Interviews with two study abroad students about what to pack for studying abroad

By Fahima Haque
Published December 26, 2010

You managed to successfully navigate the stressful waters of choosing a study abroad location, the lengthy application process is now complete and you’ve been accepted to the study abroad program of your choosing. Now what?

Well, now comes the not so minor detail of packing – you know, actually planning and making it to said exotic location with everything you need and want. And for most people, packing is the dreaded factor in the equation.

I spoke with two abroad veterans –with two very different packing approaches-- who offered up their knowledge on their do’s and don’ts for preparing anxious students on travel essentials.

For Erika Huang, who spent January through May 2009 in Florence, Italy, organization was key. “I’m a worry-wart, and I’m big on making check lists. As December approached, I started writing down things I knew I’d need, but could easily forget. As I would go about my daily routines I made mental notes of things I’d need and things I wouldn’t. It was all a process of checklists,” she said. If you think checklists may work for you, check out this great packing list generator.

What was the hardest part of deciding what to pack?
Deciding what to take was terrible, especially for a girl…from New York…with tons of clothes. Plus, there’s a 50 lb. weight limit set by Lufthansa Airlines. I would have outfits and articles of clothing in mind and literally flip through each hanger and quickly piece in my mind what I would wear it with, how often, and if I really would because many people over pack and don’t wear many things even once. So the worst part was trying to really predict the number of times I’d actually wear a certain thing and classifying other objects as essentials or things I could live without or things I could get while there.

Were you concerned with luggage weight restrictions?
Very! I wanted to give myself, if possible, five to 10 lbs. of space in each suitcase, because I was warned during orientation that I’d of course want to come back with stuff, i.e. souvenirs, clothing, random trinkets. It builds up and you want to be sure you’ll have space for it and still make weight.

Did you coordinate with students in the program ahead of time to share things, so you could pack less? 
No, mainly because we weren’t assigned housing until we arrived so we didn’t know who we would or wouldn’t be living with. This made it difficult to make arrangements ahead of time.

Did you take voltage conversions into consideration?
Yep. Mainly because during our orientation, the girls warned us that European versus American voltage are different so we spent 20 Euros for a hair straightener and it did a fantastic job.

What did you regret not taking?
Floss, painkillers, cold and allergy medication, and vitamin C drops.

Any useful tips or tricks to help prepare students?
Bring things that can double in usage and think ahead about items that are worth waiting to buy until you arrive because it’s just as cheap and you can trash it before you leave to save room. For me, I bought a small suitcase for my spring break trip while abroad. I didn’t want to pay 25 Euros to check a bag, so I managed to stuff a weeks worth of clothes and other things in there and then left it behind when it was time to return home. Also, I found it helpful to transfer things from my “major wallet” to small easy-to-carry wallets so that I’d limit the number of important cards I had with me in case it got lost. This also helped me to keep track of what I had on me at all times so that I was aware if anything was missing. I always told myself “only the essentials” and “am I really going to use this?” If there was a doubt, chances were that I’d never even use it and it’d just continue to take up space.

As for Aaron Rubin, who traveled to London, England in 2009, a more chaotic route unfolded during his packing process.

What was packing like for you before London?
I started planning what I would take a few weeks in advance, but I am a major procrastinator so the 24 hours before my flight were very hectic. I ended up having to run to buy a different suitcase the day of my flight, and at the last minute I kept stuffing my suitcase with more clothes than I had on my list because I thought I might end up wanting them.

What was the hardest part of deciding what to take and what to leave?
It was hard knowing what I would actually end up wanting to wear when I was abroad and what would be dead weight. I also didn't know if I would be able to get the right toiletries abroad, and I ended up guessing wrong about which brands were available from UK drugstores.

Did you take weather changes into consideration when packing?
Not really. Besides England's reputation for rain, I knew the weather when I was there would be pretty easy for someone from Western New York. I planned to bring two umbrellas but forgot them in my last-minute packing frenzy.

What were the no-brainers of what to pack?
Lots of socks and underwear. You can never, ever pack enough.

What did you regret not taking?
I managed to not bring enough contact lenses with me, but luckily my parents brought more when they visited. Parent visits can be a lifesaver if you realize you’ve left something at home. Plus, I think Mom and Dad might enjoy an excuse for a foreign vacation. One of the girls in my program brought American peanut butter which was genius. I was also surprised by how badly I was craving a box of Kraft Mac Cheese by my third month abroad, so I’d recommend nonperishable comfort foods as something I regret not packing.

Did you consider insurance for your things?
Nope. Maybe that was irresponsible in hindsight, but I didn't have any problems.

Were you overwhelmed by everything you needed?
I think I was actually underwhelmed. It was difficult to know what I needed, but my biggest problem ended up being the process of physically packing because I waited until the last minute. I wish I had started packing a few days earlier to see how everything I wanted to bring would fit in the bags I had.

Any useful tips or tricks on how to make it all fit?
Pack things inside your shoes, and use your socks to fill in any gaps between stuff in your suitcase. I would add that I was really happy that I called my wireless carrier to unlock my phone, and just got a European SIM for the phone I already had. You can get really good international rates and It was nice to be able to carry my old phone with me and not have to pay for a new one.

So it seems however you choose to prepare to spend time abroad, there are some things you just can’t ignore. Everyone is different in how they decide to pack, but based on what Erika and Aaron have to say, it’s apparent the same necessities overlap regardless of who you are or where you go. Be sure to give yourself enough time to gather your belongings and pack them into your suitcase. It’s never going to be as quick and or as you might assume. Happy packing and safe travels!

Looking for more information? Check out our study abroad student guide to learn more.

Fahima is a copy aide for the Washington Post and has a BA in journalism from American University. She studied abroad in London, England during the Spring of 2009.