There's a lot of things to think about when you're packing for a four month trip abroad. You've got a check list of your essentials, but we've rounded up some tips of things that are really nice to bring if you have the extra space!
We know packing for your semester abroad as a volunteer with International Language Programs can be a littler overwhelming. Hopefully you've already checked out our all-inclusive packing guide, but this post is for those things you may not find on a packing list. These suggestions come from some of our favorite ILP alumni who have spent multiple semesters abroad and gained some experience in knowing what items they love traveling with.
Worried about missing something?
Get our Adventure Updates
To be honest, you'll probably be able to find many things you need no matter where you are in the world. In fact, here's a list of things you do not need to pack! But the things on this list are what you'll want after three delayed flights or a long day of trying to teach kindergartners kickball.
These items are not necessary when packing for a great semester, but don't get them confused with the travel items that are NOT worth bringing. These are some things that you may not think to pack but that will just help you feel all-around more comfortable. And just to be extra helpful, we've added some affiliate links to this blog post (which just means if you make a purchase after clicking a link, we earn a small commission. We are only sharing products that we ourselves have used and loved or ones we think you'll love!
The Unnecessary But Helpful:
When talking about the unnecessary but oh-so-nice-to-haves, of course we must start with the most important category: comfort food! You will definitely find foods you adore no matter where you end up volunteering, but guaranteed there will also be days that everyone gets a little homesick for their go-to familiar favorites from home.
What food you end of bringing is so personal, but you'd be surprised by how eagerly you'll scarf down anything that tastes like home even if it's not something you'd usually select. Here's our more complete list of the best light-weight foods to pack, as well as our list of the foods that are hard to find abroad.
We find that we hear a lot of volunteers recommending that you bring protein powder if you're used to a higher protein diet at home, because most likely the local diet will be a little lower on this in the countries you're traveling to. Make sure you also pack granola bars since those are really nice to have on train and bus rides when you aren't sure exactly when your next meal will be.
We also hear volunteers recommending drink packets like Crystal Light or Propel all the time! It's nice to pour a little flavor into your water bottle when you're feeling like it.
If you're headed to Asia, you'll be eating rice every day. If you're headed to Europe, you'll most likely be eating potatoes (in some form) every day. Either way, you might start getting a little tired of the flavors if you're used to Big Mac Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Waffle Wednesdays, and all the other things back home. Our advice? Bring your favorite sauce!
We're talking Chic-fil-A Sauce, J. Dawgs' Special Sauce, Orange Sauce from Panda Express, Hidden Valley Ranch, fry sauce, or any of the other favs. Bring one or bring 'em all! You'll be grateful to have a special treat.
No matter which semester you decide to volunteer with ILP, you'll be abroad for at least one holiday. And there will probably be a birthday or two in your group of volunteers as well. You know what this means...PARTY! So we recommend bringing just-add-water mixes of muffins, brownies, pancakes, cookies...all the things, for those special celebrations, or even just for the days when you are wanting a taste of home.
You can often find these same mixes in your volunteer locations, but they are usually double, even triple the price. These can add a lot of weight to your luggage if you try to bring a bunch, but we think hauling one or two is absolutely worth leaving that extra pair of jeans behind.
Not all countries love ice-cold water like us Americans do. It might be worth packing up an ice tray to keep in your freezer so that you've always got ice to add to your water bottle before you head out for the day. Luckily they're pretty cheap, light, and easy to slide in your bag anyways. I love these ones off Amazon because they easily slide into my ILP water bottle.
You will have a lot of free time while volunteering with ILP, and some nights you may not feel like going out and exploring your city (even though we recommend doing that as often as possible). There is so much you can do with just a pack of cards or some dice during those nights your group decides to stay in. Here's a list of a ton of group games that are actually so much fun to play!
Warning: You will take hundreds, possibly thousands, of pictures on your ILP trip. Worried that your phone or laptop won't have enough memory? You do not want to end up having to delete the videos of your favorite kids you teach blowing bubbles just so you can make room for a picture of you and your new elephant friends (how do you even choose between those two?).
Solution: bring a hard drive! Don't know where to start? I like this option. Plus you can also download movies onto this hard drive before your semester for those nights the wifi isn't working.
If you don't grab a hard drive, at the very least make sure you're backing your photos up online on sites like Google and Dropbox.
Okay, this one should actually be on our list of musts! You might have a weekend like we did...traveling through Europe and forgot that Italy has different electrical sockets than the other countries you're visiting, so you have no way to charge your phone for three whole days. Looks like you'll have to say bye to your once-in-a-lifetime chance of getting cutie pics in front of the Colosseum.
But wait...you remembered to pack your portable charger! Praise. I personally use this portable charger when I travel.
You're going to Thailand in the thick of summer and think there's no way you could possibly need a blanket, right? Well, just wait until your driver to Chiang Rai has the cold air BLASTING at 4 am. The thinner and softer this blanket is, the better. You probably won't need it most of the time if you're volunteering in the summer anywhere, so you don't want it to be a thick one that you have to lug around on all of your trips for 4 months. It's also just comforting to have your own blanket to snuggle up to you know?
Don't wait until you're halfway through your semester, waiting to board your red-eye flight before grabbing one of these lifesavers. No matter which country you volunteer in, you will have flights, bus rides, and road trips that can all be spent catching some much needed shut-eye. You'll sleep way better if you have one of these to keep your head from bobbing around. I love my inflatable travel pillow because it packs up so small.
A Luggage Scale
Depending on which airline you are traveling with, checking bags can potentially get pretty pricey, especially if they are over the weight limit. Having a portable luggage scale can be a lifesaver! It's often hard to find a scale while you're abroad which is why I always travel with my own — this one off Amazon is lightweight and affordable. This guy is also very popular.
You'll be doing a lot of weekend trips with all your clothes and toiletries stuffed into a backpack. When you go to unpack that bag, everything will probably smell a little...stuffy. Put dryer sheets in your suitcase, backpack, closet, and dresser to keep all the things smelling good. You can also stick them in shoes overnight to help fight that lovely odor too.
The *Right* Kind Of Wallet
You can totally make do with whatever you're bringing with you wallet wise ... but I tend to prefer carrying around a different wallet when traveling. At home, I use a Thread wallet which is just big enough for my cards and that's it. But when I travel, I often am carrying around cash and coins ... there is no room in my Thread for that! Instead I travel with a coin purse and my Thread wallet, or a little wallet that zips closed and has room for cash and coins (and my cards).
Now, this may be a total need for someone (myself included) but for someone who doesn't really have a reusable water bottle, I still think it's handy to pack one. For your ILP semester, you'll have access to drinking water so you can just refill your reusable one, and not have to purchase plastic water bottles left and right.
You know those Hydroflasks everyone has? Volunteers really recommend something temp regulated like that! You could grab one of our rad ILP water bottles, or there's discounted brands too at places like Costco as well.
Definitely not a need, but if you're into doing your hair every day back home, chances are that may not be an option where you're volunteering. Hair scarves and scrunchies are a great way to add a dash of sass and flash (for all those pictures) when you have zero time and no flat iron. And if you're like those of us trying to wrangle the natural curls that spring out in any kind of humidity, then bobby pins will be your best friend. This post about handling hair while you travel is a life-saver.
Have questions about what to expect in a semester of volunteering abroad?
We have representatives in the office who love answering questions about ILP, but you can click the button below to check out the answers to some of the most common questions!