You could easily spend a week (or a lifetime) in France, but sometimes a three-day long weekend presents you with the opportunity to take a trip you wouldn’t otherwise have the time or the money for. Maybe you’re border-hopping from a week in Barcelona. Maybe you’re trying to hit as many cities in the South of France as you can. Maybe you just got a really good deal on flights and you feel like you can spring for 3 days in Paris. Either way, you’ve got three days, and you want to travel as light as possible.
These days, with budget airlines like French bee, Ryanair, Play and Spirit Airlines decreasing their carry-on baggage allowances, you might realize too late in the game that you’re only allowed a personal item for free. This is usually a backpack, laptop case, or purse up to 18” x 14” x 8”, which needs to be stored under your seat. (And it’s not to be confused with a carry-on, like a 22” x 14” x 9” suitcase, which you will have to pay for.)
Ultimately, you don’t want to be weighed down and you’ll want something small enough that it will fit in your hostel locker and light enough that you can throw it over your shoulder for a full-day of adventures.
Best Personal Item Backpacks and Tote Bags
For something stylish, affordable, and versatile, try the ECOSUSI Tote Bag Convertible Backpack ($44). For a classic travel backpack, try this waterproof Lubardy Carry-On Backpack ($40). For a tote bag with a bonus bottom compartment perfect for shoes or dirty laundry, upgrade with the Béis Mini Weekender ($88). For a super affordable option, there’s the Narwey For Spirit Airlines Duffel ($12).
Backpack Packing List
- Laptop (if absolutely necessary—for a quick trip, we recommend leaving this at home and just bringing your phone)
- Quart-sized plastic bag for liquids (which you’ll have to remove and put in a separate bin during your security check)
- Poncho or raincoat (optional)
- Phone charger (and adapter)
- Book and/or journal (think small: these little moleskins are perfect for deep thoughts, observations or French vocab)
- Toiletries bag (comb, powder-based makeup products, toothbrush and floss, solid deodorant)
- Medications (any liquid prescriptions fall under the same rules as all liquids)
- Melatonin or Valerian tablets to help you sleep
- Sleep mask and ear plugs (indispensable when staying at a hostel!)
- An FFP2 mask (while masks are no longer required in most parts of France, it’s always good to wear one while traveling and have an extra on hand–Europeans prefer the FFP2 to the KN95 or fabric masks)
- Padlock for hostel locker
- Travel towel
- Flip flops
- 2 shirts
- 1 pair jean shorts or jeans (jean will not wrinkle or look gross after worn several times)
- 1 T-shirt/tank top and cotton shorts for sleeping
- 3 pairs socks
- 5 pairs underwear
- 1 long sleeve shirt
- Bathing suit (if near lakes, rivers or ocean)
General packing tips
Start by packing the heaviest items in the bottom of the backpack, unless the heaviest item is your plastic bag of liquids. This needs to be at the top, so that you can easily remove it (and your laptop) when going through security. Roll your clothes tightly so that they take up as little room as possible. If your bag has an extra compartment on the bottom (usually designed for shoes), use this as storage for dirty laundry.
Packing cubes can help you stay organized. These compression packing cubes from Bagail ($27) can save you 60% of packing space, and stack side by side so they can be pulled out without digging into the bottom of your backpack. For a simple set that stacks bottom to top, go for Amazon Basics ($24).
While single-use travel products have fallen out of fashion, even in hotels, they are no doubt the easiest way to pack all of your toiletries in a small bag. Squeeze Pod makes single-use travel products ranging from shampoos and conditioners, to sunscreen, lotion, facial cleanser, and more. Gemz makes water-free shampoo and conditioner that doesn’t need to be stored with liquids. And Eco Pod makes zero-plastic, water-free, powder-based toiletry products in recyclable paper packaging. But, keep in mind that there are pharmacies all over France with great soaps, shampoos, conditioners, toothpastes. Save space and buy there.
For the plane, wear a pair of jeans, ideally in a semi-jegging fabric, a dress or skirt with tights (ideally in black that can be worn again), or a comfortable wide-leg pleated pant. For May through October, a pair of clean white sneakers will do the trick. For November through April, walkable boots are preferable.
Check the weather before you arrive. If it looks like rain, pack a rain poncho, which will take up less room than an umbrella. If it’s fall, winter, or early spring, wear the jacket or coat on the plane that you plan on wearing throughout the trip. If it’s summer, but you know you’re going to be cold on the plane, wear, or drape around your shoulders, a sweater in a warm but lightweight fabric such as cashmere.
On a short trip, dealing with jet lag can be a nightmare! Make sure to stay hydrated and get out into the sunlight as early in the day as you can, and take melatonin or valerian supplements before bed to try and get you to sleep on local time.
When to go
The best long weekends for traveling to France (and traveling light, because, let’s face it, colder weather means you’ll need more clothes!) are Labor Day Weekend and Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day; France is beautiful in the fall before the cold weather sets in. Or maybe you could think ahead to Easter, which falls on April 9 in 2023. And though traveling during high season can be expensive, try looking now for tickets for a Juneteenth Weekend away! (The holiday falls on a Monday in 2023.) Or even the 4th of July.
Catherine Rickman is a writer and professional francophile who has lived in Paris, New York, and Berlin. She is currently somewhere in Brooklyn with a fork in one hand and a pen in the other, and you can follow her adventures on Instagram @catrickman.