Packing List: Summer in Europe with Carryon Luggage Only

Tips and tricks for packing light and stylish for a summer in Europe with carry-on bags only.

One of my favorite questions I hear is, "How did you pack for a summer in Europe with just carry-on bags?" We have always appreciated packing light, but this time I wanted to be sure we were more fashionable too. The good news it that it's possible to pack light and fashionably and I am happy to show you how.

These tips are field-verified as this is the actual packing list and clothes I have worn in Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland, and soon to be Croatia and Montenegro over our 4 month trip to Europe. These carry on bags have been on an international long-haul flight, a short European international flight, several busses, and multiple trains. After all, with the need to pack for 3 of us, but only 2 of us really being able to carry the bags, we needed to think long and hard about what we packed. (Side Note: for those of you new here, we're a small American family traveling the world with our 5 year old daughter.)

So, here are my best tips for those of you wanting to travel to Europe with only carry-on luggage. This is only the list of my clothes. Our ultimate packing list with what we packed for the whole family including gear will be coming soon.

First, determine what the weather will be like and what bag you will be taking.

If you are spending most of your time in Spain, Italy and Greece, your packing list will be different than if you were heading to Iceland, Norway, and England let's say. Chances are there will be some weather differences as it's nearly impossible to narrow down your European itinerary. For that you will want to be able to layer your clothes. I remember our previous trip to Europe included a 10-day road trip in Scotland in August. I thought the weather would be perfectly acceptable, but one day I found myself wearing 5 different layers on top because I was so cold. Layering opens so many possibilities! Never underestimate it.

Next, look at what bag you are planning to take. I love the look of this bag and may need to add it to my Christmas list! There is something fun about arriving to your next destination looking great and carrying a stylish bag. In any case, cute bag or something a little more subdued, you need to know what you are working with. Once you have this figured out it will be much easier to know how many items you are able to fit. With that out of the way, you can move on to the good stuff.

Next, you need to choose your base color.

There are the 3 basic underlying color options - black, brown, or navy. I prefer black, even though with my skin tone and eye color I'm told I should choose a warmer tone like brown. I have never felt comfortable in brown so I finally started ignoring the color experts and started dressing in a way that makes me feel good. You need to look at the clothing you wear most often and base your style around what makes you feel amazing. 

The base color is important because it makes coordinating all of your outfits easier. If you have some brown and some black, paring down shoes becomes much more difficult. Out of the 20 pieces I packed 6 were black, 3 were denim, 9 were neutral, and 2 were accent colors. I did not include accessories in this count. All of the pieces go together because they all start from the same base color. 

Then, decide on your accent color

As I mentioned briefly, 2 of my clothing choices were accent colors. I chose a coral/pink color as the accent as I also wanted to coordinate outfits with my husband and daughter. This was a color we all happened to have a few pieces in so it won out. (Yes, we have all packed in a way that our outfit choices subtly coordinate everyday. I hate when colors clash in family photos and we wanted our pictures to look good over the full trip when viewed in our photo albums or on Instagram.)

However, while the accent color is great, a little can go a long way. I only have 2 out of 20 pieces in this bright color. Remember, the accent color is 100% personal so, choose a color you love and work in 2-4 pieces of it. My carry-on wardrobe includes a coral t-shirt and dress. These can be swapped in and out with different bottoms and layers. 

The fourth step is to select your accessories

This is a tough step for many people. Accessories include shoes, scarfs, handbags, hats, belts, and jewelry. Think of your accessories as the frosting on a cake. They are the pieces of flair that help bring your outfit together. Shoes can make an outfit dressy or sporty. Hats protect you from the sun and can also give a bland outfit the pop it needs. And scarves are the most versatile of all! They can keep you warm if you get cold on a plane, be used as a shawl if you need to cover your shoulders in a place of worship, and my new favorite as a towel when you stumble upon a splash pad.

On this trip, I packed one extra pair of shoes. I normally limit myself to 3 pairs, but I added a 4th pair of shoes to wear to a blogging conference we attended mid-trip. At the end of the conference, I decided the shoes were no longer necessary or very comfortable and our bags were getting filled with little treasures along the way, so I donated them before we headed to the next destination. I also had a pair of sandals break in the first month that I have yet to replace. This leaves me with only 2 pairs of shoes, but I am surviving and I just need to take some time to shop for a new pair of sandals.

My other accessories included 5 necklaces, 2 pairs of earrings, 2 scarves, 1 purse, 1 daypack (Eleanor's backpack), 1 belt, and 1 hat.

The final step is to test drive your travel wardrobe.

If you've struggled with traveling light in the past, spend one weekend (or a week if possible) wearing only the items you plan to take with you. It's amazing how many more outfit combinations I am able to come up with when I am forced to be creative.

During this test period you will be able to see if you like the clothes you have packed or if you feel like something was missing. This is also a great time to remove items if you do not envision yourself using them. It's best to have a little extra space on the way to your destination so that you have room for a souvenir or two on your way home. 

Looking for a sample packing list for a summer in Europe? Here are the exact clothes I packed for 4 months in Europe. We have traveled from western Europe to eastern Europe. Most of the weather has been HOT, but there were a few days I was glad to have a few warmer pieces. 

My Actual Packing List:

  • 2 pairs of pants (dark jeans and black skinny pants)

  • 2 shorts (denim and black)

  • 3 dresses (coral, black, striped)

  • 4 long layers - one too many (linen button up, denim button up, clack cardigan, and beige sweater)

  • 6 short sleeve shirts (white, gray, striped, coral, navy, and black)

  • 3 tank tops (white, gray, and black)

  • 1 bathing suit (black)

  • 2 comfy/workout pants

  • 8 pairs of underwear

  • 4 bras

  • 2 sports bras

  • 3 pairs of socks

  • 2 scarfs

  • 1 belt

  • 4 pairs of shoes - 2 have been left behind as we travel (street shoes, sandals, flip flops, wedges)

  • Jewelry

Here are a few examples of my favorite outfits. But, since everything coordinates, with these 23 pieces I am able to create over 100 outfits. That means I would not really need to wear an outfit twice if I didn't want to. I should also point out that I do not have many nightlife options. As a mom to a 5 year old, who is traveling with us, there are very few opportunities to go out at night. If your situation is different, you can easily swap out a skirt for a pair of shorts and change up the style of the clothes to fit you. This is just an example to show you that it is possible to look nice and travel light - even to a stylish place like Europe.

So, as you can see, you do not have to dress like a backpacker when traveling to Europe for the summer. You can travel with only a carry on suitcase and still look great - whether you are heading to the beach, strolling cobblestoned streets, or going out to dinner. 

Be sure to pin this post for reference and to help our your girlfriends who also want to look great, but travel light!

Packing list tips and tricks for a summer in Europe. Look cute and pack light with carry on only.