Wednesday, October 3, 2012

5 Favorite Travel Items

To commemorate a year of travel and 150 posts, I wrote a bit of advice on how to survive on and off) the road as well a few travel mottos. There are thousands of comprehensive webpages with around-the-world packing lists, but there a few gadgets I especially like. I have tried to emphasize what came to me as a surprise, rather than the standard advice (e.g. wear sandals instead of shoes, bring sunscreen, don’t pack too much, buy clothes as you go)…

For those in a hurry, they are: earplugs, adaptable powerstrip, phone/batteries/charger, plastic bags, and a shirt with a safety pocket.

1. Earplugs. I recommend a box of silicone earplugs for helping with sleep on airplanes, in hostels and in other places. A problem with travel is the ever-present noise pollution, from dripping faucets and rattling fans to others talking and rustling through their luggage. In Kathmandu, almost every hotel room is just above a street shrine where passersby tinkle a tinny bell after making an offering on their way to work.


The view from my Kathmandu room. The shrine is in the back, this is the outdoor ping-pong table that was in constant use. During all hours it was pa-tick-pa-tock-pa-tick-pa-tock…

As I write these very words (in Reading, England) my feet are vibrating from the thump of “music” from the bar below. Earplugs are small, cheap and disposable, they easily earn their place in your luggage. Good quality earplugs are hard to find in developing countries so buy a few boxes before you leave.

small2012-09-17earplugsThe putty-type earplugs (shown above) give a better seal and more comfortable than those made of foam.

2. Small multi-standard (universal) powerstrip. Airports and hotel rooms are stingy with power outlets so there is often a need to plug many devices into one socket. It is also good to have a long extension cord to allow you to work someplace comfortable rather than having to be leashed to the wall next to the fridge. 

On one end of the device is a European 2-prong plug, which is the most compact and versatile of all the plugs (e.g. you can insert a European plug into an English socket but not the other way around). On the other end are outlets that can accept virtually any plug made. The below photo may look like it only has three outlets but there are potentially six (two devices plugged into each color).


I struggled to find the right name for this thing because I have never seen it for sale in a developed country, only in Africa and southeast Asia. I’ve Googled the company name and model number (“Heinz No: 017”) with no luck. I got the one in the photo for $1 in a street market in Rwanda. Since then I find it excruciating to pay $12.99 for an adapter or $20.99 for a powerstrip.   

These devices have “safety” written all over them, literally.  


Me think they protesteth too much though. I’ve had two of these and both died with a spark, crackle and a puff of blue smoke, like so:  


Note burn mark in carpet

The universal plugs are extremely handy, however. It is frustrating when you realize “you can’t get there from here” with a certain combination of adapters and sockets.


Yes, this really has happened.

3. Unlocked smartphone, backup phone batteries and universal external battery charger. Never before have I been as attached to a device as I am to my Samsung Galaxy SII smartphone. It gives me email and Internet (even allowing laptops to connect through it), is a watch and alarm clock, plays games and music, has lots of books, tells me where I am and where I’m going, and has a better camera than most real cameras I’ve owned. I also occasionally use it as a phone.

“Unlocked” phones come without a service provider, so in each country I buy a new SIM card and get a local number. The wiki describing overseas phone plans is invaluable because it gives instructions for navigating the foreign language automated phone menus for most countries (e.g. “Select 1=Souscrire and then choose 1=Valider”). Surprisingly, pre-paid phone plans are disproportionately more expensive in Western countries, with the US costing twice any other country I went to. Mobile plans in Asia are cheap as chips.  

The downside of my phone is its battery life. On a good day, I realistically get about 20 hours of charge. When I use GPS to record my track this goes down to as few as 4 hours. It helps to have spare batteries, especially since there isn’t always the opportunity to recharge each night. Extra batteries can be ordered inexpensively online (e.g. Ebay) before you travel.

It is useful to be able to charge two batteries at once. This can be done by plugging in the phone to the outlet, but also by using a universal external charger. Expensive in developed countries and available cheaply online, I found one in Indonesia for a few dollars. These chargers come in all shapes and sizes but the essential ingredients are an adjustable clamp to hold the battery in place and some movable prongs to make contact with the metal bits on your battery.


I signal a full battery by putting an elastic/hairband around it (right), otherwise I know it is dead and needs charging.

4. See-through plastic bags and a dry sack. Being so gadget-heavy, I dread being caught out in the rain. I can go without a raincoat, but I need something to keep the phone dry. This is why this blog has so few pictures of me getting caught out in wild weather.

In Australia, I spent too much money at a camping store buying a rubberized waterproof bag, the kind designed to keep items dry if a canoe capsizes. Much cheaper but slightly less durable are heavy-duty Ziploc bags. Plastic bags have the added advantage of being clear, meaning that you can see inside without opening the bag. If you are in a wet place, do not open your waterproof bag to check if your items are still dry. That is how things get wet. 

Clear plastic bags are also good for organization. They are like folders in a filing cabinet or drawers in a dresser. They can also be stuffed, crushed flat and air-tight sealed, making your luggage more compact.


From left to right, notes from interviews, travel documents, and “junk drawer”. There are also bags for socks, for shirts and so on.

5. A synthetic long-sleeve shirt with a safety pocket. Despite what I said above about overpriced camping stores, I travel with two Mountain Hardwear Canyon long sleeve shirts. I have worn them in every climate, hot and cold, and they even look presentable for semi-formal occasions.

The lightweight and quick-drying material is soft yet indestructible, 70% nylon/30% polyester. When I was thrown head-first from a motorbike in the Philippines, my arms got a nasty road rash through my shirt, but the rolled-down sleeves themselves were completely fine. Meanwhile, my tibia was fractured and my pants were torn to pieces.

The handiest feature of this shirt is a vertical pocket on the chest, sealed with Velcro. This is hard to pick-pocket yet easy to access. It is more convenient than a money belt or security pouch. I do not understand why every shirt and jacket doesn’t have this pocket.

The pocket is the vertical slit just next to my scarf


  1. Well said.

    I also loved a little crystal-based bug bite zapper that prevented the release of histamines, a Pacsafe travel purse with an uncuttable shoulder strap, using a roller bag hybrid that could become a backpack, tooth "flossers", and really good oversized polarized sunglasses.

    Renting scuba gear was a necessary evil. It's just too heavy to haul around. I recommend divers at least have their own mask.

    We were fortunate to have a good friend in Australia who had power of attorney and scanned/forwarded our mail.

    Getting cash was a constant frustration...once a credit card got used fraudulently (and nearly all of them were at some point, often in large sums), we had to cancel the card, then wait for new ones to be sent to the friend in Australia, then Fed Ex'd to us.

    Right at the beginning, we naively waited around Bali an extra week for a new credit card and were finally told by the hotel that "there is no mail here". ???!!!

    I would recommend each round-the-world traveler have a minimum of five credit or ATM cards with high credit limits and memorable pin numbers. 28 Degrees and E-trade were pretty good in terms of low ATM and international conversion rates.

    Also, check the expiration dates on all your cards, ID's, vaccinations, hostel memberships, etc. It's exponentially easier to get new ones before you leave and really hard to get mail on the road.

    It was also interesting that we had massive first aid kits and six-month supplies of prescriptions; not once, in 25 countries, were our bags even opened or searched by customs agents.

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