The Packing List You Need To Explore The World With Just A Carry-On

Even the most stylish jet-setters can pack light and still look great.

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It was the last straw. After a long transatlantic flight back from an incredible trip to Portugal, the magic of travel was rapidly fading as I waited longer and longer for my (ridiculously overpacked) suitcase to arrive at baggage claim. I thought the annoyance of my poor packing skills ended when I carried the massive monstrosity down five flights of stairs at my last hotel in Lisbon (cursing every unnecessary dress and pair of shoes on my original packing list with each step).

Now, the frustration was back with a vengeance. And judging by the growing crowd of other weary travelers waiting for their bags, I wasn’t about to find relief anytime soon.

“Never again,” I decided at that moment, and got to work streamlining my packing list for future trips.

I set some ground rules:

  1. Everything must fit into a carry-on (plus a big handbag).
  2. My travel outfits should offer enough variety for city strutting and outdoor adventuring.
  3. Squeezing in a cosmetics and skincare kit is non-negotiable.
  4. Absolutely, positively no more than two pairs of shoes.

After some trial and error, I finally developed a packing list that worked, and I still managed to find room for a few other travel necessities (like a reusable water bottle and a sun hat) in my carry-on bag. I thought I’d long for the items I used to bring with me on my travels, but now I relish in packing light, spending my mornings abroad researching where to find the best croissant instead of picking the perfect outfit, and avoiding the hassle of checked bag fees and delays at baggage claim (or worse: lost bags!).

Planning to travel soon? Now’s the time to start paring down your packing list and picking up functional, fashionable items that will take you from Texas to Timbuktu. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Packing List Basics for Carry-On Only Travel

When you’re planning to use only a carry-on for a trip, you’ve got to have a game plan. Before you pack a single item, jot down a strategic packing list—and stick to it.

A packing list has dual purposes of limiting how much stuff you bring and reminding you to pack the core travel necessities. You probably already have a sense of the clothing, accessories, and other items you tend to bring on every trip. Write it all down and use that as the basis for your packing list. I recommend saving it digitally, so you can refer to it again on future travels.

Then, customize the packing list to meet the needs of your particular trip.

Business trip? Add the laptop and charger, and perhaps a blazer and heels!

Vegas for a girls trip? Don’t forget to pack a flashy dress!

Epic hiking trip? Break out your trail boots, travel towel, and first-aid kit.

Your basic packing list should include everything you typically bring (pants, shirts, sunscreen, etc.) when you’re on the road, but offer flexibility to accommodate what you might need on different types of trips.

Choosing the Perfect Bag for the Perfect Packing List

Your packing list is only as effective as the bag into which you’re squeezing your travel necessities. Traveling with just a carry-on demands that you be unflinchingly particular about your suitcase.

You want to make sure it’s as large as the majority of airlines allow (this handy list gives you carry-on bag dimensions for more than 170 airlines). Spinning wheels and a telescoping handle will make the bag a breeze to drag around the airport. Finally, look for a carry-on with a few pockets that will help you stay organized—you can even categorize your packing list based on what you’re putting in each section of the bag. There are thousands of carry-on bags on the market, and it’s worth taking a shopping trip to test out a few.

Need some guidance on where to start? I recommend the TravelPro Platinum Magna ($299.99). This bag’s large enough to hold everything on my packing list (and then some!), but it fits into the overhead compartment of every plane on which I take it. The carry-on features a special compartment that helps keep dresses smooth—perfect if you’re going to a destination wedding. The self-aligning wheels prevent the bag from getting stuck when navigating through tight squeezes. Finally, if any part of the bag breaks, you can take it to a TravelPro repair center, thus helping you avoid adding more to the local landfill and paying a hefty replacement fee.

Patagonia’s Headway Wheeled Duffel Bag ($329) is my runner-up pick for a carry-on bag. Its nylon material boasts incredible durability, and it has a collapsable internal frame, making it easy to store when not in use. The company ensures that the factories it works with promote fair labor, safe conditions for workers, and practices that are safe for the environment.

Finally, make use of the airline allowance for a “personal item.” I usually take a large purse for anything I might want to use on the plane, like a book, lotion, and headphones. My go-to is my Lug Mini Puddle Jumper Day Bag ($95) because it’s soft and light. The only thing that I love more than the seemingly endless number of compartments (seriously—I’ve had this bag for two years, and I keep finding new ones) is the company’s commitment to supporting children’s charities.

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Clothing to Include on Your Packing List

When building a cohesive travel wardrobe, you have to abide by a few basic principles:

  • Always choose function over fashion (but hopefully most of your clothes fuse the two together!).
  • Plan to wear most of your stuff more than once on a trip (mixing and matching will make the outfits look fresh!).
  • Choose wrinkle-resistant, comfy garments made from natural textiles whenever possible.

What clothing belongs on your packing list? It really depends on the weather, the type of trip, and, most importantly, what you love to wear.

Dresses

My packing list, for instance, always includes a couple of breezy dresses. Everlane has a ton of contenders for your packing list—check out the light drawstring dress ($98), short-sleeve V-neck dress ($98), or the cotton tank dress (just $28!). Reformation’s Rou dress ($98) can easily transition from day to night, and it has that retro silhouette that will stand out in your Instagram pics.

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Tops

For tops, squeeze in five or six light tanks and tees with varying sleeve lengths, so you’ll be comfortable in any weather.

A laid-back white T-shirt (like the $38 Maggie Tee from Threads 4 Thought) belongs on every packing list—it’s a classic look that can work pretty much anywhere. Amour Vert also has some fun tops, like a cheerful orange tank ($38), v-back flowy tank ($68), striped long-sleeved tee ($78), and roll tab sleeve top ($98).

Since you’re going to wear these more than once, make sure your packing list includes a few different colors and prints to stave off boredom.

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Bottoms

Bottoms can get bulky, so you have to be smart about which ones you include on your packing list.

I recommend two pairs of black leggings (I usually wear one on the plane). These organic cotton leggings ($24) from Pact would be cozy to wear when doing anything active on your trip. A fashionable packing guide should always include your favorite pair of jeans (mine are the $128 high-rise skinnies from Madewell). If the weather’s warm, toss in a pair of denim shorts, otherwise you can feel free to pack a second pair of jeans in another wash for variety.

Finally, I never travel without a crisp, white midi skirt (like this $124 organic cotton option from People Tree)—it can be dressy for a nice dinner, relaxed for the beach, or chic for city sightseeing, and it helps you avoid that frumpy backpacker look.

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Outerwear

Even if you’re going to a hot climate, it can feel chilly in the evening. Definitely include a jacket on your packing list.

Joe’s Jeans has an embroidered denim jacket ($328) that’s both snug and stylish. If you love the embroidered look but need something more budget-friendly, check out this one from Old Navy. If you’ve got cold-weather travel plans, you’ll need a packable coat. The Ultra Light Down Jacket ($69.90) from UNIQLO belongs on every winter packing list. I wore it daily on a recent trip to Iceland, and I fell in love with how warm the insulation kept me and how handy it was to roll the jacket into its accompanying pouch.

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Shoes

Shoes can be the trickiest part of a packing list. Start with a pair of versatile, comfortable sneakers. My jet-setting friends swear by Allbird’s wool runners ($95). For your second pair, you have options: If it’s cooler or you plan to do a lot of hiking, go for a rugged pair of boots—the Kodiak Surrey II boots ($170) can easily transition from town to the trail. Otherwise, opt for a pair of flat sandals, which pack much more easily. These handmade huarache sandals ($118) from Nisolo will look great with just about any travel outfit, and this pair of sandals ($248) from Cousin has been specially manufactured to withstand wear and tear from walking on urban streets.

And remember my rule about only including two pairs of shoes on your packing list? I usually cheat (shh … don’t tell anyone). I always stash a classic pair of flip-flops somewhere in my bag to protect my feet in showers, at the pool, and when I grab a quick hotel breakfast. Flip-flops don’t really count, right?

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Extras

Finally, no woman’s packing list is complete without a bathing suit, a couple of pajamas, two bras (in nude and black), a pair of socks for every day of your trip, and an abundance of underwear. I usually start with two pairs of panties for each day of travel, and then frantically toss in a few bonus pairs just in case.

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Accessories for Your Minimalist Packing List

Accessories can pull an entire look together—but beyond a couple pieces of durable, inexpensive pieces of jewelry (seriously, leave your family heirlooms safe at home!), all of the other accessories on your packing list need to be functional.

Sunglasses are a packing-list must—look for ones that won’t break and have an added edge for travel. For example, IZIPIZI travel-friendly sunglasses ($50) or Ray-Ban’s Folding Classic Wayfarer ($168) will fold down to fit into your pocket.

A lightweight crossbody bag to stash your ID, phone, and wallet will also prove useful for day trips and nights out. Matt & Nat’s ruby-red crossbody bag ($75) has just the right amount of space, along with a striking look. If red isn’t your thing, it comes in a variety of other colors, including some great neutrals.

A lost or damaged passport will ruin your trip, so it’s worth investing in a high-quality passport holder. Cuyana’s multipurpose leather passport wallet ($185) will protect your most important piece of identification and hold all of your credit cards, coins, travel documents, and cash in one place. (Pro tip: Keep some spare cash, an emergency credit card if you have one, and a photocopy of your passport somewhere other than your travel wallet; you do not want to be empty-handed if pickpockets strike.)

Finally, a hat is a must. Some women rely on their favorite baseball cap, but I opt for a packable sun hat that makes more of a statement (and protects my fair skin from burns). Don’t forget to include a few hair ties and bobby pins on your packing list if you like to rock a ponytail.

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Packing List for Personal Care

Paring down my cosmetics and body products was the hardest part of coming up with a carry-on only packing list—those TSA limitations on liquids were the main reason I used to check a bag. But there are some clever ways to abide by the rules and still bring your most trusted products.

If you’re not particular about your shampoo, conditioner, and other liquid personal-care products, scratch them off your packing list—you can pick them up at the destination, or use what’s offered at the hotel. But if you’re like me, and you rely on specific products, invest in a set of silicone travel bottles. They squeeze into a carry-on easily, and you can refill them with your favorite products over and over again.

As for your cosmetics, edit your makeup kit down to the bare essentials. This is easier said than done, and I often have to remind myself that three different tubes of lipstick aren’t necessary for a five-day trip. My travel cosmetics kit includes light foundation (or BB cream), a shimmery blush, highlighter, mascara, and hydrating lipstick. Think about what you’d put on your face if you only had 3-5 minutes to get ready—that’s the only makeup you need when you’re traveling. Throw in a bottle of sunscreen, as well. Your skin will thank you.

It’s easy to forget about moisturizing products, like lip balm and lotion, but they’re worth putting on your packing list. The circulated air in planes can dry out your skin fast, and lotion will help soothe any irritation.

There are tons of other personal care products you’ll want to add to your packing list depending on your specific routine. Here are a few of my travel essentials: nail file, deodorant, disposable razor, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, floss, medicine, vitamins, tampons, and cotton swabs. A look around your bathroom could help inspire what belongs on your packing list.

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Miscellaneous Travel Necessities for Your Packing List

With all the clothes, shoes, and personal care items on your packing list, your carry-on should look pretty full by now. But believe it or not, there’s a ton of other nooks and crannies you can fill with miscellaneous travel necessities you might want on the road.

Earplugs and noise-canceling earbuds can be a godsend in unexpectedly noisy hotels, and a book can help you get through a long flight. A packable reusable bag (like this $10 grapefruit-print bag from Bando) will be convenient when you go souvenir shopping. Having trouble finding room? Tuck these accessories into your shoes or around your clothes.

Keep up your sustainable efforts by bringing along a reusable water bottle—the aluminum bottles from S’Well are a personal favorite.

Don’t forget to add a phone charger, power bank, and power adapters to your packing list, as well.

Finally, pack your passport, credit cards, and cash. If you’re a hardcore minimalist, all you’d need is these three travel necessities, and you could explore the world with just the clothes on your back. But we’ll stick with what’s on the packing list.

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Need help fitting everything on your packing list into your carry-on?

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