As my cousin Elena gets ready for a semester abroad, I wanted to share my best tips for what accessories and tools to pack for a good trip to Europe. These are the top items that made my last trip a success – what else would you add, dear readers?
- Locks. They’re not just for (illegally) adding to bridges in Paris, these are also great for keeping your stuff secure – I got this TSA-approved duo. This is especially helpful if you’re sleeping on a train, putting your suitcase in the other end of a train car where you wouldn’t be able to see someone reaching in, or leaving your valuables at your hotel. Honestly, if someone is desperate enough to steal your stuff, they’re going to take your entire bag – but if a thief is just fishing around for something easy (as was the case when a cousin had her iPad and nothing else stolen in Europe…) this can be the first step in thwarting them.
- A travel power strip. I bought the Belkin travel charger and it was great for expanding my charging power while keeping all my devices in one place (the easier to collect when packing or locking up for the day!). Get one and then get a local power converter and you won’t have to worry about blowing your fuses or having one of your devices go without a charge.
- A portable charger. One more technology item I recommend – portable chargers are great if you’re using your phone as your camera / map / texting device / place to keep tickets and confirmations / etc. Get a small power cell and a retractable (or just short) power cord to make a little power-on-the-go kit that will mean you never need to cut an adventure short because your battery is running low.
- Ear plugs. Whether you’re sharing a hostel with a snoring roommate or your Airbnb is next door to a building with an alarm going off 24/7 (true – bad – story), it sucks to pay exchange prices for something so small that you can get so cheaply before you leave home.
- Printed copies of documents. You know what else is no fun? Finding out that you needed to have that ticket to Versailles or wherever on paper and then needing to find an internet cafe in Paris to print it at. Just don’t do it. Keep at least one copy of all important travel plans and bookings – including a copy of the first page of your passport – on paper so that when you wake up in the middle of the night and want to confirm that you didn’t miss your plane, you don’t need to frantically search through your email to be reassured. (Also leave a copy of that front page of your passport, insurance card, etc. with your family at home so they can help you out if all your stuff somehow disappears.)
- Passport organizer. Then, keep that all organized! I almost bought many beautiful passport cases before eventually getting a neat pencil bag from Target that became my go-to for traveling. My passport lived in here (which in turn lived in a locked pocket of my suitcase) and it also held my American money, extra credit card, visa for Turkey, etc. It’s nice to have one place that you don’t constantly mess with where you know everything is safely stored.
- US medicine and a prescription plan. Do you know how to say “decongestant” in Spanish? How badly do you want to try? For me, the answer is not at all, so I pack as many US meds as I think I might need before I leave home. Painkillers in particular can be quite different between countries, and I prefer to know I’m having a drug I’m familiar with in a dosage that’s proven to work for me. I always bring decongestants and allergy meds, since I get stuffed up from planes and need to recover quickly to enjoy my trip. I also recommend refilling / reactivating any prescriptions you think you could need – whether that means getting a spare inhaler just in case or asking your doc for a z-pack if you always get sick in a particular time of year – even if they won’t pre-authorize it, at least you can have it on hold and quickly call it in as needed.
- Packing cubes. I am a devoted follower of packing cubes and their ability to help you keep your clothes neat, compact, and organizer. Having all your running clothes, or all the clothes you need to keep clean for the plane right home, or all your underwear in one place can reduce the stress of hauling so much stuff around with you. It also makes it much easier to find the small things (chargers, souvenirs) in your bag than if everything were floating around. Ikea has a good set but you can also find really good deals at most Marshall’s – I propose getting a mix of closed, waterproof packs and some that are more meshy for when you don’t need things to be so tightly packed (or just get the top seller on Amazon!).
- Word Lens, Duolingo, and WhatsApp. Download these before you go and they will change your interactions (and maybe even your life?). WordLens is an app that automatically translates photos into different languages – so if you end up in Germany, you can point your camera at a menu and order with confidence (warning: organ meat is still just organ meat…). No internet connection required! If you want to prepare further in advance, get Duolingo and its free suite of language training programs. Hearing phrases before you actually get into a country can help break through barriers and put you at ease when you actually arrive. And finally, WhatsApp is the preferred way for expats and others to chat with folks back home. It’s a free messaging service that works just like texting but uses only an internet connection. That way, no matter what someone’s area code is, you can start chatting and send photos, etc.
- A good scarf. Last but definitely not least – scarves are a staple of my wardrobe, and a great thing to have when traveling. They dress up an outfit, help you hide coffee mishaps, double as blankets when picnicking… the list goes on and on. Scarves make great accessories to hunt for during your travels (Katie got a great one in Paris that got compliments throughout Spain and Turkey) but you should also have one you love before you hit the road. I splurged on a travel infinity scarf from Boston-based Speakeasy Supply Co, mostly for the hidden pocket. Whenever I was wearing a skirt or leggings, this provided me with an easy pocket and also let me hold my passport and phone close to my body when out in public or dozing on a train.
On top of all this, you’ll want a classic wardrobe (that doesn’t brand you immediately as an American), a good purse, great walking shoes, layers, nice clothes for going out… the list is as endless as your suitcase! But if you start with some good, functional tools, you’ll be on the right track for a successful trip.
Bon voyage, ma cousine!