14 Travel Essentials That Don’t Weigh Very Much

When I fly, I take more than a dozen items that don’t take up much room, but pack a mighty impact.

For the past two years, I’ve been all about frugal travel. Certain items are always in my suitcase – small, light, extremely practical things that are worth many times their weight in frequent flier miles. They’re the kinds of things you’ll wish you’d remembered – and that, in some cases, would cost money and hassle to find on your own. Assuming that you could…

Plastic stuff…

Plastic knife, fork, and spoon; one or two Ziploc bags; a 5-by-8-inch Rubbermaid container. During a trip to the United Kingdom I mostly ate from the grocery store and produce markets. Having utensils made that possible. If you’re checking a bag, you can bring a small paring knife or your Swiss Army knife.

I’m not saying you have to forgo restaurants entirely. But you can stretch your vacation dollars by buying things like bread, cheese, meat, crackers, hummus, vegetables, fruit, or salad greens for some of your meals. The Tesco Metro I frequented had things like roasted chicken quarters and pasta dishes, which made decent suppers when paired with good bread, a vegetable, and fruit.

Several times I lunched on a pair of cheese and onion rolls (50 pence, or about 82 cents), a carrot, and an apple. At one produce stall, I tried to buy a single carrot and the guy just gave it to me. (“It’s just one,” he said, waving away my coins.)

My utensils go into that Rubbermaid container, which measures about 5 by 8 inches. Also in the container were packets of mustard, butter, salt, and pepper. You may have such things hanging around the house or in the fridge. Look in the company lunchroom too, since some people leave them there after eating takeout. Bonus: finding packets of Parmesan or red-pepper flakes from a pizza run.

Oh, and bring more than one plastic knife since some of them are fairly flimsy. Yet I managed to slice tomatoes by being careful and using only the serrated tip of the blade. Necessity is the mother of scurvy prevention.

The extra Ziploc bags are good for leftover breads or cookies and also as (heaven forbid) ice packs.

Hydrated and organized…

Those “singles” drink mixes. If the water where you’re going tastes a little weird (yo, Philly!), add a sprinkling of powdered drink mix to your water bottle. Wyler’s Light lemonade is my brand: eight packets for a buck at Walgreens. (Neither Wyler’s nor Walgreens paid me to say that. I just like to share deals.) A number of companies offer these drink mixes, in flavors from fruit-tea to good old lip-staining Hawaiian Punch.

The London tap water actually tasted fine, but I flavored it once in a while for the sake of variety. Also to keep myself from buying too many Diet Cokes, which cost as much as $2.44 each thanks to the weak U.S. dollar. (And their bottles are smaller too.) Since I was only using a little bit of a packet at a time I needed a way to keep the rest of it from spilling. Which brings me to my next suggestion.

Paper clips. These weigh practically nothing and can come in really handy. I included one mini-binder clip, which was perfect for keeping those partially used Wyler’s packets securely fastened. A regular paper clip helped me keep a bunch of new-reservation printouts organized after I rebooked myself a hostel room without pod beds. I used another clip to keep tourist brochures all in one place.

An empty envelope; part of a package of Post-It notes. Also on the subject of organization, an envelope lets you keep credit card receipts all in one place. This gives a junk-mail envelope a chance to do an honest job before you recycle it. The Post-Its are invaluable for making lists or leaving notes for traveling buddies. You don’t have to bring an entire block of Post-Its; just peel off a section.

Watch your step…

Keychain flashlight and elastic bandage. Invaluable if there’s a power failure, and really helpful if you have to walk on unfamiliar or on uneven terrain in the evening. My dad gave me an Inova BB-W Microlight, which weighs less than 1 ounce but sheds an amazing amount of light. It sure came in handy when I headed for the hostel toilet at 2 a.m. – I didn’t want to turn on the overhead light and wake my roommates, but I also didn’t want to re-sprain my ankle by tripping on the shoes, backpacks, and other items that sometimes littered the floor.

And if you do fall, either in a hostel room or on slippery cobblestones? You’ll be mighty glad you brought that bandage.

Rubber bands. When traveling I use theseto close up sleeves of crackers, a bag of M&Ms and packages of pita. Want more room in your day pack? Roll up that waterproof shell and secure it with a rubber band. Rubber bands will keep that beat-up paperback from falling apart, or secure an ice pack to the ankle you injured because you got up to pee without a flashlight.

About that ice pack: If the hotel or hostel doesn’t have an ice machine, wrap your ankle in that elastic bandage, take one of your extra Ziploc bags and limp off to the nearest convenience store or fast-food restaurant. Politely explain to the manager that you just need a few cubes from the drink machine to deal with an injury and you would of course be willing to pay for them. You might wind up getting them free. If they insist that you pay for a drink, then get the drink – but ask for it to be heavy on ice and short on soda or juice.

OTC medications and baby wipes. You’ll want some ibuprofen with that ankle, or after a hard day of hiking or sightseeing. I sure did. Additionally, I came down with some kind of virus toward the end of my U.K. trip. Some generic cold meds took care of what my doctor would genteelly call “sinus involvement” – essential, since the first leg of my return trip lasted 14 hours. I also brought a few heartburn and anti-diarrhea tablets; happily, I didn’t need either one. Remember that generics work just as well. Watch for them as drugstore loss-leaders (especially nice if combined with coupons and rebates).

Generally you won’t have to bring the whole box – just a few tablets of each in one of those Ziploc-type snack bags. If you think there might be a hassle about out-of-box meds, then by all means carry entire packages.

And the baby wipes? Think of them as “shower in a pouch.” You’ll thank me later. So will the person sitting next to you on the bus.

Other first aid. Do you really want to buy a whole box of bandages to take care of a single cut? And that’s assuming you can find a drugstore handy. Sometimes you can’t. I carried a very small tube of Neosporin and half a dozen Band-Aids. Luckily I didn’t need them either.

Sewing kit. Mine is as cute as a puppy in lace-trimmed pants. It measures only about two inches square but contains needles, thread, safety pins, a couple of buttons, and a teensy pair of scissors. I can’t remember how long I’ve had this or where I got it, but dollar stores may have them.

So do some hotels, if you’re not averse to liberating one. If you are, then ask politely at the front desk if it’s all right to take the kit with you. If they say “of course,” you’re all set. If they say, “We’d rather you didn’t,” then you can just go home and cobble together your own kit. Bet you won’t find scissors as cute as mine, though.

How about it, readers? What do you always pack? Which travel essentials have saved your bacon?

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

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  • I take a photocopy of my passport page with my picture on it in case my passport goes missing.  As for my original passport, I never take it with me once I am overseas unless I will be crossing an international boundary sometime during the day.  I leave it locked in my room safe.

    I also read an article that said you should take a list of credit card numbers with their related phone numbers to call if they are lost or stolen.  I also take as few cards as possible – usually only a debit card (to retrieve cash at an ATM if needed – most credit cards charge a cash advance fee) and two credit cards (at least one with my picture on it).  I take the second card just in case the magnetic strip cannot be read on one of them or the credit card issuer accidentally freezes one of the accounts thinking the card has been stolen or compromised.  This actually happened to me once in England.  Even though I had called the bank before I left and advised them of my destination and the dates I would be in England, the customer service rep somehow did not properly flag my account and when I got to England and attempted to use the card, I discovered the account had been frozen.  Fortunately, I had my other card to fall back on until I could call the bank and remind them I was physically in England until a certain date.

    • Donna Freedman

      While I was in the United Kingdom earlier this year one of my credit cards was somehow compromised and they had to shut it down. I’ve long been a proponent of having TWO cards while traveling. Good thing, since I was only partway through the trip.

  • Anonymous

    This is a great article.  I actually went to Target and got a Swiss Army Card, it’s a card just as the name implies.  The beauty of it is, it has a small paring knife, a screw driver (which doubles as an emery board), tweezers, toothpick, sissors and a ballpoint pen.  the case itself has a ruler on the back with inches and metric ruler on the front.  The cost is about $20.00, but I carry it everywhere and use it all the time. 

    • Donna Freedman

      I’ve heard of these but never seen them. Now I want one.

      • Anonymous

        Check Ebay sometimes you can get them for a good deal.  I paid $20 for one at Target but, only $15 for one on Ebay.

  • Anonymous

    I have a Swiss Army Card that I take everywhere.  It’s small & flat like a credit card and has sissors, paring knife, screw driver that doubles as a nail file, tweezers, toothpick and a ballpoint pen, on the back of the card there is a ruler in inches and on the front one with metric measurments.  I also have a Swiss Army Card that has a magnifying glass and a light.  This also has all the items the first card has except for the toothpick.  These have proven to be invaluable during trips.

  • Edmund Tang

    Save the following attachments on your web email account under “Draft”: 

    an image of your passport page with your picture and particulars,
    a list of your credit cards and their numbers,
    an image of your drivers’ licence 

    Should you lose any of the above you can retrieve the card numbers and print a copy of the images from that web mail account.

    • Donna Freedman

      I hope you mean your credit cards’ 800 numbers and not the numbers themselves…? 

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