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2-Week Wardrobe in a Carry-On?

It’s doable with these easy packing tips

mature woman packing clothes in a suit case
Packing for a trip doesn't have to be chaotic. There are ways to simplify your routine — and reduce the stress.
Cultura RM Exclusive/Sofie Delauw/Getty Images

Are you bugged by airline restrictions, baggage claim chaos and always packing the wrong clothes? As a beauty and fashion editor traveling around the country for photo shoots, I learned to pack lean and mean from models who never haul more than a carry-on. The same basic rules apply no matter where you’re going or why. Here’s how to wing it with maximum style — and minimum stuff — for 14 days.

1. Buy a tech-smart carry-on

Totally de-stress by getting a sleeker, lighter-weight (easy to lift or drag) but super-durable four-wheel spinner. No more swerving as you race to the gate, or suitcase fall-overs while waiting in line. Look for ergonomic handles, external USB ports to charge your devices (great during delays, but the case must have removable batteries), an app-controlled GPS tracker system (if you accidentally leave your bag in the restroom), TSA approved locks and even built-in weight sensors that make overpacking impossible. FYI: If the plane is full or the aircraft is small, your carry-on bag might get checked at the gate — so add a luggage tag inside and out.

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2Turn your body into an extra suitcase

Always wear your heaviest, bulkiest, stiffest items on the plane to save space. The best travel outfit is a neutral power ensemble of a tailored blazer, long-sleeved top and slim ankle pants (or neat jeans), a trench coat, and booties or loafers. Looking classy and authoritative can help you snag a seat upgrade or a better room or table at hotels and restaurants. Add a big style-making scarf to finish. It rolls to a neck pillow, protects you from seatmates with colds and coughs, and doubles as an evening wrap.

Woman packing a large suitcase
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3. Take a polished handbag that’s big enough

Make your allowed “personal item” a shoulder bag, cross-body or zip-top hobo that leaves your hands free but safely keeps valuables and essentials close. It will save you from reaching for your carry-on during the flight, too. Stash your wallet, passport, eyeglasses or contacts, sunglasses, hearing aids and extra batteries, earbuds, mobile, Kindle, tablet, meds, snacks and that 1-quart TSA-approved plastic baggie for toiletries in your handbag. Your smartphone has a flashlight, GPS and camera, so keep it with you at all times.

4. Pair two neutral colors as a wardrobe color strategy

Any combo of black, gray, navy or camel plus white works. The white pieces — a T-shirt, sweater or white jeans — brighten and break up the look. Remember to select your plane outfit in sync with the suitcase color plan since that’s part of your traveling closet. The tailored “plane” blazer, for example, dresses up jeans, khakis or leggings in a sec and creates an instant suit over matching pants. Yes, bring the trench coat. On rainy days and chilly evenings, it’s the one piece everyone regrets not having.

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5. Bring clothes that match, pair and layer easily

Grab some inspiration from this sample packing list (it does not include your onboard clothes): two ankle-cropped pants (tailored or jeans), four T-shirts with three-quarter sleeves and two jersey knit tunics (asymmetrical or high-low hemmed or A-line), one jersey knit dress (wrap, fit-and-flare, A-line or shift style), one cardigan, one light pullover sweater, one pair of dress shoes (kitten-heel pumps), one pair of slip-on sneakers, one pair of ballet flats, two bras, 14 panties, a pair of leggings or yoga pants, two tank tops (to double as sleep/workout wear/under layer) and socks. Keep in mind that lots of workouts can be done without sneakers or a gym — such as walking or running on the beach, doing yoga or using resistance training with bands in your room.

Clothes on a couch next to a carry on suitcase
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6. Remember the “don’t-forgets”

Do a run-through pack a week before, not the day before. Lay everything out on the floor and check off your list as you pack. Depending on your travel destination and trip purpose (business, sightseeing in Europe, a lazy beach vacay?), you’ll need to make some swaps and additions. For a business trip, take fewer T-shirts and more dressy tops, such as a crisp white wrap shirt and silk blouses. For a beach resort, add flip-flops, two swimsuits, a crushable brimmed sun hat and a string sack for the pool that can be tucked in a shoe. For an urban trip abroad, take extra cardigans, a full midi skirt and gel insoles for days spent walking. And no matter where you go, add lightweight scarves — in prints, metallic, sequins and colors — as bold neckline and look changers, instead of stacks of bangles and necklaces. Scarves are zero weight and take up almost no space.

7Simplify your routine with new solutions

Do yourself a favor and get a salon gel manicure-pedicure before leaving home — it’s worth every dollar to last chipless for weeks. Check hotels for on-site or nearby salons for a pro blowout once a week. Stretch between days with dry shampoo, ponytails and buns. Make statement glasses work like eye makeup — bold frames can take over from your usual smoky eye routine. Upon arrival, scout local drugstores for sunscreen and inexpensive versions of must-haves, such as a red lipstick, mascara, tinted moisturizer, blush, travel-size gel deodorant, dry shampoo, wet shampoo and conditioner. It’s a fun way to experiment.

sample size shampoo and creams lined up on top of a carry on suitcase
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8. Follow TSA carry-on beauty rules, but use it as an excuse to spend

We know all liquids, gels and creams (including our beloved skin, hair and makeup) must be 3.4 ounces or less each and must fit in a 1-quart-size resealable plastic baggie. Stalk your local department store and Sephora, and load up on counter samples in single-use sample packets and tiny tubes. I always snag foundation, perfume, face and eye creams and serums, cleanser, even lipstick in peel-off swatches. Don’t forget to pack your brush, a wide-tooth comb and your toothbrush.

9. Maximize suitcase space

Work in layers. At the bottom of your bag, place rolled soft things such as T-shirts, jeans, knits, dresses, leggings and sweaters in rows. Next, pack pants (folded lengthwise) and any tailored skirts or dresses, each in individual dry-cleaner bags in a stack-and-wrap method. Start with pants. Pack the first pair with the waistband at the center of the case and legs extending over one side. Layer the next pant going the other way, with the waistband overlapping the first one and legs draped over the other side of the case. Continue this way with pants and tailored dress(es) last. Slip any folded blouses or shirts flat into plastic bags and place them on top, and put all underwear in a plastic baggie. Flip pants and dress ends back in toward the center of suitcase as a wrap. Add a final plastic dry-cleaner bag on top layer. Stuff shoes with socks, and slip into the sides of the case with the soles out. Last but not least: Look at everything you packed and remove three things you probably won’t wear. Make less do more.

For more beauty and style tips for women age 50-plus, check out The Woman's Wakeup: How to Shake Up Your Looks, Life, and Love After 50 by Lois Joy Johnson and AARP's Beauty & Style issue.