In 2018 we completed our first long-term trip which stretched 4.5 months, starting in Hawaii and concluding in Amsterdam. Since then, we’ve logged many additional months of international travel, and have learned a lot! At the onset of our first long trip, we were giddy with the fact that we would be traveling for 130+ days straight. After years of two-week vacations, we were really going to let loose and follow our dream.
Prior to our departure, we reminded ourselves regularly that things would go wrong. It was inevitable that SOMETHING would break, get lost or be cancelled, but no matter what, we would roll with it and I would not freak out. Happily, we got lucky…. very lucky. We had a couple scares with the passports (twice we thought they were lost, once I got them locked in a hotel safe that we couldn’t open, and one time I locked them in an Airbnb apartment that we had already checked out from).
We had one instance of lost luggage when we arrived in Amsterdam from Zurich only to learn that Swissair decided our bag might like another night in Zurich (the bag was delivered to our apartment in Amsterdam the next morning). In Budapest a friend had his baggage misplaced by the airline and it took three days and many frustrating phone calls to recover it (FYI, Czech Airlines was literally useless. American Express ended up hunting down the bag and was a lifesaver). The only major airport / flight snafu was a 10-hour delay from Cagliari, Sardinia to Catania, Sicily. We arrived at 11:00 PM instead of 11:00 AM, but our Airbnb host was wonderful and met us at that late hour with a smile. And don’t even get me started on the drama of traveling when the borders re-opened after COVID!
We slept on a lot of beds. Most were better than average, a couple were OK and some were hard as rocks. In case you’re wondering, the worst beds are in Italy (the exception was Agrigento and Cefalu); Italians seem to prefer a very hard mattress. In recent years we’ve seen more memory foam mattresses, which are usually quite comfortable.
We have a preference for Airbnb rentals because they are usually bigger and cheaper than a hotel, and if we’re there longer than a few nights, it’s nice to be able to make coffee and prepare a few meals in your own place. We usually have great kitchens in most of our rentals and I cook a lot. This is definitely a cost saver to eating out every night, and allows for more healthy meals. Regardless, we eat our fair share of restaurant food and gaining a bit of weight is not the worst trip souvenir. On short stays (one or two nights) we stay in hotels. Word to the wise – if you want a good room with extra perks such as free parking, breakfast or complimentary room upgrades, book directly through the hotel’s reservation system. If you use a booking service like Expedia be prepared to get the worst room in the hotel with no extras and no hope of a room upgrade. We learned this the hard way after being stuck in an attic room in Strasbourg during a 90F heatwave.
We do laundry. Lots and lots of laundry. Living out of a carry-on bag has its rewards and challenges. It’s great to not have to pay to check a bag and wait for it at baggage claim, to not fret about checked bag getting lost, and not having to drag that big ol’ bag on to trains, up steep stairs and down cobblestone streets. But having just a carry-on means a limited wardrobe that has to be washed a lot. We learned the importance of packing clothes that do well drying on a rack. Anything that wrinkled excessively was useless and just took up valuable real estate in our luggage.
The whole laundry process is like mastering a new game with each new apartment. Most of our apartments had a washer but no dryer so we used a drying rack. Some had combo units that rarely dried the clothes well so we ended up hanging our garments all over the apartment to dry. We found the washer/dryer situation gets better as the years progress. Regardless, deciphering the hieroglyphs on each washer can be frustrating, and if there was a manual, it was almost always in another language (FYI, Google Translate app is a MUST). If we didn’t have a washer in our apartment, we sought out the local laundromat. Apartments that have a washer will typically provide detergent but occasionally we had to hunt some down which could be a real scavenger hunt if you’re in a tiny little town where English is less prevalent. Having a couple laundry pods in your carryon can come in handy in a pinch!
Along the way I tried to take notes for future trips. Some of our learnings:
• Bring washable slippers or heavy socks for walking about the rental. We had a couple of places with dirty floors and we soiled a lot of our “good” socks. Save your socks for your shoes.
• Any rental longer than three days must have a washing machine. Not many places in Europe have a dryer (although that is changing) but a washing machine is a must.
• We packed a lot more clothes (and shoes) than we needed, and we packed items of clothing that we never wore because they weren’t very comfortable or no longer fit well after a couple extra pounds. I’ve learned that I really only needed three pairs of shorts, two pairs of jeans, two pairs of leggings and one wrap dress. For tops, 5-7 loose, neutral tops and a couple sweaters that go with all the bottoms, and 1-2 scarfs/wraps to dress up an outfit.
• On our first long trip I packed 10 pairs of shoes but ended up wearing most of them once or twice (remember, we were traveling across seasons and needed summer and winter clothes). Dave ended up wearing four pairs of shoes from the eight pairs he brought. Now I bring one pair of sandals, one ballet flat, one sneaker and one boot; if we discover we are missing something important we’d just buy it. Souvenirs!
• We have learned to pay closer attention to climate variations during our trip…how many seasons do we want to pack for? When you travel for 3-month increments, it’s hard to avoid seasonal changes, but be sure you pack accordingly. We’ve found that a small roller bag and tote/backpack per person, plus a single, larger bag provide adequate storage and met weight requirements for smaller airlines.
On our first long trip, we picked strategic cities along our route to store the big suitcase so we didn’t have to drag all our clothes with us for the entire trip. If feasible, creating a travel loop that lasts 4-6 weeks (starting and ending in the same city) provides a great opportunity to store heavy bags so you can move around with just a carry-on.
When we arrived in Amsterdam in July, we left a large suitcase full of winter clothes at the luggage storage at Schiphol Airport and traveled for 3-weeks with just a carry-on. We collected the big bag when we returned to Amsterdam in late August. We took the big bag with us to Rome and after our week there, we stored it again, this time for a full month. We spent a month going all over Italy with just a carry-on bag. On our way to London we stopped back in Rome to collect the big bag and it stayed with us the last month of our trip. We moved our Summer clothes to the big bag and kept our winter clothes in the carry-on bags so they were easy to access. The large suitcase really just becomes a storage trunk.
This type of itinerary planning isn’t always an option. Last year we kept our large suitcase with us the entire trip, and it was only a minor inconvenience.
• We love riding the train. We learned that buying tickets in advance was mostly unnecessary unless we wanted an assigned seat, or we were relocating to a new city and didn’t want to chance getting stuck. We also learned that for most European trains, the ticket you buy is good for the whole day, not always a specific train departure. There are also “peak” and “nonpeak” rates…you can ride any train with a “peak” ticket, but only certain trains with the “nonpeak”. We found the TrainLine app was the best for getting rail schedules and getting really good fares. Most of the stations have an information desk; don’t hesitate to ask for help so you don’t overpay or get the wrong ticket. We found English spoken pretty much everywhere.
• I am a big proponent of packing cubes and definitely recommend them. Cubes allow for better organization of clothes so if we were stopping somewhere for a night or two, I only had to unpack one or two cubes and not my whole suitcase. They also made it easy to separate dirty clothes from clean, pants from tops, and PJs from street clothes. Also rolling (vs. folding) our clothes allowed us to fit a LOT more stuff in our bags.
• Regarding electronics, we’ve found that a single down-convertor is needed for laptops or curling irons, but EU USB plugs worked for phones, etc. These can be purchased on Amazon or in your travel destination.
Most Airbnbs now have smart TVs or streaming devices such as Apple TV and Roku. When those weren’t available we connect our laptops to the TV with an hdmi cable we travel with. We use a VPN to access American TV.
• Although Europe is flush with budget airlines offering super cheap fares (think Amsterdam to London for €29 one way) baggage fees can quickly escalate as many have a 40lb limit PER PASSENGER (not per bag). We prefer train travel when possible. It’s usually cheap (not talking to you, Switzerland), readily available in Europe, and much less stressful than flying. We also realized that reputable public transportation is a must when visiting any city for longer than a couple nights. Although San Miguel de Allende is beautiful, we felt trapped there for seven days due to lack of public transportation.
• We got sick a couple times along the way… bring plenty of your go-to over the counter (and of course prescription) meds from home, but save room in your bag by purchasing easy to find stuff like shampoo and soap at your destination. We bring a two to three day supply of toiletries then go shopping when we arrive (plan accordingly…if you’re flying in a couple days with only a carry-on bag, you obviously don’t want to buy a full size bottle of shampoo). If you stay in hotels, take all unused shampoo, conditioner and lotion. The sewing kit can also come in handy.
Other things we’ve found to be super helpful to bring from home:
- Ziplock baggies (sandwich and gallon size)
- Chip clips
- Bandaids of every size
- French press (you would be surprised how many places don’t have a good coffee maker)
- Sugar packets
- Soft, collapsible cooler (great for road trips, beach days, or transporting cold food on day trips)
- Laundry bag
- Shopping / beach / pool bag
After spending so much time living out of a suitcase and sleeping in many different beds, it is always heaven to sleep in our own comfortable bed. But we also love every minute of our time traveling, and despite dealing with the normal hassles of travel, we rarely feel homesick or have a burning desire to get home. At the onset of our first trip we were ecstatic knowing we would be traveling for a long stretch of time, but worried if we would have the stamina for it. Now we consider ourselves experts at long term travel and find ourselves just as excited for each impending as if it’s the first time.