Melissa L. Smith
Travel Hacking Europe
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
What to pack, what to bring, and what to leave at home.
After six weeks away traveling through France, Tunisia, and Germany (and after six years since the last time I took an extended trip abroad), I’ve come back with several takeaways.
Perhaps the biggest, is that Italy, France, and Germany, are not set up for wine tourism the way that we are in the US. While there are many wineries that require reservations (most of the highly sought after producers that claim sections in my clients cellars), there is not a day of the week that you can’t drive to wine country in California or Oregon, look for an open sign, and find a spot in their tasting room. As I was told many times in Bordeaux, “We are not set up for that.” While I intend to do a deep dive on that in a future post, I was thrilled to intercept a group of visitors from California while I was in Paris that were heading to Bordeaux, and had planned on going tasting, with no prior reservations. That simply isn’t an option, and I didn’t want them to be disappointed when they arrived. Even in Reims, where all of the top Champagne producers are within walking distance of each other, there is not a single door open to the public without prior, very hard to get, reservations.
So, if you’re planning a trip to Europe to visit wine regions, make reservations well in advance, give yourself a day or two cushion in case of delays or cancellations with the airlines, and book your hotel or AirBnB in a central location. Alternatively, book a trip with a company that has incredible relationships with wineries for an organized tour that includes places to stay and transportation. Actually, do that. I’m constantly seeing my industry friends leading trips like that, and I guarantee that it is an easier and better way to have an authentic experience than winging it, or hoping to book last minute reservations like I did (outside of my pre planned visits to Smith-Haut-Lafitte, and Charles Heidsieck and Piper Heidsieck).
I am a major fan of AirBnBs. I love the uniqueness, that you’re supporting people who own the homes (in most cases), the locations can be exceptional, and that you can usually find great deals. I found a great place in Bordeaux for a week with a pool, an apartment in Paris with an incredible view, and a place in Cannes that I almost offered to buy because I was so in love with it. However…I’ve noticed many of the same amenities are lacking in my European stays that we are accustomed to in the US.
Washcloths are a rarity. I switched to exfoliating shower gloves a very long time ago, but forgot to bring them with me. Either way, bring something to wash your face and body with while you are traveling.
Shampoo, Conditioner, Body Wash. Do not be surprised if you arrive at your AirBnB, and none of these things are provided. However, this is the perfect excuse to head straight to the French pharmacy to gather high quality, beautiful smelling bottles of products that are not available outside of France.
Kleenex. Oh boy are we spoiled with our bathroom paper products here. If you can find tissues, you’ll likely need to double or triple up the harsh parchment, and the TP is not much better. While it’s going to take up some room in your luggage, if you’re anything like me you will be happy to have brought it.
Ice. It got to the point where I was asking for an “American” amount of ice with my beverages after a very funny and charming pastry shop worker said that to me when I asked for more ice with my Iced Tea (the first time I’d even seen it offered was three weeks into my trip). So whether it’s for your own iced coffee, tea, water, wine (gasp!), cocktails, or my homemade sangria (more on that later), seeking a bag of ice is worth the trouble (it won’t be easy to find either).
Sleep mask. The days are L O N G during the summer, and these are a sanity saver when you are trying to catch up on sleep.
Ear plugs. Hopefully they won’t be needed, but depending on where you are, there could be sirens, screaming children, or an inexplicable high pitched whine of a nearby fan that runs 24 hours a day until the day before you leave. These are the best I’ve found, and another sanity saver.
First Aid Kit. Accidents (and blisters) happen, and having a variety of band aids, first aid cream, and something to clean a wound on hand has come in handy. Also, sunscreen. You may be able to tell, I go from pale to lobster in very little time, and the day I lax on applying it results in three days of misery while I buy all of the aloe in the zipcode.
Towels. I don't know why they seem to be an afterthought, but they have been almost comical. One of the places that I stayed at featured its incredible infinity pool in their advertisement, but when I arrived they had no pool towels, and only one fairly small bath towel, so I ended up buying a gorgeous Tunisian towel at a market in Nice that ended up serving as a towel, a blanket, and was great at the beach. Definitely worth having in your carry on. And while they did not have towels available, they did sell bread at the pool.
A few more tidbits. Look for AirBnBs with washing machines. Travel with as little clothing and shoes as possible (pack a pair of comfortable flat dress shoes, and comfortable sandals (I went with the hideous but trendy and incredibly comfortable Birkenstocks). I ended up sending home at least four pairs of shoes, plus 8 kilos of clothing from the French Post Office, which cost $120 euros plus insurance for their largest box that maxes out at 10 kilos. I thought I was being conservative, but my suitcase ended up weighing 24 kilos, and I could not maneuver it around the train stations and uneven streets on my own, which was beyond humbling. Actually, thanks to an amazing friend and Burgundy local, I stashed my luggage in a train station locker for over a week and only ended up paying about $15 euros (which seemed like a number they pulled out of the air) when I went to retrieve it around 10 days later.
I had decided on three dresses (this product was also a serious life saver), two pairs of pants, and two tops that ended up getting me through the next four weeks with the ability to wash them at the AirBnBs. (Beware that you will be air drying them in almost all cases), and they all fit in this amazing bag that was a godsend. Granted this was the middle of one of the hottest summers on record, but I have a new appreciation for the capsule wardrobe, and will never again bring something larger than a carry on when traveling solo. By the time I met up with my husband on the 5th week, I was grateful for the help and thrilled to start filling the empty space with the dozen plus bottles of wine and alcohol we brought back with us.
Do make sure that you have warm clothes for the plane flights. I layered a vest over a thin hoodie, and had warm socks stashed in my bag that only came out when on the plane. When looking at an 11 plus hour flight, you want to be as comfortable as possible.
Which leads me to the travel necessities (or just the things that make everything easier and better).
For the plane
No-Jet-Lag tablets. I’ve been using these for about a decade and they totally work! A homeopathic miracle, the tablets taste like sugar pills that dissolve in your mouth upon takeoff, landing, and every 2 hours in the air. I had zero jet lag on either end of my trip…but my husband forgot to take them and had about a week of jet lag to contend with. When a good friend that is also a travel writer asked me how I was looking so good and rested when I posted a photo from a client’s cellar the day after I landed, I told her about these and she immediately let me know that they worked for her! Give them a shot. I set my alarm for every 2 hours on my watch and keep them within reach.
Noise canceling Airpod Pros. #1 thing to improve my entire traveling experience. Blocks out screaming children and engine noise.
Moisturizing socks and facial masks. If you’re going to be on an extended flight, you may as well hydrate in the sky. I especially love these because they keep your feet warm, and since they’re non-skid you can use them for walking around the plane. I always bring some extra facial masks to give to the flight attendants, who usually appreciate the gesture.
A backpack that is easy to pull your laptop in and out of. One of the two main headaches I had was swiftly removing and reinserting my laptop going through TSA. (The other was the insanity that is dealing with different countries' definitions of liquids when it comes to makeup.)
Inflatable pillow. I have an impossible time getting comfortable on planes when I fly coach, but this thing has really helped. There is even a way to faceplant in it and have your phone held at the perfect distance on the bottom pocket. Protip, attach it to your backpack with a carabiner. It will save you space in the luggage, and I’ve yet to see anyone look twice at the attachment.
Pill organizers. Instead of packing up eight bottles of supplements, I bought this one for vitamins, and this one for medications.
This phone holder is a bit bulky, but a great solution when you want to watch your own content on the plane. A less expensive option is to use a ziploc bag and trap it in the space behind the tray.
And don’t forget your power converter! I brought this one and it was the only one that I needed, and it came in very handy at the airport. But, you might also want to bring one of these for the train, it’s not as bulky and not all of the trains have usb ports.
Cable organizer. Bring back up cables, especially the iPhone ones in case you’re anything like me and repeatedly buy the knock off ones from Amazon that stop working after three weeks. There is also space for a battery pack, which you should always have on hand.
Compression travel cubes. When you’re trying to save space, these things are amazing.
Carry on luggage. Hard sided, sturdy, and an easily accessible outer section is a total bonus. Like I mentioned, you don’t want more than is absolutely necessary. You’ll likely be taking a lot of trains, maneuvering through awkward doorways, and wedging yourself in elevators the size of coffins. BUT, you have to bring one of these magical expandable bags that can be used for the beach in Antibes, for an overnight or two if you jump on a train to Reims, and most importantly, to put all of your clothes in when you come home, so that you can fill your suitcase with bottles of delicious wine, spirits, and pharmacy finds, and only have to check one bag the entire trip.
Safe travels! If you have any more tips share them with the group, post links, and include places not to be missed!