The Savvy Traveler: 5 Wardrobe Shopping Tips

5 tips for a travel-friendly wardrobe

When le Monsieur and I began traveling overseas ten years ago, I was clueless about how to pack. I overpacked, I brought lots of  bulky “just-in-case” pieces that were never worn, and realized after our first couple of trips to Europe that I’d worn most of the same few things over and over.

Over time I’ve learned to pack more successfully (up to 3 weeks in a carry-on) and have not invested in a separate travel wardrobe.* When it’s time to pack, I pull from tried-and-true pieces I’d normally wear at home. First, it makes putting outfits together easier; I know what goes with what. Second, travel can be a disorienting experience. I find that wearing familiar, comfortable clothing helps me feel more like “myself” when I’m away from familiar surroundings.

So when I shop for my everyday wardrobe, I keep packing in mind. Not everything I purchase is intended for travel, but I’ve learned to prioritize travel-friendly features, especially with regard to my core basis.

Shown Above

Top row: top (similar) | blouse | scarf | trench
Second row: sweater | tee (similar)
Third row: pants | jeans (similar)
Bottom: sandals | boots | mary-janes | sneakers

5 Tips For A Travel-Friendly Wardrobe

  • Start with the shoes. Do you have a pair of shoes in your wardrobe that are comfortable enough to walk in for hours, and that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear to meet friends for lunch? If not, that should be your top priority. To keep my luggage light, I prefer styles that can go from sightseeing to dinner. I like ankle boots for all but the warmest conditions, but loafers, Mary-Janes, brogues, or even a sleek sneaker will work. Some don’t like to travel with sandals, but in hot weather I’ll opt for a supportive and well-fitting sleek pair of sandals. No matter the type of footwear, be sure there’s enough padding in the sole for comfort on a variety of surfaces. Chances are you won’t need anything formal for most leisure travel, but if you do a pair of low-heeled pumps should cover it.
  • Master the basics. I build my travel wardrobes around a core of basic pieces that can be dressed up or down, and re-mixed in multiple combinations. I find separates provide the most versatility, as long as most of the tops go with most of the bottoms. I’ve found that neutrals (black/navy/grey/white/taupe/brown) work best for the core. The goal is cohesion; you want pieces that work well together in multiple combinations. Don’t worry, you can add color accents to this foundation, and/or dresses if you prefer.
  • Think lightweight layers, and Ban the Bulk. Temperatures in any destination can fluctuate, and being able to easily add or remove layers is key to staying comfortable. Bulky, heavy pieces will not only be more difficult to layer, but will take up more space in your luggage and add to its weight as well. If you’ve ever had to shlep around a heavy coat for several hours while sightseeing because a chilly morning gave way to a sweltering afternoon, you’ll understand.
  • Be selective about fabrics. In addition to light weight, look for fabrics that breathe, are washable, resist wrinkling and aren’t too delicate. I’m a big fan of knits for travel. I love silk jersey for base and mid-layers. (Good quality silk is actually very durable.) Merino wool handles temperature fluctuations well and doesn’t absorb odors. Linen jersey is a good option for warm weather travel. Cotton can be light and breathable, but can take longer to dry when wet. Modal is a soft, breathable fabric that lends itself well to tees and tops, and will dry more quickly than cotton. If you’re going to travel with denim, some of the modern fabrics that blend cotton with rayon, tencel and even polyester will be lighter and dry faster.
  • Focus on Fit and Function. I find the best travel clothes are cut fairly close to the body, but with ease. You want to be comfortable and able to move, but don’t want a lot of extra fabric flapping around. Again, this is where knits often perform best. Pieces that can layer over or under other pieces, or do double-duty (e.g. a cardigan that can be worn open as a top layer or buttoned as a mid-layer) will help you get more from your travel wardrobe.

*For those whose travel includes activities like mountaineering, horseback riding, kayaking, etc., of course you may need to bring special clothing or equipment that’s not part of your daily wear.

What are your favorite pieces for travel?

You can check out all of my recent travel wardrobes HERE. And check out more travel-friendly wardrobe picks HERE.

Let’s Pack…

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32 Comments

  1. February 21, 2017 / 4:28 am

    You have a versatile wardrobe here. While you might get tired of wearing the same few things over and over, nobody else is going to notice–you’ll be seeing new people all the time. All the more reason to focus on quality over quantity.

  2. February 21, 2017 / 4:33 am

    You have taught me so much about comfortable travel and what to wear. Thank you.

  3. Rose
    February 21, 2017 / 4:33 am

    What happened to the Eileen Fisher cap sleeve, scoop neck T? The cream and black were perfect on their own and exceptional as a base layer. A few months ago I searched online to replace the cream, but apparently EF does not make them anymore. Any suggestions on entering a plea with the company to resume production?

    • Susan B
      February 21, 2017 / 6:31 am

      Rose, I love them too. I think they tend to bring them back later in the spring. But I’ll check with my local store to see what they know.

  4. Debra
    February 21, 2017 / 5:04 am

    I’ve seen your Aquatalia ankle boots in multiple posts and finally bought my own pair. I love them! Comfortable out of the box and so easy to walk in; mine have Vibram on the toe and heel area which gives a lot of padding. I wore them to teach in yesterday and didn’t think about my feet at all, which is my gold standard for comfort. I will be taking them to Paris next month. Thanks for the tip!

  5. Betsy
    February 21, 2017 / 5:09 am

    Two of my travel musts are my Mycra Pak jacket and black San Miguel sandals, depending on the season.

  6. Nan
    February 21, 2017 / 6:44 am

    This is so helpful, thank you, as your blog always is. Now, what about le Monsieur’s packing? My poor hubby relies so heavily on denim jeans for everyday wear, but denim takes forever to dry after rain. And men’s footwear is extra heavy and bulky. Could you do a post on that, please, or point us to any good men’s blogs? Thanking you in advance!

    • February 21, 2017 / 10:09 am

      Do a search for “travel jeans”, which will be in a lighter fabric or one that is a blend of cotton and other fibres that dry more quickly. I’m more familiar for jeans for cycling or other physical activities, but they have much the same qualities. The first one for men I turned up was a firm from pseu’s town, L.A. https://aviatorusa.com/collections/men but I know nothing about that company. You could also try a travel or outdoor shop. They will probably be more expensive than normal jeans, but you might need only one pair. If a man or woman lives in jeans, he or she will not be happy without them. I take one pair of lightweight black jeans (easier to find for women, I think) but I also wear skirts a lot, with tights or leggings in cold weather.

    • Anonymous
      February 22, 2017 / 4:28 am

      Try khaki pants (you can get a darker color, like black, too if it is winter) and a light pair of driving moccasins or deck shoes. However, there is not too much you can do if your pants and shoes get wet period, male or female. It is best to try to avoid getting too wet in the first place. A longer rain jacket, a pair of rain shoes, and indoor activities, like museums, should help. I always carry an umbrella in my handbag and I bring rain shoes if the forecast says it is going to rain at my destination. I made the mistake once of not bringing rain shoes and it started pouring while I was walking around Krakow, Poland. Needless to say my driving moccasins were soaked through, I was freezing, and it took days for my shoes and jeans to dry out.

  7. February 21, 2017 / 8:30 am

    These are perfect tips for travel. You have mastered the art of travel packing and looking chic when you get there!

  8. marsha calhoun
    February 21, 2017 / 8:47 am

    I love having your wisdom distilled so neatly here! And as I am traveling more often these days, I am encouraged to emulate your strategies (three weeks in a carryon – what a goal!). Thank you.

  9. Ann
    February 21, 2017 / 9:59 am

    Susan, thanks for this post and the links to your other travel packing posts. I second the motion made earlier (by Nan) about packing for the men we love and travel with. Admittedly, I still overpack more than he does. But he’s a big guy. And yes, his Farragamos are heavy!

  10. Pam
    February 21, 2017 / 10:42 am

    Susan, I’m not used to long periods of travel, but this year, I’m going to Japan for 2-3 months (August – October timeframe) and will be staying at my daughter’s home on the naval base south of Tokyo. Remembering that you toured Japan in the recent past, I went to your archives and read both of your Japan posts related to packing/ recap. Both were very helpful, especially since you traveled there during the warm part of the year. My question is – if you were to have a months long stay in Japan that time of year, if you were not constrained by luggage size (or carryon requirements), and had a washer/dryer to use, are there components of your travel wardrobe that you’d expand?

    • Susan B
      February 21, 2017 / 3:39 pm

      Hi Pam, if I knew I’d have access to laundry facilities, I’d probably pack a few more woven shirts in linen and lightweight cotton, and some linen or tencel pants.

  11. February 21, 2017 / 10:52 am

    Well, here is a third vote for a “male traveler packing” post. Everything DH purchases is heavy because it will “wear forever”, but he’s willing to look at some options for our trip to London/Edinburgh this summer.

    • Susan B
      February 21, 2017 / 3:45 pm

      While I have not yet convinced le Monsieur to go the carry-on route, I have helped him whittle down his packing quite a bit. Here’s a post I did a few years ago: https://unefemme.net/2014/05/pour-les-hommes-2.html I’ll work on an updated version over the next few weeks.

  12. February 21, 2017 / 3:28 pm

    So useful, Susan. I have learned over time that for sightseeing hols I eat during the day and only return to the hotel to sleep or relax, so don’t change for dinner and just wear one outfit each day. I pack slip off footwear or thick socks for travel and hotel lounging.

  13. February 21, 2017 / 3:46 pm

    Lots of very helpful tips.
    I haven’t quite got the knack of travelling for a month through several climate zones with only carry on but, I am working on it!
    I have a lovely linen cardigan which is great for travelling with and also a light wool blazer which I can use to a lot. Layering is definitely the key. .
    Our frequent trips to Bali ftom Oz are a doddle with hand luggage as sarongs, bathers and sandals are about all we need

  14. Maryann
    February 21, 2017 / 6:45 pm

    The one thing I always pack in my hand luggage is my cashmere wrap. It is great on the plane as a blanket then I can use it as a wrap or a scarf as needed. I don’t travel carry on although my bag is small enough it always weighs too much. I find it simpler to put it in the hold. I generally travel Sydney to London direct so once I am through immigration the luggage is ready.

  15. DebraK
    February 21, 2017 / 7:22 pm

    Chico’s also has a collection of travel clothes that work well, especially the pants.

    • Susan B
      February 21, 2017 / 7:22 pm

      Yes, I’ve included some of those in the widget at the bottom of the post. 🙂

  16. Angela
    February 21, 2017 / 7:51 pm

    With a newly retired monsieur of my own, your travel wardrobe tips are proving to be invaluable and with SusanAfter60 also giving me great clear out ideas, I think I’ve finally nailed it!

  17. Anonymous
    February 21, 2017 / 7:53 pm

    As an experienced southern hemisphere traveller of many years (I also used to travel long haul for work), to travel long haul I always wear:

    1. Jeans in dark navy or black, with the fabric mix mostly heavyish cotton with a bit of synthetic for stretch – the safest leg covering (or wool pants) when flying in the event of a crash/accident (yes, nowadays it is possible for passengers to survive some crashlandings as plane interiors have been redesigned for improved chances, but sometimes there’s fire to get through and synthetic materials flame or melt into the leg, neither scenario is good. A colleague was in this situation in a terrible crashlanding in Asia and I’ve learned from that.) It may not be pleasant to think of crashes – but they do happen and it’s important to face up to this and be as prepared as possible. Have once been in a situation myself on a plane that had catastrophic engine failure just before take-off. We all survived thanks to a brilliant pilot.
    2. Smartest possible comfortable black leather sneakers – again both for comfort and safety reasons in event of a crash or the need to evacuate in an emergency. Then great for walking over cobblestones and all day sight seeing marathons.
    3. A white long sleeved cotton shirt.
    4. A knitted jacket/cardigan in wool/mohair, maybe a black background with colours. This can be taken off and wrapped around waist or stuffed in a light weight bag I keep for the purpose in my carry-on when landing for refuelling in a tropical Asian city like Singapore or Bangkok) – it’s always late autumn when we fly north from the southern hemisphere and can be chilly when we leave – and when we arrive back months later it’s winter and early morning – always quite cold. The wool/mohair doesn’t crush and can be very useful if you run into a cool spring/early summer in Paris or elsewhere.
    5. A ribbed knitted cotton tank top over the shirt, if it’s a bit chilly on the plane but not cool enough for the jacket.
    6. A silk scarf and some jewellery.
    7. A pashmina in my carry-on. But I don’t wear it on the plane during the flight as I prefer the blanket they give in Business Class as it also protects against drink or food spills during any turbulence.

    I don’t attempt to wash the jeans myself except when we’re staying in an apartment with washing machine in Paris. Instead I give them to the hotel laundry service. Not exactly cheap – but we budget for it. Husband does the same.

    Best wishes, Pamela

  18. Lynn
    February 22, 2017 / 7:09 am

    This is almost identical to my travel wardrobe, although I would swop the sweater for a cardigan, the trousers for a skirt or dress, and add a scarf, necklaces, and maybe a jacket.

  19. stylecrone
    February 22, 2017 / 7:40 am

    Great packing advise! I will have to bookmark your post. I get into trouble with the hats, but I do have my strategies!

  20. February 22, 2017 / 4:31 pm

    Excellent post! It’s so true though–as you become a more seasoned traveler, you really pare down on the clothing. We will be returning to France in June and I’ll definitely be able to throw everything in a carry on because my wardrobe will be minimal!!!!

  21. February 22, 2017 / 6:46 pm

    As always, a great selection. Shoes like that don’t work for me so I stick to my oxfords and patent leather loafers for warmer weather. I always enjoy seeing your travel collections!

  22. Sarah
    February 22, 2017 / 9:32 pm

    Hi, Susan! Could you please show stylish ways to wear Mary Jane’s? They are generally so comfortable, but they always look so frumpy to me!

  23. Vicki
    February 23, 2017 / 2:09 am

    Susan, I can honestly say that since subscribing and reading your blogs – my travel packing has greatly improved. I have my travel packing nearly ‘down pat’ and am more discriminating with my clothes choices at my destination. I usually arrange my holidays at least twelve (12) months in advance so I ‘research’ my destination(s) well ahead so I have a good idea of what to pack. I don’t subscribe to ‘carry on’ luggage as I find this type of packing ‘invasive’ to others space in aircraft cabin overhead bins – My personal opinion.
    I have a 52 kg travel allowance and I have a suitcase weighing 14kgs (on trip average) for 1 person for 3 weeks and a handbag. I am required to place my handbag in an overhead bin which is full of other people’s carry on luggage.
    Just saying!

  24. February 24, 2017 / 9:56 am

    I’m one of those people that always includes outdoor activities on my trips. That’s why my absolute favorite pants are the Royal Robbins Discovery Pencil Pants. I can get them totally muddy hiking, wear them into the shower, and then wear them the next day to a dress dinner. I have the pants in khaki, navy, and black. I’m a very curvy person (tiny waist) and these are very flattering. I do have to get the waist altered to fit me, but I’m thrilled with the result.

  25. Marcia
    April 16, 2017 / 12:46 pm

    I’m going to Prague for 6 days and am considering taking only 2 pairs of shoes. Both are great walking shoes. Do you think I’ll regret not taking more? I am doing a carry-on bag only so space is limited.

    • Susan B
      April 16, 2017 / 1:10 pm

      Hi Marcia, if the shoes will cover you for the weather and the activities you have planned, there’s no need to take more. If there’s a lot of rain in the forecast, you may want to be sure one of the pairs is weatherproof, or use a weatherproofing spray before you go. Have a wonderful trip!!

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