How to Pack a Carry-On for a Month in Europe

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For our one month trip to Europe, we chose to pack for the month in a carry-on. Our reasoning? Since we were traveling for a long period of time and changing cities almost every other day, we felt that having a checked luggage bag and a carry on would be too much to deal with. Dealing with two suitcases when getting on and off a coach bus and trains seemed more like a hassle. So, we decided to tackle packing a month in a carry on bag. If you are doing some extended traveling, we think it is best to pack as light as you can.

Whether you’re spending two weeks in Europe or a month, taking a massive suitcase from destination to destination can become a burden. So packing everything in a carry on can be perfect, but for us, packing a month in a carry-on didn’t work out as planned.

Here’s some explanation for why packing a month in a carry on was a struggle for us and how you can pack for a month in a carry on the right way!

Packing a Month for Europe in a Carry-On Bag

Firstly, we want to talk about why you might not want to pack a month in a carry-on. Many of these things come down to personality, destination, and travel style. Here are some of our reasons why we probably won’t pack a month in a carry-on bag again.

Why Not Pack a Month in Carry-On?

It Leaves Little Room For Shopping

We packed everything beautifully before our trip departed. Everything fit, it was organized, and we had room for souvenir shopping. Or so we thought.

As we accumulated souvenirs, repacking our bags between destinations became more and more difficult. There were times we couldn’t get everything to fit, and our luggage became very heavy. For our trip home from the Grand Tour, we had to check our carry-on bags and purchase another duffel bag to transport our purchases home. Which wasn’t terrible, but it was annoying because that wasn’t our original plan!

If souvenirs are valuable to you, like how they are to us, it’s better to have more space than less space for them. You never know what you might want to buy! If you are eying up a larger item but choose not to buy it because of the space in your luggage, you’re selling yourself short of your souvenirs.

Learning from this struggle, my sister and I plan to check one large bag and have two carry-on luggage pieces for our next extended trip. This way, we have plenty of space for our things. If you want to see what kind of things we like to purchase abroad, check out our Smart Souvenir Shopping Blog here!

Your Clothing Options are Limited

When traveling through so many countries with different climates, it was difficult to gauge what clothes would be appropriate and when. This contributed to a laundry issue and a packing issue. There were times that we were wearing the same clothes because the weather was the same in the 3 cities, but we weren’t able to do laundry until the next week. We were in Europe during the hell-heat of the summer. Meaning our same three shirts got dirty quickly. Gross, we know. But we’re being honest. If you’re going to be somewhere where you’re going to sweat, packing less is going to lead to more days doing laundry, which is an expense and time suck.

Traveling, especially long-term travel, teaches you to be a minimalist. But for us, the same clothes became a burden. There were times when the clothing that we bought wasn’t as versatile as we had wanted. Checking a larger bag with more clothes gives you to have options and not worrying about what you’re going to wear that day.

There were also times when we wished we had more space for bringing shoes. Some days our feet were sore from wearing certain shoes, or we got blisters even from shoes already worn and broken in! We were across all different terrains too. Hiking trails, cobblestoned streets of Rome, beaches, rainy days. Two pairs of shoes didn’t cut it. So we wished we had packed more shoes for our trip in a larger bag.

Is a Carry-On-Only Life Right for You?

If you’re interested in packing a month in a carry-on, let’s talk about things to consider. And things to help you not make the same mistakes we did!

First thing, if you plan to shop while traveling, take some time to REALLY consider if you will have enough space to bring your treasures home in a carry-on-sized bag. So here are your three options:

Option One – Pack very light in a carry-on

You can certainly travel in a carry-on, especially if your trip is short, you have the opportunity to do laundry reliably, and you are traveling somewhere with fairly consistent weather. You may also choose to bring home photos and memories rather than souvenirs, which will save space in your bag. If you purchase souvenirs, consider smaller items like art prints, jewelry, and knick-knacks. Packing light with only a carry-on can work well for some travelers, so if it’s something you think you can accomplish, go for it!

Option Two – Bring a carry-on + a large duffle bag or backpack

If you still don’t want to check a large bag, when packing your carry on, bring a LARGE packable duffle bag or backpack. This allows you to use the extra bag as a carry-on for your return trip home while checking your actual carry-on luggage. For the non-shopper, even if you aren’t planning on doing a lot of shopping, it’s a good idea to bring an easily packable duffle or backpack for carry-on overflow.

We’ve been using the Patagonia 14 L bag for years for both traveling and hiking. It folds itself into a small 7inch by 7inch square, making it perfect for sneaking into our large luggage. We love the number of pockets it has! It has two side pockets perfect for water bottles or umbrellas. And the two smaller outside pockets are great for little things you don’t want to lose in the large pocket. Even though it looks small, a lot of items can fit in it.

We also have recently fallen in love with the Fjallraven Kanken Backpack for its simplicity. The material is super lightweight, water-resistant, and easy to clean! The large pocket is easy to get things in and out of, which is perfect for us who tend to carry a lot of larger camera equipment with us. It’s also a great travel bag to have in general!

Option Three – Bring a full-sized luggage

Consider not packing everything in a carry-on (ie our reasoning from above) and bringing full-sized luggage. Your carry-on can include essential items just in case your checked luggage gets lost. Additionally, leave lots of space in your full-sized luggage for souvenirs. Avoid overpacking a checked bag simply because it’s there and you can.

Yes, I Can Tackle a Month in a Carry-On! How to Pack a Month in a Carry-On for Europe

Consider all the possibilities of your trip

If you feel you can tackle only having a carry-on, think about where you are going and what you will be doing. Thinking about these questions will help you pick out what you should bring.

  • What will the weather be like? Do I need to dress for the rain, snow, or major changes in temperature?
  • Will I be doing a lot of outdoor activities? Will I need workout/hiking clothes? What shoes do I need for these activities?
  • Will I have a chance to do laundry and when?

Choosing the Right Carry-On Luggage

Before you can get to packing a month in a carry-on, you’re going to need the obvious: The luggage itself. Having gone through many luggage sets in the past, we finally found a carry-on piece we could rely on. The SwissGear Energie 7272. Here’s why we love this carry-on.

  • It’s light: The biggest thing for us is having a suitcase that, when it’s empty, it’s light. The last thing you need is for your luggage piece to be inherently heavy, which simply adds weight to travel days.
  • It’s durable: The outside material is highly resistant to scratches and shattering.
  • Hardshell vs softshell: The Energie was our first hardshell luggage and we’re never going back to softshell. Why? We’ve had luggage in the past that hasn’t fit in the overhead container because the soft sides of the luggage allowed it to be overstuffed and too large! Mainly because of additional outside pockets. If there are outside pockets and compartments that have items in them, get ready for them to get caught on overhead bins when you put your luggage in and out. Hardshell suitcases are only one shape so you know it’s going to fit as long as the dimensions are correct.
  • 360 Spinner Wheels: Again, once you get 360 wheels, you’ll never go back. 360 wheels allow you to roll your carry-on beside you or behind you.
  • Security: The Energie 7272 has a built-in TSA lock for added security.
  • Organization: The big seller for us was the inside organization. We love the inside zipper flap that secures your items and keeps them private in case you have to open your luggage up in the airport. This helps avoid bursting luggage mishaps!

Pack clothes with a coordinating color scheme that can be layered

By bringing clothes that you can mix and match, you will be able to build more outfits with fewer clothes. Think capsule wardrobe! Bringing clothes that can be layered is helpful when the weather is unpredictable and when museums are cooler inside.

Here’s a sample of our color schemes and what we bought when we packed a month for Europe in a carry-on! Keep scrolling to see it all packed into packing cubes!

Here is Kathrine’s color combination:

Packing A Month in a Carry On
Packing A Month in a Carry On

Here is Pam’s color combination:

Packing A Month in a Carry OnPacking A Month in a Carry On

Packing a Month in a Carry on

Organize with packing cubes

Some travelers are anti packing cubes, but we personally love them!

Packing cubes compress your clothes to make more space in your luggage. And they are a great way to separate types of clothing within your bag. We use the Eagle Creek Pack-It Starter Set. They come in lots of shapes and sizes, which is convenient for organizing your clothes. We love using large packing cubes for sweaters, pants, and bulkier items. The medium and small are great for less bulky clothes or for packing only one type of clothing like underwear or tops. Eagle Creek offers a range of packing cubes, but we find the Pack it Originals to be ideal for us. The way the cubes unzip allows you to open up the cube and see as much as possible, unlike the “top zipper” cubes where you’re kind of stuffing everything into a bag. These are like opening up a box. Since they’re square, they’re great for stacking and playing Tetris with your suitcase. The material is very high quality. They don’t make that crunchy sound and are sturdy. When we stuff them, we don’t feel like they’re going to tear or burst.

Eagle Creek Pack It Cubes

Use other Organizers

Since we’re always traveling with camera equipment, it’s important for us to keep our gear organized. We use the Ethnotek Travel Organizer to keep our small electronic equipment organized, like memory cards, chargers, and batteries.

Create An Organization System

It’s a good idea to have an organizational system where everything “has a home” in your suitcase. Such as socks and underwear in this packing cube and electronics in this organizer.

Pick your toiletries carefully and have them easily accessible for security

Health and beauty products are the biggest space user in a bag. There’s nothing worse than not bringing something you use regularly and missing it your whole trip.

Read more about packing your makeup routine here! 

Since you aren’t checking a bag, all toiletries must be security screening compliant. Check with your airports for their guidelines. (Another benefit of checking a bag is that you don’t have to worry about the sizes of your toiletries.) We used the 4 Pc. Cosmetic Set from Vera Bradley to pack our toiletries because the tote was clear and easy to grab out of our bag for security. And it includes other smaller organizers that you can use for other items.

If you want to see our packing lists and how you can pack for any trip, visit our guide to packing post!

Bring a Bag You Don’t Mind Getting Dirty, Scratched, or Damaged

Since you only have one piece of luggage for a whole month or longer, it’s going to see some wear and tear over time. Make sure that the luggage piece you’re bringing is durable and that you don’t mind if it gets dirty or scratched. The SwissGear Energie 7272 is a highly durable hardshell carry-on that we’ve trusted for years!

Do You Think You Can Pack a Month in a Carry-On?

So what do you think? Let us know in the comments below if you think you could manage packing a month’s worth of stuff in a carry-on-sized bag!

Packing a Month in a Carry On, packing guide