Packing used to be such an easy proposition: A few clothes, a toilet kit and shaver, and enough extra space for souvenirs bought along the way.
Not any more. Now, travelers' suitcases are generally filled with high-tech electronic gadgets especially designed for travel.
To make your trip easier, faster or more bearable, everything from miniature video cameras, world-band radios, special headphones for airline movies, scales and even travel blenders are being hawked.
Are these products worthwhile?
It seems that a lot of people can't wait to find out. They're buying the items. A friend usually travels with the following: portable compact disc player, radio, calculator, digital electronic alarm clock, portable iron, coffee maker, two currency converters (one for electrical appliances, the other for foreign money), portable lap-top computer, and his latest purchase--a micro video player that uses 8-millimeter cassettes of his favorite movies.
By some standards, he's traveling light.
And for those who like to celebrate birthdays, this year marks the 10th anniversary of one of the best travel gadgets ever invented, the Sony Walkman audiocassette player.
But first, a word of caution: In many cases, products advertised as "portable" may, in fact, only be transportable . A few years ago I stupidly bought a "portable" computer. It came with a "convenient" carrying case. But the system weighed 22 pounds.
I took the "portable" computer on one trip, then sold it. Always investigate the size and weight of the product. Most important, ask yourself if you really need it?
In some cases the sheer novelty of the equipment can be reason enough to want it. For example, take the newest camcorder introduced by Sony. This high-performance model is the smallest camcorder ever made, and is lighter than most single-lens reflex cameras.
The unit is 60% smaller and 50% lighter than all previous Sony camcorders. That means it is truly portable. In the past, taking a videotape camera on a trip usually meant adding an extra suitcase.
Only 4 1/4 inches wide, 4 1/4 inches high and 6 7/8 inches deep, the CCD-TR5 Handycam model is a perfect travel companion.
But the price isn't cheap. The model, due in stores in August, will retail for $1,500.
Then there's the ultimate electronic organizer, a hand-held system called the Wizard. It's from Sharp, and the basic unit retails for $279. Here's what you get: a 200-year calendar function, three telephone directories, a memo function, a calculator and local and world clock (you can check the time in 212 cities around the world).
Optional features include a dictionary, a link with your personal computer, a printer and a translator. (Yes, you can ask key questions such as where to find the nearest bathroom in eight languages.)
Another product, slightly less expensive at $49.95, is something called the Airdaptor, made by Lotus and sold through a catalogue called BN Genius (call toll-free (800) 468-4410).
It's a set of headphones and an adapter that plug into the audio jack of airline seats. It allows passengers to listen to the music and watch the movie at no cost.
Airlines, of course, frown on such devices, and some carriers have threatened to charge any passengers using their own headphones. But don't count on it. Flight attendants rarely notice.
If you're going to be doing a lot of driving this summer, consider the portable refrigerator for your car. Sold by Sporty's (a mail-order catalogue company based in Ohio; (800) 543-8633), the system is perfect for hot summer days on the road. The unit plugs into the car's cigarette lighter and keeps up to 43 12-ounce cans cold. It doesn't even need ice. The price: $139.95.
Black and Decker, the power-tool manufacturer, now makes travel irons. They're small, lightweight and feature see-through handles that hold water for steam ironing, then fold down for easy packing. The cheapest model retails for $27.48.
The best news is that one model, designed for international travel, comes equipped with dual voltage capability as well as a power adapter. It goes for $31.98.
The Sharper Image catalogue--(800) 344-4444--offers bicycle enthusiasts some portable transportation. It's a lightweight aluminum, folding bicycle from Britain called the Strida. It not only folds easily for packing, but there's no external grease or oil in mechanical areas to soil clothing or other valuables.
You'll still need a big suitcase; the bike measures 44x22 1/2x19 1/4 inches when folded. Price: $299, plus shipping.
But beware. My experience has been that many products shown in mail-order catalogues can be bought for less in discount electronic stores. Sometimes savings can be significant.
Be sure to shop around before making the "convenient" call and giving your credit-card number. Some mail-order catalogues will meet other, lower-price quotes. Ask.
For the truly weight-conscious, there's the Sunbeam travel scale. It's accurate and will fit in a briefcase. As you might suspect, it's lightweight--less than three pounds. It gives an LED readout and measures in half-pound increments with an accuracy within 1% of your weight ($59.95 from Hammacher Schlemmer; (800) 543-3366).
Finally, there's something called the "barking dog alarm." This four-inch-high security system recreates the sound of a barking dog to frighten away intruders.
When plugged in, its pyroelectric sensor detects the presence of anyone up to 60 feet away in a 110-degree horizontal arc. When activated by movement, it barks. It's the perfect addition to any hotel room. Simply point the unit at the door and rest easy.
Of course, you run the risk of scaring any hotel maid who approaches your room. The unit ($79.50, also from Hammacher Schlemmer) comes complete with two self-stick aluminum "Beware of Dog" door signs. But don't use the stickers unless you really want to meet the hotel general manager.