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6 Pro Tips for Packing Light without Sacrificing Style

Updated: May 30, 2023

Never stress or overpack for holiday travel again!

I have traveled most of my life with a carry-on suitcase. Mostly out of necessity, as many of my trips were taken as a stand-by passenger, but now I've grown so accustomed to packing efficiently, that I prefer using a carry-on. It's so much lighter, and I can grab my bag and leave the airport as soon as the plane lands. I even packed for my entire wedding and honeymoon with only a carry-on! (Minus my wedding dress, of course!)

Due to years of traveling light, I had to learn early on how to get pretty selective with what I took with me, and not pack my entire wardrobe. Tempting, I know. I didn't have any room for excess. But - as you might have guessed - I also didn't want to sacrifice on my travel style!

So how did I do this?

There are a few packing secrets I have learned along the way that will make packing a breeze for you, and that I follow every single time I travel. And if you're one that stresses for days (or weeks or months!) ahead of your travel, take heart. I know these tips will help you approach your travel with much more ease. Once you learn then, you will never go back to your old, inefficient way of packing (You know... just throwing in a bunch of things, sitting on your suitcase as you zip it shut, and hoping it works out!)

#1 Create a cohesive color palette

Anyone out there have kids, or ever babysat kids, or have grandkids? Remember when they were young and everything seemed to mix and match? In particular, I remember a brand called Garanimals, where no matter what top and bottom you picked, they always matched. The entire line of clothes was completely cohesive! Brilliant for busy parents, who needed one less thing to bother themselves with.

I think we need an adult version of Garanimals when packing for trips. Packing light and efficiently (and especially if you are trying to go with a carry-on) is all about the ability to mix and match. Everything should go together. Yep, you heard me: everything. Don't you think this is a bit idealistic, you ask? Nope. If you are serious about making your suitcase lighter and the packing process less stressful, this is KEY. Every top you pick out should match every bottom, and vice versa.

So how do you actually do this, you ask?

I suggest creating a color palette that all "goes" together. For some people, they love working with tops and bottoms that are neutral (think black, whites, beiges, nudes), but you don't have to. For my color lovers, you can create a color palette that has lots of color if that is more your style. I love color, as well, but tend to create a more neutral color palette when I pack, and then have fun with color in my accessories (more on that in tip #2!).

To start, pull several pieces from your closet that you'd love to pack and lay them all out on the bed or floor. Now, take any top and try to pair it with a bottom. The goal is that every bottom matches every top, and vice versa. Remove any piece that doesn't work in "the system." If you find you have lots of tops and bottoms that only work together, but with nothing else you are packing, remove it. The goal here is to avoid thinking in terms of "outfits," and think of everything working together as a system.

The result? Lots of outfit options that you can change-up as you like depending on what you are doing that day (i.e., going out, or sightseeing) or what the weather is doing (cool and cloudy or hot and sunny).

PRO TIP: If you're going for color, consider making either your tops, or your bottoms neutral/solids, and the other colors/patterns. So, let's say you have lots of brightly colored or patterned tops. Then, stick with neutral bottoms that will go with any top you have. Or, let's say you have lots of brightly colored pants, shorts or skirts... then stick with neutrals on top. This formula doesn't work for absolutely everyone's style, but it does make things quite a bit easier to pair together in multiple ways.

#2 Have fun with accessories

As I mentioned above, a really easy way to get more fun and interest into your outfits is through your accessories. Especially if you are going with a more neutral color palette. Think about adding brighter colors or patterns to your outfits through accessories like shoes, bags, jewelry, hats, belts, headbands, scarfs, etc. The great part about accessories (minus shoes) is that they are relatively small and easy to pack, so you can afford to pack a few more of them to mix up your outfits!

As you are picking out your outfits, also pick out the jewelry or accessories that you would wear with it. Again, you can give yourself some leeway to pack a couple of options, but it's important to think about what you may actually wear, instead of just throwing in your entire accessories drawer and hoping for the best!

Here's one more pro tip for bags. I love taking a large leather tote bag with me on the plane that fits under the seat in front of me, as it holds everything from snacks to books to makeup or toiletries that I'll use while traveling. But I also pack a smaller bag to use when I get to my destination. Depending on what I am doing, it may be a cross-body that makes it easy to use when sightseeing, or a pretty clutch to use for evenings out. The smaller bag can also be packed in your tote bag. Win win!

Below are some really playful accessories that would make any outfit more fun!

Packing Light - Get playful with accessories

#3 Add one versatile layer

When I travel, having a layer is a must. Why you ask? For one, I almost always freeze (or burn up! There is rarely an in between zone) on airplanes, so if you're traveling by air, it's good to have a way to add warmth when the air conditioning is blasting, or remove it when it gets too hot. Secondly, depending on where you go, temperatures can swing throughout the day. Even on my warm beach vacations, I find the cool damp air in the evenings is a bit chilly, so having a layer I can wear over a dress or tank is essential.

The key is to pick one layer. Yes, I said ONE layer! And you have probably already guessed that this layer needs to go with everything you pack.

Great options include a denim jacket (can be dressed up over a dress or skirt, or down with shorts or jeans), a moto jacket, a cardigan, wrap, or a blazer.

Here's an example of how you can take one layer (a denim jacket) from travel day to a night out to sightseeing.

Packing Light - Pick one versatile layer

#4 Pick a stand-out piece

With every trip, I love to pick one standout piece to pack, often a dress, that I can wear for dressier occasions, like happy hour or a nice dinner. Other options could be a skirt, a fancy blouse or top. If you are going with a neutral color palette, this is a great way to add something more interesting to your packing list.

Even with standout pieces, remember that with a few changes, you can style them in multiple ways so that it isn't just a one time only outfit. (See the dress below I've styled below for day-time and changed up for nighttime.)

Packing Light - choose one standout piece that takes you from day to night

#5 Shoes - Choose wisely

Since I am a shoe-lover, choosing which shoes to pack on a trip is always an excruciating process for me! I want to pack sooo many different shoes! But, I have to force myself to only pick 3 - at maximum. Often, this includes:

  1. Flat sandals or Flats that I can wear with dresses, skirts or more casual outfits.

  2. Sneakers for heavy walking days. Can be worn with pants/denim, shorts, skirts or dresses.

  3. Dressier shoe for nights out or special dinners where I won't be walking as much. Sometimes this is a small heeled shoe or sandal, or a wedge.

Now, you may be wondering: Do you pack all neutral shoes, or more colorful ones?

It depends.

This goes back to what you decide to pack for clothes. Here's two scenarios:

Option 1: If you go with a neutral color scheme, then by all means add some color and fun to your outfits with colorful shoes, or prints.

Option 2: If you go with a more colorful color scheme, you may want to opt for neutral shoe options, like black, nude, or white.

Below are some of my favorite shoes that would be perfect for traveling to warmer climates.

Packing Light - Make your shoes go the extra mile; pack 3 at maximum!

#6 Less is more

When in doubt, always go with less. I know, I know, easier said than done. But trust me on this one! After you've laid everything out, take out one (or two or three!) items (as you've likely overpacked!) If you follow these guidelines and ensure that all of your pieces mix and match, then it will be easier to create multiple outfits with less pieces. Think of it as a mini capsule wardrobe for your trip! Plus, if you pack less, it saves more room for items you purchase or souvenirs and want to bring back with you.

And remember: While it may feel like you are wearing the same things over and over, no one else will even notice. Trust me! And that's the beauty of mixing different tops with different bottoms and different shoes and accessories: You'll create a fresh look every time!

Oh, and one last thing: Don't fold. Roll.

There's just one more thing you have to know. And this may be my favorite tip for efficient packing of all! Everything you pack should be rolled, not folded. I'm honestly not sure how rolling vs. folding saves you space (I'm sure my engineer-minded husband would know!), but it does! You'll be amazed at how much room you have! Before you start worrying about wrinkles, I have you covered.

Here's how it works:

For items that do not wrinkle, lay them flat and fold in half. Then start from one end and roll as tightly as you can.

For items that do wrinkle, do the same as above, but there's a simple trick to keep your items wrinkle free. Grab some tissue paper and lay it out flat on top of the item you are going to roll. Having tissue paper acts as a buffer so that when you roll, it doesn't end up a wrinkly mess! When you get to your destination, you may have one or two small kinks to steam out, but it should look nearly perfect!

Still looking for help packing for a trip?

If after reading this blog, your head is still swirling about what to pack, or you want to purchase some new items for an upcoming trip, let's talk! I help my client pack for trips by taking a capsule approach. The reality is, if you pick the right items, and mix and match them in multiple ways, you don't really need all the excess! I'm here to take the stress out of what to wear so you can focus on what's important: relaxation!

Learn more about my approach by setting up a free 30-minute Discovery Call (it's free!), and let's get you ready for vacay mode!

About Me

I am a Midwest-born fashion lover on a mission to help women show up as the bosses they are, without all the

Ellie Steinbrink, Expert Stylist and Personal Brand Coach

hassle. I'm the founder of Style Decoded, a virtual personal styling business. I started my business to help professional women show up with more authenticity and alignment at work and in their businesses through their style, and feel 100% confident in their own skin every day. Styling is my passion but it hasn't always been my job. I spent 20 years of my career in client service, advertising, developing brands, blogging, podcasting, and creating marketing and social strategies for my clients, ranging from Fortune 500 giants to individuals building their personal brands online. To say I know a thing or two about marketing and branding is an understatement! Now, I love teaching women how to define and own their unique personal brand through style.

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