All you need to explore the world is your passport and a sense of wonder, right? Well, if you’ve ever walked down the travel aisle at your local store, you’ll see that’s not always the case. From inflatable neck pillows to crush-resistant suitcases, it’s a wonderful world of accessories designed to make your adventure easier. But do you need all the custom-built travel gear, or should you embrace the way of the minimalist and see where you end up?
I understand the lure of gadgets and pretty cases, believe me. That travel aisle is where I have spent way too much of my money (and time), debating about whether I’ll regret not getting a collapsible water bottle or dainty laundry bag. But in practice, only a few items become the travel gear essentials you pack into your bag, trip after trip. For the rest, you can usually get around using things you already own or low-cost home made alternatives.
If you’re looking to invest in some travel gear or update your kit, here are the essentials I’ve found to be the most useful on the road and in the air.
1 – Toiletry bag: While some people seem to be able to chuck their shampoo in a random packet and go, I am just not that kind of girl. And, given that liquid-filled bottles and tubes are susceptible to exploding (thanks to the air pressure changes while flying), it’s a safer option to have them all securely closed off from the rest of your luggage in a water-resistant case.
After precariously balancing my essentials on hotel room basins and watching them fall into slippery baths, I gave up and invested in a bag that can be hung up on a hook or the back of a bathroom door. My toiletries are much easier to access this way, and don’t take up too much counter-top space if you’re sharing rooms with other travellers. If you’re in the market for a case and you find one with clear panels (so you can quickly find your bits and bobs) or removable sections, grab it!
2 – Laundry bag: Yes, laundry bags are a good thing to have in your bag – especially if you’re going away for a few days and need to remember what is clean and what isn’t. You don’t need something too fancy here though – check your local dollar store for ordinary mesh wash bags. They’re lightweight and do the job, and often cost a lot less than what you’ll find in the travel aisle. Otherwise, canvas tote-style grocery bags can also work. If you’ll be doing watersports or rushed laundry and will need to keep damp items separate in your case, you can use standard plastic packets instead of more expensive custom-designed waterproof ones.
3 – Noise-canceling headphones or ear plugs: If you want to sleep, drown out plane or station noises, or make time pass more quickly with music or a podcast, comfortable and high-quality earphones are a must. I recommend considering in-ear buds with a noise-canceling design (they’re smaller and easier to pack than over-the-ear sets). Keep the travel bag that comes in the packaging for easy storage. If you don’t have a mini bag to prevent tangles, a glasses case or small drawstring jewellery bag works too. If you’re serious about quiet, earplugs are a good investment.
4 – Mini toiletries: Check to see if your favourite toiletries and beauty products come in smaller sizes, or stock up on samples on your next trip to the shops. When they’re finished, you can refill them using the normal-size bottles, and you’ll still have the easy-to-spot mini container instead of 10 plain bottles with hand-written labels. I’ve found miniature versions of my shower gel, contact solution, eye makeup remover, body lotion, toothbrush and toothpaste.
5 – Essential medicine: No, you probably don’t need an entire mini first aid kit. But it’s always a good idea to keep some mild pain killers and plasters (Band Aids) somewhere in your bag, just in case. Yes, you can buy them at your destination if needed, but would you want to miss out on part of your travel day so you can track down a pharmacy in a strange country while in pain? I didn’t think so.
Because you end up walking a lot more when travelling, it’s also a good idea to stick one or two plasters in your toiletry bag in case your usually comfortable shoes end up hurting you. This happened to me on day two of a trip to Dubai, and one little plaster saved me from a day of complaining and suffering. If you’re bringing any prescription medicine, make sure you check the regulations of the country you’re visiting (it’s often safer to bring a doctor’s note or the original packaging).
6 – Sleep mask: Depending on the length of time you’ll be spending on the road and how easily you drift off to dreamland, this could be something you go without. While there are cuter and lighter versions out there, sometimes practicality trumps prettiness. I need absolute darkness in order to have any hope of sleeping, so I opted for an extra long padded mask with more comfortable, thicker straps and am so glad I did.
7 – E-reader or reading material: Even if you’ve committed to watching every in-flight movie on offer, having something to read is never a bad idea. It can save you during layovers, unexpected delays or long boring queues, and double up as a pool-side or breakfast companion on your holiday. E-readers generally have better battery life than tablets and are lighter and thinner than printed books, so just load up before your flight and enable airplane mode. Sorted.
8 – Hair elastics: For getting your hair out of your face, and all sorts of DIY fixing hacks.
9 – Mini containers: How will you get around the carry-on liquids restrictions? One 100ml bottle at a time. These are quite easy to find, often with different lid types to help squirt out whatever you’re filling it with. Even if you’re taking a full-size check-in suitcase, consider decanting bigger bottles into smaller containers to save space and weight, especially if you’ll be lugging your bag up stairs or on public transport. A cap or case for your toothbrush is a good option too.
10 – Combination locks: Keys can get lost, and have a sneaky tendency to relocate to the bottom of your bag when you need to open up for a security inspection. Combination locks are often an easier choice, as long as you remember the code.
11 – Travel adapters/converters: Boring, but oh-so-important travel gear. You can get these on the road or in airports, but it’s easier to find affordable ones in your home country, especially if you have a strange plug type (thanks for that, South Africa). If you can, try to get one with a built-in converter, since countries use different voltages. Even though an adapter can make your electronics fit the outlet, it could trip the power or burn out your hair dryer once it’s plugged in (if this is confusing you, read this).
12 – Power bank: Whether or not you invest in one of these depends on your specific trip. If you’re flying an airline that has a newer fleet, taking a modern long-distance train, or transiting through major airports, you can probably locate a USB port or charging station somewhere to refuel your phone. But there are airplanes and stations which don’t have charging options (yes, they still exist) so it’s safer to bring along a powerbank if you’re worried about a dead battery complicating your travels. These are also good to pop in your bag if you’re venturing out on a day trip, and you know you’ll be using battery-eating functions like the camera and GPS navigation.
13 – Jersey or cardigan: Always. Even in summer. Because airplanes have a tendency to turn the air conditioning up to Arctic levels. And being cold, on the plane or on your trip, sucks.
14 – Comfortable walking shoes: As I mentioned, you usually end up walking a lot when travelling – especially if you’ll be using public transport. This is great, because wandering around new areas and discovering interesting restaurants, parks or neighborhoods is a brilliant way to experience a city. Just make sure your shoes are up to the challenge.
15 – Travel wallet: Yes, you can probably use your existing wallet. But it is so much easier in the airport when you have your passport and boarding pass safely packed away inside, not being accidentally sat on or dropped. This is one travel gear purchase that I’ve really found useful.
16 – Canvas carry-on bag: I know there are advantages to having a hard-shell suitcase as your carry-on bag, but I’ve spent too much time watching people fight for overhead storage space or be asked to put their bag in the hold. A canvas bag is strong, lightweight and collapsible, and easy to squish into whatever open space you can get. It’s also easy to pop on top of your main luggage for the journey into and out of the airport or train station. Just make sure you have a padded case or soft clothes inside to use as wrapping if you’re taking a laptop or other breakable items.
17 – Neck pillow: If I know I’ll be spending more than 3 hours on a plane, bus or train (or trying to sleep at all), I take along my trusty neck pillow. There are a few different types for sale, from memory foam to inflatable inners to bean bag-style squishy pillows. The inflatable ones can help you save space, but if you’re not keen on blowing up your neck support, then try to find one with a built-in clip so you can attach it to the side of your bag and go.
What makes your list of essential travel gear? Or what do you leave out? Let me know in the comments!