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Planning for a month in wintry Europe with only a carry-on

by | 28 Sep 2020 | Travel

Planning is honestly one of my favorite parts of a trip. Honestly, I enjoy it almost as much as the trip itself for the pure anticipation it brings. Even with a plan, I frequently end up on unexpected adventures. I learned a couple years back to build in some flexibility, because even the best planner can’t anticipate everything. Also that I will always need a day/night to recuperate after travel. 

FLIGHT LOGISTICS

In summer of 2017, I was interning at UTC Aerospace while all of my friends were gallivanting around Europe, and I had some severe FOMO. That’s when I decided to take the entirety of winter break of senior year to do my own trip. I found a roundtrip ticket from LA to Stockholm for $350 and decided to buy it and worry about the details later. And so I did! I ranked cities by appeal and cost and narrowed it down to five: Prague, London, Amsterdam, Budapest, and Berlin. 

Picking intra-Europe flights was a bit tricky, but I found the most optimal order and went for it. This required an extensive spreadsheet for comparison, including the merits of spending certain holidays in certain cities. Also, some flights weren’t offered every day, or it would be significantly cheaper to fly the next day, etc. I made note of it all.

ACCOMMODATIONS

For my hostels, I looked for ones with reasonable cleanliness, proximity to city centers, kitchen areas, Wi-Fi, and in-house laundry. I booked my hostels in September and even then pickings were already slim for around the holidays. I was fortunate to get all of my first or second choices that I had picked in August, but by the slimmest of margins—especially since my already-bought flights allowed for no flexibility. 

Since 2017, I’ve traveled a fair amount last minute. Fortunately, as there were no holidays when I traveled (except for Amsterdam’s Pride), I’ve managed to score some sweet last-minute deals for one night. Multi-night stays can get a bit trickier, and for that I pretty much recommend booking as far ahead as you can. 

PACKING THE BAG

Yes, there was a whole shtick about packing because I refused to check any bags for this month-long winter expedition. I did comparisons for bags and settled on this universally accepted carry-on from it luggage that I got for $40, like new. I still use it to this day and I love it, so much so that when I replaced my checked bags from 2014, I replaced them with bags from the same line. 

A note about bags: I know spinners have come into fashion as of late, but if you’re looking to maximize space you gotta go with the two-wheel bags. Not to mention they’re much easier to maneuver on uneven terrain such as cobblestone. They’re also way more durable, due to having a more streamlined design and thus a lower number of potential failure points. Two-wheel all the way!

I’ll spare you the whole weighing of every single item I brought with me, but you can find my packing list at the end of this post. One note about it is that this includes what I wore while in transit, which is essential for saving space! A separate outfit for transit takes up a lot of space in a carry-on. Versatility was key for all of the clothes and the one pair of shoes I brought with me. 

CHOOSING THE ACTIVITIES

I spent on average about five days in each city. This was a good amount of time for me, as it allowed for a day of rest/travel and 3-4 days of fun. I also used that first day to plan the next four days and buy groceries for my stay so I could save some $$$ on food. Walking around the city also helps me get my bearings and build context on where exactly I am in relation to the city. 
Using Google trips (RIP) I had chosen a few interesting sights to see and had it auto-generate a path through specific sights. I highly recommend doing research on the activities and museums that require early booking so that you don’t miss out like I did. Also, asking people at the hostel for recommendation can lead you to some under-the-radar experiences. 

Honestly, there’s nothing quite like drinking with strangers too, so be a new person and talk to whoever you want to. One of my favorite parts of traveling is being a nameless face with a clean slate. Plus, as long as you don’t get arrested, nothing has to follow you home. Practice an Australian accent, dress in all black, you can do literally whatever. 

SPENDING WISELY

International travel is expensive. There’s no way around it. No matter how much you plan, something will happen and you will either end up having or wanting to spend more than you anticipated—after all, you’ve already made the trip all the way there! Memories are priceless, but experiences often come with bills. However much you think you’re going to spend, double it. In Europe, triple it. It takes some careful planning and extensive pricing knowledge to accurately guess how much you’ll spend somewhere.

As far as actually spending money, please use cards with no foreign transaction fees! Even better if it has a good rewards program. Sites dedicated to money matters can give better credit card recs than me. My cards were compromised in Brazil a couple of times, so fraud protection is another requirement for any card I use while traveling. 

For debit cards, Charles Schwab has no foreign transaction fees and even refunds ATM fees worldwide—super convenient in places where the fees are astronomical (I’m looking at you, $11 Buenos Aires ATM.) They also have solid fraud protection, making it an excellent back-up card as well. If you’ve ever had an interest in stocks, their checking accounts all come with brokerage accounts as well. I’m not sponsored by anybody, I just really like this bank.

PACKING LIST:

  • 2 pairs of lightweight jeans (black/blue) and 1 skirt
  • 2 thermal tops and thermal leggings (I like Uniqlo’s heattech line as they’re light weight)
  • 6 tops, all of which matched every bottom
  • 6 pairs of socks/2 pairs wool
  • 7 pairs of underwear and 2 bras
  • 1 warm fleece jacket and hat
  • 1 hooded shell jacket that protected against rain and wind
  • Lightweight packable towel (like this one)
  • Universal adapter
  • Fitbit/tablet/phone/chargers (no laptop)
  • Headphones
  • Daypack, which doubled as a personal item
  • Powdered laundry detergent (4 loads)
  • Toiletries bag (relatively minimal: medication, bar soap, exfoliating gloves, toothbrush, toothpaste, brush, hair clips, mascara, eyeliner pencils, baby wipes)
  • 1 pair of shoes, which I wore on the plane (and then ditched in Berlin)

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