I travel for a living and I travel a lot. I travel to cities, deserts, beaches and mountains, I travel to dine, to ski, to bike, and to visit museums. I travel to every kind of cultural, climactic and geographical destination for every kind of activity – or no activity at all. In the course of all this, I test a lot of stuff aimed at travelers, and after wrapping up a fruitful 2019, I’ve compiled a list of the best things I’ve found to make your travels better, easier and more comfortable.
Many frequent travelers have chosen the lightweight 4-wheel spinner as their checked bag of choice, and for good reason. These are light, very easy to maneuver, hold a lot and keep your clothes neat and wrinkle free. For most kinds of travel, business and leisure, they are the best choice and have largely replaced traditional suitcases and most other options. Durability is the single most important thing to look for, because cheaper models break easily, but when you get to the higher end options, made of quality material and well built, there’s not that much difference between brands – except for ROAM. They make premium hard-sided spinners in four sizes, from the carry-on Jaunt to the checked Journey to the biggest of them all, the aptly named Globetrotter.
But what separates ROAM is that its platform is built on customization, and you choose every stylistic bell and whistle. You pick from a wide palette of colors, and can even do the two halves, front and back, in different hues. You can choose a different color for the zipper, the zipper pull, the binding around the zipper, the stitching, wheels and telescoping handle. You can add a free monogram and choose the color of the monogram patch. The result is not just a test of your creativity and your favorite colors, but a bag that in all likelihood no one else anywhere has, one that is instantly recognizable when it comes off the baggage belt, reducing the chance of mistake or theft, and letting you spot it easily in a crowd. The case is built of 100% American made virgin polycarbonate, the handle aircraft aluminum, a TSA lock is built in, the lining fabric is both water-resistant and washable, and the internal organization (an area in which many spinners come up short) includes compression straps and multiple pockets on both sides. Nothing has been overlooked, the ball bearing wheels are fantastic, while the zipper is water-resistant, a useful feature I have seen on almost no luggage outside of mountaineering duffels and backpacks. At $450-$550 ROAM spinners are priced similarly to other top brands, but they add the customization you won’t find anywhere else. Ordering and delivery were smooth and quick as well. Founded by former Tumi executives, ROAM has won all kinds of accolades including “perfect suitcase” from Fast Company and Best Luggage of 2019 from Afar Magazine.
I recently wrote about the 5 Hottest Travel Destinations for 2020, and Japan is atop just about everyone’s list – and one of the hardest countries for English speakers, especially outside of Tokyo. But Japan is not alone, there are plenty of linguistically challenging global hotspots, from Greece to Israel to India, while even Romance language destinations like France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and most of South America can be tricky if you don’t speak the local tongue. Phone based services like Google translate can handle the occasional menu item, but when you need to ask questions or talk to your cab driver, Pocketalk is the better option. Pocketalk uses WiFi, mobile data, or a personal hotspot to provide two-way foreign language translations in real time. With 74 languages pre-installed, no place will be foreign for you when it comes to conversation, and language will no longer be a barrier. It works very well, and it works very simply: press and hold the button as you are speaking, let go when finished, and Pocketalk will “speak” a translation.
It has dual microphones with noise cancellation to pick up your every word even in a crowded bazaar, and two built-in speakers. One charge (USB) lasts ten days in sleep mode, enough for most vacations without recharging, and it gives 7-hours of actual usage, making it almost impossible to run out (I never have). I’ve jumped into cabs in Tokyo and asked to go to well-known hotels and gotten just a blank stare, but that (or having to carry business cards for everyplace you want to go) is a thing of the past. Imagine “talking” to your non-English Airbnb host about local recommendations. It’s certainly worth having in an emergency, medical or otherwise, and especially handy when you need complex directions.
Ultimate Travel T-Shirt:
Imagine a garment that is simple but looks and feels great and works well in any climate, on long plane flights or mountain treks. That would be the perfect t-shirt, but over the years it has proven surprisingly elusive. Most high-tech tees feel plasticky and don’t drape well, and they look like what they are – workout clothes. At the other end of the spectrum, basic cotton tees, even more luxurious ones from top designers, have the weaknesses inherent in cotton and most normal fabrics: they don’t breathe well, they retain odor, and they are not good at handling temperature fluctuations. Two years ago, I found the absolute perfect tee, and now I can’t stop wearing it, on its own, under other layers, and it is my go to base for long flights. I’ve tried everything from all-wool to high-tech synthetics to cashmere blends to premium cotton, and this is simply the best travel tee I have ever worn. It is the Icebreaker Sphere Short Sleeve Low Crewe and I just bought two more of them.
New Zealand based Icebreaker was the global pioneer in fine merino wool active garments, now the standard for the outdoor sports industry, and while everyone makes merino wool clothing these days, Icebreaker is the gold standard, and keeps innovating. This Cool-Lite fabric (52% Merino Wool, 35% Tencel® 13% Nylon) has the best features of all worlds, the anti-stink and natural drape properties of wool, the wicking of synthetic, and the silky soft feel of Tencel in an ultra-lightweight fabric. Cool-Lite Sphere tees comes in a variety of colors and styles for men and women, short sleeve, long sleeve, cap sleeve, and so on, and now Icebreaker even makes Cool-Lite polos and button downs. All of them use corespun fibers for enhanced durability and long life, so it comes out soft and new wash after wash. I got my first one over two years ago and have worn it dozens of time without any noticeable wear. It feels great, feels natural, and is outstanding for regulating temperature comfort. It is designed for warm and hot conditions, can stand up to the fiercest desert heat, but also works perfectly as a base layer under insulation for the coldest days. It is truly a do it all tee, and does it all very well.
Best Travel Laptop:
I originally got a MacBook because at the time it was the standard for thin, light and fast starting. But the rest of the laptop world caught up in those features, while surpassing Apple in other ways. Last year I cut the cord and went to a Microsoft Surface laptop, mainly because I was unhappy with Apple, but little did I know at the time how big a deal the touchscreen functionality would be. The Surface made a big splash by adding the technology we all use in or smartphones and tablets to a fully functional computer, and it has made my work and play on the road much better, faster and more efficient, a great surprising fringe benefit on top of better battery life and raw computing power that I could not now give up. While Apple has not introduced touchscreen tech in its laptops, several other computer makers have, from Dell to HP, but I’ve seen no reason to look beyond my beloved Surface Laptop 2, The processor is faster, the battery life longer – very important to travelers – and it feels and looks great with a keyboard I love and a cool textural finish.
One of my favorite go-to technology review sites, TechRadar, did a roundup of the top touchscreen laptops of 2019 and called the Surface 2 “The touchscreen laptop, perfected” and noted that “the new Surface Laptop 2 that really takes the cake, expertly combining that traditional laptop form factor with touchscreen technology in the most compelling way possible. Not only is its display dazzling, but it also boasts a charming chassis and a powerful hardware behind it… does so many things right, it’s hard not to love the Surface Laptop 2.” I have to agree. Microsoft just introduced the Surface Laptop 3 which comes in two sizes and multiple finishes and includes the fastest 15-inch model around with an AMD Ryzen 7 processor and adds USB-C ports to the USB-A most laptops already have.
Best Carry-On Luggage:
If there is one item I have spent years in search of, through endless trial and error, it is the perfect carry-on backpack. I want great organization and protection for my laptop and tablet, separate secure pockets for documents, passport and such, a design that lets me grab exactly what I need quickly when I reach my seat and the battle for overhead space begins, that is comfortable, well designed, sleek, holds a water bottle and can be worn for longer periods when necessary. I’ve tried a lot of packs, and there are a lot of very good ones, but the go-to I have settled on – as have many savvy frequent travelers – is Tortuga. It was also the top pick of highly-regarded gear test site Wirecutter for “best all-around travel backpack.”
Tortuga has long focused on packs and bags for travel in urban environments and appealing to carry-on only fans who detest checking bags. I am not one of those, so I typically carry a smaller model, the Setout Laptop pack, for maximum inflight efficiency with minimum fuss, weight and size. It has three full length sections front to back, the first being for documents, pens, USB drives, keys, etc. (including a smaller zippered security pocket). The middle one is quite spacious, and while it can hold shoes, clothes or the like, I use it for books, my noise cancelling headphone case and my Thule charger and cord organizing pouch. The back pocket has dual, padded quick access digital sleeves can hold a tablet, full sized laptop and e-reader all separately. Each has full top to bottom and side to side exterior zippers to open like a clamshell suitcase. Every detail has been well thought out, even the zippered expandable water bottle pocket on one side.
For those who are doing only carry-on, Tortuga makes several larger models, all utilizing the easy-to-pack, easy to access, clamshell design that sets them apart. I also have a larger Outbreaker model that holds a lot more stuff but still in a very manageable size, and it adds features like heavier duty ergonomic backpacking style straps and hip belt for longer duration carrying, a second water bottle pocket, a zippered pocket on the hip belt and a bigger main compartment with internal zippered pockets that can hold several days’ worth of clothes. I write a lot on ski travel, and like many avid skiers, I like to carry my boots on the plane with me, and I’ve found that the Outbreaker is the perfect pack for this – my ski boots and accessories like gloves and goggles fit neatly in the main compartment, I still get all my other digital and document organization for inflight entertainment and work, and its not a bulky oversized pack with boots strapped to the outside like you see many skiers carrying. It’s perfect.
I mentioned the Thule Subterra Power Shuttle in the backpack piece above, and it has become a staple of my carry-on arsenal. This little zip-up pouch holds my laptop charger, assorted USB-B and C cords, international adaptors, a back up battery, my Fitbit charger and whatever else I might need to plug in and stay connected anywhere in the world, all in one easy, organized, sleek and cheap (under $30) way, with lots of elastic loops to keep cords organized. There’s a mesh zippered pocket for small connectors or memory cards and a larger secure zippered pocket for cash, passport or paperwork. It’s not something you necessarily need, but it’s something you’ll want if you travel with the typical modern array of devices, and for me it is a lot easier to grab this and go or keep it in my carry-on then to think about packing cords and chargers every time I travel.
Best Travel Sneakers:
Minimizing the amount of footwear you pack is key to preparing for a trip. Because I usually stay and nice hotels and go to nice restaurants, I almost always carry real dress shoes, but I always like to have something stylish and comfortable to wear walking around a city without looking like I’m headed for the gym. In recent years the later version of the skate-shoe sneaker design has become very popular for this reason, combining a dressier look with the comfort of a sneaker, and now everyone makes these, even traditional dress shoe companies and fancy Italian brands. I have taken a liking to the ones from OluKai, the Hawaiian sandal and flip flop specialist – and a Certified B Corp that has for years done good while making great footwear. OluKai is a comfort driven company and makes every imaginable iteration of slip on and beachwear, but I am particularly taken with the Kahu Pahaha leather lace up sneaker. It looks good and feels great right out of the box, I can walk in them all day, wear them on the plane, and I’ve tried other brands at this price point ($130) that just are not this cushy and comfy.
Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones:
If you watch any kind of video entertainment when traveling, there is no good alternative to over the ear active noise cancelling headphones, the only way to get the full benefits of really good sound while blocking out annoying background noise and chatter. The best also double as fully functional headsets for phone calls. I’ve tried lots of these and my go-to for the past several years has been Sennheiser. I’ve regularly used two of their top tier models, the Momentum 2.0 and PXC-550, and had great results. They both have excellent noise cancelling, are comfortable and well made, feature great stereo fidelity for music lovers, and have lots of important extras like Bluetooth and a high-end built-in mic for phone calls, aptX decoding for high-quality music streaming, NFC-compatibility for one-touch pairing, theater-quality movie sound for in-flight entertainment, true wireless, and for frequent travelers, very long battery life, with some models over 22 hours. That’s longer than any flight on earth, and I’ve used mine to the Pacific Rim, Africa and elsewhere, and have never, ever had them run out. Sennheiser recently introduced upgraded versions of both lines, the new Momentum 3.0 (adds Tile technology, excellent music sound and three levels of noise cancellation) and PXC-550-II (adds Bluetooth 5.0 and a one touch voice assistant button for Siri, Alexa, etc.).