Pre-departure Series: Packing

​Packing for an international trip of any kind takes some thought. If you are traveling to a vastly different climate, you’ll need to prepare differently than if you are traveling somewhere similar to home. This article will get into some more specific suggestions for packing for certain destinations below, but first we’ll go into general packing suggestions for any destination.

What to pack in your carry-on bag

No matter what, if you are flying, you will have at least one carry-on bag. And no matter what, there are some things that you will need to have in your carry-on with you at all times. It is always possible that something unplanned will happen like you miss a connecting flight or your bag gets lost, so make sure everything important is with you all the time and that you have an extra set of clothes and toiletries with you so that you can make it through an extra day or two without the rest of your luggage. Here is a list of things you should always have in your carry-on, no matter where you are going:

  • Passport
  • Boarding passes and tickets (you’ll probably get these at the airport)
  • Wallet
  • Phone
  • Phone charger and voltage and plug converter
  • Other important electronics (like a laptop or camera if you are bringing them)
  • Empty water bottle
  • Snack
  • Extra set of clothes*
  • Toiletries (toothbrush and toothpaste at least!)
  • Medications – with doctors note and in original packaging

*A note about extra clothes: I had a flight once where my first flight was delayed and I missed my connection. I had to reschedule my flight for the next day but I couldn’t pick up my checked bag so I spent the night with my carry-on and luckily I had some extra clothes. One time my aunt and uncle went on a trip with their two young kids and their checked bags got lost. They had absolutely no clothes with them for themselves or their kids, so they had to buy all new outfits as their checked bags couldn’t be found for three days! It might seem extreme, but you should pack the extra clothes in your carry-on, just in case!

There will probably be other things you have with you in your carry-on as well, but these are the most important. Of course, make sure to have all your valuables with you in the plane cabin no matter what (so they could be in your carry-on in the overhead bin or in your personal item under your seat). If you are bringing larger electronics, you will want to have them nearby for safe-keeping. Having a water bottle to fill up once you pass security is always good, as is having a snack.

Make sure to keep your medications with you in your carry-on bag(s) and keep all your medications (even non-prescription ones) in their original containers so it is clear what they are. It may be necessary to carry a doctor’s note explaining some prescriptions (check here for more info on medications). And it might seem silly, but having an extra set of clothes can be a life-saver if you have to stay overnight anywhere or if your checked baggage gets lost. Same with some toiletries after a long flight or night.

Check out this TSA website about what you can and can’t bring on flights!

What to pack:

One suggestion for all travelers is to not bring anything super valuable or sentimental. Traveling can be tough on your clothes, so don’t bring anything that you would be devastated to see lost or damaged. And don’t bring anything too valuable for the same reasons, but also because they can make you a target for theft. Remember to also think about where you are going and what you are doing. Bring clothes that are respectful of the local culture and to match the activities you will be involved in. It’s easiest to pack clothes that work for several outfits or serve a few purposes. However, the one thing you will probably want to bring as much as you can will be socks and underwear – its always safest to have extra!

You also will probably end up bringing more than you actually need. Try practice packing your stuff a few times and carry your bags around with you – if they feel too heavy or stuffed, see what you can leave behind. If you like being organized (or want to be able to pack more), try out packing cubes. They’re a great way to organize all your stuff and they let you get things out super easily. Here are a few things that you should bring with you, no matter where you go.

  • Raincoat or small umbrella
  • A towel for showers
  • Enough clothes
  • Daypack/purse
  • Plug and voltage adapter – most countries have a different plug shape or a different amount of voltage coming from their outlets, so you’ll need an adaptor to plug anything in. You can get these in many places, here are some examples
  • Any hygiene/toiletries you can’t live without or won’t be able to find abroad
  • Medications – make sure to bring as much as you need, with doctor’s notes and all in their original packaging
  • Glasses and contacts/contact solution – contacts and contact solution are considered medically necessary, so you should be able to bring more than 3.3 fl oz if you are only carrying on your luggage, but make sure to check with TSA
  • Walking shoes – having good shoes when you are abroad and out-and-about all day makes a world of difference. It’s also a good idea to break them in before your trip to avoid getting blisters on your first day in an exciting new place.
  • Snacks – always a good idea just in case, and especially if you are on any special diet you think might be hard to sustain while abroad
  • Small first aid kit – just in case!
  • Journal – you might want to record your experience while gone, or collect fun things like ticket stubs
  • Small container of laundry soap – this can help if you need to wash any clothes in the sink in your room or if you are doing laundry
  • Small gifts from home – if you are staying with anyone for extended periods of time or staying in a homestay with a family, it can be nice to leave them with a small gift from your home
  • Printed copies of ANY important information – think about the information you would be lost without if you did not have electronics or internet: anything you can think of, you should write down or print out and pack. This includes a photocopy of your passport and your bank cards, important phone numbers and addresses, schedules and itineraries, flight confirmations, etc. Go crazy and write down more than you think you should – better safe than sorry!​

Suggestions for Tropical Travel:
If you are going to a tropical location, you might want to take some more specialized gear with you. Often, you will want lots of sunscreen and bug spray (and these can sometimes be hard to find once you’ve reached your destination). It’s a good idea to evaluate your clothes for tropical travel as well. You will want gear to protect you from the sun and bugs, but that will also keep you cool. Many people often suggest not bringing cotton clothing as it will get wet from the humidity quickly but likely won’t dry out very well.

Some other suggestions for tropical travel include strong deodorant and laundry detergent and good shoes like hiking boots. Check out these lists made by some of our past faculty leaders and students to see what they brought on a trip to Costa Rica:

What I Wish I Brought
What I Packed vs. What I Used

​Packing is another one of those things that can be stressful, and is a good thing to start planning early. Even just thinking about and writing a list of what you want to bring can help you feel more confident. 

​Looking for more pre-departure info? Check out of Pre-departure To-Do List for a comprehensive list of things to consider before you go! ​

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