Packing for Your Exchange Semester Abroad
It's been almost a year since I left my Vancouver Island home and went to study at the University of Hertfordshire, which is located roughly 30 mins north of London, England. This was the most amazing experience I could have ever imagined; however, certain things terrified me before I left. Most notably, my worries centered on what I would or wouldn't need to bring along with me. So here's some insider tips I learned from experience.
A bit about me: I happen to be a bit of a pack rat, I like to consider myself a collector of things ... but I'm more accurately a curator of junk. I've always LOVED the idea of switching to a minimalist lifestyle, and going on exchange was my chance! It was time to leave my mountains of books and mounds of vintage dresses behind me (sigh). With good intentions, I set about packing for my six month adventure. But what would I need for school? And how could I possibly pack clothes for three whole seasons? I don't know about your situation, dear reader, but I'm what they call "a poor university student," so I didn't want to have to waste money buying things I could have brought from home. With only so much space in my wee carry-on and one bag to live out of, I began to pack!
Reflecting on it now, there are choices I got right but some I might have changed, and I intend to share them with you, fellow student traveler. These choices are best suited for students studying at the University of Hertfordshire as I did from January to July, 2017 (I doubt things change too much), but could be helpful to students preparing for travels anywhere, with local adjustments.
#1. Must Haves for Your Wallet
International Student Identity Card (ISIC)
My home university (Vancouver Island University) offers these cards through our Students' Union for free. Unfortunately I didn't realize that mine had expired so I had to purchase one while in England for 12 pounds. It was well worth the cost as steep discounts are offered throughout Europe for people with these cards. I more than made my money back, but it would have been nice to have it from the start! Get your ISIC card before you go!
Student Transit Card
This is yet another important card I wish I had straight from the start! It became one of the most used cards in my possession. Most host countries will likely have some kind of student discount card for the local transit service. In the UK, this is the 16-25 Student Rail Card.
Living in Hatfield provided me with quick access to the UK rail system, granting me with the ability to hop on a train to London or Cambridge (anywhere really) at a moment's notice, but it isn't cheap and in my first week I decided the train was too costly to take every week to London ... a sad realization. Eventually the wonderful news of this discount card came to me and it allowed me to travel into London and beyond at a fraction of the cost, as often as I wished! Order it online in advance: www.16-25railcard.co.uk.
My first solo time in Europe was in 2013, when I was fresh out of high school. At the time I was too young to get a credit card, and I had a few struggles along the way because of this. Europe is a modern place with fewer people using cash ... I made it through but it was unnecessarily challenging. If you're living in Europe (or probably almost anywhere in the world), a credit card is a must. My host university only took online credit card payments for rent and other costs. You'll thank yourself later if you find a free or cheap credit card (ask about student cards) at your financial institution beforehand.
#2. How to Pack a Wardrobe for Multiple Seasons
Like I mentioned earlier, I love clothes! So as I prepared to study abroad, I dreaded how I could pack three seasons worth of clothes into one suitcase. The truth is you don't need to! I quickly learned that London happens to be one of the best and cheapest places to buy clothes. Even my friends who paid to bring two extra suitcases ended up buying clothes here, purely because of how inexpensive and on trend the stores are. At the UK based store Primark (think Zara or H&M), one can buy a t-shirt for as low as 2 pounds (around $3.50 Canadian Dollars). I had decided before leaving to pack only the minimum, so I had clothes for the winter and a dress. I had plans to donate what I no longer needed as the seasons changed. During spring I would check out London vintage markets with friends to stock up on cheap and cute outfits for the following seasons ... which was so fun. There are of course things that you just can't live without. For me it was a nice warm coat and scarves for chilly England shoulder seasons! Runners are a must (or at least comfortable walking shoes).
#3. Stuff for Your Studies (since this is about STUDYING abroad after all)
I brought a few pens and moleskin notebooks in my suitcase so that I'd be able to take notes if needed during orientation – which ended up being a good choice because I didn't get a chance to shop for supplies for several days. I never actually needed to buy more than just a few notebooks, because much of the lectures and assignments are computer-based. I brought two different calculators with my economics classes in mind, but it turned out my host university was fairly strict on which calculators to use so I ended up having to buy one there anyways.
A laptop or tablet is highly recommended. I also spent time on the computers in the library at the University of Hertfordshire when I needed to really focus, as my laptop is not a very good one and often crashes. It did the trick though during this exchange because it allowed me to easily access required readings that were provided online before I had to attend a class.
A Note about Books: I was surprised to learn that my host university does not often require students to purchase textbooks, which is not the case at home. Instead of physical books, students are given unlimited access to online textbooks through the library page and teachers often assign online readings. So lucky for you, you might be saving hundreds of dollars on textbooks!
I brought my pocket-sized Lonely Planet Travel Guide to London along on my travel excursions, which I had bought in Canada but found again in Oxfam charity stores around Hatfield.
#4. Odds and Ends
Big tip here: Don't pack every little thing from home. If you go to England, visit Poundworld for day to day items. This is like our Canadian dollar stores, only better! I felt silly for buying two travel power converters for 20 dollars each before I left, only to find out that Poundworld sells them for a pound each. These are essential, so come prepared with one but buy a backup while in England.
Poundworld sells everything, household items, brand name shampoos, food, medicines, bubble envelopes for mailing gifts home, and all for a pound or less. You might find something similar in your host country – something to look into before you go. To keep your bags light, plan on buying your main toiletries when you arrive, and pack only a small sized toiletry bag with enough to get you through the first few days. I did bring my Canadian hair dryer but unfortunately wasn't expecting that it would kill my converter (this is why a back-up is important), so in the end the hair dryer was useless and not worth the space in my bag. Thank goodness for Poundworld.
#5. For Your Dorm
Upon requesting a dorm at my university I was given the chance to purchase a bedding package from the school, which was super convenient and very inexpensive. On the other hand, my shared kitchen did not come with any cooking utensils at all, so I was required to purchase all my pots, pans, cutlery, cutting boards etc. Luckily for me I had brought a fork, a knife, and a spoon from home which got me through the first little while until I was able to go to ASDA (basically English Walmart) and buy some proper things to use. I don't believe I ended up spending more than the equivalent of 20 Canadian dollars on my kitchen utensils thanks to local thrift shops, ASDA, and Poundworld. Toilet paper for yourself will also be necessary, I might suggest that you bring along a small roll to get you by until your first shopping trip. The university does not supply cleaning agents so that will be up to you to purchase as needed. The only decoration I had brought with me for my walls was an old map and I had all my new friends leave me a personal message on it. In addition to this I used post-cards from my excursions to brighten up my drab "Telford Court" room.
A Final Thought
Essentially whatever can be bought in Canada can be bought in most countries abroad (at a cheaper price in England for the most part), so don't concern yourself too much with packing non-essentials. I was living a minimalist life in England and I genuinely didn't miss my clutter left back home. In fact, it inspired me to rid myself of a lot of the things I didn't even remember I owned while I was away.
Do bring along something that reminds you of home. For me it was simply a photo I kept on my bedside cork-board.
Happy travels to you all!
• Ashley Wilson
VIU Bachelor of Business Administration Student & Exchange Program Alumni