10 essential travel items (and 10 useless ones)

What do you always pack when you travel? When I travel for business, I just throw in whatever takes my fancy into my largest suitcase, knowing that someone else will carry that suitcase for me. For backpacking, I carefully examine every item before putting it in my bag. But some items invariably make their way into my luggage no matter where I go and how I travel.

10 essential items to take on your trip

Here is my list of  top 10 essential travel items. Some are absolutely vital wherever you go, while others are particularly useful in places that are hot and where hygiene standards are lower than in Europe or the US (i.e. my favourite kind).

1. Scarf

A long, light cotton or silk scarf tops the list. You can use it as headcover against the sun or to enter a mosque, or as a shawl when it gets chilly (evenings or air conditioned rooms) or if the sun has burned your shoulders. It has as many uses as the towel in ‘Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. And if you are a guy – well, tough luck. Remember to pack a hat or a baseball cap and for the rest, see point 9.

2. Wet wipes

Wet wipes are heaven-sent in a hot climate – to wipe sweat off your face, clean your hands, or even replace (OK, offer a feeble substitute of) a shower when you’re camping in the wilderness. It doesn’t matter whether you choose a brand or a generic, they are all essentially the same. If you pick baby wipes though, you may want to go for the fragrance-free variant, unless you want to emit the powdery smell of a newly born.

3. Ear plugs

Even if you’re a heavy sleeper, you surely have limits as to the level of noise you can endure. Ear plugs can be a life saviour on a plane if your fellow passenger is a screaming baby or if that ‘charming B&B in a tranquil location’ turns out to be full of cheery lads on a stag do, or is overlooking a busy construction site.

4. Money belt

A wallet tucked into your handbag or pocket works at international airports and in tourist resorts. But if you want to venture outside into the real world, invest in a flat money belt that can be hidden from view under your shirt. Don’t forget to keep some loose change in your pocket or bag though – you really don’t want to take the money belt out in the street every time you make a purchase.

5. Diarrhoea kit

OK, I know it is not an appealing prospect, but most people will have an episode of traveller’s diarrhoea while in Africa (maybe with the exception of South Africa) or Asia (except a few countries like Japan, Korea or Singapore). You can buy a ready-made diarrhoea kit in any pharmacy, but if you want to save a few bucks, compile your own. Include Limodium or a similar drug that will stop the symptoms, rehydration salts and an antibiotic to be self-administered when everything else fails. I hope you won’t need it, but if you do – better to be prepared than sorry.

6. 100 USD in small denominations

Most of us travel with plastic money these days, which is by far the easiest (and safest) option. Many African and Asian currencies can only be purchased locally anyway. Carrying large amounts of foreign currency is risky, but having a bit will be really handy. I always bring with me about 100 USD in banknotes of 10 and 20. You can change your dollars easily in hotels or foreign exchange bureaus, or even pay directly in USD in many countries in Africa.

7. Sunscreen

Always carry a small bottle of strong sunscreen (30 SPF or more). The sun can be unforgiving in the tropics and a bad sunburn could ruin your entire holiday. Don’t panic though if you haven’t packed enough – you can buy sunscreen anywhere where a white tourist has set foot, usually the same brands as at home.

8. Long skirt or trousers

So when it’s really hot we should put on shorts, right? Wrong. The best option in scorching heat is a light, long skirt or long trousers (not jeans, think cotton or linen). A light fabric will protect you against the sun and, paradoxically, keep you cooler than shorts. Have you ever seen a Bedouin in the desert wearing shorts? No, he’ll be wrapped up from head to toe. I’m not saying you should too, but if you do bring shorts, save them for the resorts. Apart from protecting you from the sun and heat, long skirts or trousers are always more culturally appropriate than bare legs. The latter will incite disapproving looks in many countries or may be outright dangerous (ever seen rape statistics in India?).

9. Long sleeve shirts

The above logic applies to the upper body too. Pack a loose-fitting light and breathable shirt with long sleeves that during the day will protect you from the sun and the heat, at night, from the mosquitoes, and at all times from insulting the locals with the sight of your exposed shoulders or bosom.

10. Crocs

Yes, I’m one of those people who declared Crocs the ugliest shoes in the whole world when they were first released on the market. Now I own not one, but two pairs. However you look at them, Crocs look hideous on anyone past their infancy, but they are incredibly practical. They are super light, sturdy, easy to clean and fast to dry, anti-slip and breathable. I use my Crocs to go to the hotel pool or in the shower at camp sites and questionable hostels. They offer the advantages of flip-flops without the risk of falling off your feet. Crocs are perfect for walking in the streets of many African and Asian cities that can be wet, dirty or muddy.

I’m not mentioning the obvious items in this list, that is: a camera, your passport, insurance and copies of all these (hard copies and electronic ones on Dropbox of Google Drive). If you don’t know to bring these with you, I can’t help.

Don’t forget to check if malaria is endemic in the area you are travelling to. If it is, get your doctor to prescribe antimalarials, preferably Malaron which is best tolerated by most people.

Backpacker’s extras

If you’re a budget traveller, I would add an extra four items to the list.

11. Light fast-drying towel

A microfibre towel is light, packs into nothing and dries instantaneously.

12. Sleeping bag liner

If you stay in hostels or at camp sites, you will no doubt be bringing your sleeping bag with you. If you consider that a typical sleeping bag lasts years and is never washed, you will be inclined to buy a light silk or cotton liner that you can use as bed linen for your sleeping bag. Or when the night is so hot you can’t bear the thought of anything other than ice cubes touching your skin, the liner will provide a barrier between you and the bed bugs without making you sweat any more that you already are.

13. Baby shampoo

Toiletries are not provided in cheaper hotels and hostels, so you will need to bring your own. Rather than carry several bottles of stuff, I bring one bottle of the Johnson’s Baby No More Tears shampoo that I use as a hand-wash, shampoo, shower gel and laundry detergent. It’s delicate and won’t irritate your skin even if the heat forces you to take multiple showers a day.

14. Swiss Army knife

I always carry one with me, but I’ve only ever used it a few times while camping. Go for one that has a good knife, a nail-clip and nail-file, a corkscrew and a pair of scissors. A good scout is always prepared.

10 useless items to leave at home

Travelling is a big business. Travel stores and magazines will try to convince you that you shouldn’t leave the house without a ton of expensive gadgets with which your trip will be a success and without which – a total disaster. Before you rush to the store and buy all that stuff, consider that people had been travelling for centuries before all the gadgets that we now think indispensable were invented.

1. Water purification tablets

Unless you’re planning a trek in the jungle away from all civilisation, I’d say leave these at home. First of all, they make the water taste foul. Secondly, do you really want to ingest all those chemicals? As an alternative, boil tap water before drinking it, and if you don’t have access to a kettle, buy bottled.

2. Hand sanitiser

A hand sanitiser seems to be an obvious choice for countries where hygiene standards are low. However, it doesn’t kill all germs, it stinks, and it leaves your hands slimy with alcohol and the same old dirt, just disinfected. Whenever you can, just wash your hands with soap and water. If you can’t, use wet wipes (see point 2 on the list of essentials).

3. Mosquito net

When I went to a travel clinic before my first trip to Africa years ago, they gave me a mosquito net. I carried it with me religiously for the first couple of years, but I haven’t used it once and now I just let is gather dust on the shelf (somewhere – I couldn’t find it for my photo shoot here). Carrying your own net is useless, as in nine cases out of 10 you won’t have the hooks needed hang it, the hotel room will already have a net, or it will be equipped with window nets or chemical repellents.

4. Guidebook

Are you shocked? Am I saying you don’t need your Lonely Planet ‘Bible’? Don’t get me wrong, I have an impressive collection of Lonely Planets and Rough Guides on my bookshelf. But in this day and age they are becoming increasingly redundant. Before you set off, google your destination, read up opinions and tips on travel blogs and discussion forums, and book your accommodation via Tripadvisor or a similar portal. And when you arrive, ask around and navigate the city with your smartphone or a paper map every hotel will provide. Spare yourself the extra weight and leave that guidebook on the shelf.

5. Adaptor plug

A few years ago I bought one of those ridiculously overpriced ‘universal’ adaptors at Heathrow airport. I only needed an adaptor once (I forget in which country), but the one I had turned out not to have the right type. Now I travel without. My devices tend to have either a UK or a European plug and most hotels I’ve stayed at provide these two types of sockets. And if not, ask at reception and they’ll give you the adaptor you need.

6. Head-torch

I don’t know how some authors of travel articles move around, but definitely not the same way as I do. For some reason a head-torch is always on their list, while I don’t recall ever being in the remotest need of one. Streets are lit, hotel rooms have electricity and backup generators in the event of a power cut. At a camp site you will simply go to sleep when it gets dark or sit by the fire. And if you’re looking for your glasses, a condom or whatever else you need in a dark tent, use your smartphone to light the way.

7. Travel pillow

Ever seen those people who walk around airports with pillows wrapped around their necks? Jealous of not looking half as cool, I once bought a neck pillow at an airport for the price of a decent dinner in town. The pillow turned out to be a massive nuisance. It does nothing except cause neck pain when you’re trying to sleep on the plane. When you’re not sleeping, which is most of the time, the pillow will be awkwardly falling off your lap, taking your leg room or not fitting into your hand luggage when you disembark. In short – totally useless.

8. Traveller’s cheques

Every travel agent will tell you how great they are. Safe, easy to cash, and a bargain to buy. In real life, I have yet to find a restaurant or hotel that accepts traveller’s cheques. In effect, you will be stuck with them and will bring them back home, but the agent will multiply reasons why they can’t take the unused cheques back, and if they do take them back, it will be for a hefty fee. So remember it’s the 21st century and pack your credit card, plus some foreign currency (see point 6 on the essentials list).

9. Padlock or other theft-protection measures

Many guidebooks will urge you to pack padlocks to secure your luggage against theft. Airports make a killing of a service where your bag is wrapped in a sort of cling film. If you think any of these measures work, you are not giving the thieves quite enough credit. Airport security will take a split second to break your padlock if they want to search your luggage. If a thief wants to get inside your bag, they will use a knife to cut through the fabric without paying any attention to the padlock, or they will simply steal the whole bag. So use your common sense and don’t walk around with padlocks dangling about you like a Christmas tree.

10. Packable shelves, inflatable hangers and similar nonsense

Trust me, packing is an ancient art and you don’t need any high-tech gadgets to accomplish this task. Here is how it is done: flatten or fold the item to reduce its volume, stack it on top of other items, put it in the bag, close the bag. Voilà.

What do you consider to be essential items for travel? And which ones do you leave at home?

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