This is the time of year when seemingly every magazine and travel blog has some kind “ultimate travel gift guide” or “100 great ideas for the traveler on your list.” Many of the magazine ones are written by desk jockey editors who don’t travel very much though and they seem to be highlighting whatever landed in the mailroom that month.
So you see a lot of supposedly smart gadgets that will be obsolete or impractical in a year (remember all the hoopla about “smart luggage?) And lots of goop and lotions and aromatherapy products that almost no frequent traveler is going to waste space on in their carry-on. And soooo many neck pillows, all promising to finally be the one that works.
The blogger round-ups are usually more useful, but the lists are still stuffed with things that they would never carry themselves. The items are too bulky, too heavy, or just not practical. They’re just on the list because the affiliate payout would be nice if you click and buy. There’s not much commission on the things frequent travelers use every trip, like luggage locks or quick-dry underwear.
Here are useful traveler gifts to consider, things that will actually be received with gratitude and used on the road. Just make sure your recipient doesn’t have what you’re thinking of getting already: most are tried and true staples that you don’t need two of.
Sound and Reading Gadget Gifts
If there’s one thing that probably 100% of frequent travelers are carrying these days, it’s earbuds or earphones. I have found that I am usually carrying two kinds now, which is kind of annoying but needed. I’ve got Bluetooth headphones or earbuds—depending on space and flight length—then old-school wired ones with a mic. Those are still needed when the batteries die on the others, I want decent sound from the airplane movie screen, or I need to make a Skype call on the laptop.
Remember, Android phones still have a headphone jack, so users are not forced into recharging to hear music on their phone. But because Apple forced a switch, you can now get the classic Bose Quiet Comfort noise-canceling wired headphones for half what they used to cost. Bluetooth headphones have come down in price already too though. I’ve been using these Mixcder E7 ones pictured here that are loaded with features but retail for just $60 at Amazon. They can be connected with a wire as well.
Sure, you can get your loved one the $159 Apple AirPods, or even more expensive comparable ones from Bose, but to me these tiny in-ear disconnected buds seem way overpriced and way too easy to lose. I’ve already seen a few lonely single ones lying on airplane seats as I have exited the plane. They likely fell out of someone’s ear while the person was sleeping or were dropped when packing up.
There are a zillion alternative earbuds of both kinds available at Amazon and seemingly one out of every two retail stores. I’ve used these best-selling, Sbode Bluetooth ones with a cord and earclips for more than a year now and have managed to keep from losing them. Others have gotten lost, gotten broken, or gotten left behind somewhere though, which is probably common with most travelers. We can all use a spare set—or two—and those only cost $24.
Most travelers over the age of 30 aren’t real fond of reading a book on a smartphone, so a Kindle or Kobo e-reader is an appreciated gift for someone who doesn’t have one already. If that person on your gift list doesn’t already have a tablet or e-reader, that can be a good gift before they head abroad. Paper books are bulky and don’t work so well when you finish one in the middle of nowhere. With a WiFi connection and an e-reader, almost any book in the world is a few clicks away.
I’m a big fan of the $130 Kindle Paperwhite for straight reading and long battery life, or the Kindle Fire if they would want to use it to surf the web, play games, or watch movies too. This loss leader for Amazon is one of the world’s greatest gadget bargains, at $49 for a device that works as an e-reader, web surfer, music player, and video screen.
We’re slaves to our gadgets now on the road and each year it seems there are more things to be recharged. For some that even extends to their watch or fitness tracker. Where are you going to plug all those things in every day to keep them charged?
One gift that might be appreciated is a travel power strip. With one of these you can turn one outlet into many, whether that’s in a crowded airport or in a hotel room built for times when they only thing you plugged in was a laptop. The travel ones pack up small but can be a lifesaver with 2-3 regular outlets and 2-3 USB ones, for less than $20.
Also take a look at what your gift recipient is using to recharge on the go. If it’s one of those small rectangular chargers you see companies giving out at trade shows, it’s probably only good for one charge before it too has to be recharged. Power banks have gotten steadily cheaper and lighter over the years, so now you can get one rated 10,000 mAh and up for $16 to $30. These will charge multiple gadgets multiple times before running out.
Travel Gear Splurges That Will Last
Most frequent travelers tend to spend more on experiences than things, so they have a hard time splurging on themselves even when it’s for something useful. They’ll balk at buying the $90 sun hat and go for a $30 one instead, even though the former is made better and will last a lot longer. They’ll avoid the more expensive items with extra security features, even though it could potentially keep their valuables safer.
Here are few traveler gift items that are priced like splurges, but will last a decade or more in the end.
Tilley sun hats – I first got one of these 12 years ago and that original one was looking pretty ragged, getting frayed around the brim. I sent it back with money for shipping and they replaced it with no charge. Who does that anymore? I’m a big fan of Tilley Hats and everyone I know that wears them is a converted fan. They even have a little pouch inside for storing valuables as an extra stash. You can find multiple “guaranteed for life” styles for under $100 at their website.
Speaking of valuables, two brands are solely dedicated to protecting yours: Clothing Arts and Pac-safe. I raved about the former in a recent blog post, so go there to check out their pickpocket proof clothing.
Pac-safe makes luggage, day bags, and travel purses that are the best around for thwarting potential thieves. They’re slash-proof, have special security locks, and zippers that can’t be popped open with a pen like most of them out there. Anyone on your list making a trip to a pickpocket capital needs to have something from one or both of these companies packed. In the range of $50 to $120 at eBags.
SteriPen or Lifestraw water purifiers are something every traveler going to developing countries should have. Too often though, travelers prioritize the short-term cheapness and convenience of bottled water over the long-term savings and litter reduction resulting from regular use of a water purifier. Help them and help the planet by giving one of these as a gift. Figure on $60 to $100.
Quality sunglasses are something very few budget travelers seem to want to splurge on, but they’ll get really excited if you get them some good ones from a brand like Costa, Smiths, Oakley, Tifosi, Julbo, or Serengeti. I used to get showered with sunglasses when I ran the Practical Travel Gear blog and those brands were always reliable. You can find all of them on sale at any given point if you shop online though, so check Backcountry or Moosejaw to see what’s discounted. There are deep sales going on in the winter time. These Costa ones pictured below are $70 right now instead of $220.
Boring Things We Probably Need
Frequent travelers, especially long-term backpackers, are always short on packing space and are trying to keep the weight down. Some go around the world with just a carry-on. So you don’t want to buy them something bulky that is probably going to end up being left at home.
Memory cards are always a good gift for someone carrying a camera or GoPro because they’re small but we go through a lot of them between downloads/back-ups. They often seem to crap out after a while too, needing to be replaced when they get finicky. These days you can get 128 GB ones for as little as $20 at Amazon. (That’s more memory than my first laptop had and it was more than $2,000!)
Hiking socks aren’t very exciting, but most travelers walk far more than people on a working schedule. Lightweight but rugged hiking socks are good all-around useful items for the road and the wool blend ones can go days between washings without getting too smelly. Again, check the online retailers like Sierra Trading Post or Moosejaw and you’ll nearly always find name brands at closeout prices for $5 to $15 a pair.
Cash. It’s boring to give and even less personal than a gift card, but frame it as “a nice restaurant meal” or “a night in a real hotel room” or just “one more week of travel in India.” $50 to $100 goes a long way in a cheap destination.
How about you? What’s on your wish list this year?
I have personally used most of the items on this year, or very similar ones, and recommend the brands mentioned. This article contains affiliate links, which pay me a small commission if you click on them and buy something. You will never pay more, however, than if you just went directly to the website yourself, as a first-time customer or a regular.