When you’re preparing for a semester abroad, it’s easy to get stressed out or carried away over your shopping list. Everywhere I looked online was recommending that I buy lots of expensive travel supplies, and my budget just wouldn’t support it. Here’s my breakdown of the things I ended up buying (or not) for my study abroad program, and whether I think the purchase would be worthwhile for you.
Things I DIDN’T buy
- New luggage. Well, technically, my parents got me a new suitcase for Christmas, and it was nice because it was a lot bigger than my old one. But chances are you already have a suitcase at home that you can bring on your program. You probably already have a decent backpack too. I don’t think it’s worth it to go out and buy a 70L hiking backpack for hundreds of dollars. I’ve been using my school backpack since ninth grade; the inside is falling apart a little, but it got me all around Europe just fine.
- Anti-theft bags. I like brands made specifically for travel like Travelon and Baggallini, but they can get pricey. Safety and theft can be a big concern, especially if this is your first time abroad, but don’t worry. People live in the place you’re going; they carry all kinds of purses, not just anti-theft ones. My parents got me a money belt, to keep money or important documents or cards out of sight underneath your clothes, but I never used it. I was in England, a pretty safe place; it might be more useful in countries like Spain or Italy with a higher number of pickpockets. More on purses below.
- A light laptop. I read somewhere that a girl bought a MacBook Air for her study abroad program because it was so light that she could carry it anywhere in her backpack easily. Compared to the MacBook Air, my five-year-old laptop is a dinosaur. It’s clunky and quite heavy. I was nervous that I would need to use it during travel and wouldn’t be able to lug it around with me. Well, I never did. Maybe that contributed to a few more late nights of finishing up homework after a weekend trip, but I was much happier traveling around without feeling tied to my computer. My laptop stayed at home in my dorm room. Phones do so much these days that you don’t really need it most of the time anyway. So if you can’t afford a brand new light laptop, don’t worry about it.
- Fancy travel supplies. I didn’t buy very many travel-specific items, like those sleeping bags they advertise for hostels and travel blankets (just layer instead!) and whatnot. For the most part, I found that I didn’t need them.
- Clothes. You can always buy clothes when you get there.
Things I DID buy
- An internationally unlocked phone. A lot of recent phones are already unlocked, but call your carrier to find out for sure. “Unlocked” means you can use any SIM card in the phone, which is important if you plan to buy phone service in another country. Friends of mine have opted not to buy service; others have bought a cheap flip phone when they arrived at their destination. Figure out what works best for you, whether it’s purchasing a new phone or trying to use your old one.
- Phone storage. This is important if you don’t have a laptop to carry around with you, because all the photos you take will have to be on your phone while you are traveling (and you’ll be taking a lot of photos—trust me). Phone storage can fill up fast. I had a phone with 16 GB of internal storage, and I bought a large SD card to hold my apps and photos. Alternately, you can link your gallery to Google Photos or another cloud-based storage site and have your photos automatically uploaded when you have wifi. Google Photos saved me a few times when I accidentally deleted things from my phone, but I don’t think it kept the full resolution of the photo. Just make sure you have plenty of storage; I traveled with friends who ran out quickly and then spent a lot of their time deleting photos or saving them to Snapchat.
- A portable charger. I put off this purchase for a long time, but it saved me a few times when my phone was dying and I was traveling in the middle of nowhere.
- A good camera. I bought a phone with a decent camera, which was sufficient. If I’d had more money, I would have wanted to get a real camera. After all, this is the adventure of a lifetime. You’re going to want good pictures to remember your program by (and to post on social media 🙂 ).
- A Kindle or tablet. This is an optional suggestion, but I already had one, so I brought it along on my trip and it ended up being really handy. It was much easier to get books for class on my Kindle than to order hard copies (because I was an English major reading mostly classics, I could download a lot of them for free). And it was something small and lightweight to bring on long bus or train trips. I could access the internet from it as well.
- Technology cases. Traveling can result in banged-up phones, tablets, and computers; getting properly fitting cases ahead of time can prevent all of that. I was worried about my Kindle getting dirty or damaged, so I bought a cheap case online when I was in England. At that point, I was feeling pretty broke, so when it arrived and didn’t fit, I just worked with it because I couldn’t afford to send it back. It would have been easier to buy one when I was at home. The back on my phone also got chipped multiple times from dropping it; I learned my lesson and got a case for my next one.
- A sturdy backpack lock. This is one thing you don’t want to skimp on. I bought a £2 lock at one point and then it broke…in a hostel, while my stuff was trapped inside a locker. The hostel had to use a metal cutter to break the lock. To avoid that scenario, get a good quality lock! I recommend one like this, with a combination and a flexible cable so it can fit on more types of lockers and bags. $10 to $20 is probably a good price range to look for. I used a lock like this on backpacks, suitcases, purses, and lockers. I also got some tiny locks like this, which were useful for bags but won’t fit on lockers.
- A power adapter. This is very important! You don’t want to get stuck on the first day unable to charge your phone. Make sure you have an adapter that works for everywhere you’ll be going. In my case, that meant buying one for US to UK and one for US to Europe. I also had to get a three-prong to two-prong adapter to go in between my laptop and the UK adapter.
- Bags/purses, if needed. I read that the best kind of bag for travel is a faux-leather crossbody. The tough strap will deter people from trying to slash the bag; it is attached to your body and can’t be easily grabbed away; and you can keep a hand on the zipper. I bought one for $20 at Kohl’s, and it worked perfectly. I also got an RFID-blocking wallet with a passport pocket, which sell for cheap on Amazon and prevent people from stealing your credit card or passport information. I’m not sure the RFID-blocking technology is fully necessary, but I felt secure with it. At the very least, make sure you have a safe but accessible place to keep your passport while traveling. Finally, a tote bag that zips or a small backpack is really useful for daytrips where you need more than can fit into a purse.
- Basic travel supplies. I specifically used a small travel towel for hostels (if you will be mostly staying in hotels, you probably don’t need this) and travel-sized toiletries (European airlines are very strict on container sizes, and things like lotion and toothpaste count as liquids). I did buy a travel pillow, which I used about half the time, but I think I could have gotten away without it. Especially since they give you a pillow on overnight flights anyway.
- Any brands you want with you. I brought a few bottles of my go-to shampoo and toothpaste from home since I didn’t think I could buy those brands in England.
What purchases were really helpful to you while studying abroad? What things did you buy and then never use?