how to take it with you: packing for study abroad

Dear future study abroaders,

If you are anything like me, you are probably panicking right now. After all, you’re leaving for a whole semester in less than a month – how the hell do you pack for something like that? I made list upon list from May up until the day before I caught my plane, and as previously discussed, I still failed miserably.

So here’s my (incomplete) guide to building a study abroad wardrobe. It’s not everything you need by any means, nor is it everything you want. But it’s a start. Pick and choose from each category, prune where you want, and add in what you’ll die without. Just try not to go overboard – those baggage fees are no joke.

To see all my tips, read on!

Outerwear
Take along one big coat and a jacket or two. Make sure they’re classic shapes in neutral colors to ensure maximum wearability. These options are from Madewell (gray coat and blazer) and Victoria’s Secret.

Dresses
Reasons to love dresses: they’re easy. They’re cute. They’re appropriate for a wide range of events, depending on whether you dress them up or down. But remember: there’s only so much mixing and matching with each dress, so I’d recommend not bringing too many. Three multi-season day dresses should be plenty, depending on how often you tend to wear dresses. And don’t even think about packing anything dry clean only. Last note on the subject: TIGHTS. Lots and lots of tights.

Basics
This is the most obvious category. Tops and bottoms, duh. Once again, I prefer to take as many neutrals as possible, then add in a few pops of color here and there. The more neutrals you have in your wardrobe, the more outfit options. For tops, try to include a balance of blouses, tees, tanks, and sweaters – you’re abroad for almost 6 months, that’s a lot of weather you’ll experience. And the lighter each piece is, the better – layering is key. Same goes for bottoms. Shorts, skirts, jeans, and trousers all have a place in your wardrobe. Try for at least one stand-out piece in a bright color, then keep everything else toned down.

Layers
Let me say this again: LAYERS. Cardigans, vests, whatever floats your boat. This is the easiest way to re-wear your basics without being boring, so don’t skip over this category. I brought an excessive amount of cardigans, but do as you will. I’d guess around 3 to 5 pieces would be a good range.

Going Out Gear
Yes, you need it. No, you don’t need as much as you think. One LBD with a little something extra (mine has an open back, but I love this beaded option from Asos) and a fancy skirt with a few top options is probably fine. You’ll be covered for the nicer clubs, and you can mix your evening shirts with blazers, jeans, etc. and your sparkly skirt with more relaxed tops for barhopping.

Accessories
Nothing has the power to change up an outfit quite like all the little extras. Luckily, accessories take up the least amount of room in your bag, so don’t skimp! Scarves in all weights, hats, jewelry, belts – all necessities. But as far as bags and shoes go, you’ll have to edit to keep from going overboard. One large bag for schoolwork (my option is a felt and leather cutie from Zara) and a small cross-body bag in a dark color is all you need. I recommend your evening bag have a chain strap, especially if you’ll be going out in the bigger cities. I’ve heard one too many horror stories of bag straps getting cut by thieves to overlook that detail. As for shoes, think comfort. One pair of boots, one or two pairs of flats, and a WALKABLE (this is key) black heel should do you. If you’re so inclined, sandals are also a good idea for when things warm up in spring, but as they’re inexpensive and easy to find you could certainly plan to buy a pair down the road.

General Tips and Tricks

  • Avoid dead weight items by using the rule of 3: If you can’t come up with 3 different outfits using the piece in question, don’t bring it. Obviously certain items (your going out dress, for example) won’t apply, but if you keep this rule in mind you’ll eliminate a lot of unnecessary clutter.
  • Think ahead. The weather changes a lot from January to June, so try to bring at least a week’s worth of warm weather clothes to get you through.
  • That being said, plan to do some shopping. It’s gonna happen. Accept it. But be smart: bring what you’ll need right away.
  • Leave a little room. In your suitcase, if you can, but more importantly, in the clothes you bring. Not to be pessimistic, but weight gain happens sometimes. You’ll be bummed if your only pair of jeans doesn’t quite fit by the end of the semester – bring a looser pair, just in case.
  • Don’t forget some lazy clothes. I’m 100% against traipsing around Europe in sweat/yoga pants, but it’s so nice to have something cozy when you’re relaxing with the host fam.
  • Go neutral, then add on. I know I said it about 20 times already, but base your wardrobe around classic shapes in neutral colors (black, browns, grays, metallics, and navy blue, in case you didn’t know) and add in a few risky pieces. A little edge, whether in the form of a pop of neon or some unexpected studs, goes a long way. If you throw in one or two non-traditional pieces in every category above, you’ll be able to mix them in without any trouble.
  • Don’t pack anything you don’t wear. Obvious, I know, but I have at least five pieces I brought thinking I could work them in but haven’t worn since.
  • Dress like yourself. I’ve seen one too many girls try to look “European” and failing miserably. People will know you’re American, I’m sorry to tell you, so you might as well embrace your own style.
  • If you’re studying in Europe, make sure your carry-on follows RyanAir‘s guidelines. This might sound stupid, but you’ll thank me when you see how serious those flight attendants are about the 55 cm by 40 cm by 20 cm rule.
  • And finally, bring what’s important to you. Any packing list you read will be inherently flawed. The fun of a wardrobe, whether at home or abroad, is that it’s what you want. If you’re a t-shirt and jeans kind of girl, bring t-shirts and jeans. Can’t live without your heels? Forget the flats and use the space for some sick 4-inchers. Seriously. It’s fine.

What are your wardrobe necessities when you travel?

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