Monday, September 24, 2012

My Travel Must-Haves... And What to Leave Behind

Since returning from my RTW trip, I've packed for smaller trips to Portland and Kauai, and I'm now about to pack for my trip to Italy.

Packing always makes me a little anxious — what if I leave something vital behind?? — but it's certainly gotten easier now that I have my own RTW packing list to refer to.

Of course, I don't need to bring as much stuff for a two-week trip as I did for a three-month trip, so I can eliminate several items from that list right off the bat.

On the flip side, I find myself packing several key items over and over, no matter where I go or how long the trip lasts, and I want to share those favorite things with you here — as well as my not-so-favorite things that I'll likely leave at home in the future.

Keep in mind that I determined my "love it" and "leave it" items through my own experiences, and you may very well need some of the items I would leave behind! It all depends on the circumstances of your trip and what makes you feel comfortable. Feel free to leave your own must-have travel items in the comments.


Love it:

  • Kindle Keyboard 3G with lighted case. Nothing helps me get through international plane trips and 12-hour bus rides like a good book, and the Kindle is a lightweight, easy-to-use digital alternative to print books. The free international 3G was often spotty, but it was great for checking email and updating Twitter from time to time. The lighted case was essential for reading in dark hostel dorms and kept my Kindle well-protected.
  • Belkin mini surge protector with extra outlets. If you're like me, you have multiple electronics to charge when you travel: phone, laptop, camera battery, Kindle, etc. Guess what? So does everyone else! Save yourself from the woes of jockeying for one or two coveted outlets in your hostel and plug in this surge protector to instantly produce a few extra outlets, plus two USB chargers. You win.
  • Canon S95 digital camera. I love my big DSLR, but I don't always want to lug it around when I travel. I was incredibly surprised by and pleased with the quality of the photos I shot with the compact Canon S95 (the newer, shinier version is the Canon S100). I found myself reaching for it more and more throughout my trip.

One of my favorite photos from Australia — shot with the Canon S95.

Leave it:

  • Steripen Traveler. I used this handheld water purifier once or twice in Thailand just to test it out, but it was incredibly cheap and easy to just buy huge bottles of ice-cold water everywhere I went. The other countries I visited either had safe tap water (New Zealand, Australia) or filtered water available in my hostels (Singapore, Malaysia), so the Steripen hardly saw the light of day. If you plan to spend more time in less-developed countries, the Steripen is a great tool. For me? It's a "leave it."


Love it:


  • Ear plugs. Pack them now, thank me later. You'll want to have ear plugs handy on planes, trains and buses, as well as at your bedside when you try to fall asleep. You never know when your ears will be assaulted by a crying baby, loud cell-phone talker or drunk-and-noisy hostel-mate. Bring several pairs, since ear plugs are like socks — one always mysteriously disappears.
  • Sea to Summit waterproof compression sacks. My backpack would have been a hot mess if I hadn't had these sturdy compression sacks to keep my clothes under control. I used an extra-small compression sack for sports bras, underwear and swimwear, and a large compression sack for all of my other clothing items. Some travelers prefer packing cubes, but I love how these sacks condensed my clothes to a fraction of the size they would otherwise occupy.
  • Klean Kanteen. I'm a water-guzzling freak and keep my Klean Kanteen by my side 24/7, so I had to bring it on my RTW trip. It was great to be able to fill this practically indestructible stainless-steel bottle with safe tap water and filtered water, when available. I definitely saved money and plastic by not buying bottled water in four of the five countries I visited.
  • TSA lock and combination lock. My sturdy little TSA lock kept the contents of my backpack secure on buses, trains and planes, as well as in hostels. It was also never, to my knowledge, actually opened by the TSA when I checked my bag. The combination lock was essential for storing valuables in hostel-provided lockers. Often, hostels that feature lockable units will sell locks at the front desk, too.
  • Deck of cards. It can be tough to make friends every time you arrive at a new hostel. I found that the easiest way to attract fellow travelers was to bust out a deck of cards in the common area and start a game of something... anything. Bonus points if you have a box of wine to share! I loved my TrekDek playing cards; everyone had a blast reading the different travel activities suggested on each card.

Leave it:

  • Point-it dictionary. This compact book of pictures is great for someone who plans to travel through areas where the locals speak little English. I could have used it once or twice in Asia, but simply forgot I had it! It remained tucked away in the depths of my backpack, and I did just fine using hand gestures and such, so I'll probably leave it at home for my trip to Italy. It does make a great gift for travelers, though, and doesn't hurt to have just in case.


Love it:

  • Lightweight, waterproof jacket. I endured torrential rain in nearly every country I visited, so I got a lot of use out of my Helly Hansen shell. It was lightweight enough to keep me dry without making me too hot in humid Asia, and it packed into a tiny ball in one of my compression sacks. I also layered it over a fleece hoodie for extra warmth at the tail-end of my time in New Zealand.
  • ExOfficio underwear. I bought seven pairs of this quick-drying, anti-microbial underwear based on recommendations from other travel bloggers, and I'm a total convert. It's the only underwear I wear even now that I'm home! It is incredibly comfortable and has held up well over many rounds in the washer and dryer. It's expensive ($18 to $22 per pair for women), but worth it — and you may find certain colors on sale at REI from time to time.
  • Yoga pants. I will never be one of those people who gets dressed up to travel by plane, train or bus. I need to feel cozy and comfortable above all else, and my stretchy, high-quality Lululemon Groove pants served me well throughout my trip. Here's a tip: If you board a plane/train/bus wearing shorts and flip-flops because it's hot as hell outside, have pants and socks easily accessible in your carry-on — nothing is worse than enduring 10 hours' worth of frigid transit A/C with bare legs. If you board wearing pants, keep shorts easily accessible if you're heading to a warm destination to minimize sweating upon arrival.
  • Comfortable, stretchy jeans. I did not bring jeans on my trip, but I should have. In New Zealand, the evening weather was often chilly enough to require pants, and convertible travel pants just aren't cool enough to wear out to bars and clubs (see "Leave it" below). I wound up buying jeans on my last day in NZ, but made the mistake of buying them in my regular size. I should have gone up a size, or at least gone for extra stretch... because I love to eat. Let's just say I quickly grew out of those jeans, and they remained in the bottom of my bag for most of the trip. Sigh.
  • Wrinkle-free dress. I packed the GoLite Cayambe Reversible Dress in black/gray and couldn't have been happier with it! (Many online retailers are sold out of it, so I just linked to a Google search in case you have luck finding it somewhere.) It was the perfect, comfortable little black dress for many occasions. I especially loved having it in Yosemite; while my extended family members took turns ironing their clothes for a fancy dinner out, I simply removed this polyester dress from my compression sack and unrolled it to reveal instant, wrinkle-free perfection.
  • Durable flip-flops. I lived in flip-flops for 98% of my trip, but the cheap Old Navy pair I initially wore fell apart quickly. In Wellington, New Zealand, I bought a pair of silver Havaianas after noticing that many other backpackers favored them. Those comfortable and durable Havaianas stuck with me through the rest of my trip, and I still wear the exact same kind, although I did replace my original pair — they took quite a beating.

Leave it:

  • Convertible travel pants. You'll find many travelers who swear by a good pair of convertible pants, but I'm not one of them. Sure, my roll-up pants were comfortable and fit well, but I just didn't wear them that much — and when I did, I felt like a conspicuous tourist. I realized early in my trip that, in most situations, I would be just fine wearing athletic shorts, regular shorts, athletic capris or even jeans. When you pack, it helps to ask yourself this question: "Would I wear this in my normal life?" If not, you probably won't be reaching for it much on your trip.
  • KEEN Whisper sandals. "Would I wear these in my normal life?" Nope, and I wore them maybe twice on my trip. Lesson learned. I'll be sticking with flip-flops and running shoes from now on!


Love it:


  • Diva Cup. Ladies: Drop everything and get a menstrual cup right now! Imagine not having to worry about keeping tampons or pads on hand, not dealing with leaks, not creating messy waste — basically not having to worry about your period much at all. I've found that the medical-grade silicone Diva Cup is very easy to insert, remove and clean, and I would never go back to using tampons. It's a life-changer! Check out the Amazon reviews for more details.

Leave it:

  • Travel towel. I brought a quick-drying Sea to Summit DryLite travel towel on my trip, but wasn't thrilled with its small size and relative lack of absorbency compared to a regular bath towel. I accidentally left the the travel towel in a New Zealand hostel, and instead used a smaller, thinner version of a regular bath towel for the next few months. I never missed the travel towel! My regular towel was more comfortable to use but didn't dry as quickly; I managed that by showering at night and hanging the towel from my hostel bunk to dry overnight.
  • Sink stopper, portable soap sheets and clothesline. I was a bit paranoid about having access to laundry facilities abroad, so I brought all the items I would need to wash my clothes in a sink if I had to. I did laundry about once a week for three months, and I always had access to a coin-operated washer and dryer — or, in Thailand, access to someone who would wash, dry and fold my clothes for a fraction of the cost of coin-ops in other counties! If you want to save some money or plan to travel far off the beaten path, you can certainly hand-wash and line-dry your clothes. I always went the washer-and-dryer route, and often saved money by going in on a load of laundry with one or two trusted hostel-mates. I never had enough clothes to make a full load anyway!

What are your must-have travel items? What would you leave behind next time?


Note: All links to are affiliate links, which means if you purchase an item using one of those links, my travel fund will grow a tiny bit and I'll be very grateful. Just wanted you to know. : )


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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Soaring Over Kauai

I apologize for being absent from this blog lately. In a complete reversal from this time last year, I've been job-hunting rather than writing about my travels.

I want to finish posting about my trip to Kauai, though, because Aaron and I are going to Italy very soon! I know I'll want to post yummy photos of pizza and pasta and gelato — trust me, there will be a lot of them — once we return, so I'll do my best to wrap up Kauai before we leave in order to "make room" for Italy.

Although, who am I kidding? There's always room for gelato.


Aaron and I kicked off our first full day on Kauai with an incredible view.

Make that more than an hour's worth of incredible views.

We figured the best way to get our bearings on the Garden Island would be to tour it from the air, and what a great idea that was! A big chunk of Kauai is not accessible by motor vehicles, but we got to see all of its stunning landscapes from above.

Our knowledgeable, friendly pilot and tour guide was Bruce Coulombe, the owner (with his wife, Ellen) of Wings Over Kauai. He made us feel nice and safe as we climbed into the tiny plane — me in the co-pilot's seat and Aaron right behind me, for even weight distribution.

I got a little nervous once I saw all of the dials and gadgets up close. Those things really work, right?

Luckily, Bruce went through the pre-flight checklist with me, explaining all of the functions of various instruments as we worked through the laminated list. This guy knew what he was doing (which made one of us). Whew!

Wings Over Kauai shares a runway at the Lihue Airport with Hawaiian Airlines, so we waited for this massive airplane to take off before we could begin our taxi.

Then... we were off! I was surprised by how smooth the takeoff felt. In Australia, I rode a rickety little plane over Fraser Island and felt like the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. This plane was a dream in comparison.

Aaron chose to sit in the back so he could have an unobstructed view of the island for photos. You'll see that some of my pictures feature parts of the plane, but that was fine by me. I preferred to be up front, where all the action took place.

Bruce allowed us to swing open the window once we got up to the proper elevation, which gave both of us an even better view. The wind blew pretty viciously into Aaron's face, though, while I was unaffected in the front! Consequently, we only opened the window for certain photo ops.

Our headsets allowed Bruce to tell us all about the island that he has called home for 16 years. Soothing Hawaiian music played softly in the background as he described the various landscapes, beaches, waterfalls and other points of interest, like expansive coffee farms and famous places that have appeared in movies.

Waimea Canyon, known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, was particularly impressive from above.

But my favorite sight of all was the breathtaking Na Pali Coast. It has been featured in everything from Jurassic Park to Nicki Minaj's "Starships" video (random!), and it's just stunning in person.

Spoiler alert: Later in our trip, Aaron and I took a boat tour of the Na Pali Coast, but it did not go into the cool cave that this boat is going into. I would like a do-over!

The only scary part of the plane ride was when we flew through some heavy fog and got battered with fat raindrops. It was only for a few minutes, though, and we were rewarded with a magical full rainbow afterward.

Since the previous few days had been particularly rainy, we saw plenty of waterfalls. According to Bruce, these ones aren't always there.

This one is always there — Wailua Falls. Gorgeous.

While it wasn't as action-packed as our ATV tour, I really enjoyed our time with Wings Over Kauai and recommend it as a relatively affordable option ($125/person) for touring Kauai from above.

It felt very safe and peaceful. I even felt sleepy near the end, thanks to the gentle Hawaiian music and the subtle vibrations of the plane!

If Aaron and I had bigger budgets and could do it again, though, we would opt for a helicopter tour. We heard other vacationers raving about their helicopter adventures and we were jealous that they got to land at the same waterfall that's shown at the beginning of Jurassic Park! Some helicopters even fly sans doors for the benefit of avid photographers.

That said, not everyone can afford a plane tour, and I'm grateful we could and did. We'll just have to add a helicopter ride to our bucket list. : )


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