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{Alpaca} My Bags Lighter Next Time

5 Jan 2018

I am a terrible packer. Well, I guess that's not entirely true. I can pack well enough, I just always pack too much. I tried not to overpack for my semester abroad, but I still ended up with excess clothing and items that I really didn't need. If I could do it all over again, I would leave more things out and make sure I actually had space left for the items I would acquire during my travels. The good thing is that I made it back to Texas. The bad thing is the amount of money I spent shipping a box of summer clothing home and paying overweight luggage fees on one of my flights for not one, but two of my bags. You win some, you lose some, I suppose. Here is a breakdown of my advice on how to approach packing for your semester abroad!

1. Buy the largest suitcase you can get, but only check one bag.

I brought one ginormous suitcase with me that contained most of my clothing. I rolled up a lot of my clothes, especially pants, and made a tight layer in the bottom and then put in my toiletry kits and bulkier clothing in space bags (the kind you roll to compress, no vacuum required). I found that I had plenty of space for everything, but I had to watch the weight limit. Checked bags can only weigh up to 50 pounds/23 kilograms without incurring extra charges, and I was determined not to pay those fees. I had to sacrifice some shoes and duplicate articles of clothing in order to cut back on weight. I truly didn't need any of the things I left behind, anyway. My carry on suitcase was packed with clothing for orientation week and some other assorted items. My backpack had my laptop, planner, chargers/cords, journals, etc. I feel like I had sufficient space between those 3 bags and I would not recommend bringing 4 or bringing 2 large checked suitcases unless you feel it is absolutely necessary.

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(It was an actual miracle that my bag weighed 50.0 pounds. No extra fees!)

2. Pack mostly neutral and versatile articles of clothing.

It's true that, at least in Europe, people dress more neutrally than in the United States. People prefer muted shades of black, gray, and green to bright and vibrant hues. This works in your favor in terms of making outfits. Do not bring a bunch of pieces that only match one other item in your closet. I had a lot of solids and stripes with a couple of more unique pieces, but most of my variety came from scarves, necklaces, or other little accessories. Be creative with what you have and you'll find you won't be wearing the same ensembles every week after all. Also make sure that the items you bring can potentially transition into other seasons. I arrived in Vienna during the very warm tail end of summer and by the time I left we had had a serious snowfall. The tank tops I brought could be layered with cardigans or flannels, I wore tights under my skirts when it got colder, and I sometimes put a sweater over a summer dress in order to extend the lives of the things I packed. Consider the long-term value of every item you pack.

3. Remember to pack any specialty items/outfits.

Depending on your hobbies, program/major, and the courses you enroll in, you may need to pack some specific items. For example, if you are athletic (which I very much am not), pack your sneakers and a couple sets of workout clothes. If you are enrolling in an internship, think about what kind of work setting you may end up in and pack some things to wear for that. I interned in a classroom, so I brought some of my business casual clothing. It turned out that the setting there was even more casual than I expected, but I was prepared to look nice anyway. Would I ever have needed all 3 of the nice sleeveless blouses I packed? No. That was a bit overkill. If you are a student in the music program and you enroll in a performance class, pack some semi-formal or formal ensembles for the various concerts or recitals throughout the semester. You may also want to dress up for an opera at some point, or attend one of Vienna's many balls! (See my blog post called "Having a {Ball} & Attending One, Too!" for more advice on packing for that!)

4. Leave most bath products behind.

You're not going to the middle of nowhere. You will be in a city with stores that carry many different products that will suit your needs. Unless you have a very specific skin care regiment or, like me, a hair gel you can't live without, leave all your full sized shampoo, body wash, toothpaste, etc. at home. I only packed travel sized items to get me through a week or two. Liquids are heavy and take up weight in your bag that you may need for something else. Don't sweat packing the small stuff that you can buy when you arrive. Ladies, think long and hard before you pack your blow dryer, straightener, and curling wand. How often do you truly intend to style your hair? Can you potentially share with your roommates? Cut back on what you bring as much as possible. However, I would recommend packing a travel towel. I purchased an inexpensive microfiber towel in a convenient zip pouch that came in handy when my roommates and I struggled to locate towels in Vienna during our first week, and also when I traveled and stayed in hostels where one wasn't provided. 

5. Bring small mementos and decorations from home.

I personally like to make any room I stay in feel cozy and more home-like wherever I am. For me, this meant bringing some of my postcard collection to hang on the wall, Polaroid snapshots of me and my friends, and cards and notes that family and friends wrote to me before I left. It was comforting to see things I usually have around back home and I liked not having a bare wall or empty desk. I also ended up purchasing a fuzzy blanket and decorative pillow from T.K Maxx while I was there because I like to be comfortable!

6. Pare down on pairs of shoes.

If you can't count the pairs of shoes you packed on your fingers, you have too many pairs. I have a shoe hoarding problem, so it was hard for me to scale back, but I found that the pairs I brought did the job just fine. I did purchase one pair of booties and a pair of heels (for the ball) while in Vienna, but I anticipated those purchases because of some of my other shoes that didn't end up making the cut when I packed. I brought one too many pairs of sandals, considering that summer ended so soon, but everything else was spot on. I had two pairs of sandals, one pair of shower/swim shoes, one pair of ballet flats, one pair of neutral converse, one pair of sneakers/walking shoes, one pair of heels, and one pair of boots. Looking back, that seems like a lot, but for me, that was exactly what I needed. Think critically about every pair you pack. Also, pack socks or underwear into your shoes- no wasted space!

7.  Don't skimp on daily necessities.

I'll be real here. Every packing list I read said to pack 2 weeks of underwear. I packed 3. It saved my life. Our laundry machines were coin operated and we had to trek down and up the 3 flights of stairs from our apartment to get to them. It was a hassle. Then, one week the laundry room was being maintenanced, right when it was time for our usual laundry shift (our building had a schedule). You never know what's going to happen when you're abroad. Some things are worth overpacking. I would have also packed more socks. I forget that other places have real fall and winter and you actually need socks every day...

8.  Consider purchasing bulky items there.

Some things are particularly difficult to pack, like thick sweaters or really plush, insulated winter jackets. If there are some things you can hold off on buying until you are in your city/the right season rolls around, leave them out of your initial packing. Or, if you happen to have family or friends visiting during the semester, have them bring some of the next season's items for you and trade out the things you can't wear anymore.

9. Keep a list of the most important items you need packed and check it several times.

It's inevitable that you will forget something as you try to cram your life into your luggage in your final days at home. Make sure those forgotten items don't include, travel adaptors, passports, student IDs (important for discounts! I recommend ordering an STA International Student Identity Card), underwear, charging cables, or any other things that you can't survive without. Go over your list with a parent or friend to double check that everything is accounted for.

10. Procrastination is a terrible idea.

Packing for 4 months is very different from packing for 2 weeks. I recommend beginning to pack at least a week before your flight. Of course, I wouldn't leave all your shopping to be done then. I picked up random items here and there throughout the months leading up to my departure, like sweaters from thrift shops and a dress for the ball. I did place a lot of last-minute Amazon Prime orders, though, not gonna lie. Actually putting everything into your suitcases may not be as simple as you first believe, so start trying to get it all packed a little at a time. Will you still end up frantically removing and adding things on the morning of your flight? Yes, certainly. But spare yourself some stress and do the bulk of the work in advance. You'll have a lot on your mind the last day.

 

Packing was something I was fearful and anxious about from the moment I decided I was going to study abroad. I wasn't sure I would be able to fit everything and/or survive off of only the contents of 2 suitcases for 4 months. I did a lot of research and asked IES Abroad Ambassadors a lot of questions. Seek first-hand advice from people who have lived in your city before, if possible. Packing is only another step toward finally being there and having the experience of a lifetime. Power through it and remember that everything will be okay. So many of your worries will wash away when you step off that plane and set your sights on your new home across the world.

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