Thrifting and Trains: Travelling Europe the Slow (And Sustainable) Way

Picture this: you’ve been gifted a two-week Eurail Pass, you have a suitcase to fill with op-shop treasures and you’ve just stumbled on your dream leather jacket – and it’s eight bucks. Such was the case for super-sewist Maddy Rawlings, who found herself in Antwerp, Belgium, at just the right time (between seasons – aka “sale season”). 

Here, we catch up with Maddy – the clever soul behind the thrifting, flipping and DIY site The Essentials Club – to find out about her trip, her favourite finds and why she’s ditching planes for trains…

Tell us about your travels! 

During the beautiful European autumn – at the end of last year – I was lucky enough to go on a ‘slow travel’ journey through parts of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. I had two weeks to make the most of the incredible Eurail system [Maddy’s trip was sponsored by Eurail] and I ventured to more of the ‘in-between’ destinations, outside of the major cities. Personally, I feel like the smaller, quaint spots gave us [Maddy was travelling with her partner] a more authentic experience of the countries we ticked off.

Tell us about the thrifting! 

We rummaged our little hearts out and scored some absolute gems. We also ate and drank our way through all the cafes, bars, pubs, breweries and restaurants, tasting local specialties while taking in the charm and stories that fill the streets. Essentially, we did all the cosy activities to make the most of the cooler and quieter months.

Was there anything that surprised you about op-shopping in Europe? 

The abundance of stores selling second-hand pieces by the kilo! It’s not something I’ve come across in Australia and it’s a fun concept. It was also wild to see the variety of styles, eras and quality essentials.

Tell us about some of your favourite finds!

A handful of pieces come to mind instantly. The first is from when we left Paris and stopped in Amiens as we headed towards the beautiful outer regions of France. I don’t know what is in the water there, but I absolutely scored. I got a collection of things, including a pink straw bag that featured plenty throughout the rest of our trip – it’s a fun accessory and has been on high rotation ever since!

I discovered another gem when we were strolling back to our accommodation after a delicious feed in Antwerp. I stumbled on a local charity store that was conveniently having a major sale – the pros of being in Europe between seasons! I picked up this stunning leather jacket. In Australia, I feel like it’s rare to find quality jackets at an affordable price. So, I was shocked to find out that it was only €5 [about AU$8]! It was one of those moments when you find something that’s on your Pinterest moodboard – the bargain price just topped it off. 

I’ll cherish these pieces forever and I love that every time someone asks me where I got them, I’ll get to share the story of how they found their way into my life. Thrifted memorabilia is my favourite reminder of a trip.

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Have you altered any of the things you found?

One of my biggest considerations when shopping was whether a piece was something I’d be excited to reach for on repeat. With this in mind, I bought some pieces with the intention of reimagining some of the details to better suit my style and the climate back home.

Natural fibres were at the top of my list, so when I came across a brown linen dress that needed a few tweaks to be more wearable, it instantly went into the ‘yes’ pile. I’ve taken up the bottom hem, introduced some topstitch feature lines and adjusted the back contour dart – now she’s all you’ll see me in for the next while!

There’s also a linen suit top, which I’m planning to change into a halter-neck style. It has a stain in the back that would have deterred others from getting it, but I saw the potential and I’m going to give it a new life! There were many thrift-flip projects I could have gathered on this trip, but because of the limited suitcase space, I mostly stuck to pieces that only needed slight adjustments. But, hey, there’s always next trip! 

Why did you decide to travel through Europe by train? 

For me, responsible fashion and slow travel effortlessly overlap. Both are about considering our impact, slowing down to connect with what matters and taking the intentional road to get there. When it came to considering how we were going to get around Europe, it felt like a no-brainer to prioritise train travel. Avoiding airports was also a way to reduce stress and save time – we didn’t have to travel outside the city centre to catch flights, check-in and all the regular flying protocols. 

Sitting on the train, sipping in the change of views as you work your way from town to town or even country to country is such a beautiful way to connect with the journey of heading somewhere new. It’s almost a child-like feeling to stare out the window and wonder what the people there do to fill their days, what got them there and all the beautiful unknowns. It gets me excited to explore more of the world and discover more about the people out there!

Tell us about some of your favourite moments on the journey. 

Everywhere we went had something different to offer, whether it was the morning routine, the go-to food and drinks, ways of commuting, humour, history… It’s awe-inspiring to consider the fact that life can be lived in so many different ways. 

The flexibility and ease of travelling via rail have really expanded my range. I feel like this trip has planted the seed for more travel like this – I can’t wait to get back to exploring this part of the world and all of its off-the-beaten-track destinations!

Can you tell us a bit about your journey to sustainable living?

I’ve been fortunate enough to live by the ocean and forests my whole life. They’ve been a constant source of inspiration and somewhere I’ve spent a lot of my downtime. It’s given me a deeply etched impression of the environment’s beauty and importance.

So when I started to properly tune into my consumption habits and the impact they might be having, it dawned on me that my actions and values weren’t quite aligning. In particular, this came to light when I started making my clothes. I started asking: how are items available so cheap? Who or what is suffering because of this? 

The way I interweave sustainability and fashion is by only introducing pieces to my wardrobe that I intend to love for years to come. It’s also about choosing to be satisfied with what I have and extending the life of each garment – at the end of the day, using and adoring what you already own is the most sustainable thing you can do. If there is ever a need to add something new, I focus on thrifting or making what I can, as well as prioritising brands that use natural fibres, are transparent about their ethical practices and do whatever they can to minimise their impact. 

It’s been a journey to switch out staples for more eco-friendly options and shift my mindset to automatically opt for a more conscious approach to fashion, food, transport, money, homewares, cleaning, beauty and all the other facets of life. But with the right intention and a willingness to keep trying, I believe we can all do our bit and create big change!


  1. Don’t overpack. This way, you’ll have room for your finds, plus you can start to incorporate these pieces into your outfit combos – it’s a fun way to add “newness” while living out of a suitcase.  
  2. Be practical. Will you actually wear these pieces back home? Consider the climate you live in, the fabrics you prefer to wear and styles that make you feel good.
  3. Know your go-to colour palette. This will help to streamline the rummage. 
  4. Travel during the off-peak season to make the most of wardrobe transition sales. 
  5. Check out any second-hand stores you stumble across while you’re out and about doing other things. Mainstream op-shops are great, but sometimes the best gems are in tucked-away spots.
  6. Walk whenever possible. There’s always a chance you’ll find op-shops you haven’t heard about. Also, chat with baristas and shop assistants to see if they have any hot tips – there could be markets or pop-ups you don’t know about (it happened to us a few times!). 
  7. Keep an eye out for pieces that are more abundant (and cheaper) than they are at home.