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Planning, Travel

How to Pack a Stylish Travel Wardrobe so You Can Go Carry-On Only

When I took my first international trip to Germany (I was 16), I checked a suitcase that was so enormous I definitely could have fit at least one person into it, if not two. Quite honestly, I don’t even know if they make that size suitcase anymore, it was so ridiculously large. But I convinced myself I needed it at the time—I would be gone for nearly a month, and of course I needed to pack a separate outfit for every single day I was there.

These days, I’m much more of a carry-on only gal. Not only did I discover this amazing thing called a ~laundry machine~, but I’ve found that having less to lug around makes travel significantly easier. You can pick up and go anywhere you’d like in an instant, you can keep tabs on all your belongings since they’ll remain on you, plus you’re way less of a target when you aren’t carrying around a bunch of stuff. Win win win.

But just because you’re packing light doesn’t mean you have to forgo style. I, for one, tend to gravitate towards colorful patterned clothing and will happily wear anything that has a cat on it. So how can you create a travel wardrobe that isn’t totally blah and gives you lots of options without requiring a big-ass suitcase?

The color palette I refer to for travel + life.

Step 1: Before pulling anything out of your closet, select a color palette to make things simpler. Having a couple of core colors with what you bring means that you can pretty much eliminate any potential choices that fall outside of those hues. It allows you to mix and match what you bring, essentially resulting in more outfits than you might have initially expected you had. It also means you can bring a few key accessories and they’ll go with pretty much everything.

Step 2: Figure out what type of travel activities you like to take part in. Hiking, urban exploring, dining out, shopping, bicycling, bars/nightlife, museums, beach time, etc. Pick your top 2—the ones that you’ll really be dedicating a lot of your time to—and it will help inform what you should be packing.

Step 3: Okay, now things might get a little more complicated. Start pulling options out that you would consider bringing for these activities. If it can be used for both activities, put it in pile #1—this is where you’ll be primarily pulling from to create your wardrobe, and ideally these are items that are also versatile enough to flow from dressed down to dressed up, casual to active, warm weather or layered up for colder weather. If the item is only good for one or the other activity and/or is less versatile, then put it in pile #2—this is where you’ll pull from selectively depending on how pile #1 shakes out.

Step 4: Elimination time! Take a quick look at the weather and see what absolutely won’t work at your destination. If you’re packing for a place(s) that encounters a wide range of weather, then layering is your B.F.F.

Of course, packing for a two-week or month-long trip somewhere is kind of daunting. How in the world are you supposed to pack for two weeks in a carry-on? Answer: you don’t. You should only pack for a week, and plan to wash your clothes halfway through. Whether it’s at a laundromat, through your hotel’s concierge, by your hostel staff, in the sink, or at the Airbnb you’re renting, it’s a small time commitment that will make packing light considerably easier.

Step 5: Craft your outfits. Basically you’re left with 7 days maximum that you’re needing to pack for. But even 7 separate outfits is overkill. Here’s where you can get creative with mixing and matching. A dress, jeans, a skirt, a flowy top, or a pair of leggings are the types of things that can be worn more than once, and cover-ups or scarves can easily accessorize all the outfits you plan on.

A floral romper that I wore SO MUCH in South America. Paired with a black tank underneath and a jacket (both of which paired with other items). I felt comfortable enough in this during the day and dressing it up at night.

Remember that your goal is plan out outfits rather than just bring a bunch of random clothes. Then, try hard to use everything you intend to bring in at least 2 outfit combinations and you’ll encounter less trouble eliminating articles of clothing.

Key things to keep in mind:

  • There’s no magic number here. Packing light is a skill, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t narrow things down any further. Instead, view each trip you take as a chance to hone that skill. Pay attention to what you use a lot on your trip, what you never pull out of your bag, what doesn’t wrinkle, what doesn’t match with anything else, etc. You’ll learn by doing.
  • Choose items that are versatile. If you can really only wear an outfit for one thing on your trip and it will remain in your backpack or suitcase just taking up space, seriously reconsider if you need it. Chances are, you’re able to repurpose some of the other items you’re packing and leave the one-off behind.
  • Choose items that are comfortable and that you actually like to wear. If it’s comfy but not flattering or something you enjoy wearing, then you’ll probably avoid wearing it on the road subconsciously. The same goes for if it’s something you think looks good on you but is super uncomfortable.
  • Shake that separation anxiety. If you find yourself feeling overly sentimental about leaving something behind, ask if you really need it for this trip, or if you’re just feeling guilty or weird about not taking it. Listen: no one is telling you to make a capsule wardrobe for life—this is just a single trip, and you’re going to return and can wear all your other left behind items soon enough. Not everything is great for traveling, and that’s okay.
  • If all else fails, eliminate half of what you think you need. Yes, really. If you’re struggling then just lay out what you think you’ll need and put half of those items back in your closet. Scary? Yes, especially the first time. But it’s a great way to prove to yourself that you truly don’t need as much stuff as you think you do when traveling.

A few of my favorite versatile travel clothing items:

  • Leggings (or for colder weather, try these Zella leggings which are worth the price tag)
  • Tees (I’ve had surprisingly great luck with the Merona tees from Target—affordable and they last long)
  • Comfortable shoes (get your butt over to The Walking Company for ones that your feet will love all day, meaning no need to pack a bunch of extra pairs!)
  • The HEATHER Cross Front Dress (and for other comfortable + trendy + dress-it-up-or-down dresses, check Sierra Trading Post or Moosejaw)
  • A travel scarf (either a pashmina scarf which can be used as a shawl, scarf, towel, etc. or a hidden pocket scarf to keep stuff safe and transform your outfits)
  • A light jacket or cardigan (I have a Roxy thrift store find one that is surprisingly warm without being too bulky and is in my color palette)

What are some of your favorite clothing items that you can easily mix and match? Pop on over to Instagram and let me know.

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Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission at no extra cost to you. As always, I only ever recommend products that I know and love. <3 

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