We’ve all got stuff we can’t bear to leave home without. Quite apart from the obvious (I say “obvious” but I’ve nearly forgotten my passport more times than I care to remember), I mean the small things which make life that little bit more bearable, even in the depths of a foreign country on a bus that first breathed life in 1932.
Things have evolved since all I needed was hand sanitiser and a phrasebook. My bag’s a little fuller now, but it doesn’t mean my items are any less carefully considered.
So here (in no particular order) are my top 10 travel essentials, of which most are £10 or under, but all are guaranteed to take life on the road from punishing to pleasant.
This inflatable pillow is possibly the only thing I’ve taken on every trip. It folds down to the size of a small paperback, and is the only way I’m able to sleep on planes. It works a treat on buses, too, especially if your neighbour looks less than thrilled at you resting your weary head upon his or her shoulder.
The plush bean-filled pillows (as sold in airports across the world) are more comforting but bulky and tricky to pack away. Don’t be tempted by their squishiness and alluring colours: avoid.
I’ve bedded down with my eye mask in planes, hostels, buses, airports, even shabby hotel rooms when the curtains might as well not exist. They’re essential on sleeper trains, which often have questionable timing when it comes to turning off (and on) the lights.
There’s really nothing wrong with the airline freebies, but my current version is lavender-filled to help me nod off, has satin to soothe sensitive eyes, and only cost a tenner. Consider the elastic placement if you struggle to sleep with anything directly on the back of your head; double straps can help.
I’ve snoozed a full 8 hours on a plane thanks to the holy trinity of pillow-mask-earplugs. I’ve also managed a half-decent night’s sleep in an Indian hotel room next to a massive industrial fan which clanked astonishingly loudly. They’re one of those tiny items you’ll regret if you don’t have, but if they never get used, you won’t regret bringing.
The most effective version I’ve used are silicone, but should be avoided if you have a pierced tragus since they tend to yank out the earring (I speak from experience). The cheap foam ones are generally fine; get them in a handy travel case!
One time I did a jungle trek in Laos on which we had been instructed to bring only the bare essentials. When we reached the treehouse where we would spend the night, our guide announced he had brought a bottle of wine . . . before realising to his horror that it wasn’t screwtop. The atmosphere was bleak, until with a grandiose flourish I produced my Swiss army knife and life, once again, was worth living.
I can’t lie: the three parts I use most often are the corkscrew, scissors, and tweezers, but frankly anyone who reckons they can dismember a tree with the tiny saw is deluded or highly skilled. I have used every single part, albeit not for their original tasks. Thankfully, I have never removed a stone from a horse’s hoof.
This is the most expensive item on the list and arguably the least essential, unless you consider wine an essential (and I do), in which case it’s worth every penny.
Finally, learn from my mistakes: if you leave this in your hand luggage, it will get confiscated at security.
We get so used to tapping away on our phones and tablets that it takes us by surprise when we need to scribble something down with old-fashioned ink. But travelling is all about notes and reminders, whether it’s the hotel address, correct pronounciation of your host’s name, or an amazing cafe suggestion. One pen will break, and you’ll probably lose the other. You may even give them away. So I always carry at least three.
If I’m carrying a guide book then I tend to make notes in the back of that, but I always keep a little notepad for when I don’t.
If the weather is particularly dry, and your lips get chapped or even cut, lipbalm is less a luxury than a medical necessity. But I’d never carry a pot when travelling since in certain places it’s best to avoid touching your mouth.
In the olden days I tended to bung a cardigan over my knees. That was before I appreciated the versatility of scarves. I was a big fan of the pashmina until last year’s “blanket scarves” changed the game. I have this ASOS one (above), which is gigantic but soft, and works equally well wrapped around my neck as a scarf, over my whole body on a train journey, or draped across my shoulders on a chilly evening. It’s also served as a real blanket whilst staying in a hotel with rubbish heating. It’s the bulkiest essential, but so worth it.
I’m certainly no princess but I hate jagged nails, mostly because they’re irritating and catch on stuff, but also because they can rip down and get infected (bleurgh). Clipping or cutting fingernails with scissors makes me shudder. They weigh next to nothing, so I always have nail files to hand, even when I’m hiking in the mountains or camping in the jungle. I never leave home without at least one, and you’d be amazed by how many big tough travellers have asked to borrow them.
Many a friend has been made on a long train journey with the aid of Spit, Go Fish, or the universal ice-breaker, Shithead. If you’re the one who can provide the cards, you will single-handedly supply joy and entertainment and most importantly, become the coolest and sexiest person in the group. All because you didn’t throw away the present you once got in a Christmas cracker.
My extremely well-used pack came from a street vendor in New Delhi and claim to be Prada (they aren’t). You could consider hauling around Cards Against Humanity, but the box is a lot more cumbersome, and you’re unlikely to make quite so many friends this way. Best stick to Snap.
If you’re in possession of a vagina, listen up. The Mooncup deserves (and will get) a post of its own; but for now, if you’re not yet a convert, here are the highlights:
• lasts way longer between changes than tampons
• one cup is good for years so it works out super cheap
• no risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome
• FAR kinder to the environment
But when it comes to travelling, perhaps the biggest plus is that you don’t have to fill half your bag with tampons/pads in anticipation of a period (or several) which may not even happen, and then panic about keeping them clean, dry, and in their sealed packets. AND you can keep it in for up to 12 hours – half as long again as a tampon’s maximum lifespan – a lifesaver on long bus journeys.
At £20 it’s not a cheap outlay initially, but in the long run it far outstrips what you’d spend on tampons and pads. You can buy them online (they also list local international stockists) or if you’re in the UK, from larger Boots.
My only regret with the Mooncup is that I didn’t start using it years ago. It’s now not only a travel essential but a life essential, too. If you’re embarking on a long trip and feeling flush, my one addendum would be that in an ideal world, you’d carry two, in case of loss or damage.
Do you agree? How many of these do you carry already – and which might you now consider? What are your travel essentials?
(A variation of this post first appeared on my other blog, Bells & Whistles, in December 2014)