PREPARING TO GO ABROAD: Confessions of a packaholic & a list of what to bring!

When I was trying to pack, I kept worrying about how much stuff I could bring – the classic dilemma of course. I scoured well over 20 blogs and guides about what to pack and came up with a rather extensive list provided below. When trying to pack, this preparedness stressed me out and I kept delaying the process of narrowing down my possessions. I figured out most international airlines changed their baggage policies and only allowed individuals flying on Economy Class to bring one checked suitcase free of charge. When did the airline industry decide it was in the best interest of the consumer to only bring one checked bag for INTERNATONAL TRAVELS? Oh, wait…NEVER (except Southwest, I love you). I kept stressing about packing a few seasons worth of clothing and shoes into one suitcase, one backpack, and a carry-on suitcase. I also could not decide between using a backpacking backpack or a suitcase.

Two days before I left, I ended up packing my meticulously narrowed down pile of items into my huge backpack and realized that not only was that bag only 30 pounds (I HAD 20 POUNDS TO SPARE????!!) but also that if I actually carried that backpack I would fall on my face every few minutes and break my back. I decided to put that bag into my suitcase and fill up the remaining 10 pounds (the suitcase and such added the other weight) with books, my winter coat, and some other clothing items I had woefully parted with earlier when I was concerned that my bag would go over the weight limit. This way, I already had an extra backpack to bring back my purchases from my time abroad in Europe, would not need to purchase an extra suitcase if I need it, and did not have to pay the exorbitant $100 fee for an extra checked bag on my way to Europe. I couldn’t process the fact that I had space and didn’t need to engage in last-minute panic about cutting things. What a relief! Now to worry about everything else…

The point of that story? You CAN fit everything you need for one semester into one suitcase and still have some room for some “luxury items.”

The secret? Looking at each item and deciding if you’ll REALLY use it often enough to merit it a space in your suitcase. Coming to terms with what you can bring and what you can actually need helps. I promise, you only need one suitcase and you won’t wear that fancy skirt as much as you think you will.

If you’re going abroad or need some advice or the types of things to pack for a vacation or backpacking trip, I decided to compile my comprehensive packing list for your convenience! If you have questions about why I included certain items, where to find items, or think I should include other items on this list, please tell me! Also, Tell me if you use this list (:

Please note that in addition to my own advice and items, the bulk of this list is curated from other blogs, study abroad sites, and travel guides. I don’t take credit for most of the advice or items suggested on the list. The list might also be slightly tailored to Europe in some areas but it’s easy enough to figure out what will suit your region’s needs!  

I listed every possible thing you could possibly need when going on a vacation abroad. Pack according to the climate and culture — even I didn’t bring everything on this list, so don’t worry!

P.S. I’ll include a picture of all my “stuff” when I get to Madrid!


    • You should keep your money, important documents, valuables, prescription medications, a change or two of clothing and some toiletries in your carry-on in case your luggage gets lost.
    • For Europe: Europe homes, apartments, and hotels are not air-conditioned or heated (at least to the extent you’re used to in the USA)
      • No one has ever complained about taking too little luggage. If you don’t believe this, talk to a student who has done it before.
      • Every year we see unhappy students struggle to get a mountain of their own luggage on and off buses and up and down stairs. Don’t be one of them.
      • DO NOT bring more than two normal-size suitcases and a carry-on. If you’re only going for one semester, you only need one normal-size suitcase.
      • You will be able to buy many of these things in your host country so you should pack just enough to get you through until you can go shopping.
      • Most students abroad do more walking than they do in several years in the United States, and often you are carrying your luggage, or a subset of it, around with you.
      • We recommend that you finish packing a day early and walk A mile with all your gear. If you can’t, go back and take some things out! Leave room for things you may want to buy in Europe or elsewhere.
      • Or, trust the experience behind the above piece of advice, put what you planned to take abroad on your bed, and then remove half of it.
      • We advise you to contact your airline to verify all such restrictions.
      • Whatever luggage you do choose, be sure to put your name and home address on a luggage tag on the outside and on a piece of paper in an inside pocket.
      • NOTE: If you are bringing brand new expensive articles to Europe such as cameras, iPods, sports equipment, jewelry, a computer, etc. register them at the customs office in the U.S. to avoid paying duty on your return. It will also help to have a copy of your receipt(s).
      • Whatever you bring, you should be able to carry easily by yourself. 


    • Choose the form of your luggage carefully. Many students find the internal frame backpacks efficient for getting around since they can be worn instead of being dragged or wheeled (not nice on cobblestones or dirt roads!)
    • Large, heavy suitcases are awkward and cumbersome on trains, planes, and in narrow European staircases.
    • OPTION A; Good, internal frame BACKPACK (fitted with padlocks are recommended)
    • OPTION B: Suitcase (avoid the hard exterior ones)
    • OPTION C: A Duffel Bag (with or without wheels depending on your needs and size)
    • Duffel bags are practical and easy to store as long as they’re a reasonable size. If your duffel bag is bigger than you are, it’s too big.
      • Check the airport policy! Some airlines will allow you to bring one carry-on item like a roller bag with a personal item (backpack, laptop case, purse). Other airlines, like Air New Zealand, do not allow a personal item.
        • OPTIONS: A BACKPACK is essential. Make sure its large enough for a weekend away but not so large you break your back (I brought along my Northface backpack – it’s designed as a hiking backpack as is SUPER roomy if I need it to be with tons of organizing pockets and straps for support! It’s perfect for a weekend getaway or a slightly longer trip).
        • A carry-on duffel bag or roller bag: Depending on your needs, this will also be great for those weekend trips. I brought a duffel roller bag – It’s easy to condense, compact but roomy, and has wheels if I need them!


  • For Europe in particular, be prepared for a lot of variety in the weather and to layer your clothing so that you can put on and take off jackets, sweaters, etc. in response to changes. Be sure that you have rain gear and/or a foldable umbrella.
  • Check the weather of course…
  • Bring clothes which are… easily layered for various climate conditions
    • do not need ironing
    • can be drip-dried
    • comfortable and durable / Think practical and sturdy
    • dark clothing does not show stains and dirt as much
    • clothes are interchangeable
    • Bring some nice clothes
      • Americans are some of the most informal folks around, meaning you’ll be diving into a more formal culture with a more formal standard of attire.
  • Shorts are great for hot weather, but (in Europe and Latin America, for example) are reserved for sport and certainly not for visiting cathedrals!
  • Looking “good” is culturally defined.


  • Camisoles / tank tops (great for layering)
  • Cotton t-shirts, short sleeve (i.e. Basic v-neck)
    • White, black, gray, some colors
    • Cotton t-shirts, Long sleeve (Make sure they are good for layering)
      • For shorter trips: Bring enough shirts for the full time you’ll be traveling, or less
      • White, black, gray, some colors
      • A Turtleneck (?)
      • “Going out” tank/shirt
      • Tunic top
      • Button downs
        • White, black, gray, some colors, Chambray shirt
        • JACKETS:
          • 1-2 Lighter sweaters (cotton)
          • 1-3: cardigans (neutral colored)
          • 1 Blazer


  • 2-4: Jean/trousers
    • [can substitute a pair or two with skirts or khakis if going to warmer climates]
    • For shorter trips: Enough pants/shorts to last you half of the time you will be traveling (i.e. 2 pairs for 4 days) or less
    • 1: Khakis or lightweight trousers
    • 1-2: Leggings (black)
    • 3-6: Tights (Bring patterns and colors, these give you more outfits)
    • 1-2: Shorts


  • 2 Dressy Outfits/skirts/dress pants for formal events
  • “Good Day” dresses
  • That little black dress of course
  • 1 black tight skirt
  • Business Attire: If you need to pack business attire for your internship or something similar, keep it simple. You need 1-2 blazers and 1-2 skirts or pants. Instead, you’ll want to bring more shirts. Try bringing shirts that can be used both as business attire and evening wear. You get more use out of those items! Remember – you need a blazer to look business professional.


  • 1-2 week’s worth of Underwear
  • Bras
    • Remember to pack Sports bras for the bus/train & working out
    • Socks
      • a week’s worth OR for the full time you’ll be traveling, or less (for shorter trips)
      • few pairs of wool socks if you’re going to colder climates


  • 1: Plastic flip-flops; those hostel showers can be pretty nasty (these can be expensive abroad)
  • 1 – 2: Sturdy & comfortable walking shoes (most important item)
  • 1: Heels/Wedges (One pair of dressier shoes – I’d say wedges are your best bet)
  • 1: Running shoes
  • 1-2: Flats (Stick to neutral colors: black, nude, white, gray)
  • 1: Boots
  • 1: Tevas/Chacos/Sandals – you can’t go wrong with these! Buy the waterproof kind.


    • 1: Hat
    • 1: Gloves
    • 3-4: Scarves (thin & thick)
    • 1: Sunglasses
      • 1-2: Thermal underwear (silk preferably for colder climates or the adventurous sort)
      • 1 sweatpants (No one wears sweatpants so bring these for your dorm)
      • JACKETS
        • 1: Bring a lighter weight jacket, windbreaker, raincoat or jean jacket w/ lining
          • Best bet: A waterproof & windproof jacket with an inner lining
  • 1: Coat/Jacket (water resistant with zip pockets and removable lining)
  • 1 sweatshirt/heavy sweater


  • 1-2: Pajamas
  • 1: Swimsuit
  • 1-2 set of workout clothes (if you plan to)


    • Sleep mask
    • 1 travel neck pillow (seriously you’ll want this! I “splurged” and bought this memory foam pillow from Cabeau. My neck doesn’t move around like it does with other pillows and makes sleeping AMAZING. It was definitely worth the $$ I spend (~$30 USD).
    • Ear plugs
    • 1 Pillowcase
    • 1 Sleepsack /liner (Travel Cocoon) – avoid the gross nature of hostel & hotel beds. These are also perfect for crashing on someone’s floor or couch.
    • 1 Linens, bedsheets, and towels
      • Check with your program to see if these are provided, otherwise you may just want to buy them abroad because they tend to be heavy
      • 1 Thin lightweight towel (microfiber) and/or washcloth
        • Microfiber towels are ridiculously lightweight, don’t take up much space, and dry quickly
        • 1 Purse (cross-body type with a zipper)
        • 1 Weekender bag (backpack or duffel as noted above)
        • 2-3 Locks (lock everything up before you leave your room. Your possessions are less likely to be as safe as in the USA)
        • 1  shawl/sweater/small travel blanket
          • you’ll want to pack at least one of these in case the bus/train gets cold
          • Your sleepsack liner or raincoat will also work for these purposes


  • 1-2 books (depending on how many hours you will be spending on the “road”)
  • Journal or notebook
    • journaling really helps students deal with culture shock – some people suggest writing online, but generally you won’t be able to do that/might not have internet access daily while you’re traveling so having something you can physically write in every day or night is a good idea
    • Travel books for the region(s) you will visit (these can be found at the places you plan to visit too if you don’t want to haul them around) – Find Student-centered Travel Books
    • Spanish/English dictionary
    • Playing Cards (good for long train rides and lighter than a pile of books)
    • Snacks and beverages for the trip (at least water + chips)
      • Bring a piece of home with you! Some type of comfort food will help ease the initial culture shock
      • Refillable water bottle


  • Enough prescription drugs for the length of your stay (You will need to check to make sure you can bring them into the country and that you have proper documentation, i.e. a doctor’s note)
  • Over-the-counter medicines (aspirin, anti-diarrhea, anti-nausea, etc.)
  • If you have any medication you must take while you are abroad, please be sure that you have enough for the entire time you are away as it may be difficult to have prescriptions filled.
  • Don’t assume that you can get the same medication abroad. A prescription from home will NOT be filled in Spain. You’ll need a new one from a Spanish doctor.
  • Be sure to bring the written prescription (no photocopies) and a signed statement from your doctor if you have a particular medical requirement.
  • Finally, it would be advisable to verify that a particular drug is not restricted in the host country (or others that you may plan to visit). Some countries ban certain drugs, even when prescribed by a doctor (for example, the drug Ritalin cannot be legally brought into some countries). The best advice is to be prepared and check either through your personal physician or through official government sources (such as the US State Department or the Center for Disease Control:
  • Eye glasses + Contacts and solution (bring a lot more than you need)
  • Band-aids / mini-first aid kit
  • Contraceptives + prescription for such
  • Medicine for: headaches, general aches & pains, cold/flu, allergies, anti-diarrhea (if the water gets you sick then…)
  • Bring your vitamins… and TAKE THEM!
    • This may sound like a no brainer but they can be easily left behind when you’re thinking of the one million things you think you can’t live without. Take a Ziploc full of the multi-vitamin you normally take and remember, B12 is essential for vegans/vegetarians; you don’t want to have to deal with a B12 deficiency while abroad.
    • Feminine Products (bring at least a month’s supply – some places may not have tampons  or they may be impossible to find)


  • Gifts for your host family and others (try to get ones that are specific to where you live and spend a decent amount of money). Simple Suggestion: American Chocolate (You can’t go wrong with Hersey’s).
  • Travel Alarm Clock small, battery-operated, travel kind
  • Travel umbrella
  • Money pouch / money belt (something that’s easy to hide under your clothes)
  • Portable luggage scale
  • Travel iron (dual voltage listed on iron)


  • A lot of the toiletries mentioned can usually be found in your host country.  But they might not have a specific brand if you’re picky.  
  • Also, some things just don’t work the same (deodorant in Japan, toothpaste in Korea) or aren’t used as prevalently (Tampons in Egypt).
  • Put tape over the tops of containers with liquids to prevent them from opening and place them in plastic storage bags to prevent them from leaking onto other items in your luggage.
  • Leave the hair straighteners, dryers at home. Unless they are dual voltage products (like a travel iron) they won’t work as well abroad and are bulky and take up room. Buy these abroad.
  • Travel-size toiletries
    • you will thank me when you discover bathrooms in busses/trains as well as all of the other places you are going to encounter germs and no soap when you travel
    • Shampoo / conditioner
    • Dry shampoo spray
    • Toothbrush / toothpaste (you don’t need your Sonicare toothbrush as hard as it is to part with it. There is a travel size battery-operated toothbrush you can buy though if you want a similar toothbrush)
    • Travel Brush/Comb
    • Hair ties
    • Bobby Pins
    • Tissues (Bath + Face — many countries don’t keep toilet paper in stock in the bathrooms)
    • Feminine Products (one month’s worth)
    • GoToob Tubes / TSA Approved 3 oz containers
    • Deodorant
    • Sunscreen
    • Cosmetics
    • Face Lotion (if you’re particular about your brand or have sensitive skin)
    • Make-up Removing Wipes / Facial Wipes (great for travel and hassle-free)
    • Nail clippers and nail file
    • Stain Remover Pens / Wipes
    • Wrinkle Release Spray
    • Travel Laundry Soap
    • Travel Soap
    • Febreze To-Go Spray
    • Tongue Cleaners (if this is important to you)


  • Belts
  • Costume jewelry (don’t bring anything expensive or easy-to-break)
    • Necklaces
    • Earrings
    • Wrist Watch (Fix it to the time to the place you’re going to)


  • You’ll need to plan how to handle finances abroad for start-up funds when you first arrive in your host country and for the duration of the semester. There are several ways you can manage your personal spending money abroad.
  • $100 – $200 in local currency
    • make sure you have enough cash for a few days until you can find an ATM
    • Either get money at your bank (request a few days in advance) or wait until you land. The exchange rates at hotels & airports are much higher than ATMs and your bank branch
    • Tip: Keep money carefully hidden, preferably on your person and a back-up means of accessing money (kept in a different place than your cash, in case one gets lost/stolen)
    • Money belt or pouch to wear under your clothes (bring a fanny pack if you like… but ew….)
    • ATM Card/Debit Card
    • Credit Card
    • I have a lot more information on Money & Banking that I’m happy to share! Let me know (:


  • Passport and visa
    • Take this with you even if you aren’t leaving the country there are often passport checks at various places within a country and you won’t want to be the person stranded without yours!
    • Airline tickets (photocopies of these) and copies of any reservations/reservation #s
    • Itinerary
    • Health Insurance Card (make a copy)
    • Academic papers, fax and phone numbers, e-mail addresses
      • Your study abroad advisor’s/home school’s fax and phone numbers, as well as the e-mail address, will prove to be helpful too, especially if you have to contact your advisor for course approval
      • Copy of your college’s undergraduate catalog and any papers you were given with instructions about credit transfer
        • Also remember to pack the course descriptions you received for your program and anything else you received from us.


  • It is usually better to just buy small electrical appliances (like hair dryers, curling irons, etc.) in the host country.
  • Please note that petty theft is the most common crime affecting travelers. Please do not bring anything without first considering the impact of it getting stolen, or the reality of having to worry about the safety of these possessions all the time.
  • Two general rule for all electronics: 1) bring copies of your receipts. If your equipment looks new, upon return to the U.S., you may be asked to pay customs duties if you don’t have a receipt to prove that you didn’t purchase it abroad. 2) we recommend you investigate insurance coverage for your electronic devices and other expensive items. They might be covered by parents’ homeowners’ insurance policies.
  • Mp3 player/iPod (you can also just use your phone as a music player instead of an Ipod)
    • (especially for long plane/train rides)
    • (“Do it or suffer” was one comment we heard.)
    • Flashdrive
    • Laptop + Charger
      • Generally, laptop computers will work but you will probably need an adapter.
      • If you do take a laptop, remember to thoroughly investigate whether you need a special power converter. Spain operates on 220 volts (the U.S. is on 120). Many laptops have 120/220 switches that will allow them to work on European current without a separate transformer. These only need a plug adapter to allow you to plug it in. Ones that do not have a switch (which may be automatic: read your manual!) need a converter.
      • A camera and your charger/extra batteries, as well as extra memory sticks if you have them
        • One word of caution, though, cameras disappear. If you have an expensive camera, have it insured.
        • Remember to write down what you take pictures of, or you’ll be faced with 20 sets of prints of unidentified monuments, cities and sunsets.
        • Adapter/converter
          • Explanation: Adapters (changes the shape of the electrical plug) /converter (reduces or increases the current’s voltage)
            • Converters are a hassle. Avoid bringing products requiring you to bring a converter – these items are easy to ruin if you don’t use the converter correctly or may not work as well  (The difference in the number of cycles means that appliances with motors may not work as well in Spain as they do in the US.)
            • These items generally only require adapters:
              • Apple products!
              • Sonicare toothbrushes
              • Cameras/electronics
  • If you want the entire set, consider purchasing the Brookstone 6 piece adapter kit 

Some sites I used: Weekend Student Adventures, The Study Abroad Blog, The Study Abroad Guide, Study Abroad resources from: Trinity University, Syracuse University, Hobarth & William Smith College, Arcadia, CIEE


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