The Easiest Way to Pack for 2 Weeks in a Carry On

Packing for 2 weeks in a carry on can be painless!

Why should you pack in a carry on for all your travels?

“How was your trip to Italy?”, I asked, dying for all the details. I loved my time there and couldn’t wait to relive it vicariously. I was shocked by the answer I got.

“It. Was. HORRIBLE. The airline lost our bags, and they didn’t get them to us for 5 days!! We had no clean clothes, no toiletries, nothing! So instead of seeing Venice, we had to waste time shopping, and bought some really expensive clothes we didn’t like to try to get us through. And then we went to Florence, and had to buy more clothes because we thought our bags would have arrived by then. Three cities later and 5 outfits each, our bags were delivered.”

Oh, how I know the pain. My family used to joke that there was a bulletin in every airport that said if April is going east, send her bags west. The airlines lost my bag every single time I traveled, and I’m not exaggerating. I got to where I packed 2-3 days worth of clothes plus all my toiletries in my carry on because it happened so often.

Not only that, but I know the pain of hauling 2 GIGANTIC suitcases up and down the steps of a hotel that was built into the side of a cliff, or up a cobblestone road to the top of a long steep hill to reach a hotel because no cars are allowed to drive the roads. Or dragging them down a deserted road from the tiny train station to the town with no taxis. My arms and shoulders ache at the memory. Some of the most incredible destinations in the world don’t have bellmen, taxis, or paved roads.

And then there was the time we had to rent a hotel room in Athens for our suitcases to sleep in because the tiny planes that go to Santorini don’t have space for bigger bags, and there wasn’t room in the rental car when we drove to the interior. My suitcases enjoyed some really quality down time at a very nice hotel. *face palm*

I finally heard about the concept of packing only in a carry on bag and my mind was blown. I could never! How could you?! What if I don’t have what I need? And then my shoulders and arms and wallet reminded me of all the previous trips. “Maybe we should try it,” they whispered.

So I did, and after TONS of research, I confess my first attempt was both a huge success and a complete disaster. I did, in fact, pack for 3 weeks for two different climates in 1 backpack. I also looked like I got dressed in the dark a lot of days. Nothing I took went together. I was mixing and matching from a wildly mismatched assortment. Looking back at the pictures I cringe, but I learned a lot. I’ve done this so many times that I have my own technique down to a science.

How to pack for 2 weeks in a carry on

I basically make a mini capsule wardrobe, but I have a math equation that simplifies it. Now let me preface this by saying I’m not a sweaty person, so I can re-wear my pants 2-3 times as long as I don’t sit on a melted ice cream cone or something.

Here is what it would look like for summer with no washing machine availability:

Bottoms

# of days divided by 2 = number of bottoms. In the summer my bottoms always include 1 pair of jeans because airplanes and cars are COLD, and you will have 2 travel days, guaranteed. Even in the summer the weather can get cool, especially in the evening. Theaters, restaurants, stores, all freezing. Also, I’m always cold.

Tops

# of bottoms x  2 = number of shirts. Layers (cardigan or jacket) = 2.

I lay out my bottoms and pick 2 shirts to go with each one. That really helps with the overwhelm. I take it bottom by bottom. Here is my skirt, which 2 shirts do I want to wear with it?

If you want to get advanced, you can make sure each shirt also goes with at least 2 bottoms. It multiplies your outfit options, or you can use that to reduce the number of tops you take and pack even lighter.

Shoes

Shoes = 2-3. The safest bet is to keep them neutral in color so all the shoes go with all the outfits on all the days. I wrote a post about comfortable and cute travel shoes here.

Accessories

Necklaces and earrings = 2-3 each. I generally take metallic colored only so that it all goes together. You could also include a couple of scarves, which I always do when I travel to Europe, even in summer. Bracelets, rings, whatever accessories you like, limit to 2-3 each.

Putting it all together

So let’s put it together for a 2-week trip.

14 days/2 = 7 bottoms.

7 bottoms x 2 = 14 tops that can be a mix of layering pieces if it’s cold.

3 shoes, 3 necklaces, 3 earrings, 1 jacket and 1 cardigan (for all the same reasons I always take a pair of jeans).

If you want to take casual dresses, 1 dress = 1 bottom and 2 tops.

For my next trip I’m taking 1 casual dress, 1 skirt, 4 shorts, 1 jeans, 12 tops, 1 cardigan, 1 jacket, 3 shoes, 3 necklaces, 3 earrings, 1 purse. I’ll let you pack your own underclothing, but don’t forget essentials like slips or camis if you are wearing anything sheer.

The easiest way of all

Even this broken down method can feel overwhelming if you’ve never done this before, so I’ll let you in on the absolute easiest way to pack for a carry on for 2 weeks. This is even easier than my personal method, because I’ve done all the work for you. The Stunning Style Summer Wardrobe Guide has all the pieces and outfits made for you! Go through and pick the number of outfits you need. You can see all the pieces in each outfit, so no forgetting items. And because it’s a capsule wardrobe, you will already overlap pieces and keep your numbers close to what I used in the formula above.

Bonus Tips

As we cruised from one gate to the next during our layover, already dreaming of the hot Thailand sun ready to warm my cold February bones, I came to a screeching halt in front of the international weather board. “ADAM!!!” I shrieked. “It’s 16 degrees in Seoul! SIXTEEN DEGREES!” In our tropical vacation fever, we forgot all about the 24-hour stay over we had planned in Seoul, Korea on the way back. Shorts and breezy tops weren’t going to do us any good in the snow. We got so, so, so very lucky. My whole family was headed to Thailand for my brother’s wedding, and one brother and his wife hadn’t left yet. She’s about my size, and my brother is close enough to Adam’s size that their ski coats, gloves and hats fit us well enough. We each already had a pair of jeans and sneakers in our bags, and they were kind enough to grab those items for us just an hour before they left for the airport.

So, check the weather at your destination. I check all the way up until the day before we leave, and adjust as necessary. Summer doesn’t always mean hot. In Paris, Amsterdam, England, Scotland, and a whole lot of other places, you could have 50 degrees or 100 degrees in July. You never know.

To help keep your pants fresh so you can get 2-3 wears, wear a panty liner every day. I know you know what I mean. Especially in the summer. #letsbereal

Don’t forget to check your calendar for your cycle and pack the essentials. I bought the most expensive tampons ever in a casino gift shop in Vegas. And they were actually made of sandpaper.

Consider the activities before you pack. What I packed for Costa Rica was entirely different from what I packed when we went to Japan, and I’m not even talking about the weather. Ziplining, Tarzan swinging, waterfall hiking, snorkeling, boating, beaching, sunbathing, and virgin colada drinking call for an entirely different wardrobe than visiting feudal castles, imperial villas, and ancient temples. This also calls for a healthy dose of reality. Don’t wear high maintenance clothes for a trip that includes a lot of walking, standing in lines, etc.

Take one special outfit if there is any chance you are going to be going somewhere special. That can also be separates, like a black skirt and black top that look like a dress when worn together.

Pack a large flat tote to use as your personal item on the way home. The creates space for any souvenirs  you pick up along the way. I love my Longchamp Le Pliage tote for this bc it folds up tiny. While you’re at it, pack one in your husband’s carry on too.

I promise you can do this, and it is life changing! Your shoulders and arms will thank you!

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12 thoughts on “The Easiest Way to Pack for 2 Weeks in a Carry On”

  1. I would love a video of you packing that carry-on. Even with your capsule wardrobe, I do not know how you fit 3 pairs of shoes, 14 tops, 7 bottoms, 3 necklaces, 3 earrings, 1 jacket, 1 cardigan, undergarments, makeup and toiletries in a carry on. Also, what do you sleep in?

    I recently started to pack only a carry on for trips and am still working out the kinks. I can pack quite a bit in mine but do not think that I can pack all that you did. You truly are the queen of carry-ons!

  2. As a former flight attendant, I know the importance of packing well. “You pack it, you carry it.”
    Some of my habits that minimize my haul are:
    I wash lingerie in the sink and hang it in the bathroom to dry.
    One pair of gym shoes, one flat, one pair of dress shoes.
    Large ziplock bags are great for packing your clothes “airtight” and using them for dirty laundry or other purposes.
    I don’t carry a lot of jewelry. One pair of earrings, one necklace, one bracelet.
    Now, if I’m taking a road trip in my station wagon, these practices don’t apply. ????

    1. Stephanie, so true. I love your professional take on this. You pack it you carry it. My underwear trick is to take my old stuff and throw it away as I go. I use the hotel plastic laundry bags for my dirty or wet stuff, but anything that could leak I do put in a zip loc. I had an unfortunate shampoo incident years ago. #neveragain

  3. I’m usually one to over pack so I appreciate this post. We often have access to laundry when we travel. I’m curious, how would you pack if you did have laundry access?

  4. April, with your type 4 analytic approach, you nailed this!!! Love it – thank you!!! I find I’m very black and white or all or nothing about packing…it’s either wanting to make sure I have everything I could possibly need (maybe the secondary type 1 in me…having the possibilities) and on the other hand only wanting to pack the absolute bare necessities…often it ends up being the former and drive myself crazy because I have a large suitcase!

    I’m looking forward to implementing this for my next trip!!

    Cheers,

    Kay 🙂

  5. Oh, I would love a video on how you pack your carry on too!
    Also, how do you pack for your kids? Do they each get their own carry on, share a carry on? My husband doesn’t understand why it takes me so long to pack…but then again, I pack his stuff too! All he does is throw a few clothes on the bed for me to add, I take care of all his toiletries and such. =P

    1. Tara, I will work on a video.

      I have a system for the kids as well, and it really could be its own post. It really depends on the trip. The short of it is I create outfit packs. Shirt, shorts, underwear, socks in each ziploc. If we will have access to laundry, I take 2 shirts for every pair of shorts and count on them wearing each shorts 2 times. When we went to Costa Rica I packed each of them in their own packing cube and put them in a larger suitcase together that we checked bc we had to check luggage on that trip. On our most recent trip they each took their own backpack on the airplane as a carry on. If we drive I put the outfit packs all in one big suitcase.

      Our kids also pack themselves. I make a list and have them collect x shirts, x shorts, x underwear, etc. Then I go over each kid’s pile and check off everything. Then we pack it in their bag together.

      My husband packs for himself. I don’t want to be at fault if he’s missing something. 🙂 He’s a pro at packing anyway. He has travelled a ton for work.

  6. I really enjoyed all of the pearls of wisdom you shared re packing. What brand of carry on you use? That would be helpful to know, as there are so many brands. Thanks!

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