Step-by-Step: Spain Packing List & Packing Tips

packing for a move abroad
I have been dreading this moment ever since I decided to move to Madrid. “Oh my God I have to pack,” has become my angst-filled mantra, which I usually follow with a lot of grumbling and paralyzing waves of anxiety.

Seriously. How am I supposed to pack for a year in Spain? How is anyone supposed to do it? Can it be done?

I put off packing as long as I could, but I’m leaving on Saturday to visit my family in New Jersey from August 31 to September 10. My flight to Madrid leaves from Minneapolis on September 12. So, it will make my life 100x easier if I at least try to pack my Spain suitcase before I leave.

So, last Sunday, that’s exactly how I spent my afternoon. And let the bells ring out over the plains of America because I did it. I packed everything into my one giant suitcase and two carry-ons. (Or, one carry-on and one personal item for the technical folk out there.)

I went from this:

(Shoes, toiletries, and purses not pictured.)

To this:

Y anímate, because you can do it too! Here’s how.

Quick Links:

Packing List for a Move to Spain

My suitcase is really large, a lá the suitcase Mrs. Kim gives Lane for her trip to Korea.

Here’s what I fit into my luggage.

Essentials:

  • Passport
  • Driver’s license
  • Credit cards
  • Debit cards
  • Two copies each of all of the above (important if any of these documents/cards get lost!)
  • Handwritten addresses/phone numbers of my friends and family

Travel aids:

  • Ear plugs
  • Sleep mask
  • Inflatable neck pillow
  • No-Jet-Lag herbal treatment (I had terrible jet-lag last time I flew to Spain. This is a homeopathic treatment and it might not work, but I’ve heard good things from other travelers. I’m willing to try it since it’s all-natural.)
  • Hand-held luggage scale (I have this one from Travelon.)

Clothes:

  • 15 shirts/tank tops/t-shirts
  • 5 pairs of jeans/pants
  • 2 skirts
  • 3 dresses
  • 2 sweatshirts (one heavy hoodie, one lighter crewneck)
  • 4 pairs of boots (three tall, one pair of heeled booties. I’ll be wearing one of my tall pairs on the plane)
  • 5 pairs of shoes (one pair sneakers, two pairs of flats, one pair of sandals, one pair of heels)
  • 5 scarves (two for winter)
  • 3 jackets (two pleather for going out, one water-resistant peacoat)
  • 2 coats (one down parka, one wool dress coat)
  • 14 pairs of underwear
  • 4 bras
  • 3 pairs of pajama pants/shorts/yoga pants
  • 10 pairs of socks (two wool for winter)
  • Misc. jewelry and earrings
  • Winter headband
  • Heavy mittens

Electronics:

  • Digital camera & charger
  • Laptop & charger
  • iPhone & charger
  • Nook Simple Touch & charger
  • A few plug adapters
  • 1 converter
  • External hard drive
  • Noise-cancelling headphones

Toiletries:
I’m not bothering with bringing full-size bottles of my usual shampoo, face wash, contact solution etc. I’ll buy those in Madrid.

  • 4 regular-sized sticks of deodorant
  • Value pack of mascara
  • Travel-sized items, including toothpaste, toothbrushes, mini deodorants, and hand sanitizer for weekend trips
  • Travel-sized bottles for liquids, which are good for refilling in Spain
  • Contact case & solution + spare contacts
  • Glasses
  • Razor and extra blades (they don’t take up too much space)
  • Sunscreen (It’s super expensive in Spain for some reason. Maybe it’s because they all have perfect Mediterranean skin and never burn.)

Makeup:
The only thing I’m stocking up on is my BareMinerals foundation. They sell it at Sephora in Spain, but it’s a lot more expensive than here. So, I’m just bringing my regular makeup bag.

How to Pack Your Suitcase to Move to Spain

Suitcase Compression Bags

My compression bags. Aren’t they beautiful?

My parents are divorced and live in different states, so I’ve been flying back and forth since I was little. (I’ve learned a packing trick or two along the way. I’ll get into those later.)

But first, I’ll let you in on my secret weapon: Roll-Up Compression Bags.

I took these to Alicante with me, and I’m in love with them. They’re like Space Bags, except you roll them up from one side instead of using a vacuum. This makes them perfect for weekend trips on RyanAir. I like Travelon’s bags, and the new versions are hybrids that give you the option to use a vacuum if you want. (You can pick them up for cheap at Marshall’s or TJ Maxx, or order them online.)

My Top 13 Spain Packing Tips

  1. Plan out your plane outfit EARLY. This helps you figure out how much you can wear on the plane. I picked my black leather boots, black leggings, a long, soft sweater, and a black jacket.
  2. Use compression bags.
  3. Pack shoes and other heavy items in your carry-on (but be sure you can still lift it into the overhead!)
  4. Always pack valuable items in your carry-on.
  5. Always pack the essentials for two-three days in your carry-on in case your luggage gets lost.
  6. Remember: It’s always cheaper to check a second bag than to pay the overweight fees at the airport. If you’re in doubt, pay the $25-$50 to check a second bag. 
  7. Everyone says this, and that’s because it’s true. Do not overpack. I brought a bunch of clothes to Alicante that I never wore, and they were just dead weight on the way back.
  8. Check one bag if possible. If you need to, you can buy a second bag in Spain and check it on the way home in June.
  9. You’ll want to shop in Spain. I know this from experience.
  10. If it dips below 40ºF (4ºC)  in the winter where you’ll be living, consider bringing a warm winter coat. For example, while Madrid doesn’t get nearly as cold as my home states of Minnesota and New Jersey, I know I’ll be walking a lot more in Spain. And, if I travel to other countries during the winter, I might need a warmer coat.
  11. Bring high-quality shoes. I know they take up a lot of suitcase space, but there’s very little “middle ground” in Spain where shoes are concerned. Cheap shoes are really cheap, but the quality is also cheap. Nice shoes are really expensive. There’s no DSW over there, people.
  12. Bring neutral clothes that match with a lot of things. Dresses should be able to be dressed down or paired with tights for the winter.
  13. I don’t work out a lot, so I saved a lot of space by not worrying about gym shorts/sneakers/sports bras. (If you need me, you’ll find me with a big wedge of cheese and some jamón.)

With all that in mind, here’s how I packed, step-by-step:

1. Start by packing heavy/bulky items on the bottom. Roll clothes where possible — do not fold.

I used to doubt this logic, (Aren’t rolled clothes tallethan folded clothes, thus negating any space-saving qualities of rolling?) but it works somehow.

  • In my case, this was my long wool peacoat, my blue rain jacket, my white jacket, and one pair of my tall boots.
  • The compression bag in this picture holds my down parka, my five pairs of jeans/pants, and a few sweaters. It’s nested on top of the boots, leaving space on the bottom edge.
First Layer Suitcase for Madrid

The first layer of my suitcase.The boots are tucked with their heels touching the blue jacket.

2. Fill your second compression bag with your remaining shirts, sweaters, skirts, and dresses. Fit as many as possible.

Suitcase Compression Bags

The second layer of my suitcase. I layered the second compression bag on top of my blue jacket and orange peacoat.

3. Leave no space unpacked.

  • Start filling in those gaps. You’re a space-saver extraordinaire! Roll up your remaining clothes and start tucking them into the empty spaces. Socks, underwear, and bras work especially well for this.
  • Squeeze your shoes down the sides of your bag, where possible. You can see I wedged my pearl-colored flats in toward the bottom of this picture.
  • Fill shoes with clothes, too. Roll shirts, scarves, etc. and stuff them into those shoes.
  • Leave room for your checked liquids/toiletry bags if necessary.
Suitcase Third Layer

The third layer of my suitcase. Rolled clothes are your friends.

4. Finish and weigh.

  • Add a final layer made up of your toiletry bag, your over-the-counter medicines, and what I fondly call a Spain Stockpile (all my extra deodorant, contacts, travel-sized items, etc.).
  • Fill in any extra spaces. I added my little pink purse and some extra scarves.
  • The final weight: 47 lbs.
Full Suitcase for Move to Spain

The fourth layer of my suitcase, a.k.a. the “finishing touches” layer.

I packed my remaining boots, shoes, and purses into my carry-on, along with my jewelry, electronics, and my important documents. (Pictured below left.) My purses make up the final top layer.

I’m thinking about swapping my little rolling carry-on for my Osprey Porter 46 pack (right, with my trusty for-scale water bottle), which I bought specifically to take on RyanAir trips. But I’ll put the same things in my carry-on regardless.

Y ya está! You’re ready to move to Spain!

Any packing tips? Anything I forgot? And, if you’re a fellow auxiliar, what are you bringing/not bringing?

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28 thoughts on “Step-by-Step: Spain Packing List & Packing Tips

  1. Fellow assistant here, currently swirling in the deep abyss of packing anxiety. I’m most concerned about choosing great versatile, not hideous, comfortable shoes since I anticipate walking way more than I do at home.

    Is Travelon’s bags the brand you used to pack here?

    • Ahaha a “deep abyss of packing anxiety” is exactly how I’d describe it. I agree that the shoe thing is a struggle. I have two pairs of high-quality leather boots that I’m bringing, and I’m hoping those will last me as long as it’s socially acceptable to wear tall boots. I’m also bringing a few pairs of flats that I can fit with those ergonomic gel pads.

      I’m kind of of the belief that your feet will eventually hurt no matter WHAT kind of shoe you wear if you’re doing a lot of walking. (Sneakers, of course, are more comfortable for longer, but don’t always hold up against cobblestones.) So, I usually aim for a compromise between style and comfort. That said, I completely understand anyone who wants to travel in sneakers!

      Yes, I’ve used Travelon’s bags since I went abroad in 2011. I still have the ones I bought before that trip, and they’ve held up great. I really recommend them. (and I promise I don’t work for Travelon or anything!) Because you don’t need a vacuum, they’re great for weekend trips on strict budget airlines. You just have to be careful of the final weight.

  2. Thank you for all the packing tips! You’re so much more organized than me. I’m still trying to get myself to spend an afternoon practice packing like you, but have only managed to stare at my packing list so far. Maybe I’ll do it this weekend….or next. Your tips will definitely come in handy!

    • You’re welcome! Haha I’m just a little Type A about planning 🙂 My practice pack was really motivated by necessity, though, since I’m leaving for New Jersey today. Otherwise I think I would have procrastinated it. I just thought I’d panic if I came back to Minnesota and only had two days to pack for Spain.

  3. This was SO great! Leaving on Friday, so this is helping to calm at least some of the many anxieties I’m facing! Quite impressed with your packing skills (and a little envious, not gonna lie).

    • Hi Kristin! I’m glad it helped! I’m leaving tomorrow, so I’m right there with you. I can’t remember if I packed pajamas, but I think they’re buried in my compression bags and I don’t want to open them. The struggle is real.

      I’m also conflicted about what kind of clothes to bring! It’s in the mid-80s in Madrid right now (which is super hot for a cool-weather dweller like me), but I didn’t anticipate that in my packing. I mostly packed long-sleeved shirts and sweaters. Blah. Where are you teaching?

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  5. This is the best list i’ve found yet! Great job! I’m planning on moving to Madrid next summer and am in the middle of the “research” phase. Want to make sure I have the best plan and lots of knowledge before making final decisions. I wish I would have taken the chance to move right after college but at 25 I’ve got money saved and it’s never too late right? Anyway, wanted to say thanks so much and if you ever have a chance to write a post on finding your flat when you arrived, it would be much appreciated!

    • Hey Kelli! Thanks for reading. Good to hear it helped — I tried to be as thorough as possible. I actually have a lot of catching up to do on this ol’ blog, so I definitely plan to get around to an apartment-hunting post soon. Until I do, feel free to get in touch via the “Contact” tab if you have any other questions. (By the way, you’ll love Madrid!)

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    • Hi Kristina! Sorry it took me so long to reply to your comment. I actually think I overpacked more than anything. There isn’t really anything I’ve desperately missed, but now that I’m on the other side of the trip I DO wish I’d packed less. I didn’t need that winter coat or those heavy mittens, or that many clothes in general. Shopping here is great, so try to pack as light as possible. Good luck!

        • I’m from Minnesota, so the winter in Madrid was extremely mild for me. It rarely dipped below 40ºF, and my winter coat was a down parka. So, no, that wasn’t necessary in the end. 🙂 I would bring a warm coat, but you probably don’t need anything heavier than a wool peacoat, plus gloves and a hat. Something waterproof would be nice as well for the occasional rainy day.

  7. thank you for posting this!! I’m moving to Prague in July (from Alabama) and I’ve been looking for a good blog that gave step-by-step info on packing. I feel so overwhelmed!! But I did go ahead and buy the compression bags and tried them out tonight. I can already tell I’m going to have to downsize….A LOT. I liked that you gave a list of EXACTLY what you were able to bring. I’ve been trying to make my list ahead of time, but I see now that I don’t need 5 hoodies haha, one will suffice. So anyway, thanks again for posting! 🙂

    • You’re welcome! I’m glad you found it helpful. 🙂 My biggest advice is to downsize as much as possible. Take half of what you think you need. I’m looking at all my stuff here and there’s no way I’ll get it home! (Although you might need two sweatshirts in Prague! I think it gets chilly there in winter.)

      Good luck and don’t worry! You can always shop there.

  8. Hi ! Thank you for this very helpful post! I was wondering , what size are the compressioned bags you used for this picture? They look super cool and I am sure after this post their sales went up. 🙂

  9. Great tips! I packed last night and leave tomorrow, I can hardly believe it. Sadly, I didn’t think to get a scale, so I feel like I’m going in blind. Have you ever had to weigh your carry on?

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  11. I’m moving to Madrid in the middle of the next year! I still have time before the packing moment comes, but it’s good to be prepared.Your packing list is great – detailed enough and simple at the same time. Thank you for sharing your experience!

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