This season, even shoppers who don't travel are bound to notice that an entire subspecies of specialty products and catalogues has sprouted within the gift industry: an array of gadgets, gizmos and machines to service the needs, as well as the whims, of travelers.
"The business of travel-related gifts has really exploded," says Debra Keyes-Denniston, co-owner of Experientia, a Los Angeles-based gift catalogue company that specializes in customized travel trips. "People are either looking for special gifts that somehow relate to travel or travel adventure, or they want items that will help support them while they travel."
The gifts range from the practical to the absurd, from the cheap to the wildly expensive. What they have in common is that each is designed to help minimize the ordeal of getting from point A to point B.
There are electrical adaptors for virtually any country in the world, plus language translators, currency/money converters, dual voltage appliances, compact rain gear, travel alarm clocks and portable water filters and purifiers. There are solar-powered battery chargers, folding travel irons, even electronic travel guides that pinpoint your exact location.
Here are some of the newest ideas for the man or woman who is going places:
For video buffs, Canon has introduced a new camcorder, the H850, which is the first to feature interchangeable graphic and music chips for adding multicolored moving titles, illustrations and background music to your home videos. Each chip is one-quarter the size of a credit card. Once inserted into the camera, you can choose from 56 separate graphics and illustrations, as well as 32 songs, ranging from "O Canada" to "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and "Jamaica Farewell." Graphics include "The End" (complete with hands clapping) and even a fireworks display. List price is $1,899.
A more portable unit is Canon's 8-millimeter video camcorder--the E08--which weighs just 1 1/2 pounds. (Again, options allow the insertion of handwritten titles and illustrations.) The Panasonic Palmcorder is also a great compact traveling camcorder because it can shoot in extremely low light conditions. It's listed at $899.
For those who prefer still cameras, the new Canon 35-millimeter Photura Caption allows you to imprint the date of the picture--or any one of five different captions--on the film. The captions include such expressions as "I love you," "thank you" and "congratulations." The camera lists for $500, but has been advertised for as low as $250.
For those who are terrible highway navigators, there's the Interstate Travelmate. It's made by Whistler, the same company that markets radar detectors, and it's a great idea: Punch in your approximate location anywhere on the U.S. interstate highway system, and the machine will tell you the nearest gas station, hotel and restaurant by name.
Once you get the machine, which sells for $100 in many auto supply and specialty stores, the company will send you annual updates for $20, just in case a few gas stations and restaurants have moved in the preceding 12 months.
The new Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue lists more than 90 new products, many of them travel-related, ranging from an electronic language and phrase translator ($149) to a wraparound pillow for your neck ($49.95). This isn't one of those inflatable pillows sold for airplane travel (also a good buy at many stores); this one is designed to be filled with ice. For very long trips in the air, it works wonders.
For those who park their cars at outside airport parking lots (or who take long trips by car), invest $39.95 in a portable solar-powered battery charger from the Herrington company. You plug it into your cigarette lighter and leave it on your dashboard. Electrical current generated from the solar collectors keeps your battery fully charged.
If you want to know what time it is in Nairobi, even if you aren't in Nairobi, check out the new Seiko world clocks. These clocks are perennially great sellers. Some of them actually talk to you and give the time in more than a dozen world locations. Prices start at $79.95 from the Rand McNally catalogue.
A truly practical travel gift is a set of electrical adaptors from Magellan's, a Santa Barbara-based mail-order catalogue that specializes in nothing but travel items. Prices start at $2.85 for individual adaptors, up to $10.49 for a set of five international plugs.
"Necessity is the mother of invention," says Magellan's owner John McManus, a former Pan Am official who started the company two years ago. "I got tired of going on trips and wondering why I didn't have certain items. We don't sell gimmicks, but practical items that people really need."
Magellan's catalogue features money belts and water purifiers, non-prescription anti-jet lag medicine, even an indoor tent for travelers who don't like mosquitoes or other nasties. It's not cheap ($99.50 for a single bed, $119.50 for a double), but it's effective. The net comes complete with lightweight, flexible support poles, and assembles in less than two minutes to completely cover a bed.
Magellan's also sells a matchbook-size, all-purpose survival tool that combines a knife, nut wrench, screwdriver, saw, chisel, file and signal mirror for $9.85, and an eyeglass repair kit (an absolute travel necessity if you wear glasses) for only $1.85.
In addition to the travel gadgets, there are the customized gifts of fantasy trips.
The Experientia catalogue of fantasy travel and "ubiquities" is divided by states. You can fly in a balloon over Atlanta ($150), soar in a glider in Chicago ($119) or tour skyskrapers by helicopter in New York ($59). Or, if you prefer terra firma, you can spend New Year's at Sequoia National Park ($235), charter a yacht on the Potomac in Washington ($1,250) or go trekking by llama in Arizona ($599).
Experientia serves as a clearinghouse for dozens of independent tour operators, including the ultimate fantasy trip, called "Top Gun." For $9,999, Experientia will get you a ride in the only privately owned supersonic military jet in the United States (hangered at an undisclosed Los Angeles-area airport). After some passenger ground training, you board a T-38 (the trainer model of the F-5 jet).
"It's like flying in a blow torch with wings," says John Alexander, whose "Dreams Come True" company organizes the trip for Experientia.
Other Dreams Come True trips include "The Spin Cycle." For $200 you can take a spin in an acrobatic plane from a variety of airports around the country, including Burbank, Van Nuys and John Wayne in Orange County. Then there's the custom Europe-by-roller-coaster trip, such as the one Alexander arranged for one couple, complete with private jet to move them from one roller coaster location to another. Price tag: $186,000.
One of the biggest-selling travel-related items this year might surprise you. It's called Le Funelle.
"Most women travelers know this problem," says Magellan's McManus. "They don't want to sit on the filthy toilet seats of the world." Hence, a product whose name translates to The Funnel. It enables women to go to the bathroom, from Dubrovnik to Paris to Rio, while standing up. For $4.99, Le Funelle comes complete with 10 biodegradable paper funnels.
"It's not exactly a gift item," adds McManus, "but everyone is buying them."
For more information, contact the following stores and companies:
Magellan's: P.O. Box 5485, Santa Barbara 93150, telephone (805) 969-5235.
Herrington: 3 Symmes Drive, Londonderry, N.H. 03053, (800) 622-5221.
Rand McNally: P.O. Box 1697, Skokie, Ill. 60076, (800) 234-0679.
Experientia: 419 N. Larchmont Blvd., Suite 97, Los Angeles 90004, (213) 962-6282.
Dreams Come True: 1870 N. Vermont Ave., Suite 544, Los Angeles 90027, (213) 661-1300.
Hammacher Schlemmer: 9180 Le Saint Drive, Fairfield, Ohio 45014, (800) 543-3366.