What I Wish I Knew Before Packing For Study Abroad

Whoever came up with the idea of studying abroad was a f*cking genius. Seriously, there are endless benefits to a semester in a foreign country. You get to take dope Insta pics, put a minimal amount of effort into classes, travel around with your friends, and like, grow as a person and experience a new culture or whatever, I guess…and then talk about it to anyone in a five-mile radius for the next decade.

The hardest thing about studying abroad is packing for it. Naturally, I asked every person I know that has ever gone abroad for a packing list. They all told me to pack light, and since I really didn’t like that advice, I decided it didn’t apply to me.

I’ve always been prone to overpacking, but this time I went tooootally overboard. I thought I was cheating the system with Pinterest packing hacks, space bags, and carry-ons. I was literally so confident in my packing that I didn’t even weigh my bags before going to the airport. As I’m sure you can guess, I tragically overestimated my skills and let me just tell you, if you’re ever thinking of blindly packing for a long trip without weighing your bags first…DON’T.

When I rolled up to JFK to check into my flight, I was informed that one of my bags was thirty pounds overweight. I’m not even being dramatic. Literally. Thirty. F*cking. Pounds. 

Soooo, if you don’t want to have to pay an additional $200 just to get your bags on the plane, I suggest you follow my advice. 

1. Use Packing Cubes

Packing cubes are perfect for keeping track of what you pack and staying organized. Beyond that, when you get to your temporary home, you’ll quickly realize that you will have about as much space for storage as you did to pack. Packing cubes are perfect for keeping your sh*t organized, providing free storage, and even better for maximizing the small amount of space you’ll have for weekend trips. 

2. Space Bags DO NOT Work

First of all, space bags are kind of a scam. I mean, they’re great for storing all of the sorority shirts you’ll never wear, but they’re rarely useful for packing. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, space bags are vacuum-sealed bags meant to decrease the amount of space your clothes take up. By using space bags, I visually tricked myself into thinking I was packing less than I was, causing my suitcase to weigh more than a fifth-grader. 

3. Check The Size Of Your Carry-On

If you’re smart, you’ll bring a rolling carry-on with you as extra packing space (and as your weekend trip bag). Sadly, the same black carry-on that your dad has been using every business trip for the last twenty years probably won’t cut it. If you don’t want to pay an additional fee, wait for checked baggage, and run the risk of a crappy budget airline losing your bag, it’s worth investing in a new one ahead of time. I recommend looking for ones with the word “continental” in the bag title/description. 

4. Buy A Converter…Or Three 

Because I’m like, super good at planning ahead, I figured that I’d be able to buy a converter once I got abroad. Obviously (this seems to be a reoccurring theme) my logic was flawed. It’s not like British people are buying converters that make it possible to plug in things from the US, so I wasn’t able to just go to a corner store and get a US to UK converter. Amazon has great ones that allow you to plug in multiple things at a time and work with several different outlet types. Highly recommend. 

Pro Tip: If you have a Mac, buy Apple-made converters for your charger. I have the worst luck, and my computer reacted really poorly to the change in voltage, causing the battery to break and forcing me to find an Apple store and go weeks without a functioning laptop.

5. Bring More Than One Portable Charger 

When you spend all day obsessively checking to see who’s watched your ~super cultured~ Insta story of really ~authentic~ Italian gelato, your phone battery dies fast. It’ll die even quicker when you’re taking the Euro Rail to Amsterdam. Being in a foreign country with no phone is a straight-up bad idea, especially when you don’t speak the language. Although it can be a “learning experience” to be disconnected for the day, you don’t want to find yourself in a bad situation where you’re unable to contact someone. Plan ahead, please.    

6. Plan Your Budget Ahead Of Time

Everyone’s financial situation is different, and if your parents are funding your abroad experience, you’re one lucky betch. However, many people will find themselves struggling to stay to a strict budget when they study abroad. Personally, I had a really hard time managing my money when I first got abroad. What can I say—covers for clubs are super expensive! 

Definitely have an explicit conversation with your parents (or whoever may be contributing to your experience) about who is paying for what.

7. Jackets Will Be Your Best Friend

One word: layering. As if we weren’t already in a climate crisis, the biggest issue I’ve had abroad is that it’s cold outside, hot in your classroom, and straight-up hellish on public transportation. Now, this obviously mainly applies for those of us studying in famously cold or rainy places, like the UK, or those going abroad during the autumn and winter months. I’m a big fan of the thick jacket, cute sweater, and tank combos for those mid-autumn days where you’ll experience four seasons in 45 minutes. 

8. You Don’t Need Stilettos

Heels are impractical, uncomfortable, and a total waste of space. This was the one piece of advice I followed, mostly because my mom took my heels out of my bag before I left, but it still counts. Instead, you should pack lots of cute sneakers, a few pairs of booties that you can walk around in, and one pair of heeled booties for going out. The one exception I’ve heard to this rule is if you’re studying in Paris. Some of the clubs there are bougie as f*ck strict with dress code, so you will need to dress to impress.

Pro tip: Bring cheap flip flops as shower shoes and/or to wear around the apartment, for all you know wherever you end up living could be more disgusting than your freshman dorm’s communal bathroom.

9. Pack Lots Of Sweaters And Tops

You can wear the same pair of jeans (or leggings) a million times without anyone noticing (and before they get that “it’s time to wash me” sag in them), but the same doesn’t go for tops. Students in Europe somehow haven’t gotten on the wearing-leggings-to-class bandwagon, so plan on dressing chic to class. Worst case scenario, you’ll probably be doing a lot of shopping, so you can always stock up once you’ve arrived.

10. It *Is* Possible to Have Too Many Black Crop Tops 


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Today I wore a white crop top… you know what that is? Growth.

A post shared by Sara Levine (@sarafcarter) on

When you’re packing, you’ll probably come across the impossible dilemma: limited space and unlimited crop tops. Trust me, I get it. I also know the majority of your nights abroad will be spent going out. However, black crop tops are reusable! Hopefully, your friends will be cool and like to share, so you’ll have even more options. Don’t overpack clothes you’d wear to a frat, they’ll make you look trashy in the eyes of chic Europeans. Above all else, leave your frat shoes behind.

11. Leave Your Hot Tools At Home

Listen, more than anyone, I understand the deep relationship a girl has to her heat-styling tools. I never go anywhere without at least my flatiron. But, trust me on this one—do not pack any expensive hot tools. Due to the weird-ass voltage conversion, my blowdryer literally melted on day one, ending the longest relationship I’ve ever had. Instead of bringing your favorite products (and risking ruining them), buy cheap ones there. 

12. Deal With Prescriptions Ahead Of Time 

It can be really hard to get the prescription meds you need for three months at a time. One of my friends ended up having a screaming match with her insurance company, and it took mine like, a few weeks to figure out how to get me three months worth of my prescription at once. Make sure you leave plenty of time for anything that could potentially go wrong with this process.

Pro tip: Getting stuff like Dayquil and Sudafed is little different in Europe. Bring the basics just in case you can’t get meds when you inevitably come down with a cold. 

13. Bring Your Own Tampons

Every. Single. Time. I have tried to buy tampons, they’ve ended up not having applicators. I know it’s better for the environment, but this is an important lesson. You should definitely bring your own supply unless you want to end up standing in a public bathroom, staring at an applicator-less tampon like it’s from Mars.

14. Laundry Bags Aren’t Just for Dorm Rooms 

Unless you’re gross and want to keep your clothes on the floor of whatever dorm/apartment you’re living in, bring one of those inexpensive cloth laundry bags with you. It’s also not a given that your living space will come with a washer, and it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll have a dryer. Bringing a laundry bag both helps you keep track of your dirty clothes and will be a lifesaver if you need to transport them to a laundromat. Do your research and plan accordingly.  

I’ve only been abroad for six weeks, so it’s not like I’m a total pro, but I learned the hard way that any advice is worth considering. It’s worth saying, though, that every city is different. I’m spending the semester in London living my best Caroline Calloway life, and I have friends in Paris, Rome, and Madrid. Like, all of us needed to bring different things, but the basics are pretty much the same. Yeah, packing sucks, but the rest of abroad is pretty lit. Once you get past the fact that you have to actually look cute most days and start exploring your new city, it’s guaranteed that abroad will be the transformative experience that everyone says it is.

Images: Ross Sneddon / Unsplash; sarafcarter, lexniko / Instagram; jonnysun / Twitter

Reagan Anthony
Reagan Anthony
Reagan Anthony is aggressively from Cleveland and a junior at Tulane University. Her hobbies include taste testing chicken nuggets, 6 AM workout classes, and reminding people of her peanut allergy. If she isn’t color-coding her notes, she can be found stirring the pot at her favorite frat house. Reagan is spending the semester in London, and (like every other basic girl abroad) will be documenting her adventures on Instagram @thatssooreagan.