It's time to start thinking about what gifts to get the travelers in your life. Here is a shopping guide of products we've tried in the last year and really liked. The prime consideration: Do they make traveling easier? Listed are the Web sites where we know the items can be bought, but shop around; you might find them cheaper somewhere else. Happy travels.
1. The Pack-Flat Back-Up Bag by Travelon was surprisingly handy. The polyester bag zips shut to less than an inch thick for easy packing in your luggage. This was a godsend on a trip to Europe, where we find it nearly impossible not to shop for clothes and other goodies. So on the trip out, we stowed this away in checked baggage. On the way back, it held a lot of crushable laundry as a second checked bag, while our carry-on held newfound cargo. But this easily could work as a carry-on.
The bag swells to 19-by-13-by-10 inches.
A caveat: It's a soft-sided bag, so don't put breakable items in this for checking. Also, the shoulder strap doesn't detach, so you have to hope it won't be damaged by baggage handlers.
Cost: $29.99 suggested retail, but we found it online at QVC.com for $19.83 plus shipping.
2. The best gadget we tried all year was the BackTrack by Bushnell. It's a simplified GPS/compass device that lets you mark three locations, then points the way back and tells you how far to the destinations. Two AAA batteries provide the power. Yes, a standard GPS device can tell you more with its map, but simplicity is the beauty here. Let's say you parked your car in a massive airport parking lot. Before leaving your car, you push a button to mark your location. When you return from your trip, you simply turn on the device and it will digitally point the way to your car.
As an explorer in a foreign city — think Rome, with its maze of streets — this would be absolute liberation.
Go ahead; get lost. This will point the way back to your hotel. It also would be ideal for wilderness backpackers who want to mark a camp or a canoe portage. At 6 ounces and 31/2 inches in diameter, this easily slips into a pocket or hangs from its lanyard.
A caveat: This supplies distance "as the crow flies," so though you may zigzag four miles on a trail, it might tell you the distance is just three. Also, it won't work in a parking garage.
3. This was another favorite: the original Joby Gorillapod flexible tripod. This rugged plastic tripod has a clip that attaches to a digital camera for easy locking between camera and tripod. But to call this a tripod is almost misleading. It's more like a plastic "creature" whose legs can wrap around railings, chair backs, table legs. It's perfect for leveling your camera on uneven surfaces or attaching in places where a regular tripod wouldn't work. The legs are made of a series of ball-and-socket joints that allow for extreme manipulation. It's almost weightless and folds up for easy packing, yet it's made of rugged plastic. It's surprisingly stable.
Cost: $21.95 at joby.com, with free shipping in the U.S. You may find it cheaper, but once you add shipping, it's about the same price. The Web site lists it cheaper with multiple purchases.
4. If you are buying for a backwoods adventurer, consider the Solstice 2.5 by FatCat Power.
This charger, about the size of a pocket dictionary, opens like a book to reveal two solar panels that will power up personal electronics. Two-way radios, cameras, MP3 players, PDAs and GPS devices will have a backup supply of juice even in the middle of nowhere, provided the sun is shining. In our trial, one full charge on the internal Solstice battery took a Garmin GPS device from dead to completely charged once and to three-fourths charged the second time.
A caveat: This takes longer to charge in winter up north.
Cost: $89.95 at stuffjunction.com, plus shipping
5. The Joey Totes were a real surprise. At first, we figured they were just another kind of "green" shopping bag, but these remarkably strong, lightweight, packable bags are made of rip-stop nylon. To see if that would really make a difference in strength, we put three bowling balls in the large bag. Total weight: 46 pounds. Not a problem. The bags can be used for shopping excursions or for stowing in luggage to schlep newly bought souvenirs. The Big Joey opens to 18 inches by 28 inches by 5 inches; Regular Joey opens to 14 inches by 21 inches by 4 inches.
They crush down to almost nothing. An internal pouch holds the bag for easy transport. We won't take a trip without them, and we commute with one.
Cost: A set of one large and two regulars is $20, or individually $8.50 and $7, plus shipping, from joeytotes.com.
6. And it wouldn't be the holiday season without a gift involving shaving cream. But this one we actually like. The ShaveMate All-in-One Combo Razor is a six-blade razor with a tiny cartridge of shaving cream built into the handle. The Titan 6 (for men) is gray, and the Diva 6 (for women) is pink. This clears room in the luggage.
Cost: $9.99 for a three-pack at several stores. A list is available at shavemate.com.
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