travel in style: real-world airport style

comfortable and stylish travel clothing

It seems I can’t open a social media platform or style website these days without half a dozen “Celebrity Airport Style!” features popping up. I can understand the fascination, but some of the examples are just laughable. High heels, skin-tight pants, midriff-baring tops, mini dresses with thigh-high boots, wraps big and bulky enough to be horse blankets, huge and heavy designer bags…of course we don’t see the celeb’s personal assistant(s) actually toting the majority of luggage, or the hustling of celebrities through the “elite” security screening to private waiting rooms. We mere mortals are left shlepping our own stuff, standing in (long) lines, possibly removing shoes, emptying pockets and taking electronics out of our carry-ons to go through security, and having to deal with different logistical requirements.

Long gone are the days when air travel was a special and even luxurious experience that people dressed up for. But that doesn’t mean you have to completely sacrifice style for comfort and functionality. With a few well-chosen pieces and some planning, you can travel comfortably* and arrive at your destination looking polished and put-together. Shown above:

earrings | scarf | tee | cardigan | watch | pants | shoes | tote | suitcase | spritz

Some people bring a change of clothes or even pajamas for long flights, changing out of and back into street clothes at the beginning and end of the flight. That’s one way, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable with doing a complete outfit change in an airplane lavatory. Still, if you are and this works for you, don’t let me dissuade you. My personal preference is to wear clothes that are travel-friendly, and wear or bring along some extra layers as well as keeping a “just in case of spills” backup (usually another top) in an easy-to-access place in my luggage. If you’re traveling across multiple time zones, you may arrive too early to check into your hotel, so you’ll want your travel clothes to be spiffy enough to do some sightseeing, and pop in somewhere for breakfast or lunch.

Over the years of traveling, I’ve developed some travel outfit strategies that can be modified to work with whatever particular climate and flight conditions I’m anticipating.

  • Layers, layers, layers. Temperatures in airplane cabins can be notoriously unpredictable, so I usually plan on at least three layers of tops that can be added or removed as needed. I find knits most comfortable and practical for travel, and usually start with a silk jersey camisole as a base layer, then a linen tee, and a cashmere cardigan, plus a cashmere wrap or large scarf.
  • Breathing room. OK, so the change in pressure combined with the relative immobility of a long flight can make me a little (ahem) bloated. I’ve learned to avoid anything too constricting, but that doesn’t have to mean wearing sweatpants or baggy clothes. I tend to stick with darker pants, and again go for knits, but in styles that look polished. I’m a big fan of the Eileen Fisher stretch crepe pants, as they look good, adjust to a range of temperatures, and can be hand-washed and hung to dry. In cool seasons, a ponte knit pant is also a good choice. Look for fabrics that include a good percentage of plant-based fibers like viscose or rayon, as they’ll have more breathability. I recently tried on these “Mulberry” pants from Kit + Ace and was very impressed with the look, fit, fabric, comfort and especially the pockets.
  • Footwear. While sneakers might be the obvious choice for comfort, if you’re asked to remove them going through security, putting them back on and lacing up if there’s no place to sit can be a pain. The slip-on sneakers that have been popular the last few seasons are another option. I tend to travel in a pair of easy-off-and-on ankle boots, which also protect my feet in crowds. (When a family jockeying for a spot in a taxi line ran over my foot with a wheeled luggage cart that probably weighed over 200 lbs, I was very glad I had mine on, even though it was a warm day!) A pair of walking loafers is another good choice if ankle boots are too heavy or warm. I can’t fathom people who wear flip-flops, sandals or shoes without socks to travel…who wants to have to walk barefoot through airport security?? Ick. I also find that the floor of most airplane cabins can get very cold and am glad for a pair of socks. And speaking of socks, compression socks are a wise choice for long flights. If you don’t want to wear them at the airport, just be sure to put them on once you’ve boarded but before takeoff.
  • Keep it simple. For travel wardrobes in general as well as your in-flight outfits, simple styles in neutral colors will look more polished. I use scarves for color and pattern, though a tee in a favorite color or pattern can work too. I tend to stick to closer-fitting styles, without extraneous details like fringe or flapping sleeves. No, you probably won’t attract any paparazzi, but who wants that after a long flight anyway? 😉
  • Looking good on arrival. As much as I try to guzzle water in transit, long flights can leave me looking a bit haggard, especially if I haven’t slept well. What helps: a spritz of invigorating face mist toward the end of the flight, a dab of beauty balm, and re-application of a very hydrating lipstick with a little color to brighten my face. (More tips on bringing liquids and cosmetics on board here.)

*OK, “relatively” comfortably. Some factors, like leg room and seat-mates may be out of our control.

What are your airport style preferences and strategies?

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  1. susanburpee
    May 23, 2016 / 5:22 am

    I often wonder what’s up with all those “airport style” shots. And I also wonder if the airport is an easy place to grab a shot of someone famous.
    Like you I usually don’t change during a flight, but I do bring warm socks, so I can take off my shoes and be comfy. I also wear knit leggings, a tee and a cardigan. And I plan not to have to wear the pants again during the trip because after sitting in them for 7 or so hours, they’re pretty baggy.
    Your travel posts are always helpful, Sue. After one series on luggage I bought my own “four-wheeler” bag…so much easier.

  2. May 23, 2016 / 6:21 am

    Good advice. Most of my travel involves going between the middle of nowhere in France and the middle of nowhere in the U.S., and generally involves at least three flights in each direction, with total travel time of 24 hours, when all goes well. It’s more of a project than a nonstop domestic flight. You know when you leave but you don’t know when you’ll arrive–a delay of the first flight can make you miss the transatlantic, which can mean 24 hours waiting in the airport (it’s happened). So definitely have a change or two of clothing. Also, support hose really helps prevent swollen feet and ankles after so much sitting. A roller bag means you can get in some exercise during layovers, but small regional planes don’t always have room onboard for them–that means have your really important stuff (meds, sweater, headphones, reading material) in a bag in your carry-on so you can quickly get out your inflight necessities if you have to gate-check your roller.
    I like a long, voluminous skirt for traveling–you don’t have to worry about it touching the floor in a sometimes disgusting lavatory, it’s as warm as capris, plenty of comfort and easy for getting those support hose on and off.

  3. Sharon
    May 23, 2016 / 6:53 am

    Long intl flight coming up soon and thanks to all the style and traveling/packing tips from you, I feel fairly prepared. My only concern (not a biggie though) is that I’m going to a cooler climate and my wardrobe is fairly dark and wintry looking. My home climate is warm (90 degrees later this week) so I don’t have cool weather clothes in spring colors. Hoping my black/navy/gray will work. The dark colors should be a bit more chic I hope. Packed my Emme bag already – amazing how much that holds!

    • Catbird Farm
      May 23, 2016 / 7:14 am

      Sharon, what about a spring-like scarf or two to lighten and brighten?

  4. May 23, 2016 / 7:53 am

    I recently went to Container Store and bought the Lipault 22″ carry on: bought it there so I could get full refund if it wasn’t right. Well, I packed it with well thought out items. Barely fit. Then I tried my old, old heavy carry on (that I’m about to get rid of..) and well, it held quite a bit more! Then we tried my husband’s new hard cover of same size and yes, it too held more. So, I returned the Lipault. This one above seems very, very expensive for a carry on…so I’m actually going to go to Marshalls and look around. You never know! Anyway, love your posts here on travel; we go back to France in September.

  5. May 23, 2016 / 8:04 am

    My approach to “in flight” clothing is almost identical Susan and agree knits are the way to go. Heavy socks for plane are a must. If I’m wearing shoes/boots that aren’t easy to slip on and off, I bring a couple of old pairs of ankle socks to slip over my reg. socks for walks to loo. Then I just toss them at the end of the flight.

  6. Jennifer
    May 23, 2016 / 8:23 am

    Meditation app on my phone, bar of chocolate, bottle of prescription sedatives. I’m terrified of flying and figure I will sort out my style once I am safely at my destination.

    • Aniko
      May 24, 2016 / 11:11 am

      Jennifer, which meditation apps do you like?

  7. Alison M.
    May 23, 2016 / 8:30 am

    I would love hear your thoughts on Kit & Ace. I’m delighted you checked them (and the Mulberry pant) out. I am a fan, especially the washable cashmere blends for traveling. Did you also make it to Cuyana down the street? To me it seems very in your wheelhouse and their alpaca tunics are great for travel: top and blanket in one piece!

  8. KarenLA
    May 23, 2016 / 8:41 am

    We have found it pays to look presentable when traveling as we get better service, from being up graded to taxi cab drivers fighting over us to more attention at the airport. A scarf adds a lot to an outfit and easily gets through security. You’re right on about layers. I have found cabins usually freezing, so extra socks are a good idea, but once we were in a plane that was like a sauna. I like the idea of wearing old socks over other socks to wear to walk around, then throw out. I purchased an Emme bag suggested in another post and it is fantastic .Traveling sure isn’t what it used to be, I feel like I’m preparing for a survivors camping trip these days.

  9. Becky Johns
    May 23, 2016 / 10:28 am

    my best tip is to carry “a fan and a large scarf” I have found I use both of them on airplanes…hot when they turn off the air before takeoff and cold during the flight. A large scarf can go over your legs like a blanket or around your neck.

  10. Sandra
    May 23, 2016 / 11:56 am

    I wear dark wash jeans while traveling and change into yoga pants on the plane (or in the ladies’ room upon landing). I do not change the top. I opt to wear my sneakers on he plane as we usually get precheck outbound where you can keep your shoes on. Security returning from France does not require you to remove your shoes. I have adopted this strategy since my sneakers are the heaviest shoes that I bring with me, so it allows for more room in my suitcase.

    Just returned from France last week and had nice flights in both directions. Only 24 passengers on the outbound flight meant each of us had a whole row to spread out!

  11. Hiluhilu
    May 23, 2016 / 2:12 pm

    All great suggestions, as usual; I refuse to travel without a scarf these days. I’d add hand cream and lubricating eye drops to the essential toiletry items to deal with the lizard skin and fried eye-balls airplane air usually gives me.

  12. Gayle
    May 23, 2016 / 3:05 pm

    Great points! I was delighted to find that over a certain age, we don’t have to remove shoes!
    Is that just USA?

  13. May 23, 2016 / 3:51 pm

    I always carry what I call :”painter socks” – disposable covers for shoes so that I can [pop out of slip-on shoes easily.

  14. Kathryn
    May 23, 2016 / 4:09 pm

    Bravo Susan! It’s so good to hear your take on “plane clothes”. I too really don’t like the baggy sweat pants and flip flops travel outfit, (which could prove dangerous in an emergency), but can’t do heels etc.

    I would add that if a traveler has allergies,( i.e. hay fever), then perhaps switch out the Caudalie mist for Avene mist. While I do love Caudalie products, I find Avene or another water mist to be more soothing.
    Also, an IPOD/phone with great music and sound cancelling head phones which are so lovely to have…. in basic black – bien sur!

  15. Melissa
    May 24, 2016 / 1:43 am

    Hi Susan,

    Sitting by the pool in Santorini Greece right now. I always travel in a cotton maxi dress in the summer a scarf and black jean jacket. With the bad feet now I wore my sneakers very cute black leather patent leather silver trim. I don’t care if I have to take on and off. With my feet proper shoes are hard enough to find. Is only a few extra seconds so I don’t find it an issue.
    I did carry on only that meant 1 piece only mistake i packed a bit too much liquid this time, but was put on hubby’s allowance. I could easily pair that down and just buy the baby wash at destination.
    Unfortunately, the weather has been windy and colder than normal at night here. So haven’t really been able to wear any of the pretty summer dresses I planned. Had to go get a pair of pants and been layering like crazy.
    Next trip no matter what at least one pair of pants even for a middle of the summer beach vacation….

  16. Maxine
    May 24, 2016 / 6:07 am

    This is an info packed blog and the comments are great, too! I never thought about compression socks so I’m adding that to the list.

    The executives where I work have been getting the TSA Precheck to skip security. Based on the horror stories being reported on the security lines at the airports, I’d find it well worth the $85 even if you only flew once!

  17. Carolyn Briggs Style
    May 24, 2016 / 2:15 pm

    I love Lisa Eldridge’s advice about skin care on long flights. Since seeing this video, I always apply an invisible moisturizing facial mask (Either one from Avene or one from Dermalogica) to my very dry sensitive skin once I get settled in my seat. I carry a tiny container of cotton pads, pre wetted in Bioderma to clean it off before we land. Then I spray my skin with the Caudalie spray shown above. This makes a huge difference to my skin. I arrive looking fresh instead of grey and exhausted.

    Otherwise – great post with wise advice.

  18. Beckey
    May 27, 2016 / 7:14 am

    I typically go for a maxi skirt (as comfortable as yoga pants, but looks like I put in some effort), slip on shoes, a comfy top, light scarf and a cardigan (those layers you spoke of, easily added or removed as temperatures change)

    • Susan B
      May 27, 2016 / 9:14 am

      Hi Beckey, a maxi skirt is a great option too. I’m going to be looking for either a midi or maxi option for our summer trip.

  19. Melissa
    May 27, 2016 / 9:43 am

    Hi Girls,

    On our way home from the airport now:(
    I was looking for a convertable dress before vacation, never found one I liked and also not keen on ordering via internet for clothes.
    Low and behold they are in fashion at some shops in Greece. Is a long cotton jersey maxi style. Just flip the cloth over the shoulders and start wrapping tying whatever. I have to get it shortened and is alot of material so it may not be ideal to pack. Ashame cause I could make oodles of outfits. I will have to see, maybe I travel in it for our trip to Spain in July.
    For me buying water after security check added to the list and lip balm, also no makeup I just feel better when I arrive.
    Oh and deodorant! I never smell but I realized my fear of flying changes that dynamic, I have to reapply.
    I hate flying….

    • Susan B
      May 27, 2016 / 4:59 pm

      Melissa, your dress sounds like a great find…have fun finding ways to wear it!

  20. Laura
    July 6, 2016 / 5:04 am

    Thanks for all your tips, I ordered the hanging toiletry bag you recommended awhile ago and it’s my favorite travel item !

  21. Joy Johnson
    May 21, 2018 / 3:31 pm

    Your postings have actually transformed my travel life! While some of the items you select aren’t within my price point, I can usually find them on sale or something very similar at my local TJ Maxx or department store outlet.Your fundamental advice is sound, whatever the price point. My wardrobe, must have carryons, etc. for an October stay in Provence are based on your suggestions and the fabulously useful comments of your readers. Merci a tous!!

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