As a travel journalist who jets around the world on assignment nearly three weeks out of the month, packing has become as routine as doing the dishes or walking the dog. But that doesn’t make it any easier when trips could take me from one hemisphere — and season — to another with only a carry-on.
After nearly a decade of tiny apartment living in France, where my closet space is the size of a very small pantry, I’ve learned to edit down my minimalist French wardrobe and style the essentials so they can be worn in a variety of ways. A flowy midi skirt paired with comfy sandals in summer in the South of France takes on a whole new look with thigh-high boots and a leather jacket in Vienna in the fall. And a one-piece bathing suit doubles as both swimwear and a bodysuit that you can wear with jeans, shorts, or a long skirt in nearly any setting (and season).
If you’re looking to streamline your suitcase with items that are versatile and functional yet still stylish, I’ve got you covered. With items starting at just $15, you won’t have to dish out too much for classics you can wear around the world — and the go-to gear that will make it all so much easier.
Lightweight Carry-on Luggage
Since my trips often are back-to-back and involve a few forms of transportation (like a taxi to a ferry to a plane to a train), I want to travel as light as possible and save time (and stress) not waiting for a checked suitcase to arrive on the baggage claim carousel.
Away’s classic Carry-On With Pocket is one of the best I’ve found at a price that doesn’t rival your rent. The durable, lightweight hard shell means it won’t get too dinged up when you’re rolling it through train stations or stashing it in the overhead bin — and the compact size means it fits on most planes. The hidden, water-resistant laundry bag makes it easy to separate your dirty clothes, and the built-in pocket holds larger laptops and tablets, plus has sections to store smaller essentials like your passport or wallet.
A similar option at Amazon for much less, this Wrangler smart luggage set with a cup holder and USB port includes a 20-inch carry-on that has expandable capacity, and the cupholder in the back can double as a storage spot for your phone while it charges up through the USB port. As someone who often is trying to balance a Starbucks iced Americano in one hand while juggling my luggage in the other, I find the cup holder makes rolling through an airport so much easier.
High-waisted Yoga Pants
Hikes, yoga, a long-haul flight — there are endless situations in which I find myself reaching for my trusty leggings. And as someone who is on the shorter side with some curves, finding leggings that fit properly has always been a challenge — they’re either too long, too tight, or keep slipping down my waist. When I came across Patagonia’s lightweight, performance-oriented tights, they instantly became a staple in my suitcase. Made from mostly nylon and a spandex knit, they offer just enough stretch while still giving support, and are versatile enough for exercise, long hikes, and just lounging. Plus, they are great to wear around a lodge or cabin somewhere colder in the winter, like the French Alps or Aspen. On sailing trips, I practically live in them, since they’re quick to dry and easy to wash and hang.
A similar option at a more affordable price point from Amazon, these high-waisted workout leggings are buttery-soft and squat-proof, meaning they’ll stay up even during your most high-intensity workout. The hidden waistband pocket is great for storing a credit card or keys while on a run or hike, and the high-waisted, seamless waistband acts as tummy control, making them look even more flattering. And for those of you who also worry about length, these hit right above the ankle, so they won’t bunch at the bottom.
Birkenstock Uji Sandals
A comfortable pair of shoes is a must anytime, anywhere, and bonus if it’s a sandal you can slip on and off. My style has always been more Greek goddess than granola, so I tend to gravitate toward sleek leather footwear in shades like camel and cognac (take these Ancient Greek Sandals, for instance). But the Birkenstocks I knew as a child carry a different cachet today. I’ve seen girls in Paris wear them around town during fashion week, noticed a lineup of styles at yoga studios in Bali, and seen friends back in Miami don them everywhere from the beach to a sleek craft cocktail bar. They’re referenced everywhere from And Just Like That… to the new Barbie movie, where they’re given the same kind of attention Carrie Bradshaw once showed her Manolo Blahniks.
The Uji’s stylish upgrade on the classic silhouette still features the sandal’s signature contoured footbed, plus hook-and-loop straps in soft suede. The vibrant blue really pops, yet the color pairs with practically anything. Throw them on with boyfriend-style jeans and a light cashmere sweater for an airport ensemble, with shorts and a loose linen button-up at the beach, or even with a breezy summer dress when strolling around European cities (especially given the recent heat waves!). The deep heel cup, roomy toe box, and arch support ensure all-day comfort, so if you only pack one pair of shoes to get you through summer (or even fall, depending on where you’re traveling), you won’t regret these. Plus, they’re lightweight enough to throw in a tote in case you need a shoe switch.
Long-sleeve Crewneck Sweater
Unless I’m going on a trip skiing or somewhere like the Arctic that specifically requires heavy outerwear, I prefer packing layers that can be mixed and matched. The most versatile staple is a cashmere crewneck sweater, like this cream-colored one from J.Crew. A style for all seasons, I wear mine on boats and to the beach, and on cooler evenings in unpredictable climates like Copenhagen, where it could be summer weather one second and feel like fall the next.
A flattering look-alike at Amazon that shoppers have said is the “perfect weight for fall and inside during winter,” this cotton blend is soft and machine-washable, making it easier to travel with, since you won’t need to get it dry-cleaned. Wear it on its own or layer over a silk tank or under a boyfriend blazer with a pair of jeans and you’ll have a look that slips seamlessly from late summer into fall.
Midi Silk Skirt
I often don’t have time or access to an iron, so I look for pieces that pack well and don’t wrinkle easily. An essential separate that you can mix and match, and dress up or down, an A-line silky skirt like this one from J.Crew is easy to pull on for dinner or a day of museum-hopping around cities like Rome or Florence. I’m a huge fan of earth tones like this burnt caramel, since it adds a layer of sophistication and matches with darker shades like noir or navy, and lighter colors like gray and white.
Snag a look for a fraction of the price on Amazon, where this satin-like midi skirt falls at the perfect length between the knee and ankle. With its side zipper and elastic high waist, this style is flattering on a variety of body types, and shoppers rave they “love the material and the way it fits.” I’m already planning on wearing this all fall with a mix of long-sleeve, fitted crop tops and chunky cable knit sweaters for day-to-night looks that I can wear anywhere from London to Los Angeles.
Cat-Eye Polarized Sunglasses
Sunglasses are as essential an item as sunscreen, and they’re one of the few accessories I say is a necessity year-round in any climate. Of course, the city or season can dictate style, but one that I’m currently loving is the tortoise-shade, contemporary cat-eye with squared-off wings from Stockholm-based Chimi, where all sunglasses are the same price and free of labels (plus, a portion of proceeds are invested in solar power initiatives).
I stash mine in my ski jacket on the slopes and wear them everywhere from lunch with friends in Paris to beach clubs in Paros, Greece. A similar, less expensive style from Sojos at Amazon features polarized lenses to block glare and protect from UVA and UVB rays that, as one shopper raved, “feel good, look good, and are so sturdy, I got one for each car.”
One-Piece Cut-out Swimsuit
Summer or not, a bathing suit should forever have a permanent place in your suitcase. First, it’s taking up a minimal amount of room, so you don’t have to worry about the space. And second, there is always a moment when you’ll need a bathing suit while traveling. Sure, there is the obvious: the pool or beach. But how about the baths in Budapest, the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, the hot springs in Switzerland, surfing in Morocco, or saunas in Scandinavia? One of my favorites from Free People, this ribbed one-shoulder silhouette is sexy enough while still being subdued if you’re at a beach surrounded by families (or with your own family). You can snag a similar style from Amazon for only $29 that looks great if you want to take your ensemble from day to night (or the pool to the bar), and can even be worn in a landlocked city like Berlin if you throw on a denim or leather jacket.
Wide-leg Linen Pants
The pandemic gave sweatpants a major comeback, but when I travel, I want something more lightweight, easy to wash, and stylish enough to go from a plane to a lunch date — especially if I have a long stopover in a city like London and don’t want to dig into my carry-on to change. Breezy, breathable linen pants are the perfect compromise on comfort and style. I found a pair of cream-colored A.L.C. wide-leg, drawstring pants that I’ve worn everywhere from Turks and Caicos to Kyoto, Japan. They can be dressed up with a fitted, one-shoulder top, double as a cover-up over a bikini at the beach, or you can pair them with a T-shirt or sweater on a plane.
But you don’t have to dish out for the look. This look-alike at Amazon is soft and slouchy while still being structured enough to wear out to dinner with a pair of sandal heels or wedges. Throw on a stack of bangles and statement-making gold hoop earrings and you’re ready for an evening out in the Caribbean or a balmy dinner in Bangkok or Bali. One customer raved that “love is not a strong enough word for how I feel about these pants — they fit me like they were made for me,” and most shoppers agreed they are “super comfy” and “fit most body shapes.” One person who lives in the San Francisco Bay area said they are the “perfect thickness” and an “all-year-long pants choice.”
White Oversized Button-down Shirt
The one piece of clothing I purchased this summer that will still be a key player in fall was an oversized button-down. It’s arguably the most versatile wardrobe staple you can pack, since it can be worn any season, in any destination. Dress it up with sleek, high-waisted silk slacks, wear it open over a bandeau or bodysuit with loose jeans, or throw it on over a swimsuit at the beach. Some nights, I’ll even wear it as a nightshirt to bed. It’s one of the easiest ways to make an outfit look pulled together, yet can go from preppy to edgy with a switch of accessories like jean shorts with a studded belt or leather pants with heels. As one shopper commented, “I’ve been looking for a crisp white shirt and this fills the bill. I bought the small as I wanted it to be a bit more fitted, and it really does fit perfectly.”
Comfy, Casual Loose-Fit Shorts
One way I cut down on clothing for a lighter suitcase is with a few staples I know will get a ton of wear. Linen shorts with an elastic waistband like these from Reformation are a stylish form of loungewear for around a hotel room or Airbnb, by the pool or beach, at yoga or Pilates, or in a tropical locale like Bali or Costa Rica, where any thicker fabric would stick to your skin.
An affordable alternative is this pair from Amazon, which can be adjusted for a loose fit or worn as a high-rise with a tank or swimsuit top. Shoppers like them so much, some have bought a second pair in a different shade. As one customer raved, “I have been looking for a pair of comfy and somewhat flattering linen shorts — these are so worth it.”
Packable Patagonia Duffel Bag
I wouldn’t describe myself as outdoorsy (my camping experience has been limited to music festivals and Burning Man), but outdoor gear really is one of my weaknesses. Style is often sacrificed for functionality, which I totally get, but I believe you can have the best of both. Enter: Patagonia’s holy grail of duffel bags. About as durable as you can get, the lightweight, water-resistant duffel is made from 100-percent recycled fabric and has removable ergonomic shoulder straps, so you can wear it like a backpack. The padded base protects your belongings if the bag gets knocked around, and the zippered side pocket and mesh interior pocket help keep smaller items organized. What I love most about this bag is how much you can fit inside, especially if you’re using compression packing cubes. I just brought mine on a three-week trip that started with a seaside getaway in Croatia where I ferried to a few different islands and continued with a sailing trip in Sweden and needed a soft-sided bag that could be stored under the bed in the boat’s cabin.
Apple World Travel Adapter Kit
When I first started traveling abroad in college, I carried around adapters and clunky converters that often broke and just weren’t that necessary. I quickly ditched items like my hair straightener and streamlined my electronics while on the road. Now, I only have my MacBook and iPhone, so all I need is the right AC plug that works with outlets in places I travel to frequently. The Apple World Travel Adapter Kit comes with a set of seven plugs that can be switched out depending on the region. I’ve had my set now for about five years and haven’t had an issue yet. As one shopper said, “I bought this for a trip to London and Brussels, which required two different plug types, and this was the easiest way to meet that need.”
Everyday Hydrating and Cleansing Oil
If you’re traveling with only a carry-on, the most challenging thing about packing is liquids. Since you can only bring a handful of travel-size toiletries, I look for items that are multi-purpose. I’ve tried all types of oils, but the Everyday Oil Mainstay Blend has had a permanent place in my makeup bag for the past few years.
The plant-based scent is crafted from organic and wild-harvested botanical oils like lavender, palo santo, geranium, and clary sage, so it feels like an in-flight aromatherapy boost when I use it as a moisturizer on my hands or face while on planes. Nourishing, hydrating, and even cleansing (it can replace face wash), Everyday Oil is my secret to keeping my skin dewy when it’s feeling its driest after a long-haul flight or trip somewhere frigid like Swedish Lapland in the height of winter.
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