19 Must Have Items for Travel to Europe
By Angie & Jeff
October 21, 2023
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This post has a LOT of information so we have included a table of contents so you can jump directly to specific sections.
Table of Contents
+ Items for Travel Skills to Maximize Your Time & Experience
o Europe Through the Back Door
o Language Phrase Book (or Electronic Option)
o Crossbody Bag/Day Bag
o Walking Shoes
o Travel Umbrella & Raincoat
+ Packing Light
o Backpack/Carry-On Suitcase
o Travel clothes
o Sun Hat
o Small toiletries set
+ Long Flight Comfort
o Eye mask
o Foot Hammock
o Neck Pillow
o Scarf/Travel Blanket
o Plug adapter & Power Converter (Voltage Converter)
o Portable Power Bank
o Travel Power Strip
+ Finances & Documents
o Money belt
o Visa and ATM card
Angie and Jeff in Mykonos, Greece
While we have now traveled to over 35 countries (and counting) on 5 continents, it was only just over 10 years ago that we planned and took our first trip to Europe. We can vividly remember how overwhelming that planning felt at times in trying to decide what to pack and how to prepare. We planned to write this post at some point, but a reader recently asked our suggestions for items for her daughter’s first trip to Europe and so we expedited this post.
Of course ten years ago was like another lifetime when it comes to technology, so we’re happy to say we aren’t recommending the specially purchased little brick phone we bought for use on that first trip. But, some items we took on that first trip remain on our must-have packing list for Europe trips. Other items we have added to our list over the years of international travel.
Friends know we both like to look into things pretty extensively, for Angie that’s often travel planning, and for Jeff that’s often researching the item/gadget we’re considering for purchase next. For this reason, friends often reach out to us to ask for our travel advice or the details of what we purchased for a specific need. It is kind of a joke, but we do have quite a few friends who will just buy whatever Jeff bought because they know he has found the best value out there after extensive online research. We bring that experience to our readers here with this compilation of our must have items for Europe.
Items for Travel Skills to Maximize Your Time & Experience
1. Europe Through the Back Door
When we were planning our first trip to Europe, and still to this day, we like to refer to the extensive and helpful resources written by Rick Steves. If you’re looking for more extensive research on European travel skills, we highly recommend his iconic book, Europe Through the Back Door, about his philosophy of how to save time and often money in your travels and have richer experiences. As a related aside, his website, Classroom Europe, also has great destination specific travel clips from his tv show. We like to spend time watching clips about any places we plan to visit on an upcoming trip as a preparation tool and fun way to anticipate our travels.
2. Language Phrase Book (or Electronic Option)
We always try to learn at least a few polite phrases in the language of each country we visit. The key phrases we target are: hello, goodbye, please, thank you, I don’t speak X language, Do you speak English, and I am sorry. Generally in Europe, people speak English very well as it is often a language they study from a young age in school.
Despite this, we try to never assume the person we are meeting speaks English and first try to start the interaction in the local language. If your cell phone data plan will work in Europe without high charges, you can leverage Google Translate. There are ways to use this impressive tool offline, too.
If we’re only spending a short period of time in a location with a specific language or going to a place we can’t find a phrase book for or don’t think we need long-term, we have also created our own little mini-phrase book ahead of time for key phrases. We use Google before we depart and write out the words in English, the other language with correct spelling, and also in that language phonetically.
We really like having a language phrase book with us. If we’re visiting multiple countries, we like this version that includes the main languages in Europe. But, if we’re spending significant time in areas where one language is primarily spoken, we will also bring a dedicated phrase book for that language like this one, available in different languages.
Phrase books really help when traveling places you might not know the local language. – Angie & Jeff
As a money saving tip, if your trip is short enough to accommodate due dates, you could look into what your local library has to offer for phrase books. We have built a collection of language phrase books by perusing the book section in thrift stores because while travel books quickly become out of date, the language phrase books are fairly timeless. It’s always exciting when we find a phrase book for a language we need for 99 cents!
3. Crossbody Bag/Day Bag
When going out for the day, it’s nice to have either a backpack or some type of crossbody bag to act as your day bag to carry items you want with you throughout the day including some items listed here but also things like sunscreen, travel information or maps, snacks, any medication you might need, etc.
When Jeff is wearing the day bag, he prefers a backpack. You could empty and repack your carry-on backpack for this day bag purpose, as Jeff often does. Or, you could consider a backpack that packs into a pouch like this one for easy packing. Angie prefers a crossbody bag like this for her day bag. And, our 24 year old daughter prefers this style that we would have called a fanny pack in the 90’s but is often worn diagonally across the body.
Pro Tip: Before you leave for your trip, make a copy of your passport and leave it with someone who could send it to you electronically during your trip, if needed. We also like to have a copy of our passports with us which we keep in a separate bag from our actual passports. In case of loss/theft, we still have a copy of our passports. We keep a digital photo of our passports in our phones as well.
4. Walking Shoes
You will definitely want a comfortable pair of walking shoes that you have already broken in (not brand new) for your Europe travel. Shoes are pretty individual in preference and ability to find the right fit, as Angie knows well wearing a size 11 as a woman. So, we are not recommending a specific shoe, but we will share that Propet shoes are a brand we have appreciated on our international trips for good quality, comfortable walking shoes that are really light in weight.
Europe’s public transportation and intra-country trains are absolutely fantastic. You will likely not even need to think about renting a car for your Europe trip. We only rented a car once for a couple of days in Germany on our first trip so Jeff could drive on the Autobahn. (Note-the no speed limit ideal is largely a thing of the past, but he still had fun getting that experience.) This means you will be on your feet more than you might be used to in your daily life at home, so walking shoes are key.
5. Travel Umbrella & Raincoat
As we have mentioned previously, Jeff used to live in southeast Alaska and is pretty used to going about plans in rain and therefore used to object to packing rain gear. Now, we both pack our light raincoat and a compact travel umbrella (2-pack), like these. Time in Europe is precious and short, so you want to be ready to enjoy your day no matter the weather. Our travel umbrellas have also doubled as shade in very hot, sunny locations.
Jeff and Angie using umbrellas for shade (and silliness) in Athens, Greece.
6. Backpack/Carry-On Suitcase
Our favorite travel writer, Rick Steves, who we mentioned above, often shares that an experienced traveler will rarely, if ever, be heard bragging about packing heavier with every trip. As we said above, the excellent public transit in Europe means you will likely be walking quite a bit on your trip, and also carrying your luggage with you. If you’re moving between locations and hotels, the most economical and convenient option is often going to be local transit which is almost impossible if you pack more than you can comfortably carry. In addition, older hotels may not offer an elevator so you might be carrying your luggage up three floors.
If we don’t have those budget airline restrictions within Europe, we typically travel with one backpack like this ZOMAKE 25L Ultra Lightweight Packable Foldable Backpack and one carry-on suitcase each, like these. When looking at these items, it is important to be aware of the specific size restrictions of any airlines you are flying. European airlines can sometimes be strict about baggage weight, even for carry-on bags. We flew IcelandAir last fall and they weighed our carry-on bags, both of which were overweight. Luckily, they allowed us to weigh and tag bags one at a time as we moved items between our bags to achieve this, leading to an inconvenient unpacking and repacking shell game that allowed us to avoid significant overweight bag fees.
In addition, on our first trip to Europe, we utilized a few inexpensive budget flights within Europe where bringing more than one bag each would have been cost prohibitive. Take Off Luggage is a carry-on luggage brand that works within the size requirements of Intra-Europe budget airlines.
7. Travel clothes
A common question we get when people learn how light we travel, is how we achieve this. There are extensive resources out there with specific systems and rules that people follow. For us, we keep it fairly simple and pack clothing that is lightweight, neutral colored, wrinkle resistant, and able to be layered. In order to be able to vary her look, Angie brings a few pieces of different inexpensive jewelry and scarves to accessorize. Jeff really likes convertible pants because it allows him to have shorts and pants in the same item, thus saving valuable packing space. We have built a collection of travel clothes with careful use of coupons and the clearance section at Eddie Bauer, too, if you’re looking for other ideas to build your travel-friendly wardrobe.
8. Sun Hat
When you are out in the sun all day walking around even the best sunscreen is sometimes not enough. A sun hat can really help to keep you from getting sunburned. This style is helpful because it packs flat but has a wide enough brim and also has a ponytail hole so you can still put your hair up if you are in a hot climate. For those with short hair, this style hat works well.
9. Small toiletries set
If you’re going to follow the advice to pack light, as we suggest you do, you will need to follow liquid restrictions for carry-on baggage. As much as possible, we do this by repurposing small containers and using quart-size baggies. But, we have bought small bottle travel toiletry sets like this to assist in this part of the packing process.
Long Flight Comfort
10. Eye mask
Your flight to Europe is often going to be an overnight flight. But, despite this, it won’t be completely dark and there will be a fair amount of light throughout the flight. Angie finds the use of a sleep mask helpful for keeping the light from distracting from rest, as much as one can get on an airplane. Jeff doesn’t generally feel he needs a sleep mask but also doesn’t sleep on planes much. On some long-haul flights, you may be given a sleep mask onboard so that is a good thing to check into before buying one unless you are particular on the style.
Pro Tip: A challenge of traveling to Europe for many is the time change and the jet lag upon first arriving. We always follow the advice of many travel writers on this that you want to fight through that exhaustion on the first day. When you arrive, go out for a walk or other active movement to enjoy the day to try to stay awake as close to the typical local bedtime as possible. Try to get on local time right away. Time in Europe is short, usually, so you don’t want to lose even a single day to jetlag.
We have taken this one step further and for about a week before we depart, we start changing our time to the destination time one half hour at a time. This means we go to bed a half-hour earlier and get up a half-hour earlier each day for 7 days before we depart. This brings our body clock time about 4 hours closer to the time in our destination. We are not completely on Europe time by doing this but we’re quite close and it has minimized the impact of jet lag on our trips.
11. Foot Hammock
Angie really dislikes having her feet on the ground for an entire long-haul flight. She typically likes to sit with her feet up or even under her, so she gets really restless on a long flight with her feet stuck on the ground the whole time. To solve this, she got a foot hammock that hangs from the tray table that helps her have options for her feet on long flights. This is another item that Jeff doesn’t use, but he is up walking around as much as possible on a long flight. Angie prefers to hunker down in a window seat and sleep as much as possible when not watching movies.
A foot hammock helps take the stress off your knees and feet while sitting on an airplane. – Angie & Jeff
12. Neck Pillow
There are SO MANY types of travel pillows out there. We have tried a few versions. Angie prefers the “old-fashioned” neck pillow style like this that has been around for a long time. She has a style that can be the donut shape or reversed into a square pillow, but almost always leaves it in the donut shape. When choosing one, we suggest looking for one that can easily be washed or has a case to take off and wash. We made the mistake of not thinking of this for our early travel pillow purchases. Jeff rarely uses travel pillows at all, but he has appreciated the TRTL travel pillow style on some of our long-haul flights to support his neck and keep his head from bobbing when catching some z’s.
13. Scarf/Travel Blanket
Airplane temperature can vary, but on a long-haul flight they tend to get a bit cool. Angie is often cold and is very careful never to wear sandals on flights because the floor, in particular, gets very chilly. Also, Angie prefers a window seat for the ability to lean on the outside of the plane to sleep, but that outside wall gets pretty cold. For this reason, Angie always travels with a large scarf that can double as a light blanket and a small travel blanket. This is again another item that Jeff rarely feels is necessary, but he has on occasion borrowed one of the items for himself on a particularly cold flight. Many airlines still provide light travel blankets on long-haul flights, so that might be sufficient for you. And, Angie found her favorite travel scarf at a thrift store, so you may not need to buy new for this item if you tend to be cold.
The headphones that airlines hand out for use will get you by, but they are very low quality. Angie and Jeff are both currently using JBL LivePro 2 earbuds that offer much better sound quality and much improved bass response. The earbuds are also wireless and provide noise canceling which makes a big difference in fighting fatigue on a long-haul flight.
15. Plug adapter
You probably do not need a Power Converter (Voltage Converter).
A plug adapter is simply providing a way of changing the shape of the plug so that you can connect your device to the wall outlet. A voltage converter is also providing circuitry to change the voltage to a voltage that your device can handle.
A plug adapter usually costs far less than a power converter. Check your own individual devices to be sure if they have power converting capability already installed. As another option, if you need to take a curling iron or flat iron with you on your trip, you could simply buy a dual voltage curling iron or a dual voltage hair straightener.
A plug adpater simply provides a way to change the shape of the plug so you can connect to the outlet. – Angie & Jeff
Also, not all voltage converters are the same; some can be used with hair dryers and curling irons and some cannot. This is far less of an issue now, as many devices, including modern day cell phones, now have the capability built in to switch from using 120 volt power (commonly used in the United States) to 220/240 volt power (commonly used in most of the rest of the world) to charge. Appliances that have this ability to switch on their own are also commonly referred to as “dual voltage” appliances.
16. Portable Power Bank
A portable power bank can give you peace of mind that you will be able to charge your phone, in case you are not near an outlet. Using mapping guidance often drains a cell phone battery more quickly and we’ve found it’s been helpful to have a power bank with us to allow charging on the go.
17. Travel Power Strip
European hotel rooms often seem to have few outlets. We’ve found it very helpful to have a compact travel-size power strip with you so you can charge more than one thing at a time. This also works well in conjunction with a plug adapter. Using one plug adapter (from #14 above) and a compact travel-size power strip, you now have the ability to charge 3+ items at once.
Finances & Documents
18. Money belt
When traveling in popular locations with tourists, the presence of pickpockets is typically inevitable. We both do not particularly enjoy wearing a money belt, but force ourselves to do so when traveling internationally to secure our passport, back up credit cards, and cash in US dollars and sometimes local currency. It seems obvious to us, but they ARE meant to be worn under your clothes. We have seen tourists walking around with them on the outside of their clothes and that negates the purpose of being inaccessible to pick pockets. We prefer the around the waist variety, but there are other styles if you have a different preference.
19. Visa and ATM card
Like the United States, most places in Europe accept credit cards. However, American Express can be a challenge to use. We suggest bringing a Visa along that does not charge foreign transaction fees to avoid adding a 3% charge to everything you purchase.
Visa Cards and Euro currency.
Also, most cards in the US now have a chip, but if your card you plan to bring doesn’t you should call your credit card provider and see if they can send you a version with a chip in it. A system called chip and pin is very common in Europe where you use the chip in your card along with a pin number for purchases. We suggest you call the credit card company of the card you plan to use and ask them what your pin is for that card or work with them to set it up. Most of our card companies say we can just hit enter and bypass the pin, but it is good to be sure you’re clear on how it will work. And, if you speak to a representative that seems unsure, don’t be afraid to call back and speak to someone else to verify the information.
You used to need to call your credit card companies to report travel. When we do this now, we often hear that it isn’t necessary anymore. However, we have also been on a trip with our card getting rejected and that is not any fun. (You will want a backup card from a different bank just in case.) So, we still suggest you call and notify of travel. This is particularly important for banks where you may withdraw cash via an ATM.
You won’t typically need much local currency but you may need some for purchases occasionally, perhaps a street vendor. Or, it is common to have to pay to use public restrooms in Europe and that might require a Euro coin or two. The best way to access local currency for the least transaction cost is through an ATM from a local bank (not Eurostar) and typically not at the airport for the best exchange rates.
We have an ATM card for a bank that doesn’t charge for use at other bank ATMs and suggest you look into a card like this, if possible. But, if not, just be clear on what will be charged so you can plan accordingly. It is also a good idea to have some US currency in pristine condition for use at a currency exchange in case you run into trouble with your ATM card. Currency exchanges do not offer the best rates in comparison to an ATM but they are better than nothing if you need to use a public restroom and need a Euro coin!
Pro Tip: You may be offered the ability to pay for purchases in US dollars while in Europe. This is called dynamic conversion. It might be tempting to do this, but it is among the most expensive ways to make your purchase because the exchange rate they use is not good. Always choose to pay in the local currency on your credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees for the best value.
Enjoy Your Europe Trip with these Must Have Items
As we said at the start of this post, we were planning for and traveling on our first trip to Europe just over 10 years ago. But, in the past decade, we have visited Europe many more times and have now visited 35+ countries on 5 continents. In our early international travels, we didn’t have all of these items and wished a list like this existed for our planning purposes. This post is our compilation of items we now pack for travel to Europe (and internationally really) to make the most of our travels and be comfortable during the transit to and from. We hope you find it as useful as we do!