How to Pack in a Carry On Suitcase
I get asked a lot….”Wait, you only have a carry on and a backpack for your entire 10 month trip?….How do you do that?”
This blog is in response to that question, and I hope it helps you pack lighter the next time you go somewhere. And my apologies for this being a longer blog (oh the irony!). I have lots to say about this topic, and will be writing another blog about 1) choosing a suitcase and 2) how to pack your bathroom items. Also, apologies for not as many pics...I'm having a terrible time uploading them and this blog is taking forever! For the most up-to-date pics always head to my Instagram.
Onto the blog...
If you think packing light isn't important.....YOU ARE WRONG.
Packing light is essential to actually enjoying your trip. Carrying bags up and down cobblestone steps in old cities, in the heat or rain, off and on airplanes, waiting for checked baggage, having the airline destroy your bag or worse yet, losing it, paying checked baggage fees....NO THANK YOU. Seriously, pack light. You'll thank me.
Here’s how I’ve managed to keep it light and still look good (at least I hope I do!).
1. Pack lightweight fabrics. This is a game changer. When we first started our trip…we left Texas in February (a little chilly and the stores were all selling winter clothes) for the summer heat of South Africa. My clothes were NOT suitable at all because the fabrics were too heavy. As soon as we got to Cape Town I bought lightweight summer dresses in fabrics that I could sweat in, and 3 months later they are still my go to! It’s also important that you can hang the fabrics in a steamy bathroom and get the wrinkles out…if not, it won’t work as well. Ironing and dry cleaning is a pain in the butt, and I never do it.
2. Pick a color palette and stick with it. I have a few, but can do a lot with them. My breezy separates (I love loose tops and flowy long pants) are mostly in white, black, olive green and coral. They can all be interchanged and layered when I need to be a bit warmer or covered up. They also are all lightweight and can be steamed in a hot shower. My dresses are mostly white, black or blue and work with the 3 scarves I have (more on that below). Also, pick a metal that is your preference. I always wear gold or rose gold…you’ll never see me in silver or platinum. It makes it easier to pack, and when you’re shopping for treasures.
3. Pack scarves. These can add bulk quickly, so I stick with 3 scarves in different fabrics. I have a lightweight cashmere one from Italy that’s pale coral and goes with dresses on cool nights or my olive jacket and grey jeans for airplane travel. I have a sheer white linen scarf that I can wear in warmer climates and also with my swimsuits as a sarong. And I have my latest favorite (from Paris, obviously) silk scarf that’s black, olive, and leopard. It instantly dresses up any outfit, and is the smallest thing to pack!
4. Limit your shoes. If you have a shoe thing, this will kill your packing. Here’s what has worked well for me...and it doesn't look at all like I've limited my shoes, but I feel like I have!
- Gold Havianas….yes they have to be Havianas. I once watched a guy hike for hours in a pair and they both survived (he’s also super fit and Brazilian, full disclosure). They are sold everywhere for a reason. My metal color of choice is gold, but pick silver or bronze if that’s more your speed.
- Taupe espadrilles. They were $14 in Spain, they go with everything, they keep my feet warm when it’s cool, and cool when it’s warm, they are comfortable as hell and they pack flat.
- Brown gladiator sandals. They go with everything (but I mostly wear them with my white flowy dresses), and pack flat.
- Black bejeweled flat lace up sandals. I can walk all day in them with my leopard shorts or breezy pants, and still wear them with my sexy black dress at night. They pack flat.
- New Balance running shoes for Sweaty Betty. They are the most lightweight running shoes I’ve found, they are great for walking/hiking all day, and they look good with leggings or jeans. I wouldn’t always advise packing 5 pair of shoes, but since 4 of them pack flat, I’m able to.
- Also note, no heels. They will kill your travel game, and your feet. No one traveling with you wants you complain about your feet hurting, wait for you to walk carefully on cobblestone streets or see you struggle to fit them in your suitcase (or worse yet ask for them to pack your shoes). Give it up, and only pack shoes that collapse flat into nothing. (I wrote this blog before I bought a pair of Swarovski jeweled handmade sandals from Positano…they pack flat and fit in my bag like a dream come true, thank goodness! Oh, and a pair of bejeweled Birkenstocks...I sent the espadrilles home. And Derek bought me a pair of heels that lasted one night before we shipped a box home. I don't know how TWO extra pair of shoes fit, but I'm not complaining...yet.)
5. Pack a robe and slippers. Now you may think this is crazy, especially since I’ve packed in a European size carry on (smaller dimensions than an American carry on) for 10 months, but it’s not. Traveling for a long period of time, however long that may be for you….a week, 2 weeks or 2 months….is deeply uprooting. It will bring up all your shit, and the fastest way I know to make myself sane is to have my robe and slippers. FYI, my robe is super thin from India and packs into nothing. My slippers are suede and shearling, and flatten into a pancake. If you want to feel extra cozy, leave room in your suitcase for a candle that reminds you of a place you love (home or wherever). Derek and I always travel with one to make hotels and air BNB’s feel like home.
6. Shop while you travel. Almost 60% of what I have right now has been purchased on this trip. Every area you travel to has a distinctive flavor, and it’s fun to embrace that through fashion. I am still hanging onto my red flamenco flower from Seville, even though Derek thinks I’m weird for not getting rid of it. When I discover that something isn’t working (white jeans, no thank you), I keep it in a separate backpack and give it away to people OR if I really love the item, I mail it home. Derek and I mail a box a month and include gifts for friends too. It will be really fun to see what we’ve collected along the way and forgotten about! Also, things that are very expensive from other places…aren’t expensive in the countries that make them. My dresses from Antica Santoria (Amalfi coast) were 20-30 euros, but would be $100-150 in the states. And Zara in Spain is a solid 30% less than anywhere else. Fun!
7. Bring your yoga mat, especially if you’re traveling for a long time. Yes, this applies to non-yogis too. If you are going to enjoy all the delicious food the world has to offer, you are probably going to want to workout. A yoga mat is great for a lot more than yoga…Derek uses my mat to do crunches and other sweaty stuff, and I use it to practice my flexibility and sanity. I went the first 3 months without one, and don’t recommend it. I knew I had to get a mat when Derek ESCORTED me to a yoga class in Barcelona, and when I told him I bought a $90 mat he said, “That’s great! Thank you so much honey! That’s the best news!”….without an ounce of sarcasm in his voice. Apparently he prefers being married to me when I do yoga, and I do too:).
8. Pack a jacket that is lightweight, goes with everything, and is waterproof-ish. I found a fabulous one from Athleta that is olive green, cinches at the waist, has a hood, can be dressed up or down, and keeps me dry in a light rain. I also really like that it’s a longer cut because it works with my whole wardrobe whether I opt for breezy pants or a short dress.
9. Make sure your jewelry is on point. I packed a lot of jewelry because I knew that I would want to dress up some simple outfits with a statement necklace or earrings. Jewelry is small to pack, and can instantly change a look. My big tip here is, don’t pack anything you wouldn’t be okay losing. I am not traveling with my engagement ring, diamond earrings or family ring, for example. They are irreplaceable, but my $10 earrings from J. Crew and big necklace from Dallas are. Be smart about it. I also buy fun, cheap jewelry as I’m traveling. I suppose I could buy an “investment piece” or two, but I really don’t want to have anything to worry about…so I choose not to (but don’t tell Derek just in case he gets a wild hair and wants to buy me something fabulous….I’ll accept!).
10. TWO purses and one beach bag. One brown cross-body from Rebecca Minkoff with gold details, and one black cross-body from Florence with gold details. They work with all my shoes (including my sneakers), and the straps can be taken to use as a clutch at night. I also use the straps as belts with long dresses. I didn’t pack any belts and prefer to use my purse straps. Every little bit helps!
As for the beach bag, it’s small and folds into nothing. I’ve had two…one given to us free at a hotel in Israel, and it’s replacement is a slightly larger one for 10 euros with a donkey on it from Amalfi. They are great for beach days, or going to the market, and aren’t a problem to pack when I’m not using them. Derek also has a collapsable Hershcel backpack that we use for hiking and storing the camera.
11. I have 2 swimsuits. One black bikini, and one black one piece that can also be worn as a body suit. (I recently added a leopard bikini and coral one piece since it is summer and I’ll be at the beach more.)
All of them can be worn with my breezy pants or cover up dress so that I can eat or go shopping when I’m not at the beach or pool. The colors are really important here, make sure they work with your color palette. (P.S. And I just added an olive green one piece that I justified because it can be worn as a bodysuit….!)
12. Bras and panties. This will depend on what tops and dresses you pack. I have one regular nude bra, one racerback nude bra and one sexy black bra. Panties I have a variety of styles that I like, but they are mostly nude and black.
My favorite brand is Intimissimi, and I get everything from there. I love their bras because they are super sexy and comfortable, and the no-line panties they have in every style and work with every item in my suitcase.
13. 2 pairs of leggings, 2 sports bras, 2 tank tops. Both my leggings are black, lululemon and identical. They pack very small, and can be worn to workout in, travel in, or spend the day sightseeing. Both my sports bras are comfortable (this is critical), black and can be worn with everything. And my tank tops are black and grey, and can also be worn with jeans or breezy pants. You get the idea, right? Unless you are a cross-fitter, you don’t need to pack a ton of workout clothes, but you do need to pack them smart.
I only packed lululemon because it all works together, looks good and I feel good in them. Don’t get crazy with neons please, unless that’s your color palette.
14. A sexy black dress. I don’t care who you are, you need to have one in your suitcase. I have a fabulous wrap dress with spaghetti straps and lace…it doesn’t require a bra…and can be worn with flats. It goes with all of my scarves, all of my jewelry, both my dressy sandals, both my purses, and my jacket (from an athletic store, Athlete, of all places).
This dress is a perfection. I don’t know how I lived without it. Find one that makes you feel great, and also allows you to eat a huge pasta dinner in Italy. Quick side note, I had a sexy black James Perse t-shirt dress when we started the trip, but ditched it months ago. It was fabulous, but a tight cotton. It hugged in all the right places, and I could eat in it…but it was HOT. Like temperature hot. I wore it one night and thought I was going to rip it off at dinner (and not in a good way). It had to go home sadly.
15. Pack what’s best for your body type AND what you feel good in. I sometimes forget that I’m curvy OR that I hate tight clothes OR waistbands in the summer (in Italy especially) OR that I hate fake fabrics…and then I end up miserable. I’m either annoyed I spent money on something I won’t wear or irritated because I’m physically uncomfortable. All of those things are important to remember when you’re packing and when you’re shopping on your trip.
I’m a shopping ninja because I know what looks good on me, what fabrics pack well, and what my color palette is. I don’t care how good something may look or be “on trend” or be a DEAL…if it doesn’t meet ALL my criteria I pass. My rule is if I can’t make at least 4 outfits with it, I don’t buy it and I definitely wouldn’t pack it. That’s why no heels in my suitcase (except for the fabulous gold Italian heels Derek bought me….I wore one night….got 4 blisters….and sent home the next day).
Okay, that’s a lot of tips! I’m going to save which suitcase to use (Away is the only one I would recommend, and I tested many for a year before this trip), backpack to get (I like the clean and simple design and detailing of Herschel backpacks), and the toiletry packing (a game changer for easy travel) for another blog. Hopefully I'll get better wi-fi and upload more pics!
Enjoy, and happy packing!