Packing Light: Tips for Women Travelers

Simple packing tips for women travelers

(But men will find some great tips here, too!)

With a duffel bag, laptop bag, and a handbag, I’m ready to go almost anywhere.

People are often surprised that I can pack so simply for travels of anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. I’ve basically used the same techniques for a short local get-away, a ten-day river cruise, and a three-week road trip. For me, it’s about keeping it simple, yet appropriate for the destination and activities. I hope that the ideas in this post (based upon my personal experiences) will provide helpful packing tips for women travelers. Of course, if you’ve got trip plans that require a higher level of fashion attire or if you’ll have activities requiring special gear, you’ll need to modify accordingly.

Arriving at hotel in Bozeman. Montana with duffel, laptop bag, and handbag

Arriving at our hotel in Bozeman. Montana with duffel, laptop bag, and handbag.

My three bags

I like to keep the number and size of bags to a minimum so that I can easily get around in airports and train stations. For air travel, I used to do all carry-on but have found that I much prefer checking a bag because of on-board space limitations and the general quality of the travel experience. There are three basic components to my travel gear.

Medium-sized duffel bag for a variety of travel itineraries

Medium-sized duffel bag for a variety of travel itineraries

Medium-sized duffel for checked luggage or carry-on — My main bag is a medium-sized duffel bag. For many years, I’ve used duffel bags and the one I’ve had for the past several years is the best (shown above). I love the look of the bag and its durability. The number of zipped pockets, including a long compartment on the top, two good-sized side pockets, and three small, but usable, front pockets really help with organization. Inside there is a long zipped pocket at the back of the bag and two (one zipped) smaller pockets at the front. Although I’ve considered roll-aboards, I’ve not yet owned one, preferring hand-carried duffels, If you use a roll-aboard or other type of similarly sized luggage, the tips in this post should still apply.

Laptop case/briefcase/tote for carry-on — The bag I use to carry my laptop has several open and zipped compartments pockets to carry chargers, adapters, travel guides, books, file folder with trip documents, first aid items, medications/vitamins, business cards, energy bar, etc.

Handbag/purse — I take only one handbag (often a black one) on most trips for the usual daily items and other things that I want to have handy at all times. The important characteristics to me are cross-body style, ample zipped pockets outside and inside, and at least one easy-to-access non-zip outside pocket. It also needs to be large enough to hold a wallet, smartphone, mobile hotspot device, passport, tickets, bottle of water, a few basic makeup items, chewing gum, etc. If I’m bringing both the main duffel and the laptop bag on board, I consolidate the handbag into a large open outside pocket on my laptop bag.

Please check with specific airlines about checked bag and carry-on policies and regulations.

10 basic steps for packing light

Step 1 – Think. Picture yourself in the places you’ll be visiting, restaurants where you’ll dine, and on the plane/in the car/on the train. Ask yourself questions about your desired level of comfort, types of clothing that will fit your itinerary and activities, how often you’ll be able to wear the same clothes, whether you’ll have laundry facilities available, and if you’ll be wanting to buy new items (clothing or accessories) while you’re traveling.

Step 2 – Don’t overthink. Select all potential items of clothing, including footwear and accessories, that you think you might like to take on the trip to match your visions. Lay them out on a bed or table.

Step 3 – Select the minimum travel-sized toiletries  that you must have so that they will fit in one or two small cosmetic bags inside your checked or carry-on luggage. I put most cosmetics and toiletries in sealed bags in checked luggage. Remember that if you may be staying in hotels or other accommodations that offer nice toiletries for your use you can leave those items at home. Also, in my opinion it’s perfectly fine to downsize on the beauty products you use while on vacation. Use travel-sized products whenever possible.

Step 4 – Step away from the bags and take a break. It’s good to remove yourself from the situation for a while. Don’t think about it.

Step 5 – Come back to your task with a fresh eye. Question your choices and put obviously poor selections back in the closet. Add others that might be better choices to throw in the mix, if necessary.

Step 6 – Separate the clear must-have items from the nice-to-have items.

Step 7 – Put footwear in bags to keep them from contact with other items. If the shoes you like to wear on the plane for comfort are the same as those you can use for walking – all the better! Take them out of the bag.

Step 8 – Start packing, putting the footwear at the bottom. Either roll, fold in thirds, lay flat, or stuff (yes, I mean that) the clothing items on top of the shoes. Use your judgement for how to best make use of the space. Small, flimsy or flexible items like camisoles can be easily added after everything else, stuffing them wherever they’ll fit. Socks an be folded and stuffed in footwear or in other open gaps. Fold shirts, slacks, and skirts. and stack them laying flat.

Step 9 – Re-check that the most important items (those that would be difficult to replace away from home), such as medications, custom-made items, passport, professional equipment, etc., are accounted for.

Step 10 – If applicable, places hats and gloves in pockets of your coat or in extra space of laptop bag or tote that you’ll be carrying on board.

Item selection tips

Remember that the same outfit you’ve worn dozens of times is still a new look for the strangers around you when you travel. Be prepared with the styles you’ll need for the trip experiences you have planned, but don’t think you need a special outfit for everyday wear.

Pack with versatility and comfort in mind

  • What you wear on board the plane or train can be something that you’ll also be able to wear in other situations during the trip. For example, the shirt, scarf, pants, and shoes I wore on our drive and walk along the Brittany coast (shown below) were the same clothes I wore on our flights to and from France.
Versatile and comfortable cotton shirt and scarf for on a plane, train or on a road tip

Versatile and comfortable cotton shirt and scarf for on a plane, train or on a road tip

  • On the plane, comfort is key, especially on long flights. I like to wear something like a thin tank top (instead of a bra) under a loose shirt or sweater.
  • Choose colors and fabrics that will be easy to mix and match. I’ve got lots of black, gray, and neutral items in my travel wardrobe.
  • Keep footwear to a minimum. For me, that means one pair of comfortable walking shoes that I also wear on the plane, one pair of short casual fashion boots (or a seasonal pair of shoes/boots), and one pair of dressier flats. Place footwear at the bottom of your main bag with socks stuffed inside.
  • Sweaters can keep you warm and add a new look to your basic items. Cashmere is a nice choice for sweaters as they are warm, but take up less space than other bulky sweaters.
  • Unless you really need to have fancy lingerie or your comfy flannel pajamas with you, pack sleepwear that is light and doesn’t take up a lot of space. I almost always pack light cotton pajama shorts with a light t-shirt for sleeping. These can be stuffed into whatever space you’ve got left after everything else is packed. The hotels, holiday rentals, cruise boats, and other accommodations will more than likely be perfectly comfortable with some even providing robes and slippers for your use.
  • Scarves are wonderful things. They dress up or change the look of an outfit and are totally functional. I usually pack three in different colors to add diversity to my clothing options. If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you’ve probably seen me countless times in the black or gray sweaters, often accented with scarves.
My easy travel go-to outfit - black sweater, favorite scarf, and slacks/jeans

My easy go-to outfit – black sweater, favorite scarf, and slacks/jeans

  • For functionality and style, I like to bring a light jacket (like the one shown below that I’ve worn many times in many situations) that can be worn by itself or beneath the winter/rain coat depending on weather needs. Instead of packing it, I bring it on-board to wear or store with carry-on items.
Dressed in a comfortable shirt, jacket, and slacks outfit Catherine Sweeney is ready to board the train at Wroclaw, Poland's railway station

Versatile jacket for comfort and style

  • Carry your winter/rain coat or a bulkier sweater on board and store in the overhead bin. Make sure that your coat has room for layering sweaters or light jackets underneath when you reach your destination. Put hats and gloves in the coat pockets.
Catherine Sweeney dressed for winter in Chicago

Dressed for winter in Chicago

  • If you’ll need some casual rain protection during the trip, pack a lightweight, rain resistant jacket that takes up very little space when folded so you can stash it anywhere. I put a rain jacket like the one shown below in an open compartment in my laptop bag.
Wearing a lightweight, non-wrinkle rain jacket on a rainy day in the Black Forest of Germany

Wearing a lightweight, non-wrinkle rain jacket on a rainy day

  • Keep jewelry to a minimum. I’m not a big jewelry person anyway, so it’s easy for me to do this. In addition to my wedding ring, I bring two pairs of earrings, two necklaces, two bracelets, and a watch. What I don’t wear, I pack in a small, zipped compartment of my carry-on laptop bag.
  • Don’t panic if you’ve forgotten something. Unless you’re going somewhere remote, you’ll be able to buy what you need it. I’ve certainly had to make a few purchases along the way like the hat and gloves I had to purchase in Poland in April. I should have known to bring my own from home since the weather reports were showing colder than normal temps, but we all make mistakes.
Catherine Sweeney wearing newly-purchased leather gloves in Krakow, Poland where the weather was colder than expected

Newly-purchased gloves in Krakow

  • At the end of the trip, put dirty laundry items in a plastic bag for transport back home. This can change how you place your belongings in the main bag, but for the return trip I’m not too concerned with how and where everything is placed. You already know that everything fits.
  • Bring home only a few small, unbreakable souvenirs that can be easily incorporated into your bags. If you love to shop, pack a nylon bag in which you can place things you buy during the trip and use it as a carry-on.

Example packing for a 10-day trip

Remember that I’ll be wearing, not packing, clothes (pants, shirt, tank top, walking shoes, and scarf) on the flight that will also be worn during the trip.

Packed duffel bag

Ready to travel with a packed duffel bag

Main duffel bag packed items (shown above)

Main compartment: One pair of dressy flats, one pair of short fashion boots; three slacks and one skirt (all in black or gray) to mix and match with tops; one long-sleeved dressy shirt, four tops and t-shirts to wear alone or under sweaters, one dressy top; three sweaters

Left side pocket: Enough underwear to get through the trip.

Right side pocket: Cosmetics bag with basic toiletries.

Inside pockets: Other toiletries/cosmetics, electric toothbrush, miscellaneous personal items.

Front pockets: Miscellaneous accessories and items (small belt, pair of tights, shoe cloths, nail files, cotton pads, lens wipes, tissues, etc.)

Top outside compartment (not seen in photo): two scarves and light pajama shorts and top

For a comprehensive packing guide with detailed tips for all travelers check out our very popular Traveling Light: Packing Tips for the 21st Century post.

Now you’re ready to go!

What are your packing tips for women travelers?

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10 steps and great ideas for packing your travel bags. These simple and practical tips are based on my personal experiences as a woman, but men will also find this information helpful.

10 steps and great ideas for packing your travel bags. These simple and practical tips are based on my personal experiences as a woman, but men will also find this information helpful.


Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!

26 thoughts on “Packing Light: Tips for Women Travelers

  1. Judy Cloutier

    As much as we travel and cruise you would think traveling light would be good for me, it’s not 🙂 I am slowly learning to pair up a few tops with pants and shorts. It drives me crazy sometimes, my husband packs quickly and light. UGH I need all the tips you have to give. 🙂

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Even though I feel like I’ve gotten it down to a pretty good routine (as I write about in the article), packing is still not fun. That’s why I hope these tips will at least make the packing process seem less daunting!

  2. Lis Sowerbutts

    I actually spend more time planning my electronics than my clothes these days. My next trip is a cold weather trip so I had to figure out some base layers – but apart from that I tend to use the same clothing and fabrics time-over-time – it has to be light and it has to comfortable – and match.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Thanks for your comment. Great point about the electronics! That’s why I like the laptop/brief that I use. There is quite a bit of room for that stuff. Check out the “Traveling Light” post that is under my “Packing Tips” menu tab goes into some detail about what electronics to pack.

      1. Lis Sowerbutts

        Check out the microsoft surface pros – lighter than the Air – full touch screen, asically like a ipad pro – but with a full operating system. I’ve managed to combine my surface pros with my mirrorless camera plus 3 lens – and the whole lot is 3kg – which I think is not bad. My challenge in October though is flying with a Chinese airline with a 5kg carry on limit! I could check a bag for free – but I really don’t want to so I’ll see if I can talk my way on LOL

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  4. Estelle Anderson

    Thanks Catherine for all these tips to help us pack light. I agree packing light is the key. Yet it’s not as easy as it sounds. So, I’m always on the lookout for new tips. You are spot on suggesting to strive for versatility and comfort when packing. I also love your tip about wearing a tank top, no bar, and loose shirt or sweater on long haul flights. As an Aussie who cannot avoid long haul flights, comfort is paramount :

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      It really changes the whole long flight experience when you can be comfortable. I see people wearing tight clothes and I just don’t know how they do it!

  5. Bola

    I like packing for simplicity and getting slightly better at this. Although it’s tempting to pack more shoes than need.

    Your tips have given me a new way to pack, especially with a fresh eye.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Shoes are a problem for a lot of us. I just know that my packing got a lot easier when I found I really just needed 2 pairs in the bag and one pair on my feet! There have been some exceptions to the rule, but it generally works for me.

  6. Carol Colborn

    Step 1-4 usually takes me 3-5 days before the trip with the bag open for dumping things into. Step 5 happens on the twi days before the trip…when things can be out back into the closet and the essentials remain. Last day is for toiletries.

  7. Allison Fraser

    I like your idea of the medium size duffel and have used this for road trips, but I’m really stuck on my carry-on size spinner wheeled suitcase. I love that it stands there on its own and it’s not weighing down my shoulders.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      That’s a great point about how duffels can put stress on our shouldersand people should take that into consideration. So far, I don’t have any problems with that, but will probably take a look at rollaboards at some point.

  8. Patti Morrow

    Some great tips here. I always pack light and never check a bag because of inevitable airline delays and the bag never getting to me. My friends are always amazed that I can pack for 3-4 weeks of travel in just a rollaboard and backpack and still look stylish in the pics! It can be done!

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      It’s great when we find out what works best for us when packing for travel. Good for you staying stylish wherever you go!

  9. Joan Clements

    I love the “no bra” idea. I usually wear a light no-wire bra, but none at all would be even better.
    Im packing for a five week trip which includes two weeks in heat around the Grand Canyon,
    two weeks in cold around Yellowstone, and a week in NZ in cool weather.
    Its challenge, but I guess careful layering is the answer.

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