How to travel anywhere with just a carry-on bag

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Monday, January 18, 2016

"Willingness to travel up to 80%" is one of the qualifications of my job as a management consultant. Although my "willingness" certainly ebbs and flows, I've got a few tricks up my sleeve that make traveling as easy as possible. In all my years as a road warrior, the best strategy for a painless trip is limiting myself to just one tightly edited carry-on for the following reasons:
  • It saves a lot of time - there's no waiting at baggage claim, no need for a bellman, etc. 
  • It prevents angst - you don't need to worry about a lost bag, there are fewer items to lose under the hotel bed, etc.
  • It makes you dress well - after all, it's the ultimate capsule wardrobe and necessitates thoughtful advance planning.
I'm back on the road this week after a long break from traveling, and thought it would be helpful to share some of my time-tested travel essentials that I bring along every trip and tactics for packing a well-edited carry-on.

My top 10 travel essentials

#1 A high-quality carry-on that comes with a manufacturer's guarantee

Since I'm currently traveling via puddle jumper plane to Nashville, there isn't space for a traditional box carry-on; instead, I'm limiting myself to a Longchamp Le Pliage Expandable Travel Bag. I've carried this for years, and love the Longchamp quality guarantee. They've replaced the strap for me twice, no questions asked and no cost to me (not even shipping). If I had the luxury of a larger plane, I'd be carrying the Briggs & Riley Domestic Carry-on Upright Garment Bag - the wheels are on the outside to give you slightly more packing space, the garment bag is genius, and it comes with a lifetime guarantee.

#2 A reasonably large, sturdy leather work tote

That can carry basic travel essentials along with your laptop and other everyday items. My love of the Monserat De Lucca Large Docente Saffiano Tote is well-documented on my Instagram feed, and I have yet to meet a bag that equals it in design, style, size, and durability (my dog even went at it and it survived with just minor damage). It has a large zippered compartment to protect wallet, phone, keys, etc. and a basic tote structure to hold everything else. The cross-body strap makes it perfect for carrying around as an everyday bag, too.

#3 iPhone 6 Plus

It took me awhile to get used to the big screen, but this baby is perfect for reading email, editing documents, FaceTime-ing with my husband, watching videos, and taking decent-quality photos on the go. The battery also lasts a very long time.

#4 Kindle Fire

Flights are my dedicated 'self-education' time and I must have a selection of great books on hand. When I get to O'Hare at the crack of dawn on a Monday morning, I look forward to enjoying an Americano and cozying up with my Kindle to enjoy in-flight.

#5 A cashmere wrap

I've got these in multiple colors, and I bring one along to serve as an in-flight blanket, a scarf traveling to client site, a shawl at my desk, an umbrella if it's raining, etc. If I'm not wearing it, it's in my bag waiting to be called to duty and I absolutely never travel without one.

#6 Silk pillowcase, silk eye mask and ear plugs

As a woman in her late twenties, the anti-aging benefits of the silk pillowcase initially hooked me but getting into the habit of bringing my own pillowcase has transformed my experience. The silk eye mask and earplugs make hotel neighbors and bright city lights irrelevant.

#7  A satchel of everyday items

Everywhere I go, I carry a satchel with a nail polish remover pad, my current nail color, topcoat, cuticle cream, Advil, hand sanitizer, tinted moisturizer, concealer, lip balm, toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb and hair tie, along with other items that stay in the same satchel and travel from purse-to-purse. It's my survival kit for cancelled flights, late mornings, and last minute dinners with bigwigs.

#8 A satchel of electronics

My work tote also includes another case of my electronic must-haves: iPhone charger, Kindle charger, earbuds, and a USB drive.

#9 Mini makeup case

Because I use really expensive, quality makeup (all are MIRACLE products, in my opinion), my morning routine takes five minutes. It all fits into the LeSportsac pictured below: Laura Mercier Secret Camouflage for the occasional zit, Cle de Peau Beaute Concealer for days following long nights, Anastasia Beverly Hills Brow Wiz, a Shu Uemura eyelash curler, Estee Lauder Sumptuous Infinite mascara, Nars The Multiple in Orgasm, and MAC Mineralize Skinfinish Natural powder.

#10 Dry cleaners' plastic clothing bags

Seriously, I save them when I pick up my clothes from the dry cleaner and travel with at least two of these at a time. I put my dresses, silk and pressed cotton shirts and pants on hangers, drape them in dry cleaners bags, and roll them up like hot dogs to fit in my bag. When I get to my hotel, I unravel and hang them immediately and rarely have to iron or steam as the bags prevent wrinkles from forming.

My top packing tips

#1 Start with your shoes

Pick one pair of flats, one pair of heels, and your running shoes.

#2 Select a coat and tote that coordinates with your selected shoes

Since I almost always use the same tote, I typically wear calf-hair or printed shoes and a neutral boot in black or taupe. My coat falls into place once I've got shoes and bag selected - when in doubt, go with black wool in a simple shape as it goes with almost anything.

#3 Bring one simple sheath dress

And build three outfits around it: with a blazer for a meeting, a turtleneck underneath for a work dinner, and an oversize sweater for brunch or late night drinks.

#4 And a pair of cropped pants that fit you perfectly

Top it with that turtleneck and oversize sweater from #3 and you've got two more outfits. These will also keep you warm on days when you're hopping on a plane and can be worn with flats, heels, ankle boots, etc. Sprinkle in a select few tee shirts and blouses and you can dress for weeks!

#5 Add select statement accessories

Like a pair of Prada eyeglasses and a silk scarf. They can transform a simple outfit or black sweater instantly.

#6 Wear simple fine jewelry

 For me, this is easy as I wear the same jewelry every day. However, I make sure to have it all on before I leave the house for my flight on Monday mornings, including stud earrings. It can make you look pulled together even when you're rushed.

#7 Pack a bright lipstick

Honestly, I carry Emporio Armani Rouge Ecstasy Express Moisture lipstick with me everywhere I go and apply it if I'm starting to feel melted, frumpy or overtired. It's a great pick-me-up that can save for a lot of flaws!

#8 Purchase travel size versions of your favorite skin and hair-care products

Or create your own travel size versions using leak proof containers (I love these). There is nothing that makes me miss home more than washing my face with hotel soap. For my sensitive skin, it's a guaranteed breakout! Keeping my skincare routine going when I am on the road is non-negotiable.

#9 Bring a nightgown and wool socks

Seriously, hotel rooms are freezing and proper pajamas and wool socks (plus a glass of Malbec) are truly important comfort items, at least for me… (note that I am typing this in a Marriott hotel room heated to 72 degrees Fahrenheit and drinking a glass of Malbec in a nightgown).

#10 Make a spray bottle and lint roller permanent items in your bag

There is hardly any wrinkle that can withstand my spray bottle filled with hotel room water, and my black pants, sweaters and coats are lint rolled daily while I travel. The little details make all the difference, and they are easier to take care of when you have the right tools on hand.

So, that's what makes traveling much easier for me. I've even gone a couple of weeks of non-stop traveling with this 'capsule' and felt comfortable and stylish the whole time. This has a slant for work trips since those are the ones I take most, but would love to hear your thoughts on tips and tricks for international travel, weekend getaways, destination weddings, etc.

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12 comments on "How to travel anywhere with just a carry-on bag"
  1. Hi Colleen!
    I always admire people who can pack light and travel on just 1 carry-on. My work doesn't require travel but my hubby and I love traveling for fun. And when it comes to packing I am always worried I don't pack enough(granted, we travel 2-3 weeks at a time) and always end up packing way too much! I really need to try just pack less for once! Although, I do always start with shoes!

    My colleague told me that she uses this company, you send them a set of clothes and whatever you need for the road, they keep it, and when you need to travel you just contact them, they send the stuff to your hotel! after you are done, you send it back and they take care of everything, cleaning, organizing, storing, until next time, so you don't need to pack/unpack anymore every time you travel. Sounds like such a novelty!
    Be safe on the road!

    1. Hi Echo, hope you're having a great week! I've done one bag for longer trips, for traveling in Europe etc. but usually do a backpacker's bag or a box carry-on for a little extra space (need the Frommer's books and outlet adapters in there!) Love the idea of sending out my clothes and having them shipped directly to my hotel... if you think of the name of the company, let me know! Since I usually go to the same location for weeks in a row when I travel, it's easy to get a rotation going with local dry cleaners but I've forgotten things (and where I dropped them!) so would be nice to replace that with an easier process. Thanks again for reading and for your good ideas!


    2. Hi Colleen, thank you for replying, you are so good about it!
      I will ask my colleague the name of the company and let you know!


    3. Hi Colleen, so the company is called DUFL (
      let me know please if you would try them, my colleague could get credit for referring :)
      Thank you !

    4. So I just looked up DUFL and can't believe I haven't heard of this! My hotel bellman sometimes holds a bag of toiletries for me over the weekends but this takes it to a whole new level!!! I'll try them out in the next few weeks - definitely tell your friend to take credit for the referral (not sure how to do that, you can give her my email on my 'contact' page maybe?) Thanks for the great suggestion!

    5. oh fantastic! I hope this works out for you, it sounds so fun and "fancy" :) I will ask my colleague how the referral works, thank you Colleen, she will be so thrilled!

  2. I love this packing concept- especially around the dress + cigarette pants + two or three tops to wear with each.
    Do you usually keep your longchamps bag zipped to the smaller size or do you expand it?

    1. Hi there, thanks so much for stopping by, reading and for your comment :) Cigarette pants are truly a lifesaver, the J.Crew Minnie in stretch wool are most versatile and I also invested in a pair of looser-fit MaxMara ones that are great. Typically, I don't expand the Longchamp - it's harder to carry (and fit on a puddle jumper plane) so this applies to the 'condensed' version of the back. However, love the extendable option if I pick things up while traveling... most recently extended for boxes of Girl Scout cookies! ;) Have a great week, hope to hear from you again soon!

  3. Colleen,

    First of all, I love the new site! So simple and put together, just like our style ;) Second of all, I have a question: Where does the Malbec fit into the carry-on luggage situation? Do you pack a travel size for that, too?


    1. Hahaha yes, so simple and chic! Thanks for the push to go for it. The designer is still helping me work out a few bugs / tweaks but almost there! RE: Malbec in travel size - sadly, I have no tips for this, and rely on the Marriott lobby bar to supply this essential travel element. However, this does spark a new million dollar idea for 3 oz. Malbec servings...

  4. These are all excellent and well thought out tips, Colleen! It shows you've been on the road for some time :)

    I had to travel domestically and internationally for my previous job. After getting myself into a few "interesting" situations due to my less-than-stellar packing skills at the time (I'll spare you the details!) I learned very quickly how to pack a functional suitcase.

    I never heard of silk pillows though. It sounds like something I should incorporate into my routine whether I'm home or in a hotel room.

    1. Hahaha! Would love to hear of these "interesting situations" even just for my own consolation (water pipe burst above my hotel room this week... you never know what you're gonna get)! There's a great silk pillowcase on Amazin Prime for $20, I bought three and interchange through home/hotel stays, will find the link and get it to you - one of the best little luxuries! Thank you again for all of your encouragement and reading along! I always look forward to hearing your thoughts :)