How I Pack for a Two-Week International Trip with Only Carry-On Bags
When traveling, less is more. Here’s how to pack a carry-on for an international trip and reach packing nirvana.
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Only carry-on bags for two weeks? It’s possible!
Every traveler should know some key things before packing for their trip, like how to create a practical packing list, how to pack a carry-on (and other game-changing packing tips), what the TSA liquid limit is (your perfume will thank you later) and, of course, the perks of carrying luggage on your flight. You can save cash on checked-luggage fees, have your valuables with you at all times and avoid the dreaded hassle that comes with lost luggage. Alas, you may think it’s impossible to pack with only carry-ons—but I’m here to thwart that myth once and for all.
I’m infamous in my friend circle for being able to pack light, even when going to Europe for a week or two. How do I do it? It’s a combination of knowing what to pack, how to pack and how to utilize the carry-on. Here are my best tricks for packing carry-ons for a long trip and totally skipping baggage claim.
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Choose the right carry-on
The right carry-on matters. For me, that’s a small Tumi carry-on. It’s a rollaway briefcase with 360-degree wheels—a must!—that make it a cinch to bring through airports, as well as rest my stuffed tote bag on. While mine is definitely an investment piece from a great luggage brand, you can also get a good-quality bag for less.
But no matter how much you spend and regardless of the particular bag’s bells and whistles, it’s important to get a carry-on smaller than 21 by 13 by 7 inches. This will ensure that it’s compact enough to fit in even the most restrictive overhead bins on size-conscious European flights.
Select luggage that has storage options
I joke that my carry-on is a Mary Poppins bag. Having tons of zippered and removable storage compartments means I can fit packing cubes of clothing, a pair of shoes, a bag of toiletries, electronics, a wallet, sleeping necessities for the plane (like soft foam earplugs and an eye mask) and my computer and paperwork.
When I need more space, I can remove the paperwork and computer sleeve and use the entire bag just for clothing and packing cubes. Within the rollaway, zippered compartments for whatever you might need—pens, wallets, passports, toiletries—are key for keeping things organized and protected. Just make sure your bag isn’t too heavy; European carriers often have lower weight allowances. Less than 6 kilograms/13 pounds is a good rule of thumb.
Pare down bulky items
In my travels, I’ve found that limiting bulky outerwear and shoes is the easiest way to save space. While, yes, it’s tempting to bring several different pairs of footwear, I try to restrain myself to two pairs per trip. And if it’s cold out, don’t be afraid to wear your outerwear on the plane. A down jacket makes for a nice pillow or blanket, and I’ll often throw a pair of slippers into my carry-on to change out of my shoes.
If you’re bundling up, layers are key: Make sure you wear something lighter underneath, like a tank top, in case you get warm. By the way, here’s what to wear on an airplane, according to flight attendants.
Stock up on travel-size toiletries
Toiletries are another total space killer—not to mention, they can require you to check bags, depending on how many you’re bringing and how big they are—so if you can be clever with mini options, you’re golden. I collect mini toiletry samples throughout the year, so I can fit everything in a tiny pouch. Plus, Sephora has bins of travel-size toiletries that I always stock up on before flights.
Choose the right shoes
Instead of packing both heels and walking shoes, I swear by black Rothy’s flats. They’re bendable and light, easy to pack and easily go from day to night, making them perfect for doing lots of walking and then dressing up for dinner. Plus, you can bring extra insoles to keep them “fresh.”
On the plane, I’ll usually wear my bulkiest shoes—either cute sneakers or leather boots, depending on what I’ll have more use for during the trip—to save luggage space and weight. If you’re looking for new luggage, check out these fabulous luggage sets.
Pack a capsule wardrobe—and plan in advance
One of the best ways to pack lighter when you travel is to create a capsule wardrobe and mentally take yourself through exactly what you’ll need to wear, and when. While it takes a little of the whimsical “maybe I’ll wear this!” fun out of it, bringing only what you’ll need will save space.
Make sure your clothes can do double, triple or even quadruple duty. For example, I’ll bring a day-to-night fitted black blazer that goes with jeans and tops for day or dresses for night, a couple of lightweight dresses, silk or cotton tops that can be easily rolled and ironed, and a pair of go-anywhere black jeans.
Don’t forget a scarf
A versatile scarf that’s both super stylish and also good for warmth will certainly come in handy on the plane—where it can act as a wrap or double as a travel pillow or blanket—but that’s not all. It can also dress up an outfit in the evenings, help you look chic during the day or keep you warm if you’re venturing somewhere cold.
Roll your clothes to create more space
It’s an oldie but goodie travel tip: Rolling up your clothes like logs before placing them in packing cubes not only helps save space—it also helps prevent items from getting wrinkled. It’s also a good idea to get in the habit of rolling your clothes at home.
Bring a large tote
A large but chic tote bag works alone as a daytime purse while you’re out and about, but it also holds a series of smaller bags, both for the flight and for use during your trip. In mine, I always have a messenger bag that I can use on-the-go, plus a couple of lightweight clutches or pouches that hold chargers, as well as my wallet, keys and sunglasses. Personally, I alternate between a Louis Vuitton Neverfull and a Goyard St Louis GM, but any roomy tote that holds lots will do.
Include a tote organizer
I swear by the ToteSavvy organizer, which has compartments for snacks, your keys, a pouch for paperwork and more. It keeps your bag neat and makes it a whole lot easier to find whatever you’re looking for. Although it’s designed for busy moms (and their diaper bags), anyone can use it—and they should, because it’s genius.
Forgo books and opt for a tablet or magazines
No, you don’t need to bring along that 500-page hardcover bestseller you’ve just been dying to read. Either download it on Kindle or—if you’re married to the idea of having a physical copy of something—swap the bulky book for a thin paperback and some magazines. I always use flights to catch up on issues of Tatler and Town & Country and then give them to the flight attendants when I’m done.
When in doubt, leave it out
It can be so tempting to bring extra items—a cute pair of heels! your curling iron! a different pair of pants for every day of your trip!—but I apply Coco Chanel’s “less is more” jewelry philosophy to packing for trips.
After I’m done packing, I mentally review my list and see if there’s anywhere I can save space. If you think you’re maybe going to wear it or use it, remove it. Only necessary items or those that pull multiple duties should make the cut. Your luggage will thank you!
- Trip Savvy: “Carry-On Bags Size and Weight Limits”