As much as we hate to admit it, we need stuff. Not a lot of it, but some. In fact, there are only 10 things that I never travel without.
I’m a big believer in bare-bones travel packing. I very often will go someplace with exactly one backpack. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t go. After all, how much stuff do you really need for a few days in a place? You’ll be out walking around most of the time anyway. Also, you have to remember that you’re going to have to carry this stuff yourself.
So, it’s important to make sure that the stuff you’re lugging with you is going to be useful. Here are the 10 things I never travel without, whether I’m traveling abroad, domestically, or just out and about.
You’re going to want pictures of the places you go. Even if it doesn’t seem like that’s your thing, some day someone’s going to ask you about what you did while you were traveling, and you’ll have to try and describe how beautiful Copenhagen is a Christmastime or just how astounding the Milan Duomo is. Save yourself some effort and bring a camera with you.
With that in mind, I recommend an actual camera. Trust me, the space on your phone fills up quickly. And unless you’ve got the fanciest new phone on the market, the camera probably isn’t that great. You don’t have to get the best new camera with the biggest lens available, either. Mine is a mid-line, point-and-shoot, hand-me-down. Even so, I’ve still gotten some great pictures with it.
Reusable Water Bottle
Okay, here me out. There are several reasons you should want to have a water bottle of your very own.
- Airports charge extortionate rates for water. A story to illustrate: You want to have water on the plane. But TSA will confiscate a full water bottle at security. In the terminal, you can buy a bottle of water, but it’ll cost you $7.50. (I did not make that up. I once saw a store charging $7.50 for a bottle of plain water.) As a good Michigander, I refuse to pay that much for water.
- Single-use plastic water bottles are terrible for the environment. As travelers (aka, people who use planes a lot), we have to be conscious of the environmental impact of things like this.
- Kiosks charge extortionate rates for water. The price of a bottle of water is directly proportionate to the number of tourists who will be in the area.
In case you missed it in the list above, I don’t like paying for water. So, I learned to take my water with me. Here are some things I love about reusable water bottles (other than not paying for water):
- You can take it through security, as long as it’s empty and not made of steel. Hard plastic water bottles and canteens made from other types of metal are fine. Once you’re through security, find a drinking fountain and fill up.
- Most airports now have water bottle filling stations, with filtered water available for free. Which, being a Michigander, I think it should be.
- You can find them anywhere and within any budget.
- If you’re worried about water quality, you can find filtering water bottles, which will filter the water as it goes into the bottle. L.L. Bean has some that even clean the water (there’s a difference), and which are surprisingly affordable.
- They’ll save you money in the long run, since you won’t be paying through the nose for regular tap water in a flimsy bottle with a fancy label.
Very few people I know keep a travel journal, and I have no idea why not.
It’s absolutely impossible to remember everything that happens while you’re out traveling. That’s a fact of life. However, that story, no matter how small it is, will make you smile again one day. Or it’ll show you how much you’ve grown over the course of your travels.
I prefer an old-fashioned, paper journal for traveling for several reasons.
- I don’t like carrying my laptop for short trips. If I’m heading off for a weekend jaunt, the laptop is just too much. (Remember, if I don’t want to carry it, it doesn’t go!) Paper journals come in all sorts of sizes, meaning that you can find one that will fit in your backpack without any problem.
- Electricity is a luxury. You wouldn’t think so in today’s day and age, but this is definitely the case. Travelers often have to share outlets in hostels and bus stations. This can be tricky business when you have to use an adapter. That means that keeping your journal in a Word document on your laptop might not be practical. The good news is that paper never runs out of battery.
When I say that you should journal everything that you do on a certain day, I don’t mean that you have to spend hours doing it. Bullet points will do the trick. Anything that will tell the future you, looking back on this story, who you were with, where you went, and what you did or ate. Trust me, your future self will thank you.
Not sure where to start with travel journaling? Check out our Travel Journal pages on our Etsy store!
I’m going to channel Douglas Adams for a minute here:
A towel…is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Many hostels provide bed linens, but not towels. Or, maybe towels are available, but you have to put a €5 deposit down. Or worse yet, pay €5 for a rented towel. I always take a small towel with me to avoid parting with even so small an amount as €5. After all, that’s two pints in some places!
You don’t have to take a full-size bath towel with you. A hand towel, like the kind you keep by the bathroom sink, will do just fine. The point here is to have something that rolls up very small inside your backpack, but that works in a pinch.
My favorite travel towel is 19”x35” – a very awkward size for a towel, I’ll admit. I bought it at a time of desperation in a hole-in-the-wall shop in Sicily, and I’ve never seen one that size since. But, that’s only slightly bigger than your standard hand towel, and it’s allowed me to shower in several countries without parting with my drinking money. It’s also the perfect size for rolling up and sticking in the bottom of my backpack.
In short, I am, as they say,
a frood who really knows whereThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
hisher towel is.
The most common incident in a hostel, aside from the person on the top bunk coming back drunk, is petty theft. These are crimes of opportunity. So, don’t provide the opportunity.
A simple luggage lock will do the trick. Even such a small deterrent will save you a headache.
Bonus points: You probably already have one if you’re traveling by plane, so no need to buy something extra!
Hand Sanitizer and Facial Tissue
These are things that every self-respecting woman keeps in her purse, and self-respecting men should start carrying.
- First things first: Hand sanitizer. If the early part of 2020 has shown us anything, it’s the importance of washing your hands. You’re not always in a place where you can get to a sink. Even if you can get to a sink, there might not be hand soap. While doctors agree that washing your hands is the best route, using hand sanitizer that’s at least 60% alcohol is a good back-up plan.
- Second things second: Facial tissue. Nose leaks occur at the most inopportune times. Everyone knows this. What not everyone knows is that toilet tissue is less freely available in Europe than in the US. In the big cities, the establishments you visit will have toilet paper. But if you’re in a small town, maybe not. And even if they usually do, they might not be in a hurry to restock the bathrooms if they’re out. Keeping a travel-sized pack of facial tissue in your day bag will save you much embarrassment.
- Third things third: You can use both of them for emergency clean up. Bird poo happens. Slop happens. Sitting in unknown sticky substances happens. Hand sanitizer and tissue will make you presentable until you can go back to the hostel and clean up properly.
Before I went to Ireland for the first time, my mom suggested I get a raincoat. This seemed reasonable, as Ireland is known for its drizzly weather. Even so, I balked at the idea of walking around Dublin looking like the Gordon’s fisherman. Trying to think of a solution to my fashion vs. practicality dilemma, I went for a walk.
And I wandered into the Columbia store on Michigan Ave. in Chicago. There, on the clearance rack, I found the answer. My raincoat looks just like any other jacket, and it’s super functional. It’s waterproof without being stuffy, and if you pair it up with a fleece, it’s just as snug as a winter coat.
Plus, because it’s Columbia, there’s a warranty on it. It’s taken me seven years and almost fifteen countries to wear this puppy to the point of needing to use the warranty.
You might think that you’d only need a raincoat for places like Ireland or Scotland, which are known for their dreich weather. However, I’ve gotten great use of of mine – like I said, I’ve used it in almost fifteen countries! Even in sunny Italy, bad weather occasionally strikes. Be ready for it, and you’ll be the one person in your group who isn’t wet and miserable for the rest of the day.
We’ve already discussed how electricity is a luxury, and how travelers are often denied access to it. And the last thing you want is to be stuck in a foreign country, where you don’t speak the language, without your phone as emergency back up.
Portable chargers have come a long way since I first got mine. For one thing, they’re much cheaper than they used to be. For another, they store more energy, and can therefore charge your devices better.
You can even get a solar-powered portable charger! Full disclosure, I have not yet tried one, but I’m very excited by the prospect of using solar power while I’m on the go. Not only is solar power better for the environment, but it’s also easier to come by than an outlet on occasion.
I have a well-loved canvas bag, which squishes up into a tiny pouch. Once inside that pouch, it fits inside any purse I decide to carry. When I need it, I can just pull it out, and I have an over-the-shoulder canvas bag, ready to carry all the souvenirs I’m buying.
This is a great idea for three reasons:
- Canvas bags better for the environment. I’ve mentioned the environment a couple of times in this post, but that’s because it’s important. Plastic bags are horrible for the environment. They never break down, it’s hard to find recycling programs for them, and no one knows what to do with them, so they just blow all over the streets. Gross.
- They’re cheaper. Many countries have tried to curb the use of plastic bags by putting a tax on them or requiring shops to charge for them. Granted, it’s usually a nominal fee. In Scotland, for example, it’s a 5 pence charge for a single-use bag. Even so, a penny saved is a penny earned, as they say.
- Reusable bags are way easier to carry. I’ve lived in the big city, I’ve lived in Europe, I’ve traveled all over, and I have to tell you, nothing is more annoying than trying to carry multiple plastic bags full of stuff. One big bag that you can put over your shoulder is definitely a better and easier way to go.
In addition to my awesome TARDIS bag (yes, I do make many friends with that bag), I also have a small backpack that rolls up to the same size. This is handy when you use your TARDIS bag to buy too many souvenirs, and need an extra bag to carry them home in. Also, you can use it for a day pack if you’re going out for a long walk or a hike.
You can find a TARDIS bag of your very own on Amazon.
Do not go abroad until you know how to read a map.
But, you say, I have Google Maps on my phone! It gives me step-by-step directions!
That’s all fine and dandy, but here are some things to consider on that front:
- You might not have service where you are. American services providers do not guarantee service over every inch of the globe. Even if they do have partner carriers wherever you are, that doesn’t mean the service is going to be what you’re used to having.
- The international data charges
mightwill be outrageous. International data plans are notorious for their expense. They’re great to use in emergencies, but unless you’ve got Daddy Warbucks paying your cell phone bill, don’t rely on it.
- Your phone might die. Once again, we circle back to the issue of electricity being a luxury and travelers not necessarily having it.
- Google Maps might not be all that reliable where you are. I cannot stress this one enough. Google Maps relies on cars with cameras on them to map the streets. In old medieval cities, this presents a problem. In places like Prague, much of the old town is pedestrianized, so cars can’t get through. Which means that Google Maps might have limited use there. The old town of Edinburgh sits on a rocky promontory, in the valleys on either side, and on two bridges that connect the promontory to the valleys. I can tell you from personal experience that Google can make no sense of that.
Every hotel or hostel you stay in will have paper maps available at the front desk. Make sure you pick one up. If you’re unsure where you’re going, ask the clerk to draw the route on the map for you. They’re quite used to doing this, so don’t be shy about asking. Then, keep that map in your day bag, in case you might need it again.
It can also be useful to have a copy of the public transit map, especially for systems like the London Tube. Seeing the lines on paper can be extremely helpful in understanding which line to take, in which direction, and for how many stops.
In addition to these 10 things, you’ll obviously need clothes and shoes and such. However, the things listed here are often overlooked when they shouldn’t be. With these, you’ll be prepared for most things that travel throws your way.