How to: Expertly Pack for Study Abroad

Determining what you need from what you want. Fitting everything into the right-size bag. Making sure you can lift said bag on your own….Packing correctly can be an art form.

Athena Study Abroad has dozens of ideas about what to pack, what not to pack, and how to pack in its pre-departure resources on its website.  These are meant to be used as handy online resources for you both before, during, and after your time abroad!  

For this How-to Expertly Pack for Study Abroad, we decided to focus specifically on the parts of packing that often are either unknown or easily forgotten—the ones that if you incorporate them into your packing, you will be happy that you did, and look like (and be) an expert on packing for international study.

– Prohibited items. Almost every person in the US who has ever flown anywhere is at least vaguely or knowledgeably aware of what items cannot be in carry-on luggage, and what items cannot be in checked luggage. But you also need to know national laws about what cannot be taken into the country where you are studying abroad. For instance, it is relatively common for a country to bar some or most kinds of food from being brought in. But if, for example, you will be studying abroad in Saudi Arabia, note restrictions such as: no alcohol (including in you; do not arrive in Saudi Arabia under the influence), no pork products, and limitations on certain medications. Perhaps no surprises, right? Also always be sure to research items that may be culturally accepted in one area, and may be illegal in others, including issues of sexuality, appearance and dress-codes, as well as acceptable behavior in public.  

– Strict, limited luggage restrictions. Cathay Pacific, based in Hong Kong, flies to a long list of cities in China, plus major cities around the world, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. It’s a great airline, except for your carry-on item is severely limited by both size and weight (7 kg—about 15.4 pounds), and the limits are strictly enforced. Gate agents will weigh your backpack, purse or briefcase when you check in. Air Canada has a 22-pound limit, which also can be strictly enforced. Know these things before you get to the airport.

 – Don’t pack items that are heavy, large or otherwise awkward to transport if the item is easily available and low cost where you are going. For example, maybe the last bit of space in your suitcase could be used for general medications, such as vitamins, pain relievers, cough medicine, antihistamine, motion sickness meds, etc., a pair of shoes that gives you more options, or your umbrella. Trust us: take the meds and/or the shoes, and buy an umbrella when you arrive where you are going. Not only are we glad that we once waited until we arrived in Budapest to buy an umbrella, but we even left it there when we left—because everything else in our luggage was more important and/or valuable.

– Do your “homework,” seriously. Research the electrical outlets where you are going; don’t rely on labels on adapters in a global package that have vague labels such as “Asia.” Another homework example: You want to know if you are going to a country where everyone drinks tea and almost no one drinks coffee. (You would be surprised how many countries like that there are; you might be surprised by how many countries still have only a few or no Starbucks!) So you might think you should take a bag of excellent ground coffee. But in a country where no one drinks coffee, why would you think they have coffeemakers? You might be stuck taking (if you have room by space and weight) and drinking instant coffee, seriously.

– Know that using packing cubes—zippered containers made from nylon or other material—not only saves you space and helps you (and your stuff) stay more organized, but also they probably make it more likely that nothing will get lost when your suitcase is opened by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) or whoever else along the way might be in there.

– Buy and bring a printed tourist travel guide and also read what people have written on TripAdvisor.com about where you are going. (What the public likes—often shopping malls, parks, etc.–often does not match what experts recommend.) We like DK Eyewitness Travel Guides for their excellent photography, maps, diagrams and extensive details (such as which bus to take to which stop), but there’s also Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, Rick Steves and Moon (two brands published by the same publisher), Fodor’s, and others. Don’t be one of those people who spends $2,000 to $20,000 on study abroad but won’t spring for another $15 to $28 for a book. They are worth every penny if you read them and use them.

– Take tips from the real packing pros: men and women in the US military. Their suggestions are easily available in many places on the Internet.

– Some clothing and packing suggestions from an Athena Study Abroad student in Tokyo

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