at all times.
  • Wheels:
    This is something I wouldn't have considered 20 years ago, but I have become a convert. If you are marginal on the Pack Light Field Test (chapter 6, Pack Light Field Test: Travel Europe in Comfort and Style) a wheeled suitcase can be a big aid to your comfort. Wheels and handle take up space so select a good one. See the Travelpro advertised in the column on the right or browse Amazon for many other options.
  • Heavy duty hardware:
    Selecting durable lightweight luggage is a challenge. Make sure the handles and strap attachments are heavy duty. Even the most expensive leather cases often have handle attachments that are hardly more than tinfoil. Some handles are sewn onto areas that are not adequately reinforced and seem to be designed to fall off under moderate use in a short time. Good quality wheels are critical as are heavy duty zippers. Inspect carefully or read the Amazon customer reviews before buying anything.
  • Expandability:
    Many soft sided bags include an expansion capability. The bags are 9" thick but a zipper opens them up another 2" or so. This is very handy when you get to Europe, allowing space for new purchases.


NEVER NEVER place your passport or any valuables in your luggage.

A Good Choice

For a long time I traveled with an old shoulder bag which fit the specifications above. It's pretty beat up after the years and sort of looks like it went through the last war. I haven't seen anything just like it in decades. The outside dimensions are 13" high by 18" wide by 9" thick and it has a capacity of 2,100 cubic inches, equivalent to 34 liters. After repairing it a number of times (NO, not with duct tape!) I've retired it now. This was all I carried over the years, for many months of travel and many thousands of miles on the trains throughout Europe.

I'm presently using a soft side nylon rolling bag with dimensions of 14" by 20" by 9". The wheels add more than 2" so it is over 22" high and the pull mechanism adds an inch so it is 10" thick. I don't fill it to the brim so it can fit in as carry-on luggage. After looking over the luggage in department stores and luggage shops, pay a visit to a well-stocked office supply store, for example Office Max, Office Depot, or Staples. This is where I bought my roller bag. Examine the array of bags designed for frequent business travelers. They are made of tough nylon, have a shoulder strap and/or wheels, and have more pockets than a hunter's jacket. Some, like the one I use, have the expansion zipper so the big compartment can be enlarged by a couple of inches, after you get to Europe. These bags are great and cost a fraction of similar bags sporting famous brand names.

For convenience, if you want to shop from your computer, save gas money, and probably get a very good price have a look at the products offered in my pink advert column. Amazon pays me a small commission when you buy here. Thanks for your support.

Mark Your Bag

So many bags look so much alike these days that it is difficult to find your bag on the carrousel. Many people nowadays tie a ribbon on the handle to make it easier to find their bag on arrival. The result is that you have dozens of bags at the luggage-go-round with red ribbons tied to the handle. I go one step further. With strapping tape I put a large X on both sides of my bag. This makes it identifiable at 100 yards. Take a picture of it and keep a copy during your travels. It will be helpful when your bag is mislaid by the airline and you have to file a report. The clerk at the lost luggage service desk hands you a laminated 12"x18" card with photos of a few dozen types of luggage. You have to pick out the closest cousin to yours.

A Tote

Besides your regular luggage, travelers should have a personal day bag, usually called a tote. Use a tote for daily neccessities as you walk about. This can be used in Europe to carry things like your guide book, city map, extra batteries, a snack, beverage, roll of toilet paper, and other daily odds and ends that won't fit in your pockets. Many museums and monuments will not allow anything bigger than a small purse and require that larger bags be checked. NEVER place your passport or any valuables in your day bag or purse whether you have it on your shoulder or it is checked in a cloak room. Carry these valuables on your body under your outer clothes at all times.

On arrival in most cities you can stash much of your stuff in a train station locker or luggage check room. Use your day bag while you are out looking for your hotel for the night. It is also very handy when making an afternoon stopover in a city along the way to your destination. Unless you are on a train requiring a reservation you can hop off and on along the way.

Your day bag can be a light weight nylon or canvas bag with a shoulder strap. My roller luggage was part of a set of three, the smaller bag making a perfect day bag. I gave away the larger bag. No burro me!

ALTERNATE LUGGAGE

Other forms of luggage commonly used by travelers are the full size suitcase and the backpack.

Full Size Suitcase

A large plastic hard-side suitcase is a definite mistake for Europe. Put that old Samsonite out at your next garage sale. If you bring it to Europe it must be checked for air travel. It does not fit in overhead luggage racks on trains. It will not fit in many of the train station lock boxes. You might even have trouble getting it in the trunk of your rental car or taxi. It will be difficult to get on the elevator or up the stairs at many hotels. It will weigh a ton after two blocks. You will be the beast of burden. Poor burro, you.

If you absolutely must bring too much stuff, a large suitcase with rollers or one of the fold-up luggage carts would help, but would still leave severe disadvantages. It would be better to carry two smaller cases. But think about it — are you going to Europe to enjoy some time off or do you want to hurt yourself struggling with and sweating over a stupid plastic box full of dirty clothes? They do have laundromats in Europe so you only need to pack a few days supply of stuff to travel for months, and that is the way I do it.

Backpack

Backpacks are very popular with young travelers, and are even used by a few grandmothers. A great load can be carried with relative ease, at least without pulling your arms out of their sockets. Backpackers who normally carry entirely too much stuff would do well to consider rolling luggage, unless you like to punish your back.

A few problems should be mentioned. To get at things like maps and guidebooks, you have to sling it off your back. Many people overload themselves to the point that they need someone to help them get the pack mounted on their back. Also, some rigid frame packs are so large that they do not fit in the train station lock boxes. When mounted, the big backpacks make it nearly impossible for you to get on a typical European midget elevator or up the steps of a train. Some travelers complain about careless backpackers who bump into them with the heavy things as the campers walk through the aisles of the train.

A backpack can also be a temptation for street thieves. A beautiful petite leather backpack that Elizabeth bought at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul quickly attracted the attention of some gypsies. They staged a cute rouse and nearly had their mitts inside it as we were walking on the street in broad daylight. More about these gypsy thieves can be found in chapter 8, ATMs in Europe: Cash and Credit for Travel .

Airline baggage men can shake the tar out of a loosely packed backpack. I've seen backpacks coming down the ramp at baggage claim, followed by pots and pans, toothbrush, guidebooks, shoes, etc. You can and should request a box or plastic bag from the airline in which to place your backpack before the airport luggage crew starts to treat it ike a football. Not all airlines at all airports offer this service anymore. Make sure to pick up the right bag at baggage claim since there may be other backpacks traveling in similar bags.

The word "backpacking" has come to connote a style of travel. The style is "go cheap." Backpacking also implies that you are young and strong enough to carry all of your wordly possessions on your back. Is it really necessary to act like a burro? Since hostels everywhere include sheets and towels with the price of the bunk there is no need to haul linens around with you. Hostels also provide a wake-up breakfast and/or use of the house kitchen and table utensils. You don't need to haul around your pots and pans either. So, what I'm getting at is that whatever fits in a 20" wheeled bag is all you need to travel in Europe. I've done it with less on the trains of Europe for months on end. Leave the gross backpacks to the chumps. Backpacking in Europe is old camp. Be smart and look smart with a roller bag.

PACKING

Gravity Rules

Heavy stuff likes to settle to the bottom. Put it there in the first place so it doesn't mess things up as it goes down. The bottom of your luggage as you carry it is not necessarily the bottom as you pack it. Put the heavy stuff on the side opposite the handle.

Roll 'em or Fold 'em

I've packed both ways and have concluded that folding works best. Fold your outer garments, shirts and slacks especially. It's OK to roll your underwear, though I don't find any advantage in doing that with soft sided luggage. If you made the mistake of buying a hard case piece of luggage, rolling your underwear would allow you to stuff those items in the corners.

Vacuum Pack

I learned one of the best travel tips from a friend in Holland decades ago. Use the 2 gallon Ziploc® bags to pack your clothing. Each Ziploc® bag holds a couple of shirts or slacks. After neatly folding your clothes put them in the Ziploc® and zip it up except for the last inch. Lay it on your bed, sit on it, and zip it up. The result is like vacuum packed cheese. This keeps your clothes reasonably well pressed, and clean and dry no matter what.

Placing your clothes in 2 gallon Ziploc® bags helps you in other ways. It keeps things organized. If/when your bag is searched by TSA it is easy for them to get all your stuff back in your bag in some reasonable order. If your bag is searched by a foreign customs agent you have the same advantage. On one of my entries to a foreign land I was asked to open and empty my suitcase. I opened it, turned it over, and dumped everything out in front of the agent. He was a bit shocked by my abrupt action but he was satisfied after a cursory look at my clear plastic bags.

Use smaller Ziploc® bags for other items also, especially for liquids. I pack a couple of sandwiches whenever I go to the airport for a flight. Security takes their time and my homemade sandwiches sure beat the airport stuff, in price and quality.

I always write my name, telephone number, and email address on each Ziploc® bag. This will help you recover your stuff if a baggage handler rips your luggage open. This has happened to me.

Trial Packing

Do a trial packing a few days before you depart. If you do the Pack Light Field Test you will have done this. See chapter 6, Pack Light Field Test: Travel Europe in Comfort and Style. If you don't do the Pack Light Field Test at least do the trial packing. My trial packing usually turns up the fact that my luggage needs repair work, something I conveniently forgot to do after my last trip.

BUSTED BAGS

The men and machines of the airlines handling your bag behind the wall can easily inflict severe damage. If your bag is damaged complain immediately. The worst harm that I have experienced was on a KLM flight from Los Angeles to Amsterdam. The zipper had been ripped out and destroyed, leaving the bag wide open. KLM's service desk told me to see the luggage repair shop in Schiphol airport and they would pay for repairs, or KLM would give me a flat $25. I went to the luggage repair but it was a Sunday and it was closed. So I looked in the airport luggage shop and was surprised to find the exact same bag available for $75. Only then did I remember having bought my bag there the year before. So I bought a new one and went back to KLM's service desk with both bags and the receipt. They paid the full $75, but were not especially happy about it.

LOST BAGS

Checked luggage sometimes doesn't make it to the carrousel on arrival. This is usually caused by late check-in, either your fault or late arrival of your flight to make a connection. Winter flying in the north is particularly susceptible to late arrivals. In either case your luggage is usually put on the next flight and delivered to your door the next morning at the airline's expense.

To get your baggage returned you must file a report with the airline on arrival. Major airlines in major airports usually have a special office for this near the carrousels, with a line waiting. You'll need your baggage claim check. The clerk will give you a brochure with illustrations of dozens of different bags and ask you to pick out the style and color of your bag. Fill out the form, but don't rush away just yet. Ask the clerk if they have a toiletries kit to get you through the next day until your luggage arrives. In one case I was given an allowance of $75 per bag to buy replacement clothes. Usually I get a toiletries kit and a T-shirt.

LOCK IT UP

It is a good idea to secure your luggage against casual snooping which can lead to pilferage.

Locks

Small locks designed to hold the zippers of soft sided bags can be purchased in most stores selling luggage or travelers supplies. But I don't trust those bright brass locks on checked luggage, and I think that they make a statement — "there must be valuable stuff in this locked bag." The TSA is infamous for destroying locks, even those which are advertised as being approved by the TSA because TSA people have a master key and can open them. Good theory. TSA agents are government employees. Some of them have an attitude. It is easier or more fun for them to use the bolt cutter instead of finding the master key. If they do this to yours file a claim. Good luck.

Wire Ties

For checked luggage, when I have it, I prefer to seal the zippers with a wire tie, also called a cable tie. Wire ties are strong. The black ones are inconspicous and don't advertise the fact that you have locked your bag. To use a wire tie, you insert the small end in the eye and pull it through to lock it with the ribbed side on the inside of the loop. Snip off the tail with nail clippers. To remove these you must cut them off so bring nail clippers in your carry-on bag. Yes you can.

There is a chance that the TSA will open your luggage for inspection. Therefore, it would be a good idea to leave a little slack in the loop of your wire tie to make it easy for them to cut it off. After they open it they usually put their own style of plastic lock on the zipper pulls. They also put a notice inside that they had a peek. On my last flight the inspector also broke the zipper.

Wire ties can also be used to tie your luggage to the rack in a train. This gives you additional security when you go to the toilet or to the café car. Loop the wire tie through the handle of your bag and around a sturdy member of the rack. Wire ties can be joined together if you need more length. Just put the point of one into the eye of another. Schedule your café car visit or potty trip between stops and be at your luggage whenever the train is in a station. You can't use the toilet when the train is in a station anyway. Luggage thieves board trains at stops, walk through the cars, grab what they can, and jump off before the train departs. The wire tie would slow them down for a moment but probably not thwart the thief.

THE INVENTION OF THE WHEEL

Rolling Luggage

I used to scoff at people who used those little luggage carts or luggage with wheels. Not any more. Even when packing light a set of wheels can be a tremendous help. One of the biggest backaches for vagabonding travelers in Europe is lugging your luggage around town if there are no luggage lockers available in the train station. The French have a habit of sealing train station luggage lockers when terror is in the air. In major stations you must put your luggage through an x-ray machine before putting it in the locker. For independent travelers wheels can make a big difference in comfort and convenience these days, especially on a hot afternoon in Rome. You might as well put your bag on wheels as on your back.

Buy It Over There

If your luggage does not have wheels, consider buying a luggage cart when you arrive in Europe. This way it will not be in your luggage allowance on the plane. Wheels add volume and weight. Whereas American airports typically charge $3 or more for temporary use of a luggage cart, European airports generally give you free use of one, all the way from baggage claim through customs and to the curb. Wheel your luggage out to the shopping zone after you clear customs. There is almost always a store where you can buy a luggage dolly if you packed too much.


NOTE TO READERS

I welcome questions and comments. If you have any concerns about your trip to Europe that have not been covered well enough in this section please do not hesitate to write and ask. When you write please include relevant details.

I do not open attachments. Please include all of your data in the body of your email. I will reply in a day or two.

My email address is [email protected].

Do not forget to smell the hyacinths. Scroll through the Table of Contents of How To Europe: The Complete Travelers Handbook and read all 30 chapters, FREE on line. Good deal!

For a check-off punchlist of everything go to The Finale, Last Call: Travel Prep and Pack Lists for Europe.


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Note: Italicized notations by the author.


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