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How I Pack for a Two-Week International Trip with Only Carry-On Bags

When traveling, less is more. Here’s how to achieve packing nirvana.

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cary on and tote at airport pack carry on two weeks international travelCourtesy Nadine Jolie Courtney

Only carry-on bags for two weeks? It’s possible!

I’m infamous in my friend circle for being able to pack light, even when going to Europe for a week or two. As a travel writer and advisor, I spend a lot of my time on the road and have learned over the years how to travel light. How do I do it? It’s a combination of knowing what to pack, how to pack, and which bag to pack it all in. Here are my best tricks for packing carry-ons for a long trip and totally skipping baggage claim. Looking for some travel inspiration? Try these 20 places you need to go in 2020, according to travel experts.

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exterior of carry on pack carry on two weeks international travelCourtesy Nadine Jolie Courtney

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 makes it a cinch to bring through airports, as well as rest my stuffed tote bag on. While mine is definitely an investment piece, 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″ x 13″ x 7″. This will ensure that it’s compact enough even to fit in even the most restrictive overhead bins on size-conscious European flights. For more options, check out these 13 carry-on bags with 5-star reviews on Amazon.

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interior of carry on pack carry on two weeks international travelCourtesy Nadine Jolie Courtney

It should have lots of zippered compartments and pouches

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. And here’s a handy chart that tells you the baggage rules for every major airline.

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winter clothes on plane pack carry on two weeks international travelCourtesy Nadine Jolie Courtney

Pare down bulky items

In my travels, I’ve found that limiting bulky outerwear and shoes are the two easiest ways 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. On the flip side, here are a few things you shouldn’t wear on a plane, according to flight attendants.

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toiletries pack carry on two weeks international travelCourtesy Nadine Jolie Courtney

Travel-size toiletries are your friend

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. While some things just aren’t necessary, you should always pack these 11 things in your carry-on.

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Rothy's pack carry on two weeks international travelCourtesy Nadine Jolie Courtney

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. By the way, here’s what your favorite shoes say about your personality.

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capsule wardrobe pack carry on two weeks international travelCourtesy Nadine Jolie Courtney

Pack a capsule wardrobe—and plan in advance

One of the best ways to pack lighter when you travel is to 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, only bringing 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 and silk or cotton tops that can be easily rolled and ironed, and a pair of go-anywhere black jeans.

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nadine scarf pack carry on two weeks international travelCourtesy Nadine Jolie Courtney

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 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.

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packing cubes pack carry on two weeks international travelCourtesy Nadine Jolie Courtney

The way you pack matters

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. In fact, that’s one of the tricks to squeeze more into all of your storage spaces.

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tote bag seat pack carry on two weeks international travelCourtesy Nadine Jolie Courtney

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, as well as 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.

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purse with smaller items pack international 2 weeks carry onCourtesy Nadine Jolie Courtney

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), anybody can use it—and they should because it’s genius. Don’t miss these other tips for keeping your purse organized and clean.

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Courtesy Nadine Jolie Courtney

Forgo books and instead 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. Here are the best eReaders worth buying now.

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leave it out pack carry on two weeks international travelCourtesy Nadine Jolie Courtney

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 employ Coco Chanel’s jewelry method of “less is more” for my 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 or use it, remove it. Only necessary items or those that pull multiple duties should make the cut. Your luggage will thank you!

Nadine Jolie Courtney
Nadine Jolie Courtney is a lifestyle writer with over 20 years’ experience covering beauty, travel, health, parenting, royalty, and more, and a former editor at several major newsstand magazines. A graduate of Barnard College, Nadine is also a TV/feature writer and the author of four books, including the award-winning novel All-American Muslim Girl, a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults book of 2021.