Packing for Travel: Choosing the Right Shoes, or at Least Not the Wrong Ones 19


I’d like to say I have the wisdom to tell you exactly what shoes you should buy for your trip. I can’t. Shoes are such a personal thing. It’s not just style, it’s the structure of your foot and the way you walk that will have a big impact on your choices. Take what I say as an idea and keep in mind that I’m pretty opinionated. What I can do is give you some guidelines for narrowing down the options based on years of agonizing over this topic.

Tour guides spend an enormous amount of time on their feet. I walk between 5-10 miles every day on the job, but that’s not what hurts my feet. It’s the standing in museums and walking on uneven surfaces that kill me. Buying proper shoes is so important that I will spare no expense for comfort. Every spring, I spend days and days on the Internet scanning for the right shoes. Every year, what I ultimately end up with is different from previous years.

My backpacking days were pretty easy. I brought either Converse or hiking boots and Teva sandals, which I thought looked just smashing with wool socks. You must forgive my naïveté, I went to college in Seattle in the 90’s. Remember when flannel was fashionable? Yeah, that’s it. Those were actually pretty practical choices, Tevas can be worn in water, especially in funky hostel showers or Spanish tomato fights, and hiking boots looked good with everything back then, on every terrain. Only problem was the smell. Oh, the smell that would never go away, especially the rotten tomato smell. Google it: Funky Tevas, it’s a thing.

Times have changed but so have I. I’ve spent so much time in Italy that my fashion tastes have become as quasi-Italian as I am. I’m also older and can’t get away with the adorable quirkiness of questionable fashion choices. Practical, light and at least vaguely nice looking, that’s my formula. So here I give you my thought process, and then what I’m doing now, in real time.

Weight and How Many Pairs

Traditional travel wisdom is two pairs, one walking comfort shoe, one sandal. I did that for years. But I’ve found that the reason I get achey feet and blisters is not if I have ill-fitting shoes, it tends to be from over-use. I’ve moved to a philosophy of three pairs minimum. If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m all about weighing the things in my bag. This strategy is most important in shoes since they are a big chunk of the weight in your bag and can weigh anywhere from 5 oz to 1.5 lbs per shoe. I try to keep as light as possible, if I can keep to less than 8 oz per shoe I can easily do three pairs, more pairs with even lighter shoes. This is a game I take so seriously that I take my kitchen scale with me to the mall and weigh everything I’m interested in before trying on. The Internet is a great resource for shoes, not only because I have absurdly large feet, but also because they list the weight of the shoes on some sites. You have to be careful though, some weight descriptions list the per-shoe weight, others show the weight of the pair.

Color Strategy

I narrow down my choices further by color. Black is my staple, particularly for running/walking shoes. Black athletic shoes are chameleons, can be dressed up and are considered acceptable even at nice restaurants these days. Brown is also a good choice, it’s neutral enough to match most things. I’ll often bring sandals in brown. Nude or light beige is a trendy choice, I like them for summery shoes to look almost barefoot. What about bright colors? Depends. If you have the wardrobe and personality to pull it off, go for it but keep to solid colors. Those popular athletic shoes in multiple shiny bright colors don’t really go well with anything and sort of look ridiculous outside of a gym in Europe.

Types of Shoes to Pack

For both men and women, I suggest one pair of walking shoes or athletic shoes. These should be your staples and I recommend replacing the insole with Superfeet or Gel Insoles (see link below). You can really lighten your load here if you do some comparison shopping as many athletic shoes are going with synthetic, knitted materials that weigh very little. The “barefoot” running trend has pushed most companies to make ultralight runners. Brooks, Adidas and Nike all have these types of lines.

Your next pair should be a sandal type shoe. Women have lots of choices here, look for comfort sandals with a good cushion. Dansko was always the tour guide staple in the past, most of my colleagues and myself wearing the exact same shoe. I don’t wear them now because they changed their sizing and don’t make a true size 12 anymore, but they are also ridiculously heavy. You’ll never have achey feet wearing them, they have some magic juju that keeps feet feeling great, but I can’t justify the weight. These days I like Earth shoes which are made to help with your posture. Clarks are pretty good, cute styles too. Birkenstock is surprisingly popular here in Europe right now, although I’ll never go there, they are just too casual. I like a little bit of heel in my shoes. I’m tall, but a little taller doesn’t hurt and a heel tends to look nicer and less casual. Men can go tres-European and buy nice leather sandals, but I’m realistic that they will probably not. Keens are much loved by my male tour members, as are Chacos and Tevas. Just don’t wear them with socks, ok?

You have options for your third pair. One of the options, a good one for men and women both, is flip-flops or as we California natives call them “thongs.” They aren’t all that fashionable and are considered shower or beach shoes over here, but they are so light and useful when nothing else feels good. I like using them around the hotel. I have found the most perfect pair which I’ve worn to actual death in these last few years, Teva Mush Wedges. They don’t really look like a flip-flop with the strappy top, are ultra-light and the wedge gives them just enough of a dressy edge that I can wear them to dinner. I consider them to be the perfect extra travel shoe. Look for the link at the bottom of this post.

Women might consider ballerina flats for a third pair, especially outside of summer months. These are incredibly popular over here in Italy because they tend to be comfy and look good with almost any clothing choice. There are a huge range of styles, but I tend to go with plain black or nude. If you choose carefully, they can be super lightweight. Try to find ones with flexible soles, preferably with a cushioned insole. I’ve liked my cheapies from Payless Shoe Source, they were about $30. A good thing they were so cheap, I’ve worn them with my dirndl at Octoberfest and they ended up soaked in beer…and who knows what else. No guilt in tossing them.

I’m dreaming of buying Tieks, www.tieks.com, ultralight handmade ballerina flats that fold and take no space. They seem perfect for my requirements. I’ll just be drooling over them for now, because at almost $300 a pair I just can’t take the risk.

What about a fourth pair? Yep, I often do it. If I can really go light with the first three, I’ll pack some splurge shoes. In warmer months I’ll bring high heels. Red ones! Sometimes, especially in Italy, nothing beats really dressing well once in a while. I get tired of being practical, but also there are some really comfortable heels out there these days that can be worn all day.

In the winter I’ve been known to bring knee-high leather boots. You heard that right. The weight obsessed guide brings boots. It works because I wear them all the time, most importantly on travel days so that I don’t have to carry them.

You may be wondering exactly what is on my feet right now. Stay tuned for the report from the road.

Links 

You can find Teva Mush Wedges here://ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=advenwithsara-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B0055X3GOO&asins=B0055X3GOO&linkId=7LRISMRB72X2SL25&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true

Super feet removable insoles will make your feet feel like new and are found here: //ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=advenwithsara-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B0033BPBD4&asins=B0033BPBD4&linkId=57OXZ2IDAR2QPKNX&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true


About sarahinitalia@yahoo.com

Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.


19 thoughts on “Packing for Travel: Choosing the Right Shoes, or at Least Not the Wrong Ones

  • Wyndi

    I’m way late to this party but I still have to ask…what about rain? I’m heading to Poland in May and have been trying to decide what to do about wet feet. My plan was sneakers, a dressier walking sandal (which double as dress shows for a christening we have to go to), and a ballet flat or my birks. But….if it rains that means I’ve got no “keep the feet dry shoes”. What would you suggest? Many thanks for your blog! It’s the only one I trust for practical advice! 🙂

  • Eva

    Doing a heart of Italy tour mid October. Should I take sandals or ballet flats? Not sure if I should worry about heat or rain?

    • sarahmurdoch

      Hmm, that’s a tough call. It could be 80, but could also be 60 and rainy. Considering you’ll be in Cinque Terre, I’d bring a sandal you can wear in the water. If you don’t plan to swim even in hot weather, bring the flats. Or make it easy and bring both, if they are light enough.

  • Some other tom

    I love my Keens. I’ve probably logged about 4,000 miles in them. And that’s exactly what I brought and wore the both times I was in Europe; a pair of shoes and sandals… Which I wore with socks… Because. I don’t give a $#¡t about style…..

  • Carol

    Loving your blog, and have already ordered several of your suggestions. Spent May in Italy and am ancious to return, so I’m vicariously enjoying your trip. Somewhere you showed a travel bag, backpack I think. It was blue and has 3 zippered openings on the front. Want to order it. Thought it was Tom Bihn ?

  • Tansley

    And the last time I was in Italy I was so pleased I was walking around in silver and white Geox ballet flats….I swear every female museum guard gave everyone the ‘up and down, once over’….I think I passed muster!

  • JaneGS

    Great article–I had been thinking about just taking one pair of shoes to Italy early next month, but the notion that foot fatigue comes from wearing the same shoe all day, every day makes sense. Now I’m taking a comfortable slip-on black walking shoe, Born ballerina flats in a gorgeous dark maroon, and black comfy pumps with a slight heel (I wear them to work at trade shows and conferences so I know they work for standing around!).

  • Patty

    Sarah,
    I am going to Spain (Madrid, Barcelona, Granada) in late November. Will I need sandals? Or do I just bring boots and walking shoes?

    • sarahmurdoch

      I would do all three. Spain can be nice and in the 60s that time of year, but I wouldn’t dedicate much space to the sandals just in case you don’t use them. Maybe a light pair like the Teva Wedges. Boots are a great idea!

  • mvaden1948

    Great recommendations but sadly most of the brands don’t come extra wide. I’m hard to fit because thanks to a couple of years working in a retail situation my feet decided they were no longer medium but wide, then I ended up with a bunion and they are now extra wide. But I have found a brand I love….most of the time. Propet. Sadly for you….the styles I checked don’t come in 12. In fact I just checked another and they only go up to 11. My poor mother wore 10.5 extra extra wide and was a registered nurse. She had the worst time getting shoes to fit.
    I spent a month in Venice in both December 2012(frigidly cold) and December 2013( still winter but more mild temps). Sandals were not included in the packing and I haven’t found Propet sandals yet that did the trick for me. But booties….yes! Their Sonia which is a little suede bootie with removable insole was what I wore for the 2013 trip. I took a pair of Clark’s Mary Jane’s as my second pair along with a pair of Propet lined quilted boots (for very cold weather….and I wore them in December 2012) but only ever wore the Sonia. I also love another brand called Aravon mostly for their insole which has running shoe technology. Most of their shoes do not go to half sizes and I just won’t buy a 9 when I wear 8.5….except in winter don’t need the fat socks. Luckily their dress shoes come in 1/2 sizes so I have some of those as well as a lovely pair of what could be called clogs but are dressier. So the Aravon insole went into the Propet….both the booties and the “snow” boots and they were the most comfortable things I’ve ever worn. I could walk forever in them.
    So maybe Propet (over 500 styles….but really some of them are multiple colors of same style) would work for someone. And they aren’t expensive….the Sonia is on sale at http://www.shoebuy.com for $50 right now. It’s a website I use a lot because I can shop by size as well as brand, style, color (I’m personally partial to red shoes….heels or otherwise. I have a pair of Propet Mary Janes in red suede-like fabric that feel like I’m wearing slippers)
    Hope this helps someone else who is reading your blog. Oh, Propet has men’s styles also.

  • Mark

    Sarah, I am enjoying your blog very much. You write well, I like the subject(s), and the blog makes me think I am just about to go on a really good trip. Have fun, keep up the blogging! (By the way, I am buying a pair of Xero Shoes (the new Z Treks) that you mentioned earlier. My wife has been after me for years to get a pair of sandals, and these are the first I have seen that made sense to me. We’ll see.) Mark in Austin

  • DizzyLiz14

    After many foot surgeries, I have to be careful of the shoes I wear. On my last few trips, I’ve had good luck with Naturalizer Bzees Dash sneakers, Ahnu Karma (my version of a ballet flat), and Ahnu Maia sandal. All lightweight, easy on/off. And yes, I love my Birkenstocks. I don’t ever have to worry about those soles flexing!

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