How to Pack for a Semester Abroad in Europe

You're about to have the adventure of a lifetime! This packing guide covers everything you need to know about how to pack for a semester abroad in Europe so you can travel light, travel smart, and travel happy.

Deciding to spend a semester abroad in Europe was one of the most exciting decisions I’ve ever made. Deciding how to pack for my semester abroad in Europe, on the other hand, was a nerve-racking nightmare. Trying to guess what you’ll want to wear a few months from now, what the style will be like at your destination, and what you will need in a country you’ve never been to before is stressful. Packing for multiple seasons and fitting everything into one checked bag and carry-on makes it even trickier.

Below is the packing guide I wish I'd had, including some tips and tricks, lessons learned, and a recommended packing list. For more packing inspiration, you can also take a peek at everything that was inside my suitcase when I moved to Finland. Let's get packing!

The Packing Strategy

Think Of Your Suitcase as a Capsule Closet

I first learned about capsule closets from the blog Unfancy. The idea is to create a mini wardrobe made up of versatile pieces that you absolutely love to wear. It is perfect for anyone trying to simplify their closet, but works especially well as a packing strategy. For a semester abroad (5-6 months), I recommend taking about 50 articles of clothing.

To create your capsule closet, think realistically about where and how you will be spending your time and make sure the clothes you pack reflect that. It can be tempting to take an aspirational approach to packing, but be honest and practical. If you're going to spend most of your time sightseeing, you need to prioritize walking shoes over high heels! Obviously, you should also research the weather. Most places in Europe have distinct seasons and get rather wet and cold, so think creatively about clothing that can be layered for varying temperatures.

With your lifestyle in mind, consider your go-to outfits. What pieces do you reach for again and again? What makes you feel comfortable and chic? Use this to hone in on your style and closet MVPs. Again, honesty is key here. You might realize that despite a closet full of dresses you spend most of your time in sweaters and jeans. That is ok! Just pack what you actually wear.

Finally, try to develop a color palette so that everything can be mixed and matched, dressed up or down, and layered for warmth. I stick to neutrals and ensure that each piece can be worn with three different outfits and during multiple seasons. This helps your wardrobe stretch further. 

Remember: You Can (Usually) Buy More Things

As you pack, it can be easy to succumb to shopping sprees or to overpack in an attempt to be prepared for every possible scenario. But remember that you can usually just go buy something if you need it. As counterintuitive as it might seem, leaving some gaps in your wardrobe can be smart. It gives you time to determine what you truly need and get inspiration and advice from locals. For example, when I was packing for Finland, I realized I needed more comfortable walking shoes. I didn't have time to buy some before I left, but now I'm so glad I didn't! I didn't fully grasp how much walking I'd be doing or how wet it is. The shoes I would have bought would be useless here, so I avoided wasting money and was able to buy some that are practical and stylishly Nordic. 

The same rule is true of toiletries, makeup, and other personal necessities. Unless you have favorites that you just can’t live without, don’t waste precious baggage weight on things like shampoo and tampons. Also, most hair dryers, curling irons, and straighteners won't work with European voltage (even with a converter) so leave them at home and buy them when you arrive.

The Packing List

Outerwear

Europe is chilly and wet in the fall and winter, which means lots of outerwear. Keep in mind that your jackets and coats will be in almost all of your photos, so pick some that you really like! 

  • 1 heavy winter coat (waterproof)
  • 1 midweight coat (like a wool pea coat)
  • 1 rain coat (waterproof with hood)
  • 1 puffer vest
  • 2-3 lightweight jackets (e.g. quilted riding jackets, field jackets, jean jackets, and leather jackets)
  • 1 blazer

Clothing

  • 2 dresses
  • 10-15 shirts
  • 10-15 sweaters (different types and weights, e.g. cotton and wool; cardigan and turtleneck)
  • 3 or 4 pairs of jeans or pants in different washes and colors (e.g. light, dark, and black)
  • 2 skirts
  • 1 pair of leggings 
  • 2 pairs of tights
  • 2-3 scarves (for warmth when it’s chilly, for a blanket or pillow when you travel, for coverage at religious sites)
  • 2 outfits worth of athletic wear (for working out, hiking, and lounge wear, e.g. two pairs of yoga pants, two sports bras, two work out tops, and a running jacket)
  • 2 pairs of pajamas
  • 3 bras (nude, black, strapless)
  • 2 weeks worth of underwear
  • Socks (2 pairs of each type, e.g. running and walking, boots, and thick wool socks for winter) 

Footwear

Between the layout of most European cities and sightseeing, you will probably do much more walking than you’re used to. Your shoes should be comfortable, practical, and versatile.

  • 1 or 2 pairs of ballet flats
  • 1 pair of comfortable, cute walking shoes (Supergas and Converse are incredibly popular)
  • 1 pair of ankle booties (Chelsea boots are practical and stylish)
  • 1 pair of boots (riding boots are great, but anything without a high heel works)
  • 1 pair of running shoes (for working out or hiking)
  • 1 pair of rain boots (comfortable and lightweight so you can walk long distances in them)
  • 1 pair of flip flops or slippers

Bags and Purses

Pickpockets and theft are, unfortunately, a risk when traveling. Avoid backpacks and look for bags that zip shut.

  • 1 crossbody purse (this one from Lo & Sons fits quite a bit, zips shut, and can double as a clutch)
  • 1 tote (Longchamp Le Pliage is fantastic! It zips shut, is lightweight, can handle getting wet, and folds up so it doesn't use much space in your suitcase.)
  • 1 weekender (Longchamp wins again)

Electronics

  • Laptop
  • Laptop charger (MacBook chargers have a built-in converter)
  • Adapter for your laptop charger (the Apple store at your destination should have an adapter that simply replaces the US plug on your charger)
  • Converter/adapter (I love this one because it has multiple outlets and USB chargers, but otherwise you could bring a single converter/adapter and a power strip)
  • Portable hard drive (for storing and backing up everything)
  • Unlocked iphone 
  • Headphones 
  • Camera and camera charger 

Other Travel Must Haves

  • Compact umbrella
  • Travel neck pillow
  • Eye mask and earplugs
  • Tide pen (for laundry emergencies)
  • Travel steamer (make sure it is compatible with European voltage)
  • Something to store dirty laundry in 
  • Copies of your passport and any important paperwork 

Little Luxuries

  • Books 
  • Cute notebook (for to-do lists, notes, and journaling)
  • Cute prints or photos for your rental apartment (bare walls are no fun)
  • Favorite pens

The Packing How To

In my experience, it isn't very difficult to fit the above into a checked bag and a carry-on, but making sure the bags are under the weight limit is a whole other ball game. To avoid going over:

  • Remember that packing cubes and other accessories help with space, but add weight.
  • Wear your heaviest clothing on the plane. I usually carry my winter jacket and wear a lightweight jacket, sweater, long-sleeve shirt, jeans, and boots. If the plane is hot, just peel off layers.
  • Put smaller bags (like your tote and crossbody), your laptop, and a scarf in your weekender and use that as your personal item. 
  • Pack your heavier items in your carry-on (jeans, heavy sweaters, outerwear, shoes, and books). 
  • Stuff your shoes full of underwear, socks, and tights. No wasted space!
  • Save things, like tshirts and underwear, that can go in small spaces for the very end. If you feel around or stand up your suitcase you can find holes for them to fill. 

For more packing inspiration, here is what was in my suitcase when I left for 5 months in Finland.

Do you have any favorite tips about how to pack for a semester abroad in Europe? Are you in the midst of packing and have specific questions? Let me know in the comments.