How to Pack for a 5 Month International Trip, Using Only a Carry-On!

*by Whitney Eakin*

Around the World in 2018… with Backpacks!

For anyone who may be unfamiliar, Jared and I are currently halfway through a 5-month trip around the world, including 11 different countries in 3 different continents! When we first started planning our trip, Jared presented me with the concept that we would need to pack light and only bring backpack style luggage. I laughed! To set the stage for you, I’m the girl who normally brings a large rolling suitcase that borders the US airline standard 50lb mark, with +/- 10 pairs of shoes and 20 outfits, for a week-long trip! The idea of fitting everything I needed for a 5 month trip to multiple countries and climates into a backpack was absurd. But, after realizing the headache lugging around big suitcases would be on dozens of planes, trains, buses, taxis, tuk tuks, and by foot, I eventually came around. Now that we’ve been on our trip for about two and a half months, and we’ve been to eight different countries and on too many forms of transit to name, I can safely say I’m very glad we packed how we did! If you’re finding yourself in a similar situation, stay tuned and I’ll help you wrap your brain around how we did it and how you can do it too!

[Also- scroll to the bottom for a free PDF Quick Reference Example Packing List!]

Searching for the Right Suitcase

So you can probably picture the classic “backpackers,” with the huge hiker looking bag on their backs, straps wrapped all around their chests and waists, and maybe a mini bookbag on the front. Well, this could have been us (ok, ok the pics above look kind of like that), but we actually found a few huge flaws with this style of bag. First, they typically load from the top, like a regular bookbag. This can certainly make getting to your things quite a challenge. Also, some of them are HUGE! A key factor in choosing a backpack for us was to have it be the size we could take as a carry-on for all of the airlines, so as to avoid paying extra for checked bags and avoid being separated from our stuff, causing risk for theft, loss, or delays.

Sometimes Jared carries both of ours if my shoulders are hurting! 🙂

Jared did a lot of research regarding the carry-on restrictions for some of the airlines in Europe and Asia, which are much more strict than in the US! In the end he found us an awesome back-pack style suitcase, which zips and opens like a suitcase not a bookbag, that was the exact dimensions allowed for airlines such as Ryan Air. It came with back pack straps, a cross-body strap, and a chest support strap. It also has a lot of great zipper pockets in various places, and it has handles on every side of the bag for easily grabbing it from overhead bins, etc.

The only downside to this bag, which we later learned, is that it does not have a hip support strap. We found out how important these can be after carrying our bags around a lot and realizing how uncomfortable it gets resting on our shoulders (upper traps). On bags that have a hip strap, some of the weight gets distributed around your waist and makes it easier to carry. We’ve considered trying to buy a strap to make into a hip support for our bags, but overall our bags have still been great even without it. Bonus points: it’s very stylish! Much moreso than a classic backpacker bag in my opinion.

*There are links to some items below that we bought and used for our trip! The links go through our Amazon affiliation, so if you decide to buy any of these products we would appreciate you using our affiliate links!

Our bags: the Timbuk2 Wingman Travel Duffel Bag


I think you could also get away with packing in a small rolling suitcase; maybe one that has both a backpack straps and wheels so you could have the best of both worlds. Our biggest concern with this was whether the extra couple inches and bulk the wheels and handle add would qualify for the airline restrictions. In our experience so far, though, it’s been a bit of a toss up. We have been over the restrictions on the Southeast Asian airlines, but no one has ever said anything to us. Only once so far were we the last passengers to board a small local Asian airline, and there wasn’t space for my bag in the overhead bin, so they just took it into the hold free of charge.

But, we have heard stories of others having to check their bag at the gate for exceeding the restrictions, and having to pay big fees! We noticed they were a bit more strict on the European airlines (RyanAir and EasyJet) with other passengers. In one case they wouldn’t allow a passenger’s bag because the dimensions exceeded the limit, only because of the wheels. Other times, we noticed they were not strict at all, and allowed people with two to three to four small bags (might have been a purse or a shopping bag or a bookbag, with a rolling suitcase), even when they had an economy ticket where they were supposed to have only one bag! So, it’s up to you how much you want to risk the restrictions. I have taken the gamble a couple times with my bag being a little overstuffed or having an extra personal item when I was supposed to only have one bag, and so far so good! I always go into it though with the assumption that if I have to pay a fee and check my bag, I’ll just do it. So far though, fingers crossed, I haven’t had to!

“Personal Item” Bag

For many of the European and Asian airlines, not only is the main carry-on bag size very strict, so is the personal item size. The size of your second bag is basically a medium sized purse! And in fact, some airlines supposedly don’t even allow a second bag!

I did some extensive research to find a good travel purse I could use as my personal item, and we even looked at small messenger bags (or “man bags”) for Jared. In the end, Jared chose to bring just a small, athletic “cinch bag” as his personal item. I ended up with an awesome “anti-theft” purse from Travelon, which has great anti-theft features including slash-resistant material in the body and strap; locking zipper pockets; a strap you can unhook and lock around an immovable object; and RFID blocking pockets. It’s a great size that actually fits my small, 11-inch laptop and a lot of other items! (Oh, and I also was indecisive so I bought a smaller Travelon purse too to bring for occasions when I wanted a little purse, which came with an RFID blocking clutch/wallet that I also use sometimes by itself! Pictured below are my two purses, my wallet, and our “money belts”).

Travelon Anti-Theft Cross-Body Bucket Bag

Travelon Anti-Theft Crossbody and RFID Clutch Wallet Set

Hips Sister Women’s Left Coast Belt


Deciding What to Pack

[Don’t forget to scroll to the bottom for a free PDF Quick Reference Example Packing List!]

This was tough! I had to consider that the majority of our trip would be in a very hot climate (Southeast Asia), and that it would also be fairly warm in Europe in the summer. But there would be places (Germany) that were a little colder, and some that were chilly and rainy (UK). I figured that bringing layers would be the key, and nothing too bulky. If we had been traveling in Winter months and/or to colder places, I would’ve had a whole new set of problems!

I did a lot of research on the right kinds of clothes and accessories to bring, as well as talked to a good friend who’s done quite a bit of traveling. I made sure that most of my clothes coordinated so I could mix and match outfits. I went with all black and gray bottoms and various color tops, and all black shoes and purse. I chose a lot of items that are moisture-wicking/quick dry material. This way they’d be good for being hot, sweaty and on the go all the time. They are also thin and fold up really small for packing. And those types of clothes will hang dry easily when having to do laundry often, sometimes by just washing in the sink, or in a washer but with no dryer!

I also had to pack, unpack, and repack plenty of times, getting rid of things until I had just the essentials! I primarily used the rolling method to make sure to pack everything in efficiently! That and using packing cubes helped! I watched several YouTube videos on packing things compactly as well!

I’ll walk through everything that ended up making the cut. I’ll also admit that the majority of the shared items ended up in Jared’s bag, because he was a lot better at being a “minimalist” with his packing, and his bag had a lot of extra space!

The list below is what we started the trip with. At the two month mark when we were leaving Chiang Mai, Thailand, I had acquired a few new items and decided there were several things I really didn’t need, so I ended up sending some things home that I’ll talk about later!

What’s in My Luggage

Inside My Suitcase (Carry-On):

  • Packing cubes!
    • These have helped me a lot in my luggage. I got a bunch of them, but ended up only using a small one to keep my undergarments separate and a large one as the main compartment for my clothes.
Undergarments in their packing cube
Like peeling away the layers of an onion! The top layer: Toiletry kit and Underwear packing cube
Main clothing compartment
Main clothing compartment
Main clothing compartment
Second layer: extra purse, jackets and such rolled up in the back, the main clothing compartment
Shoes: Sneakers, black flats, hiking sandals, and thong sandals
  • Jackets:
    • 1 light weight sweatshirt
    • 1 fairly light weight thermal/fleece jacket (this I actually kept out and held in my hand on the flights)
    • 1 lightweight black cardigan
Black Cardigan, Sweatshirt, Fleece Jacket
Rain jacket (along with scarf and headband)
  • Tops: I bought a lot of these at T.J. Maxx or Marshall’s, or already had them!1 long sleeve shirt
    • 3 short sleeved moisture-wicking shirts
    • 1 short sleeve cotton shirt
    • 5 workout style tank tops (mostly moisture-wicking)
    • 3 dressier tank tops
Tops: Long Sleeve, Short Sleeve, Workout Type Tank Tops, Dressy Tank Tops
  • Bottoms:
    • 2 pairs of moisture wicking hiking style pants (These Columbia pants are the best! I have worn them to work, hiking, on day trips, sight seeing, on the plane, etc. Also these ones are the most comfortable thing I’ve ever put on my body.)
    • 2 pairs of hiking/fishing style moisture-wicking shorts (these and these)
    • 1 pair of workout style shorts
    • 1 pair of compression shorts to wear under dresses to prevent chaffing
Bottoms: Pants, Skorts, Shorts, Leggings
  • Dresses:
    • 2 simple knee length cotton dresses
Cotton Dresses
  • Pajamas
    • 1 cotton sleep shirt
    • 1 pair of yoga-type sleep pants
Pajamas (Representing ODU PT!)
  • Bathing suit:
    • 1 bathing suit top
    • 2 bathing suit bottoms (interchangeable)
    • 1 bathing suit cover-up dress
Bathing Suits and Cover-up
  • Undergarments:
    • 2 sports bras
    • 1 regular bra
    • 10 pairs of underwear
    • 5 pairs of socks
Undergarments in their packing cube
  • Toiletries: Most of these things we’ve had to replenish as we go along, except the shampoo bars have lasted a long time! “Pack it Flat” toiletry bag
    • Small bottle of conditioner
    • Small bottle of lotion
    • Contact case and small bottle of solution
    • Extra contacts
    • Toothbrush and small container toothpaste
    • Small ziplock bag of Q-tips
    • Razor with a few refills
    • Bar of soap
    • Deodorant
    • Small loofah
    • Tweezers and fingernail clippers
Toiletry kit
Bag of liquid items

Inside My Big Purse (Personal Item):

  • Cell phone
  • Small 11-inch laptop and laptop charger
  • Kindle
  • Wallet
  • Passport
  • Hand sanitizer and a few essentials (tissues, lip balm, etc)
  • Coleman camp soap strips – these have been life savers!
  • Glasses and sunglasses
  • Small daily planner and pens
  • Headphones
  • Fold up reusable shopping bag
  • Refillable plastic waterbottle

What’s in Jared’s Luggage

Inside His Suitcase:

  • Shoes:
    • 1 pair of sneakers (wears these on the plane)
    • 1 pair of hiking/walking sandals
Sneakers and Sandals
  • Jackets:
    • 1 light weight sweatshirt
Jackets and Belt
  • Tops:
    • 3 moisture wicking short sleeved “travel” shirts
    • 2 cotton v-neck tshirts
    • 1 cotton short sleeve gym shirt
    • 1 moisture wicking polo shirt
    • 1 moisture wicking collared, long sleeved button down shirt
    • 1 cotton tank top
Short Sleeved Shirts
Collared Shirts
Pants and Shorts
Gym Shorts and Tank Top
Laptops, Kindles, Planner, Locks, Go Pro, Outlet Converter
Bookbag, Towel, Turbie Twisty, First Aid Kit, Reusable Shopping Bag

Small Cinch-Bag (Personal Item):

  • Cell phone
  • Small 11-inch laptop and laptop charger
  • Kindle
  • Passport
  • Glasses and sunglasses
  • Headphones
  • Refillable plastic waterbottle

Things We Didn’t Need

Overall, looking back, I wish I would’ve eliminated more things in the beginning so we’d have our bags a little lighter and allow some room for buying a few things. I found that especially traveling in Southeast Asia, I wanted to wear some more of the local clothes, so I purchased a few of those along the way. I also wish had brought a few more dresses or loose flowy skirts. I ended up really not wearing the short sleeved athletic shirts very much. For the most part, I like tank tops better if it’s very hot, and for the temples where I needed sleeves, I didn’t like the sporty look of my athletic shirts anyway. Also, my fleece jacket definitely wasn’t necessary anymore once we were in Asia, and I really could have done without it in Europe by layering my other items. I also found out my black flats weren’t very comfortable walking shoes after all.

Jared realized he really was never wearing long pants, except if he was required to for the temples. He also only wore the sweatshirt one time, mostly because I encouraged him to bring it somewhere, ha! But after we were in Asia, he definitely didn’t need it anymore.

So after acquiring some extra stuff during our time in Europe and our month in Chiang Mai, I knew I needed to send some things back home. Here’s what went back:

  • 2 of Jared’s 3 pairs of long pants
  • Jared’s sweatshirt
  • My fleece jacket
  • My black flats
  • 2 of my 3 short sleeved athletic shirts
  • A book I got at my retreat in Morocco (after I read it)
  • A few souvenirs from our travels so far

I probably could’ve sent back a couple more things too, but the box I purchased was a little smaller than I realized and would only fit the above items. After we shipped that off, I actually found that our bags were still pretty stuffed since I had purchased a few clothing items for myself along the way.

Packing It All Up

So this is how our packing adventure went for our trip! We (I) definitely learned that we could have done with less items and will keep that in mind for the future!

What do you guys think about our packing list? Any thoughts or suggestions from your travels? Do you have questions for us about packing for your future trip(s)? If so, please comment below or message us!

*Please note, if you decide to buy any of the items I mentioned in the article above, we would really appreciate if you use the links we provided to Amazon for our affiliate program with them! You would be helping to support our blog and our future travels!

Check out our *free* PDF quick guide to packing below!

–> Quick Reference Example Packing Guide (PDF Format) <–

2 thoughts on “How to Pack for a 5 Month International Trip, Using Only a Carry-On!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s