The one bag report

Ready for packing. Note: I didn't take the netbook on the end table.

Last year, I attempted to travel in Europe with one wheel-less carry-on bag. It didn't go so well.

I was still convinced that light travel was the way to go, but I realized that I needed wheels to make it work for me. So I picked up a lightweight roller bag, and had been quite successful in using it in the United States for trips. This was, however, the first time I got to put my new wheeled one bag travel style to the test in Europe, and also the longest trip I'd tested it on. I'm happy to report that things mostly went very well. Here are some details...

Logistics & Luggage

There are a lot of different reasons to travel with one carry-on size bag. Avoiding checked baggage fees or lost luggage is a popular reason, but it's not why I prefer to travel this way. I like the freedom that comes with traveling light, and it becomes particularly important if, like me, you take a lot of trains and public transport.

Packed-up Skyway. I usually roll items to pack them as it saves space and cuts
down on wrinkles, but still lets you get to things quickly (I had four different
one-night stays), unlike the bundle method, which is also popular among one-baggers.

On this trip, I actually checked my bag — a 7 lb Skyway No Weight wheelie — on three out of the four flights I took. I flew British Airways to London, which was the one time I carried it on and the only time I had some angst about my bag choice (it gets slightly wider at the base, and had to be sweet-talked by the BA flight attendant into fitting into the narrow overhead bin on the 767). But it did fit, and that meant that at least my bag had made it over the Atlantic with me. I flew a Monarch charter flight from London to Greece, which had a 5 kg (11 pounds) weight limit. Plus you were limited to one bag. Not one bag and a personal item, just one bag period.

Some people are capable of making that weight limit, but I'm not THAT much of an ultralight traveler, so I paid to check the bag. Then since I was already going to be checking it, I took advantage of being able to take larger liquids, and picked up a medium size American Cream conditioner, Catastrophe Cosmetic face mask (critical with lots of sunscreen clogging my pores), and Volcano foot mask while I was at the Lush Spa in London, as well as sunscreen from Boots, and some very very good port at Barry Brothers & Rudd, which went down far better than ouzo while we were in Greece.

I brought a large Reisenthel Mini Maxi Shopper tote that could fold up into a pouch, and used this as my one bag on the plane. It held my purse, chargers, toiletries, medication, laundry supplies, and enough clothes to survive on if my "big" bag was lost. A note on the purse — at the last minute, due to neck pain, I decided to leave my trusty messenger bag at home and picked up a Nine West shoulder purse. It was definitely better for my neck but needed to be just a bit bigger so it could hold a larger water bottle, food, and purchases if needed. I've since bought a Merrell Gretta bag that I think is going to be perfect as a travel day bag.

I didn't fill up the Skyway when I packed it, so there was a fair amount of room for souvenirs. I made it all the way to Paris with just it as luggage, but in Paris I bought wine and some gourmet food items, and maxed out the space in the Skyway. So the tote bag came out again as overflow luggage. With the wine in it, even the lightweight Skyway made for a tough lug up four flights of stairs in my last hotel. But then again, those stairs were so rough I was out of breath and in need of a cup of tea ANY time I walked up them.

Overall I was so much happier with wheeled luggage. I never really encountered any cobblestones so it was all smooth rolling (and the Skyway with its rubber telescoping handle and wide wheels is a VERY smooth roller). The telescoping handle was smooth and therefore easy to extend when I got off of trains, and the bag also had a rubber-covered handle close to the top of the bag that I could reach down and grab (with the telescoping handle still up) to quickly handle stairs. Another side handle was key when I needed to lift it into luggage racks on trains.

Clothes & Laundry

When you do one-bag travel as a woman, you typically only have room for 1-2 bras, 3-5 pairs of underpants, 3-6 shirts, and 3-4 dress/pants/skirts, and those numbers include whatever you're wearing. So doing laundry along the way is essential, and it's the tradeoff you make for not being a Sherpa while in transit.

It also means you get a bit obsessed with how fast things dry. If things are taking two days to dry, and you only have a limited number of clothes, well, you run out. And if you're only staying overnight somewhere, and things take two days to dry, you have a suitcase full of wet clothes. Gross. As a result, a lot of places sell specialized travel clothes made of synthetic blends that dry fast. The trouble is, I don't like travel clothes because, well, most of them look like travel clothes. You would never wear any of them in normal life to go to work or out to dinner, and yet you're walking around some major European capital in them, looking like a great big tourist.

I got a pair of travel pants last year, and while they did dry quickly, I didn't like the way they looked or the way I felt wearing them. So this year I made it my aim to only take clothes that looked normal, and I accomplished this by mostly taking normal clothes. My biggest find was a pair of polyester/viscose/elastane dress slacks that had originally been from Express, but I found at a Gabriel Brothers for $5. After repairing a hem (the sole cause of the $5 price), I washed them and was amazed to find that not only did they dry quickly, they also dried wrinkle free, so they never needed to be ironed. And they were nice, normal pants. I've worn them to work in addition to taking them on my trip. In addition to these, I did take a pair of jeans (they take forever to dry but can go several wears between washes), a pair of synthetic yoga pants, and a convertible skirt/dress from Patagonia. This could be worn either as a bandeau-style dress or a side-tie skirt and was quite versatile, but unfortunately slow-drying 100% cotton. If I had it to do over again I'd try to find something similar in a synthetic fabric.

Patagonia convertible skirt/dress, Express poly/viscose/
elastane pants, Express jeans, and across the legs, C9
synthetic yoga pants. Not pictured are a pair of jogging shorts.

For shirts, I found two synthetic tops I liked at Express, but should have left the one with tank top straps home as it was chilly enough in the evenings in Greece that I didn't get the wear out of it I thought I would. I also brought two C9 duo dry cotton-polyester shirts from the exercise clothes section Target, in black and purple. These were comfier than 100% synthetic, dried fast, and looked like normal v-neck t-shirts. I did bring one actual travel shirt, a Merrell Cambia. However, although it definitely has a polyesterey feel, I found it to be comfortable, and more importantly, it didn't look like a travel shirt. It dried very fast and I wore it quite a bit.

Clockwise from the upper left: Express mesh floral top (almost always had to wear layered because it was cold at night in Greece), Express synthetic v-neck floral tee, Merrell Cambia button-down travel shirt, shelf tank top (didn't get much use), purple C9 tee, black C9 tee.

I also brought three outerwear items. The first was a thin shrug sweater, the second a light 3/4 zip fleece (less than $4 on clearance in the exercise section at Target), and the third a military-style trench coat, again from Express. I almost always travel with a fleece, and I am almost always very glad I brought it. This time was no exception, as it got quite cold at night in Greece and our house didn't have heat. But the real star here was the trench coat. I got it on sale for about $50 and loved the style of it, and that it was machine washable cotton so that it could be spot cleaned if needed (and it was needed). It looked good, and I felt nice wearing it around Bath, Paris and London — much nicer than I would have in a heavier fleece or some other sort of travel jacket. I think I got more respect from people I encountered, too, with my trench coat and cute red Skyway, compared to my REI fleece and eBags backpack of last year. A lot of people assumed I was traveling on business, and I don't think that was a bad thing.

Trench coat, shrug, and fleece

A note about Paris, before I delve into laundry. I had been totally freaked out about what to wear there before I went. I'd heard that jeans were an absolute no-no, and had the impression that beautifully stylish French women would be walking around in pants and dresses with their fashionable scarves, judging tourists. This was not, in fact, the case. People were wearing all sorts of things in Paris, including jeans. I will say that there was a higher proportion of scarves, and that everyone seemed to have some sense of personal style, but it was not expressed by everyone wearing Hermes. My nice trench coat was more than enough to make me feel comfortable, style-wise, and as I am not really a scarf person, I should have left the one I brought at home.

Laundry was actually the biggest challenge at our house in Greece. It didn't have a washer or dryer, so we all did sink laundry. Fortunately, there was a clothes line, and anything hung up there dried quickly in the sun and breeze. Unfortunately, rooms in the house were quite damp, and on my last full day there, it poured down rain much of the morning and afternoon, so even with my synthetic clothes, getting things dry was a challenge.

Following Greece, I had a series of one-night stays in Portsmouth, Bath, and Castle Combe, which meant that anything I washed had to dry overnight. But I took advantage of the fans in my hotel rooms in Bath and Castle Combe, and turned them on the items I washed for the night. Everything was perfectly dry by morning. I was in Paris for three nights, and so conducted a larger-scale laundry operation on my first night. Still, although I did a bit of laundry almost every day on my trip, it went quickly, and it was definitely worth it to have a much lighter bag to carry, and fewer things to have to pack up whenever I changed locations.

Best & Worst Gear

Here are some of the things I was super-glad I took:

Merrell Waterpro Sables: All-time best travel shoes ever. I blogged about the shoes I took in an earlier post, so I won't go into too much detail, but suffice to say, these shoes were ridiculously comfortable and versatile. I've walked up to 7 miles in these shoes, submerged them in water, and felt comfortable wearing them in cities (having the trench coat helped with that). Note: the link goes to the Waterpro Crystals, the Sables' very similar-looking replacement.

Express trench coat: Already covered this one, but it's worth repeating. Traveling in May, a nice trench coat was more important for looking good than any other article of clothing, and I loved wearing this one with its slightly aggressive military styling.

Kindle: It probably goes without saying that a Kindle is great for traveling. But it was so key to traveling light, and I loved being able to read whatever book I was in the mood for and not feel like I had to ration books so I wouldn't run out. It was also easy to read while standing in line, and that made lines a lot less terrible. It's a good thing it has such a great battery life, too, because my power adapter was usually taken up by my thirstier cell phone or camera battery charger.

Droid 2 Global: When it came time for me to get a new phone last year, I went for this smart phone that has quad band GSM. Although I had to go easy on my data usage since data plans are super expensive for Europe, it was so nice to be able to check the weather and my email wherever I was. And since it had wifi, anytime I was staying a hotel with free wifi, I could go crazy on the data. It also served as my MP3 player.

Lush Ultrabalm: There was nothing this stuff couldn't do. It served as a lip balm, cuticle cream, and a balm for irritated skin (including, erm, the skin that gets irritated by cheap toilet paper, which you tend to have to use more of when traveling). It took pine tar off of a friend's feet after he went hiking in sandals. And I even used it as a shoe shine for my leather Merrell Brios.

Here are some things that didn't work so well:

Joby tripod: The concept is great, and I think I am going to still get use out of this thing, but maybe not for most traveling. There just weren't really a lot of situations where I needed a tripod. I'm a point-and-shoot kind of girl at heart.

TravelRest pillow: This was a complete fail, because I couldn't get it to inflate on the plane. So basically it didn't get used for my overnight flight, and spent the trip taking up space in my suitcase because I couldn't bring myself to throw it out.

Sea to Summit Drylite Towel: I got one in an extra large size because it needed to serve two purposes. It had to be a light, packable beach towel for Greece, which it managed nicely. It also needed to roll up my washed clothes to squeeze the excess water out of them. This is where it failed. When I washed it after using it as a beach towel, it bled so much blue dye that I didn't trust using it for clothes. And I had pre-washed it as instructed before leaving, so that wasn't the issue. I ended up using the towels at my hotels, and lucked out that I never had a towel shortage. So I need to find a colorfast microfiber travel towel, or bleach the crap out of this one.

Sport nozzle Platypus Platy bottle: I love the idea of the lightweight Platy bottle, which takes up no space once you use it. But I used the same one I did last year, and apparently it was too old, because the nozzle failed and it leaked in my purse (fortunately no electronics were harmed). I'll stick to the screw-cap Platys from now on — less to fail.

What I wish I'd brought:

Steripen: I thought about getting one but then decided against it because I couldn't get a clear answer on why the water in Skiathos wasn't drinkable. Was it the mineral content? Bacteria? Who knew. We ended up buying large bottles of water like the rest of the island, and fortunately the convenience store down the road from our house had recycling. But on the rest of the trip I really could have used the Steripen, especially if my Platy bottle hadn't failed. I was on the go a lot and not quite confident enough in bathroom faucets in public restrooms to fill my bottle there. So I bought a lot of bottles of water, and was not happy with myself about it. If I'd had the Steripen I could have filled up anywhere that had clear tap water and felt good about it.

Neilmed Sinus Rinse: I started coming down with a cold in Skiathos and would have paid very good money for one of these, which is an easier to use and more portable version of a neti pot. But I couldn't find one, in Skiathos or even at a very large Boots in Portsmouth. In Skiathos I ended up MacGyvering one out of a bottle of contact lens solution with the tip cut off, some boiled water, and salt, which was better than nothing. And Boots did have a highly pressurized saline spray that I bought and took to calling the "nose rocket." But neither was as good as the Sinus Rinse. Lesson learned — I'm never traveling that long without one again.

And so that's the one bag report for this year's Europe trip. All in all, I think it went far better than last year, and I think I'll be able to take what I learned this time around and do even better and pack lighter next year. Possibly with a different suitcase, but more on that later.

For now, here's an annotated list of all the stuff I packed. And if you're interested in starting on one bag travel, the One Bag and One Bag One World sites are great places to start. I will note though that my advice is a bit different than a lot of what you'll see on those sites about non-wheeled luggage — it's a personal choice, and you need to think about your upper-body strength and any health issues before you decide to go wheel-less, especially now that there are more good lightweight wheelie options out there. Rick Steves' site also has a nice section on packing light that takes a realistic look at wheels vs. no wheels, among other things.

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