Raise your hand if you’ve scrambled at the last minute to fill a Christmas stocking. We’re all usually focused on bigger gifts, leaving stockings to get stuffed from the mishmash of small, nominally priced items in the checkout aisle of a big-box retailer.
This Christmas, I’ll be filling stockings with as much care as I hang them. Here are indulgent and practical items under $20 that your travel-happy loved ones will appreciate (listed in order from least to most expensive):
Mini-funnels: How many times have you tried to fill those travel-sized bottles, only to end up with shampoo oozing down the side? These little funnels prevent gooey messes. Price: $1.29 for three
Bottle-top humidifier: This is ideal for frequent hotel guests who find their rooms too dry. You simply screw the device onto a bottle of water and plug in using the included USB cord. Price: $5.61
Soft-sided bottle: Airports’ filtered water fountains and bottle refill stations are handy, but hard-sided plastic or aluminum water bottles don’t often fit well in the seatback pocket on an airplane. A soft-sided, pouch-like water bottle is a great solution. This one holds 34 ounces. Price: from $6.93
Waterproof labels for toiletries: I’ve used masking tape and Sharpies to make labels for my toiletries for years, but they look low-brow and don’t last very long. These vinyl, waterproof, reusable labels from the Etsy shop ElvaandJune are much prettier, with custom shapes and printed patterns. Price: $8.91
RFID-blocking passport wallet: Savvy hackers employ wireless devices to steal your identity by reading the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) info on your credit card and passport. Thwart their attempts by using a wallet that cannot be penetrated by wireless signals. This wallet stows cash, credit cards and a passport. Price: $9.99
Lavender chamomile pillow mist: I use linen sprays like these to freshen up stale-smelling sheets, spritz worn clothing and help immortalize the memory of a trip, as I wrote about in September. This particular scent isn’t overpowering and could appeal to men and women. Price: $10
Luxury-brand toiletries: Most of us either refill bottles with the shampoo and lotion brands we have at home or buy whatever’s cheapest at the local pharmacy. Why not indulge your loved one with a luxury brand, such as Bvlgari or Kiehl’s? Price: from $10
Portable battery charger: Before you purchase a portable battery charger as a gift, make sure you know what brand of smartphone your loved one owns. This sleek, eight-ounce model works on iPhones, Androids, BlackBerries and other devices. Price: $11.45
Sleep mask: Not only does this mask do superb work blocking out light, but it also contours around your eyes — you can actually still blink when it’s on — and it doesn’t slip down your nose. Comes with free earplugs. Price: $12.80
Gadget organizer: This is the perfect companion for a long-haul flight: a nylon pouch with tons of tight elastic loops, pockets and pouches to keep all your little items organized. You’ll never have to root around on the floor for your lost pen or lip balm again. Price: $15.19
Neck rest: Unlike a standard neck pillow, the Releaf Neck Rest prevents you from becoming a sound-asleep bobblehead, because it supports all of your neck, not just the back and sides. Price: $19.99
There’s a clever new bag in town for travelers who want to stay organized on their next trip. It’s called Oregami, and it involves an innovative system of interior compartments that are part shelf, part packing cube. The three zipped-together compartments fold neatly into and out of the suitcase, and can be separated if you want to stow them in drawers or keep them in different parts of a hotel room. Check out the video below to see the design in action:
The Oregami Touring 100 suitcase measures 30 inches high, 15 inches wide and 12 inches deep, and retails for $399.97 on the Oregami website. It’s currently only available in black, but a “fossil”-colored (light brown) model is coming soon, with a carry-on size to follow.
Sarah Schlichter, senior editor of IndependentTraveler.com, and Lissa Poirot, editor-in-chief of sister site Family Vacation Critic, teamed up to test the bag in a variety of settings. Lissa took the suitcase on a cruise with her son, while Sarah and her fiance shared the bag over a weekend car trip. Here’s what they loved — and what they weren’t so fond of:
The Good It’s an organized person’s dream: What better tool to provide a Type A, organized personality than a bag with different compartments, each with zippered covers? If you love packing cubes, you’ll appreciate this bag.
It’s easy to unpack: Lissa’s favorite thing about the suitcase was being able to unzip each tray and slip them into the drawers on her cruise ship. She had packed her son’s clothes in one tray, her own in another and bathroom items in the third, so everything had a place.
It’s customizable: If you only need one or two of the trays, it’s easy to unzip them from each other and leave behind the ones you don’t need.
It’s made of high-quality materials: The bag feels sturdy, and we liked that the wheels are a standard size for in-line skates, making them easy to replace if necessary.
The Bad It’s heavy: The bag weighs 14 pounds when it’s empty — more than a quarter of your weight allowance for checked bags on most airlines. If you tend to be a heavy packer, you might struggle to avoid overweight fees.
It’s not the most efficient use of space: Travelers who are more interested in maximizing every square inch of a suitcase than in staying organized will find it frustrating to try to work everything into or around bulky rectangular compartments. (This is the same reason ultra-light traveler Sarah is not a fan of packing cubes.)
It’s not a grab-and-go bag: If you need to access an item that you didn’t put in the top tray, you’ll have to lay out the suitcase, then unzip and undo the compartments until you reach the one where your item is stored. (With an ordinary suitcase, it’s easier to simply unzip and root around.)
It’s not easy to maneuver in crowded spaces: The suitcase rolls smoothly, but its short handle keeps the bag very close, making it difficult to turn quickly when moving through crowded airports. It doesn’t pivot or turn and is best-suited for easy, direct walks.
Want to give this bag a try? We’re giving away our gently used black Oregami Touring 100 suitcase! Just leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, December 21, 2015. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the suitcase. This giveaway is open only to residents of the United States. To read the full contest rules, click here.
Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner of the suitcase is Mary Fortin. Congratulations!
Here’s another edition of our favorite travel stories of the week. (If you missed the first edition last week, you can check it out here.)
Fodor’s Stands with Paris
In this moving post, the editor-in-chief of Fodor’s explains why she isn’t planning to cancel her holiday trip to Paris next month, even after the recent terrorist attacks.
No More International Roaming Charges? Here’s How
Conde Nast Traveler offers good news for travelers who like to stay connected: Verizon is now allowing customers to pay between $2 and $10 per day to use their phones abroad the same way they do in the United States, without worrying about expensive roaming charges. (The article also includes suggestions for those who use different cell phone carriers.)
Transparent Airplane Walls May Be in Air Travel’s Not-So-Distant Future
Fortune reports that Airbus is planning some revolutionary changes to the in-flight experience, including transparent airplane walls that will give new meaning to the phrase “window seat.” (If you’re afraid of heights, you’ll be able to use an opaque hologram to block the view.) Other potential changes: seats that adjust to your body size and themed “zones” where you can play games or interact with other passengers.
Starwood Devotees Greet Marriott Merger With Dread and Anger
Marriott International announced Monday that it will acquire Starwood Hotels & Resorts (which includes Sheraton, W, Le Meriden, Westin and several other chains). In this piece from the New York Times, frequent Starwood guests express their concerns about what will happen to their loyalty points and whether or not they’ll continue to enjoy the personalized service they’re used to after the merger.
Finally, have a laugh at this video of an Irishman on vacation in Las Vegas, who didn’t quite understand which way to point the GoPro camera he borrowed from his son. Instead of capturing the sights around town, he ended up filming his own face all over Sin City. Here’s the footage, spliced together (with a little musical embellishment) by his son Evan:
What do you do when wanderlust strikes, but you’re not in a position to indulge it? That’s a dilemma I often face this time of year, when work is busy with end-of-the-year deadlines and most of my budget and vacation time are allotted to family-focused holiday travel. The more restricted I am from traveling somewhere exotic, the more I want to go away.
One way I’ve found to cure an untimely travel itch is to watch TED Talks. TED is a nonprofit that aims to share ideas about all sorts of topics in the form of videos of 18 minutes or less. Topics range from business to science to self-help, and quite a few speakers have presented travel-themed talks too. I turn to them to satisfy my wanderlust.
Below are five of my favorite TED Talks to help you indulge your own escapist travel fantasies.
Photographer Chris Burkard is absolutely crazy — and I love it. He travels to the frigid ends of the Earth to take pictures, surf and, as he describes in this 10-minute video, go on a “personal crusade against the mundane.”
Tony Wheeler is the founder of the travel guidebook series Lonely Planet. His 17-minute presentation focuses on the unusual and seemingly dangerous places he likes to travel.
Kitra Cahana is a modern-day and self-proclaimed vagabond. As a child she traveled the world with her parents. When she became an adult, she found she couldn’t stop. She has spent her days documenting the lives of other nomads in the United States, which she discusses in this five-minute video.
Whenever I feel guilty about the amount of money I spend on travel, I watch videos like this one, in which Turkish presenter Gulhan Sen details how travel changes you for the better. Money well spent!
Modern-day explorer Ben Saunders was the youngest person ever to ski solo to the North Pole when he successfully completed his goal in 2004. He did a talk in 2006 about it, but I like the following talk even better — a general, 10-minute presentation on why we should all spend more time outdoors.
For travelers looking to explore beyond planet Earth, there’s a new frontier in sight. A hotel in Zurich has just opened a brand-new Space Suite designed to resemble a space station, reports CNN.
The five-star Kameha Grand Zurich hired German artist Michael Najjar to design the suite, which features a “floating” bed, photos of astronauts, spotlights that resemble rocket engines and a library of space-themed books and films. An automated female voice inspired by the film “Dark Star” greets guests as they enter. You can even tune into NASA TV or a live stream from the International Space Station.
The video below offers a look around the suite:
A stay on the space station — er, in the Space Suite — doesn’t come cheap, starting at 1845 Swiss francs a night (approximately $1,858 USD) for a package that includes accommodations, breakfast, “space amenities” and an invitation to meet the designer of the suite. But perhaps the coolest inclusion is the opportunity to try an Airbus A320 flight simulator for an hour, as well as take a turn skydiving inside a vertical wind tunnel.
It’s about as close to space as you can get without signing up for a trip with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which hopes to someday bring ordinary humans into space. (Ordinary humans who can afford the $250,000 price tag, that is.)
Like many travelers these days, I prefer to pack light and fly with nothing but a carry-on. I hate the lines for checking luggage, waiting in crowds at baggage carousels and hoping against hope that my checked bag didn’t get lost in transit. Airlines, though, keep adjusting allowable carry-on sizes, and some, like Frontier and Spirit, charge you for a carry-on that must be stowed in the overhead bin.
So naturally, I was intrigued by the CarryOn Free bag, which is designed to be a suitcase that fits underneath your seat — even on Spirit — which makes it a “personal item” and is, thus, free to travel with. The bag retails for $69.99. I gave it a whirl for a three-day getaway to Vegas and a two-day trip to New York City. Read on to learn how it fared — and find out how to win one for yourself.
The Good It fits! The bag’s design is unique. It’s a true rolling suitcase with a telescopic handle, but it’s compact, and the top is narrower than the base so it can be slid under a seat. And at 16 inches tall, 14 inches wide and 12 inches deep, it really does fit. We tried it on a United flight and found that it didn’t require any fancy maneuvering.
It’s sturdy: This is not a flimsy suitcase that feels cheap. The polyester fabric is thick and doesn’t stain easily. The handle, which extends to 40 inches, isn’t shaky, as we’ve seen with some suitcases. The zippers operate smoothly, and the fabric inside seems durable. We gave this case a workout, dragging it through the streets of Manhattan, over sewer grates and through packed sidewalks, and it rolled smoothly. The handle also pulls up (and pushes down) quickly and easily, for when you need to transition between pulling and carrying. My 6-foot-4 husband liked the length of the handle and didn’t have to stoop to use it.
There’s lots of room: Despite its compact size, this case can fit a lot. I was easily able to pack for our trip to Vegas in this case alone, and I included three pairs of shoes in addition to day clothing, nightwear, fitness clothing and pool garb. My trip to New York was a business trip, and I had plenty of room for several pairs of shoes, business attire and even my laptop and tablet.
The Bad No legroom: The problem with putting the CarryOn Free bag under your seat is that you sacrifice legroom — which is especially troublesome if you’re tall or traveling in economy class. The suitcase takes up the entire space beneath the seat, so you can ‘t stretch out at all. This can get fairly uncomfortable on longer flights.
Digging around: While there’s enough space in the bag for a long weekend’s worth of packing, it’s because the suitcase is so deep. If you don’t like to unpack, you’ll be digging around in the suitcase all the time to find what you’re looking for, which inevitably is at the bottom of the case. An inside pocket on the lid is sufficient for holding small items like toiletries, but the deep bag itself lacks dividers (though two straps at the bottom can help prevent items from shifting).
In-flight access: Once this case goes under the seat, it’s there to stay, so don’t plan to pack anything into it that you might need to access mid-flight. When it’s packed, it can be heavy and difficult to maneuver from under the seat without jostling your seatmates.
Want to give it a try? You can win our gently used suitcase! Just leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, September 23, 2015. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the suitcase. This giveaway is open only to residents of the lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.
Editor’s Note: This contest is closed. The winner of the bag is Lisa Dudding. Congratulations!
I’ve taken many a trip, been on many a flight, and maybe because I’ve been (knock, knock) lucky about not having my luggage lost, I’ve never contemplated what happens to my suitcase after I drop it at the luggage counter. Without much imagination, I always assumed baggage handlers industriously gathered the checked luggage onto carts and wheeled them out to some kind of freight elevator where they journeyed to the tarmac below and were then loaded by another industrious group of baggage handlers onto the plane.
Little did I know, while I’m thumbing through magazines and finding the nearest Jamba Juice before settling in to await the boarding process, my luggage is having the ride of its life — at least it would in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, where a first-person (bag) video has recently been released, chronicling a checked bag’s journey through an intricate series of conveyor belts and robotic platforms. Seriously, if this thing were designed for humans, it would be the hottest new theme park attraction.
We found the video on Time.com, but if you browse the airport’s website, you can find a version that allows you to scroll for 360-degree views.
What other inside view of travel would you like to see a video of? Share with us in the comments.
Forget the weeklong family vacation; it seems parents and their children are hitting the road for months at a time, across borders and thousands of miles, in a new wave of family travel that seeks to educate through global experiences.
This morning I came across a story on Yahoo Travel about a 10-year-old girl who blogs about her worldly experiences, having visited more than 30 countries in her first decade on this planet. Tatum Oxenreider and her two brothers live a migratory life with their parents, who work remotely (you can say that again) for a nonprofit organization while chronicling their journeys on their website, “The Art of Simple Travel.” Tsh, Tatum’s mother and an author of books on travel and simplicity, believes that the world is the best teacher possible.
Thinking about the Oxenreiders reminded me of another family: the Kirkbys. Stars of “Big Crazy Family Adventure” on the Travel Channel, this family of four — with two young sons, ages 7 and 4 — documented their travels across 13,000 miles from British Columbia to the Himalayas without taking a single airplane. While there’s an expected amount of groaning from the kids, who tire of some more tedious parts of travel — such as hikes intended to acclimate them to an increase in altitude — for the most part, the family remains upbeat and embraces every chance they can to introduce their young ones to a new cultural experience (including the crunchy scorpions both boys ate with gusto in China).
Out of curiosity I searched online for families traveling the world — and there are plenty. Meet the Nomadic Family, a clan of five from Israel who offer insight and tips from their journeys wandering the world for three years, as well as the decision they made to stop traveling and how that transition back to home life has been. Other families are doing it without tracking the trek via a blog or website. Last year the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler wrote an editorial piece on the Maurers, a family of four (children, ages 15 and 12) traveling from Southeast Asia to Nepal to Europe on $150 a day. Over 10 months, some of the challenges and lessons they faced were strange and difficult. For example, the father and daughter — adopted from Korea — could not walk alone together in Thailand, as they would be often misconstrued as a couple. The parents also faced harsh criticism from home for having their children out of school for a year, despite unconventional home schooling along the way.
And then there’s our own story of a couple who hit the open road (and skies and rivers…) with their three young sons to explore South and Central America. In the interview, the DeSas discuss challenges like traveling through airports while keeping hands free to hold on to the kids, or not being able to find foods they crave in a new place on a tight budget. However, the lack of chocolate chip cookies is more than made up for with experiences like making their own chocolate from scratch in Ecuador.
I don’t yet have a family of my own, so I can’t speak to whether I would bring children on such a long trip, but I know I certainly would’ve enjoyed it as a child myself. Would you embark on a trip around the world with your family? Tell us in the comments.
It’s not Airbnb: Money does not change hands. It’s not Couchsurfing: Accommodations are more formal and include an actual bed. But it’s also not HomeExchange: You can simultaneously trade places with another traveler, but you don’t have to. Enter Nightswapping (formerly known as Cosmopolit Home), the latest in “living like a local” — and, if you don’t care to pay, hosting like a local too.
The new company, based in France, aims to foster a sense of community and kinship while conveniently avoiding the legal issues Airbnb has faced from local authorities and housing regulations. The idea is this: When you host travelers from around the world — either in an extra room while you’re there or in a space they have to themselves — you’ll earn credits known as travel capital. In turn, you can use those credits as free nights at other host locations around the world (the website says there are more than 10,000 in more than 160 countries). According to the site’s terms and conditions, a member (someone agreeing to host as well as travel) will receive a credit of seven nights at registration, so he or she can start traveling right away. This gesture is not considered a gift but an advance — the member is still expected to host in return.
Although the site claims to be free, guests must pay a $9.90 “connection fee” to confirm a nightswap. This fee goes to the company, not the host.
Don’t feel comfortable sharing your space? Nightswapping offers an equivalent nightly rate for each location you may be interested in, ranging from 7 to 49 euros. How does the site bypass the “room for sale” legal gray area? Hosts never actually receive money, even if the room is paid for — just travel capital, or nights. Nightswapping absorbs the payment (for your convenience, of course). Locations vary, but are generally broken down into Europe and “exotic destinations” (which include North America); it seems there are far more hosts in Europe than anywhere else.
The best hosts in each region are highlighted, and ratings are shown at the top of the lister’s profile. We like the thorough profiles, which offer size and dimensions; comfort, condition and a description of the interior design; a carousel of photos; a map detailing relative location; a photo of your host with some basic information including age and languages spoken; and the last time someone stayed at the property.
According to the site, “Nights have a different value depending on the standard of the accommodation you wish to stay at.” Rated 1 through 7, your home’s value is calculated based on an algorithm taking size, comfort level, location and other factors into account. Once rated, you can see what your hosted nights will translate into during your own stay abroad. Seven nights in an accommodation rated “Standard 3” equals four nights in a “Standard 5” accommodation, or 10 nights in a “Standard 2” accommodation.
In theory, the idea of fostering continent-crossing friendships with little to no monetary burden seems very Kumbaya. But while Nightswapping bypasses some of the legal issues faced by other similar services, the question of personal safety remains, especially for solo travelers or hosts. Nightswapping uses a similar social media vetting system for its hosts as Airbnb and suggests checking your personal home insurance and liability policies before hosting a guest. It also gives hosts the option to deny guest requests. Nightswapping recently announced that each stay will be covered by insurance worth up to 450,000 euros (approximately $488,663 USD), while Airbnb offers a million dollar host guarantee for every booking (with some limitations). It all comes down to your personal comfort level.
Every so often I wander over to Vimeo, a video-sharing site that’s one of my favorite sources for travel inspiration. I know that every time I visit I’ll find myself drooling over films from exotic locations around the world.
One of my latest discoveries is this poignant look at Myanmar (Burma), which captures fishermen rowing their boats, children at play and other scenes of everyday life:
Ever wondered what it might be like to swim with jellyfish? You can try it at Palau’s Jellyfish Lake, where the creatures do sting, but not powerfully enough to harm humans. The resulting footage is mesmerizing: