You know when moving to Spain stops being fun and starts to suck? When you are sitting on the floor, surrounded by a pile of all your earthly possessions and you have to choose what you’re going to try to fit into a carry-on suitcase and a 750-ml backpack.
Bear in mind that you’re moving for eight months, maybe one year – so you want things that are useful immediately AND in the long run.
This is the exact situation I found myself in the morning before I flew to Spain to start mynew life as an English teacher. There I was, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my boyfriend’s family’s den, struggling to decide what I could afford to leave behind.
Do I bring work clothes, or casual clothes? What do teachers in Spain wear? What do teachers in the U.S. even wear?? Do I pack my tiniest dresses for those all-night discotecas I’ve heard about, even though I’m kind of a grandma about nightlife? Should I bring heels to dispel the notion that Americans are all frumpy dressers, or bring comfortable walking shoes that well … are kind of frumpy?
Of course, there are stores in Spain. It’s not like I couldn’t get things abroad, but when you’re working as a part-time English teacher for a small salary of 700 Euro a month, your cash-flow sitch isn’t exactly strong.
And ideally, my extra earnings will go toward badass travels – not rain boots or an extra pair of socks.
I only had a couple of meltdowns throughout the two-day process that involved:
- Packings things
- Realizing they won’t fit
- Taking everything out
- Throwing things into the ‘can’t come’ pile
- Re-packing all the things
It got a little ugly when I was still throwing clotheson the ‘can’t come’ pile minutes before leaving for the airport. Thank you, Davis family, for not murdering me in my moment of weakness.
Because I was ripping things out of my pack and stuffing others back in, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to find when I opened my bags in Spain. Fortunately, it wasn’t a total nightmare. I mostly had normal, practical things like socks and underwear, a hairbrush and cowboy boots … yeah.
But I learned a lot from the experience. And in the days (and now weeks!) after arriving, I know what I wish I had done differently. Here are my 10 tips for avoiding a travel disaster and packing WELL when you’re moving to a foreign country:
1. Don’t panic
This is the most important tip. Once you panic, everything goes downhill. You overanalyze, you feel discouraged. You might even (secretly, to yourself) threaten to miss your flight so you’ll have more time to pull your head out of your ass and figure out what to bring like a sane person.
Fear not: You will get everything packed. You WILL make your flight. Your life won’t be over if you can’t bring everything you first laid out. You WILL learn to be comfortable, even without some of your most favorite things.
2. Pack only what you can carry
One of the reasons I was so stingy with my luggage is that I wanted to limit myself to the two bags – one I could wear on my back, and a small suitcase I could drag around the streets of Spain.
Why not bring a bigger bag? You might ask. Why not bring two?
Amateur mistake, you rookie. More luggage means a bigger hassle. Do you really want to be that guy struggling to heave his over-sized suitcase off the conveyer belt, with and then drag that puppy around, over curbs and up stairs onto a bus? I didn’t think so.
There’s nothing worse than traveling with more bags than you can practically carry. Perhaps that’s just because I’ve mostly traveled alone and I hate the struggle. You have a stuffed bag slipping off your shoulder and things and spilling out of pockets, and you have an unwieldy suitcase that you have to try to shove into an overhead bin. Of course it won’t fit and the people are lining up behind you, waiting all impatient-like and tapping their stupid little feet in the stupid little aisle.
I practically break out in hives thinking about it. OK, I literally break out in hives thinking about it.
And for me, the minimalist approach paid off. I checked my backpack and easily fit my carry-on into the overhead bin. I had one small tote with personal effects (because you can’t bring big bags onto the buses here) and a purse. It was an amount I could carry myself, and it made for an easy to transition from the plane to the bus, and then walk from the bus station to our hostel in Logroño.
Not to mention, it’s kind of badass to be able to carry everything you’re going to need for eight months on your back.
3. Research your region before you leave
I did this to some extent before I left. I knew that Logroño was in the Northern part of Spain, near the mountains, with highs in the 90s during the summer and lows in the 30s during the winter. But beyond that, I didn’t really know what to expect.
Since I’ve been in Spain, I’ve learned that Logroño doesn’t actually get that much snow. (Really glad I packed my winter gear ;/) Some regions are notoriously rainy. I’ve heard that in others – Ibiza, cough cough – you can get away with wearing dresses most of the year.
4. Bring comfortable shoes
The first few days we spent in Logroño, I walked everywhere – all day – mostly to avoid sitting in the hostel like a boob. It was a great way to get to know a new city, but it also puts your shoe selection to the test.
I fared OK, and I packed a pair of hiking boots, a pair of Keds, a pair of heeled booties, a pair of cowboy boots, a pair of heels and a pair of cheap plastic sandals for showering in the hostel.
But my biggest regret was not bringing a pair of nice sandals that I could wear out and about the first week. They would have taken up little space and given me an option to wear with a dress or shorts.
Whatever you do, don’t buy a new pair of shoes to break in. You won’t make it. Your feet will fall off before you succeed. OK – no they won’t, but I bet it will feel like they could.
5. Give yourself a couple of days for the grieving process
Moving abroad is exciting, but it’s also a pain in the ass. Unless you are moving for an employer who has offered to ship all your belongings for you, you’re going to need to make some hard choices about what you’re willing to live without.
So I recommend giving yourself a couple of days to accept that you’re not going to have all of the awesome things you’ve spend so much time and money acquiring to make your life better.
That hat you love? Probably not going to make the cut … unless you are SURE you are going to wear it all the time. And don’t lie to yourself. You probably won’t. Two hairbrushes? No people! Only one hairbrush for the year.
The guitar you love to play, or the camping gear you need to hike in the Pyrenees? Don’t make the wrong choice here!
6. Bring teaching materials
Ok, this really only applies if you’re going to be doing what I’m doing and teaching English abroad. But the (limited) notes on how prepare for a job as an Auxiliare de Conversacion recommends bringing momentos from home to use in the classroom.
DON’T IGNORE THIS!
It might seem frivolous to bring brochures, photos, postcards and books when you’re leaving behind so many things you would ACTUALLY like to have. But what you don’t realize is that while you can get new shoes or shirts abroad, you can’t find things from your native country to show the students.
And you’ll regret not bringing anything when you have to introduce yourself or talk about where you’re from, and you have the perfect visual aid in mind … at home.
7. Don’t skimp on converters or adaptors!!
A day or two before the flight to Madrid, Chris and I went to Target to buy some converters and adaptors for our U.S. electronics.
The whole ordeal was a little confusing. Do we need a converter AND an adaptor? Is there an all-in-one option? Do we really need all those tiny little plugs for Southeast Asia, Africa, England and South America when the only place we’re going to is Spain?
After overthinking the purchase, and nearly leaving the story empty-handed, I decided to get an adaptor for computers and cellphones and worry about a converter later. Really, I just needed one for my curling iron, and who needs on-point hair the first few days of life in Spain?
Turns out, there aren’t any stores in Logroño that sell converters for appliances from the United States – just France and Germany. So … I really wish I had sprung for it before I left.
8. Think in terms of timeline
Not to make matters any more complicated, but try to pack the things you’ll want first on top of your bag.
It sounds like a pain in the ass – and probably the last thing you want to worry about when your immediate task is to cram everything you own into a suitcase – but having extra socks, underwear and a change of clothes accessible is a huge help when you’re living out of a bag.
The last thing you want to do when you’re staying in a hostel is to dig to the bottom of your bag, throwing your clothes out all willy-nilly just to find your toothbrush or jacket.
This will surely turn into a packing nightmare when it comes time to leave the hostel – not to mention it gives your hostel-mates an opportunity to look at your dirty underwear. Gross.
9. Pack some snacks!
Bringing snacks on the plane is a no-brainer, but I’d also suggest packing extra food for the first few days after your flight.
Some granola bars would have been a godsend the first few days I arrived in Spain. Why, you ask?
- Because they’re GD delicious
- Because they’re portable for your long walks through the city
- Because it’s an easy breakfast or afternoon snack that costs nothing
- Because they save you when you’re starving and aren’t ready for a full meal
If I had some snacks in my first few days in Spain to stave off my desperate hunger, I might have enjoyed my first few meals more. Instead, I was walking around like a famished zombie from one bar to the next hoping to spot something that looked familiar, portable and required little Spanish to secure – which proved fruitless.
And if all this fails, you could always try jumping on your suitcase till it closes. I guess that works sometimes.