7 Things You Don’t Want to Forget When Packing for Your Semester Abroad

Please tell me that I'm not the only one who enjoys an in-depth packing session with a podcast on in the background as I fantasize about my own The Lizzie McGuire Movie moment coming true. 

Oh, it is just me? Well, whether you can relate or not, if you’re fortunate enough to have the amazing opportunity to study abroad for a semester or a summer while in college you’ll be tasked with the most complicated part of the process: packing. Although I've only just begun my semester abroad, I’ve been preparing for weeks–if not months–so I consider myself an expert on all things packing hacks. 

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Here are seven items you may not think of that I am eternally grateful for packing for my semester abroad in Bologna, Italy (even if my suitcases were overweight).

  1. 1. Packing cubes that'll bring on a whole new level of organization

    If you really want to pack the mostest, use packing cubes. I ordered my set from Amazon. Hanna, a senior at Connecticut College, recommends this purchase, explaining that these cubes help her organize her suitcase when traveling from California to Connecticut for the academic year. "Packing cubes are an essential for long haul travel!" says Hanna. "They organize your luggage and enable you to squeeze more into less space.”

    I found that these cubes helped me organize my clothes into categories such as underwear, pajamas, workout clothes, etc. and fit as many items as I possibly could into two suitcases. Although I still had to pay extra at the check-in gate for All’italia, I really have no regrets about bringing four pairs of jeans and five workout tops. Who’ll be complaining in three months about not having enough to wear? Not me! Instead of trying to find the biggest suitcase, do yourself a favor and get yourself a nice set of packing cubes.

  2. 2. A portable phone charger for long adventures

    There is arguably nothing more terrifying than being stuck in a foreign country with a dead cell phone. Hannah Rosabel, a junior at Connecticut College, recently returned from a semester abroad in Italy. She emphasizes how helpful it was to have a portable charger for longer excursions or trips: “I always travel with a portable charger and charging bank, especially if I know I’m going to be out for a long time," Hannah says. "It can definitely be a life saver.” Let’s be real with one another: no one relies on printed maps anymore, so I need that blue dot to be my guiding light to Le Due Torri in Bologna. 

    Think about this purchase as an investment into your future traveling self, whether abroad or at home. I have already found myself at 1% (both mentally and on my iPhone), but having my portable charger ready to go in my bag saved the day. No one wants to be stranded in a foreign city, confused about which side street to take to get to your apartment.

  3. 3.  Photos and command strips to hang up in your room

    Let me be the first to deliver the sad news that you will probably not be able to fit your fairy lights or tapestry into your suitcase to decorate your room. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t bring a little bit of home with you. Command strips will be your best friend for hanging photos of friends and family, and even a map of your destination so that you can cross off the cities you visit throughout your travels. I find that these added images make my room feel a bit more like home, and add a certain je ne sais quoi to the plain white walls which box me into my room. 

  4. 4. Sweatpants for those lazy afternoons

    Your typical college student will rock sweatpants 75% of the week, and you shouldn’t forget this statistic while abroad. When one of my best friends returned from her semester abroad, she advised me to bring not one, but two pairs of sweatpants, because when you’re washing one you’ll want to have a second pair on hand. I brought with me one pair each of pajama flannels, joggers, and sweatpants to optimize my options, because there’s nothing like returning from a day of classes, traveling or running errands and snuggling up in a pair of pants that don't feel confining. 

    While you may be more focused on equipping your wardrobe with chic looks, it’s just as important to pack clothes that will make you feel comfy and cozy; those outfits will get you through bouts of homesickness. Your semester abroad isn’t going to be picture perfect all the time, and your wardrobe should reflect it. Don’t be afraid to pack sweatpants, your favorite ratty t-shirt, or a sweatshirt that should have been chucked years ago. 

  5. 5. A portable hamper—because laundry exists everywhere

    Oh hey, what? I won’t have little chirping birds doing my laundry while I traverse the Italian countryside? WHAT? Yeah, you’ll still be doing the same college things like laundry while studying abroad, so don’t forget a portable laundry basket. This is one of those items that didn’t cross my mind for weeks, but when it did, a lightbulb went off over my head and I felt like a true packing icon.

  6. 6. A tote bag for groceries (and saving the planet)

    Perhaps one of the things I was most excited about was the prospect of cooking in a full kitchen, not just making do with a tea kettle and a decades-old microwave that hasn’t been cleaned for just as long. That being said, you will have to buy groceries to stock your fridge and make that delicious spaghetti alla carbonara everyone talks about. While you can always splurge on a plastic or paper bag, which European cities often charge for, it makes lugging your groceries across a city less stressful and more doable if you bring with you one or two tote bags to cram your almond milk in. Not to mention, doing so will decrease your environmental footprint––maybe that moral decision will influence Ryanair to promote you to first class (if such a thing exists).

  7. 7. Limit the amount of larger clothing staples you bring

    Regardless of whether you study abroad in the fall or spring, you’ll probably be cramming clothes to last multiple seasons into your suitcase to account for any traveling you do. But, it's helpful to limit larger items like shoes, coats and jeans. By only bringing four pairs of shoes and jackets, for example, you will have more space to bring a wider variety of sweaters and shirts. I suggest bringing four pairs of basic shoes like a pair of boots, walking sneakers, running sneakers, and comfortable sandals. Similarly, bring a basic jacket that can adapt to all seasons–there are also plenty of ways to convert a jacket from warm weather to cold, from layering to adding a scarf. 

Related article: How to Build Your perfect Wardrobe, Based on Your Lifestyle 

Ultimately, packing is best accomplished when you don’t save it for the morning of when you're already running late to catch your plane. Do some research and don’t just follow this list, because not everything you need is included––don’t forget your toothbrush! However, these items are a good place to start, especially if you are staring at an empty suitcase contemplating how many socks to bring. 

Xandie Kuenning, a recent graduate from Northeastern University, studied and interned abroad in various countries from Austria to India, and she advises underpacking instead of over. She reminisces about her first time studying abroad in Dublin: “I brought two 50 pound bags as well as my carryon and personal bag – it was way too much!” Weigh your priorities and critique each article of clothing your pack. 

Overall, packing for a semester abroad takes some time and thought, but it shouldn’t be more complicated than taking the derivative of a trig function or writing an analytical essay on Macbeth. Just take a deep breath and remember that whatever you forget, you’ll probably be able to find once you get there, no matter which of the seven continents you choose to travel to.

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