In the four years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic that started in early 2020 I traveled to 19 countries and all over America, racking up nearly 200,000 miles in the air and countless more from road trips. While I now consider myself somewhat of a minimalist traveler, almost exclusively with a carry-on bag, I still manage to pack a fair amount of bits and bobs in. A future article will come about my bags of choice, for now the focus is on things that have proven to be extremely helpful and not what if items.
Breaking this list into three sections, it’s all applicable to flying domestically or internationally, and car trips, with some minor variances. There are more than 1.2 million results for the Google search term best travel accessories and like most who embark on travel, I’ve read more than a handful of these articles and watched hours of YouTubers explaining what is needed on a travel adventure. In the end, I’ve picked up some wonderful ideas, wasted some money and wished I spent more on a few items, ultimately the only real test to any of this stuff is to actually use it.
I’ve also taken the liberty to explain how or why I’ve chosen certain items and why I value them for traveling. An important note about domestic travel; A short drive from most every major airport or in nearly every city or town there’s going to be a Target or Walmart nearby. Forgetting something or choosing to buy it upon landing isn’t the end of the world. For me a prime example of this is sunscreen. TSA limitations on liquids are currently 3.4oz, anyone going to a warm destination for more than two days will likely use more than this, including both beach trips and the desert; Think about hiking through Utah’s National Parks in the summer, it routinely reaches 100°F and sunscreen is a must.
This first section are things I like to keep in a small bag or backpack typically stored under the seat in front of me on a plane or in the back seat of a car.
Hydro Flask 24oz Standard Mouth insulated Water Bottle. I do love a good 32oz Nalgene bottle and used to travel with them, and also own the larger 32oz wide mouth Hydro Flask, my preference for travel is this slimmer, slightly smaller bottle.
My reasons for choosing this bottle, it fits in most standard car cup holders / door pockets whereas the 32oz version (including Naglene) doesn’t. When placed in the water bottle pocket of my backpack it neither stretches out the mesh holder nor is it overly heavy to carry and in most airlines it will fit nicely into the seat pocket. Being insulated means it not only retains temperature for hours, both hot or cold, it also doesn’t sweat on the outside, unlike Nalgene bottles.
I’ve also filled it with hot water and 2-3 tea bags for those cold travel days. Most airports these days have filling stations attached to their water fountains, just don’t forget this must be empty to go through TSA checkpoints.
Shure SE215 Sound Isolating In Ear Monitors, also known as headphones. Anyone who has flown in economy knows that the engine noise on planes will attest that the noise starts to become slightly annoying around mid-wing and worse as you move towards the back. In looking for a comfortable pair of headphones I asked a friend who happens to fly a lot more than I do for some suggestions. He let me borrow a backup set of Shure’s and I was hooked, here’s why.
Shure was a pioneer in high end audio, so these sound great, but more importantly they are designed to fit snugly inside your ear and wrap around the back, making them both virtually impossible to fall out and easy to sleep on without pinching or pain. Sound isolating means choosing the right foam tips that go into your ears and putting them on the monitors, then each time you insert them using your fingers to mush them together a bit, like a foam ear plug. As they expand back out to fill up the nooks and cranny’s of your ear, they will block out ambient sound. This differs from active noise reduction headphones and in ear monitors that need a battery to help cancel sound out via advanced technology. Yes, they are wonderful but cost significantly more, require carrying backup batteries, are larger and heavier.
Considering my track record with breaking cables, I’m going for the cheaper pair. But why wired, why not Bluetooth? I’ll tell you. Inflight entertainment doesn’t support bluetooth, so on most flights to enjoy a movie on the seat back in front of you, a wired pair are needed. Wired headphones also never need to be charged.
iPhone / iPad Dongle for Shure in ear monitors. For Apple users, to use any standard wired 3.5mm headphones a dongle is needed, either the Lightning version for iPhones or the USB-C for newer iPads. Not all airlines are equipped with in-flight entertainment and the current trend for some has been to offer the entertainment streamed at no charge to a mobile device over in-air WiFi, utilizing the airlines app (Looking at you United) instead of the TV in the seat back. If you’ve bought into the Apple world, you’ll likely need to get one or both of these dongles.
I keep them in the travel pouch my Shure headphones came in. Also, sometimes listening to music on long train rides or to fall asleep to in a nosiy hotel or Airbnb helps, and again the Shure’s are great to sleep with.
AirPods. I know I just gave a whole speech about the virtues of wired headphones but honestly, AirPods are pretty great for anytime you’re not in the air. Because they offer no noise isolation or cancelling, chances are the volume will need to be cranked during a flight, but for everything else, these are amazing.
I loathe holding a phone up to my head anymore so these are a problem solver, additionally I’ve found that making phone calls while driving using AirPods instead of the in-car audio leads to a better sound for the person on the other line.
It’s a bit of a luxury, but I do enjoy using them. As a measure of protection, to make them a little less slippery and to have an ability to clip them to something I got a cheap silicone case for them.
Anker USB Lightning Cables. Factory Apple charging cables are pretty good these days but I hate having to find one laying around my house or pull it from my car when it’s time to travel. I’ve found the Anker cables, while a slight premium over generic ones available just about everywhere to be well worth it. They always work, are certified by Apple and carry a lifetime replacement warranty, one I’ve used with absolutely no issues.
I keep one coiled up inside the Shure in ear monitor case with the dongle and headphones, that way it’s always with me and ready to charge my phone or AirPods.
Kindle Paperwhite. I love the smell of books as much as the next person but I hate lugging them around, even more if I finish a book while on a trip then have to carry it home. I also have absolutely zero desire to build a home library, but that’s another topic. I got one of the cheaper Kindle cases with smart auto-cover and it shows zero signs of wear. The same company makes an Origami version that I’ve had on my wishlist for a while, just haven’t pulled the trigger. Hindsight, I should have bought that one.
After a lot of consideration, thought and what if I hate this thing I bought one about a year ago and fell in love, I actually read more now than ever before in my life. It’s incredibly easy on the eyes, will store thousands of books and I love the highlight option that will send a copy to my email address.
The battery lasts forever, it takes up virtually no room and maybe best of all, the back-lighting works amazingly well, no need to be that person on a plane that turns the reading light on during a night flight. Check out my reading list for some inspiration!
Raw Brass Space Pen. I don’t need to tell you what a pen does, but I can tell you that flying into most foreign countries, or returning back to the USA from a trip abroad will require you to fill out an entry slip, in some cases an exit slip, too. When the flight attendants pass out these forms there seems to be a mad dash for pens because very few people have one within arms reach. My preference is the Space Pen finished in Raw Brass.
It’s a bit of a luxury item to have but I like the way the brass feels when I write with it and it’s always changing, the patina always evolving. Most importantly it utilizes a pressurized ink cartridge that is designed to write at any angle, including under water and has very little chance of ever leaking or exploding. Spending $25 on a pen isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, if you just want a cheap, good writing pen I also like the Pilot G2 Mini.
Titanium Spork Set. These sporks are sold separately but I suggest buying a pair. Why a pair? First off, it’s impossible to use the knife portion in one hand without holding the food in place with either your hand or, another spork in your other hand. Second reason, you may want to share your food with someone. These are TSA approved for carry on and I’ve never had an issue taking them through check points, domestically or abroad.
The amount of times I’ve bought take-away, had food delivered or just picked up something at a Tesco or random gas station and either forgot to grab disposable silverware or just wasn’t given any was more than enough to cause me to look into sporks. I chose the titanium versions because I felt they would last longer, and will bend not break.
They aren’t cheap though, so if you’re on a budget or just not sure if they are for you, the plastic version is a fraction of the price and sold in a set of 2.
Wet Wipes. Self explanatory and available in a wide range of scents or unscented, the individually packaged ones are great to keep one in an outside pocket of a bag for easy access.
Sunglasses. As someone who wears prescription glasses and
can’t won’t wear contacts, I’ve invested in a pair of prescription sunglasses and can’t believe it took me as long as it did. I went years just squinting and getting by, now they are an absolute must. If you wear contacts or have great vision, I can’t stress the importance of not forgetting sunglasses on any trip, regardless of destination or time of year. Since this is a very personal preference, I won’t leave any suggestions here.
RFID Blocking Passport Wallet. All USA passports from 2007 to present have an RFID (radio frequency identification) chip embedded in them. This is the same technology that allows EZ-Pass to know you’re going through a toll rode and is often used to track movements within both domestic and foreign airports. It’s also possible for scammers to steal your information if you’re within range.
This is a super cheap, functional wallet and document organizer that has RFID blocking technology built into it. I’ve been using this exact one for several years and it shows no signs of wear. Additionally, the passport is easy to remove, most checkpoints do not want your whole wallet when they scan the passport, if you do choose to put credit cards or cash in here you also likely don’t want to willingly hand that over, either. Cheap insurance that will help keep you protected and organized.
These are items that take up virtually no room in a bag, weigh next to nothing and are just a good idea to keep with you for a weekend getaway or a multi-week trip to the other side of the globe.
Nail Clippers. Personal hygiene is important. Aside from that, if you’re gone for 10 days or more, there’s a good chance your toe nails could grow a bit longer than are comfortable in your shoes. This is extremely important as most people are walking during vacations more than normal and foot or toe pain can absolutely ruin a trip. They weigh almost nothing and are kept in my dopp bag.
Folding Scissors. These stay in the little velvet bag the nail clippers came with, are TSA approved for travel and have come in super handy for all the reasons scissors always come in handy. Stainless steel means they should last forever.
Recovery Derm Shield Tattoo Aftercare Bandage. This is my preferred method for healing tattoos, an updated and I think better version of 3M’s Tegederm that was originally created to help protect wounds. Essentially it’s a breathable (outward, nothing can get in) bandage put over fresh tattoos. Having been tattooed in both Thailand and Paris, it’s possible that during my travels I may randomly get tattooed again so why not keep this in my bag? Moreover, this bandage can also be used for minor cuts, scrapes or road rash in ways normal band-aides or traditional gauze bandages never could.
Would have been super helpful when I fell taking sunset photos in Thailand a few years back. I typically put 2-3 sheets into a zip-top bag and it goes in the bottom of my bag, takes up no room and weighs nothing.
Pro-tip, using the previously mentioned scissors to cut an appropriate sized piece for the tattoo (or wound) is really helpful.
Laundry Sheets. This may be one of my favorite travel hacks I’ve ever stumbled across. While I previously mentioned that most places in the USA are within a half hour or less of a Target or Walmart, buying travel sized laundry detergent is still kind of a rash, can still leak and not always easily available in foreign countries.
I almost exclusively travel with only a carry on and no more than five or six days worth of clothing, on trips longer than a week it’s imperative I book an Airbnb with a washing machine. I’ve also stayed in hotels that had coin-operated washing machines and used local laundromats while on the road.
Lastly, going home with fresh clothes and not needing to unload and immediately do laundry is pretty nice. These sheets look like thicker versions of dryer sheets but will dissolve and wash your clothing in top or front loading machines and do a really good job of it. I’ve found that a half sheet will wash a half load (a week or so) worth of clothing with ease.
Two or three sheets go into a zip-top bag and again, at the bottom of my bag with the Recovery Derm Shield. Takes up zero room, weighs nothing. Pro tip, do a load of laundry at home before a trip with these sheets to make sure you’re comfortable with the scent, and to ensure you have no sensitivity to anything in them.
Clothes Line. Going along with the laundry sheets, this was another travel hack that kind of blew my mind, and continues to amaze anyone I’ve ever shared it with. Made of three silicone tubes braided together, this line can be stretched and strung between most anything in a hotel room or Airbnb, you’d be amazed.
It’s designed for you to pinch a piece of fabric and pull between the braids so it can hang and dry, clothes pins are not needed. Shirts for example only take up about 4-5″ of the line since you’re only going to pull through a piece of the collar where the tag is.
Why is this so mind blowing? Because dryers are not common in most of the world, including many places I’ve been in Europe and South East Asia. An Airbnb may have a washing machine in it but no dryer, and the hosts aren’t always mindful enough to put a drying rack of sorts in the room, nor does there ever seem to be enough hangers in the closet.
I’ve attached mini S-Biners to each end to make tying them up a bit easier. Going one step further, this line can be strung between the rear grab handles of your car or a rental in the event you get caught in the rain, hang your clothes up to dry while you’re driving!
Pill Boxes. I take a few daily supplements and a probiotic and needed a way to easily take them with me. These small cases are waterproof and have worked well for me, although they are fairly small, if you take a handful of pills daily you may want larger ones. My goal in using them was two find an easy way to bring my daily pills and not take full bottles and waste space in my bag.
The TSA does not require prescription drugs to remain in their original containers, they can be put into pill boxes per their website. Liquid drugs, over the counter and prescription must still be in quantities less than 3.4oz and in a zip top bag.
Justin’s Peanut Butter. Every airline I’ve ever flown on has allowed food to be brought on board, some TSA agents require food be taken out and placed in a bit, but regardless, these single serving packets of Justin’s Peanut Butter can sometimes provide that little extra bit of pep to ya’ step on long travel days. For car trips, who doesn’t want to pack a goodies bag?
They come in a bunch of variants too, including Honey Peanut Butter, Maple Almond Butter, Choclate Hazelnut & Almond Butter and more. For obvious reasons, if you or someone you travel with has an allergy, don’t consume.
Canned Grape Leaves (Dolmas). Another one of the go-to snacks I travel with are these wonderful cans of grape leaves, with an easy pull tab to open so no can opener is needed. Great time to bust out those sporks! They are packed in oil but I’ve found them to be easy to eat just about anywhere and a good source of some quick carbs if you’re in need.
Green Tea Bags. While I’m a coffee snob through and through, I can’t say the same about tea, although I do enjoy it. Over the years I’ve developed an appreciation for a cup of tea in the evenings while traveling and for this reason always throw a few tea bags into my travel bag. I’ve also been known to hit the local grocery store or Tesco for a small jar of honey while on the road.
Rubz Massage Ball. I can’t even recall how I came across this product or why I might have even been looking for it, but my Amazon purchase history tells me that I bought my first one in March of 2018. I keep one under my home office desk to roll my feet out on and then bought a second to travel with.
Slightly smaller than a racquetball, it wasn’t the most fun thing to use when I got it and then I quickly fell in love. Just rolling it around on the floor while working is relaxing and after a long day of walking while traveling, it’s great to stretch out and calm some of the foot pains that often creep up.
AAA Brass Flashlight. Yes, the light on an iPhone is probably all you’ll ever really need but I like having a stand alone flashlight, even better that this one is made of brass and will patina with use and age (see a trend with me yet?). There are cheaper, lighter and maybe more powerful ones but this ticks a lot of boxes for me and I’ve found it very useful on many of the trips it’s gone on me with. When I’ve forgotten to pack a headlamp in the past I’ve simple clipped this on the brim of my baseball hat and had a hands free light source. The AAA battery lasts extremely long and they are cheap and easy to find replacements just about anywhere in the world.
A Journal. Over the years I’ve tried a handful of different ways of journaling , including the bullet method, 5 Minute Journals, Better Self, and have found just a blank page works best for me. Additionally, taking notes is sometimes necessary, maybe you met someone on a plane or a train or at the hotel check in who makes some food or adventure suggestions, or a great place to see a sunset. Regardless, I think having one is worth it.
Packable Shopping Bag. Lets face it, we should all be using these, all of the time when going to the grocery store, farmer’s market, antiquing, etc. These affordable, ultra compact and packable shopping bags will easily slide into your back pocket or clip to your belt loop and will come in astoundingly handy. Most European countries I’ve been in charge a small fee per plastic bags at the grocery store, including my favorite, Tesco. Save a few quid and save the planet at the same time.
It’s a portable bag, I don’t think a whole write-up about how important these are but I’ll go ahead and share two more uses for them. Sometimes a larger personal bag is needed when getting on the plane due to buying too many souvieners, or in my case, too much coffee. The second use is as a beach bag. Throw your towel, Kindle, sunscreen and some snacks in here and all of a suddent you’re all organized and ready for sandy toes.
Packable Towel. It’s a towel, it’s used to dry you off. ‘Nuff said. But seriously, these things are magical and somehow manage to never be wet like a traditional bath towel. I’ve had the personal sized one (left of my Hydroflask in the above photo) for a few years now, if I’m being honest, it’s a bit too big but, it does serve well as a beach towel.
Not every Airbnb I’ve been in comes with towels (odd right?) and not every one near a beach or pool has towels that are marked as such.
There’s some technology that prevents them from getting musty or smelling odd, they dry out incredibly fast and in a pinch will work as a light blanket. If I were buying again I’d probably get one size smaller.
Coin Pouch. When I got to Switzerland I exhchanged some US dollars for Swiss francs and was given a small stack of paper bills. Upon the first use of them I was introduced to why just about everyone carries a coin pouch in this country; Coins as currency are a real thing here! Sure, we have coins here in America, too, but the $1 coin never caught on and we don’t have a $5 coin. Switzerland does, and they love to use it!
There’s a little pocket in the top of my backpack, intended for your keys to go and maybe something like chapstick. I threw some change in there and went on with my day. Same thing happened again when I purchased something with paper bills, I was handed back a fistful of coins. The Swiss franc is close enough to 1:1 in conversion, before I knew it there was $45 worth of Swiss franc coins in the little pocket of my backpack. It took me a minute to get used to using coins in denominations that high.
After that trip I got the Maxpedition coin pouch and have used it in several countries since. It came in extremely handy in Japan where they too are heavy coin users and credit card acceptance is no where near where it is here in the USA. It’s some crazy strong synthetic material and shows no wear.
There’s no escaping it, technology is almost needed to travel these days, from boarding passes to pulling up train schedules and GPS, there’s some level of tech traveling with us at all times.
Anker Power Bank. The model I use is no longer offered and right now, I wouldn’t suggest it. It weighs 8 ounces (that’s a half pound!) and only recharges via micro-USB, so it’s a tad slow. Why travel with a power bank? Not all planes have USB charging ability, and I’m not just talking about the budget airlines, some of the older fleet in the big names don’t have in-seat USB capabilities.
On a long flight, this can be annoying, especially if you’re watching a movie on your phone. On a road trip, someone else might have the USB cable at the time and you can’t charge, or on a long hike it can be helpful to keep a power bank in the bag to recharge if you’re Google Maps is sucking the life out of your battery.
Again I’m going to rely on Anker for their proven history of quality products; There are much cheaper companies out there but considering I’m plugging a $1,000 iPhone and a $400 GoPro into this, I’d prefer them not to get fried. My recommendations are, in no particular order but more so on how you may use them, as follows:
Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth Speaker. I’m suggesting this small Bluetooth speaker even though I don’t own it because it’s made by the same company of the one I do own and is significantly cheaper. I don’t recall paying more than maybe $50 for my speaker but for some reason it’s now $200, while the Wonderboom looks amazing and is significantly cheaper, still waterproof and very portable.
Traveling with a small speaker is a luxury, but I think it can really help transform a trip and make it more enjoyable. Often the Airbnb’s I rent or even hotels don’t have any sort of stereo or Bluetooth speaker setup, some don’t have TVs or only have limited local channels and can leave a space very quiet and uninspiring. Just playing some background music can really change the mood, help unwind and round out a trip.
International Power Adapter with USB. The one I’ve been using for the last six years has been discontinued, if I was buying a replacement this is what I’d buy. Worth noting, this will almost always be found in my bag, even when traveling domestically because of the USB ports for charging multiple devices at once.
Pro tip for packing, if you’re taking shoes or boots, this will slide inside one of the shoes!
Anker Mini Car Charger. This is an essential for road trips and anytime a car rental is needed. While most modern cars have at least one USB port and many have CarPlay, it shouldn’t be assumed and, you may need more than one plug to recharge stuff. I rely heavily on Google Maps while driving, this can be draining on an iPhone battery when CarPlay isn’t an option, so for this reason alone I’ll keep the charger in my bag.
Additionally, I’ve found that driving can be a great time to recharge power banks, AirPods and my Kindle, so one of this $10 tiny accessories is a no-brainer. Don’t forget to remove it from the rental car though!
Sunscreen. I know earlier I said that it’s stupid to fly with sunscreen when there’s a Target near every airport and it’s plausible to pass many on a road trip, but there’s an exception; International travel where the locals don’t wear sunscreen. Learned this the hard way on my first trip to Costa Rica when I walked into the grocery store and saw the sunscreen was locked away in the aisle like some prized possession. Shock hit me when I saw a tube of Banana Boat at the equivalent of $45usd. I prefer No-Ad stick sunscreen since it doesnt count against my liquid limit for carry-on.
3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent. In researching the trip to Thailand and Cambodia that my friends and I went on a few years ago, bringing insect repellent with DEET in it was mentioned on multiple sites. Again, the locals don’t use it so if you do manage to find some, it’s going to be at a serious premium.
Foreign Currency. This is a topic that should be a blog post on its own, but what I will say about foreign currency is that it’s a good idea to return to the USA with between $5 and $20 of money. Aside from the fact that most countries paper bills are full color and beautiful, I’ve found it helpful when returning to a country to have a few bucks of local money available in the event you need to tip someone or catch a taxi prior to doing a currency exchange. Also, if you have a friend who will be traveling there soon, pass it on to them so they will benefit from it. Often the exchange rate on $20 is going to be awful anyway, so find another way to re-use it.
Travel Pillows. Maybe controversial, but I don’t travel with a pillow or neck ring or anything. I’ve tried a few over the years and honestly, they just aren’t for me. A hoodie that is balled up works well enough for me. I also find the huge horseshoe shaped neck pillows aggressively annoying in all aspects of traveling.
Umbrellas. I carried a small umbrella with me on countless trips and never once used it. I don’t use one in my normal life here in the states, rather preferring a waterproof shell jacket with hood if I know I’ll be outside for a while in the rain. After unpacking it too many times without use, I decided to leave it home.
True life, I’m a minimalist traveler who has a blog post about the 30 things I almost always travel with. Not everything goes with me all the time but most of it does, and I will continue to refine what is essential as traveling hopefully starts again in late summer of 2021.
Wrapping this article up I want to mention that I stopped traveling with what if items a long time ago. These cluttered my bag, sometimes were gimmicky travel versions or just plane junk. When I add something to my bag it’s because there was a moment in a trip where I realized I didn’t have it, and I would 100% use it for future trips. The coin pouch being the most recent travel only accessory I bought that filled a void for me, I don’t use it while home in the states.Read On
I hunt plane ticket deals like it’s my job and do my best to take advantage of deals when I find them, as often as possible. A few months ago a $121* round trip ticket from Philadelphia (PHL) to San Diego (SAN) came across my screen and I hopped on it. (more…)Read On
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Something witty will go here