Top 10 things to pack for Europe

As my cousin Elena gets ready for a semester abroad, I wanted to share my best tips for what accessories and tools to pack for a good trip to Europe. These are the top items that made my last trip a success – what else would you add, dear readers?


  1. Locks. They’re not just for (illegally) adding to bridges in Paris, these are also great for keeping your stuff secure – I got this TSA-approved duo. This is especially helpful if you’re sleeping on a train, putting your suitcase in the other end of a train car where you wouldn’t be able to see someone reaching in, or leaving your valuables at your hotel. Honestly, if someone is desperate enough to steal your stuff, they’re going to take your entire bag – but if a thief is just fishing around for something easy (as was the case when a cousin had her iPad and nothing else stolen in Europe…) this can be the first step in thwarting them.
  2. A travel power strip. I bought the Belkin travel charger and it was great for expanding my charging power while keeping all my devices in one place (the easier to collect when packing or locking up for the day!). Get one and then get a local power converter and you won’t have to worry about blowing your fuses or having one of your devices go without a charge.
  3. A portable charger. One more technology item I recommend – portable chargers are great if you’re using your phone as your camera / map / texting device / place to keep tickets and confirmations / etc. Get a small power cell and a retractable (or just short) power cord to make a little power-on-the-go kit that will mean you never need to cut an adventure short because your battery is running low.
  4. Ear plugs. Whether you’re sharing a hostel with a snoring roommate or your Airbnb is next door to a building with an alarm going off 24/7 (true – bad – story), it sucks to pay exchange prices for something so small that you can get so cheaply before you leave home.
  5. Printed copies of documents. You know what else is no fun? Finding out that you needed to have that ticket to Versailles or wherever on paper and then needing to find an internet cafe in Paris to print it at. Just don’t do it. Keep at least one copy of all important travel plans and bookings – including a copy of the first page of your passport – on paper so that when you wake up in the middle of the night and want to confirm that you didn’t miss your plane, you don’t need to frantically search through your email to be reassured. (Also leave a copy of that front page of your passport, insurance card, etc. with your family at home so they can help you out if all your stuff somehow disappears.)
  6. Passport organizer. Then, keep that all organized! I almost bought many beautiful passport cases before eventually getting a neat pencil bag from Target that became my go-to for traveling. My passport lived in here (which in turn lived in a locked pocket of my suitcase) and it also held my American money, extra credit card, visa for Turkey, etc. It’s nice to have one place that you don’t constantly mess with where you know everything is safely stored.
  7. US medicine and a prescription plan. Do you know how to say “decongestant” in Spanish? How badly do you want to try? For me, the answer is not at all, so I pack as many US meds as I think I might need before I leave home. Painkillers in particular can be quite different between countries, and I prefer to know I’m having a drug I’m familiar with in a dosage that’s proven to work for me. I always bring decongestants and allergy meds, since I get stuffed up from planes and need to recover quickly to enjoy my trip. I also recommend refilling / reactivating any prescriptions you think you could need – whether that means getting a spare inhaler just in case or asking your doc for a z-pack if you always get sick in a particular time of year – even if they won’t pre-authorize it, at least you can have it on hold and quickly call it in as needed.
  8. Packing cubes. I am a devoted follower of packing cubes and their ability to help you keep your clothes neat, compact, and organizer. Having all your running clothes, or all the clothes you need to keep clean for the plane right home, or all your underwear in one place can reduce the stress of hauling so much stuff around with you. It also makes it much easier to find the small things (chargers, souvenirs) in your bag than if everything were floating around. Ikea has a good set but you can also find really good deals at most Marshall’s – I propose getting a mix of closed, waterproof packs and some that are more meshy for when you don’t need things to be so tightly packed (or just get the top seller on Amazon!).
  9. Word Lens, Duolingo, and WhatsApp. Download these before you go and they will change your interactions (and maybe even your life?). WordLens is an app that automatically translates photos into different languages – so if you end up in Germany, you can point your camera at a menu and order with confidence (warning: organ meat is still just organ meat…). No internet connection required! If you want to prepare further in advance, get Duolingo and its free suite of language training programs. Hearing phrases before you actually get into a country can help break through barriers and put you at ease when you actually arrive. And finally, WhatsApp is the preferred way for expats and others to chat with folks back home. It’s a free messaging service that works just like texting but uses only an internet connection. That way, no matter what someone’s area code is, you can start chatting and send photos, etc.
  10. A good scarf. Last but definitely not least – scarves are a staple of my wardrobe, and a great thing to have when traveling. They dress up an outfit, help you hide coffee mishaps, double as blankets when picnicking… the list goes on and on. Scarves make great accessories to hunt for during your travels (Katie got a great one in Paris that got compliments throughout Spain and Turkey) but you should also have one you love before you hit the road.  I splurged on a travel infinity scarf from Boston-based Speakeasy Supply Co, mostly for the hidden pocket. Whenever I was wearing a skirt or leggings, this provided me with an easy pocket and also let me hold my passport and phone close to my body when out in public or dozing on a train.

On top of all this, you’ll want a classic wardrobe (that doesn’t brand you immediately as an American), a good purse, great walking shoes, layers, nice clothes for going out… the list is as endless as your suitcase! But if you start with some good, functional tools, you’ll be on the right track for a successful trip.

Bon voyage, ma cousine!

The summit and descent (Mount Washington part 2)

If you missed part 1, you can check it out here!

Now the hard work began. The 1.4 miles between Lakes of the Clouds and the summit were the roughest miles I’ve hiked yet. The trail was basically built before switchbacks, so it’s straight up, stepping from rock to rock to rock to rock to… you get the picture.

Kate mtn

Kate with Monroe in the background – only when the skies cleared could we confirm that the pile we had been to was truly the top!

On top of that, add 30-50 mph winds – the next day, they were expected to get to 70 mph. I found the sound to be the worst part – I had my buff over my ears, but my windbreaker was whipping in the gusts and flapping about my head (tip #4). The roaring made it hard to concentrate on steps and generally wore me out much faster than I expected – Kate’s work in a noisy brewery prepared her a bit more, but we were both windblown when we got to the top. Still, it was a gorgeous view along the way.

Lake of the Clouds

One of the Lakes of the Clouds, and Kate on the trail off to the right

As we hiked, we could occasionally see the weather towers at the summit peek into view. When we got closer, the clouds moved in again, but at least we knew we were going the right way. And the minute we stepped onto flat ground, mom and dad were standing there to meet us! They took the Cog railroad to the top and had been waiting for us to arrive (tip / lesson #5…).


Me and my support crew!

We hustled inside, grabbed a table, and ate our pre-packed PB&J while sharing our adventures. They served food at the summit, but it looked too greasy to be good for hikers. We also changed into fresh shirts, visited the gift shop, and wrote out some postcards. Overall, the summit was exciting but also incredibly frustrating. A friend had warned me that I would basically want to punch everyone there and it was true – we had been hiking for 5+ hours and were waiting in line for the bathroom with people wearing flip-flops and taking their dear, sweet time before driving down. People in the gift shop, wearing only fresh cotton sweatshirts, crowded us and bumped into our packs and poles. We had worked so hard to get there – to fight for space on a bench with a kid in a tshirt eating an ice cream cone or to wait in line with dozens of people to take a photo with the summit sign was not the reward I was looking for.


My feelings about the line at the summit

And thus we scurried away, down the Jewell trail. By then the skies had cleared and we had incredible views on the way down, partly because there were no trees for hours. This is not a trail you can take in bad weather – it’s totally unprotected. But I had rechecked the forecast with the weather specialists at the top and confirmed it was fine for our next step. And step we did – rock to rock, putting our feet on those whose lack of lichen showed that people had tread there before. It was hard going and hard passing, but we got to know some of our companions – specifically a family of four whose two kids (7 & 9) who we hiked near for hours and chatted with a bit. When we did stop, we had to remind ourselves to drink, despite the extreme lack of anywhere to pee (even a two-foot tall bush can be called “good enough” after a certain amount of time…).


The cairns marked less of the actual trail and more “go this general direction” and we obliged, disbelieving that we could possibly be going so up and down on our way to the bottom of the mountain. We watched the Cog creep by as we went – even climbing over the rickety tracks at one early point – before finally reaching tree cover about 90 minutes from the end.


The trees were a welcome reprieve from the wind and stones, and made the last bit seem faster. However, the mossy rocks also caused me to slip and fall once – leaving some nice bruises in the days that followed. Thank goodness for giant backpacks keeping me from fully falling backwards!

At 7:30, with about an hour of daylight left, we emerged from the woods to a final brook crossing… and there were mom and dad, again! We had made it! We were hiking for 10.5 hours and on the trail for a little more than 12, and still had energy to go out to dinner that night. Victory indeed!

Stay tuned for the final installment in this story, including the story of the Cog and my tips for future hikers, next time!


The path to the top (Mount Washington part 1)

We came.
We saw.
We bundled.
And we climbed.

After months of planning and training, I successfully climbed (and descended!) Mount Washington in New Hampshire on July 31.

We – college bestie Kate, and pit crew mom and dad – drove up north on Thursday after a morning of baking, yoga, and softball. We drove straight to the trailhead – I didn’t want there to be any question in the morning about where we were actually entering the woods, and I also wanted to check the signs to make sure nothing would stand in our way (tip #1!). Then we headed to the adorable Airbnb we called home for the next few days – it was perfectly situated just a 20 minute drive from the Cog Railroad parking lot and the trails we were planning to take up and down (tip #2!).

Ammanoosuc trail sign

After an early night (of settling Catan), we were up and out and on the trail by 7:15 AM. It being a Friday, we saw only a few people in the first hour.  The trail we took – Ammanoosuc Ravine Trail – had some great landmarks along the way… but since we started at a slightly different trailhead than what the book measured from, we actually had no idea when to expect them.  Still, we enjoyed waterfalls, jumping from stone to stone to cross rivers, walking on logs over ravines, and even climbing a little ladder.

River crossing

Sally on the ladder

We saw maybe 30 people total between the base and the Lakes of the Clouds hut – mostly, we were able to share the trail well (despite some campers who were racing to the top and not so much caring about right of way). Our biggest traffic jam actually turned out to be a waterfall crossing my research had warned me about… but we were so caught up in the flow of the hike that we didn’t realize it until we were done – I didn’t even take a picture of the falls, just of the rock wall!

Mountain traffic jam

As we got toward the top, we could see beautiful views off in the distance.  We broke through the trees just as the one steam train of the day chugged up the mountain, and were able to watch it make its slow way up the slope.

View from the trail

We had been hiking for three hours when Kate said “I see a roof!”. I laughed – all I saw ahead of us was fog and surely we hadn’t gone far enough yet.  But lo and behold! There was the Lakes of the Clouds hut, appearing and disappearing as the wind whipped the clouds around the mountain.

We stopped in for $1 lemonade and to peek into the bunk rooms, signed the guest book, and decided that we felt spry enough to take on another challenge: Mount Monroe.  It was only .3 miles away – how could we resist?

Mount Monroe selfie

The path was rocky to say the least, and we got our first full taste of the force of the wind.  We could barely see 15 feet in front of us, but we kept to the path ok.  Every time we came to a high place, we thought it was the top – and only then could we see to the next mini-peak.

After about 25 minutes, we came to a flat-ish section of rock with a thin metal rod in the edge – no sign, no geographic marker… just a metal peg. “This must be it,” we declared (tip #3!).  And thus, we took a selfie, wrapped our windbreakers a little tighter, and headed back to the Lake of the Clouds hut for the final mile and a half of the hike up.


And that, ladies and gents, is a story for another day – I stayed up late writing this and watching the GOP debate (aka strengthening my resolve to work for Hillary), so I’ll tell you more about the trip to the summit and the way back down on the next pass!