Pack This, Not That (Spain Edition)

Packing for Spain

Packing for Spain: The Essentials

1. Purse > moneybelt. You’re not a tourist, you’re an expat. Actually, even tourists shouldn’t wear moneybelts, but that’s beyond my reach here. Spain is a really safe place, though theft can occur, especially in Barcelona (possibly the pickpocketing capital of Europe.) Be smart, hold onto your valuables, and get a purse that does more than just snap. But don’t succumb to the money belt, people. If a thief sees you lifting up your shirt to fumble some euros out of that thing, you’re their next target, guaranteed. Also, moneybelts are basically mini fannypacks, and we all know how I feel about those. 

2. Wedges > stilettos. Ladies, you’ll be going out in Spain. And as much as you can play the game of I don’t care what people think of me, comfort over style, etc., I guarantee you’ll feel weird being half a foot shorter than every girl in the discotecas. That being said, high heels can easily ruin a night. When packing for Spain, go for the wedges, which still dress you up more than flats, but only cause a tenth of the agony. (Note: you can easily buy wedges or the dreaded high heels once you’re in Spain.)

3. Waterproof flip-flops > leather. It’s very true that in Spain, most people wear strappy sandals instead of flip-flops. If you don’t want to stand out at all, you should do the same. But flip-flops are really useful for wearing at home, taking to the beach, or using in hostel showers, which is why you want to make them waterproof. Although Rainbow flip-flops have the most arch support, they literally SCREAM California. (Hear that?) They are the required uniform at my alta mater, UCSB. NOTHING will make you stand out more, so I’d leave them behind when packing for Spain. Once again, you may not care, but there are few things less fun than sticking out like a sore thumb during your entire year abroad.

4. Baking supplies > peanut butter. If you plan to do a lot of baking in Spain, you may want to bring over some things the country lacks: extracts, real brown sugar, measuring cups. Don’t waste luggage space with other food items you’ll miss, like peanut butter or sriracha/hot sauce, because Spain has gotten around to importing those things now. (They still hadn’t when I studied abroad in 2011/2012.)

5. E-reader > books. I know you love to feel those real pages. But do you love to haul around 30 extra pounds? Time to make the switch.

6. Smartphone > flip-phone. Many people go to Europe and think, since this isn’t real life, they can get by on a pay-as-you-go flip-phone plan, or better yet, “disconnect.” Huge mistake. This IS your real life now, and you’ll want to integrate. You’ll make friends, you’ll get numbers, and you’ll want to text. But texting in Europe isn’t cheap like in the U.S., so everyone uses Whatsapp, the free app that allows you to text with your data plan. You’ll need a smartphone for that. (Tip: Ask your provider to unlock the phone for you, or you can cheaply and easily unlock it once you get to Spain. Also, get a phone that works on a GSM network. . . as in, NOT the Verizon iPhone 4.)

7. Essential Toiletries like U.S.-style deodorant—roll-on, not spray—are hard to find. And most makeup is much more expensive in Spain, so I’d recommend bringing it over. (Still reading, boys?) But don’t waste luggage space hauling over shampoos and tampons—Spain is in Europe, people, they have tampons. And there are at least two peluquerías (barbershops) on every block selling the finest hair products around.

8. Cute shorts > ass shorts. There’s a rumor that Spaniards don’t wear shorts. What internet troll started that crap? My first time I went, I didn’t pack any, and then suffered the 97 degree heat while watching all the stylish Spaniards rock them (flawlessly long legs sold separately). People in Europe wear shorts, they just don’t wear bootie shorts, and neither should self-respecting YOU.

9. Smart electronics > ones that will blow up. Certain devices like blowdryers and straighteners don’t transfer over to Europe well. Something about the different voltages blows the fuse, or the internal contraptions in the devices. (I’m no engineer, but I know how to read things on internet forums.) So leave those behind when packing for Spain! Your electronics like computers, Kindles and phones have built-in adapters, so those will be fine.

10. One bag > more. Do yourself a favor and only check one bag on the way over. Spain has good shopping, and you’ll partake. Then you’ll be left at the end of the year wondering how the hell you’re going to haul all that crap home without dipping into your retirement fund to pay for shipping. If you start with only one checked back, a carry-on and a personal item, you’re ahead of the game. I recently made the move from Bilbao to Barcelona and didn’t follow my own advice; I accumulated too much stuff in the past year, so I had two suitcases, a backpacking backpack, and a regular backpack. Cue the crying.

11. Charles Schwab > any other bank. Banking with Chuck is the best financial decision you’ll make. They refund all ATM withdrawal fees worldwide, so you won’t have to worry about racking up charges. Open an account with them before you go, and thank me later. (If you work in Spain, you’ll most likely have to open up a Spanish account. But when you travel, you can still dip into your American account without the fees!)

12. Small backpack > bodybag. I opted for a backpacking pack as my carry-on, and I love it more than bread (almost). But get a small one, even though the larger ones can obviously cram more in. The reason is, once you’re in Europe you’ll probably take some budget airlines for weekend getaways or longer vacations. Ryanair, EasyJet, GermanWings, and even Vueling and Iberia have strict carry-on policies, and only the smallest of backpacking packs will make the cut. My parents gave me this Osprey pack as a birthday present before studying abroad and it’s my favorite travel item I own. I can’t recommend it enough—it’s been to 14 countries and even more flights, and doesn’t have a single rip. Plus, I can fit enough for a 2+ week trip and it still passes the budget airlines without scrutiny. ¡Toma!

Anything else to add to the Packing for Spain list? What are your must-packs when moving abroad, and what would you leave behind?

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  • Great tips! A daypack is essential for traveling and I wish I had one one my second Euro-Trip so I could have done an overnighter. :D

  • Ashleigh E. Then

    You can get brown sugar, vanilla extract, and about a million other things from! It was a lifesaver when I was living in Korea and the international shipping rates are surprisingly cheap!


  • Beth

    Is it sad I had to Google Rainbow sandals? Legit didn’t know what those were– and still not sure that those exist in Chicago. Next time I go home, I’ll have to look for some since I am in need of new flipflops!

    Also, banking with Chuck is the best! I can’t believe I didn’t make the switch sooner. Over these past few months of travel I’ve saved SO much by avoiding any fees. It’s perfect. :)

    • WHAT?!? you really didn’t know what Rainbow sandals are?? Maybe people in Chicago aren’t willing to invest in $50 flip-flops knowing they will be wearing snowboots for 3/4 of the year ;)
      Chuck has probably saved me hundreds of dollars long-term. I should use that money as an excuse to shop or eat more tapas!

      • Anne

        Rainbows are a California thing I think, Jenny! I remember not knowing what they were before I moved to LA…maybe it’s just a So Cal thing?!

  • I always bring my ass shorts wherever I go….so watch out when we see you in Barca cuz I will be donning them!

  • lindsaypunk

    #literalLOLz at “ass shorts” – those are the worst! And thanks for the reminder to check out Charles Schwab – I’ve heard that’s where it’s at, but I already have 2 bank accounts so I’m like mehhhh. But blowing money on ATM fees is even more meh-worthy, so next time I spend an extended amount of time abroad I have GOT to look into this.

    • Yes, do it ASAP! Setting up banking is always less than thrilling, but I actually secretly love talking to Schwab representatives, so I never dread having to call them. They are so friendly and helpful—a welcome change from Spanish customer service!

  • Maya Martinez

    This is amazing, I felt like you were speaking directly to me for 90% of the post haha.

    • Hahah glad I could help! I remember having the backpack conversation with you this summer. That massive one you have ain’t gonna cut it on Ryanair ;)

  • Superb recommendations, Jenny—and I love the little graphic you put together.

    Definitely seconding the measuring cups and *real* brown sugar. Peanut butter is everywhere (despite what some older blogs might have said a few years ago) and you can even find (expensive) vanilla extract in most supermarkets. But clumpy brown sugar is nowhere to be found—only “natural” sugar that happens to be brown.

    And since many of our recipes are based on U.S. measurements & volume, measuring cups are very important unless you want to cry yourself back to 7th grade math and do conversions for every meal (booooo). Most Spaniards measure things by weight and in grams—so a little ring of cups and tablespoons is super helpful.

    • Thanks so much, Trevor!
      Is the vanilla extract in supermarkets the real deal? Because I swear it’s some fake stuff that requires way more for the same flavor. But maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough, since I brought some from home anyway.
      And yes, I can’t believe how different the sugar is. And no molasses to be found anywhere, so you can’t even try to fake your own! The “natural” stuff sort of works, but I can’t brag about my baking skills nearly as much in Spain as I can in the U.S. :)

  • …Extracts and measuring cups???…I didn’t think those were exotic objects–I found stuff at Carrefour last year when I made a N.Y.C.-style cheesecake!!…

    • What? Seriously?! damn, that would have made things easier, haha. But was it a massive Carrefour department store or one of the smaller Carrefour markets? I think Bilbao only had the markets, which might not have stocked those….

      • …It was what one might consider “massive”–there was an escalator that took you down to a bottom floor!!…

  • Ryan Zieman

    I couldn’t agree more, especially the part about the e-reader. It seems like EVERYONE on the Madrid Metro has one! I commuted a lot and 90% of the commuters passed the time reading. I was equally shocked by how many guys tried to rock jean shorts. Yep, I didn’t think Europeans wore shorts either – wrong! I could have use a few extra pairs too. Also, I’m literally lost without Google Maps so a smartphone with data plan is key (and for WhatsApp, of course).

    • Having a smartphone right from the get-go this time has saved me—I was able to find a piso in just one day by whatsapping everyone and running around the city with google maps. I cringe when I think about my piso hunt three years in Granada, doing everything with a flip-phone and email (Spaniards don’t love their email as much as Americans, haha)

  • Anne

    Love this post! The image is so cool! I wish I had a time machine so I could go back and reference this as twenty year old me departing for BCN. Maybe it’s time I made a return trip ;)

    • 8 years ago I would tell you to pack the peanut butter, sriracha, and quite possibly leave the shorts behind. Oh how are little Spain has changed….

  • Thanks for sharing this! I’ve been furiously going through my clothes in my apartment and getting rid of them. Not only will I pack much let but it’s my excuse to do lots of shopping in Spain ;)

  • I’ve been looking into buying my first backpacking backpack, so thank you for sharing yours!! It looks like it might be just what I’m looking for :) I have really been enjoying reading through your blog!

    • Thanks, Bethany! I can’t recommend that pack enough, it’ll be great for your year here!

      • Hi Jenny! Really enjoying reading your blog! Quick question – When looking at the Amazon sight for the Osprey pack, there is an option for the Small/Medium size and Medium/Large. Which size do you own/recommend?