Barring baggage fees and the laws of physics, I would bring my entire wardrobe with me when I travel. And I’ve tried. But I’ve since learned that preparation and a smart packing game plan will quell the need for multiple baggage carts. Now, I follow a careful blueprint for fitting a workable wardrobe into a 21-inch rolling carry-on bag.
I recently spent a week in Europe during winter, and I documented my packing process as it went along. It was a trip that combined busy days of touring with fancy dinners and little time to change, so I needed a lot of easy outfit options. The following are my eight tips for packing a week’s worth of clothes, toiletries, and other essentials in just a carry-on bag—with plenty of room to spare.
I start my planning process a few weeks before my departure date; this gives me time to launder or dry-clean anything that needs it or even to buy key pieces that I might need to wear during my travels. I move the clothes I’m going to pack to one side of my closet so I can get a visual sense of what I have and what I need in terms of coordinated ensembles. Folded clothes like socks, underwear, and sweaters get moved to a clean laundry basket. This way, I won’t wind up frantically washing clothes the day before my trip, or even stressing over what to pack at the last second, as everything I need is clean and ready to go ahead of time.
And to make sure I’ve remembered everything, a good packing list is indispensable.
Let’s Talk About Laundry
Silk camisoles are some of my favorite layering pieces to pack. The thin material takes up minimal suitcase space. They’re year-round, breathable basics that work in almost any climate. And they dry fairly quickly after they’re washed in a hotel-room sink. But there’s one caveat: They wrinkle like a shar-pei.
I worked out a solution to this problem. I have an excellent local dry cleaner who carefully folds garments around layers of tissue paper. Any items that have been professionally cleaned in the weeks before my trip go right into the suitcase, still expertly folded by the cleaner. The just-cleaned clothes keep relatively wrinkle-free after many hours squished inside luggage, and they stay fresh for a few wears as well.
Further, I pack a travel-size version of Downy Wrinkle Releaser, in case anything winds up with a crease or two. A small container of laundry detergent, for washing clothes in the sink, likewise goes into my suitcase on every trip.
Plan Your Plane Outfit
A comfortable, classic combination of neutral layers is my routine plane ensemble. Here’s what I put on for every flight:
- A long skirt that looks chic yet wears like a cozy blanket (cotton for warm seasons, wool for winter). The equivalent for men would be a structured yet loose-fitting pair of cotton pants.
- A basic cotton T-shirt
- A knit cardigan sweater
- A washable cotton scarf
- A coat
- Flat shoes (knee-high boots in cold seasons, or ballet flats or loafers in warm seasons)
Drastic temperature changes during air travel are routine, so a layered outfit that features several pieces to take off or add on as needed helps keep me comfy. Whether jogging through a cavernous hub in an attempt to make a tight connection or sitting in a frigid plane cabin on a red-eye across the Atlantic, I’m set.
Commit to a Coat
Because a coat is one of the bulkier items one needs to bring on a trip, I try to only bring one, no matter what. It helps to buy the right coat to begin with. A shoulder-season jaunt or a trip through destinations with multiple climates calls for a coat with removable lining, such as these “triclimate” jackets from The North Face or this Patagonia jacket. Other practical options include jackets that convert to vests and reversible coats.
Naturally, it helps to wear the coat on the plane instead of packing it. On my recent Europe trip, I was heading from a cold, snowy climate to a cold, snowy climate, so I brought this puffy down-filled coat from L.L. Bean, which, when folded, doubled as a cozy pillow for the plane.
Choose a Color Palette
I maximize my outfit options by packing only clothes that can be worn together; this isn’t as difficult as you might think. I focus on packing mostly interchangeable neutrals, with a couple colored items thrown in for good measure: a few pieces in dark blues, plus basics in black, white, and brown. You can see my color palette above—all of these items go with each other and can be paired together in myriad possible combinations. Here’s a list of what I packed, not counting pajamas, socks, underwear, and accessories:
- Three top outermost layers: one blue cardigan, one blue blazer, and one brown cardigan (which I wore on the plane)
- Seven basic top layers, including silk camisoles, basic knit tops, and T-shirts, in shades of white, black, blue, and green
- One pair of black pants and one pair of dark jeans
- One blue skirt
- Two blue dresses
Develop a Shoe Strategy
Two pairs of shoes should be the perfect amount for a week’s trip, unless one needs extra footwear for special activities like hiking. I generally plan to pack one pair of flats and one pair of heels—that is, if I’ll need to dress up on the trip. For this trip—which I knew would involve a good deal of walking—I brought two flat-soled options: a pair of loose-fitting brown knee-high boots and a pair of blue ballet flats. I wore the former on the plane and packed the latter, which took up only a small amount of space in my luggage.
I ended up wearing only my boots during the entire trip, so I could have gotten away with bringing just a single pair of shoes. Bottom line: One high-quality, comfortable pair of shoes could be all you need for a week away.
Get In Touch With Your Hotel
Most hair dryers are pretty huge. And while I love my ionic Chi dryer, I don’t love it enough to be burdened with its bulk on a trip. We all know that hotels offer hair dryers for guest use, so in the dresser drawer my Chi remains.
Besides hair dryers and other basics, you might be surprised to see which other interesting amenities are on offer from your hotel. For example, here’s a list of hotels that have some pretty cool perks, from libraries of books to Polaroid cameras. A quick call or email to your hotel’s front desk or your vacation-rental owner can inform you about items you might otherwise pack—including hair straighteners and curling irons (it’s not unusual for some hotels, especially the trendier boutique ones, to offer these), adapters and converters, iPod chargers, and various toiletries.
I Love Free Samples (Who Doesn’t?)
Pictured above is my personal stash of free samples. For the sake of amassing a reserve of travel-size makeup and beauty products, I shop online at Aveda and Sephora, both of which throw in three or more sample-size products with each order. I save the samples for use during travel. When I’m ready to hit the road, it’s a cinch to throw together a quart-size ziplock bag of tiny sample products for a carry-on bag.
Birchbox members receive monthly samples of toiletries and makeup, although it costs $10 a month to sign up. Additionally, you can often find offers for free samples on manufacturers’ Facebook pages, such as the CoverGirl Facebook page or the MAC Cosmetics Facebook page.
Now that you know my packing tips, it’s time to share yours. What’s your carry-on packing strategy? Tell us in the comments!
More From SmarterTravel:
- 10 Best Carry-On Bags for Every Traveler
- 9 Packing Tips for Lazy People
- Pack Right: Carry-On Bag Packing List
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.