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How to Pack for a Two Week Trip Using Only a Carry-on


You're probably thinking: two weeks' worth of stuff in ONE carry-on?

I am not crazy. Packing for a 2 week trip using just a carry-on can be done.

But how?

There are three secrets to doing this:

1) You have to be willing to wear pieces over again (so if you're just naturally stinky, it's time to pile on the deodorant and body spray),

2) You have to wear your heaviest pieces on the plane (I'm assuming here that you're going on a plane, since the amount of luggage is an issue. But, if you're riding in a really small car, the same rules apply--just wear your heaviest stuff on the ride), and

3) Everything's got to coordinate.

I'm not saying that you should only pack one outfit and wear it until it could stand up on its own. In fact, that's totally nasty.

I love to travel, and do it as much as our schedules and wallets will allow. I also hate dragging luggage around, so I've become a packer extraordinaire over the years. After I found myself in Heathrow airport in 2005 with a checked bag that was over the limit--and subsequently had to buy an entirely new suitcase and pay extra to have the new suitcase checked--I promised myself that I was always pack less than I thought I needed.

When we went on our UK Extravaganza in late 2011, my husband Landon and I were determined to travel as light as possible since we were moving around in trains, planes, and rental cars quite a bit. We didn't want to be those tourists you could spot a mile away on the Tube, juggling four giant bags and looking completely harried.

Plus, we also wanted to leave room to use our allowed one checked bag per person for the plane ride back home. That way, we could load up on souvenirs, purchase a bag in the UK, and not have to worry about paying for additional checked bags. Brilliant!

My skills were put to the test: we were staying for twelve days abroad, and also had to account for travel time to and from the UK. We followed the packing guidelines I created (see below), and we both had an amazing trip with very little luggage.

Here are my packing guidelines:

Take one rolling carryon--as big as you are allowed. Make sure it's a rolling case, not a duffel, as a rolling suitcase is so much easier to deal with.

Take a backpack as your "purse"/ under the seat item. If you have a purse that you need to haul on too, either stuff it inside the backpack or casually carry it on the plane. I've never had a flight attendant say anything to me when I carried on my purse, backpack and rolling case, and I've done this combo several times. In these cases, my purse is usually a very small crossbody bag that I wear underneath my backpack, so maybe that's why I've gotten away with it. Note: make sure the backpack is small enough to fit under the seat. I always use my trusty North Face Jester pack, and it has never failed me. 

All of your clothes should be able to be mixed and matched with all of the other clothes. This is not the time to bring that ridiculously specific party dress that you might/ might not wear once. This is bare bones packing, people! When we went to the UK, my packing list (below) was extremely functional, and could take me from a museum to dinner to a play. 

Pick a neutral--just one--and work around that. For me, black was my key neutral, and I packed accordingly. Most of my clothing was either black or grey, and I threw in a few accessories to jazz things up. 

Accessories are your friend. A scarf takes up WAY less room than another shirt. Pack three or four scarves instead of a sweatshirt; you'll look far more put together and you'll be able to fit everything in your carry-on. [A travel scarf like this one does double duty as a way to hide your passport and cash, too!]

Take two pairs of shoes. And that's it. For me, I chose to bring one pair of boots (comfy because I knew we'd be walking a lot) and one pair of flats. The flats were great because I could dress them up or down, which made dressing for a nice dinner or a casual brunch equally easy. 

Use packing cubes. When Landon first saw these, he asked me, "Why am I packing my clothes in one case just so I can put them in a bigger case?" But he came around when he saw how awesome they were at keeping our clothes organized. We actually labeled the cubes so we knew exactly where our pants, shirts, underthings, etc. were without having to dig around. We also were able to pull out what we needed quickly when we were tired after a long day of sightseeing.

When in doubt, plan on layering. Especially if you're packing to go somewhere cold, you're going to need to bundle up. But rather than packing several heavy wool sweaters (bulky!), layer tanks, turtlenecks, sweaters and/or sweater vests, and then top it off with a scarf and coat. So much easier to pack!

Sample Carry-on Wardrobe

It seems like a lot of clothes, but it's really not.

1 turtleneck dress/tunic (which can also be used a skirt if I put a sweater on top of it)*
2 sweaters (1 black, 1 bright blue argyle)
2 sweater vests (1 dark grey, 1 black and purple argyle*)
2 pairs of tights (1 black*, 1 grey)
1 pair dark denim jeggings
1 pair black dress pants
1 white crew neck (long sleeved)
2 turtlenecks (1 black and white striped, 1 grey*)
1 Columbia 3-in-1jacket*
2 scarves


1 pair of equestrian boots (grey)*
1 pair black flats

As well as:

2 headbands + hair ties
Toiletries (in a very small case)
Makeup (also in a very small case)
1 tshirt for sleeping in
1 pair of pj pants
5 pairs of socks
2 bras
14 pairs of underwear
2 tanks/ camisoles

*Things I wore on the plane

In addition to putting one packing cube in my backpack (with one change of clothes--just in case we were separated from our carry-ons somehow), I also carried my camera, sightseeing guides, travel journal, and camera charger in the North Face. That way I had extra easy access to those in flight. 

Don't worry about packing:

  • a hairdryer. Most places have one of these, or you can always towel dry your hair if it's short/ thin enough.
  • more than one dress. Since it was winter, I needed to have pretty substantial clothes (or the ability to layer less substantial ones). I didn't see a need to bring my bulky sweater dresses, so I opted for the thinner tunic plus sweater and thick tight combo. If you were traveling somewhere warm, you could easily get away with balling up a few jersey dresses, but that just didn't work for my situation.
  • an entire extra fancy outfit. We knew we were going to a play and a nice dinner one night, so we both made sure to include items that could be dressed up. I just used my versatile black slacks, white button down and black flats. (I also wore a cape that I'd bought at Portobello Road Market, but I would have been fine without it.)

I cannot recommend the carry-on + backpack method of travel enough. I've never once missed dealing with an overstuffed suitcase or paying for extra checked bags. Plus, I know what I really want to focus on during my trip are the beautiful things I'm seeing and experiencing. 

Ultimately, no one will notice that you're reusing and recombining pieces of your wardrobe when you show off your pictures when you get back home. So, why bother bringing all of that extra stuff?!

Are you a good packer? Could you go on a two-week trip with just a carry-on? What do you have trouble leaving behind?

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