When you travel overseas, you must take THIS

Posted by
Day 157
Soon I am heading off on a four-month research trip to Italy. I need advice about how to pack up my whole life into two suitcases! My planning-every-detail brain is near imploding.

Two things are on my mind.

  1. I need a good capsule wardrobe, appropriate for six months of Italian weather.
  2. What single item would you not be without when in a foreign country alone for ages?


After you’ve packed your testicles-spectacles-wallet-and-watch-type stuff, what’s an unforgettable MUST TAKE OVERSEAS item for you?

Comments on When you travel overseas, you must take THIS

  1. Have you ever traveled to Italy before? I studied there for 5 months (January to May). It was chilly, but not cold in the beginning of my time. Of course, I live in Illinois and was going to school in Minnesota. The main thing I noticed about clothes while there is that they are very fashion forward. My landlady fixed my dryer in a pair of Armani jeans. Other than clothes, I would pack a camera for the visual memories, and a journal for the spiritual memories.

    • “I would pack a camera for the visual memories, and a journal for the spiritual memories.”

      What a lovely way of putting this, thanks! I’ve been debating over whether to keep a journal, and I think you’ve swayed me.

      • If you aren’t someone who is good at keeping a journal (I’m not), before your trip create a form that you can fill in every day/week that has questions to prompt you. Like – today I ate at, or today I saw…The best part of the day was. I’ve done this for trips and I have found it helps a lot.

  2. I spent a school year studying abroad in the UK. I wish I had packed less clothes like shirts and jeans (especially t-shirts. I had far too many t-shirts!)and more socks and underwear. For me, laundry was expensive so I would rewear my external clothing but underwear and socks became my limiting factors. The thing I was really glad I had packed, and your mileage may vary on this, was a few boxes of my own brand of tampons. Not that they don’t have them overseas, probably, but when so much else in your life is different from home it’s nice to have something familiar. And, they’re consumable, so it leaves more room in your suitcase when you return!

  3. I always pack a black maxi dress. They can be dressed up or down easily, are so comfortable, good in warm weather and, with a pair of leggings, cold weather.

    • A “multiple socket adaptor” ( I have no idea how to say that in English, but I hope you get the idea) so you can charge your phone/camera/laptop using just one outlet and just one international adaptor.

      • Totally agree on the adapter – but I’d recommend bringing at least 2. They can be a bit heavy, but it’s worth it to be able to charge your cell phone and your camera battery at the same time instead of having to create a “charging/electrical use schedule” for all your electronics.

        If you’re going to be there for a while, or travel overseas a lot, look into getting European chargers for your phone or laptop so you can cut out the adapter entirely for those items. For instance, Apple makes a an adapter set for their laptop power cord that interchanges easily with various countries’ plugs.

      • The adapter was what I was going to recommend, but keep in mind they don’t always convert the voltages properly. Attempting to charge my phone in France completely killed it (but my camcorder charged just fine). So if you have a bunch of pictures and stuff be sure to back them up – just in case.

        • I second having two adapters and also be prepared for your electronics to fail! My iphone got fried on a train from Amsterdam to Austria, and it was out of commission until I could plug it into a computer a few days later in Italy.

          • Same for other electric stuff, too. I fried my hairdryer in Europe because even on the low setting, it got much hotter than it should have. You might just want to buy on cheaper Italian one.

        • Adding to the adapter issues…I was studying in London for a few weeks and brought my US flat iron and an adapter I got at the local walmart. The first time I tried to use it in London, I walked away for a second and came back to a flat iron that was smoking and then on fire! My roommate for the trip bought a real UK flat iron at a local beauty store for cheap, so I recommend doing that with those types of things. Also, good walking shoes are a must. People in Europe walk a lot more than here in the US (I miss that soooo much), and my already-worn-out sneakers did not give me enough support on the cobblestone sidewalks. I bought an awesome pair of boots there with heels to give me some arch support and they saved my butt. If you bring dress heels, make sure they’re supportive and the actual heels are thick…my dainty kitten heels got caught between cobblestones and it took two male classmates to rescue them. Last thing: bring ONE good coat that you can layer for all types of weather, preferably one that’s nice looking. I brought 2, a nice wool one and a long rain coat (and rain boots I never used), and had to take one out of my suitcase to not be over weight (coats are heavy!). My wool one looks nicer and is very versatile, so I never even wore my raincoat. I think those were my biggest lessons-learned.

  4. I HIGHLY recommend cutting it down to just one suitcase and a backpack, rather than two suitcases. There is nothing worse than running to catch your train while trying to corral two unruly rollers. Only bring enough toiletries to last a week or so, and then just buy them when you’re settled in. Look into getting a diva cup. Bring a pair of running shoes. Even if you’re not a runner now, physical activity might be just what you need to ‘get away’ when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Consider packing only high-quality, versatile items like what you might find from Patagonia or Smartwool; you can get away with packing a lot less if your wardrobe can be dressed up or down, and can be worn more than once without washing. I don’t recommend jeans, because they take forever to dry (you will most likely line-dry your clothes), and are too casual. Go nuts with dresses, they are an entire outfit in one small package. Add tights for cold days, flats for warm days.

    • Good point about toiletries, but some things are not available in every country: it’s very difficult to find good conditioner in many countries (including the countries of Central America, India and Turkey) for example…or any conditioner at all. Tampons are another problem.

      All other toiletries can be purchased abroad I’ve found.

      • I know in Italy you can get most of the same brands you find in the US, so it’s important to check the availability where you’re going. If you can get it there, it’s better to save valuable suitcase space.

        When I was in Italy the only thing I had a really hard time finding were USB drives and other computer accessories. I finally had my parents mail one to me. They’re readily available in electronics stores there, but most of those are outside the city walls and I didn’t have a good way to get to one.

      • I don’t have Italy-specific experience, but I have found that it is always useful to get specific info about what toiletries will be available from someone who shares your cultural perspective (and possibly racial identity)… For example, I have traveled to places where sunscreen above SPF 10 was totally unavailable even though the climate was very hot, so if you need any particular type of skin/hair care products, it would be useful to bring those with you. Depending on where you are traveling, the locally-available products might be ones that you are not comfortable using for ethical/health reasons as well. (I am thinking of my own travel experiences where virtually all lotions and face washes I could find contained “skin whitening” agents.)

    • Another reason to have fewer suitcases is in case you want to travel after your four months and dont have a place to keep your stuff. I had a friend on exchange whose family came to travel with her, and they had issues because their rental car was way too small for all their luggage.
      However, if you know you’re coming back right away, two suitcases isn’t terrible for one trip to your apartment and back. It might be worth it to cab, if it means having extra comforts for your apartment.

    • Lol. I’m not much of a peanut-butter eater, but I am seriously considering taking a box of tea bags. Is that weird? When I’ve been in Italy before, I’ve found their tea horrible, and it’s just such a comforting thing for me.

      Don’t try to take the English away from their tea…

      • I wasn’t really one for peanut butter either…until I couldn’t have any! I begged my parents to ship Skippy to Italy, and hoarded it the rest of the semester.

        You never know how much you really want it until you can’t have it…

      • I bring teabags everywhere – I don’t drink caffeinated teas and I can’t be sure that everywhere will have a good herbal range, so I always back a box or two of rooibos, mint or camomile if I’m not confident I’ll find them there.

    • for realz. when i studied abroad in italy for a semester, i made sure that i packed a nice sized bottle of peanut butter. that sucker was gone before mid semester and got the folks to ship me some more. but yeah, if you aren’t a pb fiend, then no worries. if marmite’s your poison, stick with that πŸ™‚

    • When I lived in Ireland for a year, I had my parents ship me peanut butter, Kraft mac n cheese, Reeses cups… I had to wait until I got back to the States to have root beer and sourdough bread though. Those were really hard not to have!

  5. Depends on the country.

    No, seriously.

    For some countries it would be a relatively safe/non-pickpocket attracting bag (zipper with snapped flap over it, thick, hard-to-razor fabric, can go across my chest like a messenger bag, inner/hidden zipped pockets, preferably waterproof). I’d definitely want that in Egypt, India, Turkey. For others it’d be tampons or conditioner depending on what is available locally (menstruation cups are a great idea, but terrible to use in an Indian toilet). Both are great in developing countries or the Middle/Near East. In yet others, it would be a waterproof backpack cover – very hard to come by locally but extraordinarily useful in rainy conditions. I wouldn’t need that in Egypt or Turkey but during a monsoon or a rainy season (like in Central America) it’s a life saver. In Asia, JEANS THAT FIT – seriously. At least two pairs, maybe three. In countries that get cold – a good winter jacket: hard to come by in styles/types that Westerners favor.

    I guess for any given country, a good daypack-sized backpack of decent quality, because it’s much easier on the back than a shoulder bag and very hard to come by abroad – either what’s available is good quality but twice the price, or is crap quality.

    Almost everything else can be bought abroad, although some things are a lot more expensive (ie sunscreen and bug spray).

    Close second: Swiss Army Knife. The really fat kind.

    • Just make sure your Swiss Army knife goes in your checked luggage. I live in fear of having my beloved inherited Swiss Army knife confiscated by some TSA employee because I forgot to take it out of my carry-on.

    • “For some countries it would be a relatively safe/non-pickpocket attracting bag (zipper with snapped flap over it, thick, hard-to-razor fabric, can go across my chest like a messenger bag, inner/hidden zipped pockets, preferably waterproof).”

      I went to Italy for a few weeks with some people who had lived there for a few years, and they warned us over, and over, and over about pickpockets. Never ever put anything valuable in a backpack and always be vigilant about anything you’re carrying.

      • This is true. My cousin and husband had their laptop and passports stolen when they were in Italy. I believe they stole these items right out of their trunk.

  6. I am a huge fan of Jersey dresses! They can be crumpled up in a ball, don’t take up any space, and can be layered with leggings & sweaters for cold weather and are comfy and airy in the summer. I brought nothing but dresses on my trip to France and didn’t regret it.

    I second the European outlet adapter. I’d also recommend bringing TWO cameras. Mine got damaged halfway through my trip and I missed out on a lot of photos.

  7. Six months in Italy? Make sure your waistbands have a bit of give to them! You haven’t eaten until you’ve eaten in Italy. πŸ˜‰ I definitely agree with the leggings, dresses and sweaters for your wardrobe. My must take item is extra memory cards for your camera so you’re not having to dump them every day if you take pictures like I do.

    • hahaha – the food is excellent in italy, to die for – that’s fer damn sure! i was afraid of gaining weight during my semester abroad in florence, but i did soooooo much walking that it didn’t really matter.
      four months in italy, huh? what region/city are you going to be in? italy is awesome, i quite envy your trip!

      • Well, I’m travelling around a lot to visit stuff in many museums, but technically I’ll be a visiting student at the University of Venice. How did you find Florence? I’m definitely wanting to do some city-hopping on my way south!

        • oh, how fantastic! florence is grand! if you’re doing a museum crawl, you’ll definitely appreciate the Ufizzi & Accademia. that whole city is a work of art. i was overwhelmed and grateful that i spent a semester studying italian & art history and got to see everything that i wanted to- and then some. i’m an american from southern california, so we don’t have much old architecture around here and everytime i stepped outside, i was amazed by the buildings that surrounded me.

          if you get a chance to go to fiezole, go at nite – it’s beautiful to see an overview of florence all lit up & pretty-like.
          oh and (i normally wouldn’t say this but…)if you aren’t a fellow vegan, please have a slice of crostata/torta di nonna (italian custard pie) & a cappuccino for me at a coffee shop in the piazza della repubblica; i was there over 12 years ago, so it probably isn’t there! buon viaggio & have the time of your life!

  8. if we’re talking fashion, a simple dress, a cardigan, tights are good, classy COMFY flats, & a stylish very long scarf will turn into dozen of outfits if you know what you’re doing….

    however in general, since leaving america, one thing i’m crazy happy to have is my goody spin pins.

  9. I’m going to be the voice of dissent and say that I never pack dresses, because I never wear them. I don’t like how they don’t flatter my figure (almost doesn’t matter what the cut is), can’t stand leggings, travel to countries where they’d be inappropriate unless they were ankle-length, and am generally just not into dresses.

    But that’s just me. YMMV of course.

    I do pack a few skirts though.

  10. When I lived in London for four months, I found the one item I was most eternally grateful for was a travel umbrella my brother gave me for Christmas. I kept it in my purse and pulled it out when I needed it- since I walked and used public transportation to get everywhere, it was invaluable! That umbrella got me through rainstorms across 5 countries!
    I also think a large, zippable purse that fits a good amount is helpful, along with a little journal and a few pens inside. You can use this to write down directions (a good help in foreign countries as you’re getting around!) and notes to remember later. On another note, I’d highly suggest getting a little portable map of the city you’re living to keep with you at all times.

    And YES! on the capsule wardrobe and adaptable fashion items- I’m actually thinking of going through my closet thinking along the same lines to reduce my huge amount of clothes!

    • If you’re in the UK (or anywhere in Western Europe really) I definately recommend an umbrella because rainy weather can mean drizzle that just does not stop all day, or even for days on end.

      But it does vary greatly between countries. When I lived in Georgia, USA for example I never really worried about getting caught in the rain because I knew it’d stop as fast as it started and then the sun would be out to dry me off.

  11. Bring a journal. To write impressions down, to vent and deal with homesickness. At the back of the journal, make a list of important addresses (family and friends, but also police, insurance, bank, medical help, air line). Such a list will be incredibly helpful if something happens or you are just homesick and want to write postcards to your friends. And do research cheap ways of communicating.

  12. I work in the exchange office at my university, and have befriended 4 semesters worth of exchange students. Make sure to bring a few memory type things, but don’t go to overboard. You need to make sure your living quarters feel like home. As for clothes, Scarves are a must in italy. Everyone wears scarves all the time according to my italian friends. Bring classic staples, and don’t forget a nice dress for a night out. skinny and boot cut Jeans, khakis, T-shirts, a blazer type jacket, polos, tanks. My friend from italy once said it is not what you wear, its how you accessorize it. Flats, knee high boots, and a good walking shoe. Just because you are moving away doesnt mean you need to stop dressing like yourself. That is one regret I hear from many of my international friends. They bring clothes that are travel appropriate, and then spend the whole time they are living here feeling not like themselves. You are not on vacation, You are living somewhere. If you are not comfortable in what you are wearing, then its not worth it

    • “Just because you are moving away doesnt mean you need to stop dressing like yourself.”

      This is definitely a reminder I needed! I’ve spent ages thinking about what would be appropriate or the most versatile… maybe I should be thinking more about what clothes and things are the most *me*.

      Do you have any other tips from your job? It sounds like you’re a great person to talk to about this!

      • I found while living in Europe I cared a wee bit more about how I looked than at home, so don’t forget you can always update your travel wardrobe when you arrive! And in terms of dressing for the seasons, if youre having someone visit halfway through your stay, send your winter things back, or anything you’ve realized you don’t need, and perhaps bring anything you’ve forgotten, or more tea bags :).

      • Ask me questions, I may have answers πŸ™‚

        Be prepared to have wardrobe envy. I have it all the time.

        Remember since you will be there for 6 months, try not to pack your suitcase too full, you WILL buy things. My friend from germany is leaving to go home this week, and he is WAAAY over weight to go home because he bought all kinds of clothes here that he cannot get back home (Hollister and Abercrombie are super expensive apparently πŸ™‚ ). Your in Italy for heavens sake! You will be shopping

        Invest in an ipad or kindle or whatever because books are a must. I plan on moving abroad and have spent the last year downloading my favourite books from my collection of 2000+ physical books so I can have my favourites with me without having to actually bring them. Plus, an ipad is an amazing tool for a traveling student. I never bring my laptop to classes anymore. Also, sometimes you can get textbooks in ebook format.

        Invest in a poster or a few postcards from you hometown or city or whatever to post up on your walls. They are small, and weigh nothing and can make it feel homey. I know a lot of kids also bring digital picture frames.

        iPod. Possibly a small set of speakers, because you will make friends, and possibly have get togethers, and no one ever seems to have speakers when you are hanging out with a bunch of international or exchange students.

        FOOD. Bring your favs you cannot find, or have someone mail it to you. I spent four months listening to my english friend talk about food she missed. I went to a little fake german town today with abovementioned german friend, and he spent the whole day talking about food he missed. My foods to bring are Cheez wiz, Oreos, and some Canadian stuff πŸ™‚

        make sure to make skype dates with friends and family and stick to them. just cause you off adventuring does not mean you get to forget everyone at home, because you will be going back to them eventually

        If you have any other questions, feel free to ask!!!!

        Katie V

  13. 1) scarves.
    2) camera.
    3) a cross-the-body purse or concealed belt-wallet. (this is safety, not necessarily fashion, people on scooters will not hesitate to take your shoulder bag off of your arm while zooming by in some of the larger cities… which can dislocate your arm.)

    then bring the basics. a darkwash pair of jeans that flatter you will be a great staple, and walking shoes. don’t bring any shoes you wouldn’t want to walk in. if you don’t have a cute pair of dress shoes that you can walk around all day in, buy some. in Italy you will be walking, sometimes when you don’t expect to.

  14. Oooh, awesome! I was there for two weeks this summer, and they were the best two weeks of my life!

    1. Comfy shoes (LOTS more walking there than in the US, and the roads are a lot more uneven. Make sure they are broken in!)
    2. Basics will get you the furthest (simple black shirts, plain pair of skinny jeans, etc). Its easy to buy cheap scarves over there to mix things up – plus, most Italians keep it chic and simple (few graphic tree, etc). Modest too! (You could tell the Americans from the tube tops and hoochy skirts, LOL)
    3. Italian dictionary if you aren’t semi-fluent (many speak English anyway, but they love the effort!!!)
    4. If you plan on doing sightseeing while you are there, it helps to get a map here with everything you want to see on it already.
    5. Definitely any electronics. However, don’t even bother with a hair dryer or straightener – buy there or go without. Same for a cheap cell phone for calls home.

    • If you’re going to Europe and you have an old GSM phone (AT&T, Tmobile) it pays to bring it. Get it “unlocked” before you go. Most carriers will do this for free if you’ve been with them long enough. If you don’t have one, ask around. Many people have old “dumbphones” gathering dust in a drawer.

      Then when you get there, you can just purchase a pay-as-you-go SIM card for it rather than wasting money on a phone you’ll only need for a few months. I’ve done this in both Italy and Germany and it works great.

    • Thanks, Krista! I’m actually English rather than American – but what you say is very true. I couldn’t believe some of the things American high school students were wearing when I was in Greece last year – they stood out a mile! Best to keep it modest, in my book. Or at least have modest options, there’s an awful lot of beautiful churches. πŸ™‚

  15. -Half the clothes and twice the money still applies, even though you aren’t backpacking.
    -I agree with those who have commented to bring simple, classic pieces – dark jeans, black tops, little black dress etc – and dress it all up with accessories like fun scarves. Dark items like this can also be reworn even when you can’t get to a laundromat as often as you’d like. πŸ™‚
    -A nice pashmina can be used for warmth at night, or thrown over a dresser to pretty up a temporary room, and many other things. And it packs up tiny!
    -Comfy flats for walking. Tieks are amazing: http://tieks.com/boutiek/

    If you’ll be there in cooler weather a comfy pair of knee high boots with dresses/skirts and tights will take you very far!

    This website is now just an archive but these ladies have it nailed down:

    • What an amazing website! I’ve never seen that before, thanks so much. This is exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for. (And pretty much how I dress too, to be honest. Or rather how I would dress if I made an effort every day like those gorgeous ladies!)

  16. English books.

    Depending on what city you’re in, there may or may not be English books available and I found that the selection was generally pretty limited. I ended up reading a lot of schlocky bestsellers because that’s all I could get a hold of.

    If ebook readers had been as cheap as they are now when I went abroad, I definitely would have brought one. The cheapest Kindle is down to $80, and you can find a ton of free public domain books for it.

    • Oh, definitely. I’ve treated myself a Kindle, on the condition that I am not allowed to fill up my luggage with non-work books. We’ll have to wait and see if this works out, but it’s a start. πŸ™‚

      They’re actually also very useful for backing up files, I’ve found, and much nicer for reading online articles (if you send them to the Kindle as a pdf). So I hope I’ll get plenty of use out of it.

      • I have loaded tons of books from my library. Audiobooks! Both types of novels: those advanced readers like As well as purely trashy ones too.
        Love to listen while riding transit, or to block out unwanted conversation, though I don’t do this as much traveling as when in my own area.
        Also, if a reader has a great voice and the book is trashy I don’t mind if I sleep through 15 minutes of it. I can set the book to turn off 15, 30 minutes a great feature. Can’t listen to more sophisticated novels though when even a minute or two can leave out important details.
        Take your library card, and you can load from all the way round the world. A library cards a lot smaller than a book.

    • I wholeheartedly agree with this! I always go with one bag and a carry on and then a medium duffel bag rolled up in my suitcase. Since international flights allow 2 checked bags usually. Be careful though. When coming back from India I had 2 checked bags and 2 carry ons (allowed on international flights). This became a problem when I had to take a domestic flight from where I came into the US to get home. I met a really nice family that was able to hold on to one of my carry ons (a clear plastic bag with pillows in it so they could see exactly what they were holding on to) so it worked out well. I don’t know if you would even have this issue in Europe, but it’s good to think about.

  17. For me the number one travel accessory is my MP3 player.

    Partially because I’m a big music fan and wouldn’t go without, but it’s especially important on long journeys and in unfamiliar places because it does double duty as an instant dose of home and for shutting out other people. I don’t get claustrophobic exactly but too much time in enforced closeness with strangers (on a plane for example) stresses me out. But if I put my headphones on and stare out the window I can forget about it for a while.

  18. This is a weird one, but my friend who spent several months in Italy found herself seriously missing Mexican food. She had her parents send her some taco seasoning. Then when I was in France the same thing happened to me and I asked her to send me some. Taco seasoning! πŸ™‚

  19. I always enjoy taking enough of my favorite deodorant to last my whole trip. There is plenty of deodorant for sale in Italy but when you are trying a million different new things each day it’s nice to have something stable even if it’s the smell of your morning routine.

    • On the other hand, I have half a stick of French deodorant at my mum’s house left over from when I lived there and every time I use it I’m taken back to my lovely little flat and happy life. Sometimes a new scent can be perfect for an exciting new thing in your life.

  20. I just spent 6 weeks travelling around to a few different countries, with vastly different climates. I took a few (like, 5?) dresses, and loads of tights, scarves, and two cardigans. It took up way less space than pants & shirts, but kept me warm (look for fleece tights!) in the cold places, and kept me cool in the hot climates.

Read more comments

Join the Conversation