Packing for a 1-2 week trip is probably something you've done before, but what about a semester-long adventure? Here's my quick guide to figuring out what goes in your check bag(s) and which things should stay in your carry-on.
In full disclosure, I love packing. It's like a puzzle to me, trying to figure out which things to take and how to make it all fit. And for a whole semester of traveling and volunteering with ILP, it was the best kind of puzzle. For my semester abroad, I ended up taking a big checked bag, a carry-on, and a personal items. Here are the details on which things should stay in your checked bag(s) and which things you should bring on the plane with you.
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Have more packing questions?
Read through our "All About Packing" guide.
Before Anything Else ...
Make sure you check and double check the baggage requirements and restrictions with the airline you are flying — that blog post is really really really handy. Most airlines allow 1 or 2 checked bags, one carry on item and a personal item, before they start charging ridiculous fees, but make sure you check with your airline, don't just assume.
Once you know which bags you're taking with you, you can get started on the actually packing part: How To Pack Multiple Bags
What Goes In Your Carry-On
First off, know that carry-ons are smaller bags that can either fit under your seat or in the above-the-seat compartments. I treat my carry-on as a way to pack things that I don't want to get lost and want to have the minute I get off the plane. It's also a good place to put things that don't fit in your checked bag. You will have access to your carry-on while on board, so consider that when packing.
As far as carry-ons go, they can be duffel bags, small roller bags, larger backpacks ... you get the idea. Your airline will have dimensions for what constitutes as a carry-on bag, so check for those when choosing your bag.
For shorter trips, I'm typically just fine with a carry-on (and a smaller personal item, like a little purse). For a big trip, I tend to pack a carry-on and a larger personal item (like a small backpack) for the bags that come on the plane with me, then a big checked bag.
So What Goes Inside?
Here's what I like having in my carry-on:
- A Spare Outfit : In case my checked luggage doesn't arrive.
Essential Clothes : Like a coat if you're flying somewhere very cold.
Toiletries : Pack your travel-sized versions to comply with TSA restrictions.
Valuables : Things like a laptop, camera + gear, or a journal.
Fragile Items : Sunglasses, souvenirs, etc.
Those are the bare essentials, but you'll probably end up with more room in your carry-on once these are all packed. I always pack these first just to make sure I'm covered for what I may need on the plane (toiletries like a toothbrush, face wipes, mints, floss, etc) or what I may need when I land. When I volunteered in Russia, I made sure I had my snow boots and coat in my carry-on because I knew I would want to change into them the minute I landed.
What Goes In Your Checked Bag(s)
A checked bag is stored in the cargo area of the aircraft, so it's not accessible when you're on board. These bags can be much larger and heavier than your carry-on or personal item, so if you're packing a lot of things for a shorter trip or need to pack for a semester abroad, you'll probably end up packing a checked bag (or two).
Always check with your airline about dimensions and weight restrictions for your checked luggage. However, understand that since they aren't in the cabin with you, there aren't liquid restrictions, plus the size dimensions and weight allowances are more generous because they don't have to fit under a seat or in an overhead bin.
These bags get tossed around so don't pack anything fragile or valuable. Since they won't be in your sight, I always use a luggage lock (TSA approved — like this one) and avoid putting anything I would care to lose in the outside zippers that don't lock up.
So, What Goes Inside?
- Your Clothes + Shoes : Take out your spare outfit, and fit the rest in here
Large Toiletries : There aren't liquid restrictions for checked bags.
Teaching Supplies : ILP Volunteers need to bring a suitcase full.
Trip Extras : Extra snacks, things to do (like a book), etc.
A Bit About The Personal Item
Your personal item goes with you onto the plane. When I'm traveling with a carry-on, I typically have a small backpack or purse that will need to fit under my seat (so my carry-on can go in the overhead bins). You will need to check what your airline says about personal items. Some airlines (like budget airlines in Europe) are very strict about weight and size requirements.
My personal item ranges, sometimes I pack my favorite Fjallraven backpack, but sometimes it's just a small purse. However, I always have the essentials inside. Because you can keep your personal item under the seat in front of you, it's gotta be full of the easy-access things you'll want during your flight. You will have access to your carry-on bag, too, but it's way more difficult to climb out of your seat and row and access the overhead bins, which is why I like having a personal item stocked with what I may need.
Here's What Goes Inside
- Passport and other documents (like your boarding pass)
- Wallet + ID
My Phone + Headphones + Phone Charger
- Snacks: Here are my go to travel snacks
- Things To Do : A book, magazine, my journal, etc.
A Pen : For filling out immigration paperwork on the plane
Toiletries : In case I want to brush my teeth mid-flight.
Ready to travel abroad?
International Language Programs (ILP) send volunteers to countries all over the world. You'll be able to make a difference teaching English abroad or by volunteering in an orphanage .... but will also have weekends off and vacation days to explore other countries! You're set up with a group of American volunteers your age to travel, teach, and explore with. I loved my first semester so much, I went back a second time (and would love to go again).