30 Outfits in a Carry-on Bag

Lots of you have asked for tips on travel wardrobes.  Whether you are squeezing a quick family trip into the waning days of summer, planning an extended big city weekend this fall or have a business conference in your future, packing for travel gives many women stress-induced heartburn.  Here are some tips to make it easier to plan your travel wardrobe.

I’ll use my 10-day September Scandanavian trip with a variety of activities to illustrate the key concepts of travel wardrobing.  Even if your trip is more business focused or strictly family-fun casual, the principles are the same – just applied with different garment styling.

Some experts advise planning out what you’ll wear for each day or each activity.  I prefer to give myself  more options so I can flex my daily choices to fit the weather, the dressiness of the culture (which you never really know in advance) and my mood.  You can do that by building in lots of mix and match.  Here’s the formula:

Start with 2-5 solid-color bottom garments, depending on the length of your trip.  These base pieces are less eye-catching, so you can wear them in multiple combinations without feeling repetitive.  Mix pants and skirts as you prefer, and keep the colors related.   I chose (L to R) berry skirt, heather gray skirt, dark wash skinny jeans, heather gray pants and berry cords:

Next choose the shoes – coordinate the color to the bottoms you’ve selected.  I picked navy mules (my idea of a comfort shoe for walking) and gray suede booties.  I own berry booties too, but showing off to that degree isn’t worth the extra bulk in my suitcase.

Third category is over-layer tops – jackets, cardigans, etc – both for style and for weather. Making outfits with over/under top combos multiplies the number of looks you can create from a limited number of pieces. Solids or near-solids (textures, subtle patterns) provide the greatest versatility.  Consider assorting them over the range of dressy-to-casual events in your itinerary.  Ideally each of these over-layers should work with each of the bottoms.  My example comes close, but doesn’t quite hit that target.   My plaid wool jacket only works with the berry bottoms; the heather gray cascade-front unlined jacket, rose soft cardigan and navy long cardigan can each work with every bottom.

Now add under-layer tops.  Because take less space in a suitcase, they are your opportunity to build in variety.  I chose solid shells and camis for layering – pale blue, heather gray, turquise, kelly green tanks, blush and rose.  Patterned scarves and fashion jewelry pieces will link them into multi-color outfits.

Last I added patterned tops that include colors from my solid garments:

Accessories – scarves and necklaces – finish off the various combinations.  Here are just some of the outfit options:

How many more combos can you find?  HINT: Every top shown with gray pants also works with the gray skirt and vice versa.  Same for the berry pant and skirt outfits.  We’re up to 27  – can you find 3 more to make an even 30?

Eighteen garments fit easily into a single carry-on bag! The garments are simply folded and layered; scarves and camis are stacked and rolled to fill the gaps around the edges.

Love to hear about the coordinated wardrobes you put together for your own travel adventures.

About Nancy Nix Rice

I help other women feel confident about how they look every day - regardless of their age, budget, lifestyle or the size tag in their pants - so they put wardrobe concerns on the back burner and go share their gifts with the world.


  1. kate on July 30, 2019 at 5:39 am

    oh Dear Nancy,
    Please take the time to smile in all your pictures, the frown just doesn’t represent all your personal splendor or fashionable wardrobe. Just love all the time and energy put into sharing your ideas of wisdom and pictures to compliment for all of us to apply to our many different lifestyles. Thank you over and over again. ps. your suggestions have really encouraged my garment sewing ambitions. Pattern Review is awesome. Thank you for leading many of us to the site and being able to join it too. Serenity!

    • Nancy Nix Rice on July 30, 2019 at 9:52 am

      I’m getting better at the smiling thing, am I not? It is just so hard to get in the perfect position, aim the camera just right, hold it so I can push the button without jiggling, look back in the mirror … aarrggghhh! After a few successive tries I’ll admit I let other factors win out over demanding a smile. Maybe I’ll learn to Photoshop my smiling face onto every outfit.
      I am loving getting back into sewing more of my own clothes – largely because the selection at retail is more and more frustrating. (In fact I’m looking for a gret dressmaker in St Louis right now to help me meet the needs of my many non-sewing clients.) But not everybody has that option, so I also continue to search RTW for the good choices.

  2. Meredith Piatt on July 30, 2019 at 6:57 am

    Great formula! Any suggestions for traveling to a HOT destination? Like almost anywhere in the US or Europe right now? I never need extra layers (that chilly AC thing is a myth, at least in the South), so any tips on adding variety, particularly when you can only wear something once before laundering is needed? Thanks.

    • Nancy Nix Rice on July 30, 2019 at 10:25 am

      Same advice I give for hot weather at home – pick overlayers that are lightweight and breathable. And tanks/camis for underneath that you can esily wash out. I like the tanks at Chicos – they run various colors all year and I collect them over time. I do’nt get into LL Bean and or Eddie Bauer feature some shirts, tees and tanks in For overlayers, JJill linen shirts (worn unbuttoned as a faux-jacket) are one good option (if you’re a linen gal and OK with the wrinkles). Chicos also does a no-iron shirt that can work that way. And check out my earlier post on openwork summer sweaters. I know I’m cooler with soething convering me from the sun and (forgive me if this is TMI) absorbing a little perspiration.

  3. Sherry Seher on July 30, 2019 at 8:28 am

    Oh Nancy Nix Rice,
    How I look forward to your instructional posts ! Hubby and I are both retired and travel somewhat frequently, and so I am always searching for efficient packing posts that show a maximum amount of outfits for the least amount of items . Mix and match is the obvious choice ! I have enjoyed that concept since I was a child with paper cut out dolls and their various interchangeable outfits ! It is mathematical somehow !
    As I also am short waisted, but bottom heavy( unlike you ), I wear a topper except on the hottest of days. In the hot months, in lieu of scarves, I wear tops that have either some construction detail or trim, or embellishment when scarves are too formal and too hot . I love prints and patterns, but finding them in appropriate colors and scale for my body is my quest ! I am a “ soft , fair Autumn” .
    Thank you for this post, as it reinforces the way that I pack, except for the scarves on a casual trip , though they are a must in cooler weather ! I usually pack 4 bottoms , 4- 5 toppers ( one dark neutral, one light neutral, two accent colors, and sometimes a medium neutral , or a print, or a third accent color ) then 7 tops that coordinate with the tops and toppers, though maybe not all “ go together”, though most do so . “ Table top dressing “ ! I wear 3 of those garments for the travel to the destination, so the suitcase only holds about 13 garments . If we were not in mixed company, I would take fewer items and do more repeat wearings , or when on a trip where laundry is possible and luggage is limited . Thus far, I haven’t had the courage to do this when vacationing with a certain family group that is rather fashion conscious ! But one day I plan to throw caution to the wind and travel more lightly packed , especially if it is a car trip with just hubby and me ! At times I add tanks for evening wear under the toppers instead of the daytime tops, even in casual settings, as they weigh so little and take up little space, then add some coordinating necklaces , some solid metals, some accent colors .
    I have found that twin sets can provide 3 wears — once together, once with the topper with perhaps a different top and bottom, and then the top with a different topper and/ or bottom. I recently decided that the twin set does not have to be all solids, but rather can be a solid topper with a print top, or vice versa . That same print top can then be worn alone or with another neutral or another accent color topper that has that color in the print . And different textures of the topper vs the top .
    There is a week long family gathering at a beach location with a large family in one house, and they all tend to go to the beach by day, and then shower and change for dinner . I am not much of a beach person, so I just wear capris and a top and read a good book in the house instead . Call me odd man out ! One member, whose taste that I observe and admire, selects darker colored tops for dinnertime. Her husband is a travel agent, and they have travelled the world, so I have taken note of this practice, and plan to implement it on our next trip !
    Thank you so much for your informative posts, I am delighted when they show up in my emails !

    • Nancy Nix Rice on July 30, 2019 at 9:46 am

      Thanks for confirming that this formula can work for lots of travel situations just by modifying the specific choices within each catgory – bottoms, under tops, over tops and accessories. At home a change of footwear can also really change the formality/casualness of an outfit, but tht isn’t always feasible within airline weight restrictions. Weight of the bag, that is – not weight of the person — lol.

  4. Marlette Louiisn on July 30, 2019 at 8:52 am

    I’m not sure I could pack all those items in my carry on. Since I wear a size 12 shoe, they take up a lot of room! I usually pack my undies or socks/hosiery in them.

    Your outfit combinations are very attractive. Did you make the two tops on the last row, left and right? I’m assuming you did.
    I really like it so I guess I’ll be doing a pattern for myself!

    Are your items knits?
    Thanks for the info

    • Nancy Nix Rice on July 30, 2019 at 9:42 am

      Thanks for the reminder to stuff “unmentionables” into shoes to save space. I didn’t think of that one because everything in my capsule group fit into a carry-on so easily. I did make many of the pieces, and yes most of them are knits. For the past 6-8 months I’ve been writing up all my sewing projects on PatternReview.com. You can check for pattern numbers, fabric details and sewing tips there. If you click on the little heart icon by my picture on any of the reviews it will make you a “favorite” or something and I think you’ll get notifications when I post a new item. I’m happy to find that way of sharing info with my sewing audience that my retail-shopping audience doesn’t care about seeing on the blog.

  5. Marilyn Kruse on July 30, 2019 at 2:04 pm

    One of the challenges I face in travel is putting together nice looking outfits paired with good walking shoes with socks, such as Ecco or Mephisto. Most of the travel I do involves several miles of walking a day. There is no way you could wear heels of any sort on Europe’s cobblestone streets. Yet, you still want to look nice and be able to go into a good restaurant. I usually wear pants, a lightweight knit jacket, a layering tee, and a scarf.

    • Nancy Nix Rice on July 30, 2019 at 3:24 pm

      I personally have insanely tough feet from decades of retail work in high heels. For my trip I’m packing the booties for “cute” and a lower wedge for walking. We all have to do what’s comfy for us. Nobody looks lovely – no matter the outfit – if her face is grimaced in pain from uncomfortable shoes!

  6. Sue Porter on July 31, 2019 at 2:07 pm

    Love the outfits, love your expert sewing skills, and looks like you can’t wait for this trip! Yes, the pictures are getting even better with smiles, as Kate said, and your advice is spot on as usual. Thanks.

  7. Linda on July 31, 2019 at 8:32 pm

    Nancy, you are truly a gift! You have completely changed how I dress and choose clothing. Your Craftsy/Bluprint class is incredible, as is your book, which I bought after only watching part of your Craftsy class! This blog continues to inspire and educate me. When someone compliments me, I tell them to find you!! I am so grateful – I hope you are so blessed.

    I am leaving for a long business trip in a few days and this is great inspiration. For a number of reasons, it would be better if I only took a carry-on. I think I can do it!

    Thank you!

  8. Constance Spaulding on July 31, 2019 at 11:32 pm

    Great summary and helpful hints on how to pack. When I was traveling frequently for work, I used the following formula: 6 top items (this includes any jackets and shirts/camis/tops), 3-4 pants…I never work skirts or dresses for work, as it was always in a manufacturing plant where only pants are appropriate.
    Keep up the good work. I’m glad you are still supporting American Sewing Guild!
    best regards,

    • Nancy Nix Rice on August 10, 2019 at 10:22 am

      The beauty of a “formula” is that is adaptable for various circumstances — thanks for the reminder of that versatility.

  9. Anne Scanapico on August 3, 2019 at 11:18 am

    Thank you, Nancy. I have a very long road trip in England next year and will use this formula with some modifications as we will be in a car everyday and in hot weather.

  10. Heather on August 12, 2019 at 12:40 pm

    Do you pack your shoes in the carry on too? What about toiletries, hair brushes and cosmetics?

    • Nancy Nix Rice on August 12, 2019 at 1:54 pm

      I have 1 pair in the bag and 1 pair on my feet. And of course I keep mini-size toiltries in an outside pocket in case I dont get Pre-check security screening. Hair junk and makeup fits easily into the bag itself.I have this wonderful 4-compartment roll-up/hang-up toilitries bag tht I got with a Mary Kay makeup purchase. The individual compartments are held in place w/Velcro so I can take them off to fit into nooks and crannies in a suitcase, the re-assemble them to hang in a hotel bathroom. I just added an ultra-thin LLBean water-resistant down jacket that smushes down to nothing (gray w/teal trim to blend with my core wardrobe – lucky find!). I may or may not check the bag, since others in our group may be checking larger bags anyway. Keeping my own bag small and not too heavy is my focus.

  11. Emily J on December 30, 2019 at 7:32 am

    Is there a pattern available for the third patterned top (third, going left to right)? Was it made from a fabric in your shop? Looks like a great piece-interesting print yet neutral, dressy style yet comfortable, easy to pack and flattering style.
    Glad I found your interview on Threads podcast.

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