How to Pack for International Travel with Just a Carry On

I must admit, I originally heralded from the mindset of “the more you pack the more options you have”. However, in recent years, I have come to appreciate just how freeing it is to venture forth on international vacations with just a carry-on suitcase. Before you gasp in disbelief, I must admit that very thorough and careful planning goes into every suitcase I pack. So, after a few years of perfecting the art of minimal packing, I am sharing my tried and true tips for carry-on packing for an international vacation.

Step one: Analyse that Itinerary

Take a close look at your itinerary and identify key outfit types. Will your vacation primarily consist of museums or beach time? Upscale restaurants or local pubs? The clearer an idea you have of what your vacation will entail the more diligently you can pack for specific types of activities.

Step Two: Track Your Wardrobe

About two weeks before you leave start to carefully track which items you wear most frequently. We all have our favourite go to pieces, now is the time to make note of which pieces this entails for you.

Step Three: Start Cutting

By the time your two weeks of outfit tracking wraps up, you should have 3-5 bottoms (pants, jeans, skirts of shorts) and 6-10 tops (t-shirts, blouses and sweaters) that you  gravitate towards most frequently. Now it’s time to start editing – the goal is to end up with 2-3 bottom and 5-7 tops.

Since these are the pieces you wear most frequently, they should all mix-and-match quite  naturally. The most straightforward way to start cutting items from the packing list is to remove pieces that don’t work within at least 3 outfits.

A blouse that only works with one skirt? Cut it. Pants that only work with 2 tops? Cut it. Mix-and-match is the name of the game. Keep cutting items based on how interchangeable they are until you end up with the targeted 2-3 bottoms and 5-6 tops.

Tip:  Now is not the time to try new outfits. If you don’t wear it at home you won’t wear it now. Pick what you are comfortable in!

Step Four: Time to Accessorize

Accessories are small but mighty tools in the packing arsenal. Don’t skimp on packing a complimentary scarf or jewellery – this is where the day to day variety comes from.

Step Five: Get Ruthless with Those Shoes

By far, the largest use of space in my suitcase ends up being shoes. Now it’s time to get ruthless. Every single pair of shoes that you pack needs to earn its space. Just like clothes that made the cut,  each pair of shoes needs to work with multiple outfits.

Two tips for packing footwear:

  • If the forecast dictates that you pack boots, avoid the hassle of trying to pack the bulkiest possible type of footwear, and instead wear them on the plane. You know what they say… if you can’t pack ’em, wear ’em 😉
  • When possible, try to pack the smaller version of an interchangeable style of footwear. For example, I’ll often pack a beige strappy sandal instead of a beige pump, since the sandal packs much smaller and both work interchangeably with the same outfits.

Step Six: Flying in Style

Now that you have so diligently narrowed down the packing list it’s time to select an outfit for the flight. Since the packing list was comprised of your most frequently worn items, there should  be a comfortable, flight appropriate outfit in there. This will give you some (likely needed) breathing space for getting that suitcase closed.

Step Seven: Dry Run

The time has arrived, it is now time for a dry run of packing all your items in your carry-on suitcase. Make sure to try packing everything, and I mean everything (toiletries, charger, etc.). Don’t worry if not everything fits, you still have time to edit and narrow down.

A few tips for creating more space:

  • Invest in a travel size hair dryer – mine folds in half and takes about a third of the space of a normal hair dryer.
  • Collect sample toiletries – I try to avoid hotel toiletries at all costs (my hair does not appreciate surprises) however I diligently collect samples of my favourite products throughout the year (I highly recommend Kiehls for this).  Samples save tons of space, compared to even the travel sizes versions of items, and will leave you with even more space for souvenirs as they are used up.
  • Pack makeup carefully – avoid just tossing your entire makeup bag into your suitcase. If you’re like me, you have an entire makeup bag full of goodies, but just a select few products that are used on a daily basis. Take the time to sort through and pack only the items you use.

And that’s it! You can now luxuriate in the freedom of strolling right off the plane, past the baggage carousel, and directly on to the adventures waiting for you on the other side of the airport door.


Author: Ashley Barby

I believe that our biggest regrets are for the chances that we don’t take. Above all, I believe that people are intrinsically good and that we are the sum of the people we surround ourselves with.

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