The Dos and Don’ts of Packing for Study Abroad


Courtesy of Getty Images US

More or less these exact words crossed my mind as I struggled across the platform at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, a suitcase in each hand and a messenger bag across my shoulder. I was the picture of a confused tourist, having missed my train to Rostock by mere seconds. German train conductors are brutal, in case you’re wondering. The conductor had looked at me, looked at her watch, shook her head and stepped back as the doors closed. When I arrived at the train station, I had plenty of time! I had even taken a taxi to ensure that I’d get there with time to spare. I bought my ticket and didn’t dilly-dally getting coffee or a newspaper for the train ride. No. I got lost.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Berlin main train station is gigantic! Oddly enough, it became a familiar friend months later when I traveled back and forth from Rostock to Berlin on a regular basis. But the first time I set foot inside, I got lost and rode the elevators up and down, but somehow still could not make it to the right platform on time to catch my train. I was slightly comforted after talking to an elderly German woman who had also missed her train; we commiserated about our missed trains and gestured at the massive scale of the train station, with its floors upon floors of shops and train tracks.

I was exhausted, annoyed, and cursing my inability to pack lightly. “But I’ll be gone a whole year!” I rationalized, when my parents suggested I needed only one suitcase. All I could think about sitting on the platform was getting to Rostock, finding my dorm, and never having to lug around so much luggage again!

I’m not perfect — I’m still tempted to overpack and I’d pack my dogs if I could — but I’m getting better. So, before you have to unpack your suitcase at the airport (trust me, it’s not fun), take a look at these dos and don’ts and ask yourself “Do I really need that?”

1. Don’t pack the basics – ditch the shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, etc and buy those items once you get to your host city. Of course I’m not saying do without until you can make it to the store; just be smart about packing travel sizes! It’s also a good idea to pack some of these things – especially the deodorant – in your carry-on so that you can get to it easily on the plane.

2. Do bring comfortable shoes. If you only bring one pair of shoes with you, go for the most comfortable pair shoes! I sound like my mother for giving this advice, but it’s true.

3. Don’t pack too many season-specific clothes. Stick to clothing that’s good for layering because it’s likely the climate will be vastly different from what you’re used to. In getting ready to go to northeastern Germany I bought a winter jacket for the first time (hey I’m from Georgia…it doesn’t get that cold!) and found myself wearing it on the beach…in June. No kidding. And of course, you can always go shopping abroad!

I hate to imagine how I would have fared without rolling suitcases. Image courtesy of Getty Images (US), Inc (United States)

I hate to imagine how I would have fared without rolling suitcases. Image courtesy of Getty Images US.

4. Do pack a change of clothes and some essentials in your carry-on in case your checked bag doesn’t arrive when you do.

5. Don’t let necessities like your passport, ticket, credit and debit cards, some cash, and your new address leave your person at any time. The worst thing that could happen is to arrive and find out your luggage didn’t make it and you have no way of getting to your new home, let alone where your new home is. There are lots of travel wallets and pouches on the market that you can conceal under your clothes; I always secured my important documents and my wallet in a zipped pocket inside my purse, which I never let out of eyesight and wrapped securely around my feet if I wanted to sleep on the plane.

6. Don’t just throw your clothes into the suitcase. There are tons of videos on YouTube, but I’ll leave you with links to two very aptly-named packing techniques: How to Pack Like a Freaking Ninja: 8 Days in a Carry-On and How to Pack a Carry-On Like  a Boss. If it works for a carry-on, it works for anything!

7. Do bring a few small gifts from home, especially if you’re staying with a host family. They’ll be delighted to receive something from your home country and will return the favor before you leave.

8. Don’t bring too many “comfort blankets.”  Your favorite DVD box set? Definitely (not in the box though, put the discs in a sleeve to save space or, better yet, bring digital files)! Pictures of your family, friends, and pets? Of course! An actual comfort blanket? Sure… But don’t go too crazy and fill your suitcase with reminders of home. Not only does it take up physical space, but it takes up emotional space as well. You’ve got to save room to step outside your comfort zone and make new memories while you’re abroad.

9. Do sort through your clothes before you head back home. If you didn’t wear it while you were abroad, you’re not going to wear it back in the States. Ask around or Google it to find out where the nearest clothing donation box is. In addition to donating clothes I didn’t want to bring home, I gave away other things I had accumulated  — a traveler’s backpack, my bath towels, and a set of Ikea dishes for one.

10. Do save room for souvenirs and gifts, whether it’s a collection of mugs from all the cities you visited or a carry-on full of German books (I shipped books home the first time I went abroad — did I mentioned I studied German literature?), you’ll want to bring back things that remind you of your time abroad and/or things that you can’t readily get in the U.S. If you can, leave your carry-on empty for heavy or fragile things like books and coffee mugs, that way you can ensure you handle your bag with care AND you don’t go over the weight allowance.

How did you pack for an extended study abroad program? What are your packing “dos and dont’s” for long trips? Let Sparky know in the comments below, post on our Facebook, or tweet at us.

Emily Caskey is an intern here at Study Abroad Spotlight and a notorious over-packer  She studied abroad in Rostock, Germany for 10 months and interned in Berlin for two summers. To learn more about her experiences abroad, check out her Spotlight!

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