13 travel essentials that don’t weigh much.

When I got off the Megabus from Cardiff to London I was weary from a couple of days of hard walking. Fortunately there are markets in Victoria Station so I picked up a bread “baton” (larger than a hoagie roll, smaller than a baguette), some sliced ham and a single carrot.

Back at the hostel I pulled a Rubbermaid container from my suitcase and took out packets of butter and spicy brown mustard to garnish a simple ham sandwich. The carrot provided a bit of crunch. I finished up with an apple and a small container of Devon Custard Rice I’d bought previously.

Sure, I could made the sandwich without mustard and butter, but it wouldn’t have tasted nearly as good. And eating Devon Custard Rice with my fingers would have been the stickiest of wickets.

When I go to Alaska, I travel with mayonnaise. On all my trips I pack some or all of the following items — small, light, extremely practical things that are worth many times their weight in frequent-flier miles. They don’t take up much room but they pack a mighty impact.

They’re the kinds of things you’ll wish you’d remembered – and that in some cases would cost money and hassle to find on your own. Assuming that you could.

Slicing and storage

Plastic knife, fork and spoon; one or two Ziploc bags. I mostly ate from the grocery store and produce markets in London and Cardiff. Having utensils made that possible. If you’re checking a bag you can bring metal ones, in which case you should also bring a small paring knife.

I’m not saying you have to forego restaurants entirely. But you can stretch your vacation dollars by buying things like bread, cheese, meat, crackers, hummus, vegetables, fruit or salad greens for some of your meals. The Tesco Metro I frequented had things like roasted chicken quarters and pasta dishes, which made decent suppers when paired with good bread, a vegetable and fruit.

Several times I lunched on a pair of cheese and onion rolls (50 pence, or about 82 cents), a carrot and an apple. At one produce market I tried to buy a single carrot and the guy gave it to me. (“It’s just one,” he said, waving away my coins.)

My utensils go into that Rubbermaid container, which measures about 5 by 8 inches. Also in the container were packets of mustard, butter, salt and pepper. You may have such things hanging around the house or in the fridge. Look in the company lunchroom, too, since some people leave them there after eating takeout. Bonus: Finding packets of Parmesan or red-pepper flakes from a pizza run.

Oh, and bring more than one plastic knife since some of them are fairly flimsy. Yet I managed to slice tomatoes by being careful and using only the serrated tip of the blade. Necessity is the mother of scurvy prevention.

The extra Ziploc bags are good for leftover breads or cookies and also as (heaven forbid) ice packs.

Hydrated and organized

Those “singles” drink mixes. If the water where you’re going tastes a little weird (yo, Philly!), add a sprinkling of powdered drink mix to your water bottle. Wyler’s Light lemonade is my brand: 8 packets for a buck at Walgreens. (Neither Wyler’s nor Walgreens paid me to say that. I just like to share deals.) A number of companies offer these drink mixes, in flavors from fruit-tea to good old lip-staining Hawaiian Punch.

The London tap water actually tasted fine, but I flavored it once in a while for the sake of variety. Also to keep myself from buying too many Diet Cokes, which cost as much as $2.44 each thanks to the weak U.S. dollar. (And their bottles are smaller, too.) Since I was only using a little bit of a packet at a time I needed a way to keep the rest of it from spilling – which brings me to my next suggestion.

Paper clips. These weigh practically nothing and can come in really handy. I included one mini-binder clip, which were perfect for keeping those partially used Wyler’s packets closed. A regular paper clip helped me keep a bunch of new-reservation printouts organized after I rebooked myself some hostel rooms without pod beds. I used another clip to keep tourist brochures all in one place.

An empty envelope; part of a package of Post-It notes. Also on the subject of organization, an envelope lets you keep credit card receipts all in one place. This gives a junk-mail envelope a chance to do an honest job before you recycle it. The Post-Its are invaluable for making lists or leaving notes for traveling buddies. You don’t have to bring an entire block of Post-Its; just peel off a section.

Watch your step

Keychain flashlight; elastic bandage. Invaluable if there’s a power failure, and really helpful if you have to walk on unfamiliar or on uneven terrain in the evening. My dad gave me an Inova BB-W Microlight, which weighs less than one ounce but sheds an amazing amount of light. It sure came in handy when I headed for the hostel toilet at 2 a.m. – I didn’t want to turn on the overhead light and wake my roommates, but I also didn’t want to re-sprain my ankle by tripping on the shoes, backpacks and other items that sometimes littered the floor.

And if you do fall, either in a hostel room or on slippery cobblestones? You’ll be mighty glad you brought that bandage.

Rubber bands. When traveling I use these to close up sleeves of crackers, a bag of M&Ms and packages of pita. Want more room in your day pack? Roll up that waterproof shell and secure it with a rubber band. Rubber bands will keep that beat-up paperback from falling apart, or secure an ice pack to the ankle you injured because you got up to pee without a flashlight.

About that ice pack: If the hotel or hostel doesn’t have an ice machine, wrap your ankle in that elastic bandage, take one of your extra Ziploc bags and limp off to the nearest convenience store or fast-food restaurant. Politely explain to the manager that you just need a few cubes from the drink machine to deal with an injury and you would of course be willing to pay for them. You might wind up getting them free. If they insist that you pay for a drink, then get the drink – but ask for it to be heavy on ice and short on soda or juice.

OTC medications; baby wipes. You’ll want some ibuprofen with that ankle, or after a hard day of hiking or sightseeing. I sure did. Additionally, I came down with some kind of virus toward the end of my U.K. trip. Some generic cold meds took care of what my doctor would genteelly call “sinus involvement” – essential, since the first leg of my return trip lasted 14 hours. I also brought a few heartburn and anti-diarrhea tablets; happily, I didn’t need either one. Remember that generics work just as well. Watch for them as drugstore loss-leaders.

Generally you won’t have to bring the whole box, just a few tablets of each in one of those Ziploc-type snack bags. If you think there might be a hassle about out-of-box meds, then by all means carry entire packages.

And the baby wipes? Think of them as “shower in a pouch.” You’ll thank me later. So will the person sitting next to you on the bus.

Other first aid. Do you really want to buy a whole box of bandages to take care of a single cut? And that’s assuming you can find a drugstore handy. Sometimes you can’t. I carried a very small tube of Neosporin and half a dozen Band-Aids. Luckily I didn’t need them, either.

Sewing kit. Mine is as cute as a puppy in lace-trimmed pants. It measures only about two inches square but contains needles, thread, safety pins, a couple of buttons and a teensy pair of scissors. I can’t remember how long I’ve had this or where I got it, but dollar stores may have them.

So do some hotels, if you’re not averse to liberating one. If you are, then ask politely at the front desk if it’s all right to take the kit with you. If they say “of course,” you’re all set. If they say, “we’d rather you didn’t,” then you can just go home and cobble together your own kit. Bet you won’t find scissors as cute as mine, though.

How about it, readers: What do you always pack? Which travel essentials have saved your bacon?


21 Comments

  1. These are great tips. I always pack rubber bands and ziploc bags on vacation — you never know when you’ll want them; even if it’s to store a wet bathing suit.

    I use the light app on my phone and got rid of the flashlight.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Kay Lynn: Some of us are still pretty low-tech. My phone is mostly for, well, phone calls. :-(

  2. Such a great list! As a once-and-future backpacker (on a little hiatus right now) I gain so much satisfaction out of finding just the thing for my needs in my own pack. The two things my father and backpacking mentor never travels without: about a third of a roll of duct tape, rolled up on itself so it takes up very little room, and a similar amount of toilet paper. This is for wilderness backpacking, really, but he always takes these on day hikes and other trips and I’ve lost track of the times one of them has come in handy. TP’s got its obvious use, but is also good for blowing your nose (if your hanky is out of commission), starting a fire in a pinch, etc. And duct tape can repair anything, but it could also be used if one runs out of things like paper clips or rubber bands, or as a blister-bandage after a long hike.

  3. average guy

    Nice list.

    I second the info on OTC medication. I travel to Asia frequently, and I know very well that Walgreens are non-existent. Cold medicine, pain relief tablets, and Immodium are basics of survival.

    We save (+wash) our (usu. large size) yogurt containers, when we are ready to travel we cut up fruit, place in said containers, and take on the plane. Saves needing to hassle peeling/cutting on the plane, avoids need for knives (plastic or otherwise), we get refreshing fresh fruit without problems of liquids through security, and we get to eat better than our fellow travelers.

  4. I learn so much from you articles. Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Another thing I always pack is a sample size of baby powder. Refreshing and soothing in SO many ways!

  6. I bring dryer sheets as well..they keep luggage/clothing fresh..can be used for static and to refresh ‘gently worn’ items. The best part is that you can get a box of dryer sheets at the dollar store and they last forever.

  7. I bring all that I can. One website that is a wonderful place to shop is
    http://www.minimus.biz/default.aspx
    All individual packets sizes and you can buy individually and not necessarily in bulk

  8. Really great tips. I like the buying single pieces of fruit, veggies at markets. It makes so much sense (especially for a vegan like myself who can basically only eat these kinds of foods). When I travel, I tend to skip lunch. I usually stay in a hostel/cheap hotel with breakfast included and I fill up to the brim with food before heading out for the day. Also, I tend to sneak an extra apple or some fruit (I don’t feel gulity as I am paying for the food anyway). During my daily explorations, I tend to be so busy I kind of forgot to eat (honestly). The feeling usually comes and goes just as quickly when I see something else I need to explore. My thought is that I would rather be sightseeing than eating! Usually, I will splurge on 1 nice dinner at my location but not always. If I am too tired that night, grabbing some street food and hightailing it back to my lodging is best for me.

  9. yep! baby wipes are the best! good for removing makeup too.

  10. Wonderful ideas! As you know, I’m a list woman and this hit the spot!
    I like BC’s idea about keeping a dryer sheet in the luggage. Whenever we travel and have to do laundry, I save all the free samples that I get in the mail and use those for our laundry. The packaging that they come in is super sturdy.

  11. zzzzzz

    I’d add benadryl, or generic equivalent, to the OTC meds list.

    I’ll also suggest some string, a few clothespins, a plastic hanger or two, and some laundry detergent. Paired with quick-drying synthetic clothes, those will facilitate traveling light and saving on airline baggage fees. They’ll also make it easier to carry all your stuff if your not just day-tripping.

  12. Valarie

    I usually take a few clothes pins. They are great to hold together drapes in a hotel room. Sample sizes of woolite and 2 inflatable hangars and a sink stopper – flat by rubbermaid. Much easier to travel light with easily washed tops and undies.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Valarie: The clothespins on the drapes is a great idea. Thanks!

  13. Insurancegal

    I use a “hair clip” to close hotel drapes. In addition to the many fantastic ideas above, I also pack a lighter, extra coffee sweetener/powdered creamer, a hair scrunchie, an extra grocery sized plastic bag and baggie, and an extra pair of socks and undies (you never know;-).

    In the past, snacks have included: Mini boxes of raisins, baggies full of homemade trail mix and/or nuts, string cheese, and a baggie full of wheat thins.

  14. Denise

    Donna, you have a very good heart. I read your columns religiously ever since I first stumbled upon the “Living Poor and Loving It” article. You inspired me with the “battles” you’ve won, taught me valuable life lessons with your stories, and touched my heart with your kindness and consideration. You valued and used money without taking advantage of other people, without stepping on someone else’s rights, without passing off judgments to people who do not happen to share your beliefs. Your columns are about saving and spending money the right way, but it’s not really all about money. God has blessed your life, your heart. I support you and your cause. I appreciate that you teach me a lot of practical things about money on a very personal level. I feel like I know you; I feel this really amazing connection with you and what you went through. I hope you write a book someday if not sooner. Go on writing and making a difference in our lives, your readers. You’re doing a lot of people a favor when you do so. May God bless you more. :)

    • Donna Freedman

      @Denise: Thank you so much for your incredibly kind words. They touched me greatly.

  15. I have found nail clippers and ear plugs to be invaluable.

  16. Very good information and ideas!

  17. Elizabeth DeFrias

    A headlamp keeps my hands free and illuminates my way & great if power goes out in hostel.
    A Swiss army knife–knife,scissors and corkscrew!
    A frisbee–works as a dinner plate but also is a great way to make friends and break the ice with locals.
    Lavendar essential oil is soothing and helps me sleep.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Elizabeth: Love the Frisbee idea! Folks who are traveling really light should investigate the foldable ones made of fabric — not as good for a plate, but lots of fun for that ice-breaking.
      I used to carry a Swiss Army knife — it was a gift from my daughter — but now I can’t get it past the TSA because I travel carry-on.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

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