When my daughter left for Paris her sophomore year of college she had no idea what to expect, so she planned for every reasonable scenario, and created a packing least for her year abroad. Her bags were loaded with clothes, dozens of shoes, and other items that she would never use, but would surely take up much-needed space in her tiny apartment.
She spent six months abroad (with a home base in France) and traveled to every nook and cranny of Europe. By the time she returned home, she had definitely learned how to pack efficiently, and more specifically, how to pack practically.
1. Be wise about the basics
Don’t take large quantities of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, etc. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you can easily purchase what you need. Until then, pack travel-sized items, especially in your carry-on, in case your luggage gets lost along the way. It happens, many times.
2. Lay out all your clothing and items before you pack
This works great when you are trying to pack minimally. Determine how many outfits you will need and mix and match tops and bottoms. Do the same with shoes, sweaters, and jackets. Once you have all your clothing laid out, it will be easier to pack effectively.
3. Be logical about clothing
Don’t fill your suitcase with season-specific clothing. Pack clothing that can be layered: tanks under long sleeve shirts, sweaters on top of t-shirts, and a few seasonal items like swimsuits and one good jacket or “hoodie”. Weather typically varies from country to country and you want to be fully prepared for every climate change.
4. Pack comfortable shoes
It goes without saying that you will be doing a good deal of walking—that’s what travelers do. Again, my daughter learned the hard way. It’s simply not wise to fill your suitcase with high heels when you need a good pair of walking shoes that will last.
5. Pack your carry-on for emergencies
Have an extra set of clothes, along with whatever you wear to bed in your carry-on. Airlines are notorious for losing luggage, especially on International trips. Take the Boy Scout motto to heart—be prepared.
6. Make your carry-on a backpack
Backpacks are vital and indispensible when traveling abroad. A good backpack can hold more than you think and it’s so much easier to maneuver around than a carry-on that’s a suitcase. And don’t skimp on the cost! This backpack needs to last your entire trip. Sturdy stitching, front and side pouches, padded shoulder straps, and a low-profile color are all virtues. Many travelers agree that a body-hugging, internal frame backpack is worth the extra money and increases durability.
7. Protect important documents
Keep essential travel documents with you at all times. These include your passport, your plane ticket, your credit card and debit card, cash, and any other pertinent information you might need upon arrival. There are also numerous, well-respected travel wallets on the market for purchase. Most importantly, don’t ever let your purse or wallet out of sight when traveling abroad. Keep them zipped up in a pocket and attached to you at all times. Being stranded in a foreign country without identification or money is not anyone’s idea of a positive gap year experience. Another quick tip: if you’re traveling with a passport, it’s never a bad idea to email yourself a photocopy of the front photo and its signature pages in case you need to get it replaced.
8. Learn how to pack
Don’t just throw your clothes in your suitcase. There are videos that will teach you how to pack properly. This is a how to step-by-step blog post with visuals: How to Pack a Carry-On Like a Boss. And here’s a video I like from YouTube on How to NOT Overpack Your Suitcase.
9. Don’t overpack reminders of home
Of course you’ll want to travel with a few reminders and mementos from home, especially on an extended gap year trip. A few pictures, a favorite blanket, or some of your favorite movies are fine. But cramming your suitcase with all your favorites is not advisable. Suitcase real estate is a necessity. Save that room for essentials like clothing and comfortable shoes.
10. Save room for souvenirs
Keep in mind that you are going to want to collect keepsakes along the way to bring home from each of your travel destinations. Always, save a little extra space for these items in your suitcase.
If you need a list of essential items to pack when traveling abroad? Read this: Pack Light and Travel Happy. It’s also worth noting that most structured gap year programs provide a “must-follow” checklist of what to bring specific to their program.