3 Weeks in a Carry-On: Travel Wardrobe Planning

3 week travel wardrobe for Europe
top: core capsule | bottom: outerwear and accessories
see below for links to items

We’re now just a little over five weeks away from our departure, and I’ve begun to mentally assemble my travel wardrobe. I start this process early because a) it’s fun and b) it allows me time to make sure the pieces I’m considering are in good shape or replace any that aren’t and fill any potential gaps. I also will try on these pieces in as many combinations as I can to be sure they work in cohesive way. This is going to one of my most challenging carry-on travel wardrobes yet, not only due to the length of our trip, but also the various destinations and weather conditions we may encounter. We’re starting off with a few days in Amsterdam, then London for a couple of days, then south to Bordeaux, then yes, bien sur to Paris. Looking at average monthly weather for each of these cities, we could encounter temperatures anywhere from the low 50’s F to low 80’s F on this trip. Scheduled activities so far include bike tours, winery tours and tastings, theater, museum exhibits and the usual on-foot sightseeing.

Another challenge (one I’ve set for myself) is building a cohesive capsule that relies less on black and incorporates more light neutrals and color. 😉

Top image

Row 1, L to R: tee (similar) | tee (similar) | sweater (similar)| top (similar)
Row 2 L to R: jacket (similar) | tee (similar)| sweater | skirt
Row 3 L to R: top (similar) | pants | jeans (similar) | pants (similar)
Shoes: sandals | wedges (similar) | sneakers (similar)

Bottom image

Top: jacket (similar) | earrings (similar) | bag | bracelet (similar) | sunglasses (similar) | necklace (similar) | scarf (similar)
Bottom: scarf (similar) | necklace (more pre-owned Chanel necklaces here) | bag | jacket (similar)

A note about items shown: some are pieces I own, others are similar. I’ve tried to use items for these sets that are currently available, but in some cases I’ve linked to similar items.

The top set is representative of the types of pieces I’d choose for my 12-item core travel wardrobe. As we get close to our travel date and I can gauge at least the first several days’ weather, I may make some adjustments. I’ve selected pieces that are lightweight and can layer well, and as many as possible that can be hand washed and line-dried. I’m also leaving room for 3-4 “wild card” pieces that I’ll choose a few days before we leave. I’ll use at least some of my wild cards to add more color, texture and/or pattern to the mix.

Weather forecasts may also shift my shoe choices. I usually advise against bringing heels or very dressy shoes, but some evening activities we’ve planned may call for dressing up a bit, and those wedges are low enough for comfort if we need to walk to and from. I may also bend another of my own guidelines and include a more weather-resistant 4th pair if sustained rain or a cold snap looks likely.

The bottom set includes outerwear and accessories. Again, these may shift with the weather forecast and as I adjust my core items. I’ve learned not to pack a lot of jewelry, as I tend to wear the same few pieces over and over. Scarves are a great way to add color and pattern. I’ll be sure that my scarves coordinate well with my core and wild card pieces. I also tend to purchase scarves as souvenirs along the way.

As Lisa would say, let’s look at a couple of “use case” scenarios:

3 week travel wardrobe Amsterdam

3 week travel wardrobe London
try this top with a knit pencil skirt…instant LBD!

Once I’ve settled on my final travel wardrobe I’ll do the usual Polyvore on the Floor and share what made the cut. In the meantime, if you have any travel planned or need some ideas, I’ve collected some favorite travel wardrobe pieces at my SHOP page.

Is there travel in your future that’s made wardrobe planning a challenge?


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  1. Pseu – Your timing on this is perfect. We are relocating from Europe back to the U.S. this summer and will be living out of suitcases for 2 months. I can check a bag, but need clothes for work and play that all work together. This has given me some great ideas to start planning my capsule before the movers come in mid-May. Thanks!

  2. Oooh how exciting! Everything looks just perfect here but I understand how you may need to make adjustments nearer the time. The black top and skirt idea for an instant LBD is great! I usually end with a LWD 🙂 I know you’ll succeed fabulously!
    For us, the major packing challenge will be at the end of this year when we plan to be away somewhere very warm but going from a very cold/wet UK climate. We never usually travel during the cold months for the simple fact of dealing with extremes of temperatures. It will not be a beach only activity either and for 2 weeks so I feel like I have to star from scratch to think/plan this one out.

    1. If you are leaving for the airport from a hotel, ask if you can leave the warm, keep-dry clothes in their luggage room while you’re away. We have done this before with older clothes and an old suitcase, in case it wasn’t there when we got back. Everything warm was waiting on us when we arrived home! We were able to make the last leg in warm comfort–including snow boots!

  3. This is so helpful! We’re leaving soon for a week in Paris followed by a week in London, and I’ve been mulling over what to pack in a carry-on. As usual, the biggest dilemma is the shoes. Luckily, I don’t have any dress-up events to plan for. I bet I’ll pick up a scarf or two along the way in Paris.

  4. I’d ditch one of the pair of pants and one pair of shoes (the wedges, seems like a one-0ccasion item), and maybe a top (or two). I wash my clothes as I travel. My carry-on (no wheels) is messenger bag-sized and I take very little with me. Yet I have been able to go to the opera, out to dinner in an up-scale restaurant, and walk long-distance trails with one small bag of clothes. I’m glad you are bringing a pair of closed-toe shoes — very critical when you travel. I usually have a tailored pair of pants and tailored jacket, slightly casual pants, and a pencil skirt in my bag of tricks, along with a few casual/not so casual tops and one dressy blouse/top to wear with the skirt for dressier occasions. Lots of scarves and accessories. Last time I went to the opera in London, most of the women were is business attire (weekday night). Sounds like a fun trip!!

  5. I definitely want to buy closed toe pewter shoes when I go home because they would be a perfect travel shoe. I’ve been away now for 6+ weeks and I am starting to grow tired of my wardrobe but, grey/black/blue work together perfectly. It’s hot here so hand-washed items dry really quickly. My Eileen Fisher charcoal grey pants have had so much wear that I may have to replace them in the Fall. It sounds as though you will have a great trip!

  6. This all looks like exactly what I would pack for a similar trip, except that I always pack a cardigan, and it is generally the most used item that I bring. I want it for the plane, as planes are often too cold, and I use it in the hotel room if there is no robe provided, as well as a quick on/off layer when out for the day. I always pack a large scarf that can double as a shawl for evening wear, for much the same reasons. On a trip, tha scaef would have come from Tare or TJ maxi, because they are sometimes lost. And having had jewelry stolen from very good hotels, I never take anything that can’t stay around my neck for the entire trip. My day bag is a small cross body bag that I can wear all day without thinking about it.
    Note to Crestwood, we took a similar trip last fall: all Parisians were wearing sneakers, everywhere. Some were quite fancy, and many looked like athletic shoes of the 80’s ( in other word, much more streamlined than the big heavy American athletic shoes of today). Men and women both.

  7. We did a similar span a few years ago, Amsterdam to Bordeaux to Paris, and the weather hit the lows and the highs of the range you describe — definitely my most challenging experience with a carry-on. You’ve got it, though!
    My next trip should be easy to pack for — just a week in Paris with my sister. I’m wondering how I’ll do for 7 weeks in the fall, ’cause I’d still really like to bring only a carry-on. . . but one trip at a time, right?

  8. I’m going in the opposite direction, but still need to fit a two-week wardrobe into a jeep for a road trip through the Southwest – hot days, cool nights, walking in Santa Fe and in the desert, a nice evening dinner – also cool weather in the Colorado Rockies. The *capsule* plan is helping me begin to sort things out!

  9. Thanks, Sue. I’m bookmarking this post…so I can check back when I’ve laid out my wardrobe to take to France. We’re gone for 4 weeks. Including a range of activities as well, from hiking to city dining. I always have to include an extra pair of either hiking boots or my “real” running shoes, not the ones I would wear in the city. I still have to fill one wardrobe gap before I go….full length jeans. I have had such a time finding jeans that are both high rise and full length in the leg. When it’s cool and rainy I’ll be wearing my hiking socks in my sneakers and need pants that come down over my shoes. I may just have to pull my old J-brand ones out of the bag that’s due to go to the Salvation Army store.

  10. I’ll be leaving May 29th for a week in Paris and so I’ll be following your packing scheme closely. My sister and I will be doing the usual museum + sightseeing stuff but I’ve also got ballet tickets, so I’ll need to bring something somewhat nice.

    I know my black Vince pants and my Burberry trench are going, but beyond that I’m not sure. Deciding now whether I want to do blue jeans or black chinos – that will be a function of the weather forecast, I think. My husband will be out of town in mid-May so I think I’ll spend a day laying clothes out around the bedroom (if I do it while he’s here I’ll be accused of over-planning!).

    Your packing advice is incredibly helpful! Thank you so much.

  11. You are an expert at packing! Hope you have a fabulous trip and look forward to the highlights when you return.
    My recent post is a similar one…3 weeks in France. Two weeks in Paris and a third in the south and I plan to live out of a carry on.

  12. What fun! I love how your choices are streamlined and classic without being at all stuffy. Re your wildcards: do you expect to do any clothes buying while you’re there? If so, you could just “fill in the blanks,” as it were, with a few new things. Just a thought. 😉

  13. I’m struggling with a weatherproof shoe to take on an upcoming trip. You mentioned possibly adding a pair to your travel wardrobe if the weather looks like it will require it. Would you please share your thoughts on waterproof options other than the Taos sneakers? (I would consider them a waterproof option, although they might not suit all occasions.) Thanks!!

  14. I did a 21 day trip in which we flew into London, went through Normandy, spent 6 days in a Paris, traveled to Provence, and then spent 6 days in Rome. It was raining and chilly in London and Normandy. It was 104 degrees with 50% humidity in Provence & Rome. Still, I was able to pack everything I needed in a 20 inch Eagle Creek carry-on. It was fabulous! I had a t-length black dress that was perfect for both casual and dressy occasions. I brought a variety of Hermes scarves and casual scarves and accessories. Planning in advance was the key. Also, layering pieces helped in the colder climates. Bon chance et bon voyage.
    Michelle from simplysantabarbara.blogspot.com

  15. I was just going to raise the question that Marg has: what about all the toiletries? For that reason alone I can’t do a carry on. I take my own, very small and foldable, hair dryer; and, as I usually travel in summer/humidity I take a small hair straightener. Then a bag with make up: and yes, I use travel sizes etc. Then a small bag with bottles of eye makeup remover, lotions, nail polish remover, files, the Retin A, small toothpaste, various toothbrushes that I need, moleskin pads for feet. You get the idea!!! I’ve gotten it down to a pretty good system, but still, it all adds up.
    Another question: do you allow room in suitcase for purchases? I always buy a few clothes and then some when abroad. Salt from the Camargue, notebooks from museums in Paris, a ceramic dish or two from a craft fair in Aix.
    Interested to know what everyone says!! thanks……

  16. The most I’ve done carry on was two weeks in Majorca when I knew it would be sunny and when I had access to laundry. It was fine, but I was bored to tears looking at myself at the end of it and my swimwear was trashed! I admire your spirit but as a European myself I wouldn’t risk 3 weeks in Europe, with the dodgy weather, as carry on only. Give yourself a break and pack an extra bag! …. And extra shoes.

  17. I would eliminate the sandals. My experience, especially in the cities you are visiting in the very late spring, has been that sandals are not a shoe of choice. It might be cold(ish) and raining and in an urban environment closed footwear is a better option. Open toes perhaps, but with more of a closed, comfortable walking shoe base. Even a pair of ‘summer’ booties. i.e. ankle, open-toed, flat and taupe in color. Or black flats of some sort with a comfortable, yet chic, sole. Save the sandals for Southern California or a beach vacation. A black v-neck tee and a zip up top is always on my list. Good for layering. V-necks are flattering….those baggy boat neck, scoop neck types that are featured this season are not.

  18. I’m a real sandal person (I don’t mean thongs, but supportive sandals). Closed shoes hurt my feet; I don’t have the choice most months here in Montréal but when I can swap out of shoes for sandals I have happy feet, even in warm rain. I always wear sandals in the summertime in a big city, unless I should be working somewhere extremely formal.

    You can cycle in anything in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities. Many elegant businesspeople, barristers and cabinet ministers commute to work by bike, in business attire. It rarely gets extremely hot, though it can happen, as in London. Amsterdam and London have very similar weather.

    Despite what you’ve written, your wardrobe looks very dark and neutral, which is a good thing. You are travelling to several cities where you can buy a lovely top or other item in a fashionable colour. I do think we should limit colours in a capsule wardrobe, but people can have very different basics. I wear a lot of violet and wine or cherry red with the black and grey. They make me happy and suit me.

    Where are you staying in Amsterdam? There are many lovely places to visit. It is such a small city that even if you are working there, as I was, it is easy to get out and visit a park, a museum, a market, a lively street. (And no, I never once patronised a marijuana “coffeehouse”. Perhaps I’ve I’d been there younger…).

  19. I forgot to add, do you own that very practical and sharp hooded jacket? It looks as if it would be water-resistant, i.e. adequate for all but very hard rain. That is, in London and in Amsterdam.

  20. As a regular London visitor ( weekly on business) – I would leave the open toe shoes and take a second pair of comfortable and cool closed toe shoes. If its not the rain that causes a problem it will be getting toes stepped on in the sardine cans they call the Tube. If the weather turns out to be wonderful you could always buy a pair of sandals and ship the shoes home! I would also take a cashmere cardigan or zip up hoody maybe instead of the cream jumper. The rest looks great – will you really fit it in one bag? What’s your paired down travel toiletry regime? I tend to take nothing – buy essentials at the airport and leave behind what I cant get in my bag. For two or three weeks I can live without my favourite brands in the interests of packing light.

  21. Audrey, they are also going to Bordeaux, which is much warmer and less crowded than London. Sandals don’t take up much room. It is really not a good idea to by any new footwear while travelling.

    1. I was drawn to this site by the focus on key elements and basic style. However the focus on dull neutral colours and obsession with one bag packing is to my mind lacking in imagination and is frankly desperately boring. I love being the age I am but I love colour and fashion also. Bye bye ladies as this is just too dull for me. Maybe it’s a british thing.

  22. You are so much more dedicated to streamlined packing than I. I think you’ve done very well here. It is aways a challenge to take the proper footwear and jackets when travelling.

    It sounds like a wonderful trip! Since you’ve packed so light I’m sure there will be space for me in your suitcase : )


  23. The cardigan jacket is lovely! I’m thinking you may not need the gray tee or the white sweater – they seem redundant. How about a pair of black/white printed pants instead of a 2nd pair of black ones?
    I think I’d bring a red belt and maybe another colorful statement necklace (red?) to get extra colors in. Perhaps a bright chiffon scarf in another color?

  24. I will be studying this post & the comments. In six weeks, we leave for a three-week trip to England, Ireland, Scotland, & Paris. I’m really struggling due to the possible temperature differences. So…thanks for this post.

  25. Hi…I’ve been reading and studying your and others travel secrets for packing light. It is a concept I I’ve improved on in the past 10 years or so, but, for the life of me, I m having trouble with so few pieces. My concerns are wearing most of the items more than a few times . pants I can get, but, blouses and t’s get dirty, wrinkled and ,well, honestly, a little smelly. (sorry). I sincerely want to change my mind set and have just packed for a 7 day trip trying to use these techniques. But i kept finding myself putting in more tops. Please , anyone, help me with this. I do admire all the thought that goes in to these ideas and feel liked I’ve improved my whole thought process for my wardrobe in general. thanks for all the sharing !!!

    1. Hi Cher, I don’t find that this is an issue for most of the travel we do, as it doesn’t often take us to warm and humid places. Even so, I tend to rely heavily on tops that a) don’t wrinkle (or look OK wrinkled) and b) can be hand washed and hung to dry if needed. On longer trips, we may have a few items laundered mid-trip. I have a post planned in a couple of weeks dealing with keeping clothes fresh while traveling.

  26. Yikes – all ankle pants might be a bit optimistic! I expect you will wear something on the flight to keep your footsies and ankles warm. And you know you will need a cashmere cardigan. I had to buy one on a trip to Italy at the end of May last year, but what a great place to buy cashmere! Really, I needed it! I do adore your travel packing posts; I bookmark every one, and have learned and benefited so much! Thank you!

    1. Hi Susanjane, thanks, I’m so glad the travel posts are helpful! Yes I’ll probably include a full-length pair of pants or two, and either a cashmere v-neck or cardigan. Our experience is that the weather in Europe can be very capricious in Spring. 🙂 This is the latest in the season we’ve traveled, so am anticipating that we may have some warmer days especially in Bordeaux.

  27. Aren’t you afraid to travel with your Chanel purse? I don’t know whether to put it in my suitcase? Carry on? Ok to leave in hotel?

  28. I love this concept! I’m going to visit my daughter in Australia for 4 weeks, December/January, and would love to travel light! I find myself mostly thinking about filling my suitcase with gifts for her baby. It will be summer there, and over 100 degrees in Perth, if it’s like when I was there last year. I’m going to be studying these pieces, and maybe switching the black to white… Any suggestions?

  29. Getting the 3-week wardrobe pictured above in a carry on, especially one that is “legal” in Europe, appears rather unrealistic. Even considering that one will wear 1 pair of shoes and several other pieces, including the jacket, & possibly carry the rain jacket, that leaves 2 pairs of shoes, 2 pairs of pants, 1 skirt, 7 tops, accessories (including a bulky handbag), plus toiletries and cosmetics. Unless these clothes are tissue paper thin, I don’t see any hope. Love the ideas, but get real on what it will take to carry all these items!

  30. Would you have a travel wardrobe for a hot humid tropical vacation? I love your blog and your style and would really appreciate any input you might have. I love Eileen Fisher clothes and have several tops and black pants but feel that black would be too much in this instance. I’m really trying to just go carry on but I am finding it very challenging.

  31. I live in the states and travel to Las Vegas and from there to La and up to the wine country for 13 days. Do you have a ny suggestions what to pack?