How to Pack for a Two-Week Vacation with Only a Carry-On

A carry-on-size suitcase, tote bag, and water bottle - all you need for your vacation

In response to my last post, several people expressed surprise at my ability to pack for an international vacation with only a carry-on suitcase. As a follow-up, I thought I’d share some details about how I pack. Most of my longer trips have been in the summer, and some of these tips apply best to warm-weather travel, but others are useful year-round.

I always wear flat, closed, slip-on shoes with socks when I go to the airport because I don’t like to walk through the security line in bare feet (a lot of other feet have walked through that scanner area). I pack a pair of all-terrain sandals like these and wear them for most of my trip. I can wear them while hiking, trekking around the city, or into the water on a rocky beach or while kayaking. They are very comfortable and work for just about every activity. I usually pack one nicer pair of sandals in case I want to dress up for dinner or look a little nicer for some other occasion. That means I have one pair of shoes on my feet and two pairs of sandals in my suitcase, which fit nicely in the shoe pockets and don’t take up much space.

I usually take a light rain jacket or cardigan in case I encounter rainy weather or chilly evenings. I don’t pack this; I wear it onto the plane. If the plane is warm, I throw it into the overhead bin or roll it up and use it as a pillow. I also throw a small, collapsible umbrella and a hat in my suitcase (the hat is more for sun protection than rain, as my rain jacket has a hood).

Summer clothing is lighter and takes up less space than winter clothing, but the downside to traveling in the summer is that due to being sweaty, re-wearing clothes isn’t a great option. To avoid having to pack a full trip’s worth of unique outfits, I pack a bar of solid laundry soap. You can find this stuff at Wal-Mart. I hand-wash clothes in the sink and throw them over the shower bar, balcony railing, or whatever other drying surface is available. Packing the solid soap instead of liquid detergent means I can save space in my quart-size plastic bag for essential toiletries.

To fit more clothing into limited space and minimize wrinkling, I roll my clothes together rather than folding them. I will take a shirt and lay it out flat, then lay five other shirts flat on top of it, then fold the whole stack in half and roll them. I’ll do the same with my shorts/skirts and with any dresses I might pack. Rolling clothes together like this saves a lot of space. Like my all-terrain sandals, I try to choose clothes that are versatile: able to be dressed up or down, solid colors that mix and match well, lightweight, quick-drying, and of course, comfortable. I usually skip the jeans for longer trips because they take up too much real estate, and they are often too hot for summer weather anyway. I like skorts because they’re practical enough for hiking or other active adventures, but they look a little nicer than shorts for going out to dinner. I usually only pack two sets of pajamas and wash them as needed. At least one set is usually athletic shirts and a light-weight tshirt which can double as activewear if necessary.

Several shirts stacked on top of one another

Clothes rolled together for easy packing

I use my own refillable 3-ounce bottles for shampoo and conditioner and fill them as full as I can. If I can’t make the 3 ounces last for the whole trip, I find a grocery store or pharmacy and buy what I need as I travel. I can also supplement my supply with hotel toiletries, but I usually don’t rely on that option because not all lodging places provide toiletries. I have sensitive skin and sometimes buy the travel-size versions of face wash and other skincare items (I most recently bought this set). I opt for bar soap instead of body wash so it doesn’t have to go in the plastic bag with the liquids. I suppose you could also buy solid shampoo, though I haven’t used that before. If I’m going to take something like eye cream that I use in very small quantities, I put some in a contact lens case instead of packing the whole container. Where possible, I try to choose solid cosmetics over liquid ones (i.e., powder blush instead of cream blush, eyeliner pencil instead of liquid liner), also to minimize what has to fit in the plastic bag. Mascara sometimes goes in the plastic bag, but sometimes I just throw it in my makeup bag (along with lip balm), and no TSA agent has ever given me a hard time about it. Of course, you could also skip the cosmetics altogether.

I pack a few non perishable, healthy snacks like single-serving packs of almonds and fig bars so I don’t have to pay high prices for airport food. It’s also helpful to have some snacks on hand for times when obtaining food isn’t convenient. I take an empty water bottle through security and fill it at a water fountain in the airport to avoid having to buy expensive drinks from airport restaurants. I carry the water bottle with me throughout my trip to stay hydrated.

I tend to walk a lot while traveling, so I generally don’t worry much about working out. I don’t pack separate workout clothes, sneakers, or other gear. I pack a yoga towel, which works as a makeshift mat and doesn’t occupy much space in my luggage. I use it to do yoga in my room, and sometimes I also do body weight exercises like push-ups or lunges. In a pinch, the yoga towel can double as a blanket, beach towel, or pillow.

Though I sometimes carry a backpack for extra space, my typical personal item is a water-resistant, lightweight, zip-top tote bag with lots of pockets. It’s big enough to fit what I need, but it isn’t huge. When I arrive, I remove the items that aren’t necessary for the day’s activities (i.e., my iPad, the book(s) I packed for the airplane) and use the tote as my purse. I pack a wristlet or smaller bag (usually one made of nylon or another fabric that can be folded or packed flat) for times when I don’t want to carry the tote bag.

A few other things I almost always pack: my passport (obviously), neck pillow for the plane (this doesn’t go in the suitcase – it’s either on top of my tote back or hung on the outside of my suitcase), sunscreen, sunglasses, swimsuit, a comb and curling iron, headband and hair elastic, travel toothbrush and toothpaste, my journal and a pen or two, a small pouch with several pairs of earrings and maybe a necklace or two, a guidebook (I like Frommer’s), a couple of smaller paperbacks packed in a plastic bag to keep them from getting destroyed in my tote bag (ebooks on my tablet would save some space, but I like reading actual books, and I can always leave them behind for the next person after I finish them), charger and outlet adaptor, portable charger, acetaminophen and maybe band-aids, a razor and nail file, my phone (which I use as a camera), health insurance card, some cash, one debit card and one or two credit cards that don’t charge fees for international use. None of those items are very big, and they all fit comfortably in my carry-on and tote bag. I rarely find myself needing much more than that, but if I do need something else, I know I can always buy it.

What packing tips do you have? What are your essential travel items? Please tell us in the comments!

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One thought on “How to Pack for a Two-Week Vacation with Only a Carry-On

  1. Thank you, some good ideas here! I used to roll my cloth too, now I’m using the individual bags and pack cloth flat, but it does take more space. Most of my trips are for work and I need to pack workout cloths… thank you Alex

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