My Wardrobe, Myself

The intersection of clothing, emotions, and life

After a few busy weeks, I’m back! I hope all of my readers in the United States had a nice Thanksgiving (as well as Hanukkah, for those who observe that holiday). I actually got to see almost all of my immediate family on or around Thanksgiving this year. I took a trip to see my family members in the Reno/Tahoe area in mid-November. After I returned home from almost a week away, my sister-in-law and stepson visited my husband and me in San Diego and stayed through Thanksgiving. The remainder of the holiday season will be fairly quiet, but the decorations are all up and I’m starting to feel at least somewhat festive.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be publishing a few yearly wrap-up posts, but first I want to reflect a bit on how my packing went for my Tahoe trip. And because my sister-in-law visited us right after my trip, I was able to compare and contrast the way she packs for travel with my own experience and learn some effective packing trips from her. My sister-in-law is a very seasoned traveler who has taken countless domestic (she lives in Canada) and international business trips over the years, so she knows a thing or two about how to pack and travel well.

two women walking with suitcases

Do you pack lightly – or heavily – when you travel?

In today’s post, I look at the two opposing ways my sister-in-law and I packed for our recent trips. I share what we both did well, what I wish I would have done differently, and what I plan to shift with future packing after getting some tips from my “packing master” family member. Unlike my previous packing for travel posts (you can check them out HERE and HERE), I won’t share photos this time of what I packed for my trip. I’m sure I’ll do that again in the future, but today’s post is more about wins, mistakes, and lessons learned. I’m keeping things more simple to get back into the swing of things with blogging, and I hope you like this post!

My Extra-Large Suitcase

My suitcase is about as large as one can travel by air with these days. I often come right up against the fifty-pound weight limit with this bag, which is why my husband and I purchased a luggage scale in order to avoid excess baggage charges. I like to have choices in terms of what to wear, but I usually pack too many options. This time, I overpacked more than usual because I had set out a bunch of clothing possibilities on the bed, and my helpful husband squeezed them all into my suitcase thinking that I had intended to take everything with me. I had planned to pare things down, but because I was running late (a common situation), I thanked my husband for his help and we were on our way to the airport. My trip was six days long, but I had enough clothing with me for a month-long excursion!

What I Did Well

While I was in Tahoe, I was grateful to have plenty of clothing on hand for my daily walks by the lake. The weather was quite cool (especially for someone who lives in Southern California), so I was happy to have my warmest jacket and lined joggers to wear to keep me feeling toasty. I was also pleased to have brought along my robe (one of my favorite purchases of 2021) and slippers, as well as some lounge wear to put on while I was hanging out with my mom at home (Tommy John lounge Henleys and Athleta joggers). I ended up leaving the slippers at my mom’s house for future visits and purchasing a new pair (inexpensive ones from Isotoner – in black, of course) to wear at home.

My Packing Mistakes

Although I did well in packing for my exercise and downtime on the trip, I was too excessive with my out-and-about clothing options. In terms of bottoms, I wore one pair of black pants on the plane and brought along another pair of black pants and two pairs of jeans. I also packed an additional pair of booties (I wore one pair en route) that I only ended up wearing once. I could have easily gotten by with just one pair of black pants, one pair of jeans, and one pair of booties. It can be difficult to determine which options to include, but I didn’t have to pack all of them. As it was, I didn’t wear the extra pair of black pants at all and one pair of jeans only got worn once.

But the worst part of my packing was that I brought along far too many tops! I must have had at least ten long-sleeved tops with me, as well as several thermal layering pieces to go under them if necessary (I didn’t end up needing those). It was really overkill, but I was happy that my last-minute decision to pack two dressier top options paid off for the two family dinners that we had. While I could have worn my casual tops for those occasions, I felt more polished and attractive in the upscale printed tops that I paired with my black pants.

What I Wish I’d Done Differently

One addition that I wish I would have packed was another cardigan. The only cardigan I brought with me was the black one that I wore on the plane from San Diego to Reno. Because some of the tops I packed were either solid black or very dark, I would have benefitted from packing one of my bright or printed cardigans for a second option. That would have served me a lot better than the five or so tops that I didn’t end up wearing. My all-star topper was a long lightweight puffer that I purchased at Old Navy on sale earlier in the year. I hadn’t worn it much at home, but I layered it over my outfits every single day in Tahoe. I wish it was still available to purchase for my mom, but no such luck…

When it came time to pack for my trip home, I had to scramble to fit everything into my suitcase, especially since I’d made a few purchases on the trip (not clothing), and I also needed to pack several clothing items that I’d sent to my mom and needed to return. Because my suitcase had been so overstuffed from the get go, I ended up needing to borrow a small bag from my mom to house some of my heavier items so that I could meet the weight limit. Thankfully, Southwest Airlines allows passengers to check two bags free of charge on all of their flights, but it would have been nice not to have needed that second bag!

My Sister-in-Law’s Carry-on Bag

When my sister-in-law arrived in San Diego, it was after a week of visiting friends in the Vancouver area, so the total length of her trip was almost two weeks. However, instead of a large overstuffed bag like mine, she had only a standard carry-on bag and a small backpack with her. I marveled at how she was able to pack so lightly for a trip that was two times as long as the one I’d returned from a day earlier, and I asked what her secrets were.

A Smart Strategy

She told me that she’s very minimalist when it comes to packing and with her wardrobe in general. Years ago, she switched to only wearing black tops, and she only wears jeans and black pants. To add variety to her ensembles, she uses printed scarves. When she’s wearing dark solids both on top and on bottom, switching out the scarves creates a totally different look. She used this strategy for her work trips, which allowed her to pack lightly and still look polished, pulled together, and different enough each day such that no one really noticed the sameness in most of what she was wearing.

Another thing my sister-in-law does is pack small baggies of laundry soap so she can do laundry in her hotel room in the evenings. She showed me the baggies, but said she wouldn’t need to do laundry at our house because she had already washed everything where she’d been staying previously. She was with us for five days, so I guess she only needs to do laundry about that often while she’s traveling.

What My Sister-in-Law Packed

For her trip to Vancouver and San Diego, here’s what she packed:

  • Two short-sleeved black tops (one crewneck and one V-neck).
  • One pair of jeans.
  • One pair of black pants.
  • A pair of brown boots (she only wore these in Canada).
  • A pair of black casual shoes (this is what she wore in San Diego).
  • A black zip-up hoodie (for San Diego).
  • A warmer blue coat (for Canada).
  • Printed scarves (I think I only saw her wear one of them, but she may have had more).
  • Assorted earrings (she switched those out but kept her other jewelry minimal).
  • Undergarments and socks (I assume these are what she washed, in addition to the tops).
  • Two sets of pajamas (warm ones for Canada and a less warm option for San Diego).
  • A casual blue travel purse (crossbody style).

I was surprised at how minimally my sister-in-law packed for her trip, but it seemed to work well for her. She isn’t at all into clothes and fashion the way I am, so she doesn’t feel the need to have a lot of choices. But she seemed to be comfortable, happy, and appropriately dressed for all of the activities we did together during her time in San Diego. I’m sure she experienced peace from not having to worry about what she was going to wear, as it was all figured out for her.

When we went out for dinner and for Thanksgiving lunch, she wore the printed scarf and looked perfectly appropriate. We dined at mid-level restaurants, but her outfit with the black top, black pants, black shoes, and printed scarf would have worked for fine dining as well. Had she needed a topper in such an instance (she mostly didn’t – she’s from Canada after all!), the hoodie might not have been the best choice, but because it was black, it wouldn’t have stood out as extremely inappropriate, either. I think she knew that virtually everything she’d be doing on her trip would be casual, so she packed accordingly.

My Takeaways

I don’t see myself as ever wanting to pack as minimally as my sister-in-law does, but I think I could definitely scale down to more of a middle ground between my excessive packing and her spartan ways. I think I could do fine with just two pairs of pants for out-and-about activities, and two pairs of shoes would also suffice (I actually could have packed just one pair of boots for Tahoe, as well as my walking shoes). I would probably pack a few more tops, however, and maybe one more topper in a bright color or a print.

I like the idea of having one main neutral, and I would also choose black for this. Having two or three toppers to mix and match, as well as a few scarves, would add the type of variety I enjoy incorporating into my ensembles. I think where I went wrong on my recent trip was trying to add in too many colors with my tops and skewing too dark with tops that were too close to black, such that they didn’t mesh well with my black toppers (my lightweight long puffer was also black). I did pack a few scarves for my trip, but they weren’t the best options because they were also too dark. My sister-in-law’s scarf had a white background with black and other colors in the pattern, so it brightened up her otherwise dark outfits. I can do the same thing, as I have quite a few scarves that are light and bright enough to pair well with black.

I don’t know if I’ll ever pack minimally enough to just use a carry-on bag, but I see that possibility as more viable now that I’ve learned from my sister-in-law’s example. Now, if I can just learn how to pack more minimally with my toiletries, I’d be in business! Baby steps…

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18 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Suitcases

  1. Sue says:

    Thank you for another insightful post. It made me remember my own overpacking experiences, when I would fling everything I thought I could possibly need into a suitcase, and spend my journeys regretting having to keep wasting time and energy, rummaging through it all to find anything to wear and lugging it all around. Since then, I have discovered the simplicity and ease of carry-on luggage. It takes some preparation but it’s well worth it in my opinion.
    P.S. Love your sister-in-law’s scarf trick, and I like that she does laundry along the way. One travel blog I read asked why we would want to haul a load of dirty laundry about the planet when we can always get clothes cleaned. That question really helped me change my ways.
    P.P.S. I wonder why you don’t leave a few more things at your mom’s, to reduce packing stress? Some (older) walking shoes, perhaps? Some tops? A cardigan?
    P.P.P.S. I’ve been ill so it was such a treat to see a new post now that I’m recovering. 😊

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Thanks for your comment, Sue. I’m glad you were happy to see my new post, and I hope you make a full recovery soon! Like you, I’ve had many overpacking experiences, the worst of which were when my husband and I went on an Alaskan cruise and when we went on our honeymoon to New Zealand. I didn’t need even HALF of what I brought on those trips… It’s a good idea to leave some more stuff at my mom’s. This last time, I left the slippers and a hairdryer (the one she has is awful – my hair is very thick and I need a good hairdryer!). I like the idea of leaving older walking shoes there, as well as a robe and maybe some tops and a cardigan. I have been going there twice a year most years, but I might start to go more often given that my parents are getting older (my dad and stepmother are there now, too, at least for the time being).

  2. Gail says:

    Since we make the 3.5 hour drive to my daughter’s regularly, we leave a wedge pillow for my husband, some cooking things and shoes for in her house, a no-shoe zone.
    I remember fondly going on a trip to D.C. from Houston, where I then lived, with two other teachers to accept an award. The one woman took three handbags for a two-day trip, which she defended with “I want to have a choice.” She was adorable, looked great and had a good idea for her fashionable self. I of course was the one with the small carry-on. It was pre 9-11, so we didn’t worry about putting tweezers, etc. in our carry-ons.
    Whenever I travel, I also seem to return home with an unworn item or two, even though I go light. Maybe it is a sign of our insecurity. Be prepared.
    I, too, am happy you posted, Debbie. I enjoy all of your ideas and esp. your writing.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Good idea to leave some commonly used items at your daughter’s house. I should probably do that with my mom’s house, but I wasn’t sure it was worth it because I only go there maybe twice a year (and didn’t go for close to two years because of Covid). But I think even leaving a few items (like the hairdryer and slippers) will make a difference. I think I’ll take an old robe and maybe an old pair of boots to leave there next time.

      Interesting that even someone like you with a very small wardrobe may still not wear everything you take on a trip, but I guess none of us can be totally sure of what we might be doing or the type of weather we might face. Better safe than sorry, to a point, of course! I’m glad you liked this post. I appreciate your ongoing support of me and my writing.

  3. Mo says:

    Glad you enjoyed some family time! Funny, we all think it’s pretty warm here for this time of year but I get it coming from So. Cal.
    I usually overpack a bit, but not by weight or suitcase size, just by having unworn things I could have done without. One of these days I’m going to try the 10 item capsule where you do 4 tops, 2 bottoms, 2 toppers, and 2 shoes. If you choose carefully, they can mix into a lot of outfits. My rough idea without having a particular destination or climate in mind would look like this:
    1 Jacket
    1 sweater/sweatshirt/hoodie
    4 Tops (print, solid, knit, woven)
    2 Bottoms
    2 Pairs of Shoes (dressy + casual)
    I might throw in a dress, too, to widen my options just a bit more, and again depending on if my trip might include a nice dinner out kind of thing. Honestly I haven’t traveled since Covid so I am out of practice. Hopefully soon!
    Happy Holidays!

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Good to hear from you, Mo. I hope that maybe we can meet up on my next trip to Tahoe. This last time was super chaotic trying to juggle seeing my various family members (it’s gotten a lot more challenging after my brother’s divorce, remarriage, and move, as well as my dad and stepmother living in the area). You’re right that it was relatively warm there. I expected to need my warmer parka and layering tops, but I was pleasantly surprised that they weren’t necessary. Your travel wardrobe looks very reasonable and should be enough for most types of trips. My problem is deciding WHICH pieces to pack, which is part of why I usually end up overpacking. For example, I would have been fine with a pair of jeans and a pair of black pants, but I didn’t trust myself to make the right decision. Now that I saw what I did and didn’t wear, I made some notes to hopefully do better next time. I hope you get to travel again soon! My husband and I still hope to do a belated 20th anniversary trip, but things have still been too crazy…

  4. Vildy says:

    I’ve always packed extra light. I keep an awareness that I might have to or want to tote my suitcase myself, including up and down stairways. I don’t own a wheeled suitcase but if I did I would picture what I would do if a wheel broke. I also try never to check luggage and want it with me for quick escape and not having my plans derailed. Though once I went to visit a boyfriend and his family in upstate New York and the day before he assured me it was 90 degrees so I packed only flimsy things. The day I arrived the weather had turned seasonal and I hate to be cold. I guess I could have asked to borrow things but I went shopping and loved what I bought, including items like a winter coat from an oldline department store that was closing. I liked and wore what I bought for many years afterward. It was a fun experience. Oh, and once I was in Florida and had always wanted to go to Key West. I took a bus from Miami so I had my suitcase with me but I checked it into a locker while I went out to rent a room. But, uh oh, the bus station building was locked for the weekend and I had no clothes other than what was on my back. Found a Mexican wedding dress that was all black with black embroidery that could be worn front or back, either vee neck or square neck and was sleeveless with a ruffle around the armholes. Wore that happily for many years afterward, too.

    My purpose in traveling is probably different than a lot of people’s. I’m not interested in being a tourist and don’t tend to see the sights. I like to pretend that I live in that location and act like a local. Most people never bother to see the famous tourist spots in their hometowns. 😀 So I tend to visit the drugstore, maybe the library, bookstores, the main street shopping area.

    Clothes are a great aesthetic pleasure for me so what I pack is the clothing I am already most interested in
    wearing in upcoming days. This is presuming the weather allows. It works backwards, too, since I tend to keep
    a traveller’s mentality in my own location. I like the adage to look like you’re going someplace better afterward.
    So I adopt a passing through strategy. I feel it lends me mystery. 😀

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Great idea to consider having to carry a suitcase if a wheel breaks. I think I might be in big trouble in such an instance! Thanks for sharing your stories about having to shop to fill in the gaps with what you packed for trips. It’s great that you loved what you purchased, but you seem to have a strong sense of style and what you like, so it’s not too surprising. The story of having your suitcase locked inside of the bus terminal sounds awful, but you made “lemonade from lemons” in that instance.

      I love your perspective on travel. I actually enjoy visiting places like drugstores, main street, and the like when I travel, too. I think a lot of people don’t get around to visiting the tourist attractions in their own towns. One example from my life was living in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 20 years before I ever visited Alcatraz. There are some tourist attractions in San Diego that I haven’t visited, either, and some of the ones I did visit were back when I was a tourist here. I can see how adopting a traveler’s mentality in one’s own hometown would add to the excitement of everyday life. Something to keep in mind!

  5. RoseAG says:

    I just returned from two weeks with my Mother in the Mid-West. I took a large suitcase, but came home with an extra bag. It was full of books and might have gone into my regular suitcase but it would have made it overweight.
    Since this destination is one to have been to several times you can make a list and a re-cap and next time you go tweak your packing.
    One pair of jeans is probably a good rule as they’re bulky and heavy. I had one jeans, painters’ pants (not blue), a pair of joggers, and a pair of sweats for walking. That’s down from what I took the year before.
    When going someplace where you expect to be hanging around in loungewear you might as well take it because you know you’ll wear it.
    One issue I have with my Mother’s home is that she keeps her house very warm. This year I did not take my thermal jammies as I was hot in them last year.
    I wore everything I took, except for the Winter coat. It was warmer than I’d expected. It was one of those stuff ones so it wasn’t a major waste of space, and if it’d been normal temperatures I’d have been happy to have it. I ended up wearing a fleece vest with a hoodie underneath. That’s a great travel option as you can add/subtract and recombine easily.
    Recognizing that you aren’t a minimalist packer I think you did well. Extra tops gave you options for unexpected whims of style. You aren’t someone with a small wardrobe, why deny yourself choices? It all fit in a suitcase and as long as you weren’t impatient at the baggage claim because you checked something it’s fine.
    Looking at SIL’s list, I’m surprised she didn’t have any long-sleeved tops. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, but that would result in my always having a sweater on.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Good suggestion to make a travel list, Rose. I actually did just that after my last Tahoe trip, as I gained a better perspective on what I do and don’t wear. Of course, activities might be different, but there’s nothing wrong with re-wearing things. Your selection of bottoms for your recent trip sounds very reasonable. I think it’s good that you had pants for all types of occasions/situations. My mom’s house is the opposite of your mom’s in that it is often quite cold, so it was very helpful that I had my robe and slippers with me, as well as warm loungewear. I think having a packable winter coat is helpful for anyone who travels to cold climates. I ended up returning the parka I brought with me to Tahoe and buying an alternate that is both a better fit and easy to pack (it’s good that I didn’t need the parka on the trip!).

      I was surprised that my sister-in-law didn’t have any long-sleeved tops with her, too. She did wear her hoodie a few times, but she was often just fine in the short-sleeved shirt. I think it IS a Canada thing, but when I lived in Colorado and Tahoe, I also became a heartier soul. Now that I live in Southern California, I feel the cold quite easily and wear toppers most of the time (which is why I developed the “third piece” issue I wrote about recently – i.e. struggling when it’s too warm for a topper). We all have our different challenges, I guess. I’m fine with overpacking to a degree, but it was too much this last time. I believe that I’ll do better based upon what I learned, but I doubt I’ll every pack as lightly as my SIL.

  6. Rachel says:

    I like to think of travel as a chance to make a fun mini-capsule, and use a Stylebook app packing list to visualize the possibilities. For Thanksgiving, everything I packed for a week of cold-weather activities, including sleep, fit in an Everlane knapsack: three bottoms (sweatpants/leggings, jeans, and black pants), two shoes (packable slip-on/nice sneakers and a low boot) and five tops of varying weights and sleeve lengths, including what I wore instead of packing.

    But looking at the items visually in the app later on, I realized I that with that amount of clothing, I was overpacked – I could actually have had a MONTH of outfits out of that number of items without ever repeating once…although, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more and comfortable with doing just that – nobody remembers!

    I also layered a light/packable jacket and a heavier coat on the road, and wore a scarf, which also increased the possibilities. I’m a New Yorker, so looking put-together is important to me – but I find the more effortless-looking and minimal look really makes me feel that way more than anything else.

    (I also just spent a month overseas in half a carry-on bag – the other half was my child’s clothing – and still had room left over to bring back family presents. It can be done!)

    I mention this because I, too, am all about imagining all the possibilities of a trip – BUT find the key is to bring as many items as possible that work multiple ways…a shirt that looks good dressed-down and dressed up, depending on the combination, etc. You’re a minimalist too – that style is IDEAL for this sort of planning!

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Thanks for sharing your travel wardrobe, Rachel. I often think it’s harder to pack for a shorter trip than a longer one, especially when we like to have choices. I could have easily traveled for a month or longer with what I packed for my recent Tahoe trip. Your travel wardrobe sounds very reasonable to me, but of course one could go more minimal, as evidenced by my sister-in-law’s travel capsule. Layering for the actual travel days can help a lot to lighten the load, but it can be challenging when one is going to a place with very different weather. We had a quite warm day in San Diego on my travel day, so I wore a short sleeved shirt and cardigan and carried a warmer jacket (that I ended up wearing most days in Tahoe). You sound like a “master packer” based upon my recent overseas trip with a carry-on for both you and your child with room to spare. Well done! I appreciate your tips in your last paragraph. I think that next time I travel, I will stick with only black as my main color and include maybe two black printed pieces. I will also adopt my sister-in-law’s tip about the scarves. My scarf capsule is underutilized, but I have quite a few.

  7. Maggie says:

    Hi Debbie, My mom had a great trick. She would make sure that whomever she was visiting had a sweater and a light coat in her size available for her to borrow when she visited. Since I am a small and she was a medium, I kept some items – including a set of pajamas – in her size on hand in neutral colors. If you were a size medium and she was coming to visit, she might ask to borrow anything – it just made her packing so much simpler.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Your mom sounds very wise, Maggie. It’s definitely helpful to be able to borrow items from the person one is visiting. Unfortunately, my mom and I wear very different sizes, so that won’t work for me. I might be able to borrow tops and toppers from my stepmother, but I can’t borrow pants from practically anyone due to my height. I think the best I can probably do is leave some key pieces at my mom’s house, which I’m gradually working to do. I’ll have to consider what else I can leave there to make the whole packing experience better and less stressful for me. The comments on this post have given me some other great ideas to add to my sister-in-law’s tips.

      1. Maggie says:

        Great idea!

  8. Terra Trevor says:

    Great post and new blog!
    Good timing for me too, I’m preparing to pack to visit family. I’m driving so I could overpack. But after reading about how your sister in law packed, I’m thinking her way is a good way for me to go with this trip. In addition to lowering my travel stress, it will make unpacking and laundry far easier when I return home too.

  9. Maggie says:

    My approach in packing is to just take my favorite and most comfortable items – 2 of each and add some outwear/footwear for changes in weather. I can always do wash there if needed. I do pack at least 2 paperbacks of different genres and stock up on snacks after I arrive though!

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      That’s a great way of doing it, Maggie! Most of us take more than we truly need, and being comfortable is important. I think I need to work on trusting myself that I have enough and don’t need as many choices as I think I do… In terms of books and snacks, I often pack too many of those, too. I enjoy reading, but I’m usually too busy doing other things to read much on a trip (other than on the plane).

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