I Lived Out Of A Carry-On For 6 Weeks & Found My Personal Style Along The Way

Writer Jennifer Nguyen left for a six-week trip with a tightly edited collection of stylish basics, and came home with a renewed sense of style.
The writer in a striped shirt and trench carrying a bouquet of flowers

While going on vacation is fun, the very real possibility of losing your baggage is not. Being a proactive Type A Taurus I decided to skip the luggage fees and the carousel by packing for a six-week trip to the U.K. and Europe in a carry-on. In theory, the task sounds daunting, but as someone in a long-distance relationship, I’ve had practice in cutting out the fluff and zeroing in on what’s really important (yes, with packing and with love.) And while I did not have room for many souvenirs, I returned home to Toronto with a newfound appreciation for my wardrobe and a fresh outlook on my style. Here’s how I lived out of a carry-on for six weeks—and the step-by-step pre-trip prep you need so you can too.

Assess your needs

The key to packing efficiently, regardless of space, is ensuring you bring only the essentials. People often overpack small items, like underwear, sunglasses and swimsuits, thinking they won’t take up too much space, but the extra bulk adds up.

Think about how often you reach for an item on a day-to-day basis. It’s always a good idea to pack a few extra pairs of socks, but do you really need three hats or several sweaters to choose from? Also consider that if you’re not comfortable wearing a certain piece at home or don’t know how to style it, you’re probably not going to reach for it on your trip.

And let’s not forget about laundry. When travelling for extended periods of time, I like to bring enough clothes to put together a week’s worth of outfits—it gives me enough time to figure out where the laundromat is if my accommodations don’t have a washer and dryer. It’s also important to consider what the clothes you’re packing are made of when it does come time for a wash: Polyester is light and fast drying, wool and cashmere are “self-cleaning” and just need a good air out after use (and a monthly visit to the dry cleaners), and jeans only rarely need to be washed. I tend to lean towards darker colours to counter spills (I refuse to let a red wine stain ruin my trip) and always pack a Tide to Go instant stain remover.

The writer in a striped shirt and trench

Stay organized as you pack

Even as a minimalist, you have to stay organized and streamline the packing process to make sure you’ve got everything you need and are not accidentally packing multiple. Here’s a list of what I packed to get me through my trip.

Type Garments packed
Top: 5 (7 total) Black turtleneck, blue sweater, cream sweater, blue button down, tank top (I wore a striped sweater and a tank top on the flight)
Bottom: 5 (6 total) Jean skirt, black skirt, black pants, biker shorts, leggings (I wore jeans on the flight)
Dresses: 1 Cream dress
Outerwear: 2 (3 total) Trench coat, blue blazer (I wore a black wool coat on the flight)
Shoes: 1 (2 total) Black boots (I wore running shoes on the flight)
Bags: 2 (3 total) One leather shoulder bag, one nylon shoulder bag (I wore a crossbody on the flight)
Accessories: 5 Convertible poncho, silk scarf, headband, black tights, sunglasses
Intimate garments: 14 Underwear, socks, nipple pads
Extras to consider Hairbrush, straightener, laptop, chargers, toothbrush, skincare and toiletries, medication, menstrual cup, contact lenses, glasses

And for what I wore on the plane? A black coat, a striped sweater, a tank top, jeans, my running shoes, and my crossbody bag. I strategically chose my heaviest items to avoid any issues with luggage weight.

opted for the Carry-on Pro Plus bag by Canadian-owned brand Monos Nguyen opted for the Carry-on Pro Plus bag by Canadian-owned brand Monos, as well as a nylon shoulder bag.

Choose your gear wisely

When it comes to travelling light, your choice of carry-on (and accessories) is important. Most airlines will allow a carry-on and a personal item on board (but it’s always best to consult your specific airline to see what guidelines you’re working with!) I’ve opted for the Carry-on Pro Plus bag by Canadian-owned brand Monos, which features a separate padded compartment for a laptop on the front, freeing up more room in the weekender bag I brought as a personal item.

The secret to making the most out of the space you have lies in how you pack your clothes: fold heavy items, like jeans and knits, and roll lighter items, such as silks and chiffon. When it comes to smaller garments, like underwear and socks, I use packing cubes with expandable sides that allow you to compress items by squeezing the air out. They’ll also leave your luggage looking organized. And they are helpful when coming back from a trip as they can be used to separate dirty and clean clothes. Mine are from Monos, and I promise these are worth the splurge.

Monos packing cubes Monos Compressible Packing Cubes

Plan your wardrobe

Before a trip, I take to Pinterest to research ideas on how to style pieces that are already in my wardrobe. I source inspiration by inputting styles that inspire me (Scandinavian or minimalism for example) or type in the garment itself (say, silk scarf) Seeing how others wear my go-to items helps me expand my view and find new ways to wear them to make the most out of a limited wardrobe.

A Merit minimalist makeup stick

Pick your toiletries

When planning for a six-week trip, I knew there was no way I was going to get my full beauty routine into a teeny, airport-issued 1-L plastic bag, so I opted for multi-use products, like ‘The Minimalist’ by Merit, which replaced my concealer and foundation. For skincare, I kept things simple and swapped out my full regime for the bare essentials: a cleanser, hyaluronic acid serum, a good moisturizer and sunscreen. Whatever your essentials look like, It’s important to make sure that whatever individual items you pack are under 100 mL and all fit in the plastic bag.

For toiletries, I prioritize packing travel-size items—it’s the perfect amount to last me for six weeks, and I can part with the empty containers at the end, leaving me with more space in my bag for last-minute gifts. For products that didn’t come in travel-sized bottles, I opted for reusable containers. My favourite travel hack is using a contact lens case to store ointments as those caps are leak resistant!

Just because you’re sacrificing space doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice style!

Over coffee and conversations with close friends in Stockholm, I found myself happily unencumbered. Whether it was from the lack of luggage or from feeling a step closer to my true self, I learned that all you need to travel comfortably is good company—and perhaps a convertible garment or two.

Working with a limited wardrobe allowed me to discover what garments I love the most and helped me discover bases that felt true to my identity. I’ll return to my full wardrobe back in Canada, but I know I’ll always resort back to my comfort staples like a good turtleneck, a slouchy black coat and a comfortable pair of jeans. It tested my ability to reimagine pieces (like turning my poncho into a scarf when it got cold out!) While travelling with just a carry-on forced me to minimize my wardrobe at hand, it allowed me to maximize my creativity and further establish my sense of style.

Speaking of style, here’s what I wore throughout my travels!

The writer in a white dress, black bag and trench Sneakers, trench, dress, bag

The writer in a black coat in front of a green door Sneakers, button down, coat, jeans, crossbody bag

The writer holding a coffee at a cafe table Trench, turtleneck, sweater, pants, nylon bag

The writer standing in front of a bridge on a canal in a black coat Coat, turtleneck, pants, crossbody bag.

The writer in a trench coat by a canal Trench, poncho (worn as scarf!), dress

The writer by a canal in a trench and poncho The poncho could be worn as both a poncho and a scarf

The writer in a black blazer and skirt Skirt, scarf, bag, blazer

The writer in a black skirt and white seater Sweater, skirt, bag, tights. (Photo: Emily White)

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