What to Pack for Vacation: 10 International Travel Essentials

At least once a year, I like to save up some money and take a week-long trip. Whether it’s vacationing in Rome with my family of seven, or sleeping in a tent on the beach with my high school best friend, it’s crucial to escape New York City for a few days and embrace another type of adventure.

Over the years, I’ve learned some personal hacks: For instance, I now know that I prefer the aisle seat on an airplane because I always have to pee (at least twice) and I get anxiety about waking people up and asking them to move for my small bladder. I know how to use my credit card to get a free trip to Europe via points. I know I should always bring a shower cap so that I don’t waste an hour each day doing my hair. And so on.

I’ve also learned what to pack for my optimal overseas experience—and I’d like to share my findings with you! Below is a general list of 10 travel essentials. Note: If you’re headed to Iceland or somewhere cold, here is a more specific packing guide.

Ryan and I on our Saint Lucia honeymoon in 2017.

Ryan and I on our Saint Lucia honeymoon in 2017.

Let’s start with what to pack for the plane.

1. Sleep Mask

This soft sleep mask is contoured, so you’re still able to blink with it on—I personally don’t like when my eyes feel plastered to my cheeks. It also has an adjustable, Velcro strap, meaning your head is never squeezed. Grab a three pack for less than $10 on Amazon

2. Noise Cancelling Headphones

Some might say that I’m… sensitive to noise. They are correct. For instance, I hate if the person next to me on the subway is chewing gum with their mouth open—or if my neighbor on a plane starts snoring. So for Christmas last year, my parents gifted me with some brilliant, Bose noise-canceling headphones.

These little pillows of softness have been life changing (it’s worth noting that I live in the lovely but LOUD New York City). Being able to turn off the world around me when I’m trying to sleep or get work done is important. Another perk: these wireless headphones don’t insert into the ear, so I can wear them for most of a Transatlantic flight without feeling sore.

If these headphones are out of your price range, be sure to bring some ear plugs! You never know what the plane situation is going to be like.

3. Other Plane Necessities

Before boarding, I always make sure I have the following in my backpack:

  • Passport

  • Headphones (see above)

  • Sleep mask (see above)

  • A few Advil + Tylenol PM

  • Mints + chap stick

  • Toiletries bag

  • Phone charger

  • Toothbrush + facial wipes

  • Wallet + phone

  • Pen (for handling Customs)

  • Inflatable neck pillow: Does anyone have a good recommendation for this? If so, please leave a comment below—I’m looking to upgrade! I prefer an inflatable one for space, but am open to options.

Hiking the Quiraing on the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 2016

Hiking the Quiraing on the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 2016

And here’s a list of trip essentials:

4. Portable Battery

My husband bought these two products, both of which I’ve used in different circumstances. The Anker PowerCore has two jacks, making it perfect for when you’re traveling with a companion. We use this frequently on family trips.

This Jackery Portable Charger is a lighter option and great for solo travel. I also just throw it in my purse for everyday usage when I’m bopping around NYC and might not have access to an outlet for a few hours. It’s probably my favorite little purchase of 2019.

5. Outlet Converter

If you’re traveling from the United States to Europe or another part of the world, don’t forget that you’ll need an outlet converter. This one is my preferred companion because it has several outlets, as well as a USB port. I’ve probably been using this same model for about five years.

6. Quick-Dry Towel

Even if you’re not camping, these microfiber towels can be helpful in multiple travel situations. Let’s take a trip down memory lane for some examples:

  1. I used one in Mykonos on the beach because the hotel charged per towel. This was the cheaper option.

  2. My friends and I packed these for a trip to Iceland because many of the hikes end with a hot spring. This towel was much easier to lug in a backpack than a regular one.

  3. I used it in Turkey when we ran out of towels at our Airbnb. And because it dries pretty quickly (much faster than a regular towel) my backpack didn’t smell like mold on the way home.

 You get the picture. Things happen, and sometimes you want your own towel. Here are the two that I’ve used for most of my journeys: one from Amazon and one from REI.

On our way to the Blue Hole on Malta’s island of Gozo in 2019.

On our way to the Blue Hole on Malta’s island of Gozo in 2019.

7. Guidebooks + Podcasts

They may seem outdated, but a book can come in handy when your wifi isn’t working in a foreign country. I always get a guidebook for every new place I visit—when planning a trip, it’s the second purchase I make, right after the plane tickets. My favorite series is by Lonely Planet: I love that many of the recommendations come from locals or travel writers who’ve really explored the area. I also trust most of the food recommendations. If you’re more of a pictures person, I think DK Eyewitness has great visual guides and maps in their city-specific books.

And I’m always down for anything Rick Steves says about museums and attractions. He also has an app and web downloads available with podcasts for specific venues, like the Pantheon or the Palace of Versailles. My family frequently used the podcasts in Italy—they give awesome tips for how to walk through a museum or historic venue. (We even bypassed a huge line by using a hidden door in the Sistine Chapel, thanks to Steves!)

8. Raincoat + Umbrella

Don’t forget these basics, especially when traveling in spring. I venture into drizzly weather with an Eddie Bauer waterproof jacket that can double as a wind breaker and is easy to stuff into a backpack. I have a heavy duty umbrella for New York weather, but use this Repel Windproof umbrella for travel. It takes up less room, and has a handy automatic open/close function.

9. DSLR Camera

I love my iPhone camera—it does a great job capturing regular life. But there’s nothing like the clarity of a DSLR camera, particularly when the lighting is difficult or when what you’re trying to capture is far away (think, skyline shots). I also like to print my photos when I get home, and that’s when you can really tell the difference between the technology.

I’m a Canon person, simply because my parents bought me my first one as a graduation gift. It’s been traveling the world with me for the last 10 years, and I’ve never experienced an issue with the camera or the lenses. Here’s the latest version of the Canon Rebel that I’ve been using—it’s the perfect purchase for a hobby photographer. I also upgraded and bought the 18 - 135mm lens for most of my travel photos (this lens option is also available in the first link so you can purchase the body of the camera and the lens together). It has a wide focal length range, and is a step up in quality from the 18 - 55mm starter lens. You won’t need to change out your lens with this guy when traveling; it does it all. The only other lens I’ve purchased over the years is a 50mm for portrait shots. (If you have children or puppies, this one will blow your mind.)

It’s worth noting that if you’ve never used a DSRL camera before, you should practice a bit before you next adventure. I remember watching a few YouTube videos to learn the basics back in 2010! But if I can do it, believe me, so can you.

10. Collapsible Water Bottle

This is my latest purchase. I hate carrying a water bottle around—it takes up too much room and it’s always the first thing I toss out of my luggage when I’m tight on space. But I also get tired of purchasing one-off plastic water bottles; it’s not good for the environment or my wallet. Enter, the collapsible, silicone water bottle. I’m excited to take this on my next vacation.

Bonus: Travel Fan

Ok, this is not essential for everyone—but it is for me. Remember how I said I was noise sensitive? I also have a hard time falling asleep without the sound of a fan, especially if I’m sharing a room with snorers. This travel fan doesn’t make too much sound; just enough for me to black out. I will say that I have to leave the cord plugged into a USB outlet all night because the battery dies quickly. However, the lack of space the fan takes up in my suitcase was more important to me than the strength of the battery.  

Thanks for reading! I hope you found these tips to be helpful. For more travel essentials, check out my list on Amazon.

My family visiting Florence, Italy in 2018.

My family visiting Florence, Italy in 2018.

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
— Gustave Flaubert

Disclosure: some links in this article are affiliate links. This means, at no additional cost to you, I may earn a commission from a purchase you make. All products listed above have been bought and tested by me :)