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How to Pack for a Semester Abroad

by Jenny Sherman Aug 4, 2008
Trying to keep from packing to much while remembering essential items can be tricky. Don’t wait till the last minute for packing for your semester abroad, and keep the following in mind.


You will be taking field trips with your class and on your own, so bring a backpack that can serve as a travel pack and/or overnight bag. Or opt for fanny packs, which are all the rage in Europe.


Pack less than you think you need, and choose clothing that is comfortable and can mix-and-match. Pack layers so you are prepared for all types of weather.

Carry-on with change of clothes

When the airline “misplaced” my bags for two weeks, I was happy to have an extra shirt and pair of underwear.

Bathing suit

It doesn’t matter if you are landlocked or studying in Antarctica, you will need your bathing suit at some point. It takes up virtually no room.

A travel diary

Even if you don’t keep one at home, you’ll be glad to have it there. Get a nice one like a Moleskine and you will be more likely to write down your experience with the crazy waitress or the local slang you just learned.

A camera

These days, it’s not hard to find affordable, lightweight digital cameras that you can bring with you everywhere. This provides you the option to annoy family members by forcing them to sit through your explanation of hundreds of photos once you return home, or for a wider-ranging option, consider posting your photos in a travel blog.

Is it worth investing in a Digital SLR for your semester abroad? Find out here.

An Extra Duffel bag

Even if you’re not a shopper, you are bound to collect some souvenirs over a semester in a new place. If you can’t check the extra bag, you can always mail it home.

A Guidebooks and Maps

Do a little research of the place you will call home for the upcoming months. Locate places you may want to visit on your weekends, holidays and breaks.

Swiss army knife

Swiss Army knives and other multi-tools are unbelievably handy – as long they are not confiscated by a giggling TSA employee at security. Make sure they make it into your suitcase.

Important contacts/phone numbers

You program should provide you with some of these, but it’s always nice to come prepared with numbers to the embassy and local police.

Duct tape

Good for when your brand new backpack decides to give out on you while running between trains, forcing you to carry 70 lbs like a giant baby.

Money belt

These are flat pouches you can tuck under your clothing to keep you money, ID and credit cards safe from pickpockets, and they don’t take up much room in your suitcase.

A small picture album

You can purchase cheap albums at your local widget store that will hold 10 to 20 images of your family, friends, lovers, pets, etc. No matter what you think now, you will miss them, and they’re fun to share with other students and host families.

Limit the shoes!

Ladies, I know this may be hard, but if you can limit shoes to a pair of athletic, sandals, and everyday tennies, you will be much happier with the space it leaves in your suitcase. The infrequency of a formal event on a semester abroad is not worth the hassle of lugging along boots or heels.

Limit the toiletries!

Don’t bring the extra bottle of lotion, toothpaste or body wash. Regardless of where you are studying, they will almost always have a store where you can purchase these items.

No to laptops!

Unless you are on a computer science study program, leave the technology at home. You will be provided with computer and Internet access through your program, and for godsakes, disconnect for a while!

Other list add-ons: book (long rides), iPod (familiar tunes), inflatable travel pillow (to arrive well-rested), international phone card (Hi mom!), tissues (double as TP), a rain slicker, scarf, sunglasses, a good hat, laundry bag, travel alarm, batteries, chargers, wallet, plane tickets, host family’s address, and a deck of cards.

Put explode-ables in plastic baggies and away from electronics, and remember not to put fluids (toothpaste included) in your carry-on. Research the area you will be staying for specific requirements, such as mosquito nets, electric plug converters, bug spray, malaria pills, sleeping bag, etc. And please, in all your sleepless college nights, try not to forget your passport.

Last but not least on the list: an open mind. You will inevitably run into customs and routines you are not familiar with, events that will frustrate you, all part of the beauty of a semester abroad, something they can’t teach you in a classroom.

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