The Ultimate International Travel Packing List for a Stress-Free Trip
You booked your flight. You scored the cutest Airbnb. Now it’s time to pack—oh, crap. What on earth do you bring when you’re traveling outside the U.S.? If you’re a natural jet-setter, it probably doesn’t seem like there’s much of a difference from a domestic vacay (aside from that whole passport thing). But if you’ve never traveled internationally, welcome to the club!
Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or a first-time international voyager, there is one thing that stands between you and the most epic getaway of all time: a perfectly packed suitcase. Stuffing your entire life into a stowed bag, carry-on and personal item for a long trip can be daunting (what if you forget lip balm?!), but it but it doesn’t have to be anxiety-inducing.
We like to think of packing in three distinct steps:
1. Checked luggage
2. Personal item/carry-on (including toiletries, entertainment, legal documents and medications)
3. The airport outfit (of course)
Once you break your list into organized segments, packing is suddenly way more manageable. Here’s how we do it:
1. Checked Luggage
This is the big one (obviously). If you’re traveling for longer than a week without access to a washing machine (or just don’t want to deal—that’s why you’re on vacation, right?), you’re going to want to pack every single thing you need in an tiny 26” x 18” box. Sure, most of the places you travel will have the items you might forget, but you definitely don’t want to risk it or spend any of that hard-earned travel money on boring necessities—that cash is better used on an extra bottle of Chianti at that fancy Michelin-Starred restaurant you booked months in advance.
Even if you’re checking a bag, the space is a bit tight. How on earth are you supposed to pack the seven pairs of shoes you absolutely can’t live without? It’s all about paring down and learning to play Jenga with your items.
Some of us are avid rollers, while others subscribe to the “fold it or bust” packing technique. The verdict? Do whatever fits the most in your suitcase (without incurring overweight fees, of course). Rolling clothing is said to cut down on creases and wrinkles, which is especially helpful for satin and silk items. But sturdier pieces, like jeans, might actually take up more room when rolled, as opposed to folded flat and stacked. Some PureWow editors are also obsessed with packing cubes, i.e., the best way to compartmentalize your items if you want to know exactly where everything is without rifling through your whole suitcase.
How to Save Space:
Once you’ve found the clothing packing technique that works best for you, it’s time to think about shoes and accessories. Now, we’re not going to tell you that you can’t bring those seven pairs of shoes we previously mentioned. But just know that they will add lots of weight and take up space that could be better used for something else. If you are packing multiple pairs of shoes or multiple handbags, just make sure you’re using them smartly by utilizing the space inside for storage, too. We like to pack socks, belts, jewelry bags and even toiletries that you don’t need in-flight into the cavity of each shoe and handbag, kind of like an innovative, DIY packing cube.
We also like to plan out our outfits ahead of time to make sure we’re bringing multi-functional pieces. If one pair of heels is taking up a lot of real estate, but we’re only going to wear them with one outfit, it might be smart to leave them at home and sub in some other, more versatile footwear choice. It’s a lesson in strategy, for sure.
Here are the basics we make sure to bring, every time:
- Sweater, sweatshirt or light jacket
- Base layers like T-shirts and camisoles
- Pants, skirts and shorts
- Multifunctional dresses (Ask yourself this: Can you wear it as a beach cover-up and out to dinner?)
- Undergarments (you don’t need three per day, but pack one for every day plus a few extra)
- Shoes you can walk in (and dance in)
- PJs (this is a good place to skimp by wearing the same ones for two or three nights)
- Jewelry (but don’t bring your entire collection—just the pieces you’ll wear every day)
- Hat (especially if you’re headed somewhere tropical)
- Wet/dry bag
2. Carry-On/Personal Item
It’s not unheard of to pack for an international trip in a single carry-on and personal item. We’ve done it and it’s the way to go if you’re jetting around to a number of different cities (Euro trip, anyone?). Plus, there’s no way the airline can lose your luggage if it’s safely tucked into an overhead compartment, right?
If you’re using your carry-on as your only piece of luggage, the above checked-luggage packing tips and essentials still apply, you just have to be even more conscious of space as you’ll have to fit all your clothing and all your in-flight essentials (yep, and TSA-restricted liquids).
Liquids and Toiletries:
TSA’s 3.4 oz liquid limit is internationally mandated, so if you’re using a carry-on as your only luggage, you’ll have to leave the full-size toiletries at home. However, that doesn’t mean you have to blow your souvenir fund on travel-size items. We love leak-proof reusable containers that fit a small amount of your everyday products, and packing palettes that resemble pill organizers, that can fit multiple products in one convenient carrier. Make sure to put any oils or liquids you’re concerned about leaking in a Ziploc or reusable sandwich bag, for an added layer of protection.
If you’re staying at a hotel with ample amenities (this can also include an Airbnb or a friend’s house; just check ahead of time), then you can most likely leave shampoo, conditioner, body wash and body lotion at home. But we highly suggest bringing along your skin-care routine so as to not throw your complexion out of whack while traveling. Even so, try bringing only the absolute necessities. Yes, that means the oil you always forget to use can stay at home.
This probably goes without saying, but if you require daily medication or just need something to help you sleep blissfully through a red-eye, make sure you pack it in your carry-on. While many countries have fully stocked pharmacies for things like cold and cough medicine or first-aid supplies, it’s harder to get your prescriptions sent over from America.
Here are the toiletries we always pack:
- Over-the-counter medication (Advil/Tylenol, Immodium, Pepto-Bismol, Dramamine, Benadryl)
- First aid kit (Band-Aids, alcohol pads, bacitracin)
- Shampoo, conditioner and body wash (if necessary)
- Facial cleanser, makeup-remover wipes and Q-tips
- Skin-care routine
- Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss and mouthwash
- Contacts and contact solution
- Face mist (it’s dry up there!)
- Hand sanitizer
- Hair products (dry shampoo, hairspray, air dry spray, etc.)
- Hair brush/comb, bobby pins and hair elastics
- Razor and shaving cream
- Lip balm
Yes, we all want to look #flawless in our vacay pics, but there are smart ways to bring along your cosmetics. We love stick products that won’t add to our liquid quota and also won’t melt or cause a mess en route to our destination. And even at that, we tend to bring the bare minimum, because who wants to fuss with a full contour and highlight regimen when there is food to be tasted and adventures to be had?
Here’s an example of the pared down routine we bring:
- CC cream or foundation
- Blush (powder doubles as eye shadow, cream can be used as lipstick)
- Highlighter (can also be used on eyes)
- Bronzer (again, eye shadow)
- Eyebrow pencil
In-Flight Entertainment and Comfort:
If you’re traveling internationally, you have a decently long flight ahead. If you pack all the right things, the time will fly (pun intended), but if not, you could risk the most boring ten hours of your life. Seriously, what if the screen on your seat is broken?! A long plane ride can be a great time to catch up on Netflix, read a book, listen to music or even get some work done (but remember, once on land the computer gets stashed for the remainder of the trip!).
We make sure never to forget the below items:
- Cell phone and charger
- Laptop, iPad or E-reader and charger(s)
- International power adapter/converter
- Portable cell phone charger
- Headphones (as much as we love our Bluetooth headphones, a pair with a cord is compatible with the seat-back TV)
- Camera or video camera, memory card and chargers
- Travel pillow, eye mask and ear plugs
- Scarf or shawl (that can also be used as a blanket)
- Pen (you don’t want to be stuck filling out your customs form when you touch down)
- Books and magazines
- Hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes
- Water bottle (just wait to fill it up after you get through TSA)
This is the big one. We all know that a valid passport is our ticket to another country, but there are other documents you should always bring. For example, do you need a visa to travel to the country you’re visiting? Or are there medical documents you might need in case of emergency? There are also steps you can take to ensure your credit cards don’t get frozen for “suspicious activity outside the U.S.” Important: These documents should always get stashed in your carry-on or personal item for easy access at any time and less risk of being lost with luggage. Also, consider emailing a copy of those papers to a close family member or friend as backup in case your copies get lost.
Passport, Visa and ID:
For starters, ensure that your passport is valid at least three months after the date of your trip. This means if you have a trip planned with a return date of June 1, your passport can’t expire until September 1 of the same year. Because, A. You don’t want to get stuck abroad with an expired passport (although that’s what the U.S. Embassy or Consulate is for, if it happens); and B. It takes about 6 to 12 weeks to get a new passport, so you should apply for one at least three months before the expiration date on your current documents. Since you don’t want to keep your passport on you while out and about abroad (more chances for it to get lost or stolen), make sure to bring your personal ID. Have a student ID? Take that, too as many museums and stores offer student discounts. Make sure to keep a copy of your passport in your email or on your phone, also in case of emergency.
Next, you’ll have to determine if you need a visa to travel to the country you’re visiting. Not sure? Here’s an easy list to check. Keep in mind that the visa process can take anywhere from two weeks to two months, so you’ll want to get the ball rolling as soon as your flights are booked.
If you’ve ever had to take a trip to the doctor while abroad, you know health insurance can be confusing, to say the least. Make sure to save space for all your health insurance cards and other necessary medical documents (just in case).
Lastly, you’re going to want to make photocopies of all your legal documents (passport, visa, IDs and health insurance cards) to prevent total mayhem if they’re lost or stolen. This will help speed along the process of securing a temporary passport (with a maximum validity of seven months) and getting replacements of your other items as quickly as possible.
Credit and Debit Cards:
Now that most credit cards have a chip, they can be used whenever and wherever your heart desires. Double check whether or not your card(s) incur foreign transaction fees—if they do, you’ll have to keep those in mind with every purchase you make. We like to use our credit cards for actual purchases (because, points) and our debit card for taking cash out of ATMs. Hot tip: It’s usually easier (and less expensive) to take money out once you get to the country you’re visiting as you won’t have to pay the same fees you do at currency exchange hubs in the airport. Many U.S. banks also partner with international banks to omit the ATM fees. Just check with your bank before leaving if there are certain international ATMs you should look for. You’ll also want to make sure to contact your bank to let them know when and where you’re traveling so they don’t accidentally freeze your cards for suspicious activity. You can call them, visit a branch in person or even set a notice on your banking apps.
Remember what we said about making photocopies of your passport and visa? Do the same with your credit and debit cards—again just in case.
Here are the essentials:
- Personal ID/Student ID
- Cash and credit card(s)
- Health insurance cards/document(s)
- Reservations and itineraries
- Hotel information
- Transportation tickets
- Emergency contacts and important addresses
- Copies of all these things in case you lose your wallet
3. The Airplane Outfit
You’ve mastered the art of the fold and roll. You maximized all the space inside your shoes and handbags. And your passport is ready for a new stamp (or six). The last piece of the puzzle? Figuring out what to wear to the airport. It might sound silly, but it’s crucial to a comfortable, long flight.
First, consider airplane cabin temperature (usually plus or minus freezing) and the climate you’re traveling to. We like to dress in easy-to-peel-off layers in case we get hot mid-flight. A go-to formula usually looks something like:
- T-shirt or tank top
- Pants with stretch (leggings are great, but if you’re trying for style, cashmere pants are even more comfortable and polished)
- Sweater or sweatshirt (it’s a good idea to wear this on the plane so it doesn’t take up valuable space in your suitcase)
- Cozy socks (or compression socks if you’re serious about blood circulation)
- Easy on-off shoes (like slip-on sneakers—in case you have to take them off through airport security)
- Belt bag or crossbody (for your cell phone and legal documents)
OK, now you’re ready to jet. Just download this packing checklist (and don’t forget the airplane snacks).