Top 10 Packing Hacks for Studying Abroad

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Packing Hacks Banner, 3 images of packing, woman traveler, passport & sunglasses
Wednesday, June 29th

By Catherine Charlton, Rutgers Global Resident Director, UK and Ireland

You’ve done all your homework, completed your application and are ready to embark on a fantastic study abroad experience. Whether you are going for an embedded weeklong program, or will be away for two semesters, it is essential to consider packing wisely. And bringing the right things with you and packing smart can be a challenge, especially if you’re staying in your destination for a longer period.

We’re still operating in a Covid world and as such, it is key to know the rules of where you’re going. Some places will have quarantine restrictions, others may not. Some may require proof of vaccination, others may not. Double check before you set out in case anything has changed. And continue to check, as the rules do continue to change.

The following are a few packing hacks that will hopefully help you pack smarter and travel like a pro!

Number one: Be Tech Savvy
Download any apps which enable you to travel fully informed and safely no matter where you’re headed. Each location may have a location specific app, so do your homework. Some destinations may require you to sign up for a local track and trace system.

But you will also want to be ready with local maps, great places to visit and food to try. You may also need a few handy phrases in the local language if you don’t speak it. There are apps aplenty to help with all of these.

Number Two: Pack Light
Pack light. No really, pack light. For some destinations and short-term adventures, you may only be permitted a carry-on sized bag. If you’re permitted more, you will be responsible for getting it around. So, pack with the idea that your favorite pair of jeans are exactly that, your favorite and perhaps only for a week or so. One pair of comfy and practical shoes. If you can pack for a weekend, do so, and figure out how that can stretch into a couple of weeks. Remember, you may need to change your plans quickly, and less stuff makes that a lot easier. And you can always do laundry in a sink in a pinch.

Number Three: Choose the Right Type of Luggage
If you are purchasing new travel luggage, check the airline size requirements for carry-ons. And always choose the lightest possible gear.  

For easy movement through old cities, consider a backpack (especially for a weekend adventure), and if staying longer, a backpack and a small bit of rolling luggage if you have more stuff. Remember, though, some cities are known for cobbled streets, narrow stairways, etc. and hefting around cumbersome baggage is just that. A cumbersome heft.

Number Four: Plan What to Wear and Pack Right Even if it’s Light
How long will I be gone? If it is a couple of days, you can perhaps manage to carry all your outfits for those days, but if it is longer, it is time to start thinking about how to mix and match and to wear things more than once.

If you think it is likely there will be a chance to go swimming, don’t forget a swimsuit. If it is super-hot where you’re headed consider packing a hat. Many destinations (places of worship, restaurants, museums, etc.) in the world have dress requirements (no shorts, closed shoes, head coverings) to enter, so think about how to build all these into your ensemble.

Shoes? No need to ever take more than two pairs, and one of those you’ll be wearing. Shoes take up loads of space and sometimes end up making a trip without ever going out onto the pavement. Think sturdy, comfortable and versatile. Flipflops can be super handy in youth hostels or at swimming pools.

If you do have heavier items (hiking boots, or a warm coat because it is going to be cool in a month’s time), wear these things on the plane or train rather than cramming them into a suitcase with limited space.   

Think layers. You may set out in the cool morning, arrive somewhere when it is getting hot, and by night-time, it is cool again. 

And the rumours are true, rolling your clothing instead of folding allows for more things to fit into a small space.

Number Five: Valuables and Medications in Your Carry-On Luggage
If you’re travelling on a plane, there is always a small chance your luggage could get lost. Always have your valuable things in your carry on with you all the time. Passport, wallet, phone, laptop (if you need to take it with you), camera, battery, medications and if you must travel with jewelry, that too.

If you take any cosmetics, hand sanitizers, or liquids with you on a flight, be certain these are in a separate, clear plastic bag for inspection at security. They also need to be small items as a quart-sized bag of liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes in your carry-on bag is all that is permitted. These are limited to travel-sized containers that are no more than 100 mil per item.

Number Six: Covid-Ready Packing
Pack PPE and other sanitation gear and don’t rely on picking it up at your destination or en route. Be certain to check what may be required in the country you’re planning to visit.  Some places may have requirements not just on masks, but the type of masks.

Pack an emergency kit of over-the-counter medications, and don’t forget to take any of your prescriptions. In case you need to isolate and extend your stay, be certain to have any prescription medications for the possible extra time.

And don’t forget to pack your well-managed expectations, i.e., be very flexible. Not everything will be open. Trains and buses may not be running with the same frequency to get you around.  Plan ahead, as being ready to face these new challenges in a “spontaneous” manner may not be as available as it once was.

Number Seven: Consider Going Cashless
Sure, you will want to have a little bit of cash in the local currency when you arrive, and on the outside chance your cards/phone aren’t working, you don’t want to be caught short. But for the most part, ditch the cash and look into how to transfer your money globally (PayPal, TransferWise, your own bank). Increasingly, even small cafes are refusing cash payments.

Plan your budget carefully. Read all the small print on any bookings to assure you can receive a refund if your plans change. Also in your budget considerations, include some extra reserves in case you are required to quarantine upon arrival, or during your time abroad. Don’t rely on host countries or host universities footing the bill of this additional requirement.

Number Eight: Do Your Laundry
Yes, you can travel with less stuff if you’re prepared to wear items more than once and also, do your laundry if you’re someplace for a longer period of time. Outside of residence halls where laundry facilities are available, when you are exploring other parts of the world small items (underwear, t-shirts, socks) can easily be washed in a sink with a little shower gel.  Even some youth hostels have laundry facilities in place. If you’re in a pinch in a location where you need to stay longer than you expected, and everything you own needs a good wash, there are services that will do your laundry if you are unable to locate a local launderette. If you find yourself in this situation, consider something like LaundryHeap.com

Number Nine: What to Leave Behind
Don’t bother bringing a hairdryer, flat iron, electric toothbrush or electric razor, as they will only burn out with the voltage in many parts of the world. Cameras, laptops, and phones all have “step-down transformers” built into their chargers, so an adaptor plug is all you’ll need. Other electronics do not have these and will not survive.  

If you’re traveling to a wet and windy location, it may be tempting to pack an umbrella. Again, these take up space in luggage where a wind/waterproof jacket with a hood will easily do the trick and is more versatile.

You should also leave behind those big bottles of shampoos and other sundries. They take up too much space and you can buy them when you’re in country. Also, many places you might find yourself staying may provide them (including some youth hostels).   

If you do happen to forget something, you are most likely going to be able to find it where you will be headed. Remembering this can take the stress out of packing.

Number Ten: The Essentials
•    Already mentioned is a backpack/day pack, but a few other critical items to pack would be a World Traveler Converter. One of these allows you to plug your US devices in and use them anywhere in the world. Remember, it only changes the plug configuration and not the voltage, so re-read Number Nine and leave that stuff off your packing list. There are any number available and increasingly they have USB ports too.   
•    Don’t forget your charger and perhaps an extra battery. Going fully contactless (as it is looking likely) means you want to have your phone working now more than ever. 
•    Keep your essential identifications, phone, camera and keys in a safe spot like a Travel Sling Bag, and in there your student ID for any discounts.
•    Consider being a green traveller and definitely take a reusable water bottle.  
•    Perhaps leave a little space in your luggage for picking up a small souvenir.
•    Have a plan – even just a mental one – about how to leave quickly if the situation changes where you are visiting.
•    And most of all, don’t forget your enthusiasm and curiosity.

Having read all of this, go dust off your small travel bag and get to planning that study abroad adventure!


This article is the second in a series by Catherine Charlton about studying abroad. Check out the first article in the series “Top 10 Bad Reasons to NOT Study Abroad” here. You can reach Catherine at catherine.b.charlton@gmail.com.