Packing: A Few Tips and Tricks

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packing luggage

We realize that with COVID-19, many of you may just be hoping you get to the packing phase–and actually get to leave for your host nation.

This week, we’re bringing out of the archives tips on luggage, what to put in it, and a few ideas about what works.

When my family went over, I confess my 2-year-old may have fallen over backwards after I crammed his carry-on backpack a bit full. It was amazing how many prayers of mine were offered on behalf of that poor British Airways attendant who would be checking in (and yes, offering a lot of grace toward) our family of six.

Every Kilo Counts

  • When going overseas, some airlines, like Delta and Emirates, historically have had humanitarian fare options that also allow three (usually 23 kg) bags per person. For updated information, contact a travel agent dealing with these fares, like Golden Rule Travel.


  • Travelers with Emirates can take advantage of their Dubai Connect program to spend the night for free…with food and free visas (for passengers from certain countries, like the U.S.)…with a layover of certain lengths in Dubai.

This is a great help for jet lag, because you can actually sleep in a bed. Bonus: My family loved the water taxi, souks, and an hour at the beach! Emirates is now our favorite airline. Grab details here.)


  • Every kilogram counts. Invest in a baggage scale.

Another option: weigh yourself, then weigh yourself holding your bags. (Setting the bags on the scale might leave part of the bag flopping off the scale, and therefore not accurately weighed.)

Do this several times to ensure an accurate measurement. Leave a pound or two of leeway when packing in case your scale differs from the airport’s.

The Packing Lists

Through email, social media, or your organization, see if you can acquire lists from others already serving in your host country. They’ll know items challenging to purchase in your area.

Items of priority or acceptable quality can differ vastly from family to family. So a cross-section of families helps. And confirm availability of prescription medications.

Consider how often interns, relatives, short-termers, etc. may be coming over and willing to spend one of their bags on your behalf. (If you’re currently packing for short-term–missionaries love it when you ask what you can bring for them!)

You can set a pre-packed bag aside for the next person coming your way. This is particularly helpful if you’re homeschooling or have special medication/food-allergy needs.

It’s easy to ship items directly to them online. (This is as long as the site is still available in your country. Some sites are blocked by the store, for example, from use in African nations).

Packing: Electrical Items

If the electrical current is different where you’re going, heat-generating appliances won’t fare well. (Think slow cookers, waffle irons, curling irons.) Purchase in your host country.

Upon arrival in developing countries, purchase surge protectors for all appliances of value. Electrical current is notoriously unreliable. (We fried 3 motherboards in a matter of months.)

Plug all computers into the protector, not the wall. A small “step down” device may be worth the investment once you arrive for important, hard-to-replace devices. Back up your devices frequently. And purchase replacement surge protectors regularly, as they wear out quickly.

Confirm your computer cord has a power adapter (the large block in the middle) for other electrical currents. But it may be helpful to purchase the lower half of the cord with a plug that works in your host country.

What should I prioritize in packing?

Packing for your first trip over, prioritize items you cannot get in your host country, or that will be of considerably less quality, or of which you’re in need of specific types.

(For us, it was tools, electronics, underwear, sunscreen, price-club bags of chocolate chips, a couple of nice kitchen pots and pans, kitchen knives. I’d probably bring reusable ziplocs if I did it again).

But as you prioritize, do pack a few items that make your family feel at home. A pillowcase, a stuffie, a piece of decor, a board game, the favorite toys (we brought inordinate amounts of Nerf guns and Legos).

Also, remember you’ll be creating new rhythms of rest in your host country. What can you bring to facilitate a hobby that restores you or activities to bring your family together?

It may be harder to relax or recreate in some of the ways you rely on now. There may not be, say, a trampoline or library or skate park for the kids. But they might get to go on safari, or visit an incredible zoo. There might be a peaceful coffee shop for you to read an ebook. And packing that scooter, a street hockey stick, and strategy games might still be an option.

Research creative ways to jury-rig your family favorites. Examples:

  • copycat recipes of your favorite spice mixes (it’s super-easy to, say, make your own taco seasoning! But “chili powder” means something very different in some host countries, so I brought that one.)
  • keeping your library card if you still own property in your home country–or asking to use Grandma’s. You can check out or buy electronic forms of books rather than (heavy) paper copies.


  • Similarly, consider purchase of inexpensive reading devices for your family to save on book weight back and forth. (They can double as entertainment devices for interminable plane trips. Download apps and new music before leaving if in your host country, internet is purchased by the gigabyte.)

What to pack it in

  • Make sure to check the baggage dimensions and weight limits on your particular carrier. Some airlines, like Turkish Airlines, do weigh carry-ons. If carry-ons will not be weighed, that’s a good place to transport books and other heavy (TSA-approved) items. Just make sure you can lift the carry-on above your head.


  • Remove all packaging unless it provides unique protection. Packaging is useless weight.


  • Consider packing “stuffable” items, like clothes, in extra-large duffels (my family found some very inexpensively in the camping section at Wal-Mart; they lasted our full 5.5 year tenure in Africa).


  • Items requiring a little more protection fare better in large plastic (Rubbermaid-style) bins. Find heavy duty ones at home improvement stores. They stack easily and double as storage in your new home.

You can drill holes along the lip and secure lids to their bins with cable (zip) ties. Just be sure to tape more ties underneath the lid for security officials. Place a label on the outside stating there are more ties inside (…and prevent your undies from garnishing the tarmac).


  • To keep your belongings organized, consider keeping a spreadsheet or list of the general items in each bag. (This can also aid in the event of lost luggage.) One of our readers suggests taping a list inside the bag itself, too.

Stuff will inevitably be shifted in your last-minute efforts to get every…last…kilo out of each bag. But at least when you arrive, jet-lagged and overwhelmed, you’ll know generally where more diapers/socks/medications are.

Tip: If you’ll be staying at someone else’s home before you settle into your own place, earmark just one bag for all the things you’ll need there. It’s easier than digging through eight bags for each person’s needed items.

It’s Uphill from Here

The more we were overseas, the more we found ways to “make do” and not bring over as many items we were sure we needed. (Other global workers may be able to offer solutions for your area.)

And a little perspective always helps: You’re not packing your coffins, like global workers who’ve gone before in other centuries. The disciples were actually instructed to bring very little (Matthew 10:9-10).

Thankfully, whatever you get “wrong” in your estimates in preparing and packing–it’s just stuff. And it’s often stuff that your host country is doing great without. (Read this post, where a missionary regrets bringing too much.)

Despite the 51-lb. bags you’ll be weighing over…and over…selling the majority of your belongings can be an unspeakably light feeling of freedom: “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Simplifying is a beautiful spiritual discipline! And for everything to which you say sayonara in the name of a bigger Kingdom, God richly plans to repay you a whole lot more (Mark 10:29-30).


Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and senior editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills for Work-in-Progress Families, releases in 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at, and on Instagram @janelbreit.


Alright, overseas veterans. What packing strategies work for you?
Please comment below–and help us out!

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