As the summer is drawing to a close (already!), I have been getting emails from friends going to study abroad asking for packing tips. Some questions were China-specific (“do they sell shampoo there? will it work on my hair?”), and some were rather general — what do I bring? is it even possible to fit enough stuff for one semester in two suitcases? And how many pairs of shoes are enough for four months in Europe?
All I have been doing for the past seven years is studying abroad, so I thought I’d share some ideas publicly– hopefully this will come in handy.
So let’s presume you are packing for at least one semester — be it summer, fall, or spring. You will be taking classes, but most likely will end up going on weekend daytrips/sightseeing/shopping/clubbing etc.
I assume that not forgetting to bring a toothbrush/deodorant/sunscreen/jeans is not an issue — most people don’t forget to pack that anyway, and if you do, most airports will help you replenish your supply. I don’t think I need to stress getting medical insurance and bringing all the necessary information with you — most study abroad programs have made it into a requirement anyway.
Most orientation packets provide some sort of packing lists, but I have never seen one that was really useful. Yours might still have some important country-specific information — e.g., standards of modesty, especially for women (in the usual chauvinistic practices of many worlds cultures, it’s usually women who have to adjust their wardrobe).
I keep a packing list saved on my laptop — everything that I could possibly want to pack, from eyedrops to shoe cream. I use it every time I go somewhere. The problem, of course, is starting packing early enough so that you have time to buy said shoe cream and weight your luggage to make sure you are not over your luggage allowance (arilines have been trying to make extra money by charging ridiculous amount of money for every extra pound, so watch out). This list can also be useful if your luggage gets lost or stolen and you need to file a claim with an airline/insurance company. They will want an itemized list, and you’d be surprised that you might not actually remember what you packed. (For those more organized, take pictures of the contents of your suitcase, especially if you trip had one or more layovers, since your luggage is more likely to get lost when it’s being transported from one plain to another).
Then, of course, people have different needs — I have seen angry discussions on the Internet about whether to bring a micro fleece towel or a terry one (buy locally would be my advice). But here is some basic information. Take it with a grain of salt.
All suggestions about what to bring clothing-wise are subject to much criticism, since everyone’s lifestyle, style, wallet, and wardrobe are very different. It’s easy to dispense advice that we should favor utilitarian clothes — e.g., jeans, long-sleeve shirts, and sneakers — over anything else: they are easier to pack, lighter on the wallet, they wash and dry easily, and travel well. But there is also a feel-good factor.
I, for instance, pack more high-heels than some women probably wear in their lifetime, even though I end up wearing flats 90% of the time, because, let’s face it, streets in Beijing are not heels-friendly. A good friend never travels without at least a dozen clutch bags; she ends up making a use of one or two that match her wardrobe when going out, but hey, they make her happy (and she swears she used all of them while studying in Paris). So pack things that you normally use and wear, but make sure they would survive a trip (I have several vintage hats I love, but squeezing them into a suitcase is not such a good idea).
Wherever your study abroad location is, you are likely to spend more time going out than at home (that would especially apply to the Americans who can’t even enter a proper nightclub until they are 21; and it particularily applies to Americans going to Asia). Even if you don’t plan on going to cheap night clubs in Southeast Asia, sometimes it’s difficult to resist the allure of an expat area bustling with restaurants and cafes. Many feel such occasions warrant for fancier clothing — while it might seem a sensible option for girls to bring just one going out dress if you are only planning on studying, bring two or three. If you are not going to be comfortable wearing the same dress every weekend, bring them from home. A dash to the stores to buy something worthy of going out can be more expensive than planned.
Other than that, it’s fun to go shopping in a new place, and cheap clothing is available at many, many locations worldwide. But if you are going to Asia and you are not tiny (think taller than 5’4” and above a size 2 for women), you might have a problem buying pants/jeans at the stores where locals shop. Tops are usually possible to find in various sizes although fitted ones are tricky. Dress shirts for women, in particular, may not fit right. They might be ok measurements-wise, as in you will fit in them, but the fit will be strange due to non-Asian women usually having a longer torso etc.
International brands in Asia stock all sorts of sizes, but their prices are comparable to those in the West — which is not fun considering that local clothing is a fraction of that price. Also, some international brands may switch their sizing system; there is a European brand that I buy in Europe sometimes, where I am always a Small — but in Asia, that magically transforms into a Large (“Ma’am, would you like to try this garment in an Extra-Large? That might be more appropriate”). H&M uses their usual sizing, so that doesn’t bruise my ego as much, but it rarely stocks anything above an American 10 (I am usually a 2 or a 4 in their clothes, and they always have it in Beijing, but it seems like most of the time this is the largest size offered).
Also, women may have problems buying shoes in Asia that are above a size 8 (I am an 8.5 and I had a really tough time buying shoes in Hong Kong; many international brands in mainland China carry my size, but it looks like it doesn’t get much bigger than that).
Most Asian programs’ orientation packets modestly ignore the issue of women’s underwear — yet any woman larger than a B cup might have issues buying bras in Asia (and even those B cups will be marked as a C or even a D. Seriously.) Of course, you are supposed to bring your own, but don’t count on buying that convertible bra for that cute dress locally — you may have to end up never wearing the dress. Tights also fall in that category.
If you are particularly tall or/and full-figured, you might not have a very easy time finding things to wear in some parts of Eastern Europe and Africa (from what I hear, some parts of Latin American also fit in that category).
If you are going to Eastern Europe, you may have problem buying comfortable shoes period — most of the ones commonly sold are heels. At least, that’s what happens to me all the time.
As for formal/professional clothes, it’s good to have at least one outfit in case you find a possible internship location/a local TV station decides to interview you/a local politician invites you over etc. You just never know what occasion may warrant an outfit more formal than what you wear to class. So pack it.
I friend in Beijing was recently looking to buy tinted foundation, and all she could track down was the kind with whitening ingredients in it — quite the opposite of her goal. If you are going to Asia, beware — most cremes, moisturizers, and facewashes come with whitening qualities. I used to think it was all a marketing ploy, until I ran out of my moisturizer once in Hong Kong. All I could find that had a familiar brand on the package was the same kind I used (Olay), but whitening. So I bought it thinking nothing can make my already pale skin whiter. A month later, I went home for winter break. For the next three weeks, everyone commented on how pasty and sick I looked. So pack your moisturizer, foundation, concealer, and powder from home. The latter three may not be available in colors to suit your skin tone anyway, since every company tailors their products to fit the local population.
Thanks to globalization, it’s mostly the same cosmetic behemoths that dominate markets worldwide, so chances are, you will stumble across familiar products with a familiar range of colors. However, that may not always be true: I have a Chanel lipgloss from a range that is sold worldwide. The particular color, however, is offered in Russia, but not in Ukraine; in most Western Europe, but not North American or Asia. So if wearing a particular shade of lipstick or eyeliner is essential to your mental health, bring enough to last you for the time you are away from home.
Snacks/food from home:
Good news — chocolate is available everywhere. So is M&M’s. So are chips, and Pretz sticks, and whatever is you might want to indulge in to deal with homesickness. McDonald’s is available in so many places that it’s not even funny, so fast food cravings are also easy to satisfy (I think there are around five McDonaldses withing a short walking distance from my campus in the middle of nowhere in Beijing. Yet I can’t think of a single one next to my dorm at Yale).
I usually don’t bother with bringing food from home (it doesn’t help that I don’t have a particular home anymore). If you are going to the US or Western Europe, chances are good your country’s food will be sold somewhere in NYC or any metropolis. Of course, that may not be true if you are going to the middle of nowhere. Some countries impose restrictions on food — make sure it’s not in your carry-on, and that it’s not easily perishable, and that the packaging is not susceptible to breaking. (Make use of those Ziploc bags.)
A friend wanted to bring some Russian chocolate over to the US; her luggage got lost, and she only got it back two weeks later. By that time, all the chocolate had melted (it looked like the temperature in the storage room was pretty high), and got all over her clothes. Make sure that does not happen to you — pack all the things that can melt/spill/break in those Ziplocs.
Wherever you are going, if you are flying, keep in mind that you are probably going to have the same weight limit on the way back. And you WILL end up coming back with much more stuff than you came with. It just happens — your luggage tends to grow in weight and size mysteriously. Just accept it as one of greatest mysteries of life. Even if you don’t plan on spending much money or doing major shopping, you will end up with lots of souvenirs, little trinkets, etc. If you’re not prepared to pay fees, underpack by the least amount of extra stuff you think you’d want to bring back.
This can be tricky. In my experience, shampoos, conditioners, disposable/regular razors, and toothpaste can be replaced easily — most major brands operate globally. They might not have the same flavor of your Crest toothpaste, but it’s toothpaste it’s talking about. As long as it gets your teeth clean, it should be fine. Toiletries tend to be heavy, so it may be worth packing light, unless you have very special needs — for instance, your hair is only manageable when you us a very specific kind of conditioner, pack light. Make sure you don’t go over your liquids allowance in your carry-on. Speaking of which,
I usually pack several weather-appropriate changes of clothes in my carry-on so that I would have something to wear while my luggage gets recovered if it gets lost. I had never had my luggage lost until last winter break, when it was lost twice — flying from NYC to Moscow and back. I fly quite often, so I was pretty spoiled by good service and good luck, and did not pay much attention to packing.
On the way to Moscow, I decided against bringing my jacket onboard — it was bulky and I had a bulky carry-on. It was so cold in Europe that week that luggage handlers for AirFrance decided against working (I am quite serious — this is France we are talking about), and my luggage remained in Paris, where I had a layover. So when I landed in Moscow, it was -13F (-25C); and I was wearing jeans, a V-neck sweater, and a mink stole (I am animal-friendly, but you need your fur going to Russia in the winter). At least I was wearing weather-appropriate shoes. Usually friends of family pick me up, but no one could make it that day; and on top of that, Moscow was not my final destination. Imagine how much fun that was.
On the way back, I though I was smart enough to pack some clothes in the carry on, as I usually do, but I ended up getting really busy and packing a several sweaters and no jeans. Instead of going straight to my dorm where I have a reliable wardrobe, I was staying elsewhere for several days. At least AirFrance compensated me for the shopping I had to do!
So the moral of the story is — pack some clothes in your carry-on. And if your luggage is lost, do annoy the company until they issue you a compensation.
Things that people most often forget to bring when going to study abroad:
1. An umbrella. I currently have at least one umbrella stored in various locations in five different countries because I always forget to bring one. They are usually cheap to replace and readily available, but it’s no fun to wake up on the day you are due to leave on a short-term trip during, say, orientation week, and it’s raining out, and your umbrella is somewhere across the ocean and you have no idea where to get one.
2. A pen — many, many times I have realized I packed one too far away/left it in a checked suitcase when I had to fill in customs declarations and immigrations forms. You can always borrow one from someone, and some airports provide them, but it’s nicer if you have yours.
3. Contact lenses solution. They are usually easily replaceable; I am yet to find a country where is it difficult to locate; you can even buy it in North Korea these days — at least I remember it being sold. But when you land in a new country and you are exhausted and jetlagged, last thing you want to is to go look for one. Also, make sure your contacts case is not packed away in your checked luggage along with the rest of your liquids-containing toiletries: on a long flight, you might want to take your contacts out.
4. Socks. Maybe it’s just my personal problem, but I always pack an inadequate supply of socks. Not that they are difficult to buy, but it’s annoying. Also, belts. I don’t know what it is with belts, but I had to put a special note on them in my packing list in order not to forget packing them.
5. Various accessories — scarves, hats, mittens, gloves, warm hosiery. If I am packing at the end of the summer, I always have to remind myself that the weather *will* get cold and that I should pack some things to prevent hypothermia. Almost no one I know forgets to bring sweaters and jackets, but almost no one thinks to bring all the small things that keep you warm and keep you stylish.
6. Chargers for your phone/camera/MP3 players etc – since I usually bring my laptop whenever I go, I prefer the USB chargers; they tend to be smaller and more convenient. You can get a USB charger for most everything off eBay if your original hardware didn’t come with it. But regular kinds would work, too.
7. Speaking of electronics, you might need a traveling adapter — ideally a universal kind so that you can use all over the world. Those are readily available from most supermarkets and online. I got mine five years ago from a WalMart and made heavy use of it since. You might also need a voltage adapter, too, but check if you will really need one — I never had to use one in all my travels.
8. Ear plugs and a neck pillow — I never pack either of these, but many people find them indispensable to moving around — and usually forget to bring them.
9. An MP3 player — even if you are not using yours much at home or at school, you might want it for that long flight there and back, traveling within your host country, and listening to the music from home. If you are a hardcore pop music fan from the states, then you will hear it blasting from many loudspeakers (I saw a Britney Spears thing in North Korea, for one thing), but if you want something less commonly exported, make sure you upload it on your iPod. They are small and lightweight, and you will most likely regret not bringing one. Don’t forget a charger (see above). Having said that, you might want to find that old iPod you replaced with an iPod Touch: it’s easier to lose things (or have them stolen) while traveling.
10. Water bottle – I find that they are difficult to find in many countries, and you might want to keep one around in case you don’t trust consumer plastics (China) or you want to save money an environment by not buying bottled water and filling it from the tap (Europe).
Here are some things that you really want to bring over from home:
1. Athletic shoes — if you exercise on a regular basis or planning on doing a lot of walking around (as you probably will end up doing, even if your program is purely an academic one). They are usually more or less expensive; and your new country may not have the same brand/kind you prefer. You want something that you can climb the Great Wall in — or take a day drip to the nearby town and walk everywhere.
2. Ziplop bags — these are great for packing small things like underwear/putting your toiletries in them so that they don’t leak; you can use them while traveling in your new country — great for putting that mango in so that it doesn’t leak all over the plastic supermarket bag in came in and does not get all the contents of your overnight bag yellow. Great for putting that spare battery in so that it doesn’t run against anything metal and short-circuit. It’s funny but Ziploc bags may not be readily available in many places; I haven’t seen any in China and they are almost impossible to track down in Eastern Europe. They are light and small, so make sure to bring them in several sizes.
3. A spork (check out this wikipedia article if you are not sure what it is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spork). I have one that was bought at some Japanese (I think) novelty store around Harvard Square; it feature a spoon, a knife, and a fork. It’s great for cutting up that papaya that your brought on a day trip for a snack; it’s useful for making oatmeal on the morning when you are in a rush and can’t go get proper breakfast. It’s small and light, but it really made my life much happier — and it saves resources.
Things that are better left at home:
1. An alarm clock — most cell phones work perfectly fine for that. In fact, I never owned one — and am still doing fine. Some mp3 players these days also have an alarm function as well. Having said that, don’t forget to pack your charger (see above), otherwise, your phone will be useless.
2. Books for leisure reading. I keep seeing people coming to study abroad with assorted reading materials; these books usually end up being left behind as you need that precious weight for souvenirs and gifts. I know someone who brought over from the US to China an illustrated book on treehouses — a fascinating read no doubt, but really big and heavy. He swears he will take it back home, but we’ll see about that. The point is — if you did not get to reading it home, you will not read it in a new and exciting place where there are things to do to get entertained. Google Books offers classic books for free, if you are comfortable with reading off the screen and urgently need to read Wuthering Heights. If you must read while living abroad, think about investing in a Kindle — expensive, but it may be easier than paying for the luggage that is too heavy. You can buy audiobooks and put them on your iPod — they are usually cheaper than hard copies, too.
The only book worth bringing is your Lonely Planet (I am waiting for them to come out with iPhone app or something). It is now available as a PDF (can be put on your laptop, netbook, or cell phone). Books in your language can be difficult to come buy, but think about investing in audio books instead or . Many countries have ‘book cafes’ where you can read a variety of books in various languages; Beijing alone has several.
3. Hard copy of a dictionary/phrasebook. Try to get hold of an electronic version/find a suitable app on your iPhone/smart phone. There are lots of websites that have dictionaries, too. The last time I brought a dictionary with me was in 2003 when I went to live in Germany. I never opened it once and ended up leaving it behind. To me, it’s much easier to ask someone what an unknown word means and how to use it, than to carry a heavy tome in your bag and start flipping through it when you encounter something new.
4. CD’s/DVD’s — they are bulky and will end up being lost or thrown away. Try to upload the contents on your laptop/MP3p player. Don’t risk bringing pirated ones (not that anyone should be buying them), since it can get you in trouble (on the same note, if you study in Asia and buy pirated DVD’s, don’t even try to bring them home — I know people who got in trouble with the American authorities for that).
5. Too many warm clothes if you are going to study abroad in a cold place. Sweaters take up a lot of space and can be often bought cheaply at a variety of locations (yes, even in Siberia). You will end up wanting to go shopping, so why not buy things that can actually be useful?
6. Hiking boots –I got to see many a pair of hiking boots that people bring thinking that they will need them while studying in Europe. Usual running shoes usually do unless you are going to be climbing the Everest. Seriously — they are heavy and take up space and you might be inclined to leave them behind on the way back to save up space, so don’t waste money by bringing them over (of course, if your orientation packet specifies bringing them, then do).
7. Special fancy travel gear that you don’t use at home — don’t go invest in that Marmot PreCip Rain Jacket if it is not your style and you never wear it at home. You will probably want to look stylish and blend in with the local population, and most regular clothes can keep you warm and comfortable in a big city on your way to class (which is where most study abroad programs usually are). It might be a tempting idea to invest in something cool and high-tech, feeling like a world traveler — but that’s not necessary and can end up being expensive.
Some more pointers (most travelers know this, but hey, it’s worth going over it again) — things that are useful to bring:
1. Vitamins — they might be expensive in some countries. No matter where you go, traveling is exhausting, so a good multivitamin may be a good idea.
2. Imodium/antihistamines/Dramamine/bandaids/other first-aid remedies. I remember getting really motion-sick in Azerbaijan; having forgotten my Dramamine, I asked a local friend to take me to the pharmacy; it turned out there was no motion sickness medication in the entire country of Azerbaijan. This did not make for a nice trip, since moving everywhere required going by car. Antihistamines may be a good idea for countries like China where the pollution level is high; if you ever had an allergic reaction to anything, make sure you bring Claritin or something similar — you don’t want to get allergic reaction to some intriguing fruit in Thailand and have to spend several hours at a remote area looking for an antihistamine instead of going to the beach (true story). Think about your specific needs — if you ever had an allergic reaction to a mosquito, you will end up in a hotel room during an orientation week with the worse itch. Don’t bring too many medications. If you sometimes get colds when you are stressed, you will end up getting one from all the air-conditioning and hot air outside your first week in China — and you might want to have something from home rather than some Chinese herbs a local pharmacists advise (not that herbs are bad, but I just feel that proper Western medication can be more efficient, if for placebo effect alone). While I am on this subject, some sort of pill organizer might be useful, but I like keeping the original cardboard package — it might be useful should you wish to replenish your supply or ward off suspicious border guards.
3. If you are taking any prescription drugs, bring a necessary supply — and some more, just in case something gets lost or damaged. And don’t forget the prescriptions in case the border officers get annoying about your medications or you end up needing to get more in your host country. If you are taking something absolutely necessary for your life quality and going on a short trip, bring a supply that is enough to last for the duration of your trip plus several more days. A friend once got stuck in Thailand during the tsunami; she did not bring enough of her diabetes medication, so she ended up with some very serious health issues.(If you ever leave your prescription medication behind, you can always Wikipedia it and get the other names under which it may be known; chances are, your drug may have a completely different name in a different country).
4. The best packing advice I have ever heard for long-term traveling was to make a list of the things you use as you go through the day: say, you wake up, wash your face, and brush your teeth — put , face wash, toothpaste, and toothbrush on your list. After you are done with the list, go through it and eliminate things that you might leave home. Then save it on your computer — for later use.
5. Make sure your cell phone will work in a new country. Most fancy phones these days will work everywhere, but it’s good to check. You can buy a cheap cell phone in most places, but you might want your own phone, if not for calling people, but for listening to the music, or using applications on it.
6. Bring some wet tissues and hand sanitizer. I personally never bother with the sanitizer, but wet tissues come in handy when you are on a plane drinking coffee and it suddenly gets into turbulence. Paper tissues are good to have, too.
7. Make a good color scan of your passport/visa and email it to yourself with a subject line that is easy to search for. Paper copies are nice for emergencies, too, but a scan saved online will stay there for many more travels, and can be used should you use your passport and have to go to your embassy. Bring warranty information for your electronics, too.
8. Female hygiene products. Pads are available everywhere, but many countries are rumored to have tampons in short supply. My orientation packet for study abroad in China said that — and I can tell you at least three store chains where they are available, but that’s in Beijing. Chinese villages may not have them. Since they are small and lightweight, it might be easier to bring them from home.