I’m all about paying it forward. This article is comprised of a few tricks and hacks that I have picked up over the years. I considered myself a savvy traveler; however, most of my previous travel experiences were in Latin America and the Caribbean. Learning to pack for Europe was a journey of trial and error. Here are five things that I packed and what I should’ve’/could’ve brought instead.
What I brought: Heels
What I should’ve brought: Sneakers
Perhaps I’m old school, but a night out just isn’t complete without those banging, bold, statement heels to set the outfit on fire. You’ve opted for a little black dress tonight? Well, add a pop of color with fun, bright stilettos and a clutch, or keep it classy ‘a la’ Olivia Pope with a more neutral color. I was very attached to my heels and I made space for them in my already over-weight suitcase. Upon my touchdown on European soil, I proceeded to christen my 4-inch red stilettos and everything was going according to plan until I realized one thing: I’m walking on cobblestones and it’s the 21st century! These streets are tired; they’ve seen better days (decades, centuries, etc.). It looked like a scene from a bad Lifetime movie waiting to happen: naive American girl breaks her heel (and her face) when she missteps while exploring one of Madrid’s ancient, winding streets. Only after prying her over-priced heels from a crack and silently picking her face off the ground, does she limp home with her tail between her legs.
My experience wasn’t as dramatic, I did however fall down my stairs, trip up my stairs and roll my ankle several times. That was more than enough for me to retire my heels for booties, wedges and more “practical” footwear. I should’ve brought sneakers! Brands we take for granted in America such as Converse, Nike, Adidas and New Balance are so expensive here but very, very popular. There’s a reason Europe has survived so long, these guys are wise beyond their years! Comfort beats pain any day.
What I brought: Medicine
What I should’ve brought: Vitamins
All hail the NyQuil gods! I knew that as a kindergarten teacher I’d get a few colds. What I didn’t plan for was spending between 3 and 6 months out of the year with some sort of cold/flu type symptoms. It’s frustrating! I learned after year one and so I returned so stocked with supplies that I could be Pablo Escobar’s second cousin twice removed. What I had still failed to realize is that the pharmacies here are so very inexpensive and they are literally on every corner. Granted, the hours are a bit inconvenient, but they sell generic versions of everything you can think of.
Get to know your pharmacist; mine literally has an answer for everything. I got very close to Bea, my pharmacist, because, you know, she’s in the habit of saving my life every winter. Unless there’s a brand you’re extremely attached to, save the space in your suitcase for vitamins. Seriously. I’m vegetarian and have natural hair aka I love supplements! Biotin, B6, B12, Vitamin C, Fish Oil, you name it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve consulted my doctor and have an established regimen. I never knew how expense the same vitamins I buy in Chicago are compared to Madrid. I’ve seen smaller bottles of Vitamin B ranging between 25 and 33 euros whereas at home I drop 10 dollars and it works just fine. Perhaps supplements are still a bit of a novelty because, to be honest, the Mediterranean diet is quite well-rounded, so plan accordingly. What would I do without biotin?!
What I brought: Perfume
What I should’ve brought: American Deodorant
Oh sweet baby Jesus, there’s nothing like a fresh stick of Secret or Degree. This one seems like a no brainer, but it wasn’t at the time. When I look back, I say duh Europe has amazing perfume and tons of options. I packed my favorite scents not knowing that I’d have such easy access to high-quality and a variety of perfumes here. In return, I brought a two pack of my favorite brand of deodorant and you better believe that by Christmas, I was begging my mom to ship reinforcements. Perhaps I’m too particular about these things: I don’t do spray deodorant nor am I fan of the gel or roll-on variety. I’m a simple girl of simple pleasures and it shocked me to find out that Madrid, in particular, does not share my love of Degree or even Dove brand antiperspirants.
What I brought: Clothes
What I should’ve brought: Bras
DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME BRINGING CLOTHES. Unless you’re extremely tall or extremely petite, or have an extremely unique taste in brands or style, use your luggage for other things. In theory, you’d like to follow the standards of dress and conduct of the place you’re going to — in this case Spain — and the best way to do that is to purchase on arrival. There are stores that fit every budget and familiar brands such as H&M and Zara. If you don’t know how or what to pack for the weather, that’s a problem easily solved: wait until you get here and see what it’s in stock for the season. I brought my jeans that fit like a glove, a couple items that I thrifted, and know I can’t replace, and a few dresses I’m relatively attached to. Otherwise, most of the articles currently in my closet were purchased here.
It’s no secret I’m smuggling two tiny globes under my shirt, or as my family likes to joke: I have two little people in a headlock. I have such a hard time finding a bra in my size, my cup size, high quality, but affordable and in a style that I like. I entered a store once and left cackling like a maniac when the store attendant, in all seriousness, informed me that they only carried up to size 32 C. Once, in Cáceres, I struck gold at Intimisimi, a lingerie chain in Spain; however, since then, I pay Victoria a visit at least once a year because she genuinely understands my big boob problems.
What I brought: Oreos/Snacks/Guilty Pleasures
What I should’ve brought: Spices
My carry-on bags are stuffed to the brim with sweets. I confess: I’m a snacker. Chocolate is to peanut butter as Jay-Z is to Beyoncé. Factual. I genuinely have fat-kid tendencies and I regret nothing. Like any feign, I’m able to shift and modify my guilty pleasures based on my surroundings and what’s available. I believe that’s called evolution, if I’m not mistaken. I’ve found very suitable substitutes: Principe cookies, truffles, gelato, oh my! Trader Joe’s is one-of-a-kind and I would never blaspheme wasabi almonds and cookie butter. On the other hand, when you like chocolate, you can make almost anything work. Hello, Nutella, please, take my life savings, no really, you earned it.
I didn’t realize how much cooking I’d be doing, so I neglected to bring spices that add a personal touch to the dishes I love. I had also never built a kitchen arsenal from scratch. At home, whenever I needed paprika, or curry or garlic it magically appeared (thanks, Mom). Don’t worry, they’ve got the basics, but if you’re like me and like (actual) hot sauce, onion powder, red pepper flakes, creole seasoning, and lemon pepper, make some space in your bag for these gems.
Have you got anything to add to the list? Leave it in the comment section below.
Danni is a Chicago native by birth, resident of Madrid by choice. She likes her avocados big, and her hair even bigger.