What to pack for your year abroad?
So I’ve never been the best at packing, especially considering how much of my life I spend living out of a suitcase (clue: by the end of July this year I’d spent less than three weeks in the UK…) While I still spend an awful amount of time stressing about what’s going in the bag, I like to think that since my first run in with airline baggage Nazis when I moved to France nearly 7 years ago, I’ve learnt a few tricks.
I’m not claiming to get it right every time, but here are a few tips that have helped reduce my tantrums at the check in desk over the last few years…
Yeah, the obvious one. You’re moving abroad for the year/semester and you tend to assume that everywhere on the continent is basically tropical/you’re going to be spending all your time on the beach. Then there’s the fact that you’re basically on a EU funded jolly, so you need a range of outfits to match your social calendar… Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but not so much.
While you are going to be meeting loads of people, and probably want to make a good impression/stand out/ whatever, year abroad is basically a time to embrace your inner hippy, and get to know the kind of people who don’t care about what you’re wearing (and try and adopt that mindset yourself) While my Erasmus circle was pretty dominated by Thai fishing pants (comfiest things ever) I realise that for most people this is the other end of the spectrum…All I’m saying is try to keep it as casual as you can. And it’s a cliché, but pack light.
The main thing I’ve learnt when it comes to clothes is that you want everything you bring to be versatile. There’s no point bringing something that you’ll only wear once/ don’t feel 100% comfortable in (speaking from experience: leather trousers in Greece…) This is especially true for shorter trips/backpacking. It’s lame but I always make sure that pretty much everything in my bag can be mixed and matched, that way you never have to really think about what to put on/ freak out if that top that goes with those shorts is dirty and you’ve just been invited out to tapas. I still spend way too long, but it is really worth thinking about each item and realistically how often you’re going to wear it. For example, rather than bringing different pairs of shorts for the beach/going out I rely on my trusty Levi cut offs for both, knowing that I can basically live in them and dress them up or down. I tend to bring one or two ‘special occasion’ outfits, a nice dress, or anything you feel fancy in (definitely not something that needs ironing/dry cleaning though!) but rely on a funky necklace/ a bit of makeup to dress up my standard clothes for most nights.
For standard clothes, I realise this massively depends on the climate…I spent my YA in the south of France and northern Greece, which contrary to popular belief both get pretty chilly at times, so you want to bring a range of clothes while still keeping it simple.
If I were to do it again this would be my list:
- 2 pairs of jeans (1 smart 1 casual)
- a pair of leggings
- a pair of baggy cotton trousers
- a pair of shorts (OK maybe 2)
- about 10 tops ranging from casual to smart (including a light blouse/shirt to keep you cool but covered for sightseeing)
- a few dresses (one beach/day, one maxi, one lbd)
- my leather jacket for evenings
- one nice jumper and a hoody. (Even if you’re sure it will be too warm, sometimes it’s just comforting!)
It’s always a good idea to bring a lightweight raincoat/windproof coat, even if you’re not that outdoorsy, as chances are at some point over the year you’ll catch a few showers on a sightseeing day.
One of my essential items is a light scarf to cover up on chilly nights, the kind that can also be used to cover your head and shoulders if you’re sightseeing, or that you can lie on in a beach/park.
One thing I don’t skimp on however is underwear…I know people who travel with like three pairs and wash them every night, but this is not me. As far as I’m concerned, the more underwear you bring, the longer you can survive before finding a launderette. I hit Matalan or Primark to stock up on multipacks before a long trip.
While you’re agonising over what to pack, it’s worth remembering that while you’re going abroad you’re not leaving civilisation, and chances are there will be a H and M (etc) within an hours radius of where you’re living. It actually works out cheaper to treat yourself to a few new outfits when you’re away if you’re struggling, rather than burn money on overweight baggage.
I know there are a lot of princesses out there who aren’t going to want to hear this, but leave your heels at home. Going out is so much more chilled on the continent, and unless you’re going to fancy places (which like, no one does on Erasmus) then trainers are fine, even in most clubs. British girls actually stand out on nights out in their body-con dresses/heels/no jacket combo, and French girls in their jeans and converse actually stare you down. You’ll probably spend most of your time chilling on squares anyway, so when in doubt opt for comfort.
The dream is a pair of trainers that you can wear for working out/hiking but which also look reasonable (if slightly quirky) with jeans or a dress. If you really must have a bit of height then opt for ankle boots to be a bit smarter while still keeping it comfy and casual. Remember you’ll spend a lot of time exploring, and cobbles/ crumbling pavements are pretty common in Europe. Depending on where you’re going and what you’re into you might need some proper walking boots/ snowboots, but again, try and multitask, and find a pair that you would also wear to the pub to save space (Sorel boots are amazing for this)
Personally I find flipflops lifesaving, especially if you plan on using certain hostel showers. They take up no space and are so much more practical than fancy strappy sandals for beach/sightseeing, and you can even use them as slippers (for some reason Europeans seem to be offended by bare feet in the house)
I would take trainers, toms, flipflops and ankle boots. Four pairs seems excessive but it is such a struggle.
Extension lead- One travel hack which took me wayyyy too long to figure out was to bring an extension lead with multiple plugs, rather than loads of adapters (as lots of studios have only one or two plugs and adapters seem to disappear at the same rate as socks)
E-reader – It’s hardly groundbreaking any more but as someone who would carry at least 3 novels for a week’s beach holiday, my Kindle really saved my life on my year abroad. Whenever possible I opted for the E-book version of whatever was on my reading list, this meant lugging fewer heavy tomes in the heat, with the added bonus of being able to easily look up foreign words whilst reading.
Dictaphone-You cool kids can probably use your phones for this, but back in 2012 I bought a dictaphone so that I could record lectures and listen back to try and figure out what the hell just happened. Turns out not really understanding what’s going on is pretty boring the first time around without haunting yourself with it at home as well, but this can be pretty useful when you’re freaking out around exam time.
Speaker- One of my travel essentials is a little bluetooth speaker. Especially if you’re in dorms and hosting pre-drinking parties/ trying to drown out next door’s one.
Second phone- Second phones are not just for drug dealers, it’s well worth asking around if anyone has an old phone that you can take with you for your foreign sim. Lots of students especially in eastern countries don’t use smartphones as much as we do, so texting and even (gasp!) calling is still a thing. While you might be happy with your roaming charges (especially if you’re on three!) Lots of people won’t want to pay to contact you on your UK no, so it’s always best to have a local number. ‘Free’ have some amazing rolling contracts in France, and Whatsup on Cosmote in Greece has good deals.
A ‘day sack’ – while I still mock my soldier brother for this terminology, a lightweight backpack that you can take hiking or for a weekend away is a must; you don’t want to find yourself rolling a suitcase around a museum if you have a few hours in between trains. Also, not super stylish but if you’ve got a long walk to uni in the heat, your back will thank you for taking this over a shoulder bag.
Microfiber towel- Actually my favourite invention ever. Takes up the fraction of the space of a normal towel, yet still dries you quicker. What is this, witchcraft?
Ear plugs/eye mask- Chances are your YA will involve hostels/dorms/lodging at some point (or even just a long journey) and these saviours mean you can go to sleep on your own terms.
Prescriptions/Medicines-This one is kind of obvious, if you need any medication long term (or even the pill) it’s easier to bring it with you/ at least research how easy it is to get over there. Turns out you can buy antidepressants over the counter in Greece, but Codeine is actually illegal… Bear in mind that even with the EHIC card you have to pay to see a doctor in most countries, (around 20 euros) and then claim the money back (which I am always too lazy to do) so avoid if possible. If you have a preference for particular brands when you’re ill, i.e. Lemsips, then bring some with you, you can’t always find similar products when you’re abroad, and when you’re ill sometimes you just need home comforts.
Toiletries-I know people who fill their suitcases with beauty products..500ml bottles of shampoo, creams etc… And that’s what really weighs a ton. Unless you’re actually going to be living in a cave, I assure you, you can find anything you need out there. To make life easy when you arrive, maybe bring small bottles of shampoo etc so that you don’t have to rush out to buy things as soon as you get there. But don’t stress about missing your home brands, see it as an opportunity to discover exotic new products (and fall in love with anything Petit Marseillais) then brag to your friends back home that ‘this is what they use in Milan’ (jk, don’t be a dick)
I may be biased on this front as I’m not a particularly girly girl, but I’ve learnt to travel with bare minimum make-up wise. I decided to try and make more of an effort recently, but 9 times out of 10 I’m in a mad rush to get ready and only end up using 3 or 4 products max. When you’ve got a year long tan you don’t really need foundation, and there’s nothing less sexy than melting make-up…
I also don’t bother with a hairdryer/straighteners etc. Mainly because I don’t often use them, especially in a hot climate. However if you really need them then there’s probably a girl in your house/dorm that has some anyway.
5. Other bits and bobs
Stationery- It probably says a lot about the kind of person I am if I’m telling you to ditch toiletries but have a good long think about your stationary… But I’m definitely not the only one who has had a mini breakdown about the lack of lined paper in France. Am I right? I don’t know what the deal is, but I cannot make notes on graph paper, and I certainly can’t revise with it. If you have any quirky learning aids, then bring them, chances are you’ll need them.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to carry a small notebook around for writing down new words/ reminders to look things up. This also becomes a great study aid, and is a great way to start learning all those random words that it takes a lifetime to accumulate.
Uni materials- On that note, let’s not forget that you are actually there to learn. As you’re probably studying a language it’s always handy to have your favourite grammar reference book at hand, or if you have detailed notes that make sense to you, bring them in case you need to get back to basics.
Documents- Don’t forget to scan/photocopy EVERYTHING before you go. A million copies of your learning agreement (you will change it so many times) Scans of your passport/ driver’s license, and a load of passport photos for ID cards etc.
Home comforts- I do this less these days, but if it’s the first time you’re moving to a different country by yourself, it’s a good idea to bring a few things that will help you feel at home. I took a stack of photos of friends and family to pin up on my first day, as I find personalising my room helps me settle in a lot quicker (and gives me something to do when I arrive to stop me stressing out!) I also bring a good supply of Earl Grey tea with me wherever I go, but anything that you associate with home and comfort when you’re feeling a bit homesick can help, like emergency chocolate buttons or custard creams. (Try and save these for real emergencies.) I also take my own (giant) mug, as a decent sized cuppa is basically impossible to find outside the UK.
So there you have it, my basic packing guide for your year abroad. If you have any questions or tips of your own to add, feel free to leave a comment 🙂