Keep Calm And Carry On

keep calm and carry onTravel capsule wardrobe – Paris and Provence, April 2012

For some people, packing for travel is a dreaded task, often postponed until a few minutes before it’s time to leave for the airport. Not for me. I love planning outfits around anticipated activities, and often start thinking about what to pack weeks before a planned trip.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve always chosen or packed wisely. On our first trip to Paris six years ago, we overpacked BIG time. We lugged a huge rolling duffel and two smaller (though not small) bags for two people for an  eight-day trip. And most of what I did bring was never worn, or didn’t suit our activities or environment. Those cute ballet flats? Murder on my feet after just an hour of walking about on gravel paths and cobblestones. The chic black swing jacket purchased in anticipation of the trip was too bulky to wear under my outerwear, and not warm enough to wear on its own. I brought far too many dressy clothes and heavy, structured pieces that were a wrinkled mess once unpacked.

After that I was determined to learn to pack lighter and smarter and the last two trips we’ve taken, I’ve been able to pack for two weeks each time in a single carry-on rolling suitcase without ever feeling that I “didn’t have anything to wear.” There are many reasons to travel carry-on only, not the least of which is the specter of arriving at your destination when your luggage does not. Skipping the long wait at the baggage carousel is another, as is being able to navigate public transportation more easily. And with most airlines now charging for checked bags, the financial incentive is strong.

If you’re going skiing, scuba diving or on any vacation that requires special equipment, or if you will be traveling for an extended period of time in a variety of climates, relying on a single carry on bag may not be feasible. But for the kind of vacations we normally take that involve sightseeing, lots of walking, dining, museums, shopping and such, it’s totally do-able with a little planning.

And when you’re planning, start with shoes. If your vacation will involve walking at all, and most do, you will need shoes that are supportive and comfortable. But that doesn’t mean they must be clunky or frumpy. Brands like Ecco, Naot, Dansko, Tsubo and Sofft all offer great walking shoes with enough style to go from day to dinner. Which leads me to..

Leave the really high heels and dressy shoes at home. Unless you will be attending a wedding or a formal state dinner at the embassy, they will languish in your closet or bag. Even in the chicest European capitals, “smart casual” will take you just about anywhere.

Except for summer sandals, bring shoes that will keep your feet dry.  Having to spend hours traipsing about with soggy feet will ruin the best of days. If you must bring your canvas sneakers, bring a second pair of shoes to wear on days they’re drying out from having stepped in a puddle or being caught in a sudden downpour.

Two or three pair of shoes – MAX. Including the one you wear on the plane. If you choose wisely, that’s all you’ll need, really. Shoes are the bulkiest of items to pack, and will eat up valuable suitcase space. And don’t let your shoes “fly for free,” stuff them with socks, jewelry or small items to save space.

Now that you’ve chosen your shoes, you can think about clothes. While some people like Audi at Fashion for Nerds have a flair for composing travel wardrobes with a lot of pattern and color, for most of us, sticking to one or two darker neutrals will help select a capsule of multi-purpose separates that will mix and match, and travel well. I usually limit myself to a dozen clothing items total, which has proven to be plenty. Use the Polyvore On The Floor method (top pic) to plan and lay out your dozen-item capsule, but also be sure to try on all potential combinations to insure that everything works with everything else.

Lightweight knits are your friends. They’re light to pack and will shed wrinkles easily once you reach your destination. Pile on layers or shed as fluctuating temperatures require. And a bit of stretch means you’ll be comfortable either strolling through a museum or in transit on a crowded bus or train for hours at a time. And many lightweight knit fabrics can be washed in a hotel sink, hung to dry overnight and ready to wear in the morning.

1-Starred Photos8

First and last day of our trip. Wore a version of the same thing most days in between.

Lose the hangup about wearing the same clothes multiple days in a row. Usually you won’t be with the same people day to day, and even if you are (as with a tour group) they won’t care. Use scarves and accessories to change up the look.

To jean or not to jean? Many committed one-bag travelers avoid them like the plague for weight, bulk and extended drying time. But if you live in demim at home and will be willing to wear them multiple times between washing, bring a pair.  (Some wear their denim jeans on the flight or in transit to save baggage weight and space; whether this works for you depends on your comfort level.)

Stay “in character.” Don’t pack styles or colors of clothing that you wouldn’t be comfortable wearing at home. Truly, when you travel you want your mind to be free to enjoy the wonders around you, not distracted by feeling uncomfortable and foreign in your own clothes. And don’t get hung up about “not looking like a tourist.” Regardless of how you’re dressed, as soon as you pull out your camera and start snapping photos, your cover will be blown. Instead, focus on looking like a stylish tourist, and behaving like a courteous, respectful one. (Learning a few basic greetings in the language and customs of the places you’ll be visiting goes a long way.)

Next month, How To Pack It, and What To Pack It In.

_ _ _

Already Pretty contributor Une Femme is fifty-six, married to the same wonderful monsieur since 1995, the mother of a special-needs teenager and two hooligan dogs, a full-time administrative professional, a coffee-holic, Paris-obsessed, native Californian, and a petite and curvy femme d’un certain age. She believes that personal style is an essential form of self-expression, and started her blog, Une femme d’un certain âge, in 2007 hoping to start a conversation about style for women over 50.

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24 Responses to “Keep Calm And Carry On”

  1. A.B.

    I’m going on a trip in 2 weeks, so this article is informative and timely!

  2. Marsha @ Splenderosa

    Ahhh, I think you got it spot on. Except for me, the one who would have to have jewelry X10 (fashion jewelry, of course, not fine jewelry). I’ve almost finished a post quite like this as I think all of us who’ve been there, done that can offer sound advice to the younger ones just starting out. Public transportation? That’s still very scary to me. Seriously.

  3. Kris

    Great post! I utilized your capsule wardrobe for Paris to help plan my trip to Ireland last fall. It was my first overseas trip and because of you and Janice of The Vivienne Files, I packed like a pro. I did limit my jeans to one pair of black which I wore on the plane and one dark navy knit jeans, packed. The knit jeans were a blessing, much lighter and packed well. You are so right, leave the fussy shoes at home!

  4. Nan

    Such great tips. I travel a great deal, for business and pleasure, and these are all tips I follow faithfully. A couple extras I might suggest:

    1) For longer trips (more than 4-5 days), remember that you can do laundry! Many hotels have machines, and vacation apartments may as well; if you don’t plan to spend even one evening in, or you don’t have laundry facilities where you’re staying, usually you can find a fluff-and-fold. Sometimes I will pack a dryel bag and sheet, to just freshen up a few items; this doesn’t take much room in the suitcase.

    2) If you want to have more variety in your appearance than four-five pieces of clothing will allow on their own, scarves and (costume) jewelry are your best friends. Scarves are lightweight and pack easily, and they will let you make that gray-jacket-black-pants combo look like three different outfits. A silk scarf, or one with some beading or other luxurious detail, can also help dress up a daytime outfit to make it more appropriate for your trip to a nice restaurant in the evening. Bonus: Scarves can also provide just a bit of extra warmth when needed.

    3) Tights: See above. Lightweight, easy to pack, change up basic outfits, and can add a great layer of warmth.

    4) If you aren’t going on adventure travel (where, I agree, packing carry-on only becomes very difficult), but nonetheless want to exercise in a hotel gym, I highly recommend barefoot shoes/toe shoes. Yes, they look goofy! But a well-fitting pair can be great for working out, and they pack in only the tiniest fraction of the space a pair of running shoes requires. They can also be washed out easily and will dry overnight, if needed. If your trip is going to involve surfing, canoeing or other water sports, these are fantastic for wearing into the water and avoiding little cuts from shells or debris.

    And I want to cheer the part in this post about the shoes. If you master this, “packing light” becomes very easy.

    • JB

      The “toe shoes” suggestion is a great one from a packing perspective. But as a medical journalist I have to caution that switching abruptly from regular cushioned athletic shoes to minimalist shoes can have serious adverse effects (such as foot pain) – not something you want to have to deal with when traveling. So if this is part of your plan then make sure to gradually acclimate yourself to the minimalist shoes for several months before your trip.

      • Laurie

        But once you have completed the most-necessary adjustment period you will love them. I now have five pairs, and can’t imagine ever going back to cushioned athletic shoes.

  5. Merewether

    Fo any trip beyond a long weekend at a nearby national park I pack a knit dress in a neutral color .My present go-to is a navy ponte with 3/4 sleeves and the requisite 2 dress it up, dress it down scarves.

    I find that I really like changing clothes for dinner after I’ve been out all day especially if it is hot or polluted. This has also been a god-send when something unexpected comes up while traveling – I’ve had to go to a funeral and I’ve received more welcome opportunities to go to a garden party and a Michelin starred restaurant.

    Agree that a carry-on quite satisfactory for two weeks abroad. Have done this even for trips which involved both visiting spouse’s haute bourgeoise Parisian aunt and hiking in the Alps.

  6. Eden

    What a great post! I’ve made all kinds of packing mistakes over the years and feel like I’m finally getting the hang of this… but always appreciate more tips. My last trip was hampered by a random color pallet. I waited to the last minute and ended up grabbing a bunch of knit tops and a variety of skirts. When I unpacked at the hotel discovered my mistake, had a “What was I thinking!?!” moment, and I had to do some odd color combinations to make workable outfits.

    I agree with Nan’s point about being able to launder in a foreign country. We discovered a wash/dry/fold service just blocks from our hotel. We used it midway through our trip. After a day of sightseeing we came back to an entire suitcase of clean clothes… for the equivalent of $10US. (I’ve also been known to MacGyver a phone cord into a clothes line for hand washing…)

  7. Leah B.

    Thanks so very much for the useful tips! I’m a recovering overpacker myself. I add that scarves can be a lifesaver, because you can wear one so many different ways. Pack one long enough to double as a swim cover-up or triple as a skirt/halter top? Gold!

  8. Bernie

    My knees and I made a pact some years back that we weren’t going to do fancy heels anymore, and we’ve been mutually happy since. My iron and I approached divorce at the same time, and we’ve since agreed that we will only unite occasionally for a quick date. So all of the above is music to my ears! Here’s to comfortable feet, soft knits and enjoying the trip.

    I’d like to thank Une Femme, Sally, Janice and Allie for keeping me on the stylish straight and narrow through their blogging efforts. You have no idea how much easier packing has become since I found you all!

  9. ClaraT

    My additional tips:
    1. Prints are much more forgiving of spills and grime than solids.
    2. You will most likely be taking photos, so try to bring outfits that are photo-friendly (whatever that means for you).
    3. Less is more, and most places have shops!

    ps Totally agree that starting with shoes is KEY!

  10. Michelle


    We recently traveled around Italy for 6 weeks with only hand luggage. A lot of people said that we’d regret having to do washing every 3-4 days but finding a laundromat often took us off the beaten track and we’d usually time it so that we could have dinner at a wee trattoria that we’d find along the way while our washing went through.

    Am strictly a hand luggage traveler now 🙂 I have this awesome bag ( which is perfect as it will squish into the overhead lockers of our tiny domestic planes!

  11. marily

    I save my old underwear – wear it on a trip – then toss it. More room in your suitcase for bringing purchased items home!!!! been doing this for years…..

  12. Ignorant Awareness

    This is all great advice! Only thing I’d advise against though is packing small extra things into your shoes- TSA have a tendency to open up suitcases like that, because of the risk of people trying to pass things undetected through security scanners etc.

    Go for it though if you don’t mind the possible extra wait, or the prospect of TSA rummaging through your stuff 🙂

    • Trystan (the CorpGoth)

      Unless you’re packing steel-toe shoes or stuffing metal items into your shoes, the X-rays won’t set off any alarms because of this & won’t be cause for additional hand-screening. Stuffing socks or undies in your shoes is no problem.

  13. SusanInBoston

    This is great advice. I’ve been packing this way for years. I learned early on to never pack more than I could carry for about half a mile because at some point in the trip, usually in response to something that I couldn’t anticipate (transportation strikes, hotels that were not as advertised, stolen purse), I have to do it.

    Pack to be physically and psychologically comfortable and as stylish as you can manage. No one is going to look at you as closely as you will.

  14. eliza

    I learned from my grandparents to look up the weather predictions for your destination right before you leave. This can allow you to make last minute clothing substitutions if it’s supposed to be unusually cold/warm/wet etc.

  15. Madame Là-bas

    You are so right about shoes. I am sending a pair of dress shoes home with my friend and am looking for a pair of walking oxfords in Paris. Packing by colour is essential for a longer trip. Right now, Paris is chilly so layers are necessary but I wear the same clothes into April.

  16. une femme

    @Ignorant Awareness, interesting point about the TSA. I’ve never had an issue with filling my shoes (even usually stash my Clarisonic in one) but from what I understand, the level of stringency varies from day to day and place to place. I’d still advise not letting that space go to waste, and if you’re worried about TSA holdups, just put smaller clothing items like socks and underwear inside, and keep jewelry or other items that might show up on an x-ray separate.

  17. Heidi/Frantic But Fabulous

    Amen to all of this, especially the point about packing “in character.” I’ve finally figured out how to get a week plus into a carry-on rolling suitcase and rollable knits are a huge part of that.

  18. Carolouise

    I am a fan of packing 2 dresses, in neutral solids, (I love jersey wrap dresses or “jumpers”—sleeveless tanks that allow a T-shirt to be worn under or a blouse to be worn over) and their attendant layers. It’s so easy to throw stockings, leggings, belts, sweaters, jackets, scarves, coats or vests over or under a dress. And they can be worn with any heel height, unlike boot cut jeans or classic pants. No pants, no skirts, no shorts. Just dresses.