How to pack for two to three weeks in Europe using a single carry on. Plus my capsule wardrobe packing system, what’s in my bag, a few travel tips, and a handy printable packing list.
If broken roller boards, sore shoulders, Zambian baggage fees, and a lone suitcase languishing on the tarmac of the Madrid airport have taught me one thing about exploring this world, it is this: Pack light to travel well.
Whether a trip is three days or three weeks my max is a 10 kg / 22 lb duffel bag paired with a little 14L backpack. 22 pounds (plus a small bag or personal item) is the typical limit for carry-on luggage on most smaller airlines. According to backpacking experts, 22 pounds is also on the lighter side of my ideal pack weight, which is 1/4 to 1/6 of my 125 lb total body weight.
To me, traveling well means having enough clothes, toiletries, and travel essentials to be comfortable without dragging along anything I could do without. The fewer things I carry, the less I have to worry about keeping track of and the more I’m grateful for what does make it in the bag. Not to mention, packing light is eco-friendly and saves time and money — no checked bags or luggage fees.
France, Spain, Ireland, Scotland…
…Savannah, Seattle, The Blue Ridge Mountains, Portland, Maine, Acadia National Park and even a bachelorette trip that spanned DC and a Delaware music festival — the following formula and adjacent packing list have served me well all of these places.
Last time we bopped around Europe I saved a detailed list of what traveled with me, what I didn’t need, and what I wished I’d packed. Since then I’ve worked out a system that’s served me well whether headed out for a long weekend or couple of weeks exploring the Pacific Northwest.
It always comes back to packing less. Here’s how I’ve planned everything for my latest three-week trip to Europe — a work trip followed by our honeymoon. Between meetings in Belgium, sightseeing in Galway, kayaking Western Ireland, and five days of whiskey tours on the Scottish Isle of Islay, there’s a lot to see and do and wear. Let’s get packing, people!
The 4-Step Capsule Wardrobe Packing System
By combining my core packing list with the concept of a capsule wardrobe, I maximize my outfit choices and minimize my luggage. Here’s how it works out:
1 / Start with a bit of research
First, gather up a rough idea of your daily itinerary. Take a look at what you’re doing the majority of each day, wherever your schedule may take you – flying, sightseeing local villages, hiking mountains, exploring museums or shopping in a city – and note any repeat themes.
Check the weather forecast, jot down any special items you know you’ll need, and search Google Images for “your destination” + “street fashion” if you’re interested in knowing how stylish locals dress.
It’s also worth checking into what’s not going to be locally available. Did you know that most European hotels are BYO-washcloth? That many European drugstores require a prescription to buy antibiotic cream? That on the island of Roatan, bug spray costs $15 a bottle? I went a month without chocolate in Africa. A single Clif Bar all but saved my life at an abandoned Pyranese train station. Try finding a single Q-Tip for sale in Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica. JUST TRY. Alas, I digress.
2 / Work out a set of activity themes
Based on the schedule and weather forecast for this Europe trip, I’ve narrowed down the whole two and a half weeks to four basic outfit themes:
- Sightseeing: elevated essentials
- Travel Day: cozy + casual
- Outdoor Exploring: athleisure gear
- Going Out: simple, luxe tops with nice pants
3 / Then figure out outfits for each theme
Next refer back to your daily itinerary themes, and tally up total wardrobe changes you plan to make. On any given trip I like to wear everything at least 2-3 times, but also try to avoid wearing the same exact outfit two days in a row so that everything can breathe a bit.
I also plan to bring some Dr. Bronner’s into the shower to hand-wash items as needed since that worked out well last time we traveled around Europe. All said, I need to get dressed 19 times over 17 days:
- Sightseeing: 7 times = 3 outfit variations
- Travel Day: 6 times = 2 outfit variations
- Outdoor Exploring: 2 times (back to back) = 2 outfit variations
- Going Out Somewhere Nice: 4 times (2 back to back days) = 3 outfit variations
- = Getting dressed 19 different times in 10 outfits
Nice. 10 outfit variations is just enough to keep things fresh while keeping luggage light.
4 / Lay out your outfits for each theme
Now for the fun part – building out the capsule travel wardrobe! Be pragmatic in what you’re assigning for each outfit and think about your go-to pieces that you love to wear all the time.
Leave behind anything that doesn’t fit quite right, anything that’s uncomfortable, and anything that you don’t think you’ll wear more than once. And be realistic: Fussy dresses and fumbly stilettos are not going to mix well with cobblestone streets on a laid-back trip. If you’re not totally sold on bringing something along, leave it behind.
Also bear in mind that each outfit variation might mean just changing a single piece out – a top, jacket, or bottom – and that pieces should cross into multiple outfit themes. For instance, I’m only bringing two pairs of pants, and I plan to wear them for most of our ‘Sightseeing’ and ‘Going Out’ adventures. The same leggings will be donned for ‘Travel Days’ and ‘Outdoor Exploring.’ There’s just one cardigan, one light jacket, and one winter coat for the whole trip.
You really don’t need to pack a dozen different outfits – just a few really great ones that you can wear everywhere. Lean into high-quality comfortable classics in a limited color palette — everything will match and easily keep up with the inevitable wear and tear of travel.
The “Going Out” theme: 3 outfit variations to be worn 4 times (2 back to back days):
3 tops, crop jacket, pants, booties, a set of gold jewelry, and my favorite berry lipstick.
So here’s my final formula for 2.5 weeks in Europe:
Sightseeing: 7 times = 3 outfit variations
[Silk tank or Cotton tank] + [Cardigan or Sweater] + [Black skinny jeans or Blue skinny jeans or Joggers] +[Booties or Sandals or Sneakers]
Travel Day: 6 times = 2 outfit variations
[Cotton tank or Tee] + [Down vest and/or Sweater or Cardigan] + [Dress Coat or Light Jacket] + [Running tights or Joggers] + [Sneakers or Booties]
Outdoor Exploring: 2 times = 2 outfit variations
[Tee and/or Swimsuit] + [Down vest and/or Light jacket and/or Rain jacket] + [Running tights or Running shorts] + [Sneakers]
Going Out: 4 times = 3 outfit variations
[Silk Tank or Dress] + [Cardigan and/or Dress coat] + [Black skinny jeans] + [Sandals or Booties]
And you’re off!
Hover above to shop everything in my bag.
Packing tips and techniques for organizing it all:
- Eliminate the non-essentials: Make your bed and lay everything you’re packing on it. Sort it by category (tops, bottoms, jewelry, toiletries, electronics, etc.) and take a hard look for duplicates, near-identical items, things you don’t really need to bring, and things you don’t really want to bring.
- Pack and roll neatly to save lots of space: Pack the heaviest, least-used items in the bottom of your bag, along with anything you don’t think you’ll use on the first couple days of your trip. Stuff your shoes and hats with smaller items like socks, scarves, and tee shirts. Stack a few of similarly-shaped clothes (tanks, pants, dresses) on top of one another, tuck in sleeves and fold in half, then roll the folded set into a bundled tube — this will keep your clothes compact and wrinkle free. Remember to place in-flight essentials near the top of your bag along with anything you’ll need to take out at airport security.
- Freezer bags are your best friends: Think like with like — pack similar items close to one another in clear, waterproof baggies. Stash your toiletries, electronics, a first aid kit, in-flight essentials, medicines, and any other ‘groups’ of items into separate liter and gallon freezer bags.It’s also a good idea to pack a few extra empty freezer bags or small trash bags to separate out dirty laundry. Plastic bags weigh virtually nothing and in a pinch, you can squeeze the air out of gallon Ziplocs and use them as light compression bags that free up extra space in your bag.
- Layer, layer, layer: Weather permitting, wear your bulkier clothes and heaviest shoes when you know you’ll be walking a lot with your carry-on in tow. It’s so much easier to wear all of that weight across your body than to keep it all on a shoulder. You’ll also save a few precious pounds of baggage — helpful if you’re boarding a budget airline with a strict weight limit.
- Take nothing precious, and get ready to adapt: I can’t say it enough: When in doubt, leave it out. Whittle away and you’ll be surprised how little you really need to have a great trip. It may also open your eyes to the kindness of the universe. A few years ago while I was staying in a small village in rural Africa, my lone pair of boots began to literally disintegrate from bush walks, sole and all. Our house manager sent them over to a nearby cobbler who had them repaired in an hour’s time. Spare yourself of keeping up with a heavy bag and you might even make a new friend along the way.
Update: I’m back from holiday… and still whittling down. Encouraged by the fact that my husband survived this entire trip living out of a SINGLE 21L backpack I’ve built a revised list. It crosses off a few more items and while keeping the absolute (and coziest) essentials that were well-used this trip (and will be joining me on the next one!):