Packing Economically for a Year Abroad: Fitting It In

One of the most annoying (and restrictive) things about packing to go to Europe for an extended period is the fact that airlines restrict the number of bags you can bring with you(and the size/weight of those bags). You really have to find the sweet spot between everything you need to bring and how much you’re willing to pay to check extra bags. That was a big motivator behind my clothing selection for the trip.

The next step, after you are fairly certain how much you absolutely need to bring along (and which things you can afford to bring just because you wanna), is to choose which pieces of luggage you will bring. My choice was straight forward. I was willing to pay to check 1 extra bag, which put me at 2 checked bags and 1 carry-on.

The Luggage

  • 1 huge amorphous black “duffel” with wheels | My parents brought this bag on their honeymoon to the UK (with all of their stuff in it), I brought it to Freiburg, and we just used it to move my sister into college because it holds so much stuff. You can fill it to the absolute brim and then realize that there’s still a decent amount of space left.
  • 1 hiking backpack | Bought it at REI for my last German excursion. It’s good for train travel because it’s ergonomic even if you’re carrying a lot, you don’t have to deal with rolling a suitcase, and all the pockets are optimal for storing miscellaneous things you need to bring, but just don’t make sense in a suitcase (this time: power adapters, journals/books, medication, toiletries, etc. in addition to clothing.
  • 1 rolling suitcase carry-on
  • 1 oversized purse

The Packing Rationale

I did some reading before I started about different methods for space- and time-efficient packing that minimize wrinkles in clothing. I decided to try both of the ones that I found, and it ended up working well because of the different types of bags I chose to bring.

1. The Bundle is supposed to eliminate creases and wrinkles in your clothing by stacking many  staggered articles on top of each other and then wrapping them around a center object. Because I am bringing 2 long coats, 2 jackets, 2 dress pants, and an even number of jeans, I decided to do 2 bundles of my bulkier clothing (pants, sweaters, jackets, dresses), which I hoped would both fit in the massive duffel. Success! Check it out.

Bundle 1

Bundle 1

Bundle 2

Bundle 2

Mid-bundling process

Mid-bundling process

One completed bundle

One completed bundle

I laid one completed bundle in the duffel, then placed a stack of scarves on top of that, then the second completed bundle on top. It fit!!! That was probably 70% of my clothing, all in one bag! And because the bundles were narrower than the bag, there was still space on either side to pack shoes, socks, underwear, etc.

The scarves, when folded into squares the size of the bundles, didn't add much bulk to the stack

The scarves, when folded into squares the size of the bundles, didn’t add much bulk to the stack

The magical duffel was able to accommodate all of this plus some!

The magical duffel was able to accommodate all of this plus some!

2. Rolling is the second method, which I’ve used before to great effect. I used this for the backpack, where I packed my less bulky clothing (short and long-sleeved t-shirts, cardigans, pajamas, work-out clothing). I fit all of them into the backpack by rolling each item as tightly as possible. Even though I am bringing a good number of shirts and cardigans, everything fit quite nicely, so I was also able to add my running shoes, toiletries, hairdryer, books, notebooks, and medication.

One good thing about a backpack is that the space isn’t as restrictive as that of a suitcase, so you can often cram in a little more than you had intended. However, this can be a little bit of a trap, especially for the absent-minded (me): there are so many pockets! How to remember where you put what?? So, with some uncharacteristic forethought, I decided to make a list of what I packed where in the backpack. Hopefully I remember to bring the list. 😉

3. Planning ahead: I plan to do some travel across Europe while I’m there, which means I will probably choose to fly with a budget airline. These companies are notorious for allowing only comically small luggage allowances to account for the low prices, so made sure I looked up their baggage dimensions. It turns out I own a small duffel that fits within their limit, so I needed to be able to pack it.

Luckily, the small, budget-friendly duffel fits right inside my rolling carry-on! This isn’t incredibly space efficient, but I have the freedom to be a little inefficient since I fit the lion’s share of my clothing in my checked bags. I’m packing 3-4 days worth of clothes and a few pairs of shoes in my carry-on, just in case something happens to the checked bags. I had to send some pants to be tailored and they haven’t come back yet, so those are going in the 3rd suitcase by default.

I wrapped my belts around the small duffel (which is filled with underwear, socks, tights, and camisoles) to compress it and fit more clothes into the suitcase.

I wrapped my belts around the small duffel (which is filled with underwear, socks, tights, and camisoles) to compress it and fit more clothes into the suitcase.

4. Beating the System: I’m bringing a purse way bigger than any handbag I would usually carry, because I need to be able to fit my computer in it. Oops! I’ll be carrying my German cell phone, in-flight reading, school/citizenship documents, my ID and passport, etc.  I chose to bring a rolling suitcase as my carry-on instead of just a duffel bag because if I’m going to be carrying a heavy shoulder bag, I want to be able to roll my other bag 😉

Mission accomplished!

Mission accomplished!

So there we have it. A whole year’s worth of my stuff. Surprisingly, I think this is less than I brought for one semester in 2011, yet I feel so much more prepared this time around.

Packing Economically for a Year Abroad: Clothing

I perceive a need for good information about packing for long durations and spanning multiple seasons. I’ve spent a semester abroad, but that was really only during one season and for about half the time as my upcoming trip, so that’s a steep learning curve. I’m nowhere near a fashion authority, nor will these posts be comprehensive, but I’m going to share a couple of things I’m learning as I pack for my year(ish) abroad. Here we go!

I’m in the midst of packing for Germany, which is a really daunting task: 10.5 months, 4 seasons in a totally new climate, and very limited space.  I was having a hard time motivating myself to begin this seemingly impossible task.

Luckily, I found this amazing post, which really helped me to get started! This blogger is a researcher who spent a year in Germany, and she’s a fashion blogger, so I trust her as a decent source of information. This post provided a few things I really needed to get started: a system for categorizing everything I need to pack, and an idea of how MANY of everything I should bring.  After reading this post, I spent an afternoon first compiling my wardrobe, and then paring it down.

First, I collected all the clothing I would even consider bringing and sorted them into categories. My categories were: coats/jackets, dress pants, casual pants, button-up shirts, long-sleeve shirts, pullover sweaters, cardigans, t-shirts, short-sleeved “dress” shirts, dresses, and skirts.

Then, I started to eliminate clothes that I shouldn’t bring, for whatever reason. To do this, I relied on several rules of thumb:

  1. I started with pants and skirts, then moved to coats/jackets, dresses, sweaters, and shirts. That seemed the easiest and least daunting to me.
  2. I took AcademiChic’s advice on solids vs. prints and packed mostly solids (which was easy given my particular wardrobe).
  3. I considered the seasonal appropriateness of each piece. If I thought I’d only be able to wear it during the summer, I put it aside to include if I have extra space. If not, I can request later on that my parents bring or send those items, which will be easy considering that they’re all in one spot!
  4. I didn’t bring duplicates of any one item, except jeans and black t-shirts. I had to decide between 2 brown cardigans, several purple/pink/maroon sweaters, and 2 burnt orange shirts, for example.

An important tip here is to have someone else help you eliminate items from your original piles. I had my mom come look at my clothes with me, and it was really helpful to have someone play the devil’s advocate and tell me if a particular shirt looked too ratty, or whether those pants are really just for summer wear and I should probably put them aside in favor of something more versatile.

In the end, after I eliminated several items that I wasn’t sure I would wear, got rid of color and/or style duplicates, and set aside some things that just didn’t seem practical, here’s what I came up with:

2 pairs of dress pants (1 black, 1 that’s debatably brown or gray)

5 pairs of casual pants (1 boot cut jean, 2 skinny jeans, 3 pairs of colored skinny pants [black, red, green])


Clearly I am not a fashion photographer. Another important note is that you should allow time for tailoring. Being of the vertically-challenged persuasion, I require that most of my pants be hemmed before I can wear them. Keep this in mind when you begin packing!

2 thigh-length coats (1 black & white winter coat, 1 brown rain-resistant coat)

3 jackets (1 black, 1 brown, 1 Northface rain jacket)

9 pullover sweaters

11 long-sleeve shirts

5 button-up shirts

7 cardigans

6 short-sleeved t-shirts

5 short-sleeved dress shirts

5 dresses

5 skirts (2 pencil, 1 jean, 2 casual. All can be worn bare-legged or with tights)

TBD: camisoles, undergarments, socks, shoes, scarves

That sounds like a LOT of clothes all typed out, but really it’s not. I deviated from my guiding blog post by bringing more tops than she did, but I will probably bring way fewer pairs of shoes. Over the next 2 weeks (!), I may decide to swap out some items or get rid of others, especially as I begin to pack my suitcases. And, as I said, I’m no expert 😉

That said, I would like to share a few general tips that I’ve found helpful to keep in mind.

  • Pack dresses strategically. I don’t think I packed a single dress for my semester in Freiburg.  This time, I’ll be there long enough that I’m going to need/want dressier attire, so I made sure to choose my dresses (and skirts) wisely. They need to be convertible from summer to winter, so I made sure to pick dresses that can be worn with tights, scarves, cardigans, jackets, etc. and not look too summery. I settled on 4 solid dresses (including my LBD) and 1 printed one. DSC03181
  • Build around basic, classic items. The only duplicate items I packed are 2 long-sleeved black shirts, because they can be worn on their own and under sweaters, cardigans, blouses, and dresses. I’m definitely bringing my aforementioned Little Black Dress, a white shirt of every kind, black skinny jeans, a gray v-neck pullover, my new oxfords, and a chambray shirt (which will probably become a wardrobe staple in time). Having these creates a solid wardrobe with fewer pieces.
  • Experiment with color combinations. This is something that I learned out of necessity when I was in Freiburg. I used to be shy about combining colors, but when you only have 3 pairs of shorts, one of them bright purple, you get less nervous about wearing purple and green, purple and yellow, purple and blue, etc. Because I packed lots of solid colors, I’ll be able to experiment a lot. Green dress, blue cardigan? Sure! Red pants, yellow shirt, multicolored scarf? Why not!

    Poland 2011. I'd had this colorful skirt for at least a year before I left for Europe, but I'd never worn it because it seemed too daring. But suddenly it matched all of my shirts and it was super easy to fit in a suitcase. Instant hit!

    Poland 2011. I’d had this colorful skirt for at least a year before I left for Europe, but I’d never worn it because it seemed too daring. But suddenly it matched all of my shirts and it was super easy to fit in a suitcase. Instant hit!

  • Bargain shop. Seriously. I went to TJ Maxx/Marshalls/Ross a few times this summer and came home with some incredible deals, preeminent among these a brand-name water-resistant coat and a really smart black jacket (also brand-name). Both were absolute steals and, I suspect, will be come wardrobe staples. Moral of the story: check the bargain stores to see if they’re carrying well-made pieces at a lower price than you’ll find elsewhere. Also, I made sure to shop when I was in Pennsylvania rather than in Texas because they stock winter clothes earlier in the year. Plus, no sales tax!
  • Pay attention to color assortment. I mentioned that I had to choose between 5 pink/purple/maroon-ish sweaters… this kind of color bias is rampant in my wardrobe, it appears. I kept finding the same colors popping up again and again, including many purple sweaters/sweater dresses and a good number of teal/green/turquoise t-shirts. It’s good to be aware of this so that you don’t end up packing redundant items. Last week, I had somehow decided to pack ALL my sweaters, cardigans, and long-sleeved shirts only to realize that they took up a LOT of space and that (guess what!) outside of Austin, TX you really don’t need multiple burnt orange shirts! So I had to choose. I decided to keep the burnt orange henley and ditch the t-shirt, since I had many t-shirts already, and I chose a pink surplice sweater over yet another cable knit one. This adds variety and will hopefully eliminate that terrible “I have nothing to wear” feeling 5 or 6 months in.

    I chose sweaters of various colors, cuts, and knits to create the most flexibility during fall, winter, and spring. Totally foreign for this Texas girl!

    I chose sweaters of various colors, cuts, and knits to create the most flexibility during fall, winter, and spring. Totally foreign for this Texas girl!

As of now, I think I have a workable year-abroad wardrobe set aside. I haven’t attempted to actually pack anything yet… that warrants another post, I think. Rolling vs. folding vs. bundling? Which suitcases to bring? Should I pay to check an extra bag?! The questions are perplexing. Hopefully I’ll figure it out.

What are your go-to packing tips?