5 packing mistakes (that I made on our first trip to Paris)

View of Eiffel Tower Paris from rue de l'Universite. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

Traveling to Paris had been a dream of mine since I was a child. When we planned our first visit for a few months after my 50th birthday, no aspect of the upcoming trip caused me more anxiety than figuring out what to pack for the one of the world’s most stylish cities. I researched, I pored over travel sites and street style blogs (the few that were online in 2007), I shopped…and still got it mostly wrong.

I’m working on a few updated travel wardrobe posts for the next few weeks, but first, here’s your opportunity to learn from my early travel wardrobe mistakes. 😉 While Paris is the reference point here, learning from these errors and making adjustments has helped me put together better travel wardrobes for destinations from London to Rome to Hong Kong to Phuket, to Las Vegas.

avoid these travel wardrobe mistakes
No, this isn’t that first wardrobe. 🙂

1. Overpacking. 

Oh boy, did we ever! Our big and heavy suitcases barely fit into the tiny elevator in our hotel, and occupied some substantial real estate in our hotel room. We fell victim to the “just in case” mentality, and brought shoes and clothing that were never even unpacked, let alone worn. And multiples of everything…I certainly did not need three different pairs of dressy black pants for an 8-day trip!

Solutions:

  • select pieces that will do double-duty; for example a cardigan that can be worn open as a lightweight outer layer, or buttoned up as a middle layer.
  • garments that can be hand-washed or laundered and re-worn will save packing space. Often just pressing or freshening is needed to make clothes re-wearable; a travel steamer or a spritz of Febreeze (then let the garment hang overnight) work wonders.
  • be honest about what activities you’ll need to dress for. Example: if you don’t have any fancy venues or parties on your itinerary, don’t pack an outfit that’s appropriate only for special occasions.
  • let your accessories add variety. Scarves and jewelry can easily change up simple outfits.
  • give yourself a number limit of items (granted, not everyone is comfortable with this) or keep in mind a formula of one bottom for every two or three tops.
  • remember that no one is going to notice if you are wearing some of the same clothes for a few days in a row.

2. Lack of cohesion (or “I have nothing to wear!”) 

As I mentioned at the top of the post, I worried that some of my clothing wouldn’t be chic enough for Paris, so went out and bought a few things…without much consideration of whether they worked with other pieces in my wardrobe, or were styles that worked for my shape. Some tops I packed only worked with one bottom, or visa versa. Some of the pants only worked with one particular pair of shoes. I thought I “had” to have a Little Black Dress which resulted in another bad choice, and the very chic swing jacket I was so excited to wear was too bulky to go underneath my outerwear, and not warm enough to wear on its own. Ultimately, I ended up wearing the same few pieces for the majority of the trip.

Solutions:

  • pick one or two neutrals that will be the basis of your wardrobe, and then another one or two accent colors (cardigans and scarves are both good vehicles to add color and/or pattern).
  • I can’t stress this enough, but once you think you’ve selected your wardrobe try everything on, and in as many combinations as you can. Just because pieces are “good on paper” together doesn’t mean they’ll work on your unique body. Anything that doesn’t work with at least three or four coordinating pieces should be swapped out for one that does.
  • again, pieces that will do double-duty are a boon.
  • ditch anything that isn’t comfortable. You either won’t wear it or you will and be grumpy. Who wants to be grumpy on a vacation you may have planned for months or even years?
  • simple styles and knit fabrics are your best travel friends.
  • think “tabletop dressing.” Simple, dark pants and skirts that will pair with a variety of tops will provide the most wardrobe versatility.

3. The wrong clothes. 

Too bulky (try carrying that heavy sweater or jacket around for hours on a walking tour once the day warms up), too fancy (the dresses, jewelry and heels for the “just in case” situations that never materialized) too Not Me (clothes that were more tailored/structured than what I normally wear, and not comfortable either physically or emotionally).

Solutions:

  • “Smart Casual” will probably be as formal as you’ll need. We’ve not yet been turned away from any nice places for not being dressed to the nines. As long as you are neat and presentable and look as though you’ve made an effort (e.g. in clean and coordinated street clothes, not exercise wear) you’ll be appropriate.
  • dark neutrals tend to look more polished than bright colors or splashy prints.
  • think Lightweight Layers. Temperatures might fluctuate substantially over the course of any trip, and being able to pile on or remove layers will help you to “fine tune” your own thermostat. Garments that will layer under or over other pieces are ideal. Leave bulky pieces at home. (The only exception to this would be extreme winter travel, and then you’ll need to do what you must to stay warm. A lightweight down coat like this one won’t add much weight or bulk.)
  • pack and wear the styles of clothing you’d wear and home and that you are most comfortable in.

4. The wrong bags. 

I packed three very stylish shoulder bags (one small for evening, one “day” bag and one large tote) and after the first couple of days, bought myself a lightweight cross-body bag that I used almost exclusively for the rest of the trip. The shoulder bags were tiring to carry, and made my neck and shoulders ache after several hours of walking.

Solutions:

  • My ideal bag for travel is now one that has a shorter handle plus a longer cross-body strap. The cross-body strap is great for daytime touring, and then I can carry by the shorter handle for evenings out.
  • Think about the weight of the bag!! If a bag weighs 3 pounds empty, once you’ve added contents it’s going to feel like carrying a small child by the end of the day. Hardware, structure and interior compartments will all add to the weight.
  • Think about security. While I’ve never felt the need for one of those anti-theft bags, I do only travel with bags that zip completely shut, and can be worn toward the front of my body where I’ll keep a hand on if the situation begins to feel a bit dodgy. Cross-body bags are also harder for a snatch-and-run thief to get away from you.
  • Be sure the cross-body strap is wide enough to be comfortable on the shoulder. Chain straps generally will not be.

5. The wrong shoes.

Of all of my first Paris travel wardrobe mistakes, this was the one that has most impacted how I now plan travel wardrobes. I’d packed a few pairs of “cute” shoes (ballet flats, and heels of various heights) and quickly realized the difference between running-errands-on-lunch-hours-comfortable and walking-all-day-on-various-surfaces-including-gravel-and-cobblestones-comfortable. After about an hour of walking around in those cute ballet flats, I was practically in tears, my feet hurt so much. Not a good look or mood for my first close-up view of the Eiffel Tower! Fortunately I’d also packed a pair of somewhat clunky but well-cushioned and supportive black walking loafers, and wore those almost non-stop for the rest of the trip.

Solutions:

  • When planning a travel wardrobe, start with the shoes. Footwear is probably the hardest part to get right, but also the most crucial. Fortunately there are quite a few brands now that offer shoes with both comfort and style (look for some recommendations in an upcoming post), and it’s just a matter of finding the features that work best for you and for the climate you’ll be visiting. When shopping, try on as many different styles and brands as you can, and then once you’ve purchased, wear for extended periods while on your feet to be sure they’ll stand up to travel demands.
  • You want footwear to be secure and stable on the foot. Too loose and your legs will tire more quickly, too tight and you may find them uncomfortable if your feet swell over the course of the day. Shoes with laces or adjustable straps may be a good option.
  • Look for rubber soles for traction and water resistance. Leather-soled shoes can have a rubber half-sole added by a cobbler; this will also extend the life of the shoes.
  • You will want sufficient arch support and cushioning under the heel and ball of the foot. As we age, we may lose padding on the soles of the feet, and need that additional cushion.
  • Dark colors may be better options as they will not look dirty as easily, but during warmer months you may prefer a lighter-colored shoe or sandal. (Updated to add: white sneakers which used to be a sure sign of a tourist, are now “on trend” in many European cities. So if you have a favorite pair, feel free to include them.)
  • Unless you have a bona-fide “special occasion” on the itinerary, leave the heels at home. Seriously. A loafer, brogue or Mary-Jane style shoe can be “Smart Casual” enough for evenings.
  • One of the first things I noticed in Paris was how even the best-dressed women were usually wearing flats or low heels, and even the occasional now-ubiquitous sneaker.

What packing or travel wardrobe mistakes have you learned the most from?

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65 Comments

  1. Daniella
    January 17, 2019 / 3:18 pm

    If winter, I use pants, (mostly cigarette style or light weight wool leggings) a puffer and a black, chic, motor jacket (MK made a fab one a couple of years ago with faux fur and pleatherette) sans sleeves for somewhat warmer days. 2-3 merino /cashmere sweaters. 1-2 scarves and a couple chic “garçons” style hats when too cold, or rainy or bad hair days. 1 large Cross body purse and an umbrella is ubiquitous at all times.
    Arch (the French company) boots for rain/sleet are a dream. Ankle or knee high version. Get them in France or New York.
    In summer, linen all the way, mostly loose, flowing pants or loose, cool looking skirts. These last allow ventilation in super hot days, like in Greece last year. Also I bring linen dresses sans sleeves, and a sun umbrella. Sandals with thic rubber soles for both air flow and comfort.
    I keep it quite simple and buy what I think I need/want wherever I find myself. So much fun.

  2. Kay
    January 17, 2019 / 4:22 pm

    People are the same everywhere. There are chic ones and not chic ones as well as thin ones and heavier ones. (I have visited more than 30 countries and have found this to be true.) Pack what you wear at home. If you look put together there, you will look put together in Paris or London or Sydney or Buenos Aires. Sue, I think your story about packing for your first trip to Paris is a good lesson.

  3. Alison M Gunn
    March 1, 2019 / 12:02 am

    My first trip to Paris was a spontaneous decision made while staying with friends in Sweden, and this meant I had virtually nothing with me that I considered appropriate for Paris. There is a boutique for larger women in the little city I stay in when in Sweden, and I was able to buy a few pieces there. But I’d say the biggest mistake I made on my first trip was not packing for the weather, because I didn’t even check the weather, and it was miserably hot in the middle of July, for Bastille Day and the next day, my birthday, which is why I went (and then it rained for six days in a row). And then another time I went, I also did not have the right clothes for summer in Paris again, because the last time I was there, in 2016, it was over 90F and I was miserable. I had good shoes, though. 😉 Ecco floral slip-on sneakers, but also bad sandals that did not do well on cobblestones, as well as another, lower-heel with shank support by Clarks which saved me. But it does seem like at least two times I’ve been in Paris it has been so hot, and I was not, it has to be said, entirely prepared.

  4. Joan Mc
    July 13, 2019 / 6:27 am

    Susan, LOVE that your posts are based on actual experience and that you are willing to “admit” to mistakes made. What a relief after seeing so many travel fantasy-packing sites, whew. Hello? Footwear! Yes indeed! I’ve traveled all around the word and consider myself to be an organized, and light, packer. I am embarrassed at how poorly I packed for Italy in fall 2019. It was WAY hotter than the forecast and my ponte slacks and nice loafers remained packed for the 19 day trip. My EF silk l/s tees were warm but served well for the trip. Thank you and keep posting!

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