If you're preparing for a major trip, you may find yourself pouring over catalogs of travel items admiring all the clever gadgets like noise canceling headphones and disposable underwear. You've gone through the catalog and circled everything you want, only to find that it all adds up to $500. What's a savvy budget traveler to do? Find a cheap alternative or do without. Here's a list of items you may be tempted to purchase and why you don't really need them.
1. $300 noise canceling headphones. Most noise canceling headphones only reduce sound by 16-17 decibels, which isn't very much. The bonus that you get from them is that while they reduce outside noise, they also let you listen to music, theoretically at a lower volume that spares your hearing since you aren't trying to compensate as much for outside noise. If you absolutely must have these headphones, which are usually bulky, heavy, hot, and uncomfortable, there are $60 pairs that will get the job done just as or almost as well as the $300 pairs. You can also opt for small, lightweight in-ear noise canceling headphones, which comes in a similar price range as the ear-covering version.
By far the best way to save money, weight, and space, however, is to simply buy a white noise CD or MP3 download and listen to it through your regular headphones (earbuds work best for this hack). An album that I think is highly effective is called 3D Rain for Sleep and can be downloaded from iTunes for $9.99. I've tested most of their white noise tracks, and this one blocks out the most sound without even needing to be turned up too loud. A major advantage of buying an MP3 online is being able to listen before you buy. You can further increase the effectiveness of these tracks by getting earbuds that go part way into the ear canal, which are a little pricey, but still cheaper than most noise canceling versions.
Another inexpensive, compact, and featherweight option for cutting down on noise while traveling is 3M earplugs, which reduce noise by 29 decibels (though you'll have to get used to the sound of your own breathing).
2. Toiletry kits. New FAA regulations limiting you to three-ounce containers that fit into a one-quart bag have rendered fancy organizational kits useless. If you're seeking a little more organization, a small, clear, zippered bag seems to make it through security just as well as a Ziplock bag.
3. Compressing packs. These are large, plastic zippered bags that you put your clothes in. When you roll the bags up, the excess air gets pushed out through special valves at the bottom, ostensibly saving space. I've used these in the past and I don't think they make packing easier, especially for backpackers. Their shape doesn't fit easily in a backpack, they don't seem to save much space, and, perhaps most importantly, your clothes will be horribly wrinkled when you take them out. If you're going to use these, you might as well just wad your clothes into a ball -- this saves space and wrinkles your clothing just as effectively, and it's a lot faster and cheaper.
4. Cotton shoe bags. These are for storing your dirty shoes so they don't get the rest of your stuff soiled when you pack up. What ever happened to cleaning your shoes (you'll have to do it sooner or later anyway), putting them in plastic bags from stores (which are free and take up almost no space), or wearing your dirty shoes and letting the dirt fall off naturally?
5. Fancy luggage tags. There are many ways to help your bag stand out that don't cost $5 - 10. I identify my suitcase by a piece of twine I tied around the handle. Strategically placed duct tape or colored yarn will also do the trick.
6. Disposable airport slippers. The idea behind these is that when you have to take off your shoes to get through airport security, you can put these on instead of exposing your bare feet to the grimy airport floor. Have the people who invented these ever heard of socks?
7. Passport wallet. I cringe every time I see one of these. When you carry your passport in a convenient and stylish case, you're just making yourself a convenient and stylish target for thieves. Your passport belongs in your money belt, where no one can see it and you're sure to notice anyone trying to swipe it. Most thieves won't bother getting under your pants to steal your belongings when they can grab someone else's off their arm.
8. Slashproof bags. Even if your bag is protected against being cut open by a knife and having your valuables snagged, it can still be snatched off your shoulder or disappear anytime you put it down. When you're traveling in certain areas, you just have to be hypervigilant of your bag at all times and store your valuables in your money belt. That's just how it is.
9. Disposable underwear. If your underwear doesn't fit in your bag, you might be trying to travel with too small a bag. If you really want to throw away your underwear every day, there's no need to go high-tech. Just get the cheapest stuff you can find at a notoriously inexpensive store like Target or Wal-Mart. You want to be comfortable when you're traveling though, and wearing cheap underwear that doesn't fit the way your usual stuff does is a great way to ruin your day.
10. Phrase books. In situations where you'll most need this, you probably won't be able to look up the phrases you need as quickly as you'll need to use them. You're better off learning a bit of the language before you go, getting good at gesturing, pointing, and smiling, carrying around a small notepad and pen so you can quickly sketch what you need, or getting an electronic translator that will not only be fast, but often work in multiple languages (which can be a great space saver if you're traveling through multiple countries). For better or worse, you can actually get by speaking English in many situations, but don't leave home expecting that everyone you need to communicate with will understand you. At least attempting to speak the local language will put you on better terms with locals and enhance your travel experience.
Travel is expensive enough as it is -- there's no need to add to that cost by purchasing a bunch of unnecessary gadgets. Save your money for things that will truly enhance your travel experience, like quality lodging or an authentic local meal.
Photo by Matito
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