I’m a believer in travel. Not just in the sense that I love to travel and go places – which I do – but I believe in its transformative power. I believe it breeds compassion and tolerance, knowledge and understanding. It has the power to bring people together and create a sense of place in the world. It can uniquely inspire and fulfill and at the same time leave you craving more. It can be, quite simply, life-changing.
And I do mean “travel” – not necessarily “vacation”. Not the canned, cookie cutter or fabricated experiences that insulate you from everything. It’s entirely possible to see a place and yet, not “see” a place. To truly “see” a place you must meet its people, taste its food, take in the sounds and smells. Only then can it work its magic.
But to do this often means stepping out of our comfort zones. And everyone’s comfort zone is a little different. Years of traveling have taught me all about the edge of my comfort zone. I’ve found that traveling light but having a few essentials allows me to experience a place just a little more freely. It’s a fine balance.
While considering my list of true “must-haves” to share with you, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t leaving out anything important. Lucky for me I have some amazing, adventurous women in my life, so in the spirit of leaving “no stone unturned”, I did a little information market research.
I’m happy to report that while most of the items on our lists were quite similar, there were a couple of things that I learned and will be implementing on my next trip. So whether you’re traveling by motorcycle, train, plane, bus, car or foot, I hope some of these tips can help you. In no particular order:
1. Airplane Comforts
Long flights can be, well, long. And dry. And cold. Or hot. And these are things I will literally not board a flight without:
- Lip balm – a dry airplane equals immediately chapped lips for me.
- Eye drops
- Hand cream
- Vick’s VapoInhaler – a recent delightful discovery. My sinuses get dry and stuffy while flying. This little nasal inhaler is surprisingly soothing. The added bonus of this is that it contains menthol, which can help if you experience nausea on buses or car rides along winding roads.
If you are checking a bag make sure to bring a toothbrush/toothpaste, deodorant, extra pair of undies and a shirt in your carry-on. It goes a long way in freshening up if you have any delays along the way. And if you are traveling enough, delays WILL eventually happen.
2. Travel Scarf
This is probably my top travel accessory. Both from a style perspective but even more so for its functionality. Not only does it jazz up your most basic outfit, it can also keep you warm while on a chilly plane, cover your face while sleeping or be rolled up into a little pillow. Also a must for religious sites that require women to wear head coverings. Pick something weighted depending on the season.
Bonus tip on this one – put a little perfume on your scarf. I have a particularly sensitive sense of smell. Delicately nestling your nose down into your scarf when on a very crowded bus can be a godsend!
3. Wardrobe Essentials
Keep it simple. This does not imply it doesn’t require a well thought-out plan. I always find that the less thought I put into my packing, the more I tend to overpack. Overpacking is bad. Don’t do it. If you haven’t already learned this lesson the hard way, take it from us who have. Keep it to basics that can all coordinate. This doesn’t mean you can’t be somewhat stylish.
In fact, I recommend making an effort at taking something that makes you feel good – a lesson I learned when I did a motorcycle trip in Italy. I took only my riding boots and a pair of rubber flip-flops. Let me tell you, the women in Italy are incredibly well put together and I felt completely frumpy the entire time I was there.
For days I wasn’t actually on the motorcycle I was stuck in clunky boots. This could go for hiking trips, etc. Luckily, since then, I’ve found that with some hunting I can find the right travel footwear for the job and a pair of cute, walkable sandals goes a long way too.
I won’t try to tell you exactly what to pack, but the key is to think multifunctional. Oh, and flip flops – aka shower shoes – are a must. And if weather permits, your travel scarf is the ultimate accessory.
4. Packing Cubes
If you aren’t using packing cubes yet, what are you even doing with your life?!? In all seriousness, especially when backpacking, light-weight travel cubes or stuff sacks are essential for keeping things organized and helping you find things.
5. Quick Dry Items
I discovered the awesome world of quick-dry travel towels and underwear on a month-long motorcycle/camping journey through Canada and Alaska. When packing light is essential quick dry undies allow you to wash as you go. When on the move and you don’t have two days to let things dry, the quick-dry items make all the difference. Bonus tip – I’ve found a little length of paracord to be particularly helpful when hanging stuff to air dry quickly.
6. Toiletry Kit
Obviously. But everyone’s toiletry kit is going to be different. Consider these must-haves the next time you pack:
- Hanging toiletry bag. This is a must for me. The key here is to find one that isn’t overly bulky in and of itself. I swear, some of these bags are huge without anything in them and can take up a lot of space in your pack. So when on the hunt, be on the lookout for something compact.
- Bandaids or Moleskin tape – for obvious reasons.
- Advil, allergy pills (an antihistamine is a great first-aid item anyway) and of course, any meds you need.
- Airborne or Emergen-C – I drink these on the plane and if I ever start to feel buggy. It could be in my head, but I think they work miracles. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to keep our immune system happy.
- Wet wipes. Some people swear by antibacterial gel, but I’d much rather be able to wipe my hands anyway.
- Baggies – grab a few doggy poop bags (they take up no space) but also some larger Ziploc bags. Ziploc bags are great for putting your trash in – like your used wet wipes. And some countries don’t have a lot of trash cans around. You’ll find other uses for your baggies too.
- Dramamine or ginger chews if you are particularly susceptible to travel sickness – the Vick’s VapoInhaler can also help a bit with this.
- Multi-purpose soap. Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap is a good option. When packing light you can even use this as toothpaste and to wash your clothes.
7. Sleeping Bag Liner and Pillow Case
If you’re rolling 5-star all the way you can probably pass on these items. But, if you’re busy adventuring you might find yourself in a spot where, to be delicate, cleanliness is questionable. So whether sleeping on the floor of an orphanage in India or in a rented sleeping bag on the Inca Trail in Peru, this is a little luxury I won’t leave without.
Bonus tip from a friend – use a little lavender oil on these items. Not only does it help you drift off to sleepy town, but the lavender oil is also a natural bed bug deterrent.
8. Stuff-able Day Pack
More often than not I’m traveling with a backpack. But when you do get to the place you are staying you will probably want a day pack. I love light-weight, stuff-able day packs. They don’t take up much space in your main pack and have a great many uses. And if I’m honest, on occasion I’ve even used it as extra “luggage” on the way home – because, souvenirs.
9. Pocket Travel Guide
I’m a big fan of either Rick Steves’ or Lonely Planet Travel Guides. There are other good ones too – just make sure they aren’t too old. I know that these are space takers – so if you can find a good one in a pocket version even better.
Bear in mind that if you are moving from city to city or country to country you can always leave a book behind at a hostel or Airbnb for the next person and lighten your load. I love them because, while I typically don’t do tours and prefer walking around a city and exploring on my own, if I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language I like having information about what I’m looking at on hand.
A bonus is that they always have a small language dictionary or phrases section. This is particularly helpful when you are in a place where you can’t rely on a translator app.
10. Reading Material
I’m a fan of actual books. But books are heavy, and so I recommend an iPad or Kindle (with the exception of the travel guides). Load it up with digital and audio books. When traveling for long durations I quickly discovered toting books around is both a back breaker and it can be difficult to find new material in your language.
11. Digital Essentials
- International cell phone plan – some people do without this and prefer to rely on wifi, but since I work on the road, this is essential for me. Also, I’m not great with maps, so I really appreciate having access to GPS. Perhaps a luxury depending on budget – but I usually get it. Some plans allow you an international passport and you only get charged the days you use it. And in some longer-stay instances, I’ve actually purchased an in-country device.
- Travel adapters – get a nifty universal adapter. Just be aware that adapters and power converters are not the same thing. Don’t expect to use a hair dryer with just an adapter.
- Device for digital and audiobooks as well as music.
- Google Translator
12. In Case of Emergency
Photos of passport and credit cards – always make sure you take photos or make copies of your passport and credit cards. That way if you lose something you have important information on hand and can quickly call a credit card company to suspend a lost card.
Have your emergency contact information written down on paper somewhere in your pack.
So there you have it! These are my don’t-leave-home-without-it items when it comes to hitting the road internationally. I’ve found that having these allows me to focus on the enriching experiences that traveling abroad affords. Adventure begins at the edge of your comfort zone so wander on!
Shana Nunez is a video producer, story teller and digital nomad. She’s the owner of WanderBird Productions and focuses on promoting travel through video and 360° video experiences.