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How to pack light: 2 weeks in Europe with a carry-on bag + printable packing list

How-to-pack-light-for-holiday-in-Europe---Step-by-step-guide-for-women---with-printable-packing-list

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.

How light?

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…

Complete Europe Womens Packing List - Packing Light In One Carry On Bag For Two Three Weeks Vacation Holiday

Tap for the printable packing list PDF. There’s also a super lightweight version at bottom of this post!

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:

Packing-light-tips-for-backpacking-summer-vacation-europe-women

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.

How-to-pack-for-two-weeks-vacation-in-a-single-duffel-bag-carry-on-hand-luggage---be-sure-to-check-the-weather

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.

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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.

Wondering what else is in my wardrobe?
Here’s a complete inventory of my closet and this is how I clean it out!

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.

Printable Packing List — Grab the PDF here!


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!):

Packing 2.0: Ultralight Printable Packing List

How To Pack Light Revisited Ultra Light Comfortable Packing List for Europe Vacation

Travel diaries from this trip:
Galway, Ireland | Killarney & Dingle, Ireland

Islay, Scotland | Edinburgh, Scotland
My Camera Kit

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  • Caroline Shyu

    This post is so handy! Brian and I have been thinking about doing a Europe trip (but that might be put on hold for a bit because of the house), this will be super helpful when it comes time to pack!

  • This is a great post! I’m always looking to downsize my packing, and have definitely gotten better over the years. I like your formula for # of outfits to days/activities- thanks for sharing!

  • CSB

    Hi! Beautiful blog and your fit details are always so helpful — can you give some please for the Grana joggers? I’ve been eyeing them too. What size did you get? How tight are they (any risk of panty lines?) and where do they hit on your leg? (Do they reach your ankles?) Thank you!

  • Sure! I ordered the XS Grana pima joggers and they fit like a dream. I’m 5’8″, 125 lbs, 32x34x32 with athletic frame and typically wear a US 2-4 pant, 27 jeans, and small or xs shorts/stretch pants. They are slim fit but are not super tight in any spots on me, and the fabric is nice and thick so no panty lines on me (Grana’s new seamless panties are also really nice! I got smalls for those). The joggers do reach right at my ankles – perfect for me as I hate croppy capris and don’t like bunching up joggers that are too long. Hope this helps!

  • Of course 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Ohhh Chad and I have a ton of recs when you’re ready to start planning. So excited you’ll be back in the A soon!

  • CSB

    Thanks so much!

  • kmckeed

    Hi! I’m a new reader. Really enjoying your blog. Starting the process of minimal & ethical wardrobe. I like the idea of silk basics but not the dry cleaning bill. You mention hand washing clothes in the shower–will you do that with your silk? Do some companies have silk that holds up to hand washing better than others? Thanks for any thoughts!

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  • This is a FANTASTIC post! I’m definitely bookmarking it for later this summer has I have a 3 week vacation planned to Portugal, the Greek Islands, and Budapest. This will totally help me stay organized! Thanks for the tips Jess!

  • Of course, and have SO much fun in Portugal, Greece, and Budapest. Can’t wait to see photos when you return.

  • Same! I used to dry clean all of my silks and have since gotten much better about just handwashing in the sink or on delicate cycle in the wash with a little laundry detergent, then I let them air dry on a bedspread. If they’re wrinkled I hit them with this little steamer: https://bit.ly/1U9TpQW (sidenote: the first one I received sometimes spat out water as it steamed – I emailed the seller and they immediately sent a new one which is still working well a year in).

    I do have a few vintage silk tops that I still get dry cleaned as they are more delicate than my other tanks, but find that any thicker new silk top is easy to handwash. I am loving Grana tops as they are nice and thick with a bit of a sueded silk hand feel, so they don’t wrinkle as easily as thinner tops or Habotai silk. They’re also super affordable and ethically made in Hong Kong. The sizing on their website is super helpful, too. I got XS tanks and they fit really well. Everlane is another great source for great silk!

    For washing on trips, I can wear a silk tank at least 5 times before it needs a wash (so long as I give it a day to breathe between wears and it’s not boiling hot out), so most trips I just wait til I get home to wash. If something catches a stain or starts to smell, I take it in the shower and gently wash it with my Dr. Bronner’s or the hotel’s shampoo – the trick is to make sure not to wad everything up else it will crease badly. Then I rinse thoroughly and gently twist it lengthwise to wring out dripping water. Then I lay the top on a hotel towel, smooth out wrinkles, and roll the top and towel up lengthwise into a burrito so that the towel soaks up any extra water. Unroll it and put it on a hanger or dry towel and it will be dry by morning!

  • kmckeed

    Thank you!! This is so, so helpful & just the info I needed to feel comfortable ordering a silk tank.

  • Elena Holl

    That post is just awesome!!! I am the badest packer ever and always forgot the half of the things I want to put into my lugage, haha!
    XO from Germany 🙂
    Elena
    ________________________________
    https://saintjeans.de/

  • Great system for packing for some very different occasions and locales. Thanks for the amazing packing lists. I’m a sucker for a good printable list 🙂 And lovely picks. That alpaca sweater looks delicious.

  • Jaime Clark

    Fantastic packing lists, thank you!