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What I Packed (and Regretted Packing) for My Semester Abroad

Grace Lower | Feb 13, 2023

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Packing for studying abroad.

Seriously, what did student travelers do before Google? A quick search will bring up dozens of resources, ranging from budget calculators to carefully curated packing hacks. While I found those online guides incredibly valuable when preparing for my own trip, I learned the most from conversations I had with friends of mine who had studied abroad themselves.

No resource — online or social — is perfect, but talking to study abroad alumni is a valuable way to learn from other people's’ mistakes and successes. That’s why I’m sharing my own experience with one of the biggest study abroad hurdles: packing. Below you’ll find some of the items I packed, why I packed them, and whether or not they worked for me. While your own packing list might look a little different, it never hurts to get a little extra input.


The practical

Like most study abroad students, I found that picking out my travel wardrobe was the toughest part of my packing to-do list. Since long days on the road put a lot of wear and tear on clothing, I wanted to prioritize comfortable, durable pieces.I packed a couple of pairs of dark-wash jeans; a week’s worth of neutral, well-made tops; a little black dress; a versatile skirt; warm cardigans, and sturdy, flat-soled shoes. Although Granada has a moderately dry climate, I was sure to pack my waterproof jacket, too.

Between travel and class, I knew that my beat-up backpack from high school just wouldn’t cut it, so I invested in a high-quality one in a fun floral pattern. I also brought a simple, cross-body purse for everyday use. To top it all off, I packed three sets of workout clothes and my running shoes.


What didn’t work:

  • Backpack: I should have realized that floral backpacks — no matter how practical —weren’t terribly popular in Spain. At the time, neutrals and denim were all the rage, and my whimsical backpack suddenly felt childish. I switched it out for a large tote bag at about 6 weeks in, and I only used my backpack for weekend trips


  • Jacket: My outdoorsy windbreaker kept the rain off, but made me look a little bit out of place among a sea of trendy trench coats and military jackets.


The Pretty

With my practical items packed, I also wanted to save room for a few of my more stylish pieces--this was Europe, after all! For my internship and for special occasions, I added my favorite flats and a pair of ankle-height black boots to my shoe collection. I was also sure to bring a few trendy shirts that I could wear to class or on an evening out. To top it all off, I brought my favorite peacoat to wear on chillier nights.

As for accessories, I kept it simple. Just a few scarves, a couple of pairs of earrings, a watch, and 2-3 moderately priced necklaces. I knew that bringing too many valuables would put me at higher risk for theft,

I’m not a huge makeup wearer, but I’m so grateful that I packed a basic eyeshadow palette and my bb cream — both brands were tough to find once I arrived in Spain. As for other makeup, there was a Sephora just down the street from my apartment (admittedly, I visited it just once with guidance from my more makeup-savvy friends).


What didn’t work:

  • The boots: They were cute, but I wore them much more frequently than I had planned. With almost daily use, the boots were worn out by the end of my second month. Next time, durable shoes are the way to go!


  • Trendy shirts that weren’t my style: Sure, they looked great, but I might have gone a little beyond my comfort zone while picking them out. Even when I was getting dressed for a night out, I found myself gravitating toward my old favorites.


  • The peacoat: I honestly should have studied Granada’s weather more closely. Despite being in Southern Europe, it gets awfully cold. My peacoat was my heaviest coat, and it was NOT enough to keep me warm in January and February


The provisions

Snacks are one of my favorite travel accessories, and I always love to stock up before a long flight. I was sure to add healthy ones, like dried fruit, granola bars, and nuts to the mix, but I also didn’t scrimp on my favorites, like Dove chocolate and Chex Mix.

What didn’t work:

  • The quantity: I might have gone a little overboard with the travel snacks. Sure, they were all eaten by week 3, but I could have saved myself valuable space in my carry-on and bought comparable products once I arrived.


The protection

If there’s one thing my dad has instilled in me, it’s to always be prepared. Before my trip, I purchased several suitcase locks and a luggage scale to ensure that my belongings were safe and ready for flying. I also packed a flash-drive and a folder with copies of all my important documents — from my passport to my travel insurance information. 

On top of my monthly prescriptions, I also brought few basic medicines with me. I get car-sick at the drop of a hat (sorry for the unpleasant mental image), so Dramamine and Tylenol were must-haves.

What didn’t work:

  • N/A: I definitely don’t regret bringing any of these items!


The polite

Since I’d be staying with a local family, I was on a quest to find the perfect host gift. Shortly before my trip, I found a gorgeous cutting board at a local art fair. I liked that it was both useful and well-designed, and I felt confident that my host parents would appreciate it. I also picked up a phrase-finder dictionary for my own use. I figured it would be a helpful resource, both in my host-home and when I was out exploring Granada. After all, I wanted to be sure I was saying all the right things!

What didn’t work:

  • The phrase-finder dictionary: In retrospect, I should have seen this coming. Since I had a data plan while I was abroad, I found that my phone's translator app was far more convenient when I was on the go.

The personal

To help make my new room feel a little more like home, I brought a few non-essential but personal items. My leather-bound journal was one of the first items I packed — I knew I’d want to document my time abroad and reflect on what I had learned. I also brought four of my favorite books to read in the airport and during any downtime that I found. Finally, I brought several photos — one of my family, one of my boyfriend, a group shot of my friends, and a signed photo of Nicolas Cage (seriously!). These pictures, from the sentimental to the goofy, never fail to bring a smile to my face, and I knew they’d help fend off homesickness.

What didn’t work:

  • The books: Between classes and exploration, I didn’t read these as often as I expected. I should have saved carry-on space and opted for an e-reader instead.

No matter how carefully you plan for your trip, you’ll get a better sense of what you really need once you arrive at your destination. The good news is, you can always purchase those supplemental items while you’re abroad. Packing for a long-term trip can be daunting, but with a little research and a sense of humor, you’ll be all set for the journey ahead.


    Guest contributor: Grace Lower

About the Author

Grace Lower has a love for all things writing and travel. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.

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