One Must Have Item – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later. Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike. In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’ve launched Travel Question Wednesdays. I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week. You are all encouraged to submit, and all past questions will be archived and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything , just keep it somewhat travel related.

This week’s travel question is from Pernille N. she asks,

Q. “When you are short-term travelling, is there one item you will never go without?”

A. – There are a few items that always find their way into my bag. Power adapters, a small luggage combination lock for hostel lockers, my cameras and a pair of jeans are all items that I won’t leave home without. However, the one that best answers your question is likely a microfiber towel. While many hostels (and most hotels) offer a towel as part of your room, or for a small additional fee, I find having a microfiber towel on hand as a backup is always a welcome travel tool. For the last few years I’ve used a small MSR Packtowl. As a funny side story, I actually accidently ordered a hand towel (about 9×20 inches) in place of a regular small travel towel. It arrived right before a trip, and I didn’t have time to swap it out. I decided to go with it anyhow, and I’m glad I did. Despite it’s size (it’s too small to wrap around me), it takes up virtually zero space, dries quickly, and is so absorbent that it is sufficient to dry me off completely.

I find that I use the towel about 70% of the time during hostel stays. It’s flexible, incredibly durable and can double as a small table cloth in a pinch. The more I use it, the softer it gets while retaining its super absorbent nature. They really are fantastic travel accessories, and as an added bonus you don’t have to worry about a large, bulky traditional towel which is prone to mold, takes forever to dry and can be extremely heavy. My mini-towel weighs less than a dollar in quarters, and rolls up into a ball about the size of a roll of pennies. Microfiber towels are made by a variety of vendors and are relatively cheap. I highly recommend them for people who want a useful backup or who are considering a bit of camping or hosteling.

Pernille, thanks for a great question! To my readers – have a question of your own? ASK IT! Want to see previous questions? click here.

Backpacking Packing Tips & Basic Hostel Information

Today was a special day. It was the first day in over 2 1/2 months that I used a number of the heaviest items in my pack. Initially I was going to wait to make this post until I got home, but – there’s no time like the present. It’s no secret that people always over pack. Even the best travelers do it, it’s just human nature. That said, I also feel like I need to preface this post with a disclaimer. Those of you who know me well know that I can be a bit of a clean freak. At home it’s not unusual for me to take two showers a day and to only wear clothing once before I wash it.

When I left, the combined weight of my two bags was around 30 pounds. Not bad for 3 months right? Well, the truth is I over packed. Majorly. There may be a few things I’ve forgotten about but off the top of my head I packed the following:

  • 1 frying pan with portable handle.
  • 1 Lightweight cooking pan, with salt, small tin can top and gas burner head inside.
  • 1 fork, 2 spoons, 1 cup.
  • 2 Pairs of jeans. Both in the modern style with slight damage/darker coloration.
  • 1 Casual button-up dress shirt.
  • 2 $13 Polo shirts. One black, one Maroon.
  • 1 Pair black dress slacks with wrinkle resistant fibers.
  • 1 Pair special thick hiking socks, 3 pair normal black socks.
  • 2 Pairs of ExOfficio boxer briefs. These are lightweight, hygienic artificial material and dry in under 2 hours.
  • 1 Northface windscreen fleece vest.
  • 1 Marmot waterproof jacket w/ hood.
  • 1 Black wool sweater.
  • 1 Longsleeve silk underwear top.
  • 1 Canon G6 Digital Camera with 1 2gb memory stick and 1 512mb memory stick.
  • 2 Pairs of shoes. 1 pair of worn Sketchers leather shoes for nightclubs, 1 pair of Keen walking shoes for everything else.
  • 2 Books to start me out. One fantasy, one business reading.
  • 1 Dopkit with toothbrush/toothpaste, razors, nail clippers & two small vitamin containers filled with a mixture of centrum multivitamin, crushed ginger root capsules, equinacia capsules and a bunch of super B/C vitamins (200-2,000% the normal recommended value depending on which vitamin).
  • 1 Country Gentleman old style hat. A great alternative to a baseball cap for going abroad and something that packs easily w/ a tiny bill on it.
  • 1 Pair of cheap plastic flipflops for the shower.
  • 1 MSR microfiber travel towel ($11 online).
  • 1 Inflatable neck pillow and eye mask.
  • 1 Portable extending umbrella.
  • 1 Plastic airtight soap container w/ bar of soap.
  • 1 Pair of sports/gym shorts.
  • 1 Under-your-shirt money/passport carrier.
  • 1 Pair of board shorts (swimsuit).
  • 1 Large duffel like bag (for air travel to protect the backpack & it\’s straps)

There may have been one or two other items, but to be honest I can’t remember them right now. I shouldn’t have packed them either. My gear was divided into my main Osprey pack and a smaller school-esque day pack. When backpacking I simply strap the small pack over the large pack and carry it on my chest. Not the sexiest looking combo ever, but super effective. During my time on the road I’ve picked up the following items:

  • 1 Pair of black gloves.
  • 1 U.S. Airways plane blanket (I was flying Delta, the blanket they gave me had a US Airways tag & their service sucked and though I don\’t condone lifting it, the small, blue 100% polyester blanket has been my scarf for the last 2.5 months).
  • 2 Pair of cheap socks.
  • 2 Oktoberfest souvenir shirts.
  • 1 Bag of replacement razors.
  • 1 Tube of toothpaste.
  • 1 Combination lock.

Of all of the original things I packed, the following were unnecessary (with explanations as to why):

  • 1 frying pan with portable handle.
  • 1 Lightweight cooking pan, with salt, small tin can top and gas burner head inside.
  • 1 fork, 2 spoons, 1 cup.

I spent the bulk of my time hosteling. In most hostels you are either provided with the kitchen (less common) or placed in a room with 8 other people in which case there is no private space where you can secretly spirit off to cook your dinner. It’s possible in some locations you could cook outside, but it would still be iffy at best. If you are doing hotels however, these are a viable option.

  • 1 Casual button-up dress shirt.

I would have worn this more often if the shirt had been better. The shirt I packed wasn’t the best choice and I managed to get blood on it the one time I wore it. I stuck mostly to casual clubs, bar crawls and pubs. If your intent is to be a bit more flashy and or hit up higher ends nightclubs you might need a dress shirt. As it turns out, despite non-stop partying all trip I only wore mine once.

  • 1 Pair black dress slacks with wrinkle resistant fibers.

I packed these thinking i’d wear them while traveling and or might need them for the opera, ballet, major shows or big events. As it turned out I wore them once – in Venice for Halloween. I attended major musical performances and Opera in London, Prague and Vienna without any problem. I may not have looked incredible, but the jean-polo combo worked.

  • 1 Black wool sweater.

Between my vest, custom scarf and jacket I was almost never cold. While not a major American fashion item having a scarf makes a huge difference. Keep in mind however, that I also followed fall down. As I’m writing this, sitting in a computer cafe in Crete, Greece on the 29th of November I’m wearing the same basic outfit I wore in the Isle of Skye, Scotland September 15th.

  • 1 Long sleeve silk underwear top.

I’ve had one or two nights where I could have put it on, as well as a day or two where I almost wore it but I’ve yet to use it. I also typically sleep shirtless and pant less and wearing only my boxers. In short – most places I’ve been are not freezing.

  • 2 Pairs of shoes. 1 pair of worn Sketchers leather shoes for nightclubs, 1 pair of Keen walking shoes for everything else.

While not necessarily unneeded, I’ve only worn the pair of Sketchers 4 or 5 times. Of those 3 were for night clubs where the ugly Keens wouldn’t fly, the other two were simply because I felt like airing out the Keens. A pair of waterproof hiking/walking shoes are a MUST. If i had to do it again, I’d probably leave the Sketchers at home just to dodge the weight. That said, I was only turned away from one club during the trip because of dress code and typically have an easier time than some people gaining access to nightclubs (possibly because of my height?)

  • 1 Under-your-shirt money/passport carrier.

I’ve worn the vest almost every day that I’ve been over here because of the weather. The vest has a Napoleanesque zipper pocket on the chest in which I store my mini calculator and passport. The only time I’ve actually used the carrier was in the airport.

  • 1 Pair of board shorts (swimsuit).

Never wore them. If you end up at a Jacuzzi wear your boxers. If you end up in that rare hostel with group showers skip the shower or tuck your stuff & shower naked. Also, I was traveling during the Sept-Dec period in Europe, not exactly swimming weather.

You may have noticed I only started with 2 shirts, no shorts and 2 pairs of boxers. In regards to the shirts – I made it to Oktoberfest before picking up two Souvenir t-shirts which I have used to supplement my two polos, giving me a grand total of 4 t-shirts. I run the smell test on the shirts and make sure to wash them whenever I’ll be at a place long enough for them to dry. The two pairs of boxers are easy in that the artificial nature of the material makes them easy to wash and their fast drying qualities means I can wash them the night before and be in a clean pair the next morning. They also don’t hold scents or dirt so they do not need to be washed as often as normal boxer-briefs. For the 3 month period I’ve been traveling, shorts don’t make sense. Jeans are not much hotter in the sun (I’ll wear jeans in 115 Degree heat in the Valley and honestly believe they are not much hotter than shorts as they keep your legs shaded) and it’s simpler not to pack extra crap.

As far as pants – they are the hardest item to wash. This is the slightly nasty part. I’ve washed my jeans a whopping 2 times and worn 1 of the two pair a good 80% of the time. Jeans are a difficult thing to wash, because they take so long to dry. The good news is, a darker colored pair of “vintage” looking jeans is designed to look dirty. So, unless they smell, you have an unfortunate spill or you decide to go sit in a mud puddle you don’t need to wash them nearly as often as other clothing (just for the love of God, change your boxers often). The pair of Levi jeans I purchased before leaving now have a hole worn through them after nearly 2 months of constant wear. I made it 1 month the first time before washing them and switching to the second pair (I found I didn’t like to travel in the second pair as they had a looser fit which gave me less contact with my wallet in my front pocket — they were a bit too large) and despite what you might think, to look (or smell) me most people would have thought that the pants had only been worn 2 or 4 times max.

Worried about clothing diversity or people seeing you wearing the same thing over and over? Don’t be. 1) You’re traveling. 2) They’re traveling. 3) No one really cares, and if they do you probably have stayed in the same place too long or they don’t belong in a hostel.

General Hostel Notes:

  • All of the hostels I stayed at in Eastern and Western Europe provided sheets – on the rare occasion it was a few Euros extra.
  • I never camped. There was no need and it would have dirtied my stuff.
  • I had my own towel – the micro towel is incredible – but most also offer towels for rent/free.
  • I never had any need for a sleeping bag. Additionally, many of the better hostels forbid their use as it’s one of the main ways that bedbugs are spread.
  • If you are a light sleeper, get earplugs. Hostels are like college dorms.
  • In cases where the hostel provided a kitchen area, they also had an assortment of banged up pots and pans and usually offered some form of refrigeration/storage compartments.

Questions, curious about something? Ask it in a comment and I’ll let you know!