When it comes to travel, I am overall anti-gadget; like many independent travelers, I’d rather pack light than lug tons of stuff around in an attempt to carry every convenience of home with me on the road.
That said, there are some travel gadgets that are essential to just about every packing list. Besides your smartphone—which is a given for just about all of us—we’ve come up with the 12 best travel gadgets that deserve inclusion in your carry-on.
Universal (All-in-One) Plug Adapter
After years of thrashing through a bag of adapters before every international trip, I was thrilled when all-in-one adapters started appearing on the market—that is, until I tried to use one in actual wall outlets.
Some outlets are recessed, requiring an extender that seemed not to be included in most adapter sets. Some adapters didn’t seem to correspond to the shape that you found in the guidebooks for the country you were visiting. Others were poorly made and came apart after a few days’ use.
That is mostly over, as today’s all-in-one adapters address most of these issues with a built-in extender on the European adapter plugs. Most have enough options that you will never be out of luck, and they tend to be better made to boot.
A couple of well-reviewed choices include offerings from ITANDA and TruShield.
“Noise-canceling headphones were probably the best travel investment I have made,” says pro photographer Erik Dresser, who logs tens of thousands of air miles each year for his work. Dresser notes that the headphones let him shut out the general din of the aircraft so he can relax more easily, permit him to sleep in flight without getting woken up by chatting passengers and crying babies, and signal to others that he is not up for socializing.
Dresser owns the Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones, which have been replaced by the Bose QuietComfort 25. At $279, they’re not cheap, but they will buy you some peace and quiet.
USB Flash Drive
A USB flash drive (also known as a thumb drive) can come in handy on any number of occasions while traveling, such as sharing a document with the hotel front desk so they can print it for you or accessing a photo of your passport if it’s lost or stolen.
Amazon lists thousands of these; most work pretty well.
Portable Phone Charger
On two separate occasions in the past few years (a company party and a fundraiser), the “party favor” was a small, rechargeable USB phone charger, probably the most useful and welcome party favor in history. The only thing about “party favor” quality chargers is that they tend to fail pretty quickly, so purchasing a good one is probably worth the money.
This one is on sale at the moment; for $14 you can get a heap of charges, which beats buying drinks you don’t need at a coffee shop just to be able to plug in.
For a bit more money, this one gets stellar reviews from many experts.
If you will be renting a car, bring a car charger/adapter. Recharging your stuff while driving helps combat the “not enough accessible outlets in the hotel” factor and allows you to use your device to map your route, play a podcast or distract your kids in the back seat without running down the battery.
Some car chargers are designed to charge your phone very quickly; the Qualcomm 3.0 seems to be the leader in this realm.
Weatherproof Phone Case
In my informal gadget survey of friends who travel frequently, the one thing that few of them owned but many were thinking of getting was a weatherproof phone case. At home such cases often seem overly bulky, but when traveling they’ve found it more common to get caught out in bad weather.
“Ziploc bags work to protect the phone, but actually using the phone through a wet plastic bag is a mess,” one noted.
LifeProof cases are the go-to for many hardcore travelers, while the PunkCase is a well-regarded option at a lower price point.
Bringing a tablet as well as a phone had always seemed like just too much stuff to me—until newspaper and magazine apps started getting good. I used to leave home with more than five pounds of paper reading material, which I left behind for other potential readers in airplane seatback pockets, gate areas or hotel lobbies; now I download magazines and books to a tablet.
For heavy vacation/travel reading, many hardcore readers swear by the Kindle because it’s so easy to read outside in strong light. If you read a ton while traveling, and in all kinds of places, a branded Kindle e-reader is probably the way to go.
There are several models available; scroll down a couple of screens on this page for a comparison of Kindle e-readers.
Admittedly, bringing a Kindle just for reading and a tablet for apps isn’t ideal for light packers, but it helps that the Kindle is smaller and lighter than most tablets.
For hardcore travelers who might spend long periods of time away from plugs of any kind—such as backcountry hikers, climbers, and campers—solar chargers are a useful addition to a packing list. Sure, part of the point of heading into the backcountry is getting away from connectivity, but that doesn’t mean that GPS devices, cameras, or even smartphones are completely verboten.
Leading brands for solar chargers include Goal Zero, Anker, and Suntactics.
Portable Hard Drive/Wireless Router
Okay, this puts us into the gadget weeds a bit, but for some folks a device like this can really help, allowing them to convert a wired connection into a secure wireless network to which they can connect multiple devices, as well as providing backup storage.
If the hotel has a wired internet access point, this can make a big difference when the Wi-Fi isn’t cutting it and your whole traveling party is trying to get online. Most of these products are compact and light, so if you really need this level of tech, it doesn’t take over your carry-on.
HooToo makes good travel routers.
This isn’t exactly a gadget, but clothing has become quite technical in nature and can provide more than just routine cover. Many companies make pants, socks and shirts that provide specific protection from both sun and insects, including measurable UV protection as well as EPA-certified insect repellent properties. Many are lightweight and breathable as well, making this a “tech” purchase perfectly suited to travel.
I have this Patagonia shirt in a very light color, which works pretty well.
We’re in the early days of smart suitcases, but the idea is extremely compelling—being able to check on your smartphone where your bag is, how heavy it is and whether it has been opened. Some smart suitcases even provide the ability to charge devices through a USB connection.
There are also simple tracking devices you can put into your luggage, so that might be another way to tap into this type of tech without going all in on an expensive bag. As this tech comes into its own, soon enough tracking our own bags might seem almost routine.