Last year we completed our first long-term trip which stretched 4.5-months starting in Hawaii and concluding in Amsterdam (be sure to check out the trip summaries and guides of our stops!) . After spending so much time living out of a suitcase and sleeping in many different beds, we learned a lot about long-term travel! At the onset of our trip we were giddy with the fact that we would be traveling, our favorite thing to do, 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 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.
We slept on a lot of beds…we determined 29 in total. 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.
We have a preference for Airbnb/VRBO 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 had great kitchens in most of our rentals and I cooked a lot. This was definitely a cost saver to eating out every night, and allows for more healthy meals. Regardless, we ate our fair share of restaurant food and I gained a bit of weight as a trip souvenir (it was worth it). On short stays (one or two nights) we stayed 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 did 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 did 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. Deciphering the hieroglyphs on each washer could 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.
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 we saw more than expected) but a washing machine is a must.
• We packed a lot more clothes (specifically, 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. At the end of the trip, I surmised that I really only needed three pairs of shorts, two pairs of jeans, three 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 3-4 scarfs/wraps to dress up an outfit. I brought a leather jacket, a blazer and a couple of other outer jackets that I wore once (if ever). They won’t make the next trip. We brought way too many socks and t-shirts too.
• I brought 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. We both agreed that we only need four or five functional, neutral pairs of shoes and if we really discovered we were missing something important we’d just buy it.
• We were really happy with how we managed our summer and winter wardrobe packing (except for the abundance of shoes). As previously mentioned, we were on the road from July to November and traveled across different seasons and climates. We were in Europe during the worst heatwave in decades; some regions broke a heat record set in 1950. We traveled by plane to a lot of our destinations and checking a bag for so many flights gets very expensive after a while. We decided that we would pick strategic cities along our route to store the big bag 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.
• We loved 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.
• After using packing cubes for the first time, I definitely recommend them. I could better organize my 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.
• I’ve mentioned that we only used a carry-on for most of the trip, but we also used a shoulder bag each. Dave had his backpack with our laptops and AppleTV and I carried a mesh tote bag that ended up being the most used and versatile bag of the whole trip. Not only did it work as a carry-on bag, it was also a perfect shopping bag, beach bag, pool bag, and laundry sack. We brought it along on day trips to hold our umbrellas, bottled water and jackets, and it was easy to wash.
• Regarding electronics, we packed a down-convertor and two power strips to power all our devices, which is a life-saver. We are bringing a second down-convertor for our next trip along with a multi-USB power dock to cut down on the number of device plugs we need. We brought an Apple TV so we could watch our favorite English speaking shows, but it only worked if the WiFi signal was really strong (so hardly ever). We ended up just watching TV from my laptop. We brought a small Bluetooth speaker and it was GOLD both for getting better sound from whatever we were watching on my laptop and listening to music from our phones. We recently purchased an HDMI cable that will allow us to connect my laptop to a TV which will join us in all future trips.
• Although Europe is flush with budget airlines offering super cheap fares (think Amsterdam to London for €29 one way) we found that we far preferred train travel. It’s cheap, readily available in Europe, and much less stressful than flying. When we plan our 2019 trip we will travel by train more and plane as little as possible. 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 ibuprofen 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.
During our 4.5-month trip we learned and grew a lot on this special adventure. After spending so much time living out of a suitcase and sleeping in many different beds, it was heaven to sleep in our own comfortable bed. But we also loved every minute of our time traveling, and despite dealing with the normal hassles of travel, we never felt homesick or had a burning desire to get home. At the onset of our 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 are gearing up for a 5-month trip and I find I’m just as excited.
Some interesting factoids about our 2018 Trip:
Miles Traveled: 28,299
Countries Visited: 12
Cities Visited: 54
Number of Trains Traveled: 9
Number of Flights: 15
Car Rentals: 5
Number of Hotels: 13
Number of Airbnb/VRBO Rentals: 15