Lately I’ve realized that when traveling, most things that I think I might need can easily be bought, replaced, or simply done without. As a recovering over-packer, the queen of “just in case”, my relationship to stuff has loosened up a great deal after our move. Living out of a suitcase has been our lifestyle of late, which has necessitated a lot of changes in what we bring around, how much of it, what kinds, the list goes on. Since we’re often carrying everything ourselves without the help of a personal car, what we pack and how we pack it is at the top of the priority list, and most things simply don’t make the cut anymore.

But there are some physical things that have made all the difference in our travels and in our everyday lives. At first glance, they’re not particularly fun items that would make a good top-20 under $20 list on a colorful, glossy magazine page, but the more we go places, the more I realize just how important these things have been for us. Also, when I say “travel”, I’m not really making any distinctions between tourism and moving. These items have been just what I have found extremely useful for the particular amalgamation of relocation/work/tourism that we’ve been doing. In general, our philosophy has been to (try to) travel as light and cheap as we can. So with that in mind, here’s the list.

#1: Tote bag(s)

Grocery shopping where disposable plastic/paper bags aren’t given out so freely, you need to pay per bag if you want any from the store. “We should take those,” TA said, pointing to our small collection of canvas tote bags, as we’re packing up our apartment in NYC. And he was so right. He luckily had spent time in the Netherlands some ten years ago and realized just how important it is, at least in Europe, to bring your own bags to the store. Neither of us comes from cities/countries that particularly prioritize reducing plastic waste, so this was definitely a good call and major lifestyle change. We know now that this is the case in India, too, and so many other places around the world. The fact that you need to bring your own bags makes you think about what you’re going to get from the store before you go, and therefore only buy as much as you can carry. Our main incentive for bringing our own bags to the store used to be to enter the raffle for a Trader Joe’s gift card, and the fact is that still it’s somewhat financial, i.e. not having to pay for new ones. But it also reduces waste, as you often need to account for every single piece of trash you accumulate at home. This usually looks like separating garbage into at least five different places in Germany (paper, packaging, compost, three different types of glass, plastic bottles to return to the store for a 25-cent deposit, and “the rest”), and in India, it’s a little bit more mysterious what happens to our waste, but all the more reason to try to reduce as much of it as possible. The 1,000 plastic bags accumulating in my kitchen would eventually just be a big pile of sadness and a constant reminder of my forgetfulness. These days I always carry around a rolled-up tote bag inside my current tote bag to give myself more flexibility in case I remember something during the day that I need to pick up on the way home. (Thanks, aging, forgetful brain of mine.) Some extra perks of a carrying your own bags is that you also have the option of borrowing books from the library or friends and carry them home 🙂 and of course, transporting snacks on local travel, such as hour-plus-long train rides, which is key. We have 2-3 that we use regularly (wash when it gets grody), and that’s just perfect.

Us with one of the aforementioned tote bags.

#2. Dupatta

A 100% cotton shawl/stole, my trusty dupatta was actually part of a matching outfit that I wore during my semester study in India seven years ago. Much to the dismay of my father who seriously thinks I should get new stuff, I wear it all the time. Useful for shade in the sun and heat, for warmth in the cold, for cover in the rain, it’s an all-purpose piece of fabric for virtually anything. I use it as a pillow cover on airplanes. I’ve also even used it as a privacy screen in more discreet situations (take your pick–I have several stories in which this has been a major lifesaver). Any large, breathable scarf-like piece of fabric will do. Just wash it when it’s come into contact with too many public surfaces.

Another use: here TA is shielding his eyes while he takes a nap in the sun.

#3. Eye mask + ear plugs (+ eyeglasses case)

One thing I do tend to hoard is eye masks and ear plugs from airplanes, though I’ve stuck with one set for a while now, which I’ve been using on lots of occasions. They’re not always available on planes, so I keep them in my eyeglasses case when traveling. For me, it’s been useful for sticking to my own schedule when trying to start the adjustment to jet lag. I joke that I’m sort of permanently jet lagged at this point, but it still helps to keep track of sleeping hours so that I can expect how much more rest I’ll need when the adrenaline wears off in a new place. NB: Some people like to use headphones + music. Unfortunately, I haven’t updated my personal system for music enjoyment in a long time and have yet to get on that, so ear plugs are just fine for now.

I really took this photo to capture the bee-fly, but you get the idea.

#4. Document holder

Every local municipality wants your paperwork and unfortunately not everything comes in its own fancy protective cover like passports do. I find it odd that all of our important documents and/or information are recorded on flimsy pieces of paper that are vulnerable to moisture… and to anything, really! Even if your filing system isn’t perfectly intuitive, because honestly, who has time for that (they all just get jumbled up again), at least they’re in one place. Plus all the Xerox copies you’re required to make. Even one big pocket is fine. This is where I’m okay keeping my “just in case” habits because you don’t want to have to track down the city clerk in your hometown to get an original certificate mailed to the other side of the Earth for any reason. I just stuff them all in this paperwork folder. And purge regularly, like when we’re in a new place and discover we suddenly have lots of obsolete paperwork. I’m okay with that, because it’s much more complicated not to have originals on hand.

That blue journal has been acting as my catch-all thought dump, including for plans, but I really need to utilize one calendar. Confession: sometimes I stuff individual documents in between books, which I do NOT recommend. Also, see mathematicians at work.

#5. Calendar/planner

I figured this one out way too late in the game. Whether on your smartphone, computer, paper, or whatever, this is very important for far too many reasons: Keeping track of umpteen visa deadlines, travel bookings (flight, train purchase, actual dates of travel), reminders for reimbursements, other inevitable bureaucratic obligations, bank appointments, conferences, bills, repairs, residence permit renewals, just to name a few likely ones. Every country works differently re: timelines and chooses to phrase their deadlines rather arbitrarily: “at least,” “no more than,” etc. leave you constantly figuring out the ideal time to apply for things not to early and also not too late. Because again, who has time for that? Still trying to get in the habit of not relying on my unreliable brain and just putting it all down in one place, though.

What are some things you just can’t do without when going to a new place?



3 thoughts on “My Top Five Game Changing Travel Items

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