I travel frequently, and I’ve found gear that helps make it easier and more fun for me. A lot of it is unusual stuff I wished for offhandedly in a moment where something wasn’t ideal. I made a note, looked it up later, and discovered that if you can dream it, someone’s selling it on Amazon. Here’s how I travel light and with everything I need for all the circumstances that come up.
A note on my choices of products: I weigh a blend of factors when deciding whether to buy name-brand, aftermarket, premium, cheap, and so on. For Apple devices, for example, I’ve had enough bad experiences with knock-off brands that I’m not willing to risk it for most items. And I buy genuine Apple accessories direct from Apple most of the time; but Amazon Basics has proven to be a trustworthy replacement in some cases. At other times, I simply buy the only item I can find. That’s often a cheap brand from China for some of the products, for whatever reason. So if you’re wondering why I choose a specific brand, the answer might be “it’s complicated.”
Traveling with a small backpack is by far the most common for me. Any trip less than a week works great with my backpack. Incidentally, this is the same pack I use every day to commute to my office, go to parks with my children on the weekends, and so forth. I can be ready for an overnight or three-day trip in less than five minutes, thanks to my backpack. It already has everything I need except for my toiletries and clothes.
I have an Everlane Modern Snap Backpack that I love. It’s minimalist but has everything I need, it looks good enough for any purpose, and it’s durable and high quality—not to mention made by Everlane, whose ethics and values I endorse. I can fit it under the plane seat in front of me or in overhead bins even on the smallest planes, too.
For longer trips, and where I need to carry more formal wear or larger items, I have a suitcase. I’ve found out the hard way that some suitcases—even those supposed to be carry-on compliant—are a finger’s width too large to fit into some airlines’ carry-on sizers. After several of those experiences I replaced my suitcase with one that fits into every airline I’ve flown: the Travelpro Platinum Rollaboard.
Obviously, luggage is not an area where I skimp on quality.
Laptop and iPad
I have written elsewhere about using my iPad for many things I used to use my laptop for. On a lot of trips I can leave my laptop behind, saving a ton of weight and space, and benefiting from being able to use a single charger for my phone and tablet. Even when all I have is my iPad, I can do almost anything except for use products that are deliberately unfriendly to mobile devices.
My Everlane has a laptop compartment that can hold my MacBook Pro together with my iPad Pro 10.5” with the Smart Keyboard inside a leather sleeve. I have an Apple Pencil but I rarely use it, and I don’t think I’d purchase it again.
I have a Sunshot webcam cover on both my iPad and MacBook’s cameras. It’s not “just” out of security paranoia: I’ve had too many video calls auto-join me with my camera enabled before I’m ready. A webcam cover gives me a physical control for badly designed software that tries to do what it thinks is best for me and isn’t. I see a lot of people with large, floppy webcam covers; I used to have one of those, but when I found the Sunshot cover I knew right away it was superior. It’s far smaller and thinner (so it doesn’t keep my laptop lid from closing all the way, for example), and doesn’t slide around loosely. It’s a small oval of metal that adheres over your webcam, with an even smaller magnet that clings inside it.
Chargers, Cases, Batteries
Assembling a collection of just the right cables, chargers, and adapters is a trick. With care and experience, I’ve found a way to have a smallish collection of compact, lightweight items that can handle any situation I’ve encountered.
First, I use the official Apple chargers for my MacBook and iPad. I use the iPad charger for my iPhone too, so I can carry one fewer items. I can plug my iPad into my laptop to charge at night while my phone charges, so it’s no problem.
I’ve often found myself in a situation where I need power and there’s none to be found. I have no solution for my MacBook: I need a power outlet to charge it. But for my tablet and phone, a portable power bank is great. The problem is, there’s way more junk than quality available on the market. Most of those lipstick-sized phone batteries are not worth much, and after a few charge cycles they are altogether useless. This is an area where I go premium, because I’ve had too many battery recalls and other scares. Saving $5 to get something that’s going to explode or burn me would be stupid. I buy a good brand like Anker, Mophie, or Belkin: a company with a long history, good customer service ratings, and long warranties.
I currently own an Anker PowerCore II Slim 10000 power bank. It is rated at 10,000 mAh and will charge my phone several times, and my iPad Pro “at least” once—I have not actually tried to see how many times. To be honest I could easily get away with 5,000 mAh and if I were buying again, that’s what I’d get; but now that I’ve bought it I’m not going to buy another. Prior to this I had a similar one from Amazon Basics, but it was discontinued due to a fire hazard recall.
I like the Anker because it’s compact and well-designed. Everything about it is convenient, high quality, and thoughtful. For example, the shape and size; you can buy other items that have the same total volume and weight, but their dimensions are different, so they get in the way: they’re too thick, or too long, or not the right width. I love that the Anker is practically the same shape and size as an iPhone. I also love that it has nicely rounded corners, just the right amount of grip and texture, and a velvety/grippy rubber face on one side. That makes it quiet to put down and keeps it from sliding and rattling around on, say, an airplane’s seat-back tray. You wouldn’t think these things would matter so much, but after you experience them, they matter a hell of a lot.
For my phone, I use an Apple case. There’s plenty of aftermarket choices, but I’ve tried some of them—even ones that Apple themselves sells—and learned to value Apple’s. For example, I tried some folio/wallet cases such as the Twelve South. I was horrified at the result: the case’s buttons are literally unusable; they just mash down the buttons, such as the power button, making the phone freak out and try to shut down repeatedly and eventually lock itself into emergency mode. I tried a bunch from a few different stores and I truly can’t understand how those products leave the factory floor. They just. Do. Not. Work. Also, I’ve had experiences with other cases causing voice muffling. I’m not an acoustic engineer and I can’t explain it, but when I tested repeatedly, the results were undeniable.
When I travel, however, I swap out my thin protective case, and use a battery case. For my old iPhone 6, I used an Anker battery case and it was great, other than being micro-USB instead of using Apple’s own Lightning connector. That was easy to solve with a small adapter, but when I upgraded to iPhone 8, I bought the Apple Smart Battery Case. It’s designed for the iPhone 7 but works perfectly for the iPhone 8. I love it: even when I’m using my GPS for navigation, my phone lasts from morning all the way through the day and night, and halfway through the next day. If I were using a Moment camera lens (more on this later), I think I’d buy the Moment iPhone 7 Battery Case instead.
Cables and Adapters
The right cables and adapters make it possible to connect, charge, sync, and display whatever I need. I have a collection of miniature adapters that tucks perfectly inside a Trader Joe’s chocolate tin, along with a pair of EarPods:
- A 2-inch Anker PowerLine USB-to-micro-USB cable
- A 4-inch Amazon Basics USB to Lightning cable
- An Apple Lightning to headphone adapter
- An Apple Lightning Digital AV Adapter
- A mini AmazonBasics micro-USB to Lightning adapter and its opposite, a mini RooPower Lightning to micro-USB adapter
- A mini USB-C to USB-A adapter
- A charging adapter for the Apple Pencil, because this is the easiest place to keep it without losing it
- A spare tip for my collection of Lightning pseudo-MagSafe connectors (more on this below)
- A mini screen wipe that I got from O’Reilly as a gift
Why all the variety and redundancy? There certainly is a lot. For example, if I were to plug the two mini adapters onto the ends of the two USB cables, I’d have a few different ways of connecting anything USB to anything Apple. It’s true; but I’ve needed each of these items, and several combinations of them, more times than I can count. My main problem is making sure that if I loan them, I get them back. It’s great to be Mr. Gadget who has what you need; it’s not great if a loan doesn’t get returned. Especially since these are high-quality items that I’ve paid a bit extra so I can rely on them when I need them.
In addition to these, not pictured, I carry at all times at least one AmazonBasics USB to Lightning retractable cable. I practically buy these by the case. I usually have two in my backpack, and there’s a few in my bedside drawer, and another couple in my junk box at the office. Also, if you noticed the EarPods were wrapped in a thick rubber band, those are the Made 2 Go Snap IN and I can’t live without them. I have bought a half dozen of them to keep all my cables tangle-free at home, at the office, and in my backpack pockets.
Magnetic Lightning Connectors
I mentioned pseudo-MagSafe connectors above. I got frustrated with plugging, unplugging, and the risk of things like a dog catching a cord and pulling a phone onto the floor. So I looked, and sure enough, Amazon sells a bunch of magnetic cables that pair with Lightning and Micro-USB (and even USB-C) tips. I was worried about safety and quality, but I decided to just buy a bunch of the different brands and give them a try.
If you’re curious about this, I can save you a bunch of research and hassle:
- None of these items are compatible with other brands, and usually not even compatible within-brand across “generations” of product.
- All of the tips look identical and appear to connect and work with each other, but they don’t.
- They won’t work with items like a Lightning headphone adapter; they only work for charging and data sync. (Bummer!)
- They work well and seem to be safe.
- They’re absolutely lovely to use.
I returned most of mine except for the Smart & Cool Gen4 products. They sell a variety of cables and tips, and I’ve used them every day for the last six months or so. I simply keep the tiny little tip inserted into my iPad and/or iPhone, and wherever I go at home or office, I have a cable ready to snap on magnetically and remove without fuss. I upgraded to an iPhone 8, which supports induction charging, and I now use that instead of this little connector; I have a Mophie charge pad which I love. Tip: if you want to buy some of these, make sure you buy the right “generation” so they all work together.
Traveling with noise-cancelling headphones makes a big difference in stress and productivity. I currently own a pair of Sennheiser PXC-550s, but the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II are better. I recently reviewed both of them in an absurd amount of detail.
Clip-On iPhone Lenses
I have a set of Xenvo iPhone lens set that cost just about $35 and has wide-angle and macro lenses. I also have the Olloclip Active set, which adds ultra-wide and telephoto. These sets are better quality than others I’ve used to clip onto an iPhone. With a little creativity, the Olloclip even fits inside the case with the Xenvo.
That said, if you’re really into your photography you might want Moment lenses (Tele, Wide), but each one will cost three times as much. If you do buy Moment lenses, take a look at the Moment battery case I linked above, too.
Coffee and Tea
I’m sort of a coffee snob—I really don’t like Starbucks’s charcoal, or whatever it is that they put into those in-room single-serve coffee packets in hotels. So I like to take my own coffee with me when I travel. Last year I hypothesized, loudly and repeatedly before Christmas, that it must be possible to buy single-serving pour-over coffee packets. My wonderful wife took the hint (how could she not) and researched it, and found that there is such a thing. There’s not much selection, but it does exist, and after trying all the various options we could find, some of them turned out to be good quality.
So now, when I travel, you can find packets of Aisen stuffed into my backpack’s side pocket. Hands off, they’re mine! A few other varieties are available too; the selection appears to be growing over time. I just bought a box of Lava Mountain the other day and will try them out too. Sometimes I also carry little tea bags so I can have nice tea.
If you open my backpack pocket right now, you’ll find the following items that I always carry:
- A ballpoint pen that won’t leak on a plane
- The aforementioned AmazonBasics USB to Lightning retractable cable
- A nail clipper
- A tube of Vaseline to protect my lips on long dry flights
- Some sanitizing hand wipes for all those times like when someone’s left my tray table filthy
- Some Advil; more often for others than for me, since I don’t get headaches, but you never know
- A set of AirPods
- An old-fashioned wooden clothespin
- A jump rope for short, high-intensity workouts anytime anywhere
What’s the clothespin for? Well, you’d be surprised. Not only can you pin clothes with it, you can do things like pop it apart and wedge one piece under the leg of the restaurant table that won’t stop rocking back and forth.
- A Yubikey1 and a Feitian MultiPass FIDO Security Key
- A Serman slim wallet that holds a lot of stuff without adding bulk
I’ve linked most items to their manufacturer or to Amazon above. For your convenience, I also made an Amazon list of these items. What are your suggestions?
I’ll keep this article updated over time as I find other things that make my digital life easier, especially when traveling. Final note: I also use most of these items on a daily basis when I’m not traveling, too.
- Note that I do not advise buying a Yubikey, or any other security-related product, from Amazon; buy direct to reduce the chance of mischief. [return]