In this post, I’m sharing my best tips for packing for a business trip, whether that’s attending or presenting at a conference, visiting the headquarters of your company, or just an off-site meetup with colleagues. I’ve been there and done them all, multiple times. And I have opinions. So now that we’re seeing business travel pick up a bit post-pandemic, I want to share my best advice for packing a professional and functional capsule wardrobe, no matter what your business trip has in store.
This post is a bit longer because I wanted to make sure I covered multiple scenarios and seasons in my tips and tricks.
What does dressing professionally mean to you?
My first piece of advice is to really unpack (pun intended) what workwear means to you and what the phrase “dressing professionally” inspires. I believe that as a society, we’re way past the strict, corporate, and at times sexist and racist norms for traditional business attire.
In fact, the pandemic has pushed us even closer to reaching a talent-over-appearances workplace dynamic. More and more traditional industries are adopting flexible, modern workplace practices that include a change in wardrobe expectations.
That being said, I would be naive if I said that how you dress in a business context doesn’t matter. But how it matters is a wide spectrum, and what you want your clothes to say about you is also a personal decision.
Let me give a few examples. If you’re a construction worksite supervisor, you need to dress for that job. Show up without steel toe boots and your hardhat, not only do you look underprepared and lose credibility, but you likely won’t even be allowed on the construction site.
You can take that example and apply it to any industry. I can give all the business casual advice until I’m blue in the face, but you know your industry best. If your profession calls for certain uniforms, follow that advice first.
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Using your clothing as a tool
Secondly, using your work outfits to send a message can feel like advice from the 80s, when power suits for women were a way to assert your place in a male dominated workplace. But to this day, women are picked apart for their choices. Too feminine, not feminine enough, too sexy, too old lady. It seems we can’t win.
So, my advice here is not to get too wrapped up in appearances, but to think about your unique business context and to use your outfit like a tool. Are you the creative director at your company? What do you want your clothes to say about your taste and personal creative aesthetic? If there are a few people at work who look like you, how can you use your clothes to stand out in an important meeting? But more important than anything, what gives you confidence? For some people, it’s a look that’s more subdued but sharp, and for others, it might be a louder outfit. Whatever gives you confidence, lean into that.
Office fashion in different cultures
Third, a lot of the fashion advice I’m going to give in this video is specific to a western context. If you’re going to Japan, or the United Arab Emirates on a business trip, for example, do look up their business norms and expectations from someone who is more experienced.
What you need to know to pack for a business trip
Alright, if you came here for more specific advice, here we are. As with any trip, my first step is to look at weather, activities, vibe, and trip length.
Planning around the weather
Weather is fairly easy to plan for if you check in advance. The important factor is always how much of this weather will I be exposed to. If you’re flying in, taking a cab to the hotel, and staying in a convention centre the whole time, you can get away with almost anything. But if your business trip involves a team building scavenger hunt outside, you’ll want to know that kind of thing in advance. So, make sure as you check weather forecasts, you have a good handle on what your itinerary will include.
Packing for your work trip activities
In a business context, packing for summer weather can be tricky. If you’ll be spending most of your time indoors, air conditioner can impact your choice of clothes. When I travel to the US, I’m always shocked at how hot it is outside and how cold it is inside. Be warned.
Knowing how formally to dress when travelling for work
For vibe, it’s just a matter of knowing how casual or formal you’re expected to dress. This comes down to your individual role and industry and the purpose of your trip. I work in tech, so it’s very casual. That being said, I still have important meetings when I go on business trips, so I try to present myself and the company well. There’s also often a sightseeing activity, so I bring at least one pair of comfortable shoes.
Adjusting your packing for trip length
The reason why I mention trip length as a factor is that length really impacts whether or not I need to check a bag, how many cosmetics to bring and I’ll adjust my packing strategy to have more outfit combinations, which can mean an extra pair of shoes, too.
The best footwear for business travel
Ok, let’s move on to the footwear you’ll need for a business trip.
I’m not the biggest wearer of heels, so if I’m true to myself, I would recommend a block or wedge heel or something comfortable like a bootie if you do want to wear heels. If you like dresses and tights in the fall and winter, I’d recommend a tall boot for added warmth. The only thing is you’ll likely have to wear the on travel days because packing tall boots in your carry on without crushing them is not a space safer!
Boots in general are such a chic and comfortable option. On my last two business trips, I packed one pair of flat boots, and those were my only shoes for the whole trip. They were chic enough for the boardrooms but comfortable enough for sightseeing.
Brogues and derbys
If you’re looking for a non-boot option that’s comfortable but gives you a little bit of heigh, I find platform brogues to be a great choice. I’ve had a few pairs over the years, of varying heights, that always worked really well with my workwear outfits.
For spring and summer, other than brogues, I really like loafers which comes in all sorts of different styles from trendy to classic and streamlines.
I also recommend a smart flat. Pointed toe or almond toe flats can feel a little dressier than round toe, but to me, what sets a business flat apart from a casual one is the condition it’s in. When I was a teenager, I’d go through so many $15 pairs of flats and just wear them into the ground. So, if you’re packing flats, pick ones that are in good shape. That doesn’t mean they have to be rigid and uncomfortable. There are lots of brands making knit flats, or soft leather models that pack up into a tiny pouch.
For summer workwear outfits, I’m just going to share my own personal preference, which is not to wear sandals. I rarely wear sandals when I’m flying or travelling by train, and pretty much never in a business setting, so on a business trip, they would not be my first choice. But, if you love them, I’d follow the same advice as for flats: make sure they are more substantial than flip flops and in good shape. I’ve also seen lots of high-heeled sandals that look comfortable and are business appropriate.
Picking colours and styles
As far as colour and specific styles, I say go nuts and pick things that suit your personal style. As long as you are comfortable and aren’t trying to go tour a factory in open toe stilettos, there’s a wide margin for you to work with and it’s a good opportunity to show off a little bit of personal style.
Sneakers for business travel
Lastly, are sneakers good for a business trip? Probably in most cases! If you have a clean, simple pair, there are lots of ways to style them in workwear appropriate way.
Cleaning your shoes
If you’re concerned at all about winter slush, or just keeping your shoes clean in general on a trip, you can bring a mini shoe shine kit, or boot wipes to make sure they look great for the entire trip.
The last thing I’ll say about footwear when packing for a business trip is to also consider other footwear you might need like running shoes to use the hotel gym, flip flops for the pool, or slippers if you like bringing your own from home.
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Packing outerwear for a business trip
Alright, let’s move on to outerwear. Now, this isn’t a video specifically about packing for one season, so bear with me as I go through recommendations for every season, starting with winter. Unless it’s a bitter cold and blizzards, in which case, the parka is your only choice, my top pick for a business trip coat is just a lovely structure wool coat. Or, even a blanket coat works really well.
For added warmth without the bulk, I always recommend layering a small down vest under the coat. You usually can’t even see it and it adds tons of warmth. Click here for more winter layering tips.
For more spring weather, a peacoat, blazer, or leather jacket can all be great choices. Even denim to a certain degree can be business trip appropriate styled the right way. Traditionally, trench coats and Mac coats are probably the most business appropriate. These days, you can get trench coats in all sorts of cuts and colours, and even fabrics. Drapey, structured, leather, printed, waxed, vinyl. So, if you have a trench coat you love, great! And if you’re in the market for one, you have lots of choice that will work for business and casual outfits.
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Packing a blazer
Let’s talk about blazers really quickly, because when we think about workwear, that’s often what comes to mind first. I love the look of a strong blazer and think they’re such a useful piece to make any outfit a little more polished. But personally, I actually don’t bring them when I travel that often. I think it’s because I find them a bit stiff and also, they can feel a little tight when you have to wear a coat over top, which for me, is very often.
But, in general blazers are great! Don’t settle when you’re looking for a new blazer, because they are investment pieces. Find one that fits you the way you want, and works with the rest of your closet. The fun thing about blazers is they can come in all sorts of fabrics and colours, so you can create uniforms and just switch out the style based on the season. In fall and winter, I like dark colours and more prints, and in the summer, go for a linen blazer in a light colour.
On the extreme ends, I’ve even seen some silk blazers and some leather blazers look really chic as a workwear option. These can be a little more tricky to pack though. Linen and Silk need to be steamed, and leather can be a bit heavy. I’d say the sweet spot is a natural fibre and synthetic fibre blend. Like wool with a bit of polyester to help it bounce back into its shape. As far as packing and protecting your blazers, if you have limited space, like a really tiny suitcase, I’d recommend wearing your blazer on travel days. For tips on how to pack a blazer without creasing or damaging it, check out my post on how to pack formalwear where I mention some tips for packing suit jackets and blazers.
I’ve never purchased a full matching blazer and trousers myself, but I do love the way it looks and honestly, for business travel, coordinated sets can give you a lot of flexibility for mixing and matching. You can pair the pieces with other items to really increase the number of outfit combinations.
This spring, vests are coming back, especially with matching trousers. It’s got a very Diane Keaton vibe to it which I’m loving. It’s also a great way to add modesty to a slightly sheer top, or can even be worn over a tank for a business but summer-ready look.
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Picking trousers for business travel
Onto trousers, which is probably my MVP pick for business travel. I love trousers and they really suit my personality and style. I’d say this is another investment piece and finding the ones that suit your style, body, and climate is well worth the time and money. Personally, my favourite trousers are a wool blend and tend to sit high on the waist. That being said, some of the trousers I wear the most are actually a wide leg style in a polyester blend because they are so comfortable and wrinkle-resistant, so I don’t need to fuss about making sure I pack a travel iron, or use the one at the hotel.
I have a blog post all about trousers and what fabrics to choose for the optimal travel pants. In a nutshell, there are several brands making more technical trousers, like lululemon and their sister brand kit and ace, which are crease resistant, stain resistant, good for golf, biking, and travel, and so much more. Their merino wool pants are also great for winter and wool is antimicrobial and dries really fast in case you need to wash your pants in your hotel sink. If you pick a pair of pants that is looser around the waist, trousers can also be a great option for travel days.
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Jeans for Business Travel
More and more offices allow jeans not just on casual Fridays. For travel, I’d recommend jeans with a bit more stretch and a more comfortable cut for travel days and long hours in meetings. But, as long as there aren’t tears and distressing, any denim can be made office appropriate. White black, and grey denim can also be a great way to incorporate denim in a neutral way.
Blouses and tops for travel
So, you’ve got pants, you’ve got a blazer, what about tops? Depending on the length of the trip, I tend to pack a bit of everything for tops. I have my favourite merino wool or silk tanks and t-shirts that just go under everything. I tend to run hot, like it doesn’t take much: hot weather, heater, stress, embarrassment, for me to get warm, so natural fibres are my preferred base layer.
Blouses are obviously a classic office wear look. Button up, dramatic sleeve, jewel tone, this is another place to get creative. If you do opt for thinner blouses, make sure you roll them to avoid creasing or pack a travel steamer.
You can also get creative with layering your tops. If it’s winter time, a think turtleneck can go under anything, even a blouse. You can also pick a printer blouse and just have the collar peek out under a dress or a sweater combination.
Sweaters are another great top to pack, for warmth and style. I like packing a mix of thick and thin ones. Thin cardigans can be great for air conditioned offices in the summer, or be styled as a top on its own or under a sleeveless dress.
Packing dresses and skirts
Don’t be afraid of packing dresses and skirts on a business trip, just make sure you coordinate your shoes and pack good tights if it’s seasonally or required. My favourite tights are Sheertex because they are indestructible, so I never have to worry about having a run in my tights in the middle of a business trip.
Some of my favourite versatile dresses are midi length slip dresses, especially with a tall boot, sleeveless wool dresses with a turtleneck. I also love sweater dresses, wrap dresses, or shirt dresses. I would steer away from shorter dresses and skirts, not because they are inappropriate but I just personally find them a bit more juvenile in style and they cut me off in the wrong places, so I prefer a longer hemline. The fun thing about some dress styles is they can double as a long cardigan or as a gilet vest, so you get more outfits out of your items.
For summer time, a sleeves dress is totally appropriate, but keep in mind my AC warning, and bring a light blazer, jacket, or cardigan. If it’s really hot, you might want to consider wearing a slip under your dress to keep you cool and sweat-free. Also, with thinner fabrics in the summer, make sure you have the right underwear for every outfit you plan to wear.
Solving common business travel problems
Ok, with the theory out of the way, let’s cover some frequent business travel dilemmas.
How to pack for a business trip for hot weather.
I think long sleeve blouses and trousers can be great for hot summer weather when they're in a linen fabric. Bermuda shorts are also an appropriate style for summer office looks and Pinterest has tons of inspiration on ways to style sorts for the office.
I have several parties, dinners, and drinks planned in the context of my business trip and not sure how to be work appropriate but still fun.
I love this question and for me the key is bringing blouses and dresses that can do both daytime and evening. Then, swapping out your accessories. During the day, you may want to keep jewelry low key and you might also have a large tote bag with your computer and planner. In the evening, try styling your looks with a statement piece, and a clutch instead.
I have to lug so much around but don't want to wear a backpack, what do you suggest.
I don't know if you've watched the sex and the city reboot, but gosh, Miranda got so much flack for her backpack, and I get it, backpacks can be...outfit ruiners. Instead, I'd recommend a chic tote bag. That can range from a leather one to nylon, there's definitely a spectrum to choose from. Find one that has all the functionality that you need, but that you will love to use outside of the office. Cuyana makes some beautiful totes with organizing inserts that can fit a laptop.
How do I make sure my clothes look great after hours of travel?
It all starts with choosing good travel fabrics to start, and then packing them carefully. If your hotel has an iron, great, use it! If not, consider packing a 2-in-1 travel steamer and iron. Make sure you unpack as soon as you arrive at your hotel so your clothes spend as little time as possible crumpled up. I'd also recommend packing cubes for your shoes and keeping delicates packed away from velcro and zippers. For more delicate items, you can also invest in a garment bag that clips into your suitcase, like the away garment bag. If you really want to be prepared, a small sewing kit, a lint roller, crease-release spray and anti-static spray can help your outfits look impeccable.
My office clothes are boring, how do you make cool outfits for work?
Pinterest and Instagram! You probably have lots of hidden gems, but need a little inspiration. I like using the More Ideas tab in Pinterest to find more styles in line with my taste. Sometimes it's about a fresh idea on layering, or seeing colour combinations I hadn't thought of. Or, seeing how people style head to toe monochromatic looks. I find magazine editors are women I like to copy, or creative entrepreneurs.
Final packing tips for business travel
The last few tips I’d say for business travel are to make sure you have clean chip-free nails and to think about some hair and makeup styles before leaving so you can plan whether to bring hair tools like flat iron and blow dryer. I’m not very good with hair, so for a short trip, I’ve gotten a blow out before leaving or right when I landed and stretch out that style for the length of my trip so I had a good hair day every day of the trip. It was just one less thing to think about.
And that’s it! Those are my major tips for business travel. I hope these were helpful. Let me know in the comments if you have more questions!
Happy travels xox