Here’s What You’ll Really Need to Pack (and What You Don’t) for International Travel

packing a suitcase
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder.

A few months ago, a friend and I took a three-week trip to Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The entire tour was self-guided, and we managed to see much of the countries on a strict budget. But before we converted our dollars to euros and pounds, we made a few sound investments back home that made traveling much easier, and more comfortable.

These are the smartest investments to make before an extended trip abroad.

Portable Charger and Long Charging Cords

When you’re exploring a new country, your smartphone becomes a crucial resource. We used our smartphones for navigation (you can download offline maps to Google Maps to save on the cost of a navigation system in your rental), to browse reviews of restaurants and pubs when we found Wi-Fi and to check in on our friends, family and pets back home.

To ensure we never lost power, we purchased a portable charger (also called a power bank). This awesome tech is small and lightweight yet can offer multiple charges throughout the day. Whenever we had downtime – while driving, in a hostel, even sometimes at a pub – we would charge our phones. This Anker-brand model is relatively cheap and offers nearly four charges, depending on your phone model.

Most nights, my friend and I stayed in hostels (this is the most affordable way to see major European cities), which meant our beds were frequently far away from outlets. Even in some of the bed-and-breakfasts we stayed at, the outlets were few and far between. Having 10-foot charging cables made the distance manageable. This five-pack included one 10-foot charger and did the trick during my time abroad.

Total Cost: $45.98

Country-Appropriate Adapters

Your phone charger, and other electronics, will be useless unless you pack the correct adapter. Research the countries you’re visiting to determine which kinds of adapters you’ll need. You can also purchase universal adapters that should work in all countries.

Luckily, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland all use the same type of outlet, so I was able to purchase a single cheap adapter.

Total Cost: $12.89

Neck Pillow with Sleep Mask

Before flying to Europe, my longest flight was a four-hour journey to Mexico. It was in the morning, and I was too excited to sleep. My flight from Columbus, Ohio, to Dublin, Ireland, however, was six hours and overnight. I successfully slept a few hours of the flight thanks to the high-quality neck pillow that I purchased.

Even more fortunate? My neck pillow included a sleep mask that blocked out all light. While this was nice on the flight (especially since we flew into the future, where it was bright out), I found it even more useful in hostels – for when roommates kept the lights on past bedtime or showed up a little inebriated in the middle of the night stumbling to bed with their flashlights. (Again, I highly recommend hostels for affordable lodging, but they do come with their downsides.)

Total cost: $19.95

TSA-Approved Locks

We had roommates in most of the hostel dorms we stayed in, so it was important to lock our bags up in the hostel-provided lockers. These lockers were able to fit my very large duffel bag, but they did not come with locks.

I suggest purchasing two TSA-approved locks — one to use on your locker back in your room, and a second to put on your backpack when walking through the city. In most major cities, you need to protect yourself against pickpockets. I found the lock on my bag to be an extra layer of comfort, especially if I had one too many Guinnesses at the pub.

Total Cost: $11.99

Appropriate Shoes and Waterproofer

Much of our trip included hiking, especially in the Scottish Highlands, but even our days in big cities involved a lot more walking than you’d do on the average day. If you don’t already own a comfortable pair of walking shoes (or, ideally, hiking shoes), invest in a nice pair. If staying in a hostel, you should also bring a pair of flip-flops for the communal shower; you can purchase a pair for as cheap as $1 if you head to Old Navy on the right day.

Because I am a regular hiker at home, and own an embarrassing amount of flip-flops, I decided to invest in waterproofer for my shoes. The waterproofer is a simple spray that puts a protective layer on your shoes to keep the water out, though you will need to reapply it throughout your trip. Surprisingly, it only rained a few times during our trip, but on those wet days, the waterproofing spray was a lifesaver.

Total Cost: $8.00

Packing Cubes

Staying organized when living out of a bag for three weeks can be challenging. Packing cubes make the task much more manageable. These are pouches of different sizes that allow you to organize your clothes and keep them separated in your bag.

I used a cube for casual shirts, sweatshirts and shorts (roll your clothes to save on space and prevent wrinkles); a cube for pants and dress shirts; a cube for undergarments and a cube for dirty laundry. This made finding clothes (even in the dark) and fitting them into my bag convenient and simple.

Total Cost: $25.98

Microfiber Towel

If you intend to stay in a hostel, keep in mind that most do not provide towels (or only do so at a cost). That means you will need to bring your own towel — and it needs to be fast-drying, so you can pack it up when you leave. I showered at night, toweled off with a fast-drying microfiber towel that I hung from my bed and packed it in the morning before hitting the road. It was dry every time.

Total Cost: $14.99

Investments I Shouldn’t Have Made

I didn’t get everything right when purchasing supplies before my trip. Here are a couple things I wish I wouldn’t have spent the money on.

Duffel Bag

Multiple friends told me that I would regret taking my rolling luggage to Europe, because it would be a pain to lug it most places. However, the duffel bag I bought instead mostly sat in the trunk of our rental car or in a locker at the hostel – meaning I purchased this extra bag for no reason.

I can see the merit of a hiking backpack or a duffel bag on wheels – I did have to carry the 45-pound duffel about a mile through Dublin due to a navigation error, and oh, how I wish it had wheels! – but if you already own a piece of luggage that can fit your belongings, you probably don’t need to invest in a new bag specifically for your trip abroad.

You should pack a small backpack to take with you on daytime excursions – whether hiking, walking through the city or exploring an historic site. This will allow you to carry along your essentials while leaving most belongings safely behind.

Road Atlases

Call me old-fashioned (most people do), but I was rather proud of the road atlases I purchased for my trip abroad. I highlighted the exact routes we would take as we circled each country and packed them away in my backpack before our flight.

And then I never opened them again.

Instead, we relied on Google Maps’ offline mode. If, by some strange circumstance, our phones had died (which shouldn’t have been an issue with that portable charger), the roads were marked well enough that we could have made our way into town to purchase a map as a last resort.

If foreign travel is on your horizon, invest now in quality supplies. You will typically pay a much higher price at your destination for anything you wind up needing (my friend dropped £40 on a scarf on a cold day in Edinburgh). Your investments will pay off in the long run — and make your trip much more worry-free and enjoyable.

Timothy Moore is an editor and freelance writer living in Germantown, Ohio, with his partner and their two dogs. He has traveled to lots of cool places, including Mexico, Scotland, Ireland and all over the US, but his favorite vacation is, and will always be, to Cedar Point in his home state.