Packing for a trip can feel like playing Tetris, trying to squeeze irregular shapes into a carry-on so you can avoid luggage fees.
Just like some shapes are more useful (the ‘I’) than others (those stupid, blocky ‘S’ and ‘Z’ shapes), there are a few mission-critical items that will make your next trip smoother and more comfortable.
Luckily, many of these items are also affordable and won’t hamper your travel budget too much. Here are a few things to make sure to bring on your trip.
1. Luggage Tags
Luggage tags are easy to overlook, but they become very useful when disaster strikes and your luggage goes missing. A luggage tag can then fulfill its purpose of helping whomever finds your bag get it back to you. Some luggage tags can let you store your information in a QR code, but any tag with space for your contact information should suffice.
2. Flip Flops
The ultimate portable footwear for breezing through airport security, protecting your feet from a dingy bathroom or lounging around a hotel room, flip flops are also dirt-cheap. Old Navy sells flip flops for $5 or less a pair, as one example.
If you’re truly committed to packing light, you’ll want to do some laundry during your trip. If you’re traveling through airport security, you’ll only be able to carry a bottle of 3.4 ounces or less, per Transportation Security Administration Rules. There are a few options, though, including Tide travel sink packets, which contain enough detergent for a sink full of laundry ($1.39 a packet at Bed, Bath & Beyond), and Travelon biodegradable laundry soap sheets (50 sheets for $6.90 from Jet.)
How to dry those wet clothes? A good travel clothesline has loops or suction cups to secure it at either end. It should also be made of braided rope so you can hook your clothes to it without clothespins. You can find travel clotheslines at REI for around $10.
5. Toiletry Bottles
As we mentioned before, TSA only allows you to take liquid containers up to 3.4 ounces through security. You can re-use travel-sized versions of your shampoo, soap or lotion (or reuse hotel product bottles), or you can buy some sturdy travel bottles. Samsonite sells a six-piece bottle set with spray, pump and pour tops for $10, while Walmart carries a four-pack of iGo travel bottles for $2.94.
6. Toiletry Bag
A toiletry bag is one of the more expensive items on this list — L.L Bean sells a small bag for $24.95, while Samsonite’s version is $22 at Macy’s — but it just makes sense to have something separating your toothbrush and other toiletries from your underwear. Some of them can even be hung over a shower rod, towel rack or door handle, making your morning routine while traveling that much easier. A separate bag will make your essentials easier to find on the go. A good toiletry bag should be slim, organized and durable.
7. Neck Pillow
Unless you’re flying first class, any long trip will require you to get your beauty rest while sitting almost upright in a cramped space. A neck pillow can provide some small comfort during this trying time. Bed Bath & Beyond carries a Memory Foam neck pillow for $15.99. For those truly committed to saving space in luggage, REI sells an inflatable pillow for $19.50.
Babies: Adorable right? Just wait until you’re on a long flight with a bundle of joy screaming directly into your ear the whole time. Secure yourself some peace with a solid pair of earplugs. Look for a pair that not only reduces the decibel level but also feels comfortable. Target sells Mack’s earplugs in a package of 50 for $9.99, though fancier earplugs are sold elsewhere.
9. Sleep Mask
On long trips you may have to try to get sleep while it’s still light out (or while your neighbor reads for hours on end). A good sleep mask can clear all those distractions, leaving nothing but rest-inducing darkness. Walmart sells sleep masks for as little as $3.99.
10. Plug Adapter Set
For some reason the rest of the world won’t submit to the American standard on electrical plugs. Until they come around to us being right, you’ll need a plug adapter to keep your electronics whirring on your international adventure. You can buy an individual adapter for your destination, but plug adapter sets or all-in-ones are affordable and you only have to buy one once. Walmart carries a Travel Smart plug adapter set for $9.99.
11. USB Battery Pack
If you’re using your phone regularly to navigate and look up fun things to do during your trip, you may end up needing more than one charge a day. In that case, be sure to carry a USB battery pack to keep your device powered on. Battery packs come in a variety of sizes and capacities depending on how much power and portability you need, and they usually go for $15 and up.
12. Travel Credit Card
Make sure you’re carrying the right plastic. A good travel credit card should reward you on your purchases but also not charge foreign transaction fees and provide travel protections like trip cancellation or interruption insurance and baggage delay insurance. Some cards will also get you free Wi-Fi on your plane or grant you access to swanky airport lounges. We rounded up a few travel rewards card choices here.
The best cards also, however, require a good to excellent credit score. Before applying, it’s a good idea to check two of your scores for free on Credit.com to see whether you can qualify.
13. Reusable Water Bottle
Why pay for something you can get for free? As we said before, the TSA won’t let you pass through security with a fully loaded water bottle, but once you’re cleared you can head to your nearest water fountain and fill up for free rather than paying out the nose for a plastic bottle. Reusable bottles can be ridiculously cheap; heck, you can just reuse one you’ve already drained, but a sturdier metal bottle may last longer.
Maybe I’m a biased writer, but I find it’s helpful to have a place to jot down anything I need to remember, whether it’s directions, places I need to visit or stray observations about the place I’m visiting. Of course, you can use your phone, but I find I retain things better when I rely on good old pen and paper.
Note: It’s important to remember that prices for products and services frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms cited in this article may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with the company directly.