I’ve spent the majority of the last five years as a digital nomad, living and working in over 40 countries. Because of this, I tend to travel fairly light. I’ve also tried countless travel gadgets, and found most are a waste of money and space. Instead, here are five universally useful, perhaps unexpected, items I never leave without.
A good pen
Pens are one of those things that only seem to be around when you don’t need them. When you do, you can’t find one. For example, most countries require you to fill out an immigration card before you enter. Your airline will give you this in-flight, but not a pen to fill it out.
Sure, you could wait until you’re at immigration and try to find and use the ballpoint on a chain that’s probably out of ink, but by the time you fill it out everyone on the plane is now in front of you in line to get through customs, through the terminal, and to baggage claim. Then there’s filling out postcards or signing receipts. And who knows, maybe you’ll meet someone who’s desperately looking for a pen. It seems simple and obvious, but so handy, and so few people travel with one.
An unlocked phone, for internet everywhere
Traveling with a phone that works everywhere is a game changer. Being able to post to social media and talk with friends and family at home is great, but having fast access to Google Maps and Translate will transform your travel experience. Being able to book a new flight or hotel if something happens could save a vacation.
For example, I was on a tiny island in Fiji when the call came in that an oncoming cyclone had intensified overnight to a category 3, and we would all have to evacuate. I was able to use my phone to immediately book one of the last hotel rooms on the main island. Nearly everyone else had to wait in line at the resort’s office for one of the few computers and slow internet.
The key is having internet access at all, and ideally, fast access. If you get your phone “unlocked” by your cellular provider, you can buy a local SIM card in whatever country you’re visiting. This lets your phone work just like you bought it new in that country, with high-speed data and free local calls, depending on the SIM you buy. These are usually around $20, and available at airport vending machines and kiosks, although a cellphone store in town might be cheaper.
If you have T-Mobile or Sprint, your phone should work in most other countries, though it will be very slow, so a local SIM might still be worth it. Verizon and AT&T have very expensive international data plans that offer just a couple of days worth of internet for the same price as a local SIM that will work for your whole trip. If you’re with one of them, definitely check if you can unlock your phone and that it will work outside the United States (Verizon’s phones should already be unlocked). Google Fi has 4G international data included, no local SIM needed.
Your digital downloads (and uploads)
I mentioned Google Maps and Translate, but making the most of them requires some preparation before you leave. Let’s say you’re going to Paris. Type “Paris” into Google Maps. Make sure you see all the parts of the city you need (the arrondissement where your hotel is, for example) and the parts you want to explore, then hit “save” at the bottom of the screen. This does exactly that, saving everything on the visible map. Now you can walk around without internet and still see a map of your surroundings. This includes street names, Metro stops and so on.
Google Translate has the same feature, letting you download language packs for use offline. This speeds up translations, including the futuristic camera feature that lets you point your phone at a sign to translate what you’re seeing in real time.
It’s also worth looking into a photo backup service. Something like iCloud or Google Photos, if you’re not using them already, will save your phone’s photos to the cloud as you take them (or when you get back to Wi-Fi), so if it your phone gets lost or stolen, you’ll still have all your pictures.
A portable USB battery
When you’re out all day taking pictures, navigating with Maps, posting to social media, and so on, your phone’s battery is going to drain pretty quickly. Even a small USB battery pack can charge your phone once, and slightly larger ones twice or more. Packs with built-in cables are handy, but that cable will be the first thing to break. Wirecutter, the New York Times company that reviews products, has a number of recommendations for different sizes and prices. If you don’t have one, get one before your next trip — you’ll love it, and use it at home later.
A USB multi-charger (and some long cables)
No matter where you go or how expensive the accommodation, you’re almost always going to struggle to find enough power outlets. The easiest way to recharge all your gear is with a USB multi-charger that trades one wall socket for several USB ports. Then just plug in your phone, tablet, USB battery pack and so on, all at the same time. Like the battery pack, this is helpful on the road and at home. Wirecutter has several picks depending what size you need.
In the same vein, a few longer USB cables are a good idea too. A longer cable lets you use your phone in bed while it’s plugged in that faraway outlet. Wirecutter has picks for micro USB, USB-C, and Lightning, depending what you need.