The Essential Packing List for Exchange / Long-Term Travel

A lot of friends have been asking me about what to bring when they uproot themselves from their Singaporean/European homes for student exchange or long term travel. I decided to write a post to help with packing woes!

I started packing really late and this resulted in the last two nights of 2013 (and in Singapore) being two sleepless ones. I ushered in 2014 on the floor in my room yelling “10, 9,…. 3, 2, 1, Happy New Year!” while shoving clothes into a suitcase. Totally unclassy.

I don’t want you to have the same sleepless nights that I did, so here goes! Stay with me through this post – it’s going to be a loooooooong one. I’m sorry I’m so verbose, I tried to be as comprehensive as possible 😛

P.S. Noticed the spike in traffic (1900+ visits in a day!) late July 2015 so I’m updating this post to make it more relevant and share some more tips that I have. Keep your eyes on this space – I’ll be updating it in the next few days with a post on Flights + Travel Apps. Never knew that this post could generate so much attention hahaha. I also have a form here that you can fill up, if you have the time! I really would appreciate it 🙂 You don’t have to answer everything.

Here’s a list of some recommended things.

1. Paperwork

Keep photocopies separately, and make backups of these important documents either on cloud services like Dropbox or in your email accounts. Remember to email yourself the important numbers to call in case of lost bank cards and insurance claims!

  • Passport (Colour photocopy is favoured)
  • Spare Passport Photos. You can upload your photo on www.idphoto4you.com and go to any photo shop to print it in 3R format if you want to cut costs on passport photos
  • Student VISA
  • Drivers License + International Drivers License
  • Insurance Policy Number
  • Emergency Contact Information – I used to carry a little piece of paper with me that has my full name, citizenship, blood type and emergency contact details in case I got into a serious accident or something

I like to keep photocopies of my passport in all my baggage. In case of any disputes, it’s easy to prove that you are the rightful owner of a bag!

2. Durable Carry-On Backpack

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of the backpack, as opposed to carry-on suitcases. Backpacks give you a lot more mobility, especially in Europe where dragging suitcases down cobbled streets will cause you a world of pain. Those metro station stairs when you’re trying to catch a train, sixth-storey rooms with no elevators…

“But it’s going to be really heavy lugging all that weight on my shoulders!”, you silently mutter… Don’t worry, it’s honestly not going to be painful if you pack light and get a well-fitting backpack that will push most of the weight to your hips.

Budget airlines in Europe are pretty strict about baggage size and I thought I’d share a useful link about allowable baggage dimensions across various airlines which will be helpful if you’re looking to buy one for your travels.

For this reason, I purchased an Osprey Aura 35L and forced myself to pack light. I don’t recommend getting a backpack that is greater than 50L because the more space you have, the more you tend to cram inside (and it might not fit carry-on requirements!) My friends managed to get past the bag checks on Osprey Exos 48Osprey Kyte 46 and Osprey Atmos 50 by not packing their backpacks to the brim. I know Ospreys are expensive (>SGD180) so a cheaper alternative would be Quechua’s Forclaz 40 Hiking Backpack (SGD59.90 or €29.90 if bought from Decathlon in Europe). It has less padding and techy “breathable back” stuff but works well too.

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This is a photo of my derpy self at London’s Stansted Airport at about 1AM in the morning. The Osprey Aura should be flush against my back actually.

I traveled around Europe like this, thanks to RyanAir’s improved baggage policy which allows travellers to take a second smaller bag (35 x 20 x 20) on board flights! I had no problem bringing my 25L Jansport Superbreak Daypack even though it’s technically larger than the allowed dimensions. I just squashed it into the box that they use to check baggage.

Basically, the rule in Europe is that if you can stuff something into those baggage checkers and take them out, you’re good to go.

April_19__2015_at_0602PM__instagramThis is how an Atmos 50 looks next to an Aura 35. To pass the “bag check” you have to make sure that the Atmos is packed only slightly fuller than the Aura. If you maximise your backpack space on a 50L while preparing for the flight, you will definitely fail the bag check.

Bonus: Get a rain cover for your backpack. You’ll be thankful that you have it when walking through that awful thunderstorm. I also cover my backpack when I chuck it in the storage compartment buses so that it doesn’t get too dirty or wet (someone once spilled a bucket of fish in Cambodia and the backpacks around mine were soiled…)

3. Bicycle Lock

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I used to own this gigantic metal combination lock that my good friend Flo lent me. Thanks Flo! It was so long that it could string up three backpacks. It’s a terrific deterrent against opportunistic thievery. I’ve heard way too many horror stories from friends about how they weren’t paying attention to their backpacks during train rides, only to realise that they had been swiped from the racks. My love affair with this bad boy was short lived as it got confiscated at Moroccan customs for “being a potential weapon” and we opted to purchase smaller ones at a random flea market.

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Of course, using these locks doesn’t mean that you don’t watch your backpacks because knives can still cut through bag straps. Another thing we used the lock for was to fasten all our bags together when placing them in public lockers. I’ve read that sometimes, people make duplicates of keys and try to open lockers. In addition to removing our valuables from the locker, the boys and I decided to lock our bags together because any bugger who tried to steal stuff would have looked silly trying to carry or unfasten three locked bags at a crowded train station.

4. Portable Charger

It’s queer how advancements in technology haven’t done much for the battery lives of our smartphones in recent years, but thank goodness for portable chargers! For the uninitiated, they are little bricks of energy-giving lifesavers that you can use to charge your devices.

These chargers are incredibly useful for days when your smartphone guzzles too much battery and goes flat, plus when you are living in that 14-bed mixed dorm and don’t want to leave your phone to charge overnight (don’t ever do that, you will find your phone missing when you wake up 75% of the time), or even when you don’t have access to a charging port because you are like me and take overnight journeys to save money!

5. Microfiber Towel

These dry quickly, which is important if you’re leaving the next day and don’t want a damp-smelling towel. They’re super lightweight and take up very little space which is awesome if you like to travel light. I got a Sea To Summit DryLite Towel (~SGD36) in Size L. If you don’t have long and thick hair, you’ll fly by fine on a medium sized one. A lot of people have asked where to get this. If you’re in Singapore, you can get it from the Army Market at Beach Road. If you’re from a different country, most outdoor/trekking stores will have something similar.

6. Small Torchlight

Torchlights save you from waking your fellow dorm mates up when you come back after a night out or leave in the wee hours of the morning to catch a bus. They are also nice to have in the moonless desert, pitch-black caves and stuff.

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I got a Geonaute On Bright 50 Dynamo Torch (SGD8.35/€5) because it’s lightweight and has a keychain so that  I can hang it in hostel lockers for easy night-time rummaging. You can get cheaper AAA battery operated ones at the Army Market.

7. Personal Medication

Healthcare overseas can be expensive and/or dodgy, or you might have troubles communicating what you need in pharmacies because of language issues, so it’s best to have your own stash of medication. Get the bare minimum.

  • Plasters
  • Paracetamol
  • Anti-diarrhoea and anti-constipation pills
  • Lozenges
  • Antihistamines

8. Packing Cubes

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These cubes are amazing! They really help in backpack organisation. I used two flexible, lightweight cubes in Small and Medium (SGD9.90/11.90) from Muji and rolled my clothes to put them into the bag. I prefer the flexible kind of cubes instead of the hard ones, so that I can mold them to the shape of my backpack. I also devised my own cheapo “packing cubes” by buying some small laundry nets from Japan Home (for about SGD1.99 each) and placing clothes in them. The best thing is that you can use them when doing laundry!

9. Concentrated Travel Wash

I’m always trying to cut costs and one of the ways was to wash my clothes myself if I didn’t have access to a washing machine. In my entire 6.5 months in Europe, I think I only paid to use the washing machine 2 times – the other times, I did my own washing with either this wash, or powder in France or my lovely friends let me use their machines, something that I’m grateful for.

10. Souvenirs from Singapore/your country

Bring some Singapore goodies/souvenirs because you’ll probably end up making friends overseas and it’s nice to give them something to thank them for their kindness. I brought a brand-new SMU tee with the intention of giving it to a girl (my size) who made a difference during my exchange experience. My friend still sends me pictures of her wearing the tee occasionally 🙂 For our CS hosts, we brought some vacuum-packed bak kwa, a local delicacy!

11. Nail Clippers

These prevent your fingernails from growing into claws. I’ve never had problems bringing them with me on all the flights I took (maybe because I didn’t have to deal with the madness known as TSA). They double up as makeshift scissors.

12. A Cheap Watch

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Casio F91-W. This hardy guy is a classic army boy favourite. I like it because it’s ugly and nondescript, so no one would want to steal this from me. It makes up for its dull looks by being waterproof and telling the date and time so you don’t have to rely on your phone for it. Perfect for cooking and timing stuff, as well as making sure you wake up on time. I wore mine all the time and had a very bad joke that I used to crack as a result of my tan. I used to say “What’s the time now? Tan o’clock”, to very unamused responses. Hahaha.

13. Noise Cancelling Earphones

Have you ever been on a ten-hour bus ride with a screaming baby? Or sat on a plane where that toddler decided that he liked the clinking sound of the seatbelt and repeated the fasten/unfasten motion over and over again? That’s never fun, but it’s ok when you plug your noise cancelling earphones in and delve into your personal musical odyssey.

14. Combination Locks

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Bring at least two. Perfect for use in hostel rooms to secure your lockers and protecting your daypack’s contents from thieving hands when exploring cities. I am sure I looked silly sauntering around cities with a lock on my daypack but I preferred it to having my stuff stolen or having to have my backpack in front of me all the time.

15. External Hard Drive

All those lovely photos and HD GoPro videos need to be saved and I did it with my Western Digital Passport. I also used Time Machine with my MacBook Air to back it up periodically in case of any mishaps.

If you’re paranoid about losing your pictures, I strongly recommend using Filezilla to back them up by uploading them to your personal server whenever you have a stable internet connection. For the less tech-savvy, a Dropbox account will do as well.

Clothing

Bring things that are comfortable, durable and can be easily layered for different climate conditions. Low maintenance clothes that you can just throw in the washing machine and drip dry are the best! I liked dark coloured clothing the most because stains are harder to spot on them.

  • One pair of black jeans/denim jeans. It’s sufficient to carry one and wear the other. Jeans are heavy, you don’t want to be carrying more than 2 of them…
  • Two pairs of shorts
  • Zip-up hoodie
  • 4 tees
  • 2 long-sleeved shirts
  • 1 nice shirt or dress for special/formal occasions, or going out at night
  • Pyjamas! You can wear any tee for the top. I had long PJ pants in Winter/Spring before switching to shorts in the summer. 1 set will do.
  • Bikini
  • Flip flops. Useful for hostel showers or beach days
  • Underwear
  • 5 socks
  • Decent walking shoes that look fashionable enough to wear to bars/clubs. I never had these in my bag – I wore them. During my travels my goal was to remain as light as possible, so I didn’t care so much about what I wore. I magically managed to enter clubs wearing sneakers. But if you must, take a lightweight pair of pumps too.
  • 1 set of sportswear and running shoes* for sports activities in your host country

For Winter

  • Jacket. Preferably with pockets so your hands can find a warm home in the winter. This winter wasn’t very cold so I survived with an Ultra-Light Down Jacket. If you’re going on exchange in the second half of the year, buy your jacket when you are in Europe/North America. They have better designs!
  • Thermal wear. I adore Uniqlo’s Heattech range. Great value-for-money and very lightweight. Prices of these drop occasionally – if you’re ready to play the waiting game like me, you can get them for a steal. I never paid full price for any of my purchases!
    • 2/3 scoop neck long-sleeve tees. Get the scoop necks because they can’t be seen under your tops, unlike the crew-neck cut
    • 2 leggings
  • Warm beanie*, gloves* and scarf

Electronics

  • Smartphone
  • Laptop and carrying case to protect it from dings. I brought a MacBook Air.
  • Point-and-shoot camera. I love my Canon Powershot S120 (SGD599) which takes great shots during both day & night, and has a WiFi upload feature.
  • Extra batteries for your camera. Get them on the cheap at Sim Lim Square. I paid only $7 each for my spare batteries.
  • Portable charger for smartphone
  • Noise cancelling earphones
  • External Hard Drive
  • Chargers for your electronics. I put mine in a ziploc bag to protect them against spills
  • I brought a GoPro Hero 3 too, but I don’t think it’s really necessary because the mounts, chargers and accessories take up way too much space/weight
  • Travel adapter x2

Toiletries

You can buy toiletries easily anywhere… so don’t lug huge bottles with you. Don’t fret too much about this section because they can be replaced cheaply and easily. If anything, bring the travel-sized stuff because they are a bit harder to come by in some parts of Europe.

Though if you live in Germany, Rossman has a good travel section.

  • Travel-sized shampoo/soap. You can buy the big bottles there when you move into your accommodation
  • Toothbrush/travel-sized toothpaste. Get the toothbrush cap to prevent flattened bristles
  • Comb and hair ties if you have long hair
  • Deodorant
  • Disposable shavers
  • Feminine products (a few days’ worth until you have the time to settle down and go to the supermarket)
  • Sunscreen lotion
  • Contact Lens and solution. Bring more travel-sized solution instead of the big bottles if you’re planning on travelling a lot. They are crazily expensive in Europe.
  • Moisturizer
  • Lip Balm
  • Makeup. But remember, just stick to the basics since you won’t have enough time to use this anyway. Eyeliner, mascara, concealer, blush and maybe lipstick

Other Brilliant General Stuff

  • Sunglasses
  • Umbrella
  • Small sling bag for going out. It’s not that cool to visit bars/clubs with your daypack!
  • Stationery*. A pen stashed in each bag will be great, as well as a stapler, pencil and highlighter for taking notes because yes, we actually study on exchange! A thick permanent marker for making hitchhiking signs
  • Sleeping Bag. For the nights you surf on your friends’ floors, hostels which charge for sheets and if you decide to sleep outdoors
  • Ziploc bags. The smaller 1 litre ones for stowing your liquids in your carry-on during security checks, the rest for dirty clothes.
  • Duct Tape. The solve-it-all for rips, cuts and tears. Don’t take the whole roll, just wrap a bit around a pen.
  • Sleeping Mask + Ear Plugs. For all those nights in hostels where the crazy drunks decide to return at 4AM. I didn’t need these because I sleep very well, but you might!
  • Heatpacks
  • Multiplug adaptors*. Sometimes student accommodation doesn’t have enough outlets for you to charge your stuff and this can help you triple the amount of available outlets. I didn’t bother bringing this on travels because of the added weight though.
  • Money belt. Have your credit card, passport and spare cash under your clothes for safety. Although I stopped using this in my last two months of travel, it’s good in crowded cities.
  • A laundry net or two. For use in clothing organisation as well as laundry.

Fun Stuff (not necessary but good to have)

  • Headphone jack splitter*. Weighs a few grams and is useful if you want to share audio from an audio-guide, watch movies in long bus/train rides or listen to music with a friend. When Ben, Nic and I visited Sagrada Familia, we headphone-split the audio tour to save some money.
  • A small metal spoon. This is probably the only piece of cutlery you need – I used it to eat baked beans and yoghurt on the go
  • Inflatable pillow. For those long bus rides.
  • Playing cards.
  • A few name cards +  cards to write thank you notes on
  • Post-Its. Invaluable for leaving messages to friends
  • Dictionary/phrase book. Great for conversing with the locals! I brought an English-Spanish dictionary with me this year and it helped in my learning of Spanish.
  • Hanging toiletry bags* Useful for your place of residence along with a suction cup hook. But if you’re on the road, I’d recommend ditching this to lose weight. Ziplocs are good enough, and you can just place your toiletries on the shower floor if you’re not too particular

By the way, all the stuff mentioned above (except the items that are marked with an asterisk) fits nicely in my 35L backpack. Amazing, huh?

Since you have 30kg to play with when you leave for exchange, you can bring a couple more tops and maybe some nicer shoes/sandals. Or bedroom slippers. Or books to read. Oh, food too!

Food

Some things that Singaporeans like to bring to remind them of home (and to share the awesome goodness of Singaporean cuisine with our foreign friends):

  • Kaya Spread
  • Chicken Rice premix
  • Bak Kut Teh Mix
  • Curry Sauce (Prima is a good brand)
  • Bak Kwa
  • Nestle Milo packets
  • Instant noodles
  • Oyster Sauce

The above is a list of stuff my friends brought. Only bring these things if you have extra space.  Don’t be silly like me and bring chicken stock cubes to Europe. They have that everywhere around the world hahaha, I felt so daft seeing them in the supermarket. Stuff like soya sauce, instant noodles etc, you can get from your local Asian store. Besides, it’s always good to eat the local food in the country that you are visiting!

On the other hand, it was really nice to be able to cook Bak Kut Teh in my Greek friend Bill’s house and let our Finnish, Madagascar (Malagasy), French, Lebanese and Colombian friends try chicken rice.

Don’t Even Bother Packing

  • Nalgene / Aluminium Water Bottles or Flasks. Just buy a plastic bottle and fill it up with water
  • Clothes that you don’t usually wear because you don’t like them. If you think a piece of clothing is ugly at home, you’re never going to wear it when you’re travelling. I can guarantee this from personal experience.
  • Too many winter clothes. You will be able to wash your thermals more quickly than you think. Don’t be like me and bring 4 similar thermal tees….
  • iPhone pins for switching SIM cards. A simple paperclip does the trick
  • 100ML travel-sized bottles. So overpriced! Just before you leave Singapore, go buy some random travel sized shampoos and continue refilling those bottles as you travel
  • Bedsheets, Pillows, Blankets. Too heavy! Purchase in new country if needed
  • Cooking Utensils like pots and pans. Same reason as above.
  • Too many clothes. You can go shopping if you need more 😛

I hope you find this helpful! If you have other tips to share, or just want to say hi, feel free to add your thoughts to the comment section. Feel free to share this with your friends as well! I’ll do a post on travel apps soon.

If you’re free, read my thoughts on my 199-day adventure too. The upcoming few months will be the time of your life; remember to make the most out of it. Talk to people. Try new things. Make new friends. Be open. Teach, learn and share. Life is beautiful – carry faith and just live.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

Thanks Kim, Vickii, Flo, Jason and all my other helpful friends for these tips!

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14 responses to “The Essential Packing List for Exchange / Long-Term Travel

  1. Hi! Thank you for the interesting post. Did you bring a sleeping bag? If not, what did you sleep on during sleepovers/camping outdoors? Thank you!

    • Hi!

      Yes, I brought a sleeping bag! I wrote about it in the “Other Brilliant General Stuff” section 🙂 I always carried it with me at the bottom of my backpack, but I didn’t really need to use it as many of my friends offered me their beds or couches. My sleeping bag was kind of thin so it was really only useful for sleeping indoors during winter and spring. I did use it to sleep on a beach in Kotor, Montenegro one crazy night (and promptly froze haha)

      If you’re planning on camping outdoors, do invest in a good sleeping bag and a sleeping mat too. It’s hard to sleep when the ground is too cold or when rocks are poking your back

  2. Ah, I missed that. That’s wonderful. Thanks for the tips!

  3. Hi , just wondering if is ok to bring vacuum pack bak kwa into Central Europe ? Was going to Italy , Switzerland , Germany , Netherlands and Paris soon ..

    Thanks

    • Hi! I carried vacuum packed bak kwa all around Europe. I didn’t stop in Switzerland so I’m not sure about that, but I managed to enter all of the other countries fine 🙂 Have fun on your trip, Ivy!

  4. Hi! Thank you for sharing your experience! It’s very useful! Just wondering where did you get the microfibre towel from, is it available in Singapore too?

    • Hi Xinmei! Thanks for stopping by to read my blog, and I’m glad you find my sharing useful. Yeah, I got it from the Army Market at Beach Road. You can pick up a lot of useful supplies there (including high-quality ziploc bags). Hope this helps and have fun on your exchange!

  5. Thank you! This was so helpful 🙂

  6. Hi, thanks for sharing these wonderful tips! What earphones were you using? I’m thinking of getting a pair and i would love to get your recommendation. Thanks!

    • Hi! Glad these tips were useful to you. I use A-Jays Four Earphones now which are nice. Last year I used some cheaper but functional Audio-Technica earphones. I’ve had people on the road let me try on their BOSE earphones which have great sound if you are willing to splurge!

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