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How to Create A Carry-On Capsule Wardrobe

Feb 26, 2016

WhatToPackForEurope_Spring: travel capsule wardrobe

Note: I frequently update this post with the most up-to-date links for easy shopping, so if you see something in the collage above that isn’t linked below, it’s because it’s sold out! Hope this post is helpful for your packing needs! 

Hi guys!

Guessing you’ve landed on this post because you need some help packing for an upcoming adventure! Hooray! This post was originally published a couple years back, but I do update it often–you’ll notice this is written with a winter/spring wardrobe in mind, but there are still tips you can come away with that will work easily for summer travel as well!

The first time I did a carry-on capsule wardrobe it was to my trip to Ireland with just a backpack. It was hands down, THE BEST decision I’ve ever made. Creating a carry-on packing list for a week+ might seem daunting, but it’s definitely easier than you think! I’ve since replicated this for other European adventures and I’m never sorry! (For example, you can see my Paris Packing List right here!)

I know what you’re thinking. And yes–you can definitely get away with just a carry-on, no matter how long your trip may last. How? By creating your own travel capsule wardrobe.

Even if capsule wardrobes aren’t your thing in real life, they are a total lifesaver when it comes to packing for a trip. Of course, this can work no matter where you’re going–Europe, South America, or a road trip down Route 66. Just adapt these tips to fit your journey, lifestyle, (and of course, anticipated weather) and you will never look back.

Read on for my Spring in Europe packing list, plus some extra tips to keep in mind as you prepare for your vacation!

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Packing Rules: 

1. Do not pack anything you don’t absolutely love–you won’t wear it. Like an capsule wardrobe, you wan’t to focus only on what you adore. Instead, you’ll re-wear the things you do love, and will have wasted space for nothing. (If you don’t love something, why do you own it anyway?)

2. Pick a color scheme, and stick to it. Every single item you pack must also match every other item you pack. This results in dozens of outfit combinations and virtually zero effort required to get dressed every day. Sticking to classic basics also ensures you won’t look back at photos and think, “GOD what was I wearing!?” Remember, there is nothing chicer than all-black. On my Ireland trip, I packed only black, grey, and stripes. I brought only basics that I felt great in, and the result meant getting up and out the door to explore in less than 10 minutes.

3. Limit yourself to three pairs of shoes. There’s a reason most capsule wardrobes limit footwear choices, you really don’t need that many! When traveling to Europe, you truly need one pair of boots, and one pair of sneakers. That’s it. Your third pair is optional. Also, note: most places you can easily get by without a pair of heels. Even at night,  you’ll likely do a fair amount of walking, so keep this in mind. Many European cities are more casual than you would encounter here in the U.S. Some exceptions: you want to check out the raging ocean-front club scene in Barcelona (you’ll definitely want heels for that), or you want to feel ultra romantic in Paris. (Hey, do your thing, girl.)

Regardless, if you do decide to bring heels, choose a pair of wedges that fit within your color scheme. Why wedges? Many European cities have cobblestone streets, making them deadly for thin heels and stilettos. You don’t want to end up in the hospital in a foreign country with a twisted ankle, so go with wedges. Also, if that wasn’t enough of a reason, know that your heels will get stuck in the cobblestone and become ruined in less than 5 seconds. I know this because every pair of heels I brought to Italy to study abroad did not make it home. So if you were considering not taking my advice and bringing your favorite stilettos–don’t. 

Limit your handbags. More on that below, but I promise–you don’t need more than one purse. Speaking of purses: NEVER carry your passport in your purse with you each day! Keep it in the safe in your hotel room. Mugging is extremely common in Europe, and you don’t want to be left without your wallet AND your passport!

Packing List – Clothing: 

This packing list is based on my experience traveling throughout several European countries in springtime, and is best suited for areas with mild climates like Ireland, Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, etc. Obviously use your best judgement and customize as needed based on where you’ll be traveling!

Chambray TopA classic chambray button down is great for layering–as a base layer or second layer, and it’s basically a neutral (because, you know, Canadian tuxedos are in.) It also has a bit more weight to it than the average button down, which comes in handy for chilly European climates, and it doesn’t wrinkle as easily.

Cardigan SweaterYou want to pack at least one cardigan sweater, again, because you want as many layering options as possible. Weather in spring anywhere is unpredictable, but especially in Europe. I prefer cardigans in either grey, or black, as they go with anything you layer over them. Nordstrom has a ton of great cardigans at lot’s of price points! This one is a linen blend so it’s great for warmer climates as well!

Black V-Neck SweaterThe v-neck sweater is slightly more versatile than the crew neck. Why? Crew or turtlenecks can look dowdy if you layer certain things over them–such as a blazer, for example. They’re also harder to dress up. But a v-neck shows a bit more skin, and can be dressed up for a night out to dinner, and also looks great layered under a blazer, cardigan, or any other type of jacket. Everlane makes a really amazing classic cashmere version for under $100! Lot’s available over here, too!

Striped tee: You’re not going to believe me, but this is going to be the one top you’ll reach for over and over again. Stripes just make your entire outfit cuter–it’s that simple! I love the long sleeved tees for travel, because they keep you warmer on cold planes or chilly weather, but you can always roll the sleeves if you get hot. The best part about this particular shirt is that it’s REVERSIBLE! V-neck on one side, rotate it around, and it’s a crewneck! Nordstrom has tons of cute striped tees so you can find one that suits your style the most! Honestly, I usually bring a few different versions!

Classic blazerNo-brainer, obviously. Layers. LAYERS. You get it, right? A blazer is an ultra-polished outer layer that works great if your weather is warmer than planned, and also is a great under layer below a coat if necessary. It also looks extra sharp for going out at night. J.Crew makes the best versions–I especially love their Parke blaser. It’s a really flattering cut on everyone!

Black V-Neck TeeAgain, a black v-neck is about the most versatile item you can pack. You can get away with wearing a black v-neck with your statement earrings and chic ballet flats for dinner just about anywhere in Europe. Another color, however, is much harder to dress up. (For example, pink? No way.) Everlane makes some of my favorite tees that are so soft and flattering!

Barbour CoatYou’re going to argue me on this, I know you are. But you really should only need one coat. You think I’m crazy–but it’s true. I love the Barbour Beadnell coats because they aren’t bulky, but they’re super warm and water and stain resistant. This is the only coat I brought with me to Ireland last year and it was perfect. The great thing about olive is that pairs really well with black, navy, or brown. (You don’t have to roll the sleeves if you don’t want the plaid to show.) They make them in wax coated and quilted, but if you’re going somewhere rainy like London or Ireland, I’d suggest the wax-coated version!

Dark Skinny JeansDark skinnies are a must, because they show the least amount of dirt, and are also great for going out at night. You can easily get away with one pair of jeans the whole time, so if you’re up for that–go with these. Wanna know something crazy? My favorite pair right now are from ABERCROMBIE! Who knew!?

Boyfriend JeansI like the extra “oomph” that boyfriend jeans lend to an outfit. I think they have a lot more personality than regular skinny jeans, and at times, are certainly more comfortable. Everlane makes an amazing pair! (P.S. I have a whole post on how to style boyfriend jeans multiple ways right here!)

Ponte PantsThey feel like leggings, but are significantly more durable and polished looking. They’ll keep you much warmer than leggings, and again, can look significantly more dressy if you happen to be going somewhere that you don’t want to wear jeans. I own this pair and adore them–it looks like they just sold out but keep an eye if they come back in stock! Otherwise, these have really good reviews and are very similar!

Striped Shift Dress: A nice alternative to jeans, I’d recommend throwing at least one t-shirt or shift dress in your bag–they’re perfect for wearing out to dinner, and for sightseeing as well. Make sure to choose a style that looks great with all three of your footwear options, and throw in a pair of opaque tights in case it gets chilly. My favorite is the Everlane Box Cut T-Shirt Dress–I just took it to Italy and it was my most worn item of the trip!

Packing List – Footwear: 

Black ankle bootiesBoots or booties are absolutely required for a Europe trip. I highly recommend Sam Edelman’s Petty Chelsea Booties! They look cute, provide great support, and are durable no matter what the weather. I prefer ankle booties to riding boots personally, because I think they’re a bit more versatile. You can wear them with dresses and boyfriend jeans, for example–something you probably wouldn’t be able to do with standard riding boots. Just make sure to weather-proof them before you go! (I also love Everlane’s Chelsea Booties!)

SneakersSneakers are also required for a Europe trip. Being on your feet all day, you’ll often want to trade off the type of shoe you’re wearing each day. Converse or Jack Purcell provide a great alternative to boots, and look cute with jeans, dresses, whatever. Definitely give them a thorough spray of Scotchgard beforehand though, this will make them really easy to wipe off! On the flip side, you could also go with some cute trainers–my favorite are Allbirds because they’re INSANELY comfortable but they tow a really great line between “athletic” and “stylish.” Plus, you don’t have to wear socks–they’re made of wool and naturally wick away moisture and keep your feet cool! I’ve also been obsessed with my Tretorns and Everlane’s Tread sneakers as of late.

Chic ballet flats or Loafers: ballet flats are another European style staple that you see everywhere for good reason–they’re chic, and comfy! Yosi Samra flats are popular because they fold up and fit into your purse! As for loafers, Sam Edelman’s loafers are a pretty tough budget buy to beat! If you’re up for a splurge, my Gucci loafers are my obsession!

Packing List – Accessories: 

Chic Backpack OR CrossbodySomething else you probably think I’m crazy for saying, but you only need one purse. REALLY. I promise. I prefer black if you’ll be wearing more wintery clothes or a tan in warmer weather–but as long as you ensure it goes with everything you’re bringing, choose whatever color you’d prefer! I would strongly recommend either a cross-body bag or a mini backpack. Your purse needs to be able to strap across your body, and be virtually impossible for pick-pockets to break into or steal off of you. I just bought this Madewell backpack for my most recent trip to Italy and it is far and away the best purchase I made for the whole trip. Even Neal agreed it was the trip MVP, haha!

Fold-Up SunniesI have a pair of fold-up Ray Ban’s that Neal bought me as a present in Ireland, and they are the best best thing for travel ever. They fold up into a teeny tiny case that fits in nearly any type of bag. If you only take away one thing from this packing list, I think you should invest in these 😉

Subtle statement studsEuropeans aren’t big into extravagant bling. Pack on the sparkles, and you’ll scream tourist. (Not to mention, “easy target” for muggers.) You won’t see them dripping in statement necklaces or stacks of sparkly bracelets. That being said, keep your jewelry to a minimum (and keep your nice stuff at home.) Bring one pair of statement studs that are still relatively simple in case you’d like to dress up your black v-neck sweater for dinner, but you’ll likely need little else. Baublebar is my favorite place for budget-friendly statement jewelry!

Silk ScarfYou guys know this about me already, but silk scarves are the easiest way to dress up a simple outfit. (Capsule wardrobe VIP right here!) Your packing list is not complete without one! Plus, they add some extra warmth! Choose a color that compliments the rest of your items, but is enough to look pretty! (You’ll want to look back in photos and remember how European chic you were!) I love this colorful version and this striped version!

Warm scarfIn case temps drop, a heavier scarf or wool pashmina is always a great secret weapon to keep in your bag. They’re also great to wrap around you if you’re cold out while out to a nice dinner!

Red lipstick: Aside from a silk scarf, the best way to look polished is with a classic, red lip. I love NARS matte lip pencils because they give you a gorgeous color, but they aren’t too matte or drying. Lips always have the tendency to get extra chapped and dry during travel, so you’ll want something that still provides some moisture while looking great at the same time.

Dry shampooYou aren’t going to want to spend an extra hour in the morning doing your hair–you have sights to see! That being said, dry shampoo will be your best friend. Use this stuff and you can make it three days without washing your hair!

Other things to keep in mind: 

Laundry on the go: You might not have a washer-dryer at your disposal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do some laundry on the fly. Ensure you have some stain removing wipes, or a Tide to Go pen to remove stains. Plus, throw in some Woolite packets–you can easily wash your tees, undies, and bras in the sink of your hotel. Another lifesaver–Downy Wrinkle Release Spray. This stuff is absolute MAGIC. I never go anywhere without it!

Make sure to bring an extra bag for your dirty items. I love this plastic lined “Ditty Bag” that is great for sealing off dirty clothes and even wet swimsuits, but a large ziplock bag will also work great. Also, if you have a backpack, it doesn’t hurt to keep a couple drier sheets in with your clothing to keep them smelling fresh.

Hair appliances: I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but I strongly recommend you leave your hair dryer, straightener, and curling iron at home. Even with a converter, you’ll likely burn out your appliance or even more embarrassing–be that American who blew the fuse in her room. Furthermore, you don’t want to be be spending extra time on your hair when you have a European city to explore! Nobody is going to notice what your hair looks like–so embrace au natural. (Also, Refinery29 has a ton of awesome tutorials on how to style your hair when it’s wet!)

When packing, roll your clothing: By rolling your clothing, you can fit significantly more clothing in your bag than with folding. Plus, it minimizes wrinkles, so you don’t look like a frumpy mess the whole trip.

Don’t wait until the last minute: Plan ahead carefully–last minute scrambling always results in stuffing extra items in at the last minute that you don’t need! Don’t add in last-minute extras. If you need something, you can always buy it there, and then you’ll have a great souvenir!

Cell phone plan: Even if you’re planning to go off the grid (go you!) you should at least purchase the minimum travel plan from your cell phone provider. While most places do offer wifi in Europe, and it’s easy to use MMS on your iPhone for free in those areas, you will thank me when you’re completely lost in a city that doesn’t speak english and you need to pull out your google maps. (Or worse!) AT&T and Verizon both offer really affordable base plans for this. Your safety is worth the extra money!

What bag to pack in? I would highly recommend a backpack. I know it’s not very glamorous, but there will be times where you’ll be in between cities or trains and you’ll have to lug your bag with you. Have you ever tried to run for a train on uneven pavement while pulling a wheely bag? Or stop into a pub with a giant suitcase? It doesn’t work out very well.

I borrowed a friend’s backpack for our recent Ireland trip, but Neal uses this backpack from Topo and it’s really awesome. It’s relatively inexpensive, it has several different compartments (even one for shoes) and it’s actually WAY cuter than those heinous travel packs you’ll find at REI.

On the flip side, if you’ll only be in one place for the majority of the time (thus, not running to catch several trains or finding yourself in lot’s of “in between” situations), a wheelie bag might be a better option. The Delsey Paris 21″ Chatalet carry-on is one of the best things I’ve ever purchased. (I did a whole review on it here!) It’s also insanely lightweight, so even if you do need to run to catch a train or two, you’ll be totally fine sprinting through the train station with this! Plus, you can’t really beat the price!

What do you think? Would you try out a capsule wardrobe next time you travel? 

Also, if you loved this post, check out my Capsule Wardrobe Remix series!

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