“You wouldn’t believe the weird stuff people recommend taking along on trips,” Rich commented over breakfast this morning. He’d just spent half an hour perusing travel blogs and was still shaking his head in wonderment. “Bed sheets, dryer sheets, a steam iron.” His eyes strayed to the screen again. “Condoms; well, somebody thinks they’re getting lucky! Here’s one: a headlamp. Where are they traveling, down a mineshaft?”
“I suspect those are younger travelers,” I said. “But yes, I’ll never understand other people’s packing styles. I read a post by one woman who says she never goes anywhere without a wine glass, and not a plastic one either. I always assume the first time her bag gets manhandled by a taxi driver, she then has to discard half its contents because they’re full of shattered glass.”
When it comes to packing, I’m convinced that less is more. Just taking essential clothing, shoes, and electronics pretty much fills my little roll-aboard bag, leaving scant room for bulky extras like headlamps and bed sheets. However, I will admit that Rich and I always tuck in a few small items that might not be strictly mandatory but add a little extra comfort, hominess, and ease to our lives.
Dragging around tons of excess baggage isn't much fun. This photo was taken at the end of a six-day luggage-free journey to France, when we brought nothing but a few essentials tucked in our pockets. On most trips, I travel with more creature comforts.
For instance, we always carry our silliest wedding photos in a small folding cloth frame. Over the years this precious object has become festooned with good luck charms and religious medals from every corner of the world and serves as a reminder never to take ourselves too seriously.
In my younger years, travel slippers were on my “optional” list, but I’ve now reclassified them as a must for overnight plane rides and downtime on the road. After a long day of hiking about, I appreciate a warm, cozy place to rest and so do my feet.
Rich originally packed gloves only for arctic destinations, but now he’s discovered wearing them makes it far easier to lug heavy bags, including groceries, so they’ve become staples.
And at this point, Rich insists I add duct tape to the list. We often have trips without emergencies (yes we do!) but now that it’s sold in handy, pocket-sized packets, it’s easy to take duct tape with us everywhere. Beware of cheap knock-offs! Last Thanksgiving in Seville, we staged a wind-up chicken race in our apartment’s hallway, marking the goal lines with ultra-cheap pseudo-duct tape. When the thrilling event was over and all the victory dances were done, we expected to simply peel off the tape and move on with our lives. Not so! The tape shredded and stuck, leaving gooey red stains on the marble floor, requiring hours of scraping and scrubbing. Lesson learned!
Like many people these days, Rich and I are attempting to avoid wasteful, single-use plastics whenever possible, so I always slip one or two ultra-light cloth tote bags in a zip compartment of my shoulder bag. That way I don’t have to choose between feeling guilty about getting a plastic bag at the store or juggling groceries in my arms all the way back to the Airbnb. To avoid the need for disposable plastic cutlery, we acquired some lovely lightweight wooden forks and spoons last time we ate at Wagamama in Gatwick Airport.
Of course, there are times when plastics are the only sensible solution. For instance, we always pack a handful of zip-lock bags for everything from food storage to transporting socks that somehow didn’t dry in time for our departure from the hotel. And to waterproof our suitcases on rainy days, Rich carries a couple of large garbage bags, which can be secured over our bags with (you guessed it) duct tape.
While we rely on Google maps for local navigation, we always carry an old-fashioned paper map showing railway lines and ferry service in the region we’re visiting. Without it, I could easily overlook interesting detours and connections (“Hey, there’s a ferry to Albania from here!”) that give our journeys that extra bit of zing. And I always carry old-school paper business cards with my email and web address. These days most people we meet simply photograph the card, but we occasionally find ourselves in areas so remote that (gasp!) not everyone carries a smartphone.
I'm fairly sure this brandy-maker we hung out with in rural Romania doesn't have a smartphone. But he really knows his way around a still.
Your list of underrated extras is probably quite different from ours, and we’d love to hear what you find essential to happiness on the road. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not looking for excess stuff to clutter my travel life; as the Spanish proverb says, “On a long journey, even a straw weighs heavy.” But I am always willing to give a warm welcome to small objects that, as Marie Kondo so famously put it, “spark joy.” Because isn’t that what travel is really all about?
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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