As someone who loves fashion but keeps a fairly minimalist capsule-style wardrobe, I can pack a streamlined suitcase without too much trouble. My husband and I have a “no checked bags” rule, which also limits what we bring on vacation. When people hear I never check bags, they often are surprised. What do I pack? Where do I put my shoes? What about liquids?
This post is meant to provide a detailed look at how I pack for a range of travel circumstances using a capsule suitcase. I hope to take some of the mystery out of packing a light suitcase, while feeling comfortable and chic while traveling. To unpack the concept, so-to-speak, here’s how I packed for a fall week in Paris!
To start, let’s talk about a crucial part of packing well: the basic equipment, which comprises my suitcase, carry on bag and purse. I chose these pieces for durability and functionality, and also because they look good.
My husband and I use matching hardside luggage. Our exact model is no longer available, but it’s similar to the Heys Triton Elite 30″ model. We love hardside luggage because it is very lightweight, durable and easy to pop into an overhead bin without struggle. The suitcase is dual-sided and zips in the middle, allowing clothes to be packed in one side and shoes and other bulkier necessities in the other. The hard shell wipes clean, so it looks presentable even after almost three years of regular — about monthly — use. The wheels on these cases are awesome, with a smooth glide, which helps when we’re running through the airport to catch a flight (this never happens…). We store the two pieces of luggage stacked in a corner of a standard closet, but they would also slide under a bed frame.
An aside: I often see frequent flyers advocate for carrying a large duffel or weekender bag (this model comes up again and again) instead of a rolling suitcase. I even used one for years. I strongly recommend against this for air travel! Duffels are great for a road trip, but a pain to carry long distances, through airport terminals and on public transit, unless you have Gaston arms. If you choose a suitcase with sturdy four-direction wheels, it will roll without stick over most tricky surfaces — ours have survived many a potholed street and cobblestone path.
I use a simple Jansport for Madewell compact backpack as my carry on. It’s just the right size to fit a water bottle, scarf, book, liquids bag, phone charger, headphones and other in-flight essentials. I love the easy-access front pocket to stow a pen, our passports and boarding passes, my wallet, and cell phone. Once we’re at our destination, I use my purse 90% of the time, but for day excursions, I’ll sometimes pop on this backpack. It’s tiny and looks chic, but is still durable and waterproof for rainy situations. It also keeps my hands free.
Garment Bag (optional)
This only comes on about half our trips, but for occasions when we know we’ll be fine dining or at a semi-formal event, we bring a single garment bag to store my dress and Austin’s suit or jacket. We’ve never had issues bringing this through security, and always hang it on the plane.
Tip: the flight attendant will hold your garment bag in a coat closet at the front of the plane as you board. If that’s not available, I hang our garment bag on the hooks behind the seats at the very back of first class — there’s one on each side of the aisle.
When travelling (and most days, really), I carry the Marc by Marc Jacobs Percy Turnlock cross-body bag. I bought this little purse back in 2009 for a multiple-week solo trip to New York City, and it’s probably one of my best accessory investments to date. The leather has aged beautifully, and it’s just the right size to hold my wallet, keys, lip balm, sunglasses and cell phone when we’re out exploring. It also hugs close to my body, which makes me feel secure in crowded places like bazaars and markets. I pack my purse flat and empty in my suitcase and take it out when we reach our destination.
These three bags form my essentials for 90% of trips. Austin travels with an identical suitcase, and a slightly larger backpack from L.L.Bean.
The clothing I pack, of course, depends on my destination. What I pack for a beach holiday looks different from fall in a colder climate. What I pack also depends on the weather, cultural customs at my destination and the events I’ll be participating in when I get there.
For this trip, I need to pack for six days in Paris, France and two in Reykjavik, Iceland. Fall/winter clothes in colder climates do take up a fair bit more space than say, tropical beach wear, but a minimalist suitcase is still completely possible.
The first thing I do before considering what to pack is to check the 14-day weather trend for my destination.
Paris in early-October hovers between 50-70 degrees F (10-20 degrees C). Sometimes it’s rainy. Luckily for us, it looks like we’ll have a pretty clear week. This is still quite the temperature range, which means layering pieces are key — think boots, tees, sweaters, jeans and a light jacket for cooler nights.
Reykjavik in mid-October hovers between 45-50 degrees F (7-10 degrees C). This is at the low end of the Paris forecast, but given we’ll only be there for a couple days, it can be mitigated through a good wind-breaking coat, scarf and mittens, using pieces from my Paris wardrobe. Since we’ll be doing some night walking (the Northern Lights are at their peak in October!) bundling up for warmth is important.
Activities & Formality Level
In Paris, we’ll primarily be strolling the arrondissements (formality: chic and comfortable) — this means easy layers and sturdy shoes. We have a couple Michelin-level meals planned, which require semi-formal options for both Austin and me. For less formal dinners, I can draw from my casual wear, ensuring I pack a couple blouses and nice trousers.
In Reykjavik, we’ll primarily be out in the open, in a place known for its windshield — this means wind-breaking clothes and layers, boots, plus a hat and gloves to face the cold. We have one semi-formal dinner out, allowing us to re-purpose options from Paris. I’ll also pack a bathing suit for Iceland’s famous baths.
Once I’ve figured out weather and activities, it’s time to pack!
Clothes & Shoes
Here’s what I’m packing for just over one week, accounting for a handful of days that will involve a wardrobe change based on our activities. The colour palette is neutral and complementary to ensure I can mix things up with ease, without having to pack actual outfits.
I pack four long-sleeve button-downs for layering while looking put together. The gingham and chambray are casual and suited to daytime exploring, while the embroidered button-down and silk blouse can be dressed up for evenings out.
basic white tank | soft grey sweatshirt | unstructured black blazer | Breton stripe long-sleeve tee (similar) | coated charcoal jacket | striped tee (similar) | forest green sweater (similar) | basic grey tank | piped tee
I pack a variety of layering tops to ensure I stay comfortable and warm: two slouchy tanks and tees, Breton stripes in two lengths, a soft sweatshirt and sweater to layer, an unstructured black blazer to throw over most pieces, and a wind-breaking and water resistant jacket for cooler weather.
I pack three pairs of pants — slim fitting jeans in two washes (grey, dark denim) and one dressier pair of slacks. I choose pants with good “bounce back” properties (a small quantity of lycra or spandex in the blend) so I can wear them a few times without washing, while ensuring they don’t stretch out and look sloppy. I pack a day dress — easy stripes and soft fabric for comfort — and a nicer silk dress that I can wear to a fancier meal.
The shoes I pack are dictated by our rough itinerary. Three pairs is on the high end for me, but these shoes are interchangeable and suited to walking long distances. (I’m okay with a cute walking shoe, but never sneakers!) The flats are broken in and comfortable for warmer days when bare feet don’t bother. Both boots are extremely supportive and will keep my feet warm on cooler/rainy days.
I wear one pair of shoes (for this trip, the black leather D’orsay flats) and pack the other pairs in shoe bags, to ensure my luggage stays clean. They get packed opposite my clothing in my suitcase, alongside my toiletry bag.
I wear pretty minimal jewelry — usually just a pair of earrings or a more extravagant necklace. I’ll pack a couple of each to interchange and I use soft felt bags to keep everything safe. I pack my jewelry in my backpack that I carry on the plane. Apart from my engagement ring and wedding band, I don’t travel with expensive pieces.
Other accessories — scarves, belts, hats, a small umbrella — get packed alongside my clothes (for soft items) or alongside my shoes (for sturdier items). I try not to pack too many of these, though, as they quickly suck up space in, and add weight to, my luggage. I pack my bathing suit and a thin towel in a gallon-size Ziploc bag so as not to get anything wet in my bag after use.
In addition to the above, I pack an appropriate amount of panties, bras, tights and socks for the trip, plus a pair of flip flops for wearing around the apartment/hotel and pyjamas appropriate to the weather. I also pack a thin and lightweight robe to wear while I get ready for the day. (This last piece is optional, but makes me feel at home at little expense of space!)
On the Plane
I try to balance style and comfort on a flight. A few tricks keep me comfortable and happy:
1) Slip on shoes and socks in my bag: I always travel in shoes I can slip on and off easily through security and on the plane. Even though Austin and I have NEXUS/Global Entry, which means we rarely go through full security, I hate the hassle of removing my shoes. I pack soft ankle socks to keep my feet warm once I’m on board.
2) Glasses: I pack my contacts and wear glasses when I fly so I can easily slip them off for a nap.
3) Zero makeup: For long-haul flights, I wash off every trace of makeup and slather on a heavy moisturizer. I also pack a little “spa kit” with some thermal water, eye cream, moisturizer and face wipes. Early into the flight (usually right after beverage service), I throw on a movie and give myself a mini-facial. I’ve been doing this for years, and it’s garnered a strange look or two, but what have you! Flying takes a toll on the skin.
Aside: I keep a few herbal teabags — peppermint, chamomile, calendula — in my carry on to have as options for late-night flights.
4) Easy layers: My travel clothes are pretty standard: a tee or tank and the sweatshirt from my layering options above and sturdy leggings or soft pants with a relaxed waistband. I pack a scarf in case I get chilly, which can double as a little pillow. Depending on the weather at my departure city, I’ll either wear my jacket or pack it at the top of my suitcase pile for easy access at my destination.
Toiletries are one reason we ladies often check a bag, to save dealing with fluid restrictions on planes. I minimize the hassle of checking my bag with some simple tricks:
1) Decant: I decant my face washes and moisturizer into empty and clean contact lens cases. Over time, I’ve learned that one contact lens case (both sides) holds about a week of product.
2) Have my liquids pre-packed: I keep my TSA liquids bag stocked at all times with shampoo, conditioner, soap, contact lens solution, toothpaste, mouthwash and hairspray.
3) Have my non-liquids pre-packed: I keep a small toiletry bag stocked at all times with Q-tips, antiperspirant, nail clippers, a razor, cotton pads, bobby pins and hair ties.
4) Streamline my makeup: For travel makeup, I abide by the less is more rule. I pack my absolute favourites of each item (foundation, blush, eyeshadow, balm, mascara) and leave the rest at home. I have a dedicated travel bag for my favourite brushes (I pack a powder brush, blush brush, eyeshadow brush and eyebrow spooly) to keep them clean and separated.
What about packing…
We don’t buy them! I understand the temptation, but we usually are satisfied just bringing home our memories and photos. Occasionally, I’ll scoop up an article of clothing that I can’t purchase easily in North America, or a beautiful food product, but given global shipping these days, I’d rather not have to cart stuff home on my person.
Dirty clothes… are dirty. They hold sweat, debris and skin cells we’ve shed, so they take up more room in a suitcase than clean clothes. I account for this when I pack, leaving a bit of room in my clean suitcase. We pack two lightweight bags to stow our dirty clothes as we use them, kept separate from our clean ones.
Nope! We’re on vacation. While I totally understand and support why someone might travel with a tablet or computer for business purposes, passive internet use doesn’t factor into our vacation time.
All that other stuff?!
Band-Aids, Tums, Imodium… the list could go on forever, and these items take up room in my limited luggage space. I remind myself that in most cases, I am visiting a country with easy access to incidentals at a local pharmacy or grocery. Plus, it’s fun to try new-to-me shampoo or moisturizer, should I run out while away.
Packing is something that gets simpler the more you do it. It’s worth your peace of mind and time to pack smartly and avoid consuming precious vacation time with repacking, shlepping luggage around and waiting for checked bags. And whether you’re visiting a tropical paradise, an urban centre or heading on an outdoor adventure, the same foundational concepts apply.