10 Essential Travel Gadgets & 10 Not To Waste Your Money On

While many travel gadgets will do nothing but drain your wallet and take up valuable space in your luggage, there are a few highly practical items that will give you a lot of bang for your buck. No item on this list costs more than $20, and you can purchase every item here for about $115 before tax and shipping.

Handle Scale. This is a small device that you can use to weigh your luggage without a scale. You attach one end of the scale to your luggage handle and you pull up on the other end to get a weight measurement for your bag. If you are a chronic overpacker, with today’s decreased weight and baggage allowances, the $10 or less you’ll spend on one of these scales will pay for itself and then some when you avoid fees of $25 or more per bag that exceeds the weight limit. The key to saving money here is to stick with a $10 model and not blow money on a $25 model.

Luggage handle extender. Another relatively inexpensive item at around $15, this item prevents you from having to stoop over to pull your suitcase. It’s just not worth it to not have to strain yourself to drag your luggage around. I’m not particularly tall, and yet I find that the luggage handles on rolling suitcases are always too short for me. Flying is uncomfortable enough as it is — there’s no need to add to that discomfort by awkwardly hauling your luggage around and straining your back and neck when the solution is so cheap.

Money belt. Your best bet is to get the smallest size for your needs so it won’t be as uncomfortable or bulky under your clothes. Also, you’ll want to get one made of a fabric that won’t get drenched in your sweat — no one wants your sopping wet Euros, and you don’t want any of your important documents getting soggy. Though I haven’t used it myself, I hear silk is a good fabric choice. If you already have a cotton moneybelt like I do, just store your belongings in a small ziplock and then put the ziplock in the money belt to keep your belongings dry and save $20.

Dual voltage travel hairdryer. I got one at Walgreens for $10 a few years ago, and it’s so effective and durable that I have been using it as my regular hairdryer for the last four years. Travel hairdryers are 1/2 to 1/4 the size of regular hairdryers, which saves lots of space and weight in your luggage. You often won’t know ahead of time if the place you’re staying will have hairdryers available, and traveling with wet hair in cold weather can be pretty unpleasant. On the other hand, if you’re going to be traveling in warm weather, I say forget the hairdryer altogether and let your hair air dry. It will save you space and weight in your luggage, save time getting ready, and it’s better for your hair.

Travel duct tape. Some travel stores will sell you a miniature roll of duct tape for $3. While I agree with them that duct tape can be invaluable for repairing broken shoes and torn luggage when you’re on the go, you’ll save money by purchasing an entire gigantic roll of duct tape for $6 and making your own miniature travel rolls. Plus, you’ll still have some leftover for use around the house.

Microfiber towel. Particularly if you’re hosteling, the available towels are likely to be small and scratchy, and sometimes you’ll even have to pay for the privilege of borrowing them. Microfiber towels really do live up to their highly absorbent claims. They also dry quickly and don’t take up much space. If you bring your own regular towel with you, it will take up a ton of room in your luggage and, if you’re moving from city to city, it will often still be wet when you want to use it because it won’t have a chance to dry fully before you have to pack it. Drying off with a damp, mildewy towel or an overly small, scratchy towel is no fun. Bringing a larger towel of your own can also be especially useful in hostels, where bathroom and shower privacy is often limited and you probably don’t have a bathrobe to cover up with.

LED light. These are very inexpensive, small, lightweight, long-lasting, and highly effective. They’ll light your way in a power outage or allow you to stay up and read when your roommates want to sleep. Opt for one that you can turn on and off rather than the kind you have to squeeze constantly. I have one with a clip attachment. I can attach it to my book for reading, or attach it to a cloth headband for an instant headlamp.

Personal safety alarm. For women, children, and anyone with limited strength or mobility, a small personal safety alarm that you can keep in your pocket or clip to your purse can give you extra peace of mind and scare off people who try to harm you. Make sure you pick a model that is difficult to set off by accident while still being easy to set off in an emergency. Expect to spend around $10 – $15 for one of these. If you’re concerned about your safety while you sleep in your hotel room at night, for a similar price they also make doorstop alarms that will both make it more difficult for an intruder to open your door and also set off a loud alarm. Me, I would probably just keep my personal safety alarm under my pillow rather than buying both.

Silk sleep sack. These are small, lightweight, effective, and can be purchased for around $20 on eBay (as opposed to $40 from a travel shop). If you’re hosteling, sleeping bags are generally verboten and you’ll often have to pay to rent sheets for your bed — stiff, scratchy sheets, at that. Having your own sleeping gear that fits hostel requirements will save you money and ensure that you have a comfortable place to sleep. Even if you aren’t hosteling, this product can provide extra warmth in hotels and on airplanes and trains. Silk keeps you cool in the summer and warm in the winter while also weighing very little and being very compact.

Compass. Foreign cities are often not laid out in the convenient grids that many of us in the U.S. are so accustomed to. Rather than being distracted by an awkward map and making it apparent to ne’er -do -wells that you’re lost, learn to navigate with a compass. It’s easy to check discreetly and learning to get around using cardinal directions will ultimately improve your navigational skills much more than memorizing a string of left and right turns. You’re much less likely to get lost when you know which way is north, and on overcast days you won’t be able to rely on the sun for clues.

Many of these items are best purchased on eBay or from national mass retail chains rather than from expensive specialty travel stores. However, some items aren’t any cheaper on eBay, and in some cases you may save money by buying the items from a travel store because you’ll only have to pay for one large shipment instead of ten smaller ones. You may even be able to get free shipping if your order exceeds a certain threshold.

These travel gadgets can be very helpful, but if you’re traveling on a tight budget, you can still get by just fine without them. If you can afford a few minor luxuries, though, these items can make your travels a little safer and more comfortable for a very reasonable price.

On the flip side, there are a lot of travel gadgets that look appealing in the catalog, but aren’t worth wasting your money on. Here’s a list of items you may be tempted to purchase and why you don’t really need them.

$300 noise canceling headphones. Most noise canceling headphones only reduce sound by 16-17 decibels, which isn’t very much. The bonus that you get from them is that while they reduce outside noise, they also let you listen to music, theoretically at a lower volume that spares your hearing since you aren’t trying to compensate as much for outside noise. If you absolutely must have these headphones, which are usually bulky, heavy, hot, and uncomfortable, there are $60 pairs that will get the job done just as or almost as well as the $300 pairs. You can also opt for small, lightweight in-ear noise canceling headphones, which comes in a similar price range as the ear-covering version.

By far the best way to save money, weight, and space, however, is to simply buy a white noise CD or MP3 download and listen to it through your regular headphones (earbuds work best for this hack). An album that I think is highly effective is called 3D Rain for Sleep and can be downloaded from iTunes for $9.99. I’ve tested most of their white noise tracks, and this one blocks out the most sound without even needing to be turned up too loud. A major advantage of buying an MP3 online is being able to listen before you buy. You can further increase the effectiveness of these tracks by getting earbuds that go part way into the ear canal, which are a little pricey, but still cheaper than most noise canceling versions.

Another inexpensive, compact, and featherweight option for cutting down on noise while traveling is 3M earplugs, which reduce noise by 29 decibels (though you’ll have to get used to the sound of your own breathing).

Toiletry kits. New FAA regulations limiting you to three-ounce containers that fit into a one-quart bag have rendered fancy organizational kits useless. If you’re seeking a little more organization, a small, clear, zippered bag seems to make it through security just as well as a Ziplock bag.

Compressing packs. These are large, plastic zippered bags that you put your clothes in. When you roll the bags up, the excess air gets pushed out through special valves at the bottom, ostensibly saving space. I’ve used these in the past and I don’t think they make packing easier, especially for backpackers. Their shape doesn’t fit easily in a backpack, they don’t seem to save much space, and, perhaps most importantly, your clothes will be horribly wrinkled when you take them out. If you’re going to use these, you might as well just wad your clothes into a ball — this saves space and wrinkles your clothing just as effectively, and it’s a lot faster and cheaper.

Cotton shoe bags. These are for storing your dirty shoes so they don’t get the rest of your stuff soiled when you pack up. What ever happened to cleaning your shoes (you’ll have to do it sooner or later anyway), putting them in plastic bags from stores (which are free and take up almost no space), or wearing your dirty shoes and letting the dirt fall off naturally?

Fancy luggage tags. There are many ways to help your bag stand out that don’t cost $5 – 10. I identify my suitcase by a piece of twine I tied around the handle. Strategically placed duct tape or colored yarn will also do the trick.

Disposable airport slippers. The idea behind these is that when you have to take off your shoes to get through airport security, you can put these on instead of exposing your bare feet to the grimy airport floor. Have the people who invented these ever heard of socks?

Passport wallet. I cringe every time I see one of these. When you carry your passport in a convenient and stylish case, you’re just making yourself a convenient and stylish target for thieves. Your passport belongs in your money belt, where no one can see it and you’re sure to notice anyone trying to swipe it. Most thieves won’t bother getting under your pants to steal your belongings when they can grab someone else’s off their arm.

Slashproof bags. Even if your bag is protected against being cut open by a knife and having your valuables snagged, it can still be snatched off your shoulder or disappear anytime you put it down. When you’re traveling in certain areas, you just have to be hypervigilant of your bag at all times and store your valuables in your money belt. That’s just how it is.

Disposable underwear. If your underwear doesn’t fit in your bag, you might be trying to travel with too small a bag. If you really want to throw away your underwear every day, there’s no need to go high-tech. Just get the cheapest stuff you can find at a notoriously inexpensive store like Target or Wal-Mart. You want to be comfortable when you’re traveling though, and wearing cheap underwear that doesn’t fit the way your usual stuff does is a great way to ruin your day.

Phrase books. In situations where you’ll most need this, you probably won’t be able to look up the phrases you need as quickly as you’ll need to use them. You’re better off learning a bit of the language before you go, getting good at gesturing, pointing, and smiling, carrying around a small notepad and pen so you can quickly sketch what you need, or getting an electronic translator that will not only be fast, but often work in multiple languages (which can be a great space saver if you’re traveling through multiple countries). For better or worse, you can actually get by speaking English in many situations, but don’t leave home expecting that everyone you need to communicate with will understand you. At least attempting to speak the local language will put you on better terms with locals and enhance your travel experience.

Travel is expensive enough as it is — there’s no need to add to that cost by purchasing a bunch of unnecessary gadgets. Save your money for things that will truly enhance your travel experience, like quality lodging or an authentic local meal.

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11 Responses to 10 Essential Travel Gadgets & 10 Not To Waste Your Money On

  1. Kelley M. says:

    Amen to the top ten “must haves”–I’m going to have to get a compass before the next trip (although, wandering aimlessly and stumbling through “how do I get to…” in the local language is not without its own sort of fun).

    But, regarding the top ten waste of money items, I’ve a few comments to make.

    1) noise canceling headphones. My $60 pair (bought 2 years ago from Koss.com) is outstanding! What these do that white noise mp3s don’t is actually cancel out the lower frequency sounds made my plane engines, etc. I take them on EVERY trip I make now, domestic or international, and when I don’t I’m kicking myself the entire time. It also allows you to listen to music or an airplane movie at a much lower volume than you would otherwise if you had to raise the volume over the level of the plane engine (see NYT’s David Pogue’s video on noise canceling headphones for a great intro to them).

    2) Slashproof bags–true, probably not worth the money, but perhaps a nice insurance if you were going to buy a new bag anyway. What is great I’ve found are messenger bags. These allow you to put the whole bag across your body, preventing someone from pulling it off your shoulder, and also allow you to quickly whip the bag in front of you if you ever hit a crowd (aka pick pocket haven). Plus, it makes you look a little less like a tourist than a backpack.

    3) Phrase books–if you are really unfamiliar with the language, get one. I was in France last October and, although I know the very basics in French, relied on my little phrasebook (pocket-sized) for an unplanned stop at a French post office. The woman behind the counter didn’t speak any english at all, and how does one go on to describe “insure this box” with body language?

    Other items I’m happy to have brought once upon a time: an ace bandage, safety pins, very small umbrella, small notebook and pen, small pocket maps of the large cities, and that little roll of duct tape Amy mentioned! (I did make my own by rolling up from a larger roll–it worked wonders!).

  2. Fitness guy says:

    This is a great list, but i will have to add another travel bag just to carry the new “essentials”.

  3. Alex says:

    Maybe, its just me, but I don’t really need any of the must haves either.

    The noise cancelling headphones, if they worked well, could be something of a godsend given the problem of the couple that thinks it will be fun to bring their baby on board the flight.

  4. baselle says:

    I have weigh-in for the noise canceling headphones, if you find them comfortable. They were useful for canceling the noise a bit, I used them to listen to the movie instead of paying $2 for the crappy ear clips, used them to listen to my MP3 player (I had MP3 walking guides).

    One other must have I would add if you use a PDA like a Palm or a Treo, is the freeware program Metro. Having the entire public transit system of each city you visit is fantastic.

  5. Canadian says:

    As for shoe bags, I make my own bags with drawstrings using inexpensive fabric (or even an old shirt). If you have a sewing machine and know the basics of sewing, it’s very easy. Unlike a plastic bag, it won’t tear.

  6. plonkee says:

    A big yes to the silk sleepsheet and microfibre towel if you are ever travelling using hostels. I cannot stress enough how much better they are than the alternatives.

    I wouldn’t bother with the rest of the must-haves for various reasons, but I’ll also add my no vote to the slashproof bags, just beacause they’re so much heavier.

  7. Karen says:

    RE: Airport slippers.. Walking thru with your own socks doesn”t make sense either. Lets see, take your shoes off, walk on the disgusting ground in your socks, then put your feet back into your shoes with all of the germs and bacteria on your socks, sweating in your shoes. I think I would rather spend a buck and buy some slippers, throw them away when I’m thru the checkpoint. Also the disposable slippers are great on the plane and also in your hotel room instead of walking around and carpets and bathroom floors after heaven knows who have been on the same floors. Again just throw them away after each use. I think they are great idea!! I just purchased a package of 50 at the beauty supply in town for $6.99.

  8. diana says:

    Instead of noise canceling anything I buy ear plugs.
    Cost$ 2 or 3 dollars light and easy to pack in brillitant color.

  9. simon says:

    Noise-cancelling headphones only work well with engine noise, and can have the effect of making transient sounds like speech much more intrusive. Helpful when the attendant asks what you’d like to drink, but they may actually make noisy children more annoying.

    If you want to listen to something while blocking out all kinds of background noise then it’s canalphones that you’re looking for (earplugs with speakers in). They’re not as effective as proper earplugs, though.

  10. Amanda says:

    would duct tape set off the wand going through security??

  11. jan says:

    Alex, do you expect parents to put their babies/children in the cargo hold? REALLY babies are people to if you don’t care for them try driving.

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