For me, packing for a one- or two-week vacation is often a tug of war. The desire to pack light competes with the temptation to fill a jumbo suitcase with a variety of outfits and accessories, plus some “maybe” ensembles (those that may or may not be worn to that trendy eatery you may or may not encounter).
After decades of long jaunts with my family, not to mention work-related travel, I can say with certainty that overpacking introduces chaos to a trip, especially when said getaway involves multiple destinations. I know it sounds odd, but having fewer options is liberating. Case in point? I spent four weeks in Japan, racing from Tokyo to Kyoto, over to Naoshima and up to Hokkaido, with only a carry-on and a tote bag. Packing essentials with dress-it-up pieces (and buying underwear along the way) made all the moving around effortless.
So, let me tell you why you should ditch that suitcase for a carry-on, what to put in it and how to pack it.
Why only a carry-on
You won’t lose your luggage: Although odds are low that your bag will go astray (there were about three cases per 1,000 customers in 2018, according to Airlines for America, a trade organization for the leading U.S. airlines), when it does happen, it puts a cloud over your vacation. The last time I checked a bag, I ended up on a river cruise in Provence with no togs in tow. Between two flight cancellations and quickie connections, my checked luggage did not make it. I wasted much of the following four days shopping for essentials at port and following up with the airline instead of enjoying France.
You’ll have more flexibility: If your flight is canceled, a carry-on allows you to hop the next flight to your destination. With a checked bag, a canceled flight means the airline dictates your rebooking. And even then, your bag may be lost.
They’re easier to maneuver: If, like me, your travel plans involve trains, boats and buses, a massive bag is a nuisance. It must be lugged through narrow aisles and won’t fit in overhead storage. Then, you’ll need to hunt down an affable porter (good luck!) to help stash the bag in a corner.
They take up less space: Unless you have the good fortune to stay in luxury suites, chances are lodging will be on the smaller side, especially in New York or many European cities, or in cost-conscious chains. A large suitcase will make a tiny room even more cramped, especially when clothing is strewn about.
They save you time: Too many options complicate dressing. With scaled-back choices, getting ready takes mere minutes, maximizing time to explore.
What to bring
- The key to a lean, mean, on-the-road wardrobe is knowing what to pack and how to pack it. This requires discipline; each item needs to matter. With core essentials that can be dressed up with accessories, your suitcase can supply an arsenal of fashionable looks.
Of course, where you are going dictates the essentials. Think about the destination. Check the weather forecast. Then, pack only pieces versatile enough to wear multiple times in multiple ways. Basic pieces in a neutral palette work best for mixing and matching.
To be sure choices can be reworked into a variety of looks, lay each item out with accessories and create a few different looks.
- Aside from pajamas, underwear, a bathing suit and coverup, a beach vacation calls for a goes-with-everything dress, one pair of jeans, a few pairs of shorts, a long skirt that can be dressed up, one evening look, a few tops and lightweight sweaters or wraps. A city getaway like Paris or London is similar minus the bathing suit and shorts. Focus on outfits such as a tank dress or a skirt and top that can be worn sightseeing but punched up with a cardigan and jewelry for evening.
- Footwear can pose the biggest challenge. The rule: three pairs maximum.
For both kinds of trips, low-heeled, open-toed sandals work for day or night, along with slip-on flats. If you really must have a heel, make it a low one that is easy to pack (you can stick these in the additional duffel bag noted below). If you work out, bring only two workout ensembles.
Accessories such as a statement necklace, a jangle of (fake) bangles, dangly earrings and a colorful, gauzy scarf will add zip to a basic look. Pack in tiny pouches inside a master pouch.
- Don’t be a diva. Plan to wear pieces multiple times (well, maybe not the workout garb) before having them washed. Find a dry cleaner or laundromat near the hotel and ask them to launder your things. It’s much less pricey than having the hotel handle it.
How to pack
- The key to successful packing is in the preparation. Invest in a sturdy wheeled suitcase. For domestic travel, 22 inches is the maximum size for in-cabin luggage. For international travel, it’s 21 inches. Briggs & Riley is my go-to luggage. It’s sleek and durable with a lifetime warranty. I’ve used the International Expandable Baseline ($569) for years (it can expand up to 34 percent, then compress back to original size) and just switched to the Sympatico ($579), which expands only 22 percent but is lighter, rolls more efficiently and has a polycarbonate hard shell.
- Set out the suitcase before packing to visually enforce restraint.
In addition to the carry-on, you are permitted one personal item. Don’t waste this opportunity on a purse. Bring a larger tote bag (which should neatly perch on top of the wheeled carry-on) and tuck a lightweight, pliable purse inside the tote, which also will house books, computer, snacks, plugs, toiletries bag (if you want to access it on a long-haul flight) and an extra sweater. Cuyana’s canvas overnight bag ($165) is the perfect companion to a carry-on suitcase. It’s lightweight and can multitask as a beach tote. Another option is Paravel’s stylish nylon fold-up bag ($65), which can be reduced to a small neat square.
- Start the packing process five days before the trip. Why? Last-minute packing encourages poor choices. Set items out on a sofa or dining room table so you can see what’s what. Then, really consider what you need vs. what you want. Pull out what’s not essential. Once you have folded piles, start placing them inside packing cubes. Why the cubes? These thin nylon pouches compress clothing and can be easily stowed in a hotel dresser, making it easy to stay organized while traveling. I recommend Eagle Creek or REI packing cubes.
- Opt for travel-size grooming products (Sephora, Ulta and Walgreens have nice selections) or transfer your products to small plastic containers. Another tip: Stock up on samples of face cream, vitamin C serum and cleanser at department stores during the year.
You can also score samples of shampoo and conditioner from your hairdresser. Place all of these in the smallest toiletries pouch possible. For makeup, twofer palettes and mini mascara are space savers. Medications, too, can be streamlined. Place what you need (plus a few ibuprofen tablets) inside a snack-sizezip-top bag instead of schlepping multiple pill containers.
Through ridding yourself of that sartorial albatross known as a checked bag, you’ll effortlessly zip from place to place, spend less time at baggage claim (or filing lost-baggage claims) and get going more quickly each morning.