"Packpourri" is your place for all sorts of travelite information that you won't find in the other sections of this web site. Information on niche markets, specialized travel and other ideas are here. If you have wee young ones, be sure to read our most recent addition about travel with babies.
The following are a list of hodge podge items I have found useful in my travels. Those with an * by it are ideas I came up with, that you might not read anywhere else. They might be a little unusual or odd, but I encourage you to give them a try. Let me know what you think!
One of the keys to traveling lightly is to give the illusion that you have a large wardrobe (although if you are regularly on the move, you could wear the same outfit and nobody would notice!). For men, this means taking an extra tie or or two. For women, it means taking a silk scarf, a simple brooch and some cheap jewelry with you. Scarfs are incredibly versatile (for thinner folks, it can even be tied to be worn as a halter top!) and give totally different looks, depending on how they are worn. Make sure your scarf coordinates with the color scheme of your outfits.
Your business cards are indispensable if you are on a business trip, but consider taking along some cards even on vacation. You never know who you'll meet, and it's a good way to network. With business cards you are not giving away your home address either, in case the lovely church lady you met in Amsterdam last week turns out to be shadier than a five o'clock shadow. If you want to be really cautious, consider getting a small batch of cards printed up that provide even less personal information than your regular business cards contain. For example, omit the department name and your title, or your direct office phone. At the extreme, you can give out a card with just your name and email address.
It bothers me a great deal when people spend all their vacation time with their eyes glued to the eyepiece of a camcorder, enjoying their vacation only vicariously through the video they shoot...which they watch when they get home. If you're going to just watch TV, why don't you stay at home and watch the Discovery Channel? I make exceptions for some things, like your baby's first trip to grandma--but I personally don't think it's worth the added weight and hassles. [However, please don't get angry at me if you leave your camcorder home after reading this FAQ, and miss the chance opportunity to record breaking news.]
Over the past year, I have somewhat changed my mind about camcorders. I now believe it is possible to experience a vacation even with a camcorder in hand. Some formats are very small and take little more than an SLR 35mm camera. In addition, these "freelance photo-reporters" have caught some of the most incredible and newsworthy footage shown on the news today, because they were there.
I used to be a serious photographer, which meant I carried one (if not two) camera bodies, and three lenses with me. Add a tripod and a big flash to that, and I had a separate carry-on. I have long since discovered that unless I am on a photography safari, there is little reason to lug that much camera gear with me. Instead, I have opted for the smaller point-and-shoot cameras. Many of them are surprisingly good, and my current recommendation is for the Yashica T4. Also recommended by traveler Philip Greenspun, the T4 is a well-built tiny camera that produces surprisingly nice results. The major benefit of these tiny things is that they take up barely any room in your bag. The major disadvantage of the T4 is that is not a zoom camera. If you want close-ups, YOU have to get up close. Visit Philip's travel photography web site for tips on choosing a camera.
For some people, "travel" equates "photo opportunity." If you fall in this category, you might want to take a camera bag as one of your carry-ons. Travel with an SLR (or medium format) camera, zoom lens, separate flash, and a tripod (or a monopod). Photography is especially a great activity for those traveling alone, who have the flexibility to maintain strange hours (up at dawn, napping at noon, etc.) and solitude.
Another suggestion these days is to forego the regular camera altogether and take along a digital camera. Most are barely larger than ordinary point-and-shoots, and many of them come with additional flashcards for memory storage, allowing you to hold upwards of 100 photos per card. Some models also allow you to delete your mediocre shots, so you end up with the best stuff to take home. An excellent digital camera review is available at CNet, and lists a rather exhaustive list of reviewed products.
If you don't want to get caught up in photography, take a little sketch pad with you! Not an accomplished artist? So what? Doodle some general impressions anyway. Your other alternative is to keep a travel journal; techno-minded folks can use a micro-cassette player to record their thoughts.
A very handy stand-by if you lose electricity, a small votive candle will take up barely any room in your bag. The candle wax can also be used to loosen up sticky zippers as well.
Those little lined check registers you record the usage of your personal checks in, make the best little notebooks! They fit in your belt pouch/fanny pack/wallet, and you can use it to keep track of traveller's checks, rolls of film, travel budget, and still leave you with room to write down the addresses of newfound friends! Best of all, they're free from your bank! What more could you want?
Checkbook cover/check register combo: I carry my check register in a plastic checkbook cover (again, free from your bank). I found a little note pad the size of checks that I have slipped into the cover as well. I now use this to store everything important (except airline tickets, which don't fit). I keep postcard stamps, pre-addressed self-adhesive labels for my friends (to send postcards), used airline boarding passes, business cards, etc. It still takes up minimal space, and the checkbook cover keeps things like your postage stamps from getting wet!
Coffee Can Lids/Flying discs
Plan to do some of your own picnicking? In addition to taking your Swiss Army knife, don't forget to toss in a flexible plastic lid from a three-pound can of coffee! These things take up almost no room, but come in as a handy plate for those impromptu picnics. The lip at the edge catches any liquids or morsels from spilling. This tip is from Rick Steves.
If you enjoy throwing flying discs (like the Frisbee brand), you might use one of these instead of a coffee can lid. Be careful, though: If you've been tossing it about it may be a tad dirty and you will want to wash it before putting any food on it. If you don't yet have a flying disc and would like to pick one up, you will find cheap inexpensive ones at some pet stores (many people like to play toss-and-catch with their dogs). Most flying discs I've seen are priced around $5.00 but I recently found one at a pet discount store for only one dollar. Also, if you attend conventions or conferences, you might be able to find exhibitors giving away free promotional flying discs imprinted with their brand logo.
Even the lightest traveler will usually want to carry an everyday bag. Depending on the size of your carry-on, you can empty out your stuff and use your carry-on bag. Some travelpacks have daypacks that zip off the front. I use an expandable backpack from Lewis & Clark: Made of parachute nylon, it packs into the size of a small coffee mug. It carries my umbrella, camera, paperback book, and whatever else I want to carry during the day. I usually leave it pretty empty, since it often gets used for carrying souvenirs. Unfortunately, there aren't too many companies currently making expandable day packs--I have an old one from L.L. Bean (it's been off their catalog for a few years). Eagle Creek has one, but it collapses into a stiff fanny pack that I don't really like.
Campmor catalog lists "Camp Trails Packables," a day pack and a duffel bag--both made of 2.1oz nylon and packable in its own little pouch. Both of these are priced at $9.99 each. A steal! The product number for the day pack is 99860-N and unfortunately, it is not yet listed at their web site.
Don't forget to stick a small roll of waxed dental floss in your toiletry kit or sewing kit. They not only keep your teeth clean; they work real well as sewing thread. Embarrassed to use white floss for sewing? Use a mint green one!
In addition to my clothes, undergarments and toiletry kit, I usually have a separate little sack where I keep small miscellaneous items such as ear plugs, playing cards and a little sewing kit. My ditty bag also contains an odd collection of things that I have discovered very handy on my trips, including:
Fanny Packs/Bum Bags/Belt Pouches
If you would like to carry something smaller than a day pack, a fanny pack/bum bag is one of the most convenient ways to go. I use my Eagle Creek Spare Pocket as my everyday purse--it has a strap that you can wear long as a shoulder bag, or tighten up to wear around your waist. The Spare Pocket isn't very large, though (it won't fit a thick paperback book), but there are other bags that are slightly larger, that will also wear around your waist. They're available again from places such as LL Bean and Eagle Creek. Note: Do not refer to them as "fanny packs" in the UK, where the word refers to a woman's private parts!
Eagle Creek has modified their Spare Pocket and it's now a little roomier! It should easily fit a checkbook and a paperback book. The seam on the front pocket now has two darts (gathers--it's a sewing term) that allow you to put more things in it. The zipper on the front flap is no longer diagonal, and goes straight across. Everything else is the same. How to find the right version: Look at the zipper on the front flap. If it's diagonal, it's the old model. Check the bar code inventory number on the back as well. The new model is the B4606C. The old one is B4605C.
Janet M. has a nifty suggestion. She sewed some black lightweight stretchy fabric into a simple slip-on cover for her Spare Pocket, then used a strap off an old evening bag with nice gold-colored snap-hooks to switch hers at night into a nice little evening purse during her travels.
Faucet handle/radiator key
Matt M from Minneapolis suggests the following: "In europe in the winter, I find it handy to carry a universal faucet handle and a radiator key to adjust the heat (either up or down). They are very cheap at any hardware store and dont take up much room. They have saved me from many too cold (or too hot) nights on the road."
First Aid kit
My "first aid kit" contains the bare essentials, and is housed in a little bag the same size as my toiletry kit, making it easy to carry around in my day pack. It contains small ziploc bags of things like bandages, antibiotic cream, antihistamine, anti-diarrheal, aspirin, tweezers, and alcohol wipes. I also have a tiny Swiss Army knife (knife, file, scissors) that's attached to a small pair of nail clippers, and a flash light the size of a lighter.
Instead of using a manila envelope like many travel books suggest, take a few US Postal Service Priority Mail Flat-Rate envelopes with you. These stiff envelopes work great to hold your travel papers, have their own adhesive for mailing, and are flat-rated, which means no matter how many maps you stuff in one, it will only cost you the two-pound rate (which as of 1998 is $3.00). Although you now have to take it in person to the post office if your envelope weighs more than 16 ounces (one pound), you can buy your $3.00 stamps in advance, and just hand the envelope over to the postal clerk without digging for change. Best of all, these envelopes are free at the US post office! Another item you might try is the Priority Mail Tyvek envelope. These are absolutely tear-resistant, waterproof and will fit far more than the flat-rate envelope will hold. However keep in mind that your postage may increase as you could pack several pounds' worth in one of these.
Most packing lists will recommend handkerchiefs or bandanas. Bandanas serve double-duty as a casual scarf, but the one light hand-towel I use is a "Handi Wipe." These are reusable disposable cloths marketed for various uses such as cleaning kitchen counters. The reason I swear by these is that they take up practically zero space in your luggage, dry in an instant, and are disposable so I can easily toss them if they get old and worn.
Inflatable Neck Pillows/Back Pillows
If you are planning on spending long hours on planes or trains, the traditional C-shaped inflatable neck pillow is indispensable in preventing sore necks. I have also discovered however, that a pillow against your lower back helps keep your back from feeling too sore, either. The Bucky Company makes C-shaped neck pillows filled with buckwheat hulls, and they are very comfortable. Unfortunately these take up quite a bit of space so I cannot recommend them for light travel. The exception would be if you were driving, and had room in your car for it.
Depending on where you go and the time of year, you will wish to carry insect repellent with you. Fortunately there are now a number of products that use a sunblock/insect repellent combination so you can carry just one bottle. A vacation can be easily ruined by lots of mosquito bites (and we're not even discussing malaria transmission).
Keychain of goodies
I carry one of these with my set of keys and the only way I can describe it is my "keychain of goodies." Minimally, I carry a small pair of baby nail clippers by Gerber, a military can opener, and a pair of military tweezers. The nail clippers come in handy when I have a little fingernail snag or breakage. I've discovered that the Gerber nail clippers are very well made and the two blades meet up perfectly (have you sometimes noticed that cheap fingernail clippers don't clip your nails smoothly?). The clippers are also quite small, only about 1.5 inches long. The military can opener is even smaller than the nail clippers, made of a rectangular metal sheet and the "cutter" joined to the sheet with a hinge. Military surplus stores carry these, including places such as US Cavalry and are usually a couple of bucks for two of them. They are the smallest can openers you will find. The tweezers are again small, the size of the can openers. The tweezers snap onto the holder, which can be looped through the keychain. These tweezers are made of a flat piece of metal pointed at both ends and folded in half. They do not look at all like any tweezers at the drugstore. They also work better than any of them, in my opinion. Again, these can be purchased at military surplus stores for about $5.00.
Traveling light means you will probably need to wash your clothes during your trip. Many hotels and motels in the US have laundromat facilities, although for some things you may want to be hand washing regularly (i.e. underwear, lightweight socks). You don't really need laundry detergent if washing by hand, and I advise against your taking clothing that requires you use only products such as Woolite. For hand washables, use your shampoo or hotel bar soap. Camping soap (Biosuds, Dr. Bronners) will work as well. However if you are using a laundromat please use laundry detergent as I really can't vouch for how well the other forms of soap work in the washers. You might want to get yourself a clothes line (the travel stores sell rubber ones that stretch and do not require use of clothes pins). Don't forget the sink stopper (listed below).
What better way for a thief to find out that your house is empty for looting than by looking at your luggage tag? The following are some suggestions on how to make the best use out of your luggage tags:
Instead of lugging your entire address book (and risk losing it), print out a set (or two, if you write a lot) of mailing labels of your friends for sending postcards. You might also bring a set of your own labels, which you can pass out to newly found friends (or to mail things back to your house).
Money Belts/Security Pouches
So you have a day bag and a fanny pack. You didn't even dare think you could leave your wallet in them though, did you? The bulk of your money, passport, credit card and other valuables should all be kept next to your skin under your clothes. You can wear a security pouch in various forms--you can wear them around your waist, your calf, your chest or under your armpit. Regardless of which model you use, they should lie flat against you, and be worn next to your skin. If you wish to keep money in your pocket, wear pockets with zippers (or stitch your own velcro patches on them). Never ever wear your wallet in your back pocket, the first place a pickpocket aims at. Wear your wallet in your front pocket, under your jacket or shirt if at all possible. Your wallet should only contain the day's spending money, and some loose change. For more information on travel security and scams, Marc Brosius has put together a document about it.
Postcards of Home
Take along a small handful of picture postcards from your hometown, or from the nearest famous city. For example if you live in the outskirts of San Francisco you may wish to get some postcards of the Golden Gate Bridge. These postcards barely take up any room in your carry-on, but are wonderful to give away to folks you meet on your trip. If your postcard has a photo of a famous landmark, it's possible your newfound friend has seen that image before. If desired, you can jot down your name and address (or email address) on the postcard when you give it out.
Rubber Sink Stopper/Jar Opener*
Most people like Rick Steves will recommend that you take a rubber sink stopper with you, because you are never guaranteed that the ones in your sink will work. The stoppers they recommend are round flexible disks, about the size of your outstretched hand. I have an additional suggestion for you. Instead of a sink stoppers, go to the kitchen section of the store and buy a rubber jar opener. They are about the same size, but have a better grip, and are thinner than the sink stoppers. These will serve dual duty as sink stopper and jar opener. Try buying a jar of olives for your picnic and struggle to open it! I know, because I experienced it myself.
Shipping Stuff Home
Whether it be old maps of places you already visited, or souvenirs you don't want to carry. Make it a habit to ship some of the stuff home so you don't have to lug them everywhere. You can take some pre-addressed manila envelopes with you so you can ship things home easily.
More than anything, Wear Comfortable Shoes for your trip! Nothing ruins a vacation more than blisters and sore feet. Fortunately, it is getting easier to find stylish shoes that are also very good for walking. Most men will find that the black leather walking shoes, made by New Balance, Rockport, etc. are good looking, and comfortable. I don't know if it's a vestige of the clunky ugly nurse's shoes, but women's walking shoes in the US are unfortunately often bleach-white. Overseas, these mark you as an ignorant American tourist--a terrible fate that attracts pickpockets and behind-the-back sniggers. Avoid white shoes, bright-colored running shoes and loud high-tech athletic shoes altogether if you wish to blend in. You can either look around for a neutral beige or black pair (they do make them), or wear low-heeled comfortable covered shoes such as the ones from Easy Spirit or Rockport. The added benefit is that these shoes are often attractive enough to wear to a nice dinner. Make sure your shoes are broken-in prior to your trip.
If you want to take a second pair (i.e. open-toe sandals), consider a pair of comfortable Birkenstocks or Tevas. They are cushioned so you can still walk in them all day. If you want more stylish shoes, take a pair of EasySpirit or Rockport flat-heeled pumps with you. They are rubber-soled, but look very nice. I bought a pair of "shoe clips" (they look like clip-on earrings) that I snap on my pumps when I'm going fancy. Shoe clips will change any ordinary pair of pumps to a pair of fairly nice evening shoes. Find them in your shoe department.
Suction Cup Hooks
Have you ever stayed in a place where you questioned the sanitary conditions of the bathroom? Is the sun sizzling on your face through the train window? Carry a couple of suction cup hooks (each one is a single suction cup with a plastic or metal hook)! Use one to hang your toiletry bag. Use two stuck parallel and a few inches apart so you can rest your toothbrush to let dry. Stick the hooks on your train window and make some shade with your towel, scarf or handkerchief. These hooks also work well to let you dry some lightweight items in your bathroom.
If you are a light sleeper who can wake up with the slighted noise, you can try use the alarm function on your digital watch. Beware however, that unless you remove your watch and leave it near your head, you may not hear its alarm. Timex produces one that looks like a wrist watch without a band. One word: Teeny! Timex also makes Indiglo versions that fit on your palm. There are a couple of excellent travel alarm clocks I would recommend. Panasonic produces a travel radio alarm clock smaller than a Walkman, if you like listening to the radio. Travel alarms seem to be pretty popular: I keep finding new models by different brands. In transit and want to nap for a short while without worrying about changing the time on the clock? My friend Audrey suggests a digital egg timer, which you can easily set for certain amount of time (e.g. a two-hour nap).
Wine Box Liners
Some travel places sell inflatable back cushions--however my little secret is the mylar liner from wine boxes. They can be used as a portable water carrier as well as an inflatable pillow. They are practically indestructible, and weigh next to nothing. (Unfortunately, I can't take credit for this idea--it was originally thought up by Audrey Sutherland, famous woman kayaker and author of Paddling My Own Canoe).