By Rick Steves
The bulk of your luggage is filled with clothing. Minimize by bringing less. Experienced travelers try to bring only things that will be worn repeatedly, complement other items, and have multiple uses (for example, since I don’t swim much, I let my shorts double as a swimsuit). Pack with color coordination in mind. Neutral colors (black, navy, khaki) dress up easily and can be extremely versatile.
To extend your wardrobe, plan to spend 10 minutes doing a little wash every few nights, or consider a visit to a local launderette, which is in itself a Back Door experience. Choose fabrics that resist wrinkling or look good wrinkled. If you wring with gusto, lightweight clothing should dry overnight in your hotel room.
Many travelers are concerned about appropriate dress. During tourist season, the concert halls go casual. I have never felt out of place at symphonies, operas, or plays wearing a decent pair of slacks and a good-looking sweater or collared shirt. Some cultural events require more formal attire, particularly outside of high season, but the casual tourist rarely encounters these. Women who don’t pack a dress or skirt will do just fine with a pair of nice pants.
If you’re trying to blend in, realize that shorts are not common streetwear in Europe. They’re considered beachwear, to be worn in coastal or lakeside resort towns. No one will be offended if you wear shorts, but you might be on the receiving end of some second glances. Shorts are especially uncommon on older women and in big cities, and the cutoff temperature for “hot enough for shorts” is much higher than in the US. Especially in southern Europe, women can blend in with the locals by wearing Capri pants or a skirt instead; men can pack a pair of as-light-as-possible pants.
Shorts, tank tops, and other skimpy summer attire can also put a crimp in your sightseeing plans. Some churches, mostly in southern Europe, have modest-dress requirements for men, women, and children: no shorts or bare shoulders. Except at the strict St. Peter’s Basilica (in Rome) and St. Mark’s (in Venice), the dress code is often loosely enforced. If necessary, it’s usually easy to improvise some modesty (buy a cheap souvenir T-shirt to cover your shoulders, or carry a wide scarf to wear like a kilt to cover your legs). At some heavily touristed churches in southern Europe, people hand out sheets of tissue paper you can wrap around yourself like a shawl or skirt.
But ultimately — as long as you don’t wear something that’s outrageous or offensive — it’s important to dress in a way that makes you comfortable. And no matter how carefully you dress, your clothes will probably mark you as an American. And so what? Europeans will know anyway. To fit in and be culturally sensitive, I watch my manners, not the cut of my clothes.
More Tips for Women
Thanks to ETBD staffers Joan Robinson, Ann Neel, and Margaret Cassady for the following tips:
Some women bring one or two skirts because they’re as cool and breathable as shorts, but dressier. A lightweight skirt made with a blended fabric will pack compactly. Make sure it has a comfy waistband. Skirts go with everything and can easily be dressed up with a pair of flats and hose (or warm tights if it’s cold).
Try silk, microfiber, or stretch lace underwear, which dries faster than cotton, but breathes more than nylon. Bring at least two bras (what if you leave one hanging over your shower rail by accident?). A sports bra can double as a hiking/sunning top. You don’t need a bikini to try sunbathing topless on European beaches — local women with one-piece bathing suits just roll down the top.
Accessorize: Scarves give your limited wardrobe just the color it needs. They dress up your outfit, are lightweight and easy to pack, and if purchased in Europe, make a great souvenir. Some women bring a shawl-size scarf or pashmina to function as a sweater substitute, head wrap, skirt at a church, or even a blanket on a train. Functional, cheap, but beautiful imitation pashminas can be found all over Europe. Vests and cardigans can be worn alone or mixed-and-matched with other clothes to give you several different looks as well as layers for cold weather. Leave valuable or flashy jewelry at home.
Between the hassle of flying, jet lag and hauling your luggage around, traveling is challenging enough without worrying about looking fashionable while you do it. But Kate Young, a New York-based stylist who counts actresses Margot Robbie and Michelle Williams among her clients, says that it doesn’t take a lot of effort to look stylish on the road.
“Anyone can look chic while traveling, and there’s no need to spend a lot or pack a lot to do it,” Ms. Young said. She noted that she travels several times a month and rarely checks in a bag. Here are her best tips to traveling light and looking good at the same time.
Pack Clothes In Three Coordinating Colors
When deciding what clothes to pack, choose pieces in three matching colors so you can mix and match each piece to create multiple outfits for different days, or even different occasions. Pick the colors based on where you’re going.
If you’re headed to Paris or another urban destination, for example, any combination of black, white, navy and charcoal is a good bet. For a beach vacation or outdoors excursion, khaki, off-white (or white) and bright hues like orange or yellow always work. Ms. Young likes white linen in particular because it’s cool in warm weather, can be worn during the day and is also nice for evenings out. And when it comes to the actual articles of clothing to take, Ms. Young said that a pair of jeans, a pair of nice pants, a striped button down, a blazer and a comfortable T-shirt are always good options. “Ideally, you should be wearing each piece two or three times on your trip,” she said. “Anything less is a waste of space.”
Minimize the Shoes
Most women don’t need to bring more than three pairs of shoes on any trip, Ms. Young suggests. Exercise sneakers, a comfortable daytime shoe to walk around in (loafers, for example), low boots or sandals and, for evenings, heeled sandals if you want them.
Men on the other hand, can generally get by with two pairs: Sneakers and loafers, which can be worn both during the day and at night. And a tip for everyone when it comes to sneakers: Many sportswear brands make lightweight pairs that fold, to take up less space in your bag.
Of course, there’s no reason to pack or choose your shoes strictly based on traditional gender roles. Pack light and choose a few pairs that serve multiple purposes, rather than trying to bring a pair for every occasion or every evening.
Fly in Exercise Gear
Exercise clothes are becoming increasingly fashionable, and for flights, especially long-haul journeys, they’re incredibly comfortable to wear. They also fold neatly and fit into virtually any bag.
Ms. Young suggested that women consider compression leggings, along with a long-sleeved cotton top and coat while men try a pair of track pants and a track jacket, or a half or full-zip hoodie.
Accessorize the Right Way
A few key accessories can change the look of an entire outfit, Ms. Young said. On her travels, she always packs some costume jewelry, like a statement cocktail ring and a pair of oversized earrings. She also packs her makeup in a sleek pouch that doubles as an evening bag. Men, alternatively, or people who don’t wear jewelry, should consider a few pairs of bright socks in fun patterns, just to add a little personality to otherwise simple, coordinating outfits.
Bring One Dressy, Flexible Outfit
If you have a formal evening or event planned during your trip, don’t bother with bulky dresses and heavy full suits and jackets that take up a lot of space.
Ms. Young suggested that women opt for a slip dress, high-heeled sandals and a pair of bold earrings, while men should go for a pair of slacks, a flexible, multipurpose blazer, a crisp white shirt and loafers. Ideally, all of these are things you could use for another evening, a different outfit, or can be packed easily without adding bulk to your carry-on.