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How to Travel Europe With Only A Carry-On

Tips for both summer and winter travel!

The first time I ever went to Europe, I was 20 years old, traveling around Italy with one of my college best friends with the paychecks we'd earned from our first professional opera production. I threw most of my summer wardrobe (well, folded neatly -- I'm too OCD to just throw stuff in a bag and go) in my one large suitcase and set off. I didn't even have multiple bags, just the one suitcase and a backpack, but let me tell you: after dragging that beast across the Italian cobbled streets (one of the wheels broke) and hauling it up train station staircase after train station staircase (with the help of a few lovely strangers), I swore to NEVER travel with more than one carry-on ever again.

Since then, I've been back to Europe twice -- once for a month-long period in the summer and once for 10 days in the autumn -- and both times, I survived out of a standard carry-on bag. I didn't feel I had to sacrifice that much on fashion, either! If you've been wondering how to cut down on baggage and breeze through Europe (or any destination!) with only the essentials, read on! Let me tell you, not being weighed down with suitcases will make your traveling experience so much more enjoyable.

Select a Color Palette

As you begin packing, having a set color palette to work with will drastically improve your sartorial decision making. This is especially helpful for traveling in the colder months, when bulky sweaters and jackets simply take up too much space. When you have a color palette in mind, you will be able to mix-and-match the options in your suitcase, which then provides you with multiple outfits while also saving space! For example, I tend to stick to neutrals (again, especially in the autumn or winter). Knowing I'll be building a wardrobe around blacks, browns, and greys, I'm able to more easily select items that will work with one another throughout my trip.

Layer, Layer, Layer

I know you've heard this one before, but it's essential when packing lightly. Choose simple, solid colored shirts and tank tops that can be worn under the same jacket or cardigan. If you have your color palette chosen, select a favorite outwear item from that palette, and then find shirts that can be worn underneath for slightly different, yet chic looks. What you don't want to do is pack a different shirt/cardigan combination for every single day. Not only does it take up precious suitcase space, but you'll often find that you don't even end up wearing everything you brought. Simply put, less clothes = less stress.

Edit, Edit, Edit

As the fabulous Tim Gunn says, have an editing eye! Whenever I'm packing for a trip, I start by counting how many outfits I'll need. Then, I usually pull two pairs of pants (or shorts), one fancier dress or top (just in case), one good jacket, two pairs of shoes, and then a handful of shirts or sundresses (again, it depends on the time of year that I'm traveling). I know it's so tempting to want to bring all your best outfits, but if you can weed out like items, you'll be much better off and probably have extra room to bring back souvenirs. For example, if I'm traveling in the summer, I'll often take just one pair of sandals in a neutral color that can match everything in my suitcase. When I went to the UK in the autumn, I wore my main pair of boots on the plane and had one extra pair for the nights I'd be going to the theatre. The same idea can be applied to clothing, as well. I've definitely had to leave behind a favorite sweater or dress, simply because they were too bulky and I already had other outfits that would do the trick, but it worked out just fine. When packing a carry-on, editing is most certainly your friend!

Fold Strategically

If you want to fit everything in a carry-on, you won't be able to just throw things in. This is another reason why choosing simple shirts that can be mixed-and-matched is so essential: those kinds of clothing items tend to be easily folded down. Once I've chosen my wardrobe for the trip, I fold each item down twice (fold the clothes in half, and then half again) and stack them neatly in my suitcase. You'd be surprised at how much space this saves. Plus, your clothes will be in much better shape once you reach your destination.

One-Stop-Shop Toiletries

Ok, you know I love skincare and makeup. LOVE. But when it comes to packing, I edit myself here, as well. The best way to keep your bathroom items neat and organized is to get one toiletry bag (I like this one)and only pack the essentials (in travel sizes, mind you). I do have a more complicated skincare routine than some (and add extra hydration when flying), but I'm still able to fit my cleanser, one hydrating toner, one serum, one treatment, one moisturizer, and one oil in my bag. I count out the number of cotton pads, Q-Tips, and bobby pins I'll need and stack them neatly in one of the zippered pockets. Finally, I add in my razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, sample-sized perfume, and perhaps a travel-sized hair serum. If your makeup bag is small enough, you can pack that as is. Otherwise, try fitting those items in your toiletry bag, as well. Oh, and leave your hairdryer at home. Most hotels have one and if they don't, you can give your hair a break from the heat and let it air dry. Only bring a curling iron or flatiron if it can be easily slipped into your suitcase. Do not bring multiple hair styling tools! You won't need them and, again, you'll be glad of the extra space you have without them.


When it comes to things like medication or vitamins, I choose one small container (think the tiniest of tupperware) and count out the exact number of pills I'll need for the trip. The container can then be stored in my backpack, along with one phone charger, one international adapter (if you're heading overseas), headphones, itinerary, one book, and a handful of snacks. I always wear my passport and money in a holder around my neck. When it comes to packing lightly, think of it like packing for college: you pretty much never need nearly as much stuff as you think you do. If you forget something, you can easily pop into a drugstore once you get to your hotel!

Over the years of my travels, both domestic and international, I've found that I'm always happier when I travel lightly. It's just so much less stressful and allows you to enjoy the experience that much more, when you're not worried about your five bags and scattered belongings. I've also found that traveling lightly is a great lesson in minimalism! I'm always surprised at how little I can get by with, which I think is very revealing.

If you implement these tips (or if you have some of your own), let me know! I hope they help you streamline your packing process to maximize the enjoyment of your next trip!