Many people ask how we’ve been traveling for more than 7 years with only a carry-on suitcase and small backpack each. In our experience, it’s quite easy, but there’s no one-size-fits-all packing list.
How you use the precious space in your luggage depends entirely on where you plan to travel and what types of activities you have in mind. So, while I won’t tell you exactly what should be in your suitcase, I can offer good advice and recommend some essential travel items when packing for long-term travel.
Suitcase or Backpack? The Best Luggage for Long Term Travel
When packing for a long trip, don’t assume that you need a giant backpack. Think realistically about your travel style, your anticipated modes of transportation, and how frequently you will actually be in transit.
For example, if you expect to fly to Europe and rent a car, you may as well have a regular suitcase.
Even if you plan to use trains and buses, how much easier is it walking to the station wearing a 50-lb backpack compared to rolling a suitcase behind you?
Would you ever spend an entire day touring a city while carrying all of your belongings, even if they were in a backpack?
We asked ourselves those questions and opted for suitcases. We never regretted the decision. Here’s the suitcase I use and love.
Pack Light. If You Need It, Buy It
It’s better to buy things as the need arises; then you know you have the right gear for the occasion. You can’t possibly anticipate or bring everything you will need for several weeks or months of travel, so don’t stress too much about your packing list.
Unless you are going somewhere truly remote, chances are you can buy any essentials on the road. In our experience, many of the items we needed were cheaper abroad.
For military travelers, packing light also gives you a better shot at a seat when flying Space-A. Some flights, particularly from bases in the Pacific, have a 30 or 40 lb baggage weight limit (depending on the type of aircraft and mission).
Even if the terminal is full of Space-A passengers in a higher category than you, most of them will have too much luggage to be eligible for the weight-restricted flight. In that case, you and your 27 lb bag will go to the front of the line!
General Travel vs. Activity-Themed Trips
Whether you are traveling for a few weeks, several months, or a year+, if you want to stay light on your feet, when packing for long trips, you may have to decide in advance what activities you want to do. That way you won’t fill your suitcase with items you will use only one time.
I have many things on my travel-related life list, but it wasn’t realistic to do them all during our first year of travel. Not that we didn’t have time; needless to say, we could have done anything we wanted with 12+ months at our disposal. But we agreed to use carry-on luggage only. It would have been difficult to travel light while packing for every possible activity.
For example, my husband and I both want to hike the Inca Trail. Unfortunately, incorporating that adventure would have required us to pack a bunch of stuff that we probably wouldn’t need for most other phases of our trip.
If the main focus of our travels had been hiking, of course we would have packed sturdy boots and other outdoor gear. But we were most interested in experiencing what it’s like to live in different places around the world, and we needed to save room for regular clothes. We went on some great hikes, but nothing that our trail shoes couldn’t handle.
Essential Travel Gear: Our Recommendations
Here are a few specific items we recommend for travel. I wrote a separate post related to our must-have technology, including travel apps and devices.
22″ Expandable Roll-Aboard Suitcase
When shopping for a suitcase, it’s important to get one that’s light, spacious, and small enough to stow in the overhead compartment. Most major U.S. airlines say a carry-on suitcase can’t measure more than 22″ in length. Personally, I avoid “spinner” suitcases because the external wheels use up at least an inch of that space. I want my extra inch in the suitcase itself, which is why I like the inset wheels of this Travelpro Maxlite.
As the name would suggest, this suitcase is incredibly light, and it’s designed so that no matter what I put in it, it’s easy to pull. It’s expandable, and the external pockets offer a generous amount of extra space for items I need to access quickly. I also love that the max handle height is suited to tall people like myself.
If you really want a “spinner,” the Travelpro Maxlite comes in that style as well. Click here to see the 21″ spinner version.
There are many brands of packing cubes with different features. I love these Eagle Creek cubes because the material is paper thin, yet durable, so they don’t take up extra room or add weight to my suitcase.
I had never used packing cubes prior to traveling long term, but they are absolutely indispensable. They keep my suitcase organized and make frequent packing and unpacking so much easier! I bought them in different colors, which helps me remember what’s in each bag. It’s almost like having drawers in my suitcase!
These compression packing cubes are very similar to the ones above and allow you to squeeze a lot more into your suitcase.
Hanging Toiletry Bag
This is a must for any kind of travel. Whether you are staying in a hotel or in an apartment overseas, many places have little or no sink space in the bathroom. Having a toiletry bag that you can hang from the door or towel rack is essential.
I like this bag because it has a small hook on the upper flap that I can use to hang it in the open position and see all of the contents at once. It also has a good selection and variety of pockets. The little mirror inside comes in very handy when my husband and I are both getting ready and he is occupying the bathroom. I’ve had this bag for years, and it still looks like new!
The Perfect Travel Shirt (for Men)
My husband discovered these shirts about a year into our travels, and our running joke is that he is wearing one of them in every picture since then! (Fortunately, they come in many colors.)
They have all the qualities of a good travel shirt: quick-drying, wrinkle- and odor-resistant, with sun protection and a hidden security pocket. They also hold up well after many washings.
But what makes them better than other travel shirts is that they look really nice. They work just as well for dinner at a nice restaurant as for a day hike. With limited space in our suitcases, we want everything we own to be dual-purpose, and these shirts fit the bill!
Light Hiking Shoes
As I said above, we love to hike, but we couldn’t pack heavy boots. Light hiking shoes like these are perfect for travel, all-day treks around a city, and moderate hikes, including Mt. Fuji.
Look for a pair that are lightweight with good support and sturdy, no-slip soles. I’ve been very happy with my Merrell hiking shoes (always with the Vibram sole), so I stick with what works.
A combination fork, knife, and spoon all in one, Sporks are priceless for any kind of travel. Not only are they useful when no silverware is available, they are an eco-friendly alternative to disposable cutlery at fast food restaurants or even at hotels that offer free breakfast (those places seldom have real silverware).
Stainless Steel Pour-Over Coffee Dripper
I became accustomed to using this style of coffee maker when we lived in Japan, and it’s very convenient for travel as well. I love this model because it doesn’t require paper filters; that means no paper taste in my coffee, less waste, and no need to buy or carry filters while traveling!
Having this single-cup coffee maker is handy, because it’s simple, and we always have a way to make our own coffee. We see an increasing number of short-term apartments that have Keurigs or similar coffee makers that require a specific (expensive) type of cup. It’s so much easier to buy a bag of good ground coffee!
Drawstring bags are great because you can stuff them in the pocket of your suitcase and use them as daypacks. We usually have two or three of these bags of varying quality with us at any given time. The heavier-weight bag like this Adidas sport bag is for the gym, short hikes, or when we go out for the day and want to carry a spare jacket and water.
We also have at least one cheap, thin bag that we got for free somewhere (e.g. as the goody bag for an event or conference). We use it for the beach or to wear while running, knowing that it won’t last long, and we will swap it for another free bag.
These are the perfect sunglasses for travel, sports, or any outdoor activity. They are light as a feather and offer great coverage, even from the sides. They come with an interchangeable pair of rose-tinted lenses to accommodate varying light conditions.
I bought my first pair of these in 2006 and wouldn’t wear anything else. They have served me well through countless hikes, runs, and all-day sightseeing trips.
Here’s an example of something I bought on the road when I realized I needed it. I had packed two baseball caps, but those didn’t do the job on long hikes. I was especially glad to have the extra coverage when we were in Quito, Ecuador, only steps from the Equator!
This hat is very cool and breathable due to the mesh panels on the sides. The extra-wide brim shades your neck, and the chin strap keeps it in place on windy days. It travels very well; smash it into your suitcase and it pops right back into shape.
Sun sleeves offer easy sun protection without needing to apply sunblock, and when you go indoors or in the shade, you can easily take them off. I like sun sleeves for travel because I can bring them in lieu of long-sleeved shirts. They are especially convenient for long car trips (yes, you can get sunburned through the car windows).
My husband wears the sporty version, which come in different sizes and are made of breathable fabric. I use these Eclipe Sun Sleeves, which I can wear to cover the backs of my hands and are made of a fabric that cools my skin.
Staying fit while traveling is important, and you can easily find ways to exercise without a gym. We’ve carried these bands all around the world, and they are a great way to keep in shape. Each band has a different level of tension, and you can perform dozens of exercises. Use the door anchor included with the set, or hang the bands on playground equipment, a fence, or the railing of a balcony.
These ProSource bands were the second set of resistance bands we tried. The first set, even though they were called “Strong Man” bands, did not offer enough resistance. This set allows both me and my husband to get a decent workout.
TRX Suspension Training System
Another essential item that keeps us fit while traveling is our TRX. You’ve probably seen these at the gym, but we use ours everywhere we go, whether in our apartment, on our balcony, or in the nearby pine forest. It’s a great complement to our resistance bands, and while each set of equipment can provide a good workout on its own, having both offers a lot of variety.
The TRX weighs a bit more than the bands and takes up slightly more space, but it’s well worth it to know that we can stay in great shape without having access to a gym.
If you’re trying to travel light, one of the best ways to save space is by using a Kindle or other e-reader. A Kindle can hold more than 1,000 books. Even if you don’t like to read for enjoyment on your Kindle, downloading a couple travel guidebooks that you otherwise would have brought in hard copy can save a significant amount of weight in your bag.
One of my favorite features of my Kindle is the softly-lit, glare-free screen, which allows me to read in the dark without waking anyone nearby. I can also see the screen in bright sunlight.
Battery-Powered Sonicare Toothbrush
I loved my regular Sonicare toothbrush so much that I actually considered using precious luggage space to bring the whole contraption: cord, stand, and all. Fortunately, I learned that they make a travel version that runs on a single AAA battery (certain colors come with a USB cord and are rechargeable).
The Sonicare is barely larger than a regular toothbrush and well worth the small investment for clean choppers, especially if you’re traveling long term and aren’t going to the dentist as often as usual. Don’t forget the replacement heads to easily swap out the brush.
Casting and HDMI Capabilities
While traveling overseas, sometimes we want to watch our own movies, TV series, sporting event, or news on TV rather than on a laptop or phone. In order to bring Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, etc., to the big screen, we simply need the capability to “mirror” or “cast” our devices to the TV.
We use Android products, so for us, the setup is simple. To mirror our laptop to any modern TV, we simply use an HDMI to HDMI cable like this one. My husband’s computer has an HDMI port, which makes it extremely easy. We simply connect the cable to the computer and the TV, bring up Netflix or a streaming service on the computer, and our screen is mirrored onto the TV.
If you don’t have an HDMI port on your computer, use this USB to HDMI cable.
We also use Google Chromecast. Chromecast is a device that simply plugs into the TV’s HDMI port and gives our phones and laptops the ability to “cast” the screen to the TV wirelessly. The only issue is that the Chromecast device requires a power outlet, and some apartments/hotels do not have multiple outlets near the TV.
We bring both the HDMI cable and the Google Chromecast device with us while traveling, because they give us options when we want to sit back and enjoy a movie on a full-size screen.
For Apple users, we only know the low-tech solution, which is a USB C Hub like this one. This hub connects to your MacBook Pro via the C Cable and gives you additional USB, SD Card and HDMI capability. Once you plug this hub into your computer, you simply connect the HDMI cable to the hub and then to your TV. Now, your computer is mirrored onto the TV, as described above.
These are our must-bring essential items, and the list has not changed much over the course of 7+ years. We’ve figured out what fits our travel style and daily activities, and we keep our belongings to a minimum. I recommend that you do the same!
The freedom of having a small amount of luggage that you can easily pack and carry far outweighs the benefit of having every single item you could possibly want in your suitcase. So pack the basics and any essentials, zip your bag, and move out!
Essential Apps for Overseas Travel
How We Decided to Travel for a Year After Military Retirement
Preparing for Full-Time Travel: This Military Couple is Ready to Pop Smoke!
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7 thoughts on “Packing for Long Term Travel: Advice and Essential Items”
I am retired from the USAF, and plan to go to Australia in January 2018. We live near DC. Any suggestions?
Hi Steve – Happy to help! Are you looking for suggestions related to packing or for getting to Australia?
Can’t speak for Steve, but I am curious on what is the most strategic approach to the hops from Columbia, SC.
The most frequent hop to Richmond is a flight originating at Travis and stopping at Hickam and Andersen (Guam) on the way. You could get lucky and get manifested all the way from Travis, but there often aren’t very many seats. Based on feedback from other Space-A travelers, there are often more seats leaving from Hickam or – even better – Guam. So if you can make your way to either of those destinations first, that might be a better strategy. I recommend starting at JB Charleston and making your way to the West Coast. Charleston occasionally has flights to JB Lewis-McChord (there’s one on the schedule for 9/22 as of the moment), and from there, it’s easy to hop to Travis. Charleston also has frequent flights to McGuire, Andrews, and Dover, all of which have frequent flights to the West Coast. There are many ways to do it – that’s part of the adventure!
I love your suggestions. I have a problem overpacking even for a weekend getaway, so I really need to absorb your recommendations.
We have been spending a month in a Paris Airbnb in the fall, using air miles to fly Boston to Paris. Any suggestions on how to get to Paris using MAC flights?
I recommend trying for a flight to Mildenhall, England and taking the Eurostar from London. This article has information on how to do that: https://www.poppinsmoke.com/flying-space-a-to-mildenhall/. You could also hop to Ramstein and take the train from there: https://www.poppinsmoke.com/flying-space-a-to-ramstein/
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