I don’t know about you, but one of the parts of travel that I never look forward to is packing. (And don’t get me started on unpacking, which is eleventy billion times worse.)
Years ago, I’d start making piles of “maybe I’ll take this stuff” weeks before a trip, surveying the piles each day to add or remove something. These days, I’m much more able to pack quickly, since there are things that always go in my bag, almost regardless of the destination or time of year.
In this article, I’m sharing the list of nine things I always pack when I go to Italy.
For more general packing information, including clothing tips, check out my guide: What to Pack for an Italy Trip
Now, this isn’t meant to be a list you emulate item for item, it’s meant to be an inspiration point from which you’ll compile your own list of “stuff that always goes in my bag.” Some of these things have been on my list since I first visited Italy, while others are more recent additions. It’s a list that’s constantly evolving, as my travel needs change – and as the reality of travel in a post-9/11 world changes.
I would love to hear your version of this list! Please leave comments below if there’s an item or a few that you wouldn’t leave home without. Perhaps you’ll give me a brilliant new addition to my own list.
A note on the links below: Some of these are affiliate links, which means if you click through and buy something then I get a little something. The price for you doesn’t change at all.
This is the newest item on my must-pack list, and I happened upon the idea by accident after a dear friend passed her maternity cardigan on to me when she was done nursing her newborn. At first, I was a little confused about why a maternity cardigan would fit a not-pregnant me, but then I realized the arms weren’t the place that was oversized – it was the drapey part.
And, it turns out, that’s ideal for plane rides.
If you, like me, are someone who gets cold easily, you’ll love the versatility of a cardigan with “wings” big enough to essentially double as a blanket. As a bonus, the one I have is made of a material that valiantly takes a bit of abuse (e.g. being wadded up in a bag) – which means it’s also perfect for toting around when sightseeing so that you can cover up exposed arms and shoulders before going into a church.
If you have a pregnant/nursing pal with a maternity cardigan they’re willing to pass along when they’re done with it, that’s excellent. The one I received was from the Liz Lange collection at Target (this specific one is no longer available), but there are many options to check out online, too.
This is another thing that keeps me from freezing on a cold airplane, and also doubles as a stylish scarf when I visit Italy in winter or fall. I have an (almost) embarrassingly large collection of pashminas in a variety of colors, though I tend to travel only with scarves that are not favorites (lest I lose it) and that aren’t light colors (lest I spill something).
In warmer weather, now that I have the aforementioned maternity cardigan, I probably won’t bring a pashmina scarf as well – but for any trip during which I might run into cooler weather, they’re both coming on the plane with me.
Oh, and if you choose a pashmina over the cardigan, this is another thing you might want to consider shoving in your day bag so as to cover shoulders before entering a church.
Of course, the flip side of being too cold on an airplane is being too hot on – for instance – the Milan Metro. A friend gave me a cheap paper fan she’d bought at an Italian flea market during one particularly stifling May, and I’ve never been without one tucked in my purse on any subsequent trip.
You may know that many Italians have a superstition about air conditioning. That superstition, plus the high cost of electricity, means that A/C isn’t as commonplace as you might expect in a country that gets devilishly hot (and humid!) in the summer – and that’s true on public transit, too. Having that paper fan handy isn’t quite like having portable A/C, but it definitely helps.
I periodically buy several fans at a time to stash in my box of travel stuff at home, since they tend to fall apart after a few trips. If you have an Asian market near you, you might be able to find them there on occasion.
Anytime I visit Florence, I make a point of browsing the lanes of the leather markets, drooling a bit and then eventually buying at least one new purse. Sometimes I come home with a few. But I always use a specific kind of purse when I’m traveling (in Italy and elsewhere) – a cross-body purse.
Wearing a purse across your chest can be a key part of travel safety. A cross-body bag makes it harder for a would-be thief to grab it and run. Making sure it’s a bag that closes securely at the top means your valuables aren’t as easily exposed to wandering hands even when you’re not looking. Plus, I find that a cross-body purse gives you a convenient place to drape a coat or scarf if you’re walking through a museum.
It doesn’t much matter what kind of bag you get – there are some with special slash-proof straps, for instance, or RFID-blocking material – though I’d recommend against something too big. Make sure it’s large enough to carry the essentials, plus perhaps a small guidebook/map, and maybe a bottle of water.
I’ve worn out a few travel purses over the years, and I found the one I’m using now at my local Goodwill. There are loads of options in every color and all price ranges online. And guys, don’t think I’ve forgotten you – a front-pocket wallet will make your money less accessible to pickpockets.
I have, unfortunately, a relatively weak immune system, and the pace of travel tends to do me in if I’m not careful. For several years now, being careful is a routine that begins as soon as I get on a plane.
I always keep a packet of disinfectant wipes in the bag that goes under the seat in front of me, and as soon as I’m seated I wipe down everything – and I mean everything – that I might touch during the flight. I give a quick wipe to the arm rests, the seat belt, the pockets in front of me, the head rest, the touch screen, the window shade, the light and air controls, and both sides of the tray table as well as the table’s lock.
(Yes, occasionally I get an odd look from a seatmate who’s trying to figure out if they’re going to be next to Adrian Monk for the next seven hours, but their opinions aren’t exactly my concern.)
The wet wipes often stay in my bag for the duration of a trip, too, since there’s many an Italian bathroom that doesn’t have soap or running water. (The fact that they often lack toilet paper is a reason to also carry a packet of tissues at all times.) Pick up a travel-sized packet of wet wipes at any drugstore or grocery store (they’re often in the baby section).
Traveling can be exhausting. Planes are dehydrating. Italian summers are hot. The vast majority of us don’t drink nearly enough water on a regular basis. All of which adds up to the fact that carrying a water bottle when you travel is a very good idea.
Now, make it an environmentally-friendly idea with a bottle you bring from home and reuse.
I have a few collapsible water bottles, which always seem smart in theory, since they take up virtually no room when they’re empty. In my experience, though, they almost always leak and they never seem to hold enough water. (If you can find one that’s big enough for your tastes and doesn’t leak, let me know.)
For years now, I’ve used a metal water bottle to which I attached a carabiner (this one comes with a carabiner attached already). This allows me to clip the bottle to my backpack or purse if there isn’t another convenient spot for it. It’s durable enough that it’s survived being dropped a number of times (it has the dents to prove it).
I usually fill it up post-security at the airport, ask a flight attendant to fill it up during the flight, and then have it on hand to use during any long days of sightseeing.
I’m going to guess that most of you will already have earbuds or headphones of some sort on your must-pack list whenever you travel, if for no other reason than to plug in during a long flight. I do the same thing. And then I sometimes keep my earbuds in my purse when I’m sightseeing solo, too – they’re a great way to avoid unwanted hassling.
Now, I prefer to listen to what’s going on around me when I travel, particularly if I’m on my own. The cacophony of languages is always fun to hear, and paying attention with your ears is also a good way to stay attuned to your surroundings. My trick for still being able to hear while simultaneously appearing to pushy hawkers as inaccessible is to wear my earbuds without plugging them in.
String the plug into your purse or a pocket and no one’s the wiser. It can make potentially aggressive sales guys think you’re not worth the trouble, but you still get to keep an ear out (so to speak) for stuff going on around you.
Plus? Your earbuds are inevitably better than the crappy ones you’ll get on most walking tours.
Forget that these are called “purse hooks” or “handbag hangers,” because most of them are sturdy enough to hold your backpack or laptop bag, too. In other words, this is not just something for ladies to carry.
There are a few different designs for purse hooks, but the gist in all cases is that one part sits flat on top of a table while a hook hangs below the table. Putting your purse/backpack/camera bag/whatever on the hook anchors the gadget to the table.
Using a purse hook means you’re not slinging a handbag over the back of a chair at the cafe, which is never a safe idea. It also means you don’t need to balance a purse on your lap while you’re trying to eat, or worry about putting it on the ground in a puddle of something. Hang your bag under the table in a place that’s inaccessible to anyone’s reach but yours, and dine in peace.
Incidentally, some purse hooks come with the added feature of an alarm, which you can turn on when you hang your bag. I am convinced I’d set off the alarm myself because I forgot to turn it off before standing, but if you want an added layer of security that could be a feature to seek out.
No, I’m not insane.
Italian markets have long since gone the way of charging for every bag, so most customers bring their own from home. And because I like to stay in apartments with a kitchen in which to stock food, not an Italy trip goes by that I’m not in a grocery store or outdoor market at least once a week.
So there’s always a reusable grocery bag in my purse.
I have several different colors of Flip & Tumble bags that I use regularly at home, so I just grab one to throw in my suitcase before each trip. They fold into themselves and take up almost no space at all, and then you’ve got a colorful shopping bag in which to tote your goodies.
Even if you’re not grocery shopping, these make great carriers for impromptu Italian picnics, can hold all of the scarves and cardigans kids shed as the day gets warmer, and are often easier to carry than the bags collected when you’re buying souvenirs and gifts.