how to ‘win’ at packing

Hannah and Meg’s Excellent Adventure to Italy is just around the corner (9 days to be exact). The excitement spazzing in my tummy can be rivaled only by Christmas Eve of 1994. Unlike Christmas Eve, however, I can’t spend 9 days hypnotized by the clock. So what will I do to pass the time? Pack! I love packing! But with over a week on my hands, there is a dangerous reality that I might convince myself that I need the entire contents of my closet. And, having to meet the disapproving glare of an airline desk attendant and forking over $200 for an overweight fee, is not a travel experience I am looking to repeat. So how do I keep myself in check when on a packing binge? I follow a few simple rules, hand crafted and refined from multiple trips across the pond. So steer clear of my amateur mistakes, by checking out my “older and wiser” packing list peppered with a few good (I hope!) tips along the way.



One August day I found myself in the Frankfurt airport pulling two large rolling suitcases, lugging an over-sized ‘backpacking’ bag on my back, and carrying a normal backpack on my stomach “baby on board style.” As the back sweat collected, suitcases tumbled onto their sides, and angry Germans shoved their way around me, I thought to myself, “NEVER AGAIN.”

After a few blunders, such as my disaster in Germany, I have decided that my ideal packing preference comes in the size of one large “backpacking” bag and a normal backpack. I convince the airlines that the large backpack is my carry-on and the small is my personal item. This way, I also avoid checking luggage. Forever haunted by Murphy’s Law, the peace of mind that my bags will arrive at my destination at the same time as me is worth a little extra weight on my back.

Staying at Home

1. Toiletries.  No one wants to open their suitcase after 20 hours of traveling to find their pajamas sticky with shampoo. Unless you have a brand you are just married to, save yourself the trouble and space of transporting toiletries. Everything that you need to survive, Florentines need as well. Shampoo, soap, toothpaste, lotion, and all the other embarrassing ones too. Swing by the nearest grocery store when you arrive to stock up for the week.

2. Outfit Changes.  I am notoriously guilty of packing myself three outfit choices for each day (because who knows the mood you’ll be in that morning right?). Nip that habit in the bud before you break a zipper on your suitcase. Deep down we all have our favorites. Stick to those, and save the space.

3. Linens. This mostly applies to those who decide to go the apartment route (as hotels will obviously provide your linens). Apartments in Italy typically provide multiple sets of sheets, towels, and blankets. Likewise you should also be able to find an iron, ironing board and and other everyday appliances. Of course, always double check with your landlord, but 9 times out of 10, packing your own linens will be a waste of space.

Coming Along for the Ride

1. Literature. That’ s right! I am a Sargent when it comes to understanding and appreciating where I am and what I am looking at. A few fun facts and a splash of history will make your experience 6 million times more meaningful. Instead of loading down your bag with heavy books however, photocopy the pages you need and bring them in a folder. Bada-bing bada-boom! Everything you need to know in little to no space. For all of you rolling your eyes and saying, “please, I have everything I need on my smart phone,” then good for you! But if you prefer hard copies (like me) I suggest the photocopy route.

2.  Paperwork. A second folder with your lodging confirmations, flight itineraries, and passport copies is a must. You just never ever know when you’ll need a confirmation number or proof of identity. Seriously, don’t be too careful when it comes to paperwork.

3. Pills. I love Advil, I do. And by Jove I will not let a bad headache rain on this vacay! Pack your pills of choice (all legal of course). While the glowing green pharmacy signs can be spotted on every street in Italy, I would rather go with what I know and not spend time deciphering dosage instructions.

4. Clothes. Duh. Clothes will take up 95% of my bag. But I need to be smart about not over or under packing. For a balmy, early September trip I am focusing on breezy, cool outfits. Make sure your choices aren’t too labor intensive. Better to bring wrinkle free items that can be pulled out of your suitcase ready to wear. My essentials are as follows….

  • Skirts and Dresses. Err on the side of dressy and trendy in Italy. While cut-off jorts are my go-to for a 90 degree day in America, a breezy, wrinkle-free skirt is a better go-to in Italy.
  • Comfortable AND Cute Shoes. Call me shallow. Call me high maintenance. Whatever. But I promise, if you wear your New Balance in Italy because your travel book told you to wear comfortable shoes, you’ll regret it. Ok sure, your arches might be comfortable but everything else about you won’t be. Italians shoot glares as biting as lasers at tourists in bright white sneakers. As the most perfectly trendy feet shuffle past you, you will sorely regret your decision. No, I am not saying you need to stick it out in stilettos. Comfort is definitely important. Just find a happy medium in which you don’t have to sacrifice style for comfort. It exists, I promise.
  • Over-sized Scarf. I have one trusty over-sized scarf I bought at Zara a few years back that became a permanent resident of my purse while in Italy. There’s nothing worse than realizing that you are mere feet from one of your favorite Caravaggios but can’t do a darn thing about it, as the church that it’s in, denies you and your bare shoulders access. A quick fix scarf is a fool-proof solution to NEVER MISS A CARAVAGGIO.
  • Cardigans. I mean, do I even need to explain? Cardigans are so useful. Always. Period.
  • Tennis Shoes, Running Shorts. Meg and I are throwing in a tryst with the Cinque Terre one day of our trip. With miles of coastal trails and beaches, sporty Cinque Terre bends some of the standard Italian tourist no-nos (like tennis shoes). Just remember to please keep the casual to the coast.

5. Purse and Wallet. My mom shuddered when she saw the way I carried my purse when she came to visit me in Italy. And she was right, I was playing with fire. Gypsies (am I going to get in trouble for saying that?) with sticky fingers love finding the gaping bags of distracted tourists. So take time to pick-pocket proof your purse. Make sure your bag is either cross-body or fits snuggly under your arm. Bags that zip rather than snap are always safer and even better are internal pockets.  I also prefer a small wallet with just the essentials (copy of my passport, my debit card and some euros) that I can zip in one of the internal pockets. Money belts, nerdy as they seem, are also a safe way to transport valuables, especially when travelling from city to city. Tuck everything that would be a huge disaster to lose (aka your passport, and credit cards) in the belt, and arrive at your next destination debacle free. Most importantly, no matter how comfortable you are, remember to stay aware of your surroundings – UNLIKE ME – so noticed my mom.

6. Gadgets. Our generation thrives on Instagramming, GPS-ing, and texting. So don’t forget your gadgets and all the gizmos they need to work abroad.  My list includes:

  • Camera/camera charger
  • iPhone and iTouch/charger
  • My old Italian telefonino! Hope I can remember my pin!
  • Outlet converters – You can get outlet converters online or at your local Bag and Baggage.
  • Hair Straightener, Curling Wand – Comments about my vanity to yourself please! (disclaimer: make sure to keep your appliances set to significantly lower temps than you normally would…..take it from me!)

Hannah Just Because Extras

  • Pen and Paper. I always think of my best ideas at the oddest moments
  • Plane Snacks!
  • American delicacies for my Italian friends (peanut butter cups and brownie mix)
  • Dan Brown’s The Inferno for the plane ride (ahhh I know, I know!  Meg read it and I haven’t yet!)
  • Hair ties and bobby pins (I bleed that kind of stuff)

In a nutshell be smart. Don’t over-pack, don’t under-pack, always keep your documents on you (ALWAYS), and make sure you bring the appropriate supplies to look awesome – your Facebook friends will be so jealous.

As for unpacking – I imagine it will look something like a massive pile of dirty laundry with me sobbing in the middle. We don’t talk about unpacking.



  1. emily c. · · Reply

    I have been a bad blog-fan, and have not followed through with comments the last several posts. They have been excellent! The one on Santa Trinita blew me away. It is one of my own favorite places, both to visit on my own and with guests, and your post achieved the perfect blend of real art history erudition and trendy brightness. The post on vacation rentals is SO true, and it applies to finding long-term apartments in Florence too. Two years ago, when we were searching for an apartment, we did not get as sucked in as you all and no money was lost, but we realized that we were being pulled into a new circle of Hell, and that doing anything with Craig’slist calls for much caution and care. I have shared your most recent piece on the Palazzo Vecchio with many people – not only does it again present so beautifully what you know on the subject, but it also reminds all of us who get to live here to keep our eyes open and to not take any of Florence’s wonder for granted. The packing post is right on target. It is August here in Florence of course and the city is full-to-bursting with visitors. I am not a fashionista, and my clothes tend more toward J Crew than Prada, but I am amazed every day by what I see tourists wearing in the city.
    Thanks again for a remarkable blog. I hope your travels here go smoothly and that our weather cools off a bit before you arrive.

    1. emily,
      what a great way to start our morning! we are certainly blushing. lucky for us, however, florence isn’t exactly a tough city to be enthusiastic about! we hope to keep writing helpful posts for travelers and residents like yourself and are always tickled (oh boy I’m sounding like my grandma!) to get feedback of any kind. grazie mille! let us know if you or your friends ever have a particular topic you would like covered. we are always eager to hear ideas!

  2. Maureen Coulter · · Reply

    I’m so excited for you, Hannah! I can’t wait to go to Florence someday and use all the awesome tips I’ve learned on you blog. Florence for Free is a great blog!!

    1. thanks maureen! we are always so appreciative of your support. and hey, you just let me know the date i can accompany the coulter clan on an italian vacation and you know i’m in! who knows, maybe there’s a tiny art historian in calvin just waiting to be awakened!

  3. I love this! So true about toiletries – it is all there and really not expensive!

  4. As usual… great blog. Tell the guys that white tennis shoes are also not good, but most other clothing items are ok (short of tank tops). Big thing is to not carry their wallets in their back pocket – at least if they want to keep them. Money belts are uncomfortable, but unfortunately essential.

  5. Carol Schroeder · · Reply

    A couple of comments. If you use a money belt especially in the summer you may want to wrap your bills in a Baggie so they are not damp when you pull them out and hand to someone. Same with your passport. Second, I understand the tennis shoe issue in Florence. However, if running shoes/tennis shoes are the most comfortable shoe you have, do take them. Florentine sidewalks take some getting used to as well as the wonderful circular stairways to the top of buildings. Never underestimate the importance of keeping your feet happy in Florence. They will take a beating. And never put yourself in pain because of what someone might think about your fashion sense.

  6. […] Italy! Our excitement oozed through our keyboards and occupied our posts for months. We shared our tips on packing and even our very own Italy 2013 bucket list. We even confessed our teachable moment (ok our […]

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