The University of Iowa

A packing story

My friend Greg was telling me about a recent experience he had backpacking around the Czech Republic. He and a beautiful female acquaintance left together, ready for a couple of weeks of fun and touring. By the end of two weeks, he was ready to drop her off at the nearest train station!

Why? This fellow traveler had no idea of how to pack. First, instead of a handy backpack, she had a duffel bag that was nearly impossible to carry. On top of that, she had overpacked, meaning that she expected Greg to carry her luggage in addition to his own. The moral of the story? Pack light and rely on no one but yourself to carry your stuff!

General packing guidelines

The secret of being a good traveler is to take as little as possible and yet have everything you need. The general rule in determining what you need is to lay out what you think you will have to take and leave half of it at home. The vacant space in your luggage will soon be filled with the treasures you come across during your travels. Don’t load yourself down.

Consider both the physical and social climate; dress accordingly. Take drip-dry, no-iron clothes. Comfort and practicality are the keys for both clothing and shoes. Roll your clothes instead of folding them to save space. Transfer liquids from breakable containers into plastic containers. Use plastic bags to organize (you can later use the bags to separate damp items from dry, or dirty clothes from clean). Don’t overstock on toiletries; most things are available in major cities abroad.

Identify the type of luggage best suited to your needs (suitcase? back pack? carry-on/day pack?). Clearly identify your luggage inside (name & permanent address) and out (name & address of destination). Ask your airline whether you should lock your luggage before checking it at the airport.

Check your airline’s website for the most recent regulations on luggage weight, size, and number of pieces. In general, you are allowed three pieces of luggage on most flights. One piece may be a carry-on and two pieces may be checked. In your carry-on, keep one change of clothes, toiletries, identification (passport, visas, ID card, etc.), and any medication. Pack everything up; carry it around for a while by yourself (up and down the stairs, around the house). Then unpack, eliminate the nonessentials, repack, and try it again.

Clothing styles differ all over the world, so there is no way to generalize what one should or should not wear. Research clothing styles ahead of time, blend in, and above all else, respect the customs of your host country.


No matter where you’re going, don’t forget these items:

  • comfortable walking shoes
  • at least one nice outfit
  • any prescription medicines you require, along with a copy of the prescriptions
  • battery-operated alarm clock
  • towel
  • umbrella
  • passport, airline ticket, and certified copy of your birth certificate (in your carry-on)

A Few Tips

  • Students traveling to Europe may try adjusting their clothing style in order to prevent being the targets of pickpockets and other unwanted attention. This means ditching overtly American sweatshirts, baseball caps, and new, white tennis shoes for darker hued pants, sweaters, and walking shoes.
  • The most important item students going to Africa should bring is a good pair of tennis shoes. Also, comfortable sandals are a must, but no flip flops! Men can wear casual pants, like jeans or khakis, and t-shirts. For women, it depends on where you are, but long skirts and a casual dress style are common.
  • In many East Asian countries, it is customary to remove one’s shoes before entering homes, shrines, temples, and some restaurants and businesses. Students going to these places would be wise to bring a pair of shoes that can easily be slipped on and off.
  • Regarding women’s wear, knowing what is culturally appropriate can be tricky. Do yourself a favor and research before you arrive in your host country. To avoid harassment in some countries, female students may want to adopt a clothing style similar to that of resident women. For example, a student in India should not feel required to wear a sari, but she may want to keep her shoulders and backside well-covered and avoid showing cleavage. For clothing advice from real women, see

Peer advisers tell all...

We asked our Peer Advisers to give you some advice, and here’s what they said:

What was ONE item that you did not take on your study abroad program but truly wished you had?

Ingrid: My tennis shoes. I had been told that people in Europe didn't wear trainers much, so I didn't bother to bring them. It would have been nice to have had them when we were traveling, as my Docs were functional but gave me blisters.

Rachel: American condoms. Foreign condoms are scary.

Jenna: More dress clothes. In Europe, people always dress nicely.

Cory: A large, high quality backpack for traveling on weekends and during vacation time.

Hilary: A smaller backpack or some other smaller suitcase than the ones I brought for weekend excursions.

Natalie: A hooded sweatshirt. Honestly, I didn’t bring it because I never thought I'd wear it in public since it's a stand-out symbol of Americanism, BUT on those cold nights in Paris in the privacy of my own home, it sure would have been nice!

Brittney: Lotion, way more socks, nicer everyday clothes.

Eleni: A small messenger bag for running errands (make sure it has a zipper!)

Crystal: Slippers. South African buildings are not heated and my apartment had tile floor-it got cold!

What was ONE item that you took and wished you hadn't?

Ingrid: This ugly “raincoat” that my mom made me bring, even though it didn't repel rain. I never wore it and ended up having to ship it back. Be selective with the stuff your parents tell you to bring, because it's not fun having to pay loads of money to ship something back that you could have just left at home.

Lori: Too many toiletries. Most foreign countries will have markets where you can buy shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, sunscreen, lotion, etc.

Rachel: Too many clothes.

Cory: An alarm clock that needed to be plugged in. Outlets usually aren’t compatible. The voltage differences whacked out its ability to keep time...

Sterling: I found that my Visa credit card was almost useless in Japan and South Korea. Make sure you know which countries accept which major credit cards.

Brittney: Blow dryer, dresses

Eleni: Less jeans and less flip-flops. You only need a couple of pairs.

Crystal: I brought a few books with me, thinking I would have time to read-but I didn't.

What was the best thing that you took with you?

Ingrid: My money belt. It was uncomfortable and kind of a pain, but I never got robbed, and it offered me a peace of mind.

Lori: My journal. Now I have precious memories recorded from my time abroad. It's a great way to preserve the experience.

Brittney: My laptop, American beauty products (deodorant, my favorite face wash, etc.)

Crystal: An international cell phone, I was able to call my family anytime-I didn't need to be sitting at a computer on skype