7 Style Lessons for Effortless Travel Fashion

Last week, my love affair with neon ended abruptly when a pair of British couchsurfers stayed at my apartment for a few days. Not only were these London girls the sweetest ladies ever, but I — in all my American brights and wrecked denim short-shorts — was blown away by their travelers' style. I watched them don each oh-this?-I-just-threw-this-on outfit every morning and took mental notes, determined to infuse a little cultured panache into my wardrobe. Here's what I observed.

1. Don't fight traveler's hair, embrace it. There's no way you'll be able to pack your curling iron, your straightener, and your sculpting mousse if you want to travel light — and believe me, you want to travel light. Now is the time to greet your hair's natural texture with open arms. There will be wind, late nights, and long bus rides. There will be lots of air-drying. Welcome to the era of the messy bun and the careless waves. (If you just happened to pack a little surf spray, I won't tell.)

2. Keep all your clothes in the same general color palette. One of my guests wore either black and white separates or cute blue dresses the entire time. The other girl was more of a design fiend, with a long Indian-print maxi and a floral romper, but she paired all patterns with easy neutrals like black tops and denim shorts. I could tell that their clothing stash was pretty much infinitely interchangeable, which is exactly what you need when traveling from NYC to San Francisco. Pack only neutrals and a few easily-integratable patterns, and you'll have more outfits than you realize.

3. Stick with the same basic silhouette. Have you thought about bringing only high-waisted bottoms and scoop-neck tank tops? When all your clothing boasts the same silhouette, you can yank out a random top and bottom every morning and you're guaranteed to look put-together. Nobody has time for fashion disasters on the road. (Note: my couchsurfers told me they wished they're brought more "traveling trousers." Lesson learned: It's always good to have one or two comfortable oddball items in your suitcase for when you get bored.)

4. You can go thrift shopping. Tight budget plus limited space might make shopping sound like a terrible idea, but if your solid-color-limited-silhouette wardrobe is driving you crazy, hit up a local thrift store. Not only will you get an intimate look at local style rejects, you can pick up wild, boredom-alleviating pieces for cheap. The floral romper I mentioned earlier? She picked it up right here in Chicago. And don't underestimate the power of having a great response to the inevitable "Where did you get that amazing ____?"

5. Don't forget the accessories. Accessories are nothing but fashion fluff, so when you're on a tight packing budget, they should be the first thing to go, right? So wrong. First of all, a pair of earrings and a wristful of bracelets take up zero space — lose the in-case-I-go-somewhere-fancy heels instead. (Traveling budget = nothing is fancy.) Secondly, even the simplest outfit looks London chic when you add a long necklace or a vintage watch. Accessories give a look purpose.

6. Yes, you can pull off a backpack. The word "backpack" conjures up visions of awkward drop-offs in the junior high parking lot and overeager parents on college campus visits. But when the rest of your outfit is breezy and hip, a backpack just makes you look a little studious and low-maintanance, like you're on your way to the Art Institute. Also, you now have free hands for taking lots of pictures and languidly smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.

7. Don't underestimate the importance of looking good in a strange city. Being a foreigner is a weird feeling, and something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime. You're no longer in charge of your surroundings — everything is a little off-kilter. At the risk of sounding like a Founding Father, there's something to be said for representing your country well, or at least your beloved hometown. Don't be one of "those" tourists. You know the ones. And you can always derive a gleefully malicious satisfaction from the knowledge that you're not wearing a fannypack and squeaky white sneakers, like the rest of the world expects of you.