I laugh thinking of the days I conscientiously carried around a pegless clothesline that was recommended to me the very first time I jet-setted away from home (and that I never, EVER used). Back when I carried a film camera and Facebook didn’t exist. Now with years of experience and wisdom acquired from all types of adventures, my packing list looks a lot different to how it did back then. If I was to sit down now with my younger self and recommend travel essentials to invest in, it would look something like the following: a list of indispensable items that rides shotgun in my luggage no matter what the destination or activities involved, and that I now recommend to you.
Disclosure: I may earn compensation from the purchase of any product linked on this website, at no extra cost to you. I only link to products I use and love, therefore feel comfortable recommending.
1. Packing Cubes
I have lifestyle and etiquette guru, Mr Colin Cowie, to thank for introducing me to packing cubes many years ago. As someone who has flown millions of miles to preside over fabulous events, Colin knows how to pack! No one wants to waste time digging through a bag to find the thing they need – packing cubes are a simply genius way to keep everything organized. Some travellers pack cubes by outfit, but I prefer to keep like items together. For example, all tops in one, bottoms in another, one for underwear and another for accessories such as scarves, sarong etc. Cubes make it so easy to pack, unpack and lay your hand on the right item quickly.
If it’s summer, a wide brim for sun protection is best and in winter, something to keep you warm, just make sure you pack a hat! A hat is also great for disguising a bad hair day.
Sunglasses are a no-brainer but don’t just pack the kind that looks good, ensure they provide 100% UV protection (also labelled as UV 400 protection). I would add that polarized shades are best if water sports or snowy/icy destinations are your thing.
4. A secure wallet
Pickpocketing and theft are a risk wherever you travel in the world – don’t get caught out! Use a money belt, crossbody bag with two closures (zip and button/clip) or a scarf that has a hidden pocket like these ones from Pierron Designs, to secure your valuables close to your body.
5. Air security approved liquid bag
I got sick of wearing through ziplock bags and finally purchased a reusable, air security compliant bag. The stand-up, wide-bottom design of this bag makes it much more useful for packing and worth the small investment alone! Now that I’m flying carry-on only most of the time, this is a travel essential.
6. GoToob carry-on size liquid containers
Inside my Samsonite toiletry bag are my trusted Humangear GoToobs. I broke and leaked my way through a few sets of cheaper, more flimsy, carry-on toiletry bottles and containers until I came across these. Since using GoToobs for a decade now, I have never had a leak or a break and I’m still using my original set years later. The wide opening makes refilling them easy, and the twist top has inbuilt labels. I now have two sets: 3oz for extended travel or products I need more of, and 1.25oz for shorter trips.
7. Waterless handwash
My (almost) public health degree wasn’t wasted! Especially the two units I studied microbiology and communicable diseases. I will always choose soap and water as a first preference because I hate overusing antibacterials (if you want to know why this article sums it up), but there are situations where sanitation isn’t readily on hand and you’ll be glad you carried waterless handwash aka hand sanitiser. A bottle of travel-size hand sanitizer with a carabiner that attaches to the outside of your bag makes for better accessibility and keep hygiene top of mind.
8. Eye mask and earplugs
I didn’t buy anything special here, I just held onto an eye mask and earplugs I received on a flight years ago and didn’t use. Though I have never used the earplugs, I have come close enough that I always have them on hand. They are so small and light it’s worth it.
9. A pen or two
Pack a pen in your carry-on to ensure you can fill out customs form while you’re still on board and save time later. I pack two, as I inevitably end up lending one to someone else and sometimes don’t get it back (i.e. don’t want to stand around waiting for it while the customs queue is growing).
10. Fully sealable travel mug/thermos
Like me, you probably always carry a refillable water bottle, but it wasn’t until recently I switched to an insulated travel mug for hot and cold drinks. I made the change initially to save the world hundreds of non-recyclable take-out coffee cups but I’ve found it has other wonderful benefits. Firstly, I tend to drink less tea/coffee because I drink it over a longer period without needing to skol it when it starts to get too cool. Secondly, I can buy a proper tea/coffee at the airport (once through security) and take it on board – no more revolting onboard drink service – and it will keep warm in that over-zealous air conditioning for hours.
My current favourite is a Zojirushi Stainless Steel Travel Mug (12oz), which is more akin to a mini thermos than a mug. This means the seal is watertight and I can throw it in my bag and not worry about leaks. The 12oz size (also comes in 16oz) fits under most espresso machines.
Headphones are essential for keeping entertained and sane during long commutes. Earbuds will do, but if you splash out for some good quality, wireless, noise-cancelling headphones you will find they are also an excellent sleep aid (i.e. replace the need to carry the aforementioned earplugs). If you like to go walking/jogging with headphones, I recommend still packing your earbuds because it’s safer to hear a little of what is going on around you, and over-ear headphones get very sweaty. We pack Bose QuietComfort 35 which are not only at the forefront of noise-cancelling technology, but they fold down flat into a slimline case perfect for travel. They also come with the plugs and cables you need to charge them and connect up to the in-flight entertainment system.
For those who work from the road or use their phone as their camera, you will be glad to have some extra juice at the ready when that dreaded low battery indicator starts flashing. Charge this travel essential before departing and pack in your carry-on. I have fortunately acquired a couple of free power banks over time but if your looking for a recommendation The Wirecutter recommends Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh External Battery which has the capacity to charge a midsize smartphone twice.
It goes without saying really. Whether you’re using your phone or something more specialized, a camera is an absolute non-negotiable travel essential. I use a Canon EOS 550D (European EOS Rebel T2i) with a Canon EF-S 15-85mm lens and an Olympus TG-5 Waterproof Camera for aquatic adventures. My phone still comes in handy for panorama shots and I find it the simplest for making short videos.
14. Travel insurance
Thankfully I’ve never had anything more serious to claim on my travel insurance than lost luggage. However, being my husband and I like to go off the beaten path and do crazy things like cycle the former most dangerous road in the world, it is without hesitation that we insure ourselves for every adventure. Due to our constant travels, we find it more cost-effective to purchase an annual policy rather than trip by trip. After much research and several quote comparisons, I finally settled on Seven Corners Travel Insurance when we were living in the US, and Insure and Go when we are Australia based. Both covered our needs in terms of:
- Trip or annual plans
- Countries that many others don’t e.g. Cuba (UPDATE: Seven Corners no longer cover Cuba)
- Optional hazardous sports coverage for activities such as motorcycle/motor scooter riding, hang gliding, parachuting, zip-lining, parasailing, bungee jumping, water skiing, wakeboard riding, jet skiing, windsurfing and snowmobiling.
15. Dry bag
If you overturn your canoe, get caught in a torrential downpour or have to make a wet landing to go ashore, it is a relief to know at least your valuables are dry. Additionally, though I haven’t tried it myself, longterm travellers and campers are known to use dry bags do their laundry. Dry bags come in various sizes depending on whether you just want to keep your camera/phone/wallet dry or you want to put in a towel and a change of clothes. I picked up a basic Field & Stream 5L dry bag at the last minute before our trip to the Galapagos Islands, which has served its purposes so far especially considering the price point of USD10. My fellow travellers commonly recommend Såk Gear waterproof dry bags for their great quality and extra features.
16. Microfibre towel
Though most accommodations provide towels, you may need an extra one for activities like watersports, camping and swimming,. Microfibre is the way to go. It’s soft, lightweight, quick-drying and rolls down very small to preserve space in your luggage. My original Kathmandu microfibre towel bought over ten years ago is still going strong.
When I began travelling many years ago it was all about the Maglite flashlight, but I can tell you there’s nothing better than being handsfree when you’re stumbling around in the dark. Whether you are caving, or just trying to find the bathroom in the middle of the night in a new hotel room, a headlamp makes life easier. I did a lot of research before buying Black Diamond Storm Headlamps for my husband and me, and the recommendations have been true to their word. This waterproof headlamp covers all the bases with 350 lumens, 80m maximum beam and is lightweight at 110 grams (3.9oz). The lamp can be dimmed and the latest model has three night-vision colour settings.
Long, short, near or far, flying, driving, hiking or swimming these are the travel essentials you need to pack for EVERY trip. If you have any questions or would like to suggest additional items, drop me a comment below.
See these posts for more on perfecting your pack:
Peace, love & inspiring travel,