Remember MacGyver, the outdoorsy do-gooder from late 1980s TV who got out of jams by making contraptions out of wire hangers, refrigerator coils, or whatever else was handy?
Whether you don’t know, or are pretending not to know what I’m talking about, take a moment to admit that if you were a bit more resourceful while you were traveling you might have a better trip as well as some better stories to tell about how clever you were on vacation. What follows are the favorite little things — almost all inexpensive — that veteran travelers always pack.
Tools of the trade
MacGyver’s one indispensable gadget was a Swiss Army Knife, and that belongs in your checked bag, of course. But you can truly channel your inner innovator by bringing along the following.
The most versatile road tool? Dental floss. It’s good “as a makeshift ‘knife’ to slice through cake, soft breads, or cheese,” according to tour leader and Trip Chicks co-owner Ann Lombardi. She and Traveling Mamas blogger Beth Blair also like floss for temporary repairs.
“It can be used for quickly threading a popped button or even as a shoelace in an emergency,” Blair says, or perhaps the most MacGyveresque use of all. “Leaky bathroom sink keeping you up at night? Tie a piece of floss around the faucet and the water will run down the string instead of making the annoying dripping sound.”
Do you have expectations of a far flung James Bond style romantic interlude, or at least a decent-smelling hotel room at your destination? Consider longtime flight attendant Toni Vitanza’s tip of bringing "tiny, inexpensive, scented travel candles. I bring two — one for the bedroom and one for the bath. If I can't afford a fruit basket or fresh flowers in my room, I will have the candle,” she says.
Also, if you want to stow matches in your carry-on, adhere to the TSA guideline permitting “one book of safety (non-strike anywhere) matches.” Remember that, unlike knives, no matches are permitted in checked bags, and heed the TSA’s advice that it’s probably best to leave your lighter at home.
If you need to keep track of your body clock at all times for taking meds or if you just want to stay in sync with a special op in your home time zone – like making sure your kids wake up for school - bring an extra wristwatch set to the time at home, travel writer Lisa Davis, suggests.
Pack for productivity
Tired of rearranging the furniture in your hotel room, only to find all the outlets taken? Bring a “plug that turns an outlet for two appliances into an outlet for four to accommodate phone chargers and the like,” Vitanza suggests. She also suggests bringing a few postcard stamps if you are traveling domestically, since “kids still appreciate getting mail from far away and sending postcards to yourself is a great way to record your trip.”
Downtime is ideal for pulling together handwritten thank-you notes, should you still believe in the practice. A long flight can give you time “to catch up on your thank-yous,” Davis suggests, with one of those cards going “to the general manager of the hotel you [stayed at], telling how much you enjoyed your visit.” You might be surprised at what courtesies are extended to you if you stay at that hotel again, she says.
Prepare for the plane
Be readier for takeoff by throwing a couple sugar-free lollipops into your carry-on, advises Lombardi, whose jaunts through 67-plus countries have put her in contact with many unprepared parents. The lollipops are effective “for calming any toddlers who might be crying due to air pressure changes or just plain plane anxiety,” she says. Another elixir Lombardi has shared with fellow passengers is crystallized ginger; dissolving a small piece in your mouth may offset queasiness or an upset stomach.
A few lavender drops on a sleep mask may help you to relax and has the added benefit of masking stale airplane odors, notes Davis, who along with the other travelers interviewed advocated a soft pair of slippers “to help create a buffer from the vibrations of the jet engines.”
Speaking of airplane sleep, it might be more within your reach if you bring earplugs along with that mask, suggests Vitanza. The items fit into an empty 35mm film canister, which you can probably snag for nothing from your local photo lab. Vitanza wraps “the mask around the canister and secures it with the headband of the mask.” She also puts a couple pain relievers in the container to complete her “sleep kit.”
If you’re lucky enough to snag a pillow provided by the airline, Davis recommends packing your own pillowcase “for sanitary and comfort reasons.” Or, invest in a blow-up neck pillow,” says Blair. Some versions even come with their own blanket that fits in a pouch on the pillow, which is handy when travelling on airlines that don't carry enough of them.
Rounding out the in-flight must-haves are earphones, Blair suggests. Since you no doubt have several semi-disposable sets at home from previous flights, bring a few, especially if you find yourself wanting to endear yourself to a seatmate.
Refresh and reuse
Antibacterial towelettes are handy for wiping sticky seat-back trays as well as cleaning up when restroom lines are long, Lombardi says.
Another favorite of hers: dental finger mitts, which along with one-time use toothbrushes no larger than a toothpick are quick substitutes for cumbersome tooth brushing. Speaking of toothpicks, an empty Tic Tac container is a nifty holder for them, Vitanza says.
Those old-school film canisters are also acceptable vessels for the liquids in your 3-1-1 carry-on toiletry bag, just “don't fill them full, as they will burst open at altitude,” Vitanza cautions. Lombardi also finds the canisters convenient for storing any rings, necklaces, or earrings she brings on trips.
After you freshen your breath on arrival, before you trash the Altoids tin think about what a sturdy conveyance it would make for your Q-tips, Band Aids, and other first-aid kit items. And ladies who want economy of size and price for their travel make-up regimen might want to follow Vitanza’s strategy of saving “the tail ends of makeup and the last inch of makeup pencils and…the little samples available at makeup counters.” All of that, she says, will fit in the tin.