Before we jump head first into 2014, we’re taking one last look back at the year that was. Of all the travel tips and trends we covered in 2013, there were a few that got our readers ranting, raving or simply laughing. Read on as we count down our 10 most popular blog posts of the past year.
10. Air New Zealand did it again. The airline known for its creative and hilarious in-flight safety videos came out with another winner in November, this time featuring the inimitable Betty White.
6. Few things get travelers more riled up than the topic of kids on planes. This year saw several Asian airlines introduce child-free zones on some of their flights — and while many of our readers were supportive of keeping kids as far away as possible, one parent took a different tack in her controversial Open Letter to People Who Hate Flying with Kids.
3. Our post on 5 Signs You’re Not a True Traveler stirred up some strong emotions in the comments section. Reader Christy said our list was “spot on,” while Clare accused us of “imposing [a] very restrictive idea of what an experience must be.” What’s your take?
2. On a long, boring flight, leafing through the SkyMall catalog is always entertaining. Readers got a good laugh from our list of 9 Useless Items You Can Buy at 35,000 Feet, ranging from a mounted squirrel head to a porch potty for dogs.
As I prepare for my latest voyage, the packing checklist looks a lot like the usual, at least on the surface. New shoes? Absolutely. A few new items of clothing? Why not. A camera, raincoat and Kindle are also among the staples I lug around from one trip to the next.
But this is no “normal” voyage. On this trip — my first-ever soft adventure cruise — I’m traveling on International Expeditions’ 31-passenger La Estrella Amazonica down the Peruvian Amazon, one of the most remote and exotic sections of this mighty river. And while pictures make the line’s new Amazonica ship look quite comfortable (nice touch: balconies with every cabin!), the places we’ll be visiting in the jungle might not be so forgiving.
My past cruise experience has focused on mainstream, luxury and European river lines, so for this otherworldly adventure I turned to International Expeditions’ recommended packing list.
Among the items: “strong” insect repellent, insect-bite relief products, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, tissue packs (for off-the-ship toilets), sunburn relief, and medication for diarrhea, altitude sickness and motion sickness. I also visited a doctor for a prescription for malaria pills, just in case, and to make sure my hepatitis A shot was up to date.
As far as clothes go, a wide-brimmed straw hat came “highly recommended” (it’s actually kind of cute). I splurged on Skechers walking shoes and some not-so-flattering khaki cargo pants from L.L.Bean that I’m told will be a godsend (because they dry quickly). To avoid attracting insects, clothing in dark shades is highly discouraged — a challenge right there since my urban travel wardrobe revolves around black … everything. A forage to the back of my closet yielded treasures like white, linen, long-sleeved blouses (turns out I had three that were virtually identical!).
The niftiest tip on the list? On this cruise, a seven-night roundtrip from Peru‘s Iquitos, we will visit a local school, and passengers are encouraged to pick up supplies to donate. Tucked into my pile are Crayola markers, a box of pens, folders and notebooks.
The packing part of this adventure isn’t over yet. Even as I head to the airport for my flight to Lima, where I’ll meet up with fellow passengers before heading to the boat, I’m keenly aware of the one item I’ve failed to procure. Turns out piranhas, purring monkeys and bizarre puss caterpillars are not to be feared; the real predator on the Peruvian Amazon is the mighty skeeter, due to dengue fever (which doesn’t have a vaccine). Super-strong insect repellent is nowhere to be found in central New Jersey right now, where freezing temperatures mean there’s not a mosquito in sight and shops aren’t currently stocking the stuff.
I also failed to buy the recommended tube socks, which protect ankles from chiggers — but I’m not too worried. To this inveterate travel shopper, it’s just one more excuse to prowl around Lima’s shops before our group heads to the boat.
Last Thursday I returned from my first trip to Alaska. Everything from the views to the food was fantastic. But part of what made my trip so enjoyable was that I was ready for just about anything, because I had read up on what I needed and had brought three specific must-pack items.
Layers: Having read many articles on how to prepare, I still struggled to find outfits that were suitable for both warm and cold weather without grossly overpacking. What I finally settled on were two pairs of jeans, several short- and long-sleeved shirts, a sweatshirt, a light jacket and a fleece jacket, with a pair of gloves and a headband to keep my ears warm. I kept an umbrella and poncho handy, too. “They” aren’t kidding when they say the weather can change at the drop of a hat. In Juneau, it was rainy and chilly, but not cold. In Skagway, it was cloudy and in the 40’s. In Ketchikan (which gets 13 feet of rain per year), it was sunny and in the 70’s.
Proper Footwear: After my clothes, I tossed plenty of socks and three pairs of sturdy shoes into my suitcase, factoring in one pair for wet weather (waterproofed hiking boots), one pair for cold weather (sheepskin boots) and one pair for regular weather (sneakers or tennis shoes). Boy, were my feet happy.
The Best Camera You Can Beg, Borrow or Buy: Sure, certain things in Alaska are overrated. (You can see similar mountains in several other places.) But you’ll want to snap some once-in-a-lifetime shots of what’s not so common elsewhere: grizzlies, dog-sled teams, Tlingit totems and, of course, glaciers, just to name a few. Most standard smartphones these days come with cameras that will do the trick just fine (and often better than any mainstream digital camera), so if you don’t own one, look into upgrading or borrowing one from a friend. You won’t regret it.
The last time I packed for a long trip, size did matter. I had to stuff as much as I could into one suitcase. Thankfully, it was a big suitcase. But this was a 12-day cruise, and I had to pack for a variety of weather and occasions — including formal night. That meant I needed to have as much room as possible at the top of the suitcase so my dresses wouldn’t crease.
Enter these nifty elastic bands called rollnbands, which you can use to wrap rolled pieces of clothing together to make more room. They were very helpful for compressing my T-shirts, workout clothing and PJ’s into a small space, leaving more room to pile in my folded items. (For those more organized than me, you could also use the bands to roll each day’s outfits together, so that all you have to do is grab a bundle before getting dressed in the morning.)
Fearing wrinkles, I didn’t feel comfortable trying to wrap my “nicer” items with the bands. That didn’t matter though, as the extra space provided by the tightly packed rolled items was more than enough to put my folded pieces on top. The larger bands proved more useful than the small ones, as a large band could wrap three to four items and a small band only wrapped two.
I didn’t find rollnbands to be as helpful to me as packing cubes, which are more appropriate for clothing that’s easily wrinkled. But they work great for packing mushable items into a tight space in order to make room for clothing that needs a bit more room.
A pack of rollnbands comes with five small and five large bands and retails for $19.95.
Want to try them for yourself? We’re giving away a few of our gently used rollnbands. To win, just leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on August 15, 2013. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the rollnbands. 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 has ended. Reader Linda Conner has won the rollnbands. Stay tuned for further giveaways!
As Senior Editor of IndependentTraveler.com, I’ve lost count of how many thousands of words I’ve written about how to travel more efficiently and intelligently. Many of those articles have been advice on how to pack — like tips for squeezing everything into a carry-on no matter how long the trip, and recognizing the signs of four common packing problems. So you’d think by now I’d be a perfect packer.
On a recent trip to Toronto, I forgot to pack not one, not two, but five things that I typically bring when I travel. While I managed to remember the absolute essentials — passport, medications, underwear — a couple of the items I forgot were pretty important. Like, oh, toothpaste. I also left without pajamas to sleep in, gum to equalize ear pressure during takeoff, a black tank top (without which one of my other shirts was unwearable) and a plastic bag for dirty clothes.
Fortunately, it wasn’t too hard to replace most of these items. My hotel came through with a dental kit, I borrowed a T-shirt to sleep in from a friend and I picked up a pack of gum (in a plastic bag, no less) at the airport. But I couldn’t remember the last time I’d packed so poorly — and done so by ignoring so much of my own advice. In the spirit of learning from my own careless mistakes, here’s what I’ll do better next time:
Start packing a few days before the trip. I never remember everything I need to put on my packing list the first time I write it out; starting a few days early lets me add additional items as I think of them. For my Toronto trip, I was so busy in the days leading up to the trip that I simply threw everything into a bag the night before I left. That was strike one.
Recycle packing lists from past trips. Let’s face it — most of what we pack is the same for every trip. So why reinvent the wheel each time? I often dig up old packing lists and adapt them for whatever trip I’m currently taking (shameless plug: it’s easy to do that if you save a copy of our interactive packing list). Had I done this for Toronto, there’s no way I’d have forgotten such basics as PJ’s and chewing gum. Strike two.
Restock your toiletry bag each time you get home. I grabbed the same quart-size bag of liquids and gels that I’d used on my previous trip, not realizing that I’d run out of toothpaste and failed to put another tube in. And that’s why I ended up brushing solely with water my first night in Toronto. Strike three.
When I arrived at my hotel on a recent trip to Toronto, I did my usual bed check, pulling back the duvet and casting a careful eye over the mattress and box spring. Fortunately, I saw no telltale reddish brown spots, so there didn’t seem to be any bed bugs lurking between my sheets. But if there had been, I had a line of defense: a 20-inch carry-on suitcase from ThermalStrike.
The suitcase (also available in a 24-inch size) uses infrared technology to heat its contents to a temperature of 140 degrees — hot enough to kill bed bugs and their eggs. To start the heating process, you must load both sides of the suitcase evenly, stand it up, raise the telescoping handle and plug the bag into the wall. The heating process shuts off automatically once the treatment is over. (The company’s Web site offers an estimate of 2.5 hours for the “fatal temperature” to be reached, but in two different tests my carry-on shut itself off within 45 to 60 minutes.)
The suitcase gets hot to the touch during the process, but not to the point of danger; kids or pets touching the case by accident shouldn’t be harmed. Of course, you’ll want to take out anything that might be damaged by heat, such as cosmetics, sensitive electronics and that chocolate bar you’re bringing home for Mom.
Read on for a few of my favorite and least favorite things about the suitcase — and to see how to win it for yourself.
Bed bug concerns aside, the ThermalStrike is a solid carry-on bag. The materials are sturdy and high-quality (with the possible exception of the telescoping handle, which felt a tad flimsy), and it’s an attractive bag inside and out. A built-in TSA-approved lock allows for a little extra security, and the spinner wheels were an upgrade over the rolling upright I’ve been traveling with for the last decade.
Though I don’t believe I was in any danger from bed bugs on this particular trip, treating my clothes and other belongings with the suitcase gave me a little extra peace of mind.
I’m used to traveling with a soft-sided carry-on, which has a couple of external pockets where I can stow things like my quart-size bag of liquids and gels for easy access at security. The hard-sided ThermalStrike carry-on was less convenient on that front; to get my toiletry bag out, I had to lay the suitcase on its side and unzip the main compartment to get to the “quick-access pocket” inside — not ideal in a crowded security line.
The pivoting wheels occasionally seemed to get a little stuck when I tried to turn the suitcase, both in the airport and on a few uneven sidewalks in Toronto.
To run the heating process in countries outside of North America, you’ll need both an adapter for the plug and a converter with a voltage of at least 300 watts. (See Electricity Overseas for more info on this topic.)
At $349 for the carry-on and $399 for the 24-inch suitcase, the price may be beyond the reach of many travelers.
If you can afford the price tag, the peace of mind may be worth it, especially for an otherwise sturdy bag.
Editor’s Note: For those who are asking, the 20-inch carry-on weighs eight pounds, according to the product specs on Amazon.com. The 24-inch suitcase weighs 10.5 pounds.
Want to try it out for yourself? We’re giving away our (gently used) suitcase! Just leave us a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on June 11, 2013. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the ThermalStrike carry-on. 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 has ended. The winner of the suitcase is Susan Dalpe. Congratulations, Susan!
Micro Luggage might be the most fun you ever have schlepping your belongings from airport to hotel. It also might be the most impractical way to travel for anyone who is embarking on a trip longer than a weekend.
Micro, a Swiss company known for cutting-edge scooters and kickboards, has made the leap into travel gear, combining a carry-on-sized suitcase with a three-wheeled scooter. A YouTube video (watch it below) shows users gleefully gliding through airports aboard the foot-powered scooter, passing other luggage-dragging suckers stuck with standard rolling bags.
Realistic? Not so much.
Having never set foot on a scooter in my life, I decided to try it in a safe — flat — environment first: the office. The carpet slowed my roll a bit, which was just fine for this beginner. I worked a little on turns, which was an intuitive process (lean left, turn left; lean right, turn right).
Feeling empowered, I decided to give it a true test: an eight-day work trip. Read on to learn how it fared — and find out how to win one for yourself.
Micro Luggage is small — somewhere between the size of a rolling laptop case and a standard carry-on — so I needed to pack an additional suitcase, which meant I wouldn’t be able to use the actual scooter part until after I checked my bag at the airport (you can’t ride a scooter while pulling another bag). While the Micro Luggage pulls behind like a standard roller, it doesn’t roll smoothly or turn easily when using it in this manner. I found myself picking it up far too often because it was “skipping” as I pulled it.
Going through security, I made the mistake of placing the suitcase on the belt wheels down, which caused it to get caught going through the X-ray machine (to be fair, the instructions warned about that; I just didn’t thoroughly read them until I returned from my trip).
The interior has all sorts of neat pockets, but the functionality falls apart when it comes to packing efficiently. You must pay special attention to how you load it, placing heavy stuff in the back and light stuff in the front, to prevent it from tipping over when you’re riding it. The max weight allowed is only about 15 pounds. Also, the handle is large, so you can grip it like a scooter’s handles as you ride it, but this means you can’t slide another bag — such as a laptop bag — over the handle to pull them both at once. I was forced to shoulder my heavy laptop bag, which made my ride feel unbalanced.
It’s completely impractical to ride at full speed (never more than about six miles an hour, as per the instruction booklet) through a crowded airport, unless you want to do some serious damage to fellow passengers or suffer the wrath of security.
This thing is fun. The wheels glide so smoothly that you feel like you’re playing a game rather than slogging through an airport. It also gets you from Point A to Point B much more quickly than it would otherwise take. Once you get the turning down, it’s easy to maneuver. I didn’t actually use the brake, finding it easier to stop by putting my foot to the floor.
Micro Luggage is a great conversation starter. If you’re uncomfortable talking to strangers or getting weird looks, you shouldn’t ride a scooter/suitcase through a busy airport or hotel lobby. But if you’re not shy, you’ll make friends who ask about your sweet ride. At my hotel, the bellhops took turns trying it out, and a girl of about 6 boldly proclaimed it was her turn before I crushed her dream (yes, I felt awful, but “This product is not for children!!” according to the instructions).
It’s sturdy. It accommodated my husband (at 6’4″ and almost 200 pounds) as easily as it accommodated me (at 5’7″ and significantly less than 200 pounds). He had fun testing it out in a parking ramp, though we later discovered that’s another no-no, as Micro Luggage is intended to be used indoors only and on flat surfaces.
While Micro Luggage is a blast, it’s not suitable for heavy travel use. It’s too small and doesn’t accommodate enough weight to be useful for someone who needs to pack, say, a large laptop, a tablet, a camera and other carry-on essentials. The novelty of it is great, but at a retail price of $249, it needs to be more practical.
Want to try it out for yourself? We’re giving away our (gently used) suitcase! Just leave us a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on March 15, 2013. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the Micro Luggage. This giveaway is open only to residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.
For months I had been preparing for my eight-week trip to South America. As I bought new gear, I would toss it into my backpack without a second thought. It wasn’t until the morning of my flight that I dumped everything onto the living room floor — with less than six hours to determine what would make the final cut.
Space was at a premium because whatever I chose, I’d have to haul around on my back for two months. I’m typically a light packer, used to asking myself, “Is this necessary?” The items below answer that question with a resounding yes!
When you find yourself without electricity (Cabo Polonio, Uruguay), without street lights (San Pedro de Atacama, Chile) or simply in a situation where you want to be a considerate roommate (someone WILL be sleeping before you set out your toothbrush and pajamas), a headlamp is worth its weight in gold. Mine proved its worth by day three (of 60).
Hooded Silk Sleep Sack
My silk sleep sack, which folded up into itself and fit inside a quart-sized zip-top bag, felt luxurious … especially in hostels and budget hotels where the alternative was a sheet that was the texture of sandpaper. Bonus: In altitude, it provided me with extra warmth when the temperatures dropped.
Compression Sack Compression sacks are perfect for consolidating less-needed items; when I was in warm-weather locales, the sack eliminated the extra space taken up by my fleece and jeans.
iPod with Customized Playlists
I created a “sleep” playlist that served me well on overnight bus rides and when sharing rooms with snorers. To build up a little anticipation for your trip, you can create a playlist with popular and current music in your destination. When you return, you’ll have an instant souvenir with music you likely just heard on the road.
Go on, laugh. But don’t take TP for granted, even when you have to pay to use a toilet. In many parts of the world you’ll need to provide your own. (See Five Tips for Bathroom Preparedness.)
I was in an area known for mosquitos and I hadn’t taken any malaria meds. Upon checking into my hotel, I noticed there was a hole in the window screen. I whipped out the duct tape, covered the holes and hoped for the best. (For other uses, see Top 10 Travel Essentials You Can Find at Your Drug Store.)
Or as I call it, a cover-up, beach towel, pillow, pillowcase, sarong and blanket. Oh, and yes, a scarf.
Quick-Dry Travel Towel
This was a good alternative in spots where bath towels were the size of washcloths. It also proved useful at the beach. Bonus: Sunshine really speeds up the drying process.
Biore Cleansing Facial Cloths
After an overnight bus ride or just a few days sans shower, using one of these made all the difference. I will never travel without facial cloths again.
Thankfully I never used this, but it took up permanent residence in my daypack. It was at the ready if there was an abundance of stray dogs or if I was walking alone in the dark.
I never had to use it as such. Instead, it doubled as a change purse. Had I needed to hand it over, it was heavy enough to be believable, yet it didn’t hold enough to impact my travels.
Last week, we published a slideshow of the World’s Ugliest Luggage, highlighting suitcases that challenge the boundaries of taste, color, common sense … or all of the above. In response, reader Dona Stewart sent in a few ugly luggage photos of her own:
Gotta love that 70’s powder blue!
But it turns out that these less-than-stylish suitcases are being used for a higher purpose. Said Stewart, “I collected all of those suitcases (priced under $5 each, most $1) for my favorite small dog rescue. They made dog beds out of them, truly an up-cycle project. They sell on Etsy.com for $50 – $150 apiece.
“The idea to use the castoffs as a pet bed came from observing one’s pet jump into a suitcase opened for packing, often with a sad look,” Stewart continued. “My little Yorkie, Lana, jumped right into her suitcase bed the moment I placed it on the floor. Her ‘bed’ serves a dual purpose; when she is ready to go stay with her pet sitter while we travel, I use it to pack her ‘stuff.'”
All together now: “Aww!” We give this idea two paws up for turning travel trash into treasure.
People who discover that I travel often, long-haul mostly and for weeks at a time, say, sagely, during cocktail chat, “You must be a genius at packing.” Actually … no. I’m a graduate of the school of “But what if I need…”
As a packer, I’ve cut back on the books, thanks first to Kindle and now to iPad, though not so much when it comes to movies (Netflix doesn’t transfer out-of-country). Fashion-wise, I have found ways to maximize variety while minimizing outfits. But I’ll confess: Give me too much time in an airport and all hell breaks loose.
On a recent vacation jaunt from Newark to Helsinki, which took a whopping 22 hours thanks to late departures and missed connections, my most egregious problem was neither sleep deprivation nor travel annoyance. It was the extra time for shopping.
Once I got bored with sitting in the Newark lounge, it occurred to me that I could buy presents. In the airport’s expansive mall, I found a slinky New York-themed T-shirt for my teenage niece, a Big Apple-decorated onesie for the latest addition to my spouse’s Finnish family, and a couple (okay, a bulky wodge) of magazines to support me through the three-week-long English-language desert that is a vacation in Finland.
And that was just Newark. Once we arrived in Frankfurt, where we’d just missed our connecting flight and had four bleary hours to kill, the airport’s liquor stores offered quite the bargain-hunger’s justification. Finland’s taxes on alcohol make otherwise reasonable prices for wine, vodka and Champagne ridiculously expensive, so we loaded up. My husband’s impulse purchase of German sparkling wine put us over the top.
Suddenly, we were carting seven bags of carry-on stuff onto an airplane (these in addition to the two very chunky suitcases, full of American gourmet items, DVD’s and other necessities, that we’d already checked). Boarding the two-hour flight from Frankfurt to Helsinki, I felt like — to paraphrase my Finnish husband’s charming interpretation of American aphorisms — one of the “Beverly Hilly-Billies.”
So no, I am not a great packer. I will invariably have too much of one thing and not enough of another. But I can offer one silver lining: the things you scramble to buy because you don’t pack well will be the souvenirs you remember the most.