Well, friends! My much anticipated Italy family vacation has come and gone, and I’ve so appreciated all the feedback and advice I received from you all, so I want to write one final post about what I learned from my first experience traveling abroad. I’m also sharing my travel must-haves, as well as what I purchased that I didn’t need.
I made notes along the way of things I want to remember to do again, and things I want to do differently, so I’ll include those tidbits in here, as well. Hopefully this post will be a useful resource to those of you planning similar trips.
5 Lessons I Learned While Traveling Abroad
#1. Know your travel style when accepting advice, wardrobe planning, etc.
I’ve always been an unapologetic over-packer, but going carry-on only (a.k.a. COO) is often touted as the only way to travel in Europe, and I was determined to make that a reality.
I also got tons of advice about traveling internationally, traveling in excessive heat, and packing efficiently. I tried to take what I needed and leave the rest, but it’s so easy to get caught up in thinking you need to do all the things without taking your specific situation into account.
By the time I went to pack for our trip, I had more gadgets and gizmos and travel sized paraphernalia than you can shake a stick at, and I cannot begin to count the hours I spent trying to figure out how I was going to go COO to Italy for 10 days.
It seemed doable, at first. Dresses are lightweight, my toiletries were all decanted into small containers, and I narrowed down my shoe choices to three pairs (one of which I would wear on the plane.) I even did a test run packing my carry-on suitcase and personal bag the week before, and it looked like I was going to be able to do it!
But when I went to finalize my packing on the morning of our trip, it was clear there was no way everything I wanted to pack was going to fit into the two allotted bags. I was getting hot and sweaty trying to finagle it all inside my teeny tiny suitcase in various configurations like a game of Tetris. (An engineer, I am not.)
The medium-sized suitcase from our beach trip a few weeks before was sitting against the wall of my bedroom, so finally, in a fit of frustration, I grabbed it and unzipped it and I started throwing stuff in willy-nilly. Without the slightest bit of effort, everything fit with room to spare (no Tetris involved.)
Paul walked into the room just as this scene was unfolding, took one look at me, and then put his fingers in the shape an L on his forehead and smirked.
I gave him an icy glare and then stomped over to the bathroom and grabbed my new dual voltage travel hair dryer (which had been a casualty of my carry-on only endeavor) and threw that into the suitcase, as well. I triumphantly zipped it up and drug it over to the door and informed him that it was ready to go in the car, and THAT was the end of any debate over going COO to Italy!
What I realized later is that the reasons for traveling carry-on only don’t necessarily apply to me – at least, not on this trip. I’ve done it for shorter trips, and it can certainly be quite liberating. But for my first time overseas (which felt like the great unknown) when we had business class seats on a direct flight from Philly to Rome, and private transport to and from the airport, there was no need to exhaust myself with the mental gymnastics that went into that endeavor.
Every time we moved hotels and I had to repack my bags, I was so happy I had the larger suitcase because it was so much easier to pack quickly with some extra wiggle room inside. And for our return flight home to the States, we barely fit everything inside the bags we brought without purchasing an additional suitcase, so I was glad we had that added flexibility.
My point in telling you this long tale is this: Know your travel style and what works best for you, and consider your itinerary and accommodations when determining how much or how little you need to pack. In this case, packing a larger suitcase was far less stressful than trying to make the carry-on work.
(Also, just to be clear, Paul wasn’t upset with me for checking a bag. He was more amused than anything, and Caroline was thrilled because she had some full-sized toiletries she desperately wanted to bring. I let her add those to my suitcase, as well.)
#2. I can take time off from the blog. It will not spontaneously combust, the world will not cease to rotate on its axis, and my audience will be here when I get back.
It’s not that I think this blog is so important that I can’t go a few days without posting. I know I’m not curing cancer over here, but social media never sleeps, and my travels usually involve blog content of one sort or another, so I never take concentrated time off like I did while I was in Italy.
But this was a whole new experience for me, so I didn’t want to feel pressured by work commitments while I was gone. Plus, I wanted to be fully present with my family, so I made sure not to have any due dates or deadlines while I was away.
I wanted to schedule a couple of fashion/beauty-related posts to keep things active, but I never had the time to prepare them, so I left with the intention of only posting trip recaps if I had the time, and that’s what I did. And you know what!?! We all survived!
It did take a good bit of work up front and a lot of planning and communication with my team members and brand partners, but it can be done, and I really should make a point to take time off more often. It was so nice to not have any deadlines or tasks to tend to while we were away.
I wrote only when I wanted to, and engaged on social media as I wanted to, but it was all trip-related, so I wasn’t dividing my focus.
#3. Traveling as a family is one of the greatest gifts you can give your kids.
David’s tee // UA pants // my dress (M) // my sandals (8.5) // sunnies // similar crossbody // Paul’s hat // / Maui Jim sunnies // Unbound Merino tee (option/option) // AG shorts // ALTRA trail runners (more options) // Becca’s tank // shorts // sneakers
In a day and age when we spend so much time holed up in our separate spaces, glued to our various electronic devices, it was really cool to see the kids interacting with us and each other. I’m also glad there were no friends or significant others along to distract.
Sure, there was a fair amount of bickering and snarking on one another, but there were some beautiful unexpected conversations and exchanges, and the bonding that comes from spending so much time together in close quarters that you simply cannot duplicate when you’re at home. Plus, of course, the shared memories that we’ll have for a lifetime.
Traveling with your kids also expands their horizons and gives them the tools and confidence to pursue travel on their own when they’re adults. I wish we had done this sooner, but at least we did it now.
#4. Travel agents are worth their weight in gold.
I had no idea how to plan a trip of this magnitude, so I’m incredibly grateful for the travel agencies and trip planners you all recommended. I reached out to a few and ended up working with to Stacey Blum at WhirlAway Travel, and I couldn’t be happier. She met with us over Zoom back in March, where we discussed our travel styles, what we wanted to see and do, our budget, time table, and all of that.
Within a few days, she got back to us with an itinerary, and it was pretty much exactly what we were looking for. She booked all the hotels and excursions, as well as plane flights for all 5 of us. As the trip got closer, and I was too busy and overwhelmed with work to figure out dinner reservations, Stacey set those up as well. She worked with the concierges at our hotels, so we were able to cancel or reschedule with them if we changed our minds once we arrived at our destinations.
We were all provided with the Pocket Travel App that we downloaded to our phones so we had an easy way to access our itinerary, travel documents, plane tickets, etc. It also included guidelines for tipping and dining in Italy, which was super helpful, as well as a message center where we could contact Stacey (and the Italian travel company she partnered with) at any time if we needed something.
It was all completely and utterly seamless, and I don’t want to travel any other way ever again!
#5. Touring foreign cities with a private guide is the way to go!
with our lovely expert guide in Rome, Francesca
We met up with an English-speaking expert guide in each city (arranged through our travel agency) who took us on a personalized tour of the city and certain predetermined museums and churches. They had tickets for the most popular sites so we could bypass the long lines, and we could tailor the itinerary to suite our needs and desires.
Our guides answered all of our questions, took family pictures, and basically served as a resource for anything we wanted to know about the city. Since we had the same guide both days in each city, we got to know them a little bit, which further enriched the experience.
Some days we were with our guide for a half day, and a couple were full days, so you can tailor the experiences to your needs and desires. It was nice to have a mix of guided tours and free time to explore on our own, but I aways enjoyed exploring so much more after we had gotten to know the new city with our guide.
I’ve heard about people working with private guides like this, but I’d never experienced it before, and I’m a convert! (You can arrange them on your own, too, without a travel agent. There are tons of websites for finding private guides; Google is your friend!)
My Must-Have Travel Items
Okay, moving on to the topic of stuff. I realize this could be a separate post, but I want to wrap up these Italy recaps today, so grab another cup of coffee and keep scrolling!
As I said above, I ordered a lot of gadgets and gizmos for this trip, and I might have gotten a wee bit carried away. Now that I know better what I needed and didn’t need, I think I can be a more efficient packer for our next trip.
Just remember my Lesson #1 from above: Something I deem a must-have item may not be necessary for you, and vice versa, so take into account your travel style and personal needs when reading this list.
#1. Sun Bum Original SPF 50 Sunscreen // This turned out to be the perfect size for my purse, and I used it almost daily.
#2. MZOO Sleep Eye Mask // I’ve never used an eye mask before, but I’m glad I had it for our overnight flight. This one is nice because of the contoured cup design – it doesn’t put pressure right on your eyes, and you can easily blink and open your eyes. It also comes with a drawstring pouch that keeps it cleaned and contained in your carry-on bag.
#3. T3 dual voltage travel-sized hair dryer // Our hotels all had hair dryers, and I would have ditched this if I’d gone carry-on only, but I appreciate the peace of mind that comes with having my own. My Dyson is manufactured specifically for use in the USA, so in hopes that I do a lot more international travel, I decided to purchase the T3 travel dryer with auto dual voltage. It comes in a padded bag, which I probably will not use next time because it adds extra bulk, but it’s nice for keeping all your haircare tools in one place.If you want a less expensive option, this BaBylissPRO dual voltage travel dryer comes highly recommended. I decided to go with the T3 because I’ve had one before, and I know I like it.
#4. ghd Dual Voltage styling iron // Only one of our hotels supplied a styling iron, and with the level of humidity in the air, I definitely was glad I had one. In fact, thanks to my daughters, I had both a flat iron and a curling wand at my disposal, but I can curl or straighten my hair with a flat iron, so that’s all I would personally need.
#5. Apple AirPods Pro // These were a last minute pre-trip purchase, and I loved having the noise-canceling feature on the plane. I always listen to music when I fly, and it was much more enjoyable with the noise-canceling. (You can turn that off, by the way, when you don’t want it.)
#6. TRUFFLE Clarity Jetset Cosmetics Case (Standard Size) // I love this little travel case for makeup; it holds all the essentials, and it opens up completely so they’re easy to access. I also have the Mini, and I love that for my brushes and pencils, but I combined it all into the Standard case for this trip to try to maximize space in my luggage.
While I’m still struggling with how to pack my other toiletries (in several small bags or one large one… more on that below), I definitely like having my makeup contained to one case. It makes it easy to carry it around and do my makeup in different spots in the hotel room when someone else is in the bathroom.
#7. TriPole Mini Handheld Fan // This USB-rechargeable handheld fan was nice to have when we were sightseeing on the hottest of days. I got one for everyone, but I was the only one who brought mine on our excursions, so we ended up sharing it, and that worked out fine. You could also buy folding fans at all the kiosks and touristy shops, and that’s what Caroline used. It probably worked just as well and didn’t require charging, so yeah… I might not describe this as a “must-have” but it did come in handy.
#8. European Travel Plug Adapter // Paul got this 4-in-1 plug adapter for his trip to Iceland back in May, and it worked so well that he ordered a few more for this trip. It has 2 USB-A and 1 USB Type-C charging ports, plus 1 AC outlet with max capacity up to 2500 watts, so basically it covers all the various chargeable devices we brought with us, and you can charge multiple devices simultaneously without blocking one another.
Also, thanks to the nifty fold-up portable design, it takes up very little room in your bag. We traveled with three of these, but we could have used more. Every person really needed one.
#9. Compression Socks // My ankles always swell in the heat and when I travel, plus I’ve been nursing an ankle injury ever since we were at the beach, so compression socks for our long haul flights were an absolute must for me. I put them on when I boarded and didn’t take them off until it was time to deplane, and I have to believe they helped keep my ankles from swelling up too much.
#10. Lululemon Belt Bag // I wasn’t planning to bring this bag to Italy because I packed my HOBO crossbody (see #13) for sightseeing, but I decided to use the belt bag as my “cabin bag” à la Jen Lefforge to hold the stuff I needed during my flight. I also used it to hold my passport and ID (in the outside pocket) so they were easily accessible in the airport and when I got to the hotel, as my crossbody bags were packed in my suitcase.
When I was on the plane, it held my essentials for the bathroom (I never know when I’ll need feminine products these days) as well as a few odds and ends I wanted to have handy so I didn’t have to rifle through my large personal bag. (I carried my AirPods, phone charger, disinfectant wipes, Kleenex, lip balm, nail file, disposable toothbrush, tiny Advil, hair tie, eyeglasses, and a spare pair of contacts that I put in upon arrival in Rome.)
I would have carried my compression socks and eye mask, but they didn’t fit, so I put them in a pocket inside my Away Everywhere Bag, and it was easy to reach them when I needed them.
And before you ask… I didn’t want to use the HOBO crossbody for this purpose because it’s bigger than what I needed, and the strap is long and cumbersome to stuff into my personal bag when going through security and boarding and such. Although, since I checked my suitcase, I realize now that I would have been allowed this second bag. Anyway! The belt bag just seemed more efficient for use in the airport and on the plane.
#11. iWALK Small Portable Charger // This portable charger is perfect for throwing in my purse and giving me a boost if my iPhone battery starts to run low during the day. I used it almost every day.
#12. HonHey 4 Speed Personal Desk Table Fan with Base // Now THIS was actually more useful than the one above because I used it at night in my hotel room when it was too warm for my liking, and it doubled as white noise. It’s quite powerful for a little gizmo, and it was a life saver on a few different nights. It’s too big to bring in my purse, though, so I used the TriPole one when we were out and about.
#13. HOBO crossbody // I’m a longtime fan of HOBO bags because they have really nice organization, and the glazed leather is durable as well as attractive. The actual bag I brought is no longer available because I’ve had it for years, but this one looks to be very similar. I compared measurements, and they’re the same. This is the bag I carried for sightseeing, and I also brought my YSL camera bag for dinners out and shopping and such.
#14. VRURC Portable Charger Built-in Cables and AC Wall Plug // Paul bought one of these for his trip to Iceland last May, and he ordered two more for us to share during our Italy vacation. It has a built-in Micro cable, USB C cable, and iPhone charging cable, as well as a USB port, and USB C port. It also has a built-in wall plug that charges the power bank itself directly from the wall outlet.
This charger is powerful and charges our phones quickly, but it’s heavy for carrying with you, so we mostly just used them in our rooms for additional charging, although I think Paul carried one in his backpack most days. I just carried the iWALK in my purse.
#15. STAX Interlocking Storage Container Set // I’ve never loved decanting creams and liquids when I travel because I feel like the containers are hard to clean out, or they’re too big and take up more space than they’re worth, but this little set is perfect! The wide mouth tops make it easy to get product in and out of, and they’re easy to clean out when you want to start over fresh, and I like how they stack together for efficiency. I have two sets of these because I wanted more of the small size.
I use them for my CeraVe facial lotion, tinted moisturizer, foundation, toner, and body wash. I think I’m going to start using the larger ones for shampoo and conditioner, rather than purchasing travel sizes, because it’s too hard to tell how much product is left inside. Another benefit of these is they’re easy to write on, or you can use a label maker, so you know what’s inside.
#16. Travel Vacuum Packing Compression Bags // I forgot to put these in the graphic, and I don’t know that I’d call them a “must-have” but I did use one on the return trip. These are for condensing your clothes so they take up less room in the suitcase.
Caroline actually bought them, and she used them and believes they saved her tons of room. She was able to go carry-on only with several of her voluminous dresses, and she credits these compression bags for that. I didn’t want to mess with them as we moved between cities, but I put one in the bottom of my suitcase and used it on the return flight so I could fit some of our purchases inside my suitcase.
#17. Away Packing Cubes // I love these because they fit perfectly inside my Away suitcases. They don’t have compression, but they do help me keep things organized. Also, the one side of the Away suitcase is designed for compression.
PACKING TIP: Always pack clothes and soft items on the side that isn’t flat. It is made for compression, and your soft things will fit around those bars and be more efficient than trying to fit hard things around them.
#18. Longchamp Large Le Pliage Tote // I packed this flat in my suitcase, and then I filled it with treasures for our return flight and used it as one of my two allotted my personal bags (in addition to the Away Everywhere Bag.) It was also nice to have as an option for our excursions in case I wanted to bring more than would fit in my HOBO crossbody, but Paul had a backpack, so I never needed a bigger bag.
#19. Thigh Society Cooling Shorts // These are what I wore under all my dresses. They don’t have compression, but they keep things smooth and they’re moisture-wicking and prevent chafing.
#20. Medicines & First Aid // I threw a bunch of different medications in a gallon Ziploc bag; I bought as many travel sizes as I could, but they were still pretty bulky. I was glad I had them though, and the ones that I use the least at home were the ones I ended up needing. I’m currently looking for a better system.
What I Didn’t Need & What Didn’t Work So Well
Alright, this post has now reached epic proportions, but I’m too tired to split it up and restructure it and re-write the intro, so I’m going to keep going!
#1. rechargeable travel makeup mirror // Brought it, but I didn’t really need it. I used it a few times in Perugia, where the light in the bathroom was pretty terrible, but the other hotels had lighted magnifying makeup mirrors that I used. I might look into getting one with magnification because even with the light, it was hard to see what I was doing.
#2. neck cooling towels // I expected these to be indispensable on those 99° days in Rome, but we never used them. I even brought one along in my crossbody bag, but I kept forgetting to wet it when we were near a water source. I did use that fan, tho!
#3. disposable toothbrushes // I stuck one of these in my Lululemon belt bag to use on the plane the morning we arrived in Rome, but I forgot to use it. On the way home, we were traveling during the day, and I didn’t think about it when we arrived back in Philly either. Maybe it’s gross not to brush your teeth after a long haul flight… but yeah. Just keeping it real over here!
#4. foldable water bottles // I ordered these after they were recommended by a few people, but I found them awkward to roll up, and I decided they’d be more trouble than they were worth, so I left them home. I just used plastic water bottles from the hotel and refilled them along the way. I did find myself wishing I had a water bottle that kept my water cold, so I ight bring something like this next time because it has the carrying handle.
#5. travel wrap // This is very nice, and I’m sure I’ll use it some day, but I didn’t need it on this trip, and it took up quite a bit of room in my Everywhere Bag. It’s actually the item that I believe put me over the edge in my attempt to go COO. Before I added that, I had room for my YSL camera bag in the Everywhere Bag… but anyway!
I wore my Athleta Pranayama Wrap on the plane, so the travel wrap was rather redundant. I thought I might want it in the evenings with one of my dresses, but it never got cool enough for that. So, yeah, I wish I’d left it at home, but I could have very well wanted it if I hadn’t brought it.
#6. run cap // I packed this because I didn’t have a straw sun hat, and I thought it would be cute with my sporty dresses, but I never wore it. I bought a straw hat in Assisi, but I didn’t wear that either because it was so windy, it was blowing off my head, and then I never found myself wanting it after that. I left it in the hotel instead of trying to fit it in my already-stuffed suitcase.
#7. disposable shower caps // I bought these at CVS to put over my shoes inside of my suitcase, after a few people recommended them, but I have plenty of shoe bags, and I don’t know why I didn’t just use those. They can be washed if the germs ick me out too much.
#8. portawipes // I brought this entire pack, but never remembered to put a roll in my crossbody bag, and I didn’t them anyway. That’s not to say they aren’t good to have; they take up very little room and are probably nice to have just in case, but I never needed them.
#9. anti-theft crossbody bags // When I first started planning this trip, I purchased at least 10 “travel bags” of various shapes and sizes to carry on our excursions. Of course, most had anti-theft features, and there are all sorts of opinions about that. In the end, none of them looked good with the sandals I had picked out, and they made me feel frumpy.
I mean, let’s be honest. Nothing screams TOURIST! like an anti-theft nylon crossbody bag. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a tourist, or even looking like one, but I just couldn’t do it.
Then one day, as I was puttering around my room, trying on travel outfits and trying to figure out the best option, I spotted my HOBO Cassie hanging on the rolling rack. I realized that it was the perfect taupe color to go with my travel capsule wardrobe and all 3 pairs of shoes (the pale gold Naot sandals, white Taos sneakers, and Tory Burch Miller sandals in Makeup.)
Because I’ve carried it at Disney World multiple times, I already know it works well for me. It’s a great size for a full day excursion, it’s comfortable to carry, and it has good organization. It was like a huge light dawned. I realized I had made this so unnecessarily complicated, when I had the perfect bag all along. Sort of like that carry-on only situation… Lesson Learned! (Or so I hope.)
I’ve had quite a few people as if I was glad I brought my YSL camera bag in addition to the HOBO crossbody. I definitely am; it made me feel more like “myself” when I was wearing comfort sandals and sporty dresses to have one of my favorite bags.
Not that I mind the look of the HOBO all that much, but I enjoyed having the YSL for dinners out, as well as a few of times when I was out shopping and exploring.
I’m glad I had both bags because there were times I wouldn’t have wanted to carry a luxury bag. I stuffed pajamas inside of it, so it really didn’t take up much extra room, and the HOBO crossbody packed flat.
Was I worried about pickpockets and theft? Not really. Whether I had my YSL or my HOBO crossbody or my Lululemon belt bag, I kept it in front of me at all times, usually with one hand on the bag. We were in some very crowded tourist areas, but I never had an issue.
Okay, I have one more thing to mention in this category….
I’m frustrated with the multiple toiletry bags I have; I need to find one that holds everything except my makeup, and none of my Truffle Clarity Pouches are quite big enough. I guess I only have the small and medium, so maybe the large will do the trick?
I end up packing several different bags, some of the Clarity Pouch, and some of the Clarity Clutch, and they don’t fit neatly into my suitcase, and they sort of stick together too, so it’s not easy to shift them around.
I also have that fold-up travel toiletry bag, but I decided it’s too big and cumbersome, so I stopped using it, but it’s probably better than a myriad of different bags. I do like having my makeup separate, though, so that derails that plan. This one is similar, but it has a removable portion, so maybe I could put my makeup in that section?
I looked at the Tumi version of that bag, and I didn’t buy it because it’s so pricey, and I thought I wanted to use several smaller bags, but it does have a removable portion I could use for my makeup, so maybe I need to give it a try.
All that said, my Away Everywhere Bag and Away The Medium suitcase worked out pretty much perfectly. The Away packing cubes helped keep things organized, and I was able to remove them and put them right into the drawers in the hotels where we stayed. (I hate living out of a suitcase; I always unpack and put my things in drawers or hang them up.)
And with that, I do believe I have completely exhausted this topic, but if you have any questions that I didn’t address, I’m happy to answer in the comments!
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