Dos & Don’ts:
Packing for a Year Abroad
My standard packing style usually starts the night before I leave, typically after my despedida (farewell) dinner, and almost always after one-too-many glasses of wine. It’s one thing to rock that laissez faire lifestyle when packing for a month or two, but a year of living abroad is definitely higher stakes, as I learned moving to Spain as an Auxiliar de Conversación.
Luckily after (too?) many years of this, I’ve somehow become a bit of a pro. After several international moves and nearly five (?!?!) years in Spain, I’ve got my Spanish packing necessities on lock.
While most of this post relates directly to Language Assistants moving to España, it´s definitely relevant to anyone heading off on a year-long stint living overseas. Here are my Dos & Dont´s of Packing for a Year Abroad... Read on and pack up!
Quality Over Quantity:
How much should you pack?
DO limit your luggage to airline allowances.
One large piece of check-in luggage.
One small carry-on.
One small personal item (purse, laptop case, etc).
Limiting yourself helps you to weed out the extras from the beginning rather than losing it and packing your “just in case I lose 5 lbs.” jeans or the old ¨just in case Cristiano Ronaldo invites me to dinner¨ red dress.
You can cheat just a little using space saver bags to Tetris everything in, just make sure to buy the roll-ups rather than vacuum ones since you likely won’t have a vacuum in Spain.
Packing light means you´ll save cash on extra luggage fees and you won´t be that guy trying to juggle 3 suitcases and a map through airports and public transportation.
PRO TIP: One piece of luggage should have wheels and the other should be a backpack so you have a free hand at all times. I suggest a large, rolly suitcase for check-in and a carry-on travel backpack (about 40 liters) which you can use for weekend trips around Europe.
DON´T Stress About What You Left Behind
You’re moving to Spain, not a remote village in el medio de la nada. You can find pretty much anything here that you can find at home.
Fashion is affordable, abundant and basically better in Spain, plus brands like Zara and Mango will cost you less than in the states.
You will definitely be acquiring things here, so paying extra to drag your entire closet is a big no-no. Besides, it gives you a perfect excuse to pick up a cheap-o suitcase to lug all your newfound Euro fashion back home in July.
You Can Leave Your Hat On At Home:
What clothes should you pack?
DON´T bother with business casual.
Spanish people definitely take pride in their appearance, but the focus is on clean, classy and current style rather than button down shirts and slacks for the classroom. Think fitted jeans and cute tops for school and COMING SOON, I´ll post more details about typical teacher-wear.
DO think about mixing & matching.
Your options are going to be limited to what you’ve packed until payday (finally!!) comes around, so pack outfits that will work for class time and free time. I typically rock cardigans in the classroom over tanks, sleeveless tops and dresses that I wear on the weekends. It’ll save you space in your luggage and give you layering options as the weather starts to change.
DON´T bring 5 of anything.
That goes for jeans, sports bras, pajamas… you get the idea. If you’ve done any long-term traveling in the past, you know how little you actually need and how much of your closet is simply taking up hanger space. One of the great parts of moving abroad is realizing that less is more (until the after-Christmas sales start, at least.) Socks and undies are the exception here.
DO check the weather in your region.
A lot of first years have this idea that Spain is all sun and sangria. If you’re in the Canary Islands, you’re in luck, but if you’re anywhere else you’ll find that we do in fact have all four seasons, and a tendency toward apartments without central heating.
DON´T overdo it.
I get it. You have 17 favorite pairs of shoes and you love them all very, very much. Problems is, not only do shoes take up a massive amount of room in your bag, but most of them don’t fare very well after a year of traipsing all around on cobblestones.
In Spain, you walk a lot. I lived in Madrid for 3 years and my winter boots almost never survived to see the following winter. And if you’re not a tightrope walker, good luck conquering those cobbles in stilettos on your way home after a night out.
DO stick with the basics.
I would set the max limit at 1 pair of Chucks or tennies (white is all the rage here), running/gym shoes (if that´s your thing), a pair of flats, a pair of sandals, some flippy floppies for hostel showers, and maybe a pair heels.
You can find great shoes in Spain, especially boots. Added bonus, when people complement your new kicks back home, you get to say “Oh, these old things? I got them in Spain.”
BUT (there is a but), if you wear size 10 or up, I´ve heard it´s a lot more difficult to find shoes here, so plan accordingly.
Pro Tip: Wear whichever pair of shoes take up the most room on the plane.
So Fresh & So Clean, Clean: Toiletries
DON´T load yourself down with easy to find brands.
If you use everyday brands for skin and hair care (Pantene, Clean & Clear, etc.) you can find these at any supermarket or perfumería. Save space by packing travel-sized toiletries and buy more once you settle in to your new place.
DO take note of your ‘must have’ specialty brands.
If you have specific products that you can’t live without, it’s definitely worth researching if you can buy them in Spain and for how much (high end brands tend to be way more expensive here).
Shock Me Like Electric Eels: Electronics
DO open up your phone.
When I first moved to Spain, this meant finishing up your contract and having the company ‘unlock’ it so that you could change out the SIM card to a Spanish one. Nowadays, many US/Can companies allow you to open up your phone to use overseas, so many Language Assistants keep their company and work out an international plan. Work with your provider early on to figure out which is the best option for you.
DON´T bring expensive straighteners or blow dryers.
Power outlets and currents are different here and can’t handle our super powered electronics. Bring these bad boys and you’ll be saying adios to them or to your hair before long. You can buy Spanish versions here on the cheap that won’t explode or leave your curls crispy.
DO invest in an Amazon Kindle, e-book or a tablet.
Unless you’re in Madrid or Barcelona, English books aren’t super easy to come by, and even when they are, there aren’t always a lot of options. An e-book will not only give you unlimited reading material, but it’s perfect for traveling throughout Spain and Europe. Your library may even have titles they can lend you electronically!
DON´T forget your power converter/adaptor.
You want to find an all-in-one power converter and adaptor, bonus points if it works for multiple countries. I´ve been using this bad boy for nearly 10 years and in 5 continents and have no complaints. Pack one in your carry on in case you need to charge up at the airport.
Alabama España: Houseware
DON´T even think about wasting space on bedding & towels.
You can find all that and more for cheap at Primark, Ikea and the chinos (the mildly racist but unfortunately unofficial title for the dollar shops all around Spain).
Most apartments in Spain are furnished and include basics pots, plates, pillows, etc.
Bye, Bye American Pie: Food
DON´T believe the hype that your favorite foods are impossible to get.
Every year it’s the same – people looking for peanut butter, pinto beans and pastry ingredients (brown sugar, vanilla extract, etc). Literally all of these things are sold here.
Madrid is the Spanish mecca of international food and there’s very little you can’t find there if you look hard enough. The small shops around Plaza de España are packed with all things Asian, Lavapies has ALL the spices plus your favorite south Asian and middle eastern ingredients, Taste of America is loaded with North American confections and my own personal paradise, La Tiendita de Alamillo has saved me many times from So-Cal mexi food cravings.
DO Go Cold Turkey on Your Unavailable Faves
Be bold, immerse yo´self. It´s not the end of the world if you go 12 months without Cholula (mmmm, Cholula).
Added bonus 1: you´ll be fully justified in gorging yourself with tacos, maple syrup and ranch dressing when you go home.
Bonus 2: You´ll realize that Ranch dressing is disgusting and there´s a reason that that mess isn´t available outside of the states.
Don´t be. As stressful as packing seems at the beginning, it´ll be a distant memory by October when you´re soaking up the sun in Plaza Mayor!
Language Assistant Alumni: What would you add to the list?
Newbies: Any questions? Ask whatever you like in the comments, and don’t forget to like 👇 this post and follow me on insta to see me in the Canaries, Spain & the world at large 🙂
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