In 10 years of road-testing travel gear and gadgets, I've found some so useful that I have bought them for myself. Following are favorite items that I seldom leave home without. Some products may be available in area stores. Unless noted, price does not include shipping.
1 When packing space is tight, I often consider leaving behind my hair blow-dryer. Now I always carry it, thanks to a tiny dual-voltage portable model from Franzus. The dryer, which has two speeds and an air concentrator attachment, folds up to a minuscule 4 1/2 inches long and comes in a travel pouch.
Dual-Voltage Mini Cyclone Hair Dryer (item No. E012) is $19.95 from Christine Columbus Mail Order; telephone (800) 280-4775.
2 Evenflo, which makes furniture for children, has come up with a clever backpack carrier and stroller all in one. The Hike 'n' Roll looks like a regular lightweight stroller, but with the flip of a few levers, the wheels and handle collapse, and padded back straps at the front of the unit raise junior to haulable heights. The unit weighs 7 pounds, can hold children up to 30 pounds, and folds flat to fit in car trunks and overhead compartments of most airlines.
Hike & Roll is about $60 at department stores. For a nearby store call Evenflo; tel. (800) 233-5921.
3 While any old bowl will do as a water or food dish for Fido, the collapsible Oasis pet bowl from Ruff Wear will please hikers and others not inclined to tote around a space-hogging plastic bowl. Made of polyester duck lined with waterproof nylon, the bowl is rigid enough when filled to bear up under constant slurping, yet folds flat to fit into a pocket or knapsack. At 5 inches high, the bowl is designed to accommodate all but the tiniest dogs.
Ruff Wear Oasis Pet Bowl (No. E00055) is $14.95 from Boundary Waters Catalogue; tel. (800) 223-6565.
4 Wanted: a point-and-shoot camera that zooms in on a scene and doesn't mind getting wet. Found: The Pentax IQ Zoom 90WR. Though not waterproof--and thus not useful as an underwater camera--the thick plastic shell is reinforced with rubber seals, making it thoroughly reliable for the wettest weather and water sports. Small and simple to operate, the camera has a push-button zoom lens that goes from a slightly wide-angle 38mm to a 90mm telephoto and a macro mode.
Pentax IQ Zoom 90WR, has a suggested retail price of $300, but is available for less at discount camera stores.
5 My favorite carry-on bag keeps getting better. Lands' End, which manufactures upscale sportswear and rugged luggage, has improved its sturdy canvas cargo bag by adding an expanded front outside pocket with five interior pockets (including a full-length zippered mesh pocket) and a key clip. That's in addition to the bag's huge main compartment, two roomy zippered side pockets and zippered outside back pocket. The bag comes with double canvas handles with leather padding, a detachable shoulder strap and a leather luggage tag.
The bag comes in medium (19 inches by 11 inches by 11 inches deep) or large (22 inches by 12 inches by 12 inches deep). Despite repeated testing, I still find it surprising that this bag offers so much space, yet still fits under most airplane seats and in overhead storage bins.
Organized Flight Bag in a variety of colors is $119 in medium (No. 4054-8237) and $129 in large (No. 4054-9232) from Lands' End; (800) 356-4444.
6 No slouch when it comes to innovation, Victorinox, maker of the Original Swiss Army Knife, packs a wallop of aid into its swank Traveler's Kit. Inside a black leather pouch with a Velcro closure and belt hoop are a knife with 18 implements, a mini Solitaire Maglite flashlight, and a compass/ruler with a magnifying glass and indoor/outdoor thermometer. Each of the three components slides into its own compartment in the pouch. The 3 1/2-inch knife with signature red handle includes: a large blade, small blade, corkscrew, can opener with small screw-driver, cap opener with screwdriver and wire stripper, reamer/punch, scissors, multipurpose hook, wood saw, miniature screwdriver, straight pin, key ring, tweezers, toothpick and tiny ballpoint pen.
Victorinox Swiss Army Knife Traveler's Kit is $95 at sporting goods stores. To find a store near you call Swiss Army Brands customer service; tel. (800) 442-2706.
7 Eagle Creek, the king of ingenious travel bags, large and small, keeps adding innovative new pouches and luggage to its long line of sturdy, lightweight, reasonably priced products. My hands-down favorite is one of the smallest of the crop, the versatile Departure Pouch, which packs a slew of useful features into its 6 1/2-inch by 7 1/2-inch size (6 1/2 inches by 13 inches when open). Like an enlarged lightweight wallet on a thick string, the Cordura nylon pouch has an adjustable and detachable cord for wearing around the neck, over the shoulder or cinched around the waist. What's really great about the departure pouch, though, is its multitude of inside pockets: a long zippered compartment for tickets or bills, a smaller zippered gusseted pocket for passports and other valuables, a see-through mess pocket for credit cards and change, two slash pockets and a pen slot.
Eagle Creek Departure Pouch in black, purple, blue, green, or oak is about $15 at luggage and travel accessory shops. To locate a store, call the company; tel. (800) 874-9925.
8 A photo vest can be an ideal way to carry extra lenses, film and other camera gear, but it also works great for nonprofessionals who want quick access to maps, guidebooks, sunglasses, and other small items without having to carry around a bag. The best vests are a kind of camera bag you can wear--loaded with pockets, pouches, and loops for storing and attaching a plethora of accessories. The model produced by Willis and Geiger, a distributor of high-end outdoor wear, provides one more element--removable sleeves. The company's Skeleton Coast photo jacket/vest is a welcome solution for the photographer who wants an all-in-one garment for varying temperatures. Use it as a light jacket with pockets galore--19 in all--or zip off the sleeves (they store in a rear pocket) and you have a photo vest to wear over a T-shirt or warmer jacket. Made of cotton, the garment has mesh netting under the arms for ventilation.
Skeleton Coast Photo Jacket/Vest (No. 4116-85F) is $219 in tan or pewter from Willis and Geiger; tel. (800) 223-1408.
9 For jotting down thoughts in any dark place, the Glowpoint lighted pen provides a bright, yet discrete, beam of light. It even works as a tiny flashlight to light the way to hotel room bathrooms late at night. Twisting the barrel extends the writing point and activates a tiny LED lamp that encircles the tip. A soft pinpoint of light will shine on your writing surface without bothering your traveling companions. The pen light is powered by two button batteries (included); an optional refill kit includes an extra battery and ink refill. The Glowpoint comes in a black velvet pouch, making it a handsome gift.
Glowpoint pen in black (No. BA718) is $16.85; refill kit (No. BA718R) is $3.85, from Magellan's; tel. (800) 962-4943.
10 Several years ago I discovered a solution to a problem I encounter during foreign travel--rotary dial phones that lack the touch tones necessary to access answering machines and other automated systems requiring keyed in codes. I found the Pocket Tone Dialer, a small battery-powered, push-button telephone key pad with a microphone back that is held against the telephone's handset speaker. When the numbers (or star, or pound sign) are pressed, the tone emitted matched the pitch of the corresponding number on a touch-tone phone, and voila, access. Now, the tone dialer has been vastly improved. The new, smaller version (2 1/2 inches by 2 inches and weighing just 2 ounces) can be programmed to emit the tones of up 16 digits for each of 13 frequently used numbers with the push of a button.
Programmable Tone Dialer (No. ET311P) is $19.85; from Magellan's; tel. (800) 962-4943.