Top 10 Travel Gadgets Under $50
By MATT GROSS
In my romantic travel daydreams, I imagine myself marching off into the hills of Patagonia with nothing in my backpack but a change of underwear and a piece of flint. In reality, however, I ?and most travelers today ?bring gadgets. Lots of gadgets.
From iPods to noise-canceling headphones, from digital cameras to GPS trackers, they take up space, can consume electricity and distract us from actually enjoying the trip. Gadgets also tend to be expensive, small and easy-to-lose. But gadgets can be both useful and cheap ?they can help even budget travelers make the most of their adventures. Here is a list of the 10 gadgets, all under $50, that I either own or have been lusting after.
1. Last summer, when I was hitchhiking across northern Cyprus, a British couple wanted to give me a ride from our hotel. The problem: Their car wouldn抰 start. Luckily, I was carrying a Leatherman Skeletool CX, which has pliers, which I used to tighten the battery leads and get the car going. Now I don抰 go anywhere without a multitool. I抳e used it to slice goat cheese in Monaco and reattach a suitcase wheel in Vilnius. This week, however, I抦 planning to lay aside my Skeletool for the Leatherman Juice C2, which not only costs less ($31.99 at Amazon) but has more tools, including a corkscrew.
2. Caving in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Camping in Oregon. Reading a book on an overnight train from Istanbul to Bucharest. Couldn抰 have done any of that without a flashlight. Now, forget about old-school incandescent bulbs ?LEDs are the way to go, and from the reviews I抳e read, Cree brand LEDs are both more powerful and less expensive than other brands. The Fenix LD01 ($42 from Amazon) is ridiculously tiny but throws off 80 lumens from a single AAA-powered Cree bulb.
3. Pickpocketing is a major concern of travelers, whether they抮e carrying loads of cash or 50 euros that need to last the next two weeks. My solution is to put aside the wallet, often bulky and usually carried in the back pocket, and switch to a money clip, which is slimmer and fits in the harder-for-thieves-to-reach front pocket. It抯 not 100 percent foolproof, but I haven抰 been robbed in the decade I抳e been using one. I got mine for $10 at a Miami flea market, but if I were getting a new one ?and didn抰 care about its hideous 揝tar Trek: The Next Generation?styling ?I抎 try the Memorex Money Clip Flash Drive ($17.99 at Target stores), which builds in a one-gigabyte USB drive.
4. Whether you抮e securing your belongings at a hostel or lashing up your snowboard, a retractable cable lock is a lightweight essential for travel. Make sure to get one with at least a three-foot cable. The Master Lock 4605D costs about $10 at Amazon, but the $18 Kryptonite R4 has a detachable LED flashlight (no word on whether it抯 a Cree).
5. How do you fit a month抯 worth of clothes into a 22-inch carry-on? By sucking the air out with vacuum packing bags. Travel Space Bags look like a good value ?$7 for two medium bags, $8 for two large at the Container Store ?and my fellow travel writer John Rambow tells me he likes them. (I抣l be testing them out on my next trip.) While you抮e at it, it never hurts to bring along a half-dozen Ziploc-style bags, too.
6. It used to be that whenever I went abroad, I never had enough adapter plugs for all my devices: laptop, camera charger, cellphone charger and so on. Then, last summer, one of my readers suggested what I should抳e realized all along: If you bring a power strip, you only need one adapter. Since then, I抳e used the Belkin Mini Surge Protector, which has three outlets and two USB jacks (great for MP3 players and cellphones) and costs $25. (Full disclosure: My wife抯 cousin works for Belkin.)
7. Whether you抮e a snap-happy amateur or a DSLR-toting pro, stabilizing your camera will make for better pictures. Most mini-tripods, however, need a flat surface to rest upon. Not so the Gorillapod, which has flexible, multijointed legs that let it balance just about anywhere, even around vertical poles, tree branches or wherever you want to prop the camera. The original, good for compact cameras, costs $21.95 from its manufacturer, Joby, while a larger version, which can handle the weight of an S.L.R., is $39.95.
8. I don抰 even remember where I got my travel first-aid kit, but over the years it抯 provided me with bandages, painkillers and other essential tools for dealing with the bumps, scrapes and hangovers associated with long-term budget travel. It抯 almost depleted now, so I抦 getting REI抯 seven-ounce Adventurer Medical kit ($24.95), which has all the usual bandages and tablets, plus safety pins, duct tape, sting-relief wipes and protective nitrile gloves. I almost can抰 wait to get hurt!
9. The most important gadgets, in my opinion, are not those that let us travel more easily but those that let us connect with other people. A deck of cards is always in my bag, and I have friends who won抰 leave home without a Frisbee. Those aren抰 exactly gadgets, though. Speakers for an iPod are nice to have along ?the lightweight, $29.99 iSymphony is what I own ?but I sometimes feel like iPods promote egotism: Everyone wants to be the D.J. Instead, I love my $30, 4.7-ounce Grundig Mini 300 shortwave radio. It may not have the greatest receiver or speaker, but I remember one night, sitting in the foothills of the Himalayas with a new friend, tuning in to music and news broadcast from India, England, China, Russia, Vietnam and beyond, marveling at how isolated and yet how connected we felt. Nice.
10. Some gadgets are newfangled and exciting, others time-tested and true ?which is why, wherever I go, I carry a notepad and a pen. Moleskine is the ultra-popular choice, but I prefer Ecojot抯 3-by-4-inch recycled-paper notepads (about $5), which are smaller and more flexible, but with enough backing to provide a stable writing surface. As for a pen, I buy Muji抯 0.38-millimeter gel-ink ballpoints, $1.25 apiece.
So there you have it, the gadgets no frugal traveler should be without. (And, no, I抦 not getting paid to promote any of this stuff.)
Of course, your ideal gadget list will also depend on what kind of frugal traveler you are. Hikers and campers may want headlamps instead of flashlights, or hand-crank radios instead of battery-powered, while urbanites might see little use for a first-aid kit. On top of that, the particular brands and models matter less than what the devices actually do ?you may prefer Kryptonite locks over Master, and you know what? That抯 O.K. Just bring a retractable cable lock. I抎 hate for someone to run off with your tripod, shortwave radio and first-aid kit.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated that the Leatherman Juice C2 included scissors. It does not.