Gadgets for travel: most are the purest junk. From the factory lofts of Seoul and Taiwan (their birthplace) to the counters of K-Mart and Woolworth (their stage), they stream forth in a growing torrent of tinny new devices and elaborate inventions that somehow, consistently, never work out. Like oddly-shaped pillows for sleeping on planes. Like collapsible hotplates for cooking en route. Yet on the eve of a trip, well-meaning friends rush to gift you with these bulky contraptions that swell up your luggage and snag on your clothes, adding weight-without-substance to an already heavy load of clothing, toiletries, and books.
But diamonds shine among the dross. Once every four years or so, a serious engineer or designer—inspired, you can bet, by a personal vacation experience—suddenly thinks through the logic of a travel need, perceives a childishly simple solution for it, creates a tiny machine, an arrangement of cloth, a container, or tool that those of us who are constantly on the go can instantly recognize as one of the classics. When designed by people of talent and training, they weigh less than a pack of cards, occupy the smallest of spaces, are a visual delight, become cherished by the world’s most experienced tourists, are carried without fail on every trip.
And they make a difference. They keep you well groomed and attired on the most hectic itinerary. And wake you in time for an early flight. And cook you a coffee in the middle of night or open the wine that you need to sleep. Here are a handful of products that do all this and more, lasting achievements that diminish the rest.
THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE
This, to begin, is the “star” of them all, a masterpiece of sorts for the modern wanderer. Popular for travel since 1882, it resembles a normal, small pocketknife except in width, which is nearly an inch. Yet that tiny bulk encloses, as improbable as it may seem: a fold-out corkscrew, bottle-cap opener, can opener, blade, minuscule scissors, nail file, hole punch, screwdriver, tweezers, and metal toothpick. It you’ve ever lacked the means to open a bottle of wine in your hotel room late at night, or to deal with recalcitrant beer bottles or cans of paté, you’ll appreciate the blinding insight that must have led to this marvel of miniature engineering. Though some modified versions eliminate one or two of the functions listed above, it’s best to insist on the real thing, all ten components in their familiar red-porcelain casing embossed with white Swiss cross: the price is $30, complete, plus $6.50 for postage and handling, for “the Spartan” from the prestigious International Cutlery, 367 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10017127 West 25th Street, New York, NY 10011, phone 866/487-6146 (or 212/938-1963 for its New York store directly) or fax 212/627-5952 (requesting product no. 51108). Remember to pack your knife in your checked luggage if you are flying, because you won’t be allowed to carry it on to the plane.
MONEY BELTS AND POUCHES
To safeguard their valuables from increasingly active pickpockets and purse-snatchers around the world, a great many travelers are wearing money belts. But the kind that go around your waist are often hot, bulky and uncomfortable. Some exceptions are the products made by Eagle Creek. The company’s Undercover Deluxe Security Belt is unlike those colossal pouches that tourists are often identified by. Instead, this 10-inch-wide wallet is kept under your clothes to further conceal your valuables and better carry them. With two zippered pockets, the wallet can organize your credit cards, passport and currency. For those backpacking under-30s who would prefer keeping their valuables close to their hearts, the Deluxe Neck Wallet hangs around one’s neck, tucked inside his shirt. Several compartments in the 7 1/4” x 5” piece will hold your valuables.
Find out more about either item (the Security Belt is item #40021, and the Undercover Neck Pouch is item #40022) directly through Eagle Creek (800/874-1048)
THE MIGHTY MINI LUGGAGE CART
Here we go against the trend. Though the popular movement is to luggage with wheels, consider the advantages of the older, collapsible luggage cart. It enables you, first, to carry all your suitcases and bags on one cart, including heavy carry-on items that don’t come with wheels. It permits one person to cart along the several suitcases of two or three members of their party, like their children. And it doesn’t break, as wheels affixed to suitcases always, inevitably, infuriatingly (in my experience), do. What brand to buy? I prefer the sturdy, fairly heavy (5 and 1/2 pounds) variety made of chrome-steel tubing, to the lighter but flimsier, part-aluminum models. I also like carts that come with fairly large wheels capable of bearing up to 200 pounds in weight. Both attributes belong to the Mighty Mini (model no. 650) manufactured by Products Finishing Corporation, 350 Clarkson Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11226, Web site: http://www.pfc-cart.com/ phone 718/693-9700, fax 718/693-9709 (Barbara Esposito, e-mail: BEsposito@aol.com, is its highly effective Vice-President of Sales), and available for $40, including freight and handling, from outlets such as Sears, Macy’s, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Target.
THE MIRACULOUSLY EXPANDING BAG
Every well-prepared traveler needs an extra tote bag that lies quietly, lightly and compactly in a corner of the suitcase throughout most of the trip, but then unfolds into substantial size when and if the need arises—and that need arises when purchases are made along the way. An extremely handy bag of that sort is the small Last Minute Bag manufactured by Easy Going, and sold through the mail directly by Easy Going Travel Shop and Bookstore, 1385 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709, phone 800/675-5500, fax 510/843-4152, www.easygoing.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
, for $24 plus $5.95 in shipping and handling. It starts out as only five inches by five inches, then expands when the need arises to 22 inches, like a carry-on airline bag capable of being fitted under the seat. Alternatively, the Packable Backpack manufactured by L.C. Industries, comes rolled up in a pouch, then opens to a backpack with adjustable straps, sized 11 inches by 5 inches by 13 inches. The Packable Backpack can be ordered for $19.95 from The Civilized Traveler, 800/604-5556, or from Travel Essentials (800/521-6722, www.travelgearnow.com).
Not nearly as unusual, but able to deal with a gargantuan shopping spree, is the Expanding Bag; it starts out 8 inches by 6.5 inches in size, then expands to a big 20 inches by 13 inches in size, and can carry up to 100 pounds—a great convenience for extra items bought along the way. It can be ordered for only $13.95 plus $5.50 in shipping costs, from The Travel Store, 56 and 1/2 Santa Cruz Avenue, Los Gatos, CA 95030, phone 800/874-9397, http://www.travelitems.com/.
A TRAVEL CALCULATOR
People adept at mathematics and the use of calculators look down on this special-interest version of the familiar electronic device. They shouldn’t. In addition to converting foreign prices into dollar terms (which you can do with any calculator by simply dividing the rate into a price), a travel calculator changes meters into feet, kilometers into miles, inches into centimeters, Celsius into Fahrenheit—and who can remember the ratios of all those measurements? Even in the simple area of money rates, the special travel calculator proves convenient: On entering a country, you punch in the exact exchange rate down to several decimal points, and that information stays fixed throughout your stay; from then on, you need only punch in the prices you encounter and up flashes the dollar equivalent. Faced with a bewildering array of pounds, euros, or yen in a shop window or on an elaborate menu, you enjoy instant conversions as fast as you can press the keys. The cost of one travel calculator we recommend is $16.00 (plus $5.50 for postage and handling), available at The Travel Store, 56 and 1/2 North Santa Cruz Avenue, Los Gatos, CA 95030, phone 800/874-9397, http://www.travelitems.com/. Ask for the Global Money Exchanger by Eagle Creek.
A TRAVELING ALARM CLOCK
Because wake-ups take on such ghastly importance while traveling—why is it that half the planes we catch seem to leave almost at dawn?—a feather-light alarm clock is a vital supplement for those often-unreliable wake-ups at your hotel. With battery-operated, digital, quartz alarm clocks available in ever-tinier, ever-less-expensive, credit-card size, yet accurate to a fault, there’s no reason not to take one. (Only the stubborn traditionalist continues to buy the bulkier, “tick-tocking” windup species). A good model is the Sharp Folding Travel Alarm Clock, which runs on one AAA battery, measures 4 inches by 3 inches, and weighs three ounces. You can order it from Magellan’s, 110 West Sola Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, phone 800/962-4943, fax 805/962-4940, http://www.magellans.com/, item no. AC 107, costing $19.95 plus $4.95 in shipping and handling charges. Also, brand names such as Concourse, Westclox, and Franzus can be found at Kmart (866/562-7848, http://www.kmart.com/) or Target (http://www.target.com/) for a typical cost of $7.
CONVERTERS AND ADAPTERS
These become mandatory, not optional, for persons planning to bring any sort of electric appliance—electric shaver, hair-blower, other heat-making products—on a foreign trip. That’s because foreign voltages are different from ours (220/240 volts instead of 110), and worse, because American plugs, with their two oblong prongs, don’t fit into the two or three round holes of angled rectangles of most foreign sockets. You buy a converter to overcome the difference in voltage, adapters to overcome the difference in prongs. And you buy several adapters, because British sockets are different from those on the continent, which in turn differ from those in the Middle or Far East, which themselves differ from those in Australia and New Zealand. In fact, you need a kit of multiple converters and adapters, lightweight but sturdy. I like the Adaptor Plug Set (item #EA240K) with four types of plugs, just under a pound in weight, and available for $7.85 plus $4.95 for shipping and handling, from Magellan’s, 110 West Sola St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101, phone 800/962-4943, fax 805/568-5406. Comes with a soft travel pouch.
The importance of bringing converters and adapters on your trip cannot be sufficiently stressed. If you are also carrying a laptop computer, or any other sort of electrical appliance that you need to use, you will have to bring the proper equipment to work these items on foreign sockets and voltages.
FOR HOTEL SECURITY: A FAKE AEROSOL CAN
Now you’re again in the hotel, about to step out with your neck pouch or money belt, but desirous of leaving a few valuables—wristwatch, earrings, good cufflinks, coins—safely in the room. Some do-it-yourselfers achieve that feat by placing a “Do Not Disturb” sign on their outer doorknob, but at the cost of never having their room made up. Others (who have come better prepared) stick the precious items into the empty interiors of a fake Rave Hairspray or Brut Aftershave can, which they then leave conspicuously on a bathroom shelf; unless chambermaids of the world are viewers of this Web site, they rarely suspect such cans to be tiny little safes. A travel classic. Actual products purchased from Gillette and Old Spice, but emptied and then altered to unscrew at the bottom, are available for $14.95 to $19.99 (plus $4.95 for postage and handling) from a distinguished travel accessories store, The Passenger Stop—Your Travel Store, 812 Kenilworth, Towson, MD 21204 (phone 800/261-5888 or e-mail Travelstor@aol.com, Web: http://www.passengerstop.com/).
I’ve listed what I regard as the jewels among the junk of most travel products. I’ve recommended those that are tiny for the most part, light almost always, occupy a mere fraction of your suitcase, and add but a handful of pounds. “Also-rans,” an anguishing decision, include inflatable hangers, Wash ‘n’ Dri’s, Berlitz language tapes, eyeshades and earplugs, and that sure-fire cure for stomach upsets, Fernet Branca Liqueur (though clearly not invented for travel).
These products can make a difference. Without them, travel can be a series of vaguely uncomfortable hotel stays, never remotely involving the sense of well-being, or the comforts and convenience, of home. Too often the unequipped traveler feels mildly hungry throughout the day and night, rumpled and fidgety, unpressed and unhinged. Yet another type of traveler turns out smartly each morning, moves about carefree and lighthearted, and savors that extra vigor, that heightened sense of the world’s possibilities and delights that international travel can so often bring. Though I’d never suggest that a few material gadgets account for this difference, they help, yes they help. And when they’re as tiny and cheap as these “classics” are, they ought to be bought!