For months before we went on our trip, we scouted for the perfect bags, the perfect shoes, and a few other perfect items to take with us. Now that we've put theitems to the real test, here are the results:
The camera/day bag: I shall forever be in Nadia's debt for sending me her bag. The Ameribag was a winner! Nadia's bag arrived shortly before we left and Karen was able to find the same bag in a different fabric (a worse itchy kind). Our backs never hurt after two weeks of walking miles, over and up and down stairs, across hills, and through rain storms. Our cameras and belongings stayed dry. The main difference between my bag and Karen's was the fabric. If you get the Ameribag (I've ordered myself one), get the Microfiber NOT the Distressed Nylon. The Distressed Nylon looks just like the Microfiber but is all itchy feeling and will be very annoying against your skin especially if you are in a humid area. Nadia saved our lives by sending me her bag. Every day since we returned I spontaneously burst into shivers thinking about how awful our trip could've been had we taken the camera bags we were at first going to use instead (but they are great for at-home use). Most travelers we saw in Europe were using the Ameribag or a variation of it.
The suitcase: Grrrrrrr! We all had Eaglecreek bags with the same mo fo problem. Specifically, we had the Hovercraft 30" rolling duffel (but we paid way less than $275 for them at Overstock.com). This is a GREAT bag for fitting a lot of stuff in, it's very light weight, rolls easily, and is a perfect bag if you are going from car to plane and back to the car and only need to pull your bag a few yards. If you have to go up stairs, go on a train, go on a boat, or lift your bag ever, you are screwed. So basically, this bag is really good if you are not really traveling. The night before our trip when I'd packed my bag and was practicing going up my own stairs with my packed bag, I realized this. But, it was too late. The Eaglecreek bag has a handle at the tall top of the bag and at the flat part of the duffle but not on either side. It is almost impossible to pick the damn bag UP! It's also too wide to fit through the door opening of a train if you use the top handle. Since there's no handle in a place where you could easily turn the bag on its side, you have to make a system where your traveling companion jumps on the train first and one of you grabs the back of the suitcase and the other grabs the top then you tip it into the train- all the while other people are shoving and pushing to get on and off the train. This whole situation does make for good memories and a lot of laughter but I'd rather have a bag with a good handle. Also, you need shin guards if you have to lift the bag and are under 7 feet tall. And if you are traveling, you have to lift the bag.
Packing the suitcase: We each only took one suitcase (and a tote bag) for the two weeks. Since we were taking multiple trains and we have that family rule that each person has to carry their own luggage, we like to travel light. The Eaglecreek bag does fit a lot of stuff in it especially if you put your items in Ziploc bags and squeeze the air out. You'd be so surprised how much more room this gives you! It will change the way you pack. I took 6 t-shirts with me and my favorite ones ended up being these Anvil tees. I also took 1 hoodie and 1 lightweight cardigan. The cardigan got the most use and was easy to fold up and put in my camera bag. This is the one I have from LLBean. Of course I have it in black (and purple). It's soft like a t-shirt. I think it is better if you replace the buttons with something less dorky. I also took 2 pairs of jeans, I pair of capris, 2 skirts, 2 blouses, and 2 scarves. We had a washing machine where we stayed mid-way through our trip and were able to do laundry. We had just the right amount of clothes. Even though it seems like you would not want a scarf when it is a hundred degrees and humid, you want one. There is something odd in European rain that makes the color in all your prewashed scarves run onto your neck, though. Consider yourselves warned. Why yes, I did walk around Vienna with a teal colored neck! Funny you should ask.
Shoes: Karen and I each took 3 pairs of shoes. Walking shoes, sandals, and walking shoes that didn't look like walking shoes. Emily brought about 50,000 pairs of shoes because she is a teenager. Karen and I have the same walking shoes, New Balance Rock and Tone. As I wrote before, I also brought my Naot shoes. The sandals I brought were my not-that-flattering but soooo comfy Earth sandals. I had worn all my shoes a lot before and none had ever given me blisters. They were all broken in. Because weird stuff happens to us, by the end of the first day after wearing my sandals, my left foot was covered in blisters. We spent a lot of time searching for bandaids and blister relief. Due to the rain, we had to change shoes often and while the New Balance really were the comfiest for walking so much on cobbly roads, they absorbed water like a sponge. The sandals won most of the time. The Earth sandals look less doofy (here in America) with long jeans but everyone was wearing them with skirts and capris over there so I fit right in.
Souvenirs and ephemera: I brought a plastic box to keep my souvenirs and ephemera in. It worked great. I also kept in my mind that if I wanted to buy something it had to fit in the box. I did have a small poster tube with me in addition to the box in case I bought art that needed to be rolled, which I did. I bought a small painting and small plate in Italy, a necklace and scarf in Salzburg, some art cards in Vienna, some magnets in Prague, and the rest of stuff I collected was receipts, menus, maps, etc. It all fit in the box.
Reading: I brought my Nook Color and was so happy I did! No heavy books to carry and I could read on the trains, plains and in bed at night.
Calling home: We all have iPhones as do our loved ones who missed us like crazy while we were gone (sure they did!) but the AT&T international calling and data plan is very expensive. We used the Tango and Viber apps and were able to text and video chat over wifi from our hotels for free. All of our cats were thrilled about the video chat option, especially Karen and Emily's cat.
Now we can begin our search for better suitcases for our next European adventure. We only have 2 years until it's Karen's son's turn to go.