When I left United States and flew by myself for the very first time, I was on a 8-hour flight to Lyon for my study abroad program. Terrified, naive, and excited, I packed two large 50 pound suitcases and a backpack for my 4 month adventure.
One of my biggest regrets of this trip was the way I packed. I had never been away from home for more than two weeks, so I had limited perspective on what I would really need. I opted not to bring my winter coat or Uggs but instead came with my full selection of nail polishes! What was I thinking? It’s been almost 5 years and I still don’t know!
I’ll never forget my flights back to the US in December, mostly because my bags were so heavy. My carryon backpack had now transformed into a 40 pound duffle. Bogged down and shuffling through the airport to make my connection, I was ready to toss my much-loved belongings out on the Tarmac in frustration.
I hit a breaking point when my first flight landed late and I had to sprint to my connection. There is no way to really sprint with a 40 pound b, at least not one that I have yet come across. When I finally reached my next plane, exhausted with my shoulders throbbing, I told myself that I would never again travel that way. Not only was it awful, it was unnecessary.
When I decided to set off to Europe for a month this year, I was determined to be smart about it. I wanted to minimize my travel stresses, starting with my luggage. Below are a few lessons I learned along the way.
1. Bring a nail clipper, tweezer, any other personal sanitation products.
This may sound weird, but have you ever tried to find nail clippers in a foreign country? Neither have I! I always traveled for such short of a time aside from my study abroad experience when I brought my whole house and the house next door with me. I was packing lightly this time around, so I brought my mini tweezers and left the nail clipper. About two weeks in, I needed to clip my toenails. Since you can’t really borrow someone’s nail clipper (and why would you want to?), I had to find one in Germany.
It’s important to keep in mind that Target/Walmart equivalents are not always so prevalent in other countries and most stores are pretty segmented. I ended up having to go to the pharmacy for nail clippers, something that many supermarkets in the US also carry. The German supermarkets I encountered only had food. Quelle surprise. Needless to say, when it comes to personal hygiene, just bring what makes you the most comfortable.
This also extends to pads, tampons, and other products. Many US brands are not international, and even if they are, the products usually aren’t the same. Since I tend to buy natural and unscented products, those are even more difficult to find abroad. Even though these items take up some space in my bag, they compress pretty well. You can only have so happy of a period, so don’t make it worse by being without the products you need!
2. Carry toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and napkins everywhere.
I’ve been in New York for several years now, and I have a pretty good idea of where the public bathrooms are in the neighborhoods I frequent and what condition they’re in. In a foreign country, I’m lost! I have no idea what I’m walking into. Always bring extra toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and napkins because you never know! I was certainly happy to have my toilet paper after visiting the W.C. in the mountains of Iceland. There are so many cute mini toilet paper rolls you can buy before your trip, or you can just snag some extra from wherever you’re staying if you don’t want to carry it from home. In Italy, I couldn’t find hand sanitizer anywhere, so I ended up purchasing some disinfecting baby wipes! A lot of the public bathrooms I came across did not have soap and/or toilet paper, so I was thankful I was still able to leave in clean shape
3. You can buy socks and undies along the way.
Unless you’re traveling to a remote desert, socks and underwear are pretty cheap and easy to find. There is no need to fill up your bag with them! I brought enough for 8 days and then did laundry or bought some to cover the remaining days.
4. Only bring toiletries essential to you.
This is sort of related to #1, but includes a few caveats. What you need to bring depends on where you’re going and what you’ll be doing. Europe in the summer is hot and the sun is relentless, so I knew I’d be going through some sunblock. If you don’t have sensitive skin, you could just buy sunblock at your destination. However, if you are like me and will breakout in a heartbeat from products that are too oily or made with almond oil since that’s so popular these days, bring your own. Allergic reactions on vacation are the absolute worst!
I also bring everything I need for my face when I’m traveling because most products irritate my face. I’m much more relaxed about body washes and lotions, so I tend to pick those up along the way.
Since I knew I would be on a sightseeing trip, I didn’t bring any makeup. I had no intentions of wearing makeup when it was nearly 100 degrees outside. Unless you have somewhere to go and need to be nicely dressed, leave the mascara, eyeliner, and whatever else in your home medicine cabinet.
5. However much medication you think you need, double it.
This isn’t always possible for all medications, but if you can get extra, by all means bring it with you! I’ve dropped a pill on the floor before and wondered what would be worse for my health-take the pill from the hotel floor or just skip a dose. I literally threw out the pill and took another from the bottle because I couldn’t psychologically get over the fact that I was going to consume something that had been on the hotel carpet. You know that 5 second rule is a lie!
6. Download offline maps.
Even if you purchase an international plan temporarily, you should download an offline map for free. Sometimes even with international plans, service can be spotty and you still need to somehow reach your destination. I always browse the App Store for free maps and download them before I go! Some of them also serve as city and museum guides, which can be helpful if you are visiting monuments and museums without a tour guide!
7. It’s ok to be excited and homesick at the same darn time!
You can be excited, grateful, and thankful and still want to go home! When I hit week 3 of my 4 week trip, I was ready to go home! I wanted cold brew that tasted like cold brew. I wanted salad with avocado. I wanted hot sauce and ketchup for my boiled eggs. (Don’t knock it til you try it!) Most of all, I wanted my own bed, my mattress, and my pillows that didn’t give me a stiff neck in the morning. Seriously, I’ve had a stiff neck for the past two weeks and every time I turn my head to the right, I regret it! There’s a reason why it’s called home. It’s where you’re the most comfortable. Hopefully. It’s where you can put you bare feet up and eat dinner in your underwear. (If you want to.) It’s ok to miss home, especially after a few weeks away. That doesn’t mean that you’re not seeing and experiencing great things. It just means you’ve maxed out on your personal travel time
8. Whatever you do, don’t bring a bag with wheels to Venice!
Normally, you live and you learn, but I often have to desire to save the person coming behind me from the struggles I experienced. So when I say don’t bring a bag that rolls to Venice, it’s not because I’m questioning your strength; it’s because I want you to have a smoother trip than I did.
There are no taxis in the main tourist areas in Venice. You will have to get around by foot or by boat. And while the Grand Canal is beautiful and all, having to lug your luggage onto a water taxi to get off and still have a ten minute walk to your hotel will drive you nearly insane, especially in the July heat. The streets of Venice are small, confusing, and jam-packed with tourists. San Marco is the claustrophobic cousin of Times Square. And I would rather dance on the top of the Empire State Building and drown in embarrassment than roll a suitcase through Times Square.
9. You won’t like every city you visit.
Do you like every city in your home country? Probably not. So you likely won’t like every city that you visit while traveling, even if it’s a city you picked out. The benefit of visiting 2-3 cities in one trip is that you’ll probably encounter one or two that you like. I really wasn’t feeling Venice, a city that I had dreamed of going to for years. I only recently developed a curiosity for Florence and I absolutely loved it! The best thing to do is have a positive attitude. If you really hate it, the bright side is that you don’t live there so you can leave and never return!
10. You can do it all by yourself.
People and tour guides will try to convince you that you need a guide, but you probably just need Google at the end of the day. Do your research and create your own itinerary. I will admit that taking the train in Europe can be confusing and every country seems to have its own nuances, but you can still manage. I originally scheduled a tour to go to Pisa from Florence, but decided not to attend because it’s actually very easy to get there by train. Tours are definitely helpful if you’re venturing out into the countryside in another country and don’t want to worry about renting a car or being alone on long, windy roads, getting lost, and ending up in Narnia. However, if you’re taking a day trip to another city that has a major train station, you can handle that. Don’t doubt yourself. You got this.
11. Learn how to read a paper map.
Retro is always the new black. Learning how to read and use a paper map is one of my skills that I’m the proud of. It’s easy to plug an address into Google, listen to directions, and wait for your phone to vibrate so you know when to turn, but what will you do if your phone overheats and turns off, gets too cold and turns off, or just stops working? Those are all things that have happened to me while traveling. Having a directionally inclined mind will help you. Instead of just milling around until you need to make your next turn, look around. Take it all in. Understand where you’re going and how that is related to your starting point.
This is not to say that I’m perfect and I never get lost. But this is to say that if you give me a map, I’ll make it happen.
12. Pack mostly neutral to dark colors.
After four weeks of rotating the same shirts, shorts, and dresses, I reached a point of boredom. I love having options, but because I wanted to pack lightly for this trip, I didn’t bring many. The saying that you can only wear one pair of jeans at a time is quite true, and that was something I tried to take into account while packing.
I suggest bringing mostly neutrals because it will allow you to mix and match without looking crazy! I also think that medium to dark colors are great because it’s more likely that you can get away with wearing them more than once. White shirts and dresses are beautiful in the summertime, but once you start to sweat, it’s a wrap! Also, if you spill something on a dark colored shirt, you don’t have to worry much about stains-you may not even have a stain at all!
Living with such a minimal portion of my entire wardrobe for a month gave me a better idea of how much I really need. I only brought pieces I loved since I knew I would be gone for a while. I’m going to recycle a few items once I return home because this trip proved to me that they are duplicative in my wardrobe.
13. Take pride in where you come from.
As a traveler, you can try to blend in, but you won’t. Something as simple as the way you order you coffee or the time on your watch could give away where you’re from. In Italy, I observed people eating pizza with a knife and fork so elegantly, something that I could only dream of doing! Someone could probably tell by my remedial knife skills that I normally eat my pizza by hand (and it’s usually served to me pre-sliced). I can’t help but be an obvious American. I’ll say 6pm instead of 18h, and when I say coffee, I don’t mean espresso. There’s no reason to be embarrassed by these little quirks and habits. They make all of us who we are.