While packing for a trip to Europe, I took a break for a little photo session of my favorite take-alongs. I’m not talking about the obvious stuff — backpack, day bag, toiletries kit, and packing cubes. No, these are the little odds and ends that 20 years of European travel have taught me to always bring along.
Every seasoned traveler has a little bag of doodads stuffed deep in their suitcase, “just in case.” But I’m evangelical about packing light. So I’ve narrowed my MacGyver bag of tricks down to items that are practical, useful, and light enough that even if I don’t wind up needing them, they’re still worth packing along. Here, in no particular order, are the 10 little items that I may never need in Europe…until I definitely do. (You can download or print the list here.)
1. Two types of tape
In a previous post, I mentioned how I use a little roll of black electrical tape to cover up annoying little lights in a hotel room. I’ve used it for dozens of other things, too: band-aiding a fraying headphone cable, de-linting a sweater, fastening a plug to its adapter so I don’t leave it behind in the socket, and on and on. I also bring another type of tape: a very small roll of white duct tape. I often ship a box of accumulated dead weight home midway through a trip, and this tape is essential for sealing the box and reinforcing its seams. Duct tape has so many other uses, too. For example, I’ve used it to help keep stubborn drapes closed to avoid an early-morning sunbeam wake-up call.
Of course, you could just buy a bottle of water, then re-use the bottle throughout your trip. But an empty plastic bottle takes up more than its share of space in a tightly packed day bag. Instead, I carry a collapsible Vapur water bottle, which you can roll up and tuck (unobtrusively) into any pocket until it’s needed. The plastic carabiner-type hook on the cap is handy for attaching it hands-free to my camera bag or a belt loop. And they’re durable — mine has survived several multi-week trips.
3. Trader Joe’s “Just Mango Slices”
On an hours-long plane or train ride, junk food is tempting. But instead, I carry a couple of bags of Trader Joe’s dehydrated, unsweetened “Just Mango Slices.” They’re explosively flavorful and hearty enough to cut through any jet lag-induced hunger — and they’re more nutritious than a candy bar.
4. Resealable Plastic Baggies (Various Sizes)
It can be hard to find these in Europe. And even if you do, why buy a dozen when you really just need one or two? To save time, I pack away a little bundle of zippered baggies — a mix of gallon, quart, sandwich, and “snack” sizes. I never know just how I’ll use them…until I do (sticky snacks, wet swimsuit, edible souvenirs with a potential for leakage, somewhere to safely stow my phone when I hit the beach or pool, and so on).
5. Sea Bands
I’m fortunate not to have too many problems with motion sickness. But you never know when you’ll wind up on a plane through heavy turbulence, or a bus ride on a serpentine mountain road, or a boat on rough seas. These elastic bands slip onto your wrists, with little beads aimed at pressure points related to combating nausea. This non-medicinal cure has earned many loyal fans among cruise enthusiasts, morning-sickness sufferers, chemo patients, and the perennially carsick.
6. Go Toobs and FlatPak Soap Case
I’ve tried all different types of little bottles for my shampoo, laundry soap, and other liquids. Most have failed — often messily. But a few years back I discovered Go Toobs, and now that’s all I use. The silicone bottle is sturdy yet flexible, and the cap is firmly built and stays on well. By the way, I always seal little bottles like this in “snack-size” plastic baggies before plane trips — just in case the pressure changes trigger any problems.
UPDATE (December 2019): Russ Whealy, who manages merchandise here at Rick Steves’ Europe, recently added to our product lineup one of my favorite new discoveries: the Matador FlatPak soap bar case. It’s a little collapsible baggie where you can keep your bar of soap. Somehow, it prevents your moist soap from becoming a soggy mess while also preventing leakage. This seemed too good to be true. But I took one on my latest research trip…and it worked like a charm. I used to carry around a heavy plastic soap dish that took up more than its share of space in my toiletries kit. Never again.
(You can also thank Russ for our new “spinner” carry-on wheeled bag — my wife’s new favorite bag.)
If your accommodations don’t provide breakfast, it can be a pain to go prowling the cobbles, bleary-eyed at dawn, just to caffeinate. A few packets of Starbucks Via Instant can save the day. (I also carry single-serving packets of sweetener and powdered creamer. ) This is especially handy if you’re renting an Airbnb-type apartment that comes with a way to heat water, but nothing to put in it. A cup of Via (and maybe a couple of mango slices) tides me over just long enough to get ready for the day and go find a real breakfast.
8. Airplane Barf Bags
I’ve never used one of these for its intended purpose. But I never leave one behind when I get off the airplane. I have quite a collection of these practical little enclosures, which are just the thing for organizing receipts, postcards, or other random bits of paper…or for just about anything else.
As an absurdly light sleeper, I’ve tried every possible kind of earplug (believe me), and I’ve settled on this as my favorite brand: Mack’s, which are soft (comfortable) yet substantial (soundproof). Even if you are a heavy sleeper, you never know when you’ll check into your hotel and discover that the new nightclub next door happens to be holding its grand opening rave…tonight. (This actually happened to me once.) Pack along a few sets of earplugs, and you’ll increase your odds of sleeping soundly.
(If you’re a terrible sleeper like I am, check out my tips for getting a good night’s sleep on the road.)
10. Plastic Sheet Protectors
Magazines and assorted papers tend to get beat up when you jam them into a bag, or when you’re fishing around in that bag to find something. For years, I’d eventually succeed in ripping off the cover of any magazine I brought along. But now, to keep papers and magazines organized and tidy, I slide them into plastic sheet protectors. I can see just what’s inside each one: This one has my trip schedule; some extra screen protectors for my phone (which tend to wear out on a long, intense trip); a few of those handy barf bags; and postcard reminding me of my travel motto. Also, did you ever think about how much gross grime and germs live in those seat-back pockets where you stuff your iPad? If you slip it into one of these first…then you never have to.
11. (New Bonus Item) Smartphone Vent Mount
Since I first wrote this list, I discovered the perfect solution for safely using GPS while driving: The Kenu Portable Vent Mount. It grips your phone tightly, and you insert its prongs into the car’s vents. And, since it doesn’t rely on bulky suction cups, it’s impressively compact — about the size of a cigarette lighter. This is also included on my list of Five Electronics Essentials for Traveling in Europe.
Minimalist packers would say this is all just clutter: “You might not ever need that stuff! And if you do, why not just shop for it in Europe?” But when I’m traveling, every moment is precious. And anytime I have to go on a wild goose chase around a supermarket or department store to find some obscure little item, that’s a museum I didn’t tour, or a gelato I didn’t lick, or a park bench I didn’t get to people-watch from. Each of these items has saved me time, money, stress, or all three. And even if you add them all up, the combined weight and space they take up in my bag is negligible.
What are your favorite clever packing extras?
Affiliate disclosure: I receive not one dime if you purchase any of the items mentioned in this post. Like all of our travel advice at Rick Steves’ Europe, this is based purely on my judgement of what’s best for the traveler.
Be sure to check out a related post: my list of affordable, lightweight, and handy electronics-related items I’d never go to Europe without.
Better yet, review the Travel Tips section on our website, a comprehensive, in-depth collection of tips and advice covering every angle of European travel.