How to Pack for 3 Weeks with Only a Carry-On Bag

When I put my mind to it, I'm a champion packer!

Let me tell you a little story about a 16-year-old girl who couldn't spend one night away from her assortment of 6+ curling irons. I used to squeeze my suitcase in at 49.9 lbs back in the day (50 lbs is the max before it is considered an 'extra heavy load,' aka $$$). 😝

Fast forward a few years and add a husband who refuses to wait for the luggage carousel to go 'round, and I've got the whole packing thing down to a science. I can go away for three weeks with only a carry-on and YOU CAN TOO! I swear, it's possible. 🎒


Up your luggage game. 

This step is most important. Functional and lightweight luggage makes a world of difference. 

My friend Carla Marie turned me on to Timbuk2, a kick-ass luggage company known for their ultra-sleek, ultra-lightweight suitcases, made with skateboard wheels. I got their 22" Copilot Luggage Roller, suitable for carry-on airplane use, a few years ago during a Black Friday sale and I've never looked back. I've since purchased 3 additional suitcases from this company as gifts for my family and everyone raves about them.

And a few months ago for my birthday, I bought myself the Lo & Sons Catalina Weekender bag that I've been eyeing on Instagram for a long time. It's a perfect size, with a separate compartment on the bottom for my shoes and a pocket on one side that unzips to fit over a suitcase handle. 

✨ These two pieces together are my dream team! ✨

Image Source: Timbuk2 / Lo & Sons

When I do travel with a backpack, it's always my North Face Women's Jester. I bought it 10 years ago and it's still perfect! The North Face Jester is the love child between a school backpack and a hikers pack. I have a cream colored one that's no longer made, but if I could do it again I'd get black because I'm always concerned with looking too much like 'an American' overseas. Inconspicuous is better!

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Simplify your hair and beauty essentials.

A few years ago I was reading an article by a travel magazine editor who raved about the Bed Head Tapered Curling Iron Wand and SHE 🙌 WAS 🙌 RIGHT! 🙌 If I shower at night and my hair air dries, 3 mins with this miracle wand in the morning and I have perfectly carefree tousled vacation waves. I never have to touch a hair dryer!

Aside from my wand, these are the other hair accessories/products I bring (and I could probably even remove one or two of these items if I had to)

Goodie Ouchless Rubber Bands (To tie the ends off of braids + low pulled back ponytails.) 

Goody Spin Pins (The best for messy buns. They come in 'mini' for short hair too.)

Moroccan Oil (I smooth it through my hair at night because I go to sleep with my hair wet, it tames frizz and moisturizes my dry locks.)

Conair Mini Travel Brush (Teeny tiny, no need for a full sized brush.)

Not Your Mother's Beach Babe Texturing Sea Salt Spray (My hair is pin straight and fine, so this gives it a ton of body after I curl it.)

Batiste Dry Shampoo (To give some life to my roots after a sweaty day doing tourist things.)

amikaUn.Done Texture Spray (It brings limp hair to life in a second and gives amazing overall texture.)

EDIT: After really thinking about this... if I needed to, I could pair this down to just a brush, hair ties, and beach wave spray. I would braid my hair the whole time with these three things. Now I feel like I need to challenge myself. LOL! 

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Two pairs of shoes. Period. Okay, maybe a third. 

Walking shoes + one other pair, but never heels! COMFORT. COMFORT. COMFORT. This took me an extremely long time to get down pat, but when I did, it changed my life because the fastest way to add weight and bulk to your luggage is with too many shoes. Sometimes you can get away with three pairs if you're traveling in the summer and your sandals are slim and lightweight. The key is to NOT get new shoes for your trip. Why torture your feet with unbroken-in shoes? Bring your old pair to the shoemaker for a bit of TLC before you go and you'll feel like you're wearing new shoes. 

When I did London and Paris in the same trip, I knew I wasn't going to be hiking, so I wore a pair of polished Frye riding boots + packed a pair of sneaker high tops

In Ireland, I wore the same pair of Sam Edelman ankle boots (during a summer trip) the whole time and barely even touched the sneakers I brought. It rarely ever gets warm enough there for sandals. 

In Italy this summer I wore brown strappy sandals from Madewell and Nike's Juvenate Sneaker.  This combo was perfect for hiking, city walking, and beach-going. 

When it comes to footwear, I'm hyper sensitive to looking too much like a tourist. Black Nike sneakers are most always my walking shoe of choice. I even saw some cool Parisian girls wearing them while I'm was in France, lol!  If it's a summer trip, I'll often bring along a low-key pair of light colored fashiony sneakers. White low top Converse or Superga classics usually do the trick. They're a great option to wear with dresses and skirts. 

With my travel sandals, I try to pick something that isn't totally flat because walking long distances or standing for long periods of time is a leg killer. Also, the fewer straps the better because that means less chance for rubbing and blistering. 

Something to note: If your shoes aren't leather, you should ALWAYS spray them with a heavy duty waterproofing repellent in case you get caught in a rain storm. Once I was with a friend who had to put on soggy sneakers that didn't dry overnight and she was miserable. 

Also, if you're traveling to a place known for heavy rainfall, like Ireland or England, Trentorn is a great all-weather footwear company.

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Find a lightweight leather purse. 

It's incredible how much a purse can weigh before you even put your stuff in it. Decorative hardware = heavy. Another important thing to think about when you're picking JUST ONE bag for the entirety of your trip, the strap needs to be slash proof. Thieves will target people whose straps can be quickly cut in half with a pocket knife. I also make sure it zips up completely, to keep my valuables away from prying hands.

My go-to brand is Gigi New York for both functionality and style! Their Amelie Crossbody looks compact, but fits all my essentials!

I also always pack a canvas tote to put non-essentials like umbrellas, guidebooks, and sunscreen in when I'm traveling. If these things get stolen it's not the end of the world, so you can be a little less careful with it draped over your shoulder. 


Scale down on bath products & makeup.

It's amazing how many products out there that can do double duty! Foundations have sunblock (and vice versa), makeup palates can be used on both eyes and cheeks, serums and moisturizers are sometimes interchangeable. 

A few weeks before a vacation, I think about the weather and the types of places I'll be going, and start testing out a paired down makeup routine with 4 or 5 products (max). This way, I can sparsely and confidently pack a tiny makeup bag. I mostly don't go anywhere fancy when traveling, so my makeup is fairly simple. 

I also rely on the hotels I'm staying in to provide some necessities like lotion and soap. I supplement the rest. And when I can, I put everything in a travel sized bottle when necessary. GoToobs are great! 

Shower bag:

Small Shampoo - I use hotel version whenever I can, but always pack a small emergency one.

Neutrogena Triple Moisture Deep Recovery Hair Mask - Conditioner + hair mask in one. I always need this after swimming!  

Bio Oil - All over skin moisturizer + nighttime facial moisturizer. I use hotel body lotion whenever I can. This is also a great way to remove stubborn waterproof mascara in a pinch. 

Olay Regenerist Regenerating Lotion With SPF 50 - For daytime use only. Bio Oil serves as the nighttime moisturizer. I use this as a body moisturizer too sometimes, but sparingly. 

Neosporin Ointment - A go-to for cuts, scrapes, chapped lips, rashes, chaffing, pimples, sunburns. Sometimes I put a thin layer on my face before bed if my skin is irritated. 


Makeup bag:

IT Cosmetics Your Skin But Better™ CC+™ Cream with SPF 50+ - This is a miracle product. No need for concealer when traveling. Just dab a little extra of this where you want coverage.

Maybelline® Great Lash® Mascara Waterproof - This doubles as eyeliner (I apply with my pinky finger) when I want a more 'nighttime' look. 

IT Cosmetics Confidence in Your Glow™ Palate - Bronzer, blush and a highlighter in one! I love the 'Instant Natural Glow' color palate. I use the highlighter part on my eyes too. BAM! 

Glossier Boy Brow - I look more awake and polished when I have this on. When you're scaling down your makeup look, I feel it's very important not to skimp on brow color. 

NARS Duo Eyeshadow - You can't go wrong with two neutral eye colors! 

ChapStick Total Hydration 3 in 1 - I never wear lipstick on vacation, but it's nice to have a touch of color on your lips. LOVE LOVE LOVE this product in Sweet Peach. 

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Streamline Your Odds And Ends

- Pack washable underwear and socks.

- Pick a swimsuit that doubles as a hot weather top (for girls) or shorts (for guys).

- Find a scarf that doubles as a plane blanket, picnic blanket, sarong, shawl, etc. 

- Consider going the e-book route. Travel guidebooks can be bulky. The e-book version on the Kindle app works even better with easy to use searching features, etc.

- Invest in a good rechargeable battery for your phone.

- Don't pack doubles. Find one pair of sunglasses that works for every situation. 

- Only take what you are willing to lose!

- Leave your jewelry at home! There's no one to impress when you're relaxing or taking in the riches of the world. 

-In the case of emergency... wash it in the sink! Carry travel packets of Tide


My #1 rule goes a little something like this: If it's not comfortable enough to nap in, don't bother packing it.

My #2 rule is LAYER, LAYER, LAYER. 

If it's not comfortable you won't wear it, period. When you've got a whole day of trekking around and sightseeing ahead of you, you'll never pull out those too-tight skinny jeans from your suitcase. Save yourself the suitcase room from the start and don't bother. 

I'm going to write a whole other post on exactly what items of clothing will serve you well during the different seasons, but I always make sure to pack underwear that can be washed in the sink and dried overnight. I also rely on dark colors that don't show dirt. If you don't look dirty and you don't smell... who cares that you've worn the same pair of black jeans 5 days in a row? HA! 

This is my general list of things to pack:

2 T-shirts

2 Blouses

2 Pairs of Pants (only 1 if it's summer)

1 Neutral Colored Dress (2 if it's the summer)

1 Sweater

1 Jacket or Coat

1 Scarf

1 Skirt

Of course, your clothing needs will change depending on the destination and activities planned, but that's my general list.

xoxoxox, Kathleen



Elvis Duran

Elvis Duran

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