The internet is brimming with posts on travel gear and travel hacks, but when you're preparing for a big trip, somehow there's comfort in numbers, in reading through just one more person's real-life experiences. In that spirit, here are some things I've found useful to do and pack before leaving on a travel adventure.
As soon as you have plane tickets
- Get your passport in order. Check your passport expiration date! (I once left — or so I thought — for Spain, but thanks to an expired passport the Swiss authorities in Zurich bundled me onto a plane right back across the Atlantic. My roommates were quite surprised to see me saunter (or, fine, slink) back in less than twenty-four hours after supposedly leaving on my European adventure.) Even if you’d never fall victim to such an obvious oversight, remember that some countries require several months’ validity beyond the dates of your trip.
- Get your visa and check other entry requirements. Visas can take time to process and may require snail mail (gasp!) depending on where you live. Even if you don't need a visa, look into other entry requirements: e.g., passport validity (see above), proof of funds in your bank account, or a return ticket.
- Investigate immunizations. Check both hard requirements for entry (here’s a good source for US citizens) to the country and health recommendations.
- Sign up for TSA PreCheck and Global Entry. I paid $100 for 5 years of Global Entry, which includes PreCheck. It's well worth the price if you're in the US and travel with any regularity. Quick summary: PreCheck gets you a shorter security line, usually the metal detector instead of the unsavory body scanner, where you need remove neither liquids from your bag nor shoes nor dignity from your person; Global Entry lets you skip fiendishly long immigration lines when returning to the US. More than once, Global Entry has been the only reason I’ve made my international-to-domestic connection when re-entering the US. (You do have to undergo a background check and fingerprinting to get signed up, so that's an understandable privacy no-go for many.)
- Make sure your Known Traveler Number is associated with your reservation. If you have TSA PreCheck, you've been issued a Known Traveler Number (KTN); if you're departing via a supported airline/airport combination, double-check that your KTN is attached to your reservation. Most airlines let you add the number to your website profile so you don't have to enter it manually at every booking, but if booked through a third-party the KTN might not have made it through.
A few weeks before
- Consider any needed purchases. Do you have gear appropriate to the weather and activities you have planned (hiking, clubbing, skiing, Oscars?). If you need to acquire something, try to do it in advance so you're not dashing around the day of your flight.
- Make necessary household arrangements for your absence. Hopefully, you've got your bills on autopilot, but consider anything else your household needs: pets, rent payments, plants, mail, etc.
- Inform credit card companies and banks that you'll be abroad. This is now usually possible via a simple form on the credit card's website, so at least you don't have to speak to customer support.
- Search for events related to your hobbies that are happening during your visit. If I don't make a special effort when I’m traveling, I mostly only meet other travelers, but connecting through a hobby is an effective way of meeting locals. One of my hobbies is social dancing, west coast swing in particular, and it turns out that there are growing WCS communities all over the globe. I check Facebook for groups and events in my destination city. So far I’ve been lucky enough to meet WCS dancers in London, Seoul, Sydney, Auckland, and Buenos Aires. It usually happens that the people I meet have travel advice, and often they’re even kind enough to offer to show me around a little. Of course, social dancing lends itself particularly well to this, but I imagine it’d work for other hobbies.
The night before
- Charge up all your electronics.
- Round up entertainment if you're gearing up for a long-haul For me, that means downloading podcasts and making sure I've got some likely-looking books on my Kindle. I am often flying (heh) by the seat of my pants, so I also load up a travel guidebook or two to read on the plane.
- Sync any apps on my phone that need to have offline data. I sync my TripIt app on my iPhone so I can see my itinerary offline in case I don't have internet. I also sync my Dropbox with all reservation details and make sure all important files are set to be viewable offline.
- Have analaog alternatives for retrieving important information. If you have little bits of crucial information (say, addresses or phone numbers) that you need even in the event of some sort of electronics apocalypse, print them out or scribble them down.
- Double-check the weather at your destination. I know from experience how miserable (and annoying) it is to shiver your way through an unexpected cold spell when you could've just checked the weather the night before.
- Relax. Remember that you’ll be fine even if you don’t do or bring a single thing I’ve rambled about in this very long post (well, other than your passport and maybe a bit of money).
I’m neither a travel gear aficionado nor an uber-disciplined ultralight packer, but over the years I've found certain products that work well for me. Note: This section has some affiliate links, although everything mentioned I purchased myself and currently actually use.
Bags and packing
Tom Bihn Aeronaut 30
I travel with a single soft-sided carry-on. I simply find that less stuff means less stress, but you can read others' considerably more passionate and detailed thoughts on the matter to make up your own mind (see One Bag and One Bag One World). If you do decide on a wheelless bag, I can highly recommend mine: the Tom Bihn Aeronaut 30.
It's relatively lightweight, thoughtfully designed, and comes with lots of built-in organization. It's made of durable ballistic nylon, so if necessary I can check it with no worries. The size is perfect for me: small enough to meet nearly all airline size requirements and fit under airline seats, but spacious enough for me to pack for any length trip (though I always expect to do laundry when I’m gone for longer than a week).
I may be an inveterate mess-maker everywhere else in my life, but, much to the surprise of family and friends who have seen said messes, I always use packing cubes when I’m traveling. They help me pack faster and keep my belongings together on the road.
I have a mix of Tom Bihn packing cubes and these Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Cubes. Using any packing cube at all will obviously compress your belongings compared to tossing things in your bag willy nilly, but the Eagle Creek cubes have an extra zipper for additional compression. If you end up with Tom Bihn bag, though, it's worth looking into their packing cubes, which are sized precisely to each of their bags.
Herschel Packable Backpack
A packable backpack is indispensable. It folds up into a small pouch, ready to act as a laptop carrier, grocery bag, impromptu picnic tote, laundry hamper, or companion bag for unforeseen schlepping.
For years, I used a little Baggu nylon packable backpack adorned with blue elephants. More passers-by stopped me to demand the provenance of this bag than any other I have ever owned. It’s with a heavy heart that I must report that the Baggu finally broke a month ago (a fiddly plastic bit anchoring one of the backpack straps is what broke, not the nylon, in case you’re considering buying a different Baggu model). I’ve replaced it with a Herschel packable daypack backpack. I’ve only taken one trip with the Herschel, but it seems to be a worthy successor, though with tragically fewer pachyderms.
Cross-body day bag
For day bags, I prefer cross-body bags to backpacks. They’re easier to grab things out of and to keep in sight in pickpocket-happy areas. I also feel they blend in better and don’t force me to blunder about knocking into everyone in public spaces. The purse I use most frequently when traveling is the MZ Wallace Paige cross-body. The nylon is much lighter and more rain-friendly than leather, yet the bags aren't hideous even if they aren't the pinnacle of modishness. The size works for me; for reference, I can carry a Kindle, iPad mini, wallet, sunglasses, and a water bottle (sideways).
Cable locks obviously aren't going to stop truly determined thieves, but I find them handy for deterring opportunistic rifling through your belongings. You’ll want them for hostel lockers, public transport, or leaving your bag in your hotel room.
Dr. Bronner’s Soap
Dr. Bronner's castile soap comes with me on every trip for showers and laundry. It was a failure as a shampoo for me, but your mileage, and hair, may vary. It’s also very concentrated so you only need a few drops, even for laundry.
I use yet another Tom Bihn product here instead of running through plastic Ziplocs. The clear organizer cube is TSA-compliant. It's also protected the rest of my bag from the occasional toiletry leak.
If you're hand-washing some clothes (and if you're traveling light, you likely are), these Aloksak bags work well. They can also serve as waterproof bags for passports, maps, or other important documents, though I’ve never used them that way.
Muji travel containers
Muji makes a wide array of travel tubes and bottles in different sizes and with different lids. (I've linked to the EU store because the US online store is down, but I've seen these in the physical stores as well.) These let me mete out exactly however much product I need, drastically cutting the size of my 3-1-1 toiletries bag. Turns out I usally need far less than three ounces of a liquid.
Public bathroom enhancement supplies
Are you going to a country that may not have public toilets with the amenities you're used to? By amenities I do not mean things like facial mists and fluffy towels; I mean toilet paper and soap. If necessary, bring toilet tissue or at least Kleenex with you and keep it on your person at all times. Additionally, bring hand sanitizer with you for occasions when you must use a soapless bathroom and are forced to touch several surfaces that appear to be playgrounds for E. coli. You'll be grateful for your foresight.
I'm a woman who wears women's clothing, so you may want to skim this section if parts of it don't apply.
I have some specific items that have served me really well and that I take on almost every trip, but what I’ve really learned is to avoid clothes that are too travel-specific. For example, I bought a cocoon sweater that was supposed to also be a scarf, but it’s just too fussy and looks frankly stupid on me as a sweater. I do favor clothes that dry fast and work for lots of situations. If I'm going to be somewhere more than a week, I pack around 5 days' worth of clothes and do laundry by hand. I could obviously pare this down to 2-3 days, but like most humans I don't particularly enjoy laundry so I'm willing to bring more clothes.
If you prefer little to no support in a shoe, as I do, ballet flats are great for travel. I have Tieks, which fold up small, stay comfortable through hours of walking, and can work with a dress in a pinch if you need to be fancier. I unfortunately can’t unequivocally recommend them because on one pair the back of one heel showed terrible wear after a mere two weeks of city walking. This only happened with one pair, so it could be a fluke, but Tieks customer service refused to help, so caveat emptor. For now, I’m still wearing the Tieks for travel, but I’m on the lookout for ballet flats that are comfortable, attractive, and durable, so drop me a line if you know of any.
If you’re spending any time in hostels or other places with questionable showers, or if you’re just going to be at the beach, these are essential. I have the good old Havaianas.
Nau rain jacket
I prefer packing a hooded jacket instead of an umbrella. If you really need an umbrella, entrepreneurial types are usually hovering about ready to sell you one the very day the skies open. I got this Nau jacket on sale, but it's turned out to be a useful buy and is still in great shape after almost four years. The arms are a bit billowy for my tastes, I have to admit, but it’s got an interesting cut for a rain jacket. It's not terribly warm, but I can put a sweater underneath, and it keeps me nice and dry.
This Uniqlo ultralight down jacket is new, but it’s saved me on some recent trips. It’s not going to win any fashion awards, but it’s warm, lightweight, and water-resistant, and ituni takes up very little space in your bag. A friend who owned one reports that its longevity leaves something to be desired, but mine’s only a few months old so I’ve got no complaints yet on that score.
I have the Outlier Ladies’ Slimmer Dungarees, and they’re fairly versatile, quick-dry, and water-resistant. I can hike in them, but in black they look kind of like jeans. Unfortunately, I can’t link to them; Outlier has apparently decided that women don’t need functional travel clothes, but they still have a wide range of men’s clothing. Even if you don’t buy anything from Outlier, it’s worth visiting their website to check out the hilarious marketing photos that suggest you will need to parkour around New York City on your way to your date or business meeting.
Merino wool everything
Yes, the hype is real, or perhaps I’m suffering from placebo effect (but Wikipedia has my back!). Merino wool stinks less, dries quickly, and feels comfortable in a wide range of temperatures. My favorite thing about merino for travel is that merino layers keep you warm but are more versatile and less space-hogging than bigger, bulkier jackets. I’d love for companies with more modern cuts (Everlane, are you listening?) to make merino wool basics so I can use them for traveling, but for now my merino clothes are from Icebreaker and Ibex.
I’ve got merino tees from Icebreaker, mostly because they’re among the few I found that had plain color options. I also have a merino Ibex zip-up that’s warm and easy to layer (it appears to be discontinued, but this is similar. Merino leggings are great for layering under jeans in very cold weather, and merino socks mean less oppressively smelly feet on the road.
Passport and any visa documentation
Google Backup Codes
If you use two-factor authentication on your Gmail account, keep some backup codes handy to avoid being foiled when you really need to get into your email but your phone's dead.
Immediate address/phone number
If there's a chance you won't have wifi or data immediately after you land (spoiler: there is such a chance), make sure you have a physical note jotted down or a printout of any addresses or phone numbers you need immediately after you arrive.
I find TripIt’s interface incredibly cluttered when I just want to see the most important details (date and time of a flight, e.g.) at a glance, but I've been using it for a few years to keep track of itineraries, especially for group trips. Google Inbox now has a Trips feature that automatically parses emails and puts them into an itinerary, and I much prefer Google's interface, but the Inbox implementation doesn't allow you to add anything to the trip manually, so you're at the mercy of Google's automatic parsing, which is still quite buggy. TripIt also lets you have your itinerary available offline, and I haven't been able to find a way to do that on Google yet. I got a free subscription to TripIt Pro from my credit card, and I'm not sure if I'll renew but it's been useful for texting me automatically about gate changes and delays.
Synced-up Dropbox with your itineraries and tickets
I make a folder with all the tickets and reservations from the trip and make sure it’s set to be usable offline, the I make sure my Dropbox is synced on any devices I’m bringing with me. Even if I also have the printed version as backup, I can often just show a ticket agent or hotel desk the electronic version without having to root around in my bag for the paper. Note: in some countries you must have a printed version of your itinerary to even enter the airport, so check this beforehand so that you don’t so paperless that you’re flightless.
Public library ebook travel guides
I don’t know about your area, but the San Francisco Public Library has a wide selection of travel guides available for Kindle and other digital formats. Travel guides are the kind of thing that take up a lot of space and obsolesce with dizzying speed. If you don’t want travel guides sitting on your shelf 5 years later for absolutely no one to use (on the plus side they may remind you of your journeys or signal to visitors that you’re the kind of person who has grand adventures, if that’s your sort of thing), just check some out from your public library.
Google Maps lets you save offline maps. If you’re going to be somewhere that might have spotty internet access, or if you’re not going to have data/wifi anywhere, make sure you download an offline map of the areas you’re going to be in. This will be indispensable when you’re trying to find your way to your hotel.
There are prettier ones out there, but this thing is under $5 on Amazon and has been working for me all over the world for almost 4 years now. If you really want to save space or are only visiting one country at a time you can buy individual plug heads, of course.
Bose in-ear noise canceling earphones
I used to have the old over-the-ear Bose noise canceling headphones, but they were so bulky that I almost always left them at home when traveling. When they died I replaced them with the Bose QuietComfort 20i in-ears, and I'm so happy to be able to travel with them now. They make podcasts and movies vastly more enjoyable, and even if I’m not listening to anything, I leave the noise cancelling on to reduce the airplane drone. I also use these on public transit to make the subway screeching in NYC or the BART tunnel crossing more bearable.
If I were truly trying to go light, I’d just make do with my iPhone, but I love my Kindle Voyage and the experience of reading on it. The battery also lasts so much longer than an iPhone or iPad, which is a concern while traveling. (However, I also loved the Paperwhite that preceded this just as much and am not sure the Voyage is worth the premium.)
Backup battery pack
If you’re using your phone and all the data on it, you’ll inevitably run out of battery halfway through the day, and then you’ll be without your workhorse: your books, your browser, your precious precious maps. I have this Anker Astro Mini because I don’t need more than a single charge at any given time, but you can get different capacities depending on your needs. Carry the external battery and a spare cable so you can charge up midday, and don’t forget to charge both your phone and the battery at night.
Multi-port USB charger
If you’re traveling with more than one person, or you just own the electronics of more than one person, a multi-port charger charges all your devices simultaneously even if you’ve only got one measly outlet. I have an older version of this Anker multi-port charger that I use at home when I’m not traveling. If I'm by myself, I forgo it to save space (my laptop can serve as a multiple USB charger in a pinch).
It’s often significantly cheaper to buy a prepaid SIM card while you’re abroad than to buy your US carrier’s international plan. Verizon’s, for example, is really stingy and wants to charge something exorbitant like $25 per 100MB of data. Investigate the unlocked status of your phone and the availability of SIMs at your destination. If possible, I purchase a SIM at the airport as soon as I land.
Credit cards and debit cards
Bring the cards that don't charge foreign transaction fees, and inform the credit cards that you’ll be away so they don’t block your charges. I also take a backup emergency credit card and debit card that I don’t expect to use and stash them separately from my wallet. (Speaking of wallets, I've never used a fake wallet or even a money belt. I've just made sure to have backup credit cards and cash not on my person.)
I bring a few hundred USD in emergency cash and split it up among my belongings. I don't bother to get any foreign currency beforehand. I just stop at the ATM in the airport and grab some cash when I land. The amount depends on the ubiquity of credit cards in the country. I also try to change any remaining local currency back to USD when I return; otherwise I find that I just accumulate small stockpiles of other currencies that I’ll never find when I want to use them again. Note: of course, this varies by country. E.g. in Myanmar you must bring perfectly pristine USD to exchange and you can’t use ATMs, in Buenos Aires you may want to bring a lot of USD to exchange unofficially for the more favorable “blue” exchange rate, etc.