Sentimental "Must-Pack" Items for Study Abroad

The internet is awash with lists of what to pack/bring/buy/think of when studying abroad. Some of these lists are good. Many are bad. Most are overly general: there is little of practical value that you “MUST PACK” for a year in Europe that is the same as what you “CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT” for four months in rural Honduras. I know. I’ve done both.

Travel light.  Here I'm heading off for a month of mostly solo travel through Eastern Europe, summer 2012. Backpack, purse, and I'm ready to go!

Travel light. Here I'm heading off for a month of mostly solo travel through Eastern Europe, summer 2012. Backpack, purse, and I'm ready to go!

Where you go determines what you need. There are lists of practicalities I might write at a later time (OK I couldn’t resist: this post includes one thing I believe to be applicable to all travel anywhere, no matter what--see the final paragraphs). But this list is of the sentimentalities. It’s the little things I have learned to bring with me as I travel, and which make an enormous difference to my comfort and adaptation to a new home. Some of the specifics might be unique to me, but I believe the overarching principles to be universal.

Find another list that tells you to be sure to pack your iPad. This is the list of how to look after yourself while packing to study abroad.

Basic sentimental necessities:

  1. Photos
  2. Decoration
  3. Gifts
  4. Postcards
  5. Comfort food and ridiculous music

So here's why:


In today’s world, we often think about our pictures as things that exist only on our phones, on facebook or on the internet. But while traveling there is enormous value in having an envelope with seven or eight photos of your family, your home, and your friends. These are for you to bring with you as happy reminders of home, but more than that they are conversation starters with the people around you. Depending on where you go, internet access may be spotty or you might not feel comfortable passing your expensive iPhone around a restaurant table. Also, if you are meeting a host family for the first time it’s a nice chance to physically hand them something to begin a conversation, particularly if you are in a place where you don’t speak the language perfectly. I always carry a few photos: family, sister, best friends, boyfriend, and a couple of “conversation starters,” like the one of me jumping off a cliff into a lake. Once I’ve settled into a new home and I don’t need them for conversation pieces anymore, they serve a new purpose by getting sticky-tacked to my wall.


On that note, if I am moving somewhere for any particular amount of time—say more than a month, then I bring something decorative with me. Usually it’s a wall hanging, that either gets sticky-tacked to the wall itself or serves as a nightstand cover or throw on the end of the bed. Usually it’s been the Celtic Knot sarong-type wall hanging that I got in Ireland when I was sixteen. It was on my dorm room wall and has decorated many a ceiling, wall, or bed since that time. It is instant home. However, since I was coming back to Ireland for this move, I decided to bring a different piece with me: a woven tapestry I got in Guatemala. Both pack down to less than the size of a T-shirt. They can’t be easily damaged. And once they are on a wall, they signal that I am home.


I recommend bringing several small items that scream “My Hometown!” as gifts. If you have a host family this is a particularly good idea, but even if you will be living in an apartment or dormitory, you will encounter people for whom a gift from your hometown will be a lovely and meaningful thing. If you are going straight from home to your host family, I highly recommend a coffee table book of photography from your hometown. It’s a conversation starter and an impressive and beautiful gift. If you stay for a long amount of time then it will be a reminder of you, even if it goes on a bottom shelf in a back office somewhere. It will also give you an excuse to page through and talk about where you come from. For smaller and more packable gifts, go for hometown photography calendars, items from your college or university, artisan craft items (my Eugene Saturday Market spoon rings have been a big hit in several countries), or small and customs-friendly food items.

Everyone loves gifts. I’ve given small items to people I met in the dorms and to people who have offered me hospitality in their homes. It is more meaningful to offer something you carried all that way.


Not everyone sends letters. OK, let me rephrase: most people don’t send letters anymore. But you will probably find yourself in the occasional situation when a thank-you note is required. Again, maybe this is just me, but I think it’s a nice and kind of touching bonus if a thank-you note is written on something from your hometown. Before I travel, I buy four-ten postcards from my hometown or university, and carry them with me. A couple of times when I’ve been invited to stay in people’s homes for a long weekend, I’ve left the postcard behind with the note. Other times I’ve purchased a local stamp and sent along some snail mail.

The reason I particularly like this strategy is that postcards weigh nothing and take up basically no space. They can be a conversation starter (in a similar fashion to the photography books) and, if done right, can almost substitute for a small gift if you write a kind and well-meaning note. Spare ones can also go up on the wall alongside your photos from home. I look at mine every day.

Then, because I’m sentimental that way, I buy postcards wherever I go with the intention of making scrapbooks or bulletin-board-style montages. But in the end I just have file folders full of postcards.

Comfort food and music

I’ll introduce this one with a story:

About a week into my studies in Guatemala, I was hit by a wave of homesickness unlike anything I have experienced before or since. I was fine in the morning, but suddenly while walking back to my host family’s house after classes I was completely overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and otherness. I didn’t even want to go home exactly—I was excited about classes and had met some great people— I just felt so out of place and strange and lonely.

So I went back to my room, closed the door, and played Backstreet Boys for three hours on repeat while reading an American novel and eating Rice Krispy Treats.

I am not particularly proud of this moment.

However, preservatives-infused food that tastes like your childhood can be an enormous help in dark moments. Also music that you have always love-hated. Study abroad, like any time in life, has its ups and downs. You want to have an emergency stash of things to help you get through the low points and back to feeling happy to be where you are.


And now, finally we’ve reached the moment of the big reveal: the item I believe everyone should pack for all travel at all times, regardless of where in the world they are traveling…


Ziplock baggies

I carry them everywhere. I carry a few spares for collecting things (I am notorious for collecting small items like shells and rocks and beads) and for storing extra food. They take very little space and they are so darn convenient. But here’s the main reason I believe baggies are an absolute 100% requirement:

They protect your stuff

If I’m out on a tourist day in a city and the rain starts pouring down, my camera, phone, ipod, and passport immediately go into ziplock bags. My photos are there already. If I am living in a place where it rains all the time, the baggie is the constant storage space. If I am traveling in a dusty/sandy spot, the baggie keeps my stuff from getting damaged.

And that’s it! It’s the simplest darn thing and I don’t know why most people don’t use them. But there’s my gift to you: the advice to stick five sandwich-sized baggies in your backpack whenever you head out into the world. I have lots of other packing advice, but that’s the 100% all-time, hands-down trip-saving advice. Pack baggies. Be prepared.


What do you bring when you travel? What sentimental indulgences do you allow yourself? If you have already studied abroad, is there something you were particularly glad that you brought? Anything you regretted not bringing? Please share your travel-related comments below!