What to take on your sabbatical and what to leave at home is an important decision. Here are some pointers and lists that help you come up with your own sabbatical packing list.
Here you find the long version please explanations. An Excel-based spreadsheet can be downloaded here.
Some documents you simply cannot travel without and others are very important if you want to avoid endless hassle. Here is a list of documents you need to way on top of your sabbatical packing list:
- Valid passport – for many countries the passport needs to valid for 6 month after entering the country. Putting it in a sturdy but not expensive cover helps protect your passport. I have made a cover from a used concert banner, other options are larger holders that include a place to keep your boarding passes, business and credit cards.
- Visas – generally stamped into the passport
- Drivers License, in many countries a US drivers license will suffice but not in all, AAA offers an International Drivers Permit for a small fee.
- Health insurance information
- Record of your vaccinations
- I suggest to make a Emergency card which includes your names plus any important info such as medication required, allergies, etc. plus name and contact info of emergency contact persons. This can just be a laminated index card or similar
- Any numbers you hope to never need but might end up needing anyway, e.g. contact info for your bank, your travel insurance, your health insurance in the US, embassies or consulates at your travel destinations, etc.
- At least 2 and up to 4 portraits of everybody in case you need them for, e.g. a monthly pass for the public transportation system
- All the important information about your flights and connections, homes, local contact person, pick-up service at the airport, etc.
- Ideally a bit of cash in the local currency in case that food vendor at the airport does not accept credit cards and somebody is super hungry
A lot of the stuff one used to have to haul around as paper copies can now be stored on an electronic device and is readily available. It still makes sense to have all that info available in a hard copy as well. If you reach your destination hours late because of a delayed flight you don’t want to be stranded when you take your cell phone out to look up the phone number of your pick-up guy only to find out that the battery is dead.
It is also a good idea to keep a copy of everything, including passports, visas, vaccination records, travel itinerary, etc. in the Cloud.
Diapers – My suggestion would be to wait until your child is out of diapers if you are planning to travel to a country where they are hard to get. We did not have to deal with the issue but I know from talking to fellow travelers that diapers can be hard to find especially for older/larger kids. In India kids older than 18 months generally don’t use diapers anymore and so it will be difficult to find diapers for your 2 1/2 year old who still needs them. A similar issue presented itself in Mexico. In European countries, though, you generally won’t have an issue finding diapers, wipes, etc. you might even get the same brands as in the US.
Stroller and car seat – we decided to leave our stroller at home. The idea of hauling it around on countless flights was too daunting. Our son walked and, admittedly, I carried him piggyback a lot. This might not work for everybody and so taking a stroller might be necessary as you don’t want to buy one everywhere you go. Choose a sturdy model because abuse in the cargo bay of the planes is guaranteed.
Depending on the age of your kid you will need to take a car seat or booster seat. They aren’t standard everywhere and you want to be sure that your child is save if you rental car agency (esp. the local ones) does not have one available. We encountered the occasional taxi cab without safety belts for the back seats in Mexico. It’s easy to decide what to do: find another.
Toys – Do not overdo it! Sure, your kid has a whole room full of stuff to play with at home but chances are, he or she doesn’t actually play with much of it anyway. The favorite stuffed animal, doll or blanket are an absolute must. In addition, I recommend taking something flexible and creative. I took Lego – not a set – just a couple of bags full of mixed Lego pieces and added wheels, windows, people and other special pieces. I took enough to build a multistory house, a few cars and the matching garages, or some funny vehicles. It is amazing how much one can do with very little. On quiet days we played with it for hours. The operative word here is “we”, with fewer distractions for your child and more hands-on creative things to do you might end up spending a lot more time playing, drawing, reading with your child than at home.
Wherever we go, I always take some colored pencils (not crayons, too messy), a sharpener and an eraser. One can always get paper for drawing or making paper planes or origami birds that can be adorned. We also gave our son “tarea” (homework) which he was used to from daycare, e.g. copying letters or numbers or coloring small objects to improve his motor skills.
You will likely end up buying something everywhere: a ball or a set of pail and shovel for the beach, etc. Those things, unless they become instant and indispensable favorites, can stay at the rented house for the next little visitors or can be donated to the neighbor kids or a little one at the last day on the beach.
Depending on how much electronics your kid is allowed to use, games and apps can provide hours of entertainment. Most parents aren’t too happy about their child spending all their time looking at a screen and so electronics are something that can be used in cases of distress or great boredom. These things are ideal for long flights, waiting for delayed buses/trains/planes, etc. That’s the time to let them bing on electronics and keep the peace.
Again: Don’t overdo it! Yes, you need a reasonable number of clothing items for your child but unless your sabbatical is a lot more fancy than ours you will not need anything extravagant. That cute dress with the embroidered roses, that is so hard to press/clean: leave it at home. My rule of thumb is: underwear for a week, 5 or so T-shirts, a few shorts/skirts, long pants, a hoodie and a windbreaker type of jacket. Of course, if you visit Patagonia or Siberia your list will be very different. But even if you don’t go to cold climates: light long-sleeve shirts are great to protect against sun exposure. Here is what the Skin Cancer foundation has to say about wearing clothing to protect against the sun.
Definitely take a hat or cap for your child, especially if you travel to hot climates it is critical to protect the little ones from the heat and sun. Hats are available everywhere and can be easily replaced when lost or worn. We went for local flair and had our three year old walk around with a cap sporting an ad for Mexican beer.
For us, staying in mostly warm/subtropical climates it was light, easy to wash, natural fibers, plus something for chilly days/nights – there will always be some.
You will find many markets during your travels, or stores and if one piece is just too worn you can always pick up a couple of T’s somewhere.
A basic list you can use as a starting point can be found on the Resource page.
My son is not an adventurous eater and did not appreciate spicy food and flavors too different from what he was used to. Just to be on the safe side I took some oatmeal packages for emergencies. They are light and you can always get milk or water and provide the comforting taste of home.
I ended up not really needing the oatmeal other than initially in India but it was comforting to know that there was something nutritious he would eat if everything else failed.
One lesson learned in all of that was: one needs a lot less stuff than one thinks. We all kind of know that anyway and a sabbatical proves it. When you think about what to take on your sabbatical it pays to be brutally realistic. I took a dress and a “nice dress” for those – I am not really sure what type of – occasions. I think I mailed it home with some other stuff during our first 4 weeks. If you are planning on going to the opera or fine dining that is a different story, having Paella at the local restaurant did not require a “nice dress”.
What I recommend packing rather one more than one less is underwear and for women esp. bras. Oh, the horrors of an ill-fitting bra and the difficulty of explaining to an Indian salesperson the concept of a C cup. Here, too, my suggestion would be to focus on the practical and go for sturdy, “can be washed 100 times and still keeps its shape” models over the lacy. Sports-bras are a reasonable option. Bathing suits are another of those things to bring. I remember with dismay trying on bathing suits in an upscale mall outside of Merida and not finding a single model that even remotely fit my 5’10” frame. Women just aren’t that tall in Mexico.
If you wear big sizes, they might be hard to find in certain countries. Southern Indians, we found, are remarkably tall – and skinny. Finding a XXL T-shirt would be tough.
As often, Europe is relatively safe: you will find large and tall sizes but only up to a point. Finding a women’s size 10 shoe in Spain or Italy will be difficult. In Germany you’ll find them, people are tall there. Finding sizes larger than a woman 18 or 20 will be difficult in most countries. Same for men’s XXL and up.
Also petites are harder to find in Europe than the US. Most stores in Germany or Austria (other probably as well but for those two I know for a fact) do not carry petites. So if you need these sizes it is better to take an extra pair of pants.
A basic list of clothing to take can be found on the Resource page.
There are some things you should pack and others you shouldn’t or at least not in big quantities as you can buy them wherever you go.
Here is what is on my “bring list”
- A small bottle of shampoo, conditioner and body wash- I recommend you only take as much as you would for a weekend trip. You want to get to your home somewhere and – in case the host did not provide for soap and shampoo – be able to take a small bottle out and get clean. Later that day or the next, when you explore your neighborhood, you pick up a bottle of everything you need.
- Tooth brushes, dental floss and a small tube of tooth paste (same reason as with shampoo/soap)
- Razor blades, shaving cream, depending on where you go and how often you use them. I’d stick with my rule to bring enough for the first few days and then buy local.
- Small deodorant (to be replaced when used up)
- Contact lenses cleaning and storage liquid – at least a small amount to be able to get through the first few days. If you wear contacts I recommend researching the availability of contact lenses liquid if you are traveling to remote/exotic locations. You don’t want to get to Timbuktu to find out that you can’t buy it there.
- Contact lenses if you need them, the daily ones are great, bring spares and 2 pairs of glasses, just in case.
- Small specialty items that you can’t live without. The operative words here are “small” and/or “can’t live without”. That special mascara, sure, no big deal, 6 containers of facial cream: maybe not. Keep in mind that heat will impact these products as well.
- High SPF sunscreen: you can get it in most places but sometimes not in a supermarket but in a pharmacy – a fact you only discover when you pop into the supermarket on your way to the beach. Chances are the next pharmacy is far away or closed for siesta the next 3 hours. So bring a bottle to cover you while you hunt for the elusive SPF 50 or higher lotion.
- Insect repellent – we took a bottle or two because we traveled to India and didn’t know whether we could buy it there. Turns out nobody likes to get bitten by mosquitoes and so one way or the other to combat mosquitoes will be available everywhere. Insect repellent to apply to the body still isn’t a bad idea as that might not be available and the alternative the locals are using: long sleeved shirts and long pants – might just be a tad too hot for you as a dweller of more moderate climates.
- Tweezers, nail clippers, small scissors, emery board
- A stash of tampons if you travel to certain regions, e.g. Asia. In Europe they are readily available. I suggest to do some research before you leave
- A small set of cosmetics
- A brush and/or comb
Investing in a hanging toiletry bag like this is a good idea. This way you have everything together and neatly organized even if the bathroom in your vacation home isn’t exactly the spacious wellness area you have dreamt of.
Accessorizing is likely not one of your main activities during your sabbatical but there are a few things you will want to put on your sabbatical packing list:
- hats, bandanas especially when traveling to very hot or cold climates to protect against the sun or cold
- sun glasses and a spare
- a few pieces of fashion jewelry, leave the expensive stuff at home. Take only pieces you have worn before and know do not cause an allergy. I found that especially in hotter climates I develop a rash from fashion jewelry. Something one should rather avoid.
Travel Gear and Electronics
Luggage, Backpacks, Pouches
For your main luggage if have three words: sturdy, light, conspicuous! The first two are obvious, the third one is also logical: after 10 hours on a flight with an overtired child in tow you do not want to fumble with the name tags of 150 black or dark blue suitcases to find out which one is yours. You want a bright red suitcase with green polka dots that screams out to you “Here I am!” the second it emerges. Alternatively adorn your suitcase with a rainbow ribbon a piece of silver duck tape or anything else that makes you recognize it instantaneously. I had an model similar to this Heys suitcase and never once had to worry about finding it quickly.
I am adding a fourth: not too fancy/expensive – because chances are after your trip whatever luggage you hauled around is going to be unusable.
I also like to use space saver bags, they allow you to compress your items without applying a vacuum to give you more space. But, with travel these days, I have often found weight rather than space to be limiting on planes and space saver bags don’t help with that 🙁
To keep your belongings organized and easy to find packing cubes are a good idea. This is the model we used to organize everything from cables to underwear.
If you plan on sailing, kayaking or any other water sport related activities a dry bag is important. I haven’t tried this
Earth Pak out myself and therefore can’t personally recommend it but the ratings are very good. Just to be on the save side it makes sense to double bag your electronics in waterproof cases which are designed for the specific electronic device you want to protect.
To add a bit of extra safety you can take a travel safe like this one my backpacking friend recommends. We didn’t take one because we left our valuables mostly in our homes rather than taking them with us as backpackers tend to do.
Many people like fanny packs like this Doggy Bum Bag and I admit they are practical – I still don’t like them because they are too small for a SLR Camera and a lens anyway, but to carry a small camera, a phone and a wallet they are a great option.
You might end up carrying more cash around than you would normally so. For some extra peace of mind a money belt to hide some of your cash in is a good possibility.
One last thing I always take are a few gallon sized zip lock bags. Though not necessarily waterproof they are great splash guards and also keep sand and dirt out of things.
I am a book lover and rarely travel even over the weekend without at least three books but for the sabbatical my suggestion is: don’t. eReaders are better, lighter and more comfortable and if you choose homes that are frequently rented out you will often find left over books from the last occupants. They might not be your first choice in reading material, but they might do for a little light reading. As will all your electronics: do not forget the chargers and any accessories you might need. You don’t want to go hunting for them in a foreign country.
If you are spending time on a beach and plan to actually spend some time in the water as a family then leave the expensive electronics at home for safety reasons. That’s when you need a book. In most larger cities you will find bookstores with a limited selection of English language books or maybe a library you can join for little money. Merida, for example, has an English Library that is worth a visit. In Andalusia we found a humungous, utterly chaotic used books store which bought used books from tourist and resold them to tourists. It was all very cheap and in some sense almost like a library with a fee: you bought a book for something like $2 or 3, read it, and then took it back and got $1 for it.
My husband is the IT guy and so I left the electronics sabbatical packing list to him. One of the things he packed was a wireless router. Knowing his wife as he does, he knew I’d be complaining no end if I didn’t have wireless Internet access. Most places have wireless these days but it is better to make sure up front by inquiring with the landlord.
The most important thing to take are international plug adaptors. Depending on where you go you might want to take a whole international set or a subset plus a set for your USB plugs. Here is an example of a whole set and here a special sets for traveling to Europe and India. We also found it very useful to take an outlet power strip so we did not have to take adapters for each and every electronic device or carefully schedule access to the limited adapters. The power strip goes into the adapter and all the electronics plug into the power strip. The important thing is to buy a power strip without a surge protector so that in places like Europe, where you have 220 V rather than the 110 V common in the US your power strip won’t fry the first time you plug it in.
You need to decide which of your personal electronics devices you need. Do you really need a computer, tablet and smart phone? Can do with two out of three? This depends on your circumstances, whether you plan on working on the trip, etc. As a general rule: the lighter the better but bring what you need else you might end up hunting for that one cable or charger for days.
I recommend taking an external hard drive to save pictures and have back-up copies of all important documents. During travel times I suggest to carry this in a different suitcase or bag from the laptop. In case something should get lost or stolen you hopefully have one copy left. I am using this external hard drive and am quite happy with it.
As a photographer I have to add this section. If you aren’t into it as much as I am you might want to skip the geekier parts.
Here is what I suggest to take:
- A point and shoot camera. These things are light and of amazing quality these days, although the good ones aren’t cheap. My total camera geek friend suggests one of the Sony RX100 series (here is the low end Sony version and here the high end. Alternatively,he suggests this Canon point & shoot
- Alternatively your smart phone might do. I generally prefer to have these functions separate, esp. when I plan to shoot a lot because the camera function tends to drain the phone battery and a camera gives you better control over the pictures. Having said that, there is a range of smart phone camera accessories these days that might be sufficient. I haven’t tested them yet and can’t recommend a specific one. As with all things camera you get what you pay for and cheap lenses will create problems such as distortions or very shallow depth of field.
- A digital SLR. I used a predecessor of this Canon camera but similar models from any of the reputable camera manufacturers will do just as well.
- My favorite lens by far was an all in one spanning the range from wide angle to moderate zoom like this one from Sigma or this one from Tamron. The advantage of lenses like that is you don’t have to change it constantly: you want to take the wide view of a Tuscan piazza and then zoom in on the group of monks at the other end: done with the turn of your wrist rather than having to switch lenses. The disadvantage are that these lenses are not very fast and therefore not well suited for low light situation. If your passion is low light photography you should bring a faster lens as well. I love portrait photography which benefits from a shallow field of depth to blur the background and I also like to be able to have a low light option so I also brought my portrait fixed lens
- USB sticks to make backups of all my pictures (and any other documents created as well as storing everything in the cloud. This is clearly a case that requires double back-ups in different places.
- Pack everything you need for your camera(s) including spare batteries, a charger and several of whatever storage medium your camera uses.
- A camera bag. I don’t like backpacks because it is such a hassle to get the camera out so I always end up carrying it in my hands. Sling packs are better but not so great for hiking or other sports because they always slide around. I still prefer them to backpacks. I used an earlier version of this Tamrac sling pack. Important: you need to be able to fit you camera, all lenses you want to use frequently, a spare battery and storage cards as well as a small wallet and your phone in so you only need to carry one pack with you.
- Tripod, if you need/want one. I took one of those small gorilla tripod but never used it. The camera, esp. with a big zoom lens is just too heavy for these things and it is also very hard to set them up straight. People with more patience might do better with them but for me it was useless.
If you want to buy your electronics abroad, there are countries where these things are cheaper than in the US and here is a 2016 technology Price Index which should give you an idea of what is cheaper where. Keep in mind that you eventually need to import them into the US which might require customs fees.
Take whatever you need to avoid running out or spending endless time trying to find a doctor and to communicate to him or her what it is you need and get them to write you a prescription. Drugs have different names in different countries making it even harder to get what you need. We have done it all at some point in our travels but it is vastly superior to take the drugs you need assuming they will not expire during your time away.
Getting a several month supply of your prescription drugs to take on your sabbatical might require some tough negotiation with your health insurance as they tend to only provide a limited supply, e.g. one months worth at a time. I recommend starting that process way in advance so – in case you have trouble getting what you need – you can think of alternatives.
First Aid Kit
I compiled an elaborate first aid kit which we luckily never needed other than for the occasional band aid. But I have been there before suffering from high fever in a not very clean Chinese hostel and have met many a traveler who had frightening stories of food poisoning or other unpleasantries to tell. It is better to be prepared!
Here is a list of items that you should take – plus everything else you know you need. One way to do this is to start with a basic commercially available First Aid kit and then add onto that whatever is missing or just build it from scratch.
Please note that this is just a list of suggested items to take and I am not providing any medical advice here. For anything serious you need to see a doctor!
- (Waterproof) band aids and/or liquid band aid, if your child loves band aids with Mickey or little fishes on them take those, even if it means that you might be sporting Mickey on your thumb for a bit
- Gauze bandages
- Ointment to treat minor cuts and abrasions, e.g. zinc ointment which can also double as cream against diaper rash if that is needed. Alternatively, you can pack an antibiotic cream or ointment.
- A couple of ice packs that can be refrozen and reused
- Calamine lotion or similar to treat light itching due to sunburn or mosquito bites
- Pain killers, e.g. Ibuprofen, Tylenol, Aleve, etc. for both adults and children
- Diarrhea medication, e.g. Imodium
- Disinfectant wipes
- Electrolyte tablets to replenish electrolytes in case of diarrhea
- Eye drops
- Dramamine for travel sickness
- Birth control if applicable
For the Plane
Being well prepared for the plane pays off. Flying has long ago stopped being fun but it can be made a bit more bearable. Here is what I recommend you take and do:
- Bring food for your child/children esp. if he/she is a picky eater. Chances are they won’t like the plane food and you don’t want a hungry child whining for 8 hours.
- An electronic toy – during long flights it is not the time to tightly limit screen time
- Other activities for the kid like a few color pencils, some paper, a book, etc.
- Sleep mask, they really help blocking out the light from that one window that somebody refuses to close. There are special sleep masks for kids.
- Ear plugs – I have no idea how I ever traveled without earplugs. One needs to get used to them a bit but they do a great job of blocking out a lot of the engine noise. Get a bunch, they get sort of yucky after a while.
- Neck pillows if you like them – I find them uncomfortable and bulky but a lot of people like them. The inflatable ones are more practical because they squeeze into a small package, here is a affordable one with very good reviews. Ones stuffed with microbeads are more comfy but also bulkier.
- Chap sticks: airplane air is dry, your lips will feel like sand paper quickly. I always have multiple in various pockets
- Eye glasses if you wear contact lenses, the dry air can make wearing contacts unpleasant so you need an alternative. Also bring your contact lense case and a mini bottle of cleaning and storage solution to put the contacts into.
- Wear: layers, temperatures can vary dramatically during a flight from boiling hot while sitting on the tarmac to freezing cold mid-flight
- Wear: shoes that slip off and on easily. You might want to take them off while in your seat but most definitely need to wear them to go to the bathroom. Wearing those bulk hiking boots so you don’t have to put them in the suitcase sounds like a good idea but is only if they are comfortable for long periods of times with swollen feet and can be put on and taken off fairly easily.
- Drink tons of water, the air is dry and one dehydrates quickly. The price you have to pay is frequent trips to the bathroom – but that is better than the after effects of dehydration, e.g. migraine.
- Keep alcohol intake to a minimum. That free booze on international flights looks good but alcohol dehydrates further and the last thing you want is get to your destination dehydrated and hung over (just trust me on this one)
- When in doubt eat less. Plane food is generally not very good and sitting for long flights doesn’t help. Feeling slightly hungry is better than being stuffed (at least in my experience)
Download a packing list in Excel format here.
Here are some words of advice based on our travel experience.