the 12-piece travel wardrobe for spring

12-piece travel wardrobe capsule

Why a 12-piece travel wardrobe? I’ve found that for most types of leisure travel, this number of items will allow one to travel with carry-on luggage for 2-3 weeks, and be covered for almost all venues (barring fancy dress events like weddings). If you don’t mind checking luggage and/or prefer more variety, these 12 items* can still be the cohesive foundation to which you add more choices.

1st row: scarf | top | scarf
2nd row: sweater | shirt | top
3rd row: sweater (similar) | tee | cardigan | jacket (similar)
4th row: pants | jeans | skirt | jeans

In general, travel on the “shoulder seasons” (spring and fall) can mean dealing with widely varying weather conditions and temperatures, sometimes within a few hours! Our weather experiences traveling in Europe in the spring have ranged from cold, wet and blustery (40’s F) to unseasonably warm (100’s F). I rely on lightweight layers, and have built this travel wardrobe based upon the kinds and styles of pieces that I would pack. The items above are intended as examples and suggestions and as much as possible I’ve used pieces that are currently available. I’ve included a skirt here even though I usually no longer pack them, as I’ve learned from previous requests that many of you do. If you prefer dresses, you could also swap out for some of the pants/tops.

spring travel wardrobe Europe

Over the years, I’ve learned from trial and error what works and doesn’t. As always, let your preferences guide you, but I’ll share the thought process and my guidelines for selecting a travel wardrobe.

First, a few general strategies:

  • Knits are usually your best bets for travel. They’ll be comfortable when sitting for hours in transit, easy to layer, won’t need pressing, and often are easy to hand wash and line dry. I tend to stick to non-bulky and narrow cuts (NOT tight, though). They’ll layer more easily, and are easier to move around in. (If you’ve ever had a flapping sweater or billowing sleeve get caught in a turnstile, you know what I’m talking about. 😉 )
  • Fabrics that breathe will be more comfortable. Look for wool, cashmere, linen, viscose, tencel, rayon (though this can wrinkle), and blends that have a decent percentage of any of these. Cotton is comfortable, but can be heavy and take a long time to dry if you wash or get caught in a downpour. I tend to avoid high percentages of synthetics such as polyester, though your preferences and mileage may vary. Many synthetics have come a LONG way in the last decades, and I’d never say never. Weave and fabric quality may be as important as composition.
  • Think about wardrobe cohesion; you’ll want most tops to work with most bottoms (try everything on in as many combinations as you can think of), and the ability to layer the tops if needed for warmth. Two ways I achieve this are to build the base of the wardrobe around two neutrals (black and navy in this case) and stick to one silhouette (e.g. long-over-lean, fitted-over-flared, etc.).
  • I generally follow a 2-to-1 tops-to-bottoms ratio when planning a travel wardrobe. Some people do 3-to-1; it’s just a matter of what you’re most comfortable with.
  • For most venues, “smart casual” will be as dressed up as you need to be. Simple separates in neutral colors will look most polished. I always pack a lightweight jacket or structured cardigan; thrown on even over jeans and a tee it makes an outfit look pulled-together.
  • Use tops, scarves and accessories to add color. I try to go with no more than two or three coordinating colors in addition to my neutrals. Though it’s certainly simpler to build a wardrobe using only neutrals, when I’ve done that in the past I found myself craving a bit of bright, warm color and pattern, so have tried to work those in here.

travel wardrobe for Europe

Bottoms. 

  • I can’t rave enough about Eileen Fisher’s stretch crepe pants for travel. They are lightweight, comfortable in a wide range of temperatures, washable (and will usually dry overnight) and available in several styles and a few colors. I’ve shown the ankle length style above which I prefer once weather warms up, but they are also available in full-length and even wide leg styles. Especially in black, they can dress up sufficiently for an evening out at the theater or a nice restaurant.
  • For cooler conditions, the ponte knit pants are my top pick, either skinny (my faves) or straight leg.
  • In all but the hottest and most humid weather, I travel with at least one pair of jeans. It’s a matter of personal preference, but I live in them at home, and find them easy to style when traveling. I usually go with one each dark indigo wash and black, slim fit and not distressed.
  • I find darker bottoms are just more practical for travel as they are much less likely to show dirt. In warmer seasons, I’ll opt for looser cuts and lighter fabrics.The concept of “tabletop dressing” works well for travel too.
  • If you prefer skirts and dresses to pants, think about comfort and ease of movement. Again, knits are ideal, and you may need to factor in hosiery. I’ll address travel footwear in a separate post, but skirts add another dimension to those choices.

Tops. 

  • I’ll bring a range of light- to mid-weight pieces, with the idea that the tops will be able to layer as needed. If you’re anticipating some warmer days, a linen tee or two might be good choices. Linen is lighter than cotton, and will also dry much faster.
  • I’ll always bring one light- or mid-weight cashmere cardigan. Even in warmer months, it’s nice to have on the plane. I choose cardigans that can be zipped or buttoned closed; this allows them to be worn effectively as a mid-layer if needed. (I love no-close cardigans at home, but find they aren’t the best choice for travel.)
  • I bring a tunic length sweater and/or top to wear over the stretch crepe pants.
  • When mixing prints, remember that graphics (stripes, dots, gingham) mix with florals or animal prints. So when choosing printed tops I stick to graphic prints, and for scarves go with animal and floral prints, or solids. Again, it’s about maximizing what pieces can be worn together.
  • Knit jackets (non-bulky) are a great travel choice, but even a woven jacket in a tropical weight wool can be a workable option. Remember that you may need to layer that jacket under a raincoat or outerwear.
  • I’ve found that especially in warmer weather, a lightweight collared shirt helps me to feel a bit more polished with fewer layers. I usually travel with one in linen, but the one I’ve included at top is a soft crinkled cotton that doesn’t require ironing to look presentable (and it’s available in other colors as well).

(Shoes, bags, accessories and outerwear will be covered in separate posts.)

travel wardrobe outfit ideas

You’ll want to check average temperatures in advance when planning travel, then double-check the actual forecast at your destination right before you leave and make wardrobe adjustments as necessary.

Look for upcoming posts on footwear, luggage and more in the next few weeks. Do you have any specific travel or travel wardrobe questions you’d like for me to address? Any tips of your own to share? You can see all of my previous travel wardrobes here.

*When I calculate my 12 items, I’m not counting shoes, hosiery, underwear, accessories, outerwear, sleepwear or those pieces I refer to as “underpinnings” like the silk camisoles and tanks I wear most days as a base layer. Even so, I’m able to fit everything easily into my carry-on luggage.

Build your travel wardrobe…

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38 Comments

  1. March 28, 2016 / 6:38 am

    Thank you for this. I bought the two linen t-shirts and a floral scarf to round out my travel wardrobe. Looking forward to your other posts. I appreciate the help.~~Dee

  2. sybes1
    March 28, 2016 / 7:32 am

    Hi Susan! I always look forward to these postings and you have some really interesting choices this time. Thanks so much for sharing with us. I have a couple of questions: do your legs ever get cold in the EF crepe pants? I love them too but they aren’t as heavy as the ponte and so I wonder how they would do in the shoulder seasons in Europe. Also the cardigan: you like the button up cardigan but I notice that J Crew is only making a short button up cardi in cashmere right now–I find short cardis don’t work with the longer tops that I wear out now that I’m in my 60’s. Do you just look for longer button up cardis or do you tuck in your top layer? Thanks so much!

    • Susan B
      March 28, 2016 / 7:48 am

      Hi sybes1, I tend to run colder than most people, so would probably wear the ponte knit pants in temperatures below 18C/65F. Warmer than that, and I’d switch to the stretch crepe. Regarding the cardigan, mine is the one shown in the collages, which is a bit longer.

    • Maryann
      March 28, 2016 / 4:12 pm

      Hi sybes1, for a longer cardigan I often buy from the men’s department. Maryann

  3. Kelly
    March 28, 2016 / 7:57 am

    One travel packing tip I picked up from Mighty Girl (http://mightygirl.com/2009/07/20/packing-light-puerto-rico-edition/) a few years back is to bring pjs that can double as something else. While I don’t sleep in pjs at home, I do while traveling. I try to bring something that I can wear in the gym or as a pool cover-up – anything that can do double duty! And then dry quickly (if I bring gym tights – I’ll bring 2 pairs – wear the clean at night, to gym next day and then wash. Wear 2nd pair for evening, then gym the next day – and the 1st pair should be dry again)

    • March 28, 2016 / 10:17 am

      Great idea!

  4. March 28, 2016 / 10:15 am

    I’m going to use this (plus a sleep scarf) for packing for our move; one week before, one week on the road, and one week arrival! Thank you 🙂

  5. Kellee
    March 28, 2016 / 1:44 pm

    Great list – might be buying some of this for my trip to China in May. Question for you about the Dansko sandals – are the comfortable for a lot of walking and how long did they take to break in? I love the clogs, but too heavy for travel. Do they cut across your toes?

    Really want those red one!

    • Kelly
      March 28, 2016 / 5:00 pm

      I have the Dansko Elena -several years old, not sure if they make this model anymore -it is the most comfortable sandal I’ve ever owned. I can walk for miles in them – they are my favorite travel sandal for warm weather! I have another style – the Caroline – that is comfortable but the strap does cut in just a little – the leather is more stiff than on the Elena.

      • Kellee
        April 2, 2016 / 7:28 am

        Kelly – thanks so much for your response! I think a pair are in order – Kellee

    • March 29, 2016 / 12:34 pm

      I love those red Dansko sandals – but I’ll try to buy them in a shop, as I’m hard to fit and have “good” sandals that hurt my feet.

      Glad that you included a skirt! My travel wardrobe is the opposite – at least two skirts and one pair of black trousers. There is no work I do that requires sheer stockings, but I could pick them up if I needed them.

    • Susan B
      April 2, 2016 / 10:55 am

      Kellee, I haven’t tried this particular style of Dansko sandals, but have a pair on a similar sole that I find very comfortable. I included these because they have an adjustable strap over the toes as well as ankles, a nice feature for a travel sandal in case feet swell over the day.

  6. Debv
    March 28, 2016 / 7:55 pm

    We went on a “Travel Light” road trip to California a couple of years ago. I took my favourite silver runners and bought a pair of FLY sandals– the FLYS were the most comfortable shoe I have ever worn! I have MILES on them and bought another pair last year. Ditched the hot runners for that trip! The FLYs are dressy casual and go with everything!

  7. Julie davidon
    March 29, 2016 / 12:48 am

    Hello. Came across your blog yesterday and immediately subscribed. I am travelling to California May 8th for two week road trip and want to get my travel wardrobe right! Do you have any tips which will take account of the varying weather, I haven’t been to California so I am unsure what to pack, we will be doing lots of sightseeing, cities, coast, wine region etc, so quite a challenge, I always seem to pack too much and the wrong clothes. Thanks in advance, Julie

    • Susan B
      March 29, 2016 / 5:26 am

      Hi Julie, it REALLY depends on where in California you will be, as the state boasts several different climates! 😉 In May you should expect everything from cool with even an occasional rain shower to sunny and sometimes quite warm. On the coast, even if the day is warm evenings can be very cool. As with all of my travel wardrobes, I’d recommend lightweight layers, and include a warm sweater or two. Denim is always appropriate. Comfortable shoes for walking and touring wineries, at least one pair of sandals. Nothing too formal is necessary. Here’s a travel wardrobe I put together based on a Labor Day weekend in Los Angeles, and many of the tips here could also work for May: https://unefemme.net/2015/08/travel-wardrobe-with-skirts.html

      • Julie davidon
        March 29, 2016 / 9:30 am

        Thank you for your prompt reply, I will start working on my holiday wardrobe shortly and having read more ‘posts’ will start with the shoes, looking to buy the Fly sandals recommended, anticipate lots of walking. Best wishes. Julie

  8. Donna
    March 29, 2016 / 2:52 am

    We’re traveling to London mid September for 8 days. I’m thrilled to have this post: I think it’s perfect! I’ll add a couple of linen tees, as you suggest, and a lightweight raincoat. I always over pack, tending to add “one more thing, just in case.” For 8 days, would you eliminate anything? Perhaps 1 bottom and a couple of tops? We’re getting ourselves from the airport into city center via train/tube. Thanks!

  9. March 29, 2016 / 5:18 am

    About dark bottoms: the past several years of trips home involved putting a wheelchair in and out of the trunk of the car for my dad. With siblings living on gravel roads, the bumper would always be covered with white dust–and my clean black capris would look terrible. I finally learned and took nothing but khaki bottoms to camouflage the dust.
    The new trend of wearing sports shoes is a blessing for travel. Even the chic French ladies do it. But watch your styles. They aren’t wearing running shoes.

  10. sandypatti
    March 29, 2016 / 5:45 am

    I love these posts – this is similar to the capsule I take to NYC for a week, and I have never been caught short of something to wear (and there are, ahem, places to shop in Paris and NYC) : >

    -Patti
    http://notdeadyetstyle.com

    • March 31, 2016 / 10:17 pm

      Sandypatti,
      I’m going to NYC for the first time in mid-April and have been worrying about what to pack. I live in New Orleans where we’re in shorts and tees now. I’m wondering if I’ll need to take a coat?
      This post is a great help,so glad I found it!

  11. Adrienne
    March 29, 2016 / 7:36 am

    Just in time! Leaving for a conference in Utah and was confused as to what shoes to take. The weather can be from cold, snowy to very warm in the high 60’s. So, because it is Spring, I wanted a pair of sandals that can also be worn with a black suit. I purchased a pair of Dansko sandals called Debby. It is black and brown with a chunky heel, perfect. Also taking a pair of black aquataila short black boots and black Brook athletic shoes. Brown is a better base
    color for me, but black is sometimes just easier. I just incorporate brown and warm colors and don’t wear black by my face. Gold jewelry and scarfs also help. Still struggling with limiting my tops. Working on that!

  12. Jenniferanne
    March 29, 2016 / 7:45 am

    Love your travel wardrobe posts and found them so helpful for our European trip. This coming Thursday we are off to Spain for 3 weeks. It will be warmer than England or Paris last year, especially southern Spain, so comfortable sandals are a must as well as my mephisito metallic laced shoes. Then I’ll need something dressier! Shoes – always my biggest problem when going carry on. I like to throw in some flip flops too for the hotel room. My lipault suitcase lies open as I type this as every day according to weather forecasts I’m switching this for that!

  13. March 29, 2016 / 8:17 am

    I totally agree about the Eileen Fisher crepe pants! They’re the very best, easiest and most versatile for travel. Great roundup Susan.

  14. Donna
    March 29, 2016 / 10:30 am

    I always appreciate your travel wardrobe posts, but especially this one — providing sources, some background on WHY you chose the item, PLUS showing potential outfits along with accessories that bring them to life. You rock. Thanks.

  15. Roseanne Colleran
    March 29, 2016 / 12:39 pm

    The last few years traveling with straight leg pants made shoe selection quite easy. Now I am seeing a lot of wide leg pants. Everlane suggests hemming their wide leg pants at the ankles. That would accommodate either heels or flats. But is a wide leg pant hemmed at the ankles the best look for a curvy gal? Especially if the pants are worn with flats. Any thoughts?

  16. Nanci
    March 29, 2016 / 1:35 pm

    Thank you for this great post! In warmer weather I wear a dark denim pencil skirt which is cooler than pants, especially the lightweight denim fabrics. I like it because it has pockets and goes with absolutely everything. If it is chilly I can start the day with leggings and remove them easily when it warms up.

  17. roxannesteed
    March 29, 2016 / 8:28 pm

    I’d love to know more about the ‘Mary Jane pumps’? That’s a nice heel height…that looks comfortable – yet just dressy enough!

  18. Pamela
    March 30, 2016 / 4:23 am

    We always wear natural fibres when flying – and we fly long haul fairly frequently. In the event of a crash landing and fire they maximise your prospects of getting out without severe burns. We all hope never to be in this situation but I’ve had colleagues who were. They shared dreadful stories about people wearing synthetics that flamed easily or hot melted into the skin. Wearing jeans or pants that are heavy on cotton with just a hint of spandex (or some other form of elastic for comfort), woollen knitted jackets over cotton or linen shirts and leather shoes are safer and can be very comfortable. Have come very close to an emergency evacuation when a plane we were on once had to abort take-off at the last possible moment (because of catastrophic engine failure) and with the brakes full on we skidded like mad along the runway and finally along a side runway. It terrified everyone – but luckily the wonderful pilots were able to bring the plane under control and to a safe stop, miles from the terminal buildings. Nowadays planes are so much better designed so that in the dreadful event of a crash landing many passengers can escape – but sometimes there are fires. So it pays to be prepared just in case. Best wishes, Pammie

    • Susan
      March 30, 2016 / 4:57 am

      I had to laugh at your comment as we are simpatico. I was in the Airforce for many years and it was mandatory to wear lace up shoes or boots (for situations you described) when travelling in RAAF aircraft. I cringe when I see passengers board civvie aircraft wearing flip flops and sandals as they are hazardous in an emergency situation. Safety issues aside, I love how Susan put her stylish outfits together, unlike magazines articles on ‘what to take on holiday’ which feaure a random group of clothes.

  19. Pamela
    March 30, 2016 / 4:20 pm

    So agree with all you’ve said, Susan. Yes, hadn’t mentioned that our in-flight shoes are always lace-up leather (as you’d be aware, lace-ups are also good as you can loosen laces if feet swell a bit, as often they do long haul). Remember once years ago wearing regular leather shoes with low heels on flights going from Canberra to Copenhagen (refuelling in Singapore and changing planes at Heathrow) – travelling for around 30 plus hours straight (incl. time on ground) – took my shoes off on board and wore airline slippers. Nearly impossible to get shoes back on at end – hobbled through disembarkation/arrival in dreadful discomfort. Learned my lesson, have never done it since.

    Often see heaps of young people boarding long haul wearing shorts and flipflops. As well as putting them at higher risk in event of a fire it could get really uncomfortable as often those planes have quite low temperatures and even with a rug it must be chilly. Agree, it is cringeworthy to see how ill-prepared they are and how poorly dressed. Even in lace-ups and jeans it’s possible to still aim at being stylishly dressed for travel -as Susan shows a good silk scarf can work wonders, along with a real pashmina (not synthetic) and a stylish cross body leather bag. Once travelled to Darwin for work with my boss and two junior guys. My boss and I were both wearing stylish work clothes (a suit and a pants suit with the mandatory silk scarf) but the two young guys turned up in shorts and unsuitable footwear. My boss was appalled and tore shreds off these guys – he refused to acknowledge their presence after that and refused to travel in the same vehicle from the airport to our hotel. He just didn’t want to be seen with them and I don’t blame him. I’d bet they’d never have done it again.
    Once joined a group of Americans in London on small tour. The Americans kept complaining about how jetlagged and tired they were. One of the Aussies asked them how long they’d travelled. Mostly it was around 6-8-10 hours. We told them the minimum time we’d spent travelling was around 22 hours. Yet none of us were complaining. We just accept it as the price we pay for living in Oz and having privilege of visiting long haul destinations. Trained my grand daughters too. When they say long haul flights are worst thing about travel I always agree but then say, but we’re Aussies, we’re tough, we can do it – and we don’t complain.
    Best wishes, Pammie

  20. April 4, 2016 / 2:51 pm

    I’d include at least one cashmere or ribbed woollen turtleneck sweater as well as two or three skivvies ( that’s the T-shirt version of a turtleneck, btw 🙂 ) to the list, depending how quickly the weather had warmed up.

  21. Janice Baggett
    April 20, 2016 / 9:55 am

    Hi, Susan, I am new to your blog–love it! Have you previously posted your method of packing your carry-on bag?

  22. Dana Perry
    May 20, 2016 / 3:03 am

    Just got back from a 10 day trip to Spain (mostly) following your advice. I still packed too much and wish I had held myself to the 12 pieces. I agree with using Eileen Fisher pieces for travel and also with using black as the base for pants and skirts. I took one of the long Eileen Fisher black sleeveless long dresses and was able to layer over that for an easy daytime look or dressed up a bit for dinner. 3 pair of shoes, including the ones I wore on the plane, was plenty. In general, also wanted to thank you for the blog. I read it regularly and really enjoy it!

    • Susan B
      May 20, 2016 / 5:14 am

      Hi Dana, thanks so much, and I’m glad the travel wardrobe suggestions were helpful for you!

  23. May 23, 2016 / 7:26 am

    Hi Susan, did you already do a post on the shoes, bags, accessories and outerwear? I’m really interested in that one too! Thanks so much for this post. Super helpful!

  24. Nancy S
    October 14, 2016 / 6:50 pm

    Hi Susan,
    I really enjoy your blog and all the armchair traveling I’m able to do “with” you. 🙂 In May of 2017, we have planned a 2.5 week trip to England and Scotland, which I am very excited about. I really hope to do carry on only on this trip on the way there, with a folded duffle bag on standby so I can check the suitcase on the way home and bring the inevitable souvenirs on board in the duffle. I am already trying to plan what to take, and would love to have your suggestions given that you’ve traveled to Europe many more times than I. Keep up the great work online and thank you in advance.

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