The countdown to a beach vacation is all fun and games until it comes time to pack, at which point it feels more like an algebra test full of equations we didn't prepare for. We want to pack lightly, but we don't want to get caught in the same outfit every single day—now that's a tricky balance to strike. But with a lot of determination (and a little creativity), we finally came up with a packing list that fits over 25 outfit combinations inside a carry-on suitcase. The good news is that our formula allows for plenty of personal style expression. An essential element, of course.
The trick is to pack your bag with extremely versatile pieces that can each be worn over and over again while still looking fresh (and photo-ready). With less than a dozen items on our packing list, we promise there will even be plenty of space left over for all your new purchases (very important). Ahead, we show you how to style our 11 beach vacation essentials so you can travel light and in style. Oh, and in case you need a break from packing, we sprinkled some travel tips from our three favorite waterfront destinations too so you can get excited for the beaches that await you.
Item 1: A Classic Button-Up, 3 Ways
Though a classic shirt may sound like it's a better fit for the office, this clothing item actually offers a ton of potential while in transit to the beach, too. Wear it on the flight with jeans, again during the day for an activity that's casual but still makes you look put together (perhaps with a pair of shorts), and then dress it up for an evening with a midi skirt and heels. You can also make it more fun by turning it into an off-the-shoulder shirt.
A Casual Day Outfit:
Item 2: A Pair of Jeans, 3 Ways
Instead of going for a bulky pair of sweats, wear your most comfortable pair of jeans on the airplane. Simply tuck in the aforementioned shirt, and voilà. Not only will jeans keep you warm on the chilly plane ride, but they'll also come in handy once you reach your destination. Wear it to a casual dinner and night out with a statement top and heels, and then again under a lightweight shift dress if it gets chilly in the evening.
For the Evening:
Item 3: A Pair of Shorts, 3 Ways
Pack some jean shorts or some casual linen ones if that's more your pace. You can either wear it with your casual shirt or throw on a dressier top to make the look evening-appropriate. Or just throw them over your bikini bottoms for a quick change to and from the beach.
To Go Shopping:
Beach Trip Spotlight: The Croatian Coast
If you love the land and the sea with equal enthusiasm, a vacation in Croatia is the right place to go. Plan a sailing trip from Dubrovnik to Spilt so you can hop on and off as you please and get a taste of the history of Dubrovnik as well as the quaint beauty of all the little towns along the Dalmatian coast. If you'd prefer to stay on land the entire time, check out the old-timey and opulent Villa Orsula in Dubrovnik.
You may also want to peel away from the coast and head inland to the beautiful Plitvice Lakes National Park, which is definitely worth the trek. If you love the outdoors, this is the place of dreams, with running rivers and gorgeous green lagoons to swim in, isolated dirt roads to bike down, and quaint villages to explore along the way. Plus, all your beach outfits will work, just don't forget to throw in a pair of sneakers.
Item 4: A Wrap Skirt, 2 Ways
A wrap skirt is a perfect staple to throw in the mix because it'll freshen up one of the shirts that you've already worn. You can also dress up a one-piece swimsuit by treating it as a bodysuit and wearing it tucked into your skirt either at a lunch spot on the shore or during a dressier dinner.
For a Balmy Night Out:
Item 5: A Large Scarf, 5 Ways
A large scarf is quite possibly the most versatile piece in your closet (yes, including your jeans). Use it as an accessory by tying it around your wrist, purse handle, or head so you can add character to a lackluster outfit without much hassle, or use it as a sarong at the beach. If you feel like getting extra creative, transform your scarf into a halter top with your jeans.
For the Beach:
Item 6: One Pair of Heels, Infinite Ways
Heels take up a ton space in your suitcase, so if you can cut back on how many options you bring, it'll be a much lighter load to carry. You'll also have more storage space, which we all know is code for shopping. If you love neutral clothing and brought primarily understated pieces, consider bringing fun statement heels.
On the other hand, if you have a ton of printed separates and you're worried about matching everything together once you reach your destination, then bring your neutral heels. If you do this, either way, your shoes will look completely new each time as long as you switch up shapes and color schemes.
For a Nice Dinner:
Beach Trip: Nantucket
Complete with New England charm and seaside views, Nantucket is the ideal vacation town for travelers seeking a picture-perfect experience. If you're vacationing with small kids or going on a friends-only vacation, Nantucket should be on your hit list. Stay close to the harbor for nightlife and shopping, or venture out and you'll find streets neatly lined with shingled widow's walks, hydrangea bushes, open Jeeps, and the occasional lighthouse. You'll want to keep your cameras nearby everywhere you go, so it's a good thing that you have this packing list to ensure you're camera-ready every step of the way.
Item 7: One Swimsuit, 4 Ways
Before you think we're cheating with this item on the packing list, hear us out. If you opt for a bikini during your first two days of the trip, then a full piece swimsuit can actually wriggle its way into a few different outfits. Wear it with a midi skirt during the day or out on the town with your jeans when the evening begins to cool off. By the time you actually wear it to go swimming or lounge by the water, it'll look like a brand-new item.
For a Beachfront Outting:
Item 8: One Straw Purse, Infinite Ways
If you bring your straw purse with you as your second carry-on, you can also use it as a beach bag during the vacation. Not only will it make room for other items in your carry-on (like an evening clutch), but it will also stop you from misplacing your belongings (especially if you're not used to switching back and forth between bags). Plus, you can have all your things with you at the beach instead of having to carry your books, cameras, phones, and whatever else in your arms to and from the sandy shores.
To Go Exploring:
Item 9: One Dressy Top, 2 Ways
If you're running out of space in your carry-on, it could be because you have too many going-out tops packed. Since you'll be using your casual button-up or polo, one-piece swimsuit, and your scarf as a makeshift halter as a shirt for three nights during your trip, then you really only need one more top to diversify things. A simple slip tank will be really easy to pack since it doesn't take up much space, but go ahead and throw in your favorite ruffled off-the-shoulder top too. Opt for a material that packs well and is super compact, like silk.
For a Night Out:
Beach Vacation Spotlight: The Gulf of Mexico
For the ultimate Mexican beach experience, we recommend heading to Tulum. Not only is it an idyllic beachside destination, but it's also drawn in design aficionados from around the world. In fact, the hip restaurants and boutique hotels give boho chic a whole new meaning. With stylish accommodations that don't break the bank, laid-back glamping options with well-designed cabanas and beach tents, and upscale resorts, every kind of traveler will find something they're looking for.
Item 10: One Pair of Flat Sandals, Infinite Ways
Though these aren't the most exciting item on the list, they're definitely necessary. The good news is that flat sandals are super easy to pack, so you may even be able to bring an extra item of your choice. Just make sure you've already broken in the shoes you pack so that you can walk around and explore while you're not out on the water.
To and From the Beach:
Item 11: One Shift Dress, 3 Ways
A dress may seem like it only offers up one outfit option, but the trick is all about how you choose to layer it. Take a semi-sheer cover-up, for example. You can wear it during the day over your swimsuit, but then you can you layer it with jeans and heels later in the evening for a classic day-to-night look.
The length will bring in a bit of drama, and you'll stay warm in case the temperature drops. If you choose to bring a linen button-up dress, just unbutton the bottom half so your jeans are exposed. Or if it's a shorter shift dress, practice your half tuck and turn it into a tunic with your casual shorts.
Hanging by the Shore:
Can you think of any other ways to wear each item on our beach packing list? Share them with us and be sure to let us know where your summer travels are taking you in the comment section below.