Why you should pack in a carry-on for your European vacation

Here’s a confession: I used to be an extreme over-packer. While it pains me to admit it, it’s true. My most egregious offence happened in 2008, when my mom, grandmother, and I took a trip to Paris, Switzerland, and Italy. Our plan was to fly into Pairs, spend a week there, and then take the train from Paris to Switzerland, and then from Switzerland to Florence, where I was about to start my study abroad program. Since I was going to live in Florence for six months, I was convinced I needed to take my entire wardrobe with me.

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Don’t pack this much stuff. You won’t need it, I promise. (Photo via Google Images.)

So I packed two giant suitcases and conned my poor mother into packing her giant suitcase half full with even more of my clothes. My grandmother, never known for packing light, also had a large suitcase of her own.

When I think back on my mother and I (my grandmother was in pretty good shape but couldn’t carry her own suitcase), both fairly petite women, lugging four enormous suitcases through train stations, onto trains , off of trains, up stairs, down stairs, over cobblestone streets, I cringe. It was absolutely exhausting to haul that much stuff around, and we must have looked like such tourists. I’m honestly surprised we weren’t targeted for pickpocketing or bag snatching. With so much luggage, if someone had wanted to grab one of our bags, there wouldn’t have been anything we could have done about it.

And you know what? Once I was in Italy, I wore the same ten or so outfits over and over again. Or I bought new clothes, or borrowed from my roommates. Half of the clothes I hauled across the Atlantic, despite being there for six months, never even got worn.

That trip was really my “come to Jesus” moment when it came to packing. I realized that if I could get by on the same ten or so outfits for six months (and two seasons), then I should always, always be able to pack in a carry-on size suitcase for vacation. Since then, I’ve limited myself to packing in a carry-on suitcase for all my trips, and I have never once regretted it.

There are so many benefits of being a carry-on-only passenger:

  • Avoid the risk of lost luggage. There aren’t too many things I can think of that have the actual potential to ruin my vacation, but having the airline lose my luggage is one of them. Can you imagine having to deal with the airline’s Lost Luggage department in a foreign country on little-to-no sleep after an excruciatingly long flight? Eeeek, no thank you.
  • Get out of the airport faster. You know how after a 12+ hour transcontinental flight, all you want to do is get the hell out of the airport? Carry-on lets you do that. When everyone else is staring forlornly at the baggage carousel, you can beat them all to the customs line and be on your way.
  • It makes you less of a target for pick-pocketing. I have never been robbed in Europe, but it is more of a risk there than it is in America. Thieves in Europe see Americans as dumb, naive, and rich, and they take advantage of that. If you’re struggling with a large suitcase, you’re less likely to be paying attention to whose hand is sneaking in your pocket or purse. Packing in a smaller, manageable suitcase makes you far less conspicuous.
  • You can store your suitcase in the overhead racks on trains. If you plan on taking a train ride between destinations, packing in a carry-on suitcase can be especially important. Generally, there’s not much luggage space on train cars, and it fills up quickly. I’ve seen people have to haul suitcases several train car lengths from their assigned seat to find space for their luggage. Not only is this inconvenient, but it means your unattended luggage can easily be stolen.
  • Fewer choices make getting dressed in the morning easier. I’m not one of those people who can just “visualize my closet” and assemble the perfect outfit. At home, when faced with my entire wardrobe, I’ll stand in front of my closet forever, trying to decide what to wear. Who wants to waste time like that when traveling? There’s too much to do! Having a limited selection of outfits makes it easy to get dressed, get out the door, and get sightseeing.

The way to pack in a carry-on suitcase is to bring only the essentials and pack in layers. You actually need much less than you think you do. Don’t pack something just because you might use it – pack what you know you’ll need and buy yourself out of any jams. Spend time packing, and constantly ask yourself whether you really need an item. Bring travel size toiletries and visit a local drugstore for replacements when you run out. It’s an exciting cultural experience, and you might end up with a new favorite shampoo!

Packing in a carry-on suitcase takes practice, and a little extra effort, but once you’re on vacation, you will be so glad you packed in a carry-on suitcase! Are you a packing pro, or do you struggle to fit everything into your suitcase? What are your best packing tips?

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How to visit the Alhambra like a pro

During the fall of 2016, my husband and I, along with my parents, spent 14 nights in Spain. We stayed in Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada, Toledo, and Madrid, and while I loved all the cities, Granada was probably my favorite. Granada was ruled by the Moors (Spanish Muslims) until 1492, when it was conquered by the “Catholic Monarchs” Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. The city’s most famous sight is the giant, magnificent castle fortress, the Alhambra. Because of its size and popularity (over 8,000 visitors a day!), to make the most out of your visit to the Alhambra, you really need a game plan. I’ve rounded up the best tips to save you time and headaches when visiting this glorious sight.

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The Alhambra, as viewed from the San Nicolás viewpoint.

 

Make a reservation in advance.

The Alhambra is actually composed of four sights: the Palacios Nazaríes – the intricate, awe-inspiring Moorish palace and a must-see, Charles V’s Palace – a Christian Renaissance palace that also houses the Alhambra Museum, the Generalife Gardens – beautiful, ornate gardens with a small summer palace, and the Alcazaba – an old fort with a tower and views over the city. As I mentioned above, this is one of the most visited sights in all of Spain, and, for daytime visits, it’s absolutely crucial you make a reservation as far in advance (up to three months) as possible, as same-day tickets are virtually never available.

If you’re visiting during tourist season (mid-March through mid-October) and don’t mind staying up late, you can also visit the Alhambra at night, without worrying about making a reservation in advance. The Palacios Nazaríes and Generalife Gardens are open most evenings from 22:00 – 23:00 and are well illuminated. You won’t be able to tour the Alcazaba fort or Charles V’s Palace, but crowds will be much thinner, and you’ll still be able to see the most important part of the complex, the Palacios Nazaríes.

When you make a reservation, you must choose an entry time for the complex: either morning (8:30 – 14:00) or afternoon (14:00 – 20:00), and you’ll also select a 30-minute time slot for entry to the Palacios Nazaríes. The entry time for the complex allows you to enter the Alhambra during that time and see any of the sites except the Palacios Nazaríes, which you can only enter during your specific thirty-minute window. When you reserve your ticket online, make sure you do so on a credit card you plan to bring to Europe, as you’ll retrieve your tickets in Granada using that card.

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Palacios Nazaríes, the Alhambra

Retrieve your tickets before heading up to the Alhambra.

While walking around Granada, you’ll likely notice yellow ServiCaiza terminals (that look like ATMs) scattered around the city. This is where you can retrieve your Alhambra reservation and print a physical ticket. There’s a handy one on Calle Reyes Católicos, just down from the Plaza Isabel La Católica and around the corner from the cathedral. You’ll definitely want to pick up your tickets here or elsewhere before you head up to the Alhambra. Having your tickets in hand will mean you can use avoid the main entrance at the top of the complex and use the much less crowded Justice Gate entrance, which is closer to the Palacios Nazaríes, Charles V’s Palace, and the Alcazaba.

Save the Generalife Gardens for last.

Because the Palacios Nazaríes, Charles V’s Palace, and the Alcazaba fort are all within close proximity to the Justice Gate entrance, it makes sense to tour those sites before hiking up to the Generalife Gardens. When we visited, we entered the complex right at 14:00, then visited the Alcazaba before getting in line for the Palacios Nazaríes at 14:40 (our entry time slot was from 14:30 – 15:00). After the Palacios Nazaríes, we toured Charles V’s Palace and the Alhambra Museum before resting in the shade and breaking out some snacks and wine we had brought with us. After we felt revived, we walked up to the Generalife gardens, toured those, and exited through the main entrance, where we found a taxi to take us back down to the main square (for about €8).

 

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Generalife Gardens, The Alhambra

Don’t miss your Palacios Nazaríes entry time.

Be aware that the Alhambra complex is immense. The Palacios Nazaríes is a solid 20-minute walk from the main entrance and the Generalife Gardens, and the ticket-checkers at the Palacios Nazaríes are no-nonsense and extremely strict. The group behind us missed their window by 5 minutes and was turned away. Give yourself plenty of time to enter the complex and get to the entrance of the Palacios Nazaríes.

Bring snacks.

By now, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that the Alhambra is big, and there is a lot to see. You will be doing a ton of walking, and it’s Spain, so most likely you will be hot. Inside the complex, you don’t have that many food options, and the food that is sold is generally overpriced and mediocre at best. Picnicking in public areas is allowed, so take advantage of it! Bring some jamón, cheese, bread, fruit, and wine (check out the Mercado San Agustín in Old Town Granada for supplies) and plenty of water and snag yourself a shady bench to revive yourself between sights. Touring the Alhambra is a marathon, not a sprint, so make sure you pack provisions!

Watch the sun set over the Alhambra at the Plaza de San Nicolás.

While not technically related to a visit to the Alhambra itself, the best way to end a day spent touring the Alhambra is to head to the San Nicolás viewpoint and watch the sunset. You can relax and watch as the walls of the Alhambra change from tan, to red, to orange, to purple. It’s simply magical. To get there, from Plaza Nueva, hop aboard minibus #C1 and get off at the San Nicolás stop. The plaza is crowded with couples canoodling, children kicking soccer balls, gypsies hawking souvenirs, and performers hoping for tips. It’s a lively scene, but I prefer to take the steps down to the El Huerto de Juan Ranas Bar, where you can enjoy a glass of wine and tapas on the patio away from the commotion of the square above. With a view like that, you’d expect the prices to break the bank, but there didn’t seem to be any markup. Spain is a pretty special place.

 

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My dad and I on the patio of the El Huerto de Juan Ranas Bar, just below the San Nicolás Plaza.

Armed with these tips, you’ll be set to make the most of your visit to Granada’s Alhambra! Do you have any questions about visiting the Alhambra that I didn’t answer? Ask away in the comments!