How to Pack Light but With Style

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Wardrobe Oxygen in a red orange trench from Banana Republic with Talbots striped top, Banana Republic ankle jeans, Rothy's flats, Dagne Dover backpack and Delsey spinner suitcase

In the comments of a recent blog post, a reader had a question regarding packing non-clothing items for a trip.  She wanted to know how to pack light but maintain her style.  How to consolidate beauty products and toiletries, shoes and accessories to reduce the number of bags without ending up with bad hair or boring outfits.

Question: How to Pack Light but With Style

“I have a question regarding packing and non-clothing items. I find I can edit my clothes pretty well but it’s the other items I have trouble consolidating – makeup, hair products (including hair straightener), face wash and moisturizer, meds, dental stuff and the list goes on. I am currently packing for a trip to Phoenix and have 4 bags of items: 2 hanging bags (one is for the plane with sanitizing wipes, snacks, hand lotion, earplugs etc.), one make up bag and one bag for the hair straightener that includes hair products. And this doesn’t include my jewelry bag (I try not to bring too much), shoe bag, tote bag and small going out bag. Can you help me with any suggestions?”

In the aughts, I had a job that required me to travel for business at least once a month. It was a great education in learning how to pack light but still look polished for business meetings. Now as a blogger, I often travel for my new business, and have mastered again how to pack light but to still look fashionable and camera-ready for any event on my itinerary. Since your question is about editing and consolidating, I am going to focus on how I pack for trips when I do not check luggage.

over 40 travel outfit

Choose your Luggage Carefully

Your suitcase matters. For years I used a soft rolling suitcase that was a great price on Amazon and it seemed perfectly fine. Sure it tipped over if overly full, maybe it would get caught on cobblestones and practically have to be carried up hills. And yeah, there was that time that I got stuck walking five blocks to my hotel in the pouring rain and the stuff inside got damp and the bag was still damp by time I had my return trip but isn’t that how all suitcases are? A few years ago I treated myself to matching luggage and purchased the Delsey Helium matched set with the expandable International spinner. GAMECHANGER. This bag is worth every penny. The hard shell keeps things dry and protected. The wheels glide over everything from carpet to cobblestone hills; have bounced up and down several flights of steps with no issue. Fully loaded it won’t tip over, even if I rest my second bag on top. No need to drag it behind you, the spinners are so great it will glide next to you without much effort. It’s even lighter weight than my soft-sided suitcase, making it far easier to put in an overhead bin. Even though it’s smaller than domestic specifications for carry-on luggage it remains my favorite for any flight.

View and Shop My Delsey Suitcase:

Pack Your Suitcase Properly

My Delsey suitcase has two primary compartments; one is open and one zips shut.  The zippered side I use to hold everything bulky, rough, or heavy.  My toiletries bag (see below), shoes, any books or gadgets not needed until I reach my destination.  I tuck socks and lingerie into shoes, and use sleepwear and gym clothes to fill in any gaps between the items.  Zipping the compartment compresses everything like a giant travel cube.  The zippered cover has a deep zippered pocket on it; in there I carefully fold and slide in any scarves I am taking so they don't get creased.  I also take a flat clutch purse and store necklaces and delicate jewelry in it.  Any large or bulky jewelry I place in the small zippered pouch in the suitcase that is between the two main sections.

Speaking of travel cubes, I use travel cubes on the open side of the suitcase.  Travel cubes really compress your clothing to provide a lot more space in your suitcase. Not only that, it keeps everything organized so it's easy to quickly find something.  I also love travel cubes because they help separate dirty clothes from clean for the trip home.

Universal Standard black overalls with a black cashmere sweater, EVA Birkenstocks, and the Dagne Dover Dakota backpack on Wardrobe Oxygen

Choose your Personal Bag Carefully

For my personal bag, I always take something that can shove under the seat in front of me on the plane yet is stylish enough to be my day bag for the trip. My absolute favorite is the Large Dagne Dover Dakota Backpack for casual trips. Made from neoprene, the bag is soft yet strong, water resistant, and easy to spot clean. The tonal hardware makes it look more sophisticated and stylish than a classic backpack. Brilliantly designed, over seven different pockets, a laptop sleeve, and zipper pouch on a detachable leash will keep everything organized. The padded straps makes it comfortable even when filled to the brim and your hotel is a mile walk away. The only thing missing is a sleeve to slide it over the suitcase handle, but my friend told me about this little gadget that’s less than $10 that does a great job with my backpack and any bag I carry.

Read my Dagne Dover Dakota Backpack Review

Look for a Toilitries Bag that Protects and Maximizes Space

Over the years I have bought many toilitries bags, and have been gifted several from different brands.  It seems like the best idea is one of those that opens up to hang off a hook.  Thing is, as hotels get updated I find hooks to be fewer and usually in a very inconvienent location.  The best bag I have is like this one – two plastic zippered compartments that fold up and zip again.  It's almost like packing cubes for beauty products because it forces products to line up nicely, reduce bulk, and become a firm rectangle that fits nicely in a suitcase.  The double zippers protect the rest of your luggage if a bottle leaks or explodes.  All I need for a trip is this bag and my Ziploc of liquids; yes I even fit my makeup and even my vitamins and supplements into this case! Not too shabby considering we all know I am not a low-maintenance kind of gal!

Speaking of vitamins and supplements as well as medication, TSA does not require medication to be in original containers and the only medication they check is liquid versions (which should be in your liquids bag). I like a weekly pill organizer to keep things organized; however if my trip is only a day or two I use these pill pouches which take up less space and depending on the kind of medications you take, can be reused.

Shop my Travel Essentials:

How to Pack Liquids for a Quick TSA Check

TSA says all liquids must be in containers 3.4 ounces or less and all of the containers fit in a quart-size Ziploc bag. TSA won’t like me to state this, but I always use a bag larger than quart sized. However, I don't fill it to the brim. While some people purchase clear reusable bags, I like a heavy-duty freezer bag because it can hold more without taking up a lot of real estate in my luggage (and it’s a lot cheaper). I also use the same freezer bag over and over; I know the one right now in my suitcase is over a year old and just dandy. I do keep a second one on hand in my luggage in case it decides to kick the bucket, but they’re remarkably durable and can even be washed and reused if something leaks.

Anything that can remotely be considered a liquid or partially liquid, stick in this bag. I’ve had lip balms, individually-wrapped contact lenses, and mascaras confiscated at the airport so if in doubt, toss it in the clear bag.

over 40 travel fashion

How to Minimize Beauty Products for Traveleling Light

Decant, Decant, Decant

Even better than travel sized versions of your beauty products, decant your favorite toiletries into smaller containers. I have these containers, they’re three years old and still leak free and reliable. I like that they can squish to take up less space when not full and I’ve thrown them in the top rack of my dishwasher and they clean up great. For products like eye cream and primer I decant into contact lens cases. I prefer the screw-top ones because they are leak-proof and they usually have the caps two different colors making it easier to know which one is eye cream and which one is zit cream (a sharpie reminder is also smart).

When Necessary, Buy Travel Sizes

Some things you can’t decant; for those I invest in travel sized versions that I never use except when on travel where space is minimal. I’ve learned from experience not to switch brands to save space in a suitcase; I’d rather not take a pair of shoes than again deal with bad hair and angry skin.  I look for special deals at the holidays when department stores and beauty brands offer gifts with purchase of products I use so I can stock up on the travel sized items I know and love. Amazon often has multipacks for travel sized items; if it's something that can't be refilled like dry shampoo it's smart to buy in bulk and save for future travel. I've also found travel sizes of items like perfume for great prices on eBay.

For dental needs, I go with a travel toothbrush like this one.  It's not my awesome Sonicare, but it takes up less space and no tears if I forget it in my hotel room. For toothpaste, I find travel tubes to be too small for more than a day or two. Instead, when I get almost to the end of a tube, I roll up the end and put it in my toiletries case. I can then use the entire tube (even cut open the bottom of it to get out the dregs) and throw it away at the end of my trip.  I carry a few Colgate Wisps in a sandwich bag in my purse always; they're great for a refresh at the end of your flight or after a spicy meal.  For dental floss, I hoard those tiny containers the dentist gives after your visit and tuck them into my purse and toilitries kit.

Create a Makeup Uniform

I see travel as a time to simplify my beauty routine. Leave home the luminizer, the contouring, the large shadow palette, the color correcting concealers. Think weekend face – groomed yet fresh. Then choose one way to amp it up. For me, I bring 2-3 lip products. A mauvy nude for day, a bold red, and then maybe a gloss to transform the two. For you, it may be a pack of false lashes or a kohl pencil.

I find makeup brushes end up taking up a lot of room because they need to be packed carefully. I try to choose a makeup uniform that requires the fewest brushes thereby saving space and simplifying packing. I usually use powder blush, but this cream blush from Glossier is a pretty awesome replacement and I think it helps create a fresh weekend face. My eye brown pencil has a built-in spooly brush, and I love this stuff from Perricone MD in place of shadow for a fresh well-rested effect.

My Travel Beauty Faves:

Create a Hair Uniform

Sometimes your hair may be soft waves, sometimes you iron it straight, sometimes you use pomade for a slicked-back pony. For traveling light, choose one and make it your signature style for your entire trip. This way, you can bring fewer products and tools.

When possible, consider a mini version of your tools. I use this Aveda brush on the daily, but at The Body Shop I found this travel one that accomplishes the same thing. I have a tiny comb like this which is great for teasing and smoothing bangs and is smaller than what I have at home.  When I used to flat iron my hair, I bought a mini iron like this which saved a ton of space but still got the job done.

I believe in bringing a hat for travel.  Nothing worse than wasting the day trying to wrangle hair not used to the water or the weather.  A beret looks fashionable while hiding rough winter hair; in the summer I prefer a packable fedora or Panama hat.  You may prefer some Bobby pins and an elastic for a purposeful messy updo or an Alice band to help unruly bangs blend into your hair.

Wardrobe Oxygen in a red orange trench from Banana Republic with Talbots striped top, Banana Republic ankle jeans, Rothy's flats, Dagne Dover backpack and Delsey spinner suitcase

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I hope these tips help you.  I also know many of you who read Wardrobe Oxygen are avid travelers; if you have additional great tips do share them in the comments below!

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. Thanks for the great information! I’ve got an aluminum Away piece of luggage, but I’ve been thinking about getting a backpack for a three week river cruise in Europe this summer. That Dagne Dover bag will totally fit the bill. I believe I will use it for everything. The other travel items sound great too.

  2. My best travel tip is carry a small roll of duct tape – useful for so many things – including repairing a suitcase that gets rough handling or the zipper blows.

  3. I’d add a nylon shopping bag to the list…I was just in Chicago and every a few stores were charging .07 cents for a plastic bag!! YIKES. Also, I use clear, plastic shower caps to cover my shoes’ bottoms…keeps everything clean.

    1. I use the thin plastic bags that my newspapers are delivered in during inclement weather. Even my hubby’s larger sneakers fit in these bags.

    2. Recently moved from Chicago, and it’s a city ordinance/bag tax requiring almost al retailers to charge for any bag (paper or plastic). My new hometown only charges .05. 🙂 Reusable shoppers are small and great to travel with, especially if you’re taking food on a plane or need something to put your wet bathing suit in.

          1. Barbara – I will never now travel WITHOUT a nylon shopper! I wish my hometown did this! It’s so SIMPLE to have your own bag!!

  4. Great tips! I hadn’t thought of the contact lens cases for eye cream, etc., but that’s genius. I have had mixed luck with the GoToobs – one leaked in my suitcase. 🙁 However, I have the Emme toiletry bag and it came with some great bottles that work well for me. We’re big fans of packing cubes for all the reasons you state. And we have done carry on for two weeks in Europe. It’s all about planning and figuring out what’s important. Your tips are all spot on!

  5. Very helpful post. Thank you! I love your off-the-shoulder sweater and bracelet you’re wearing in the second photo. Would you mind sharing the brands for those? And your beautiful red coat too?

    1. Oh sure! The photos are from old posts on the blog so not sure what is still in stock. The off the shoulder outfit is at this post: https://www.wardrobeoxygen.com/2018/01/cashmere-off-shoulder-sweater.html the sweater is from a brand called Naked Cashmere. The red coat was seen in this post: https://www.wardrobeoxygen.com/2018/04/wore-travel-style-over-40.html as well as this post: https://www.wardrobeoxygen.com/2016/02/what-i-wore-ann-taylor-orange-topper-trench.html it’s from Ann Taylor but is three years old. This is the closest they have: https://shopstyle.it/l/ZPQ5 this coat from Banana Republic is similar: https://shopstyle.it/l/ZPX7

  6. Awesome post! Wish I’d see it a few weeks ago. I am currently on a 9 day trip, mostly for work but am adding a jaunt to Seattle to see my son at the end of the week.

    I actually already use a lot of your ideas, but some I hadn’t thought of! And I really need a new suitcase. I’m going to look into getting one like you have. Ditto with the cosmetics case.

    1. Hi Pat! Oh sure! The photos are from old posts on the blog so not sure what is still in stock. The red coat was seen in this post: https://www.wardrobeoxygen.com/2018/04/wore-travel-style-over-40.html as well as this post: https://www.wardrobeoxygen.com/2016/02/what-i-wore-ann-taylor-orange-topper-trench.html it’s from Ann Taylor but is three years old. This is the closest they have: https://shopstyle.it/l/ZPQ5 this coat from Banana Republic is similar: https://shopstyle.it/l/ZPX7

  7. I bought the Delsey when you recommended it…then I bought one for my husband…then we bought the large size to match…lol..
    Today I ordered the travel toothbrushes –
    Thank you for always sharing such great items and ideas!

  8. Wow — such great recommendations. Can’t believe I never thought of packing items in my shoes! I have used a cosmetic bag like yours for years; I need a new one but couldn’t find the same style, so thanks for finding one for me. Also, I second Karen’s suggestion for the Travalo perfume atomizer.

    1. Awesome I’ll have to check that atomizer out! As for the cosmetic bag, I was surprised how hard it was to find one online. Mine was a GWP from back when beauty.com was a thing (and before my account was hacked, hundreds charged on my card and my password changed and they didn’t give a damn… good times).

  9. I bought those same eBags packing cubes about 10 years ago when trying to pack for two adults and two small children in two bags to go to Europe for three weeks. It worked – and the cubes are still going strong, after being used for every vacation since. (We have upgraded to one case each now that they can pull their own.) I am a devotee.

  10. I recently bought a refillable perfume atomizer for a recent two week trip and it worked great. It is this product and I found it on amazon. https://amzn.to/2XfgbfC Didn’t leak and was easy to transfer perfume from the large bottle to this. Definitely one of my favorite new travel finds!

  11. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! This is so helpful and timely! I have been a avid reader and follower for years but I think this was the first comment I ever made and can’t believe how responsive you are! I’m looking forward to packing for my trip now and even have time to do some shopping! Thanks for the links!

  12. Nice post – makes me have another look at my carry on case as I recognise your description of your old one! As for Ziploc bags I always buy them at IKEA. They’re so cheap and very durable.

  13. Avid traveler for fun and work here! I’ll be updating with your recommendations for sure! I got the Dagne Dover backpack you recommended and dragged it across Asia this summer past…it was my best buddy everywhere I went and looks brand new. And believe me…it got beat up. I’m always struggling to take less… thanks for giving me affirmation to still look great!

    1. Oh that’s so great to read! I love the bag so much and it thrills me when my recommendations become faves for others too. I think how much I have abused mine and it still looks great, I have NO other bag that does that! And yes, look good (on your terms) feel good!

  14. This is so timely. I have a quick road trip in 2 weeks and a trip to NYC for college tours 2 weeks after that. Packing light but stylish for both destinations will be a must. I also decant and pack travel sizes of everything. And good luggage is a game changer. We bought Delsey luggage 15 years ago and it’s still going strong! I recently purchased a beautiful vegan leather Urban Originals backpack/purse from Nordstrom (I don’t need laptop size). It’s pretty, roomy with lots of pockets and I won’t have to worry so much about weather since it’s not real leather. I can even put my packable down jacket in this thing. Now to figure out how to pack extra tissues for NYC. This mama isn’t ready for college visits.

    1. Awww mama! I can’t believe he’s grown up so fast! I ended up going to a local college but my sister and mom did the college tour trip and it was a really special time for both of them!

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