I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it on this blog, but for the past five years I’ve worked in the world of study abroad, mostly as a counselor sending college students to the UK and Ireland. This is my last year in this position as I get ready to head to grad school, so over the next week or two, I’d like to share what I learned in this position. I won’t have any more students to give unsolicited advice to, so you all are going to have to hear it instead!
As the end of the school year nears, I get really busy giving orientations to all my students who will be flying out in the next few months. And as my students will tell you, my FAVORITE thing to talk about during these orientations is packing! Yay! Packing!
I really learned how to pack when I studied abroad for a year in west England. Fellow Americans — we are so fricking spoiled when it comes to carry-on luggage allowances. It’s ridiculous. Compared to European budget airlines (the only airlines study abroad students can afford to use) carry-on allowances, American seem to carry on steamer trunks. During my year abroad, I got very good, very quickly about whittling down what I needed to the bare essentials in order to appease the RyanAir/EasyJet gods. And it’s really not all that bad!
Packing light is an art. A glorious, underutilized art. And here’s how I do it.
- Really consider your destination. If you’re moving to the UK for a year, you better be bringing a warm jacket. If you’re going on a beach vacation to Bali, at least 2 bathing suits should be packed. A weekend in San Francisco? Three weeks in rural New Zealand? A month in Tokyo? All of these situations bring very different packing challenges, so make sure to really think about the destination and what it means for your clothing choices.
- Do it in the smallest bag possible. If you’re going for a weekend/week, this should be in a small carry-on. IF you’re going for two weeks to a month, maybe a carry-on and one normal sized checked suitcase. You’re studying abroad for a semester to a year? Bring the two checked bags, but don’t fill them up all the way. Don’t even give yourself the option of bringing a larger bag, unless you know for a fact that you’ll be picking up large items at your destination. I always pack to fill the bag, so if I bring a smaller bag, I bring less. Bam. Done.
- Really think about what you wear on a regular basis. For me, this is jeans and a variety of tops. Am I going to all of a sudden start wearing all those cute dresses languishing in my closet when I’m abroad? Nope. Probably not. So, I don’t need to bring them. Only bring what you wear a lot. And remember, laundromats exist all over the world. Even if you’re going abroad for 9 months, you only really need to bring enough clothes for two weeks. You wash them! Amazing concept, I know. This is why they pay me the big bucks.
- Shoes. You really really don’t need that many. Come on. Bring a pair or two that can be worn for most events (ie ballet flats, Toms, whateva), then really evaluate what you’ll be doing otherwise. If you’re going out, just bring one pair of go with everything, comfy heels. Going to the beach? One pair of sandals. Hiking? One pair of tennis shoes. Really, you should be bringing MAX three pairs of shoes if you’re going away for a week, and if you’re bringing that many, you should have a damn good reason for each pair of shoes. If you’re going away for a year, then you can bring up to five…that’s my arbitrary rule. But really. Just think about what you’re doing. Don’t just throw them in because you might, maybe wear them.
- Underwear should be rolled and stuffed into shoes. That’s where it lives when you’re packing light. You can also pack it last and push it into any nooks and crannies you have left in your suitcase. And always evaluate what type of underwear you’ll need with the outfits you’ve chosen! You’re wearing a strapless dress, you better bring that strapless bra!
- Accessories! You know what is small and easy to pack and makes every outfit better? Jewelry! Bring it, wear it, love it. You may want to leave the family heirlooms at home though…
- ROLL YOUR CLOTHES. Doing this won’t let you get around the weight allowance, but you will be able to fit more items in your suitcase. Plus, they will only be wrinkled in a rumply charming way, not in a “I’ve been living out of a suitcase for three weeks, don’t get near me” way.
- Extras. There may be special things that you need for this weekend trip, like a bathing suit or running clothes or something. Just make sure you have a reason to use the extra you’re bringing. Don’t bring a bathing suit just because there’s a 10% chance you may go to the pool. PACK WITH INTENTION.
- If you’re a big reader like me, I strongly recommend you bring an e-reader with you for any trip that’s longer than two weeks. If you don’t, you may end up being stuck with having to read whatever book was left at the hostel that’s in English. This is why I read Anna Karenina on the beaches of Thailand. Great book. Great beach read? Not so much. An e-reader is so small and light it takes up almost zero space in your luggage, plus you can have as many books as you want on there. Love it.
- Don’t forget your plug and voltage converters. Different countries use different plugs and often have higher voltage than the US. Many modern electronics will convert voltage for you, which will be noted on the plugs. Check before you bring along a voltage converter. Wondering which plug your destination uses? Here you go!
- Cooking with metrics is pretty different, so if you’re going to be living abroad for an extended amount of time and cooking for yourself, bringing your own set of teaspoons and measuring cups can be infinitely helpful. Or you can learn the metric style of cooking and weigh all your ingredients…how un-American.
- Toiletries! You probably don’t need a massive bottle of shampoo and conditioner. Put them in smaller bottles so you don’t have to lug them around in their original packaging. I love Lush Cosmetics shampoo bars for traveling. They take up so little space and work just fine with my hair. As with clothing, really determine what you’ll be doing, and bring the make-up to match the occasions. You don’t need to bring your whole make-up bag. Promise.
- And, to sound like an overworried study abroad counselor, make sure to bring copies of all your paperwork! You know what sucks? Losing your passport. You know what sucks sooooo much more? Losing your passport and not having a copy of it. For some reason, US embassies can make new passports a lot quicker when they have a copy of the old one. Always have one on you. You should also have copies of welcome letters, visa letters, medical documentation…basically anything that would be really hard to replace if it went missing.
So yep, that’s my advice. Really, it boils down to pack light and with intention. Most countries will have whatever you left behind, or at least a decent replacement for it, so don’t stress too much/attempt to bring your entire closet. It all works out in the end.