10 Essential Tools for Practical Travelers

I grew up traveling. My dad was a manufacturer’s representative in home furnishings, which meant he did a tour of all the furniture stores in the Midwest every few months. In the summers, we went with him, exploring the tiniest of Midwestern towns while he showed the fall line in some Main Street furniture store.

After college, I headed to London. When my 6-month work visa expired, I traveled Europe for a month before settling down for a few months to an Army base job in Heidelberg. Since I had built a relationship with a German national in London, the next seven years I went back to Europe at least a half-dozen times, spending a few weeks at a time in Dijon, Antwerp, The Hague, and Heidelberg (her home town), which became bases for shorter trips to Rome, Florence, Brussels, Berlin, Bamberg, Strassbourg, and a dozen smaller towns. 

When you travel this much, especially on a tight budget, you learn to be “self-contained” — you need to carry everything you might need, but you also need to keep it light and manageable. Over the years, I’ve collected a pile of travel gear — all of which fits pretty comfortably into a small overhead-sized convertible suitcase/backpack (with my clothes and toiletries, of course).

Here are a few of the things I’ve picked up over the years that have a special place in my packing list. Some of them are everyday items; most of the rest can be picked up at any sporting goods store with a decent camping section.

1. Travel Clothesline

The key to traveling cheap and light is doing your own laundry as you go. You can do it in a sink in any bathroom, or visit a laundromat. Spending money on laundromat dryers, which usually don’t work anyway, is a huge waste.

Instead, pick up a travel clothesline. Mine is made of two thin bungee-cord strands, capped on each end to a suction cup and hook assembly. The number of suction-cup-able surfaces in the world is minimal, so make sure you get one with hooks; you can wrap either end around anything stable and hook the line to itself. With the bungee cords, you don’t need clothespins; just tuck a corner of whatever you’re drying between the strands.

Bonus tip: Avoid cotton clothes, which wrinkle, dry slowly, and offer poor insulation. Instead, look at the clothes made for camping and sports: no-wrinkle synthetics designed to keep you dry when you sweat, to stay warm when it’s cold and/or wet out, and to be super-light. And carry a bottle of Woolite for sink-side laundry.

2. Travel Alarm Clock

When you stay in fancy hotel rooms, there’s usually an alarm clock; when you travel cheap and stay in hostels, pensiones, and other low-cost accommodations, you can’t rely on a clock being provided. Or on being able to figure out how to set it and make sure it wakes you up. Having a clock whose workings you’re familiar with can ease a lot of stress.

Bonus tip: Get a clock with a built-ion flashlight, or even a really strong glowing face. In many countries, even in better hotels, a midnight trip to the bathroom means a trek down the hall in the dark; use your alarm clock to light your way.

3. Ziplock bags

I carry three sizes of ziplock bags with me, a few of each: sandwich size, 1-quart regular-style, and 2-quart or gallon freezer bags. The small ones are great for holding your “pocket stuff” when you go through airport security or when you’re swimming or doing other activities where you fear getting wet. And of course, they’re great for putting food in.

The larger ones are for carrying wet washcloths, dirty laundry, books you want to protect from weather, and so on. The freezer bags are a thicker plastic that’s very rugged.

Bonus tip: You can use larger ziplock bags as makeshift packing bags — put a couple t-shirts into a big ziplock, close it almost all the way, and compress it to remove as much air as possible, then close it the rest of the way. Great way to save space in your bag!

4. Swiss Army Knife

I bought my first Swiss Army Knife right before heading to Europe for the first time, and I’ve kept one in my pocket virtually every day since. Get a medium-sized one — the big “everything plus a kitchen sink” models are too big and heavy to keep comfortably in your pocket; the three- and 4-tool ones aren’t useful enough for the hassle (and there is some hassle — see below).

I use the scissors virtually every day when I’m traveling, from first-aid to removing airport claim tags to quick sewing to trimming my nails. The knife blade is useful for cutting bread and cheese picked up at a local grocery or market — a great lunch to enjoy in the hills overlooking Florence or on the piazza/plaza/place of any European town. The screwdrivers, bottle openers, corkscrews, and other tools will prove themselves useful time and time again.

The problem is, you can’t take a pocketknife in your carry-on, which means checking bags, which sucks. And some overly security-conscious attractions won’t let you carry a knife onto the premises; I had to skip St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican because of this. While it mitigates the usefulness somewhat, you might want to consider leaving your Swiss Army knife in your bag when sight-seeing; in that case, pick up a set of unbreakable plastic cutlery for picnicking and learn to enjoy being far less prepared for whatever life throws your way in your travels.

I’d like to see the Swiss Army knife manufacturers put out a line of travel-friendly “pocket tools” — with everything but the knives.

5. Front-pocket wallet

Some cities, like London and Rome, are notorious for their pick-pockets. When traveling, a back-pocket wallet or a purse is an invitation to robbery. A front-pocket wallet, with a couple ID and credit cards and a money clip, is a much safer bet — harder to steal, easier to keep track of as you move around, and in the end (no pun intended) more comfortable. Women, choose pants with front pockets when you travel; the unexpectedness of a woman keeping her money in a wallet in her pocket adds even more security.

Bonus tip: There is no sure-fire guarantee you won’t be robbed, whatever precautions you take (though I’ve never been). Always keep cash in a few places about your body — a little in your wallet, a little in another pocket, a little in your sock, and so on. And make two photocopies of your important paperwork (with relevant phone numbers for replacement or reporting theft) before you leave home; leave one set with friends or family, and stick the other in your bag. Nowadays, you can upload scans to a service like flickr, too. The idea is to have thorough records in case you do lose your ID or credit cards.

6. Coin purse

One thing Americans need to get used to when traveling abroad is that coins come in values up to about $2-3 US. Much of your daily spending will therefore be in change, rather than bills. I fell in love with the leather flip-pouches many Europeans carry: the front opens to make a coin-counting “shelf”, and when you’re done, the coins slide back into the pocket.

Bonus tip: You usually can’t convert change to a new currency, so make sure you spend as much of your change as possible before you cross a border into a country that uses a different currency. Buy gum, candy, postcards, or other small items at the train station or airport before you leave, or just give your last handful of change to any of the local beggars who offer a valuable change disposal service to travelers.

7. Belt with Secret Compartment

I bought my “secret agent” belt at Wal-Mart, of all places, but I haven’t found a replacement since it broke. This is a belt with a zippered compartment hidden on the inside. You can stick a couple of bills, folded into quarters, in the compartment, and unless you encounter the most thorough of thieves (who steals a belt?) you’ll always know you’ve got at least a little money.

Bonus tip: Look for other “secret” places in your clothes, or even make them. The funny 5th pocket on your jeans, a watch pocket inside a blazer, a key pocket inside swim trunks — all of these are smart places to tuck a little cash. Or you can split a seam in anything with a liner; add a new stitch at each end of the tear to prevent it from unraveling further.

8. Silk Bedliner

Many hostels require travelers bring a bedliner, to avoid the cost of buying and daily washing sheets. They are also used to make sleeping bags more comfortable. A bedliner is basically a sheet folded over and sewn shut except at the top, like a sleeping bag without the insulation. You climb in just like you would a sleeping bag (if, like me, you’re too lazy to unzip sleeping bags).

To be honest, my bedliner is cotton, which is fine but it’s rather bulky and heavy. They make silk ones that are, of course, somewhat more expensive but which roll up super-tiny and weigh only a couple ounces. If I had it to do over again, that’s what I’d get. Plus, what’s more luxurious than sleeping wrapped in silk?

Bonus tip: Don’t let the name fool you — a bedliner is simply a sheet. There’s no reason to restrict its use to lining beds. In the summer, you might find that your bedliner is all you need — which can be especially useful if you find yourself sleeping without the benefit of a hotel, e.g. in a train station, on a train, under the stars, etc. In cold weather, you can whip out your bedliner and use it as a blanket (and silk is surprisingly warm for it’s thickness).

9. Collapsible Daypack

Unless you’re barking mad, you don’t want to haul your main bag around with you all the time. For daytrips, you’ll want a daypack — something to fit a guidebook, water bottle, picnic lunch, and camera into. When it comes time to move on, though, you don’t want a second bag to have to worry about. Fortunately, a number of companies make small backpacks from super-light material that fold down to a 4″ or so pocket; open it up, pack it full, carry it around, and leave your big suitcase/backpack at your hotel or hostel (make sure it’s secure, though).

Bonus tip: If you notice your daypack has become an essential piece of luggage, you’ve accumulated too much stuff. Stop at the local post office, pack up your souvenirs, and mail them home — they’ll likely be waiting for you when you get back from your holiday, and you’ll have enjoyed not having to haul around the extra weight.

10. Microfiber Towel

People who stay in hotels and motels are used to towels being provided for them. Cheaper digs — and, depending on the country, even in more expensive lodgings — don’t usually supply towels. Your normal Turkish cotton towel from home is big and warm and soft and snuggly, but ill-suited to international travel: cotton takes forever to dry, it’s heavy, and it’s bulky. Instead, grab a microfiber towel, made of the same stuff carwashing cloths are made of. Microfiber absorbs many times it’s weight in water, almost all of which will wring out easily; it dries fast; it’s super-light; and it folds up tiny.

Bonus tip: Grab a washcloth, too, or cut up a full-sized microfiber towel to washcloth sized. Keep the pieces, too — you never know when you’ll have a spill or other wetness to clean up. How about a hand-towel for when you get caught in the rain and want to dry off, or for the inevitable bathrooms with no towels.

That’s my list of essentials. What do you find absolutely necessary in your traveling kit? Or what travel gadgets have you tried that failed to find a permanent place in your suitcase?

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