When you travel overseas, you must take THIS

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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?

-Katy

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. I STRONGLY recommend my favorite accessory: a merino wool Buff. They can be worn as, well, anything really. They’re great cause they wick away moisture and keep you cool in the summer and in the cooler months they provide excellent protection against the cold. Because its merino wool, they don’t stink when sweaty and will even keep you warm while they’re wet! I have one myself and wear it as a scarf, hat and balaclava when its really cold. ULTIMATE MULITASKER!

    • Merino wool in general is an excellent fabric for traveling! It can go a long time between washings without getting smelly, so that lowers your laundry load. Like you said it’ll keep you feeling dry, and it keeps you warm even if it gets wet. It wicks sweat beautifully. Someone else mentioned Smartwool and I second that recommendation. Their tights and socks are especially useful for travel like this. They also make tops, long underwear, sweaters, gloves, hats, underwear, etc. The prices might give you sticker shock but you’ll get a lot of use from every piece.

      Another useful travel item is quick-dry underwear (like what ExOfficio makes) that can be washed in a sink and will dry overnight. You can travel for weeks with only 2-3 pairs if you want to.

  2. For Italy, definitely take a good pair of walking shoes! (I brought my trusty Doc Martens boots.)

    Music fiend that I am, I never travel without my iPod, but since you’re going on such a long trip, I’ll assume you’re bringing some sort of computer.

    Don’t forget to have at least two photocopies of your passport on hand, in case yours gets lost or stolen. It’s not a bad idea to have the contact information of the nearest British consulate on hand just in case, either (write it on the passport copies and program it into your phone).

    Clothes-wise, you can’t go wrong with black, and your bag should be a cross-body, plain style (again, black is a good idea, and it shouldn’t be too big). Being young and more than a little irreverent, I brought an army-green messenger bag covered in rock-band patches. Between the bag, the black clothes, and the Docs, I definitely looked like a broke art student, and no one tried to grab my stuff (but everyone was still really friendly – it was Italy, after all).

  3. A camera, phone card, and adapter are high on my list no matter what! When I was in the UK for sixth months, I also journalese about my experiences almost every day – and I almost never write in a journal!

    Also, nice skirts, sweaters, and scarves! European women are CRAZY about pashmina style scarves and I always like to fit in as much as possible so my looks don’t scream tourist. 🙂 Oh, and flip flops mark you as a huge tourist if you’re worried about that like I am!

    • Haha *journaled

      I also just remembered – comfy shoes, though avoid running-style shoes (non-running Pumas, etc seem to be an exception) also if you’re worried about fitting in because Europeans don’t wear those casually like many Americans do.

      • It’s good to keep in mind that Europe isn’t one big country. Each country will have its own fashions, customs, danger levels and so on (although you’re better off being ‘too safe’ than sorry). Plenty of “European women” wouldn’t be seen dead in a scarf (in Scotland it’s certainly not in vogue) and plenty of “Europeans” wear trainers and sneakers casually.

        I’ve not stayed in a foreign country for longer than a holiday, but learn roughly what the weather’s like before you go (a lightweight waterproof jacket probably doesn’t go amiss in many countries, and most can be easily scrunched up into a bag) and pack light because you’ll almost certainly buy clothes and things while you’re over there.

        One thing I found when travelling to Egypt was to dress appropriately for the weather you’re going to, not the weather you’re coming from. We were the dafties dressed in shorts and t-shirts while it poured down in Glasgow (and hoodies, because it was freezing!) but we were the smart ones arriving in Egypt. The year before, I’d worn jeans and a vest top and even that was too warm O_o But then, it depends when you’re going, of course.

  4. I went traveling through Eastern Europe for a month last year, and also traveled a LOT when I was a kid. You don’t need to take very many clothes at all. I brought WAY too many last year. You can (and probably will anyway) buy what you need there.

    One thing I brought that I found SUPER useful was a travel power strip. It’s super small but has 4 outlets + a USB adapter. I found that pretty much everywhere we stayed, there would only be 1 power outlet in the whole room, and we needed to charge phones, laptop, and cameras.

    I brought some solid shampoo and conditioner, because I didn’t know what would be there, and I didn’t want it to leak on my luggage. You can also get solid moisturizers–which can be doubly-great because airplane travel is so skin-drying, and you won’t have to deal with those pesky liquids going through security.

    Small reminders of home are always nice too.

  5. 1) I agree with whoever said you should pack clothes that make you feel like you, but it doesn’t hurt to pack smartly so you at least have a semblance of that elusive “capsule wardrobe”. For me, I like to pick a base colour (black/grey, brown/tan or blue) and make sure everything goes with that. (But you’re going for longer, so you could have all three if you wanted)
    2) Make sure your shoes go with everything too! I moved to France with nothing but a pair of bright green shoes. That clashed with most of the other things I took. D’oh.
    3) Buy a pay as you go Italian sim as soon as you arrive (take a cheapie unlocked handset, it’s nice to be able to have your home number turned on too) and memorise the number (if you want to meet people!)
    4) Back to clothes, I’d recommend making sure included in your outfit is one or two good solid outfits for much colder weather than you’re expecting and one or two options for hotter weather. I once spent August in the south of France and had only really packed clothes for the hot weather I was expecting. It rained all month and I very rarely felt comfortable in my clothes.
    5) The basics, chargers, memory cards etc. I’d second the swiss army knife suggestion. I like to take a carabiner (but that might just be me!) – it’s always useful somehow (sometimes to hang extra bags off my luggage, sometimes to hold my washbag off the sink in a scuzzy bathroom, or to secure my camera strap to my bag if I’m worried about pickpockets…)
    5) I’m sure I’ll think of other things… A few frameless photos are nice to have around… write lots of letters home so you’ll get some back… have a blast!

    • Thanks, annabel, these are really great suggestions! Thanks for sharing from the perspective of someone who’s done this.

      …but surely bright green shoes go with everything, right? 😉

      • You’d think so, but most of my clothes were a clashing shade of teal! I just remembered that back when I went nationwide was the only bank that didn’t charge for overseas transactions, which can be useful. Look into that sort of thing maybe? And have fun!

  6. I studied in Italy for 4 months. I don’t remember anything important that I felt I NEEDED. Italy felt very home-y to me, actually, and I felt the langauge was the easiest to pick up of any I’d studied.

    I can only think of two things — obvious practical security stuff: one of those pouches for keeping important documents & cards in; your passport, credit cards, bank cards, etc., of course! Photocopy all of those things, front and back, and leave a copy with someone you trust back home; put another copy in a sealed envelope and stash it somewhere people won’t look. This is INVALUABLE if you lose your actual passport or something. A travel lock, one of those combo locks with a thin wire — bc if you travel around on your own, they are great for locking a backpack shut, locking it to a train luggage rack; locking hostel lockers, etc.

    The other thing is yes, you can buy ANYTHING you need in Italy, unless you’re a weird size. I am really tall and couldn’t find any shirts long enough in the body and sleeves. Also would have had trouble buying size 11 shoes if I had needed them.

    Depending on when you go, yes, ITALY GETS COLD!! I was freezing the whole month of December when I was there, despite buying additional layers. I took my packing advice from a boy who had been there the previous year and never gets cold. Layering is good.

    But, in general — less really is more when you travel! And Italy is wonderful, almost everyone there is communicative and helpful, and you will have a great time no matter what you forget!

  7. 1. Maybe someone already said this, but bring enough of any prescriptions you may need in their original packaging with original labels, placed in your carry on bags.
    2. I studied in Austria, and don’t know the OTC medication situation in Italy, but my roomie got several colds and would’ve loved to have some kind of cold medication that worked. She disliked the herbal stuff that they kept selling her.
    3. Ditto on copying important documents!
    4. I had this backpack meant to stash a laptop in a separate compartment right against the back. It was great for carrying documents, wallet, etc. because the compartment wasn’t easy to spot but my important things were easy for me to find.

    • For us Americans, Italy (most of the parts of Europe I’ve traveled through) has pharmacies with green “+” signs–these will sell European-brand OTC meds as well as a lot of what Americans can only get via prescription.

      If you’re prone to sinus infections, for example, note the prescription treatment you usually get at home and ask for it by name–for these you often don’t need a prescription and don’t have to deal with a foreign health system.

  8. One thing I found essential when traveling and studying/living abroad: a mini sewing kit! Limited packing space=fewer clothes=harder use=really annoying to have to buy a needle and a spool of thread and whatever else you need when a button falls off or whatever.

    Any over-the-counter medicines you prefer, but always check whether they’re allowed in the country you’re traveling to. (I’m assuming restrictions are pretty similar within the EU, but I’m not sure.) I do know that I missed NyQuil (super-strong cold medicine) when I was living in Japan. Some of the ingredients are banned there so I couldn’t bring it with me, and my colds always lasted twice as long because I couldn’t sleep at night without it. Small bottles probably goes without saying. For me, having paracetamol and antacids was useful, too.

    • Definately agree about the sewing kit. I have a big box at home with all kinds of stuff in it but when I went to uni I put together a small kit with a few needles, pins, some commonly used thread colours and spare buttons. It took up barely any space but was incredibly useful.

    • That’s a great idea, thanks! Never thought of this one. I bet I can put one together from stuff I already have, too.

  9. My thank-goodness-I-brought-this list when I studied in Italy:
    1. duct tape and dental floss, for fixing tears in suitcases and other heavy fabrics until a more permanent solution presents itself
    2. a bathing suit (we spent a weekend at my host family’s beach house–totally unexpected, but prepared!)
    3. plastic zip-top bags: good for keeping dirty laundry separate in a small suitcase/bag, for waterproofing postcards and collected ephemera, separating a wet bathing suit, containing squishy toiletry bottles…you never realize how much you use them at home!

  10. I lived for 3 years in Japan. Based on my experience, take any medication, medicated creams/shampoos etc. along you’re not 100% sure are easy to get. Should you get sick, you don’t want the extra hassle of hunting down medication.
    The other advice: plan a trip home a few months after you moved. It’s hard to forsee exactly what you will miss in the new country. Maybe some special food they don’t sell there, a special toothpaste you want, you name it. Once you know your needs, you’ll know what to take. But seriously, there are probably very few things you can get in the US and not in Italy. Just take what you’d use at home.

  11. I’m Italian so reading the answers was really interesting! However, Italy is really big and diserve, so it would have been helpful knowing where you are going. There are some places where winter is really cold, and others where is mild, places where it rains a lot and others where it never does, places where you can find organic high quality tea, good books in english and adaptors and others where it could be very difficult. As an Italian I suggest you not to bring many clothes and buy most of them here, we have a wonderful selection of fashionable items for all prices. Essential things are medicines (and possibly a private insurance, research if you need one or if you can access public health care), camera, underwear and socks, eletronic equipment, flip flops and possibly a guide? Consider checking prices for transactions with your card abroad, in Italy we don’t really use credit cards too much (and you pay some taxes when you use them to pay), so you should be able to get cash, and it’s better to know beforehand how much it is gonna cost you everytime you get it. Pay attention to pickpockets in train stations and on the metro, especially in big cities, and consider avoiding travelling by train in the night(this is my personal advice, feel free to do as you wish, of course) If you can specify where exactly you are going I may have other suggestions ^^

    • Hi V! I’m going to be all over the place – technically based in Venice, but also spending time in Rome, Naples, and further south. But I guess I’ll be “living” in Venice more or less. Any tips? Any cities I should definitely see? I’m not going to be rushing to get down south from Venice, I may take some detours. 🙂

      • Venice is super humid and you will need rain boots, in case there is “acqua alta”. It’s pretty cold, so bring your warmest clothes 🙂
        I’d definitely suggest Firenze, Urbino, Siena and if you are going South you should really go to Sicily, it’s a magic place ^^
        Good luck and enjoy your stay!

  12. I’m LOVING these comments! I’m taking a three week trip next summer (first ever long / ocean-crossing / traveling-alone trip!) and am getting lots of great ideas.

  13. Youre European so make sure you apply for you EHC card with plenty of time. This will give you NHS treatment within Italy if you become ill.

    Very few people are mentioning money, the UK debit card system is generally based upon visa debit but Italy has the old maestro system (very like the link system from the late 90s), you should be able to use most cash machines but I would recommend having a secret stash of emergency cash that you ONLY use in an emergency. When I lived in China it was a 40 min walk to the nearest bank that took european cards and I had to use the emergency money to bail out one of my flat mates after midnight on a sat night (I got the money back monday morning but he was grateful I had it!)… an extreme example but still good lesson.

    Tea is very light and a large box of it posted from the UK will be better for the space in your luggage.

    What I missed in most countries Ive moved to are the craft things Ive left behind- anything from my knitting gear to some watercolours would have kept me sane and took ages to source in a new country so I would recommend if you have a hobby, dont leave it behind just because it seems superfluous or you think you wont have time. Bring a small kit or the minimum to keep you doing that hobby for the first few weeks and keep it up, it will distract you and give you consistency with home when you may be stressed or homesick.

    Apart from that I have found that if you are flexible you can find anything you need no matter where you are and its good to have to learn how to adapt, think of it as a challenge!

  14. i’m sure it’ll be pretty easy since your going from western culture to another western culture. not as many huge shockers, but i really suggest looking up some ex-pat forums about the place you’ll be staying, just trolling. it can help you see some of the gripes people have & also solutions. good idea before you go.

  15. When I go visit Italian relatives, I actually take a bunch of small peanut butter jars and/or packets to give away — it really is a novelty there.
    Like the actual Italian commented earlier, it really depends on where you are going. And definitely take half the clothes you think you’ll need — shopping in Italy is awesome (and then when you come home and get a compliment on a sweater, you get to say “Oh, this? I got that when I was living in Rome….”)
    Speaking of Rome, if I am going anywhere for more than a couple of days, or if I know I’ll be back to a place a bunch, I highly reccomend one of these: http://www.amazon.com/Moleskine-City-Notebook-Roma-Rome/dp/8883706218
    I think they also make one for Florence.
    My London and Paris ones have been worth their weight in gold both as mini-journals and re-tracking down awesome restaurants and night clubs.
    I hope you have an amazing time!

    • Thanks! Glad to know you found one of these Moleskin City Books helpful, as I’ve now got one for Venice.

  16. I definitely second the travel towel recommendation! I brought mine to Ecuador and was so happy with it that it’s now my regular hair towel at home!

    As tempting as it can be, just don’t get into “what if?” scenarios in your head and end up packing everything ever. Worst case, you can buy it there! The first time I went backpacking solo I brought waaaay too much stuff with me, and half of it never left my bag!

    Write down the serial number of your camera. If it gets stolen, you can use sites like stolen camera finder to track whether people are using it and hopefully get it back.

  17. I recently moved back to the States from Italy after being there 3 years. They are very casual. You can wear jeans absolutely everywhere. I second only one suitcase and a backpack. Get a large backpacking type w/o a frame. I could easily fit 2 weeks of clothes plus camera and other stuff. It’s way easier to manage than 2 suitcases. One really comfortable pair of shoes is important – you will be walking everywhere. I had a pair of 3 season leather sandals that I bought there (but I lived in southern Italy). I wore (and still wear them) everywhere. I look at them longingly in the wintertime….

    Remember that you do not need to bring every bit of stuff that makes you comfortable in the US. You are exploring a new place. Stuff will just weigh you down. When I traveled, all I brought were clothes, my camera, and my kindle no matter how long the trip. Everything else I could live without and I found that I really enjoyed myself much more when I wasn’t distracted or weighed down by extra stuff.

  18. I thought of one more thing, a small, battery powered travel alarm clock. They’re especially handy on those days when you need to catch an early train, or to set to remind you to stop studying and meet someone. this is the one I have, only mine is white. It hardly weighs a thing and has a flashlight function for finding the toilet at night!

  19. A notebook, journal, some sort of paper. I was traveling for ten days during my stay in New Zealand and didn’t bring any paper, and by day three I was writing on the back of a soup can label because I didn’t want to forget anything. Put that one in the carry-on.

    Other things I missed were Mexican food, my regular brand of tea, pumpkin baked goods (I went during the fall, haha) and buffalo sauce for wings. The latter three made up the best care package I’ve ever received!

    I’ve heard from an American ex-pat acquaintance living in Italy that it’s impossible to find tampons. BYO! One packing tip I’ve heard is to bring your shampoo, soap, etc with you so that you use it up along the way and have room for souvies on the trip home.

    Finally, do bring your towel. During that above-mentioned trip mine served as a blanket and pillow as well as a regular towel. Very useful. Look out for book swaps (take one, leave one) and bring a deck of cards.

  20. Here are a few things that i have found useful traveling around Europe.
    Be sure to bring:
    Versatile clothing ie. stuff that is easily layered & dressed up/down with accessories. I would suggest not clogging your suitcases up with stuff going there, because you will probably wind up bringing some new stuff back.
    When you travel to Europe: BRING COMFORTABLE WALKING SHOES!!!
    You have lots of cobblestone & whatnot that make traversing the streets in stilettos next to impossible. (For Fancy Pants:Bring wedges! They don’t get stuck in the cracks) Also lots of things that you may want to see will probably not be car accessible and a lot of the main shopping districts in many European countries are pedestrian only.

    As far as toiletries: Europeans tend to use applicator free tampons, so if you’re not comfortable using them then bring your brand.
    If you’re into a specific brand of shampoo/conditioner you may find that you can get it there, but you will pay an arm and leg for it because container sizes are not the standard US “jumbo” sizes, they are generally a lot smaller!

    Other than that bring the standard camera/phone electronics. (Don’t forget the voltage is 220 in EU versus the US 110). You may also want to insure these high $ items against theft before you go & get a kensington lock for your laptop. Italy gets a lot of tourists & therefore has a lot of professional thieves & pickpockets.

  21. i studied in siena for 4 months, and the one thing i really wished i had brought more of was leggings and long underwear. i have these silky ones that layer really easily under pants and other leggings. because they have no dryers for the most part, things take FOREVER to dry in the winter. so sometimes id be stuck at home, really cold, because a bunch of stuff was drying. i recommend layers as well, tights tights tights! bring maybe one warm cashmere type scarf with you, you will assumably be going to markets and will want to buy EVERYTHING. bring knee high boots if you have hard to fit feet/calves (like me) because it will be really hard to fit all the lovely leather shoes everyone raves about over there. i have a drapey cardigan that was super helpful cos it was so versatile, as well as a few belts for cinching things around the waist. i basically brought my favorite clothes with me, after i narrowed it down to what made the most outfits with other pieces. bring your own makeup and skin stuff, but buy your other toiletries there. also: duty free makeup and booze at the airport. just saying.

  22. I moved to Germany with only a summer’s worth of clothing and then decided to stay here. This, my friend, is what I learned from this brilliant move:

    1. Clothes: IMO it’s more important to dress “yourself” and not in the most versatile way (or maybe this is not mutually exclusive for you). Pay close attention to the clothes you wear the most throughout seasons–and do not take something that you hold up and think, “I might wear this…” You should not be concerned about “mights” here! Layers are always good though… cardigans and such…
    2. Rechargeable batteries/charger for your camera.
    3. Pictures of your family to hang up. Sometimes browsing pictures on your computer is not enough.
    4. Load money on a Skype account so you can (very very cheaply–unless you have EU coverage on your phone?) call home and/or make calls to handle businessy things (I had to call my bank in the US a couple times, for example).
    5. Toiletries can be bought in Italy, but if you are very brand specific (I love my Dove solid deodorant whereas the German shops tend to sell more spray or liquid roll-ons… erm… for example), then bring that! You will see that it’s nice to stand in a shop and not have to search for something resembling what you want.
    6. Don’t know how cell phones work for EU calls but I just went to a cell phone provider and got a prepaid phone so I could have a local number for people to call.
    7. Make sure your bank and credit card companies, if any, know you’re going overseas so they don’t get alarmed about charges in Florence. Also make sure you know their rules on ATM charges and such.
    8. Don’t know your personality, but for me, mindless trashy gossip mags for the trip there–whether for you that means plane or train–is nice when you can’t sleep or concentrate.
    9. I completely agree with the sewing kit and bathing suit (because you just never know and these are small items to pack). I also agree with the medication. It’s always good to have a small first-aid kit with bandaids and antiseptic, then you can stuff in sample packets of over-the-counter pain or cold meds. These things can be a huge comfort when you’re sick (in the US I stock up on Pepto-Bismol, Tylenol, Dayquil).

  23. I have to say a good book! Sometimes there is nothing like reading your favourite book in a strange city to make you feel like you’re home. A photo of loved ones is great too. Or a favored perfume or scented candle that you can wear/burn.
    Also scarves. They can instantly dress up casual jeans and a t-shirt, and they can keep you warm! Pashmina’s would be best because they can double as a blanket or wrap on a plane/train/bus.
    And as a lifeguard/instructor, a first aid kit is INVALUABLE. You never know when you’ll need an aspirin/tylenol, band aid, or some alcohol wipes. If possible, get a first aid kit with a triangle bandage (or 2 or 3). The bandages can be used with gauze to help bandage a larger area, keep a broken arm/collarbone/splints for a broken leg in place while you are going to the hospital, and bonus, they can be used as a head wrap or thin improptu shirt/skirt (for the daring) if you are in a pinch. Cold/flu pills could be helpful as well.
    A thin raincoat that can be packed into a small pocket could also be helpful. You could pack it into a backpack incase of rain, and just repack it when the rain is done. A small stylish reusable bag could be helpful as well, for any impulsive souvenir purchases or to carry home purchases from the market. You can get some now that look darling as decorations hanging from your bag. This is an example: hadorable and functionable!

  24. Don’t know if anyone else has suggested this but a roll of duct tape. I got the idea from a book of travel advice my Mum gave me, and I have to say it’s great stuff to have along. Fixes tears in backpacks, hangs up a drying line for your laundry in random places, but the best thing I ever did with it was halfway up the Angel’s Landing hike at Zion Canyon in Utah- a hiker going in the other direction was hobbling along as his boot had fallen apart- much to the amazement of my friends, I whipped the duct-tape out of my daypack, and fixed his boot for him. It was a very proud moment.

  25. I recommend taking your favourite slippers/ slipper socks/ house shoes. When you get back from a long day, it makes a real difference having comfy footwear that you’re familiar with.

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