Random Travel Hacks

9 min read

I’m here in London at NDC on a lovely Saturday morning and I have the day to myself. I just made myself some coffee and I was recalling a conversation I had last night with some friends that are here about traveling internationally, what to pack, and the little tricks we use.

I traveled for a year with my family (my wife, myself, and my two daughters aged 10 and 13) and we focused on being as minimal as possible. I learned some very interesting ways to be self-sufficient, which I’ll share below in no particular order.

Dealing With Jet Lag

I’m lucky enough to speak (from time to time) at international conferences, and without fail the first topic that comes up with fellow travelers is sleep, or the lack of it. Everyone has their way of dealing with – in fact I know a few people who don’t get jet lag at all! – but I haven’t found anything that works as well as the biohack I used last year: melatonin.

Melatonin, my savior

Melatonin is an over-the-counter, natural thing that you can find in most health stores or online. It’s all natural and your body produces it in order to regulate your sleep cycle.

When I came back from NDC London last year, I lived in Seattle and we hit a stretch of rain that lasted for a good 3 weeks. It’s really dark this time of year in Seattle so my body simply would not adjust to the time change – there was no sun. I tried everything, and finally my wife bought me some melatonin (which she had been suggesting I try forever):

Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles. This hormone is primarily produced by the pineal gland. As a medication, it is used for the short-term treatment of trouble sleeping such as from jet lag or shift work.

From Wikipedia

I wish I would have listened to her sooner, this stuff is miraculous. I took it and that night slept like the big fat baby I am.

I bought the spray kind that you see above at Whole Foods 3 days before I left, wondering if it would work with the 10 hour time difference I was about to face. We have since moved back to Honolulu and I’d grown used to sunlight and the longer days – I was kind of dreading the jet lag.

I took some on the plane and slept for a solid 6 hours, which I never do on planes! I have been taking it every night since and (I still can’t believe this) didn’t feel any jet lag. Zero. None. CRAZY!

I’m sure this stuff effects people differently, but for me it was a wonder drug.

Fewer Clothes, More Laundry

I haven’t checked luggage in years, reducing everything I need to smaller carryon-sized bags. Recently I managed to travel for 2 weeks with nothing but a simple backpack, which for some people is exceedingly easy, but for me it’s kind of hard. My problem is a simple one: I really like shoes.

I’ll talk about shoes later, but I thought I would share with you how I cut my luggage size in half and used only a small backpack.

First thing: get a good bag. Spend some money on this and don’t be cheap about it.

The Tom Bihn Synapse 25

This is a Tom Bihn bag and I’m a freak for these things. I hate to admit it, but I have five bags made by this company. Two are laptop bags, one backpack (this one above) and one carry on size (the Aeronaut) and the middle of the road sized Tri-Star. A good bag makes all the difference when you’re traveling for a longer time.

To make this work, you need to convince yourself that you need half as much as you think you do. This is the hardest part and I wish I had a trick for you but I don’t. I deal with this every time I go anywhere.

What has worked for me is the following:

  • 4 pairs of underwear
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 3 shirts
  • 2 undershirts (Under Armour or the like)
  • 2 – 3 pants (no jeans!)
  • 1 pair of shoes
  • Trial-sized or no toiletries
  • 1 small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap
  • Laptop, charger, optional small iPad
  • Drying line and camping water heater

All of this will fit easily in the Synapse, the trick is making it fit into your mind! I can’t really help with that part other than to say it’s really nice to pack things up in 10 minutes and not carry around a giant bag!

The key here is the undershirts. I like Under Armour because they’re not cotton (have I said this already), feel great, and I wash them instead of my shirts. I’m being purposely vague about what these shirts are because you pack what you need for your occasion. Dress shirts for work stuff, more casual if you need.

To make this all work properly, we need to break down this list a bit. Let’s start with the underwear.

Let’s Talk About Undies

This tip works for whatever body you inhabit: good underwear and socks will make the trip exponentially better. I have a simple rule for traveling and do my best to stick to it: cotton is your enemy. I’m not suggesting you run out to your local mountain performance store and stock up on technical gear! I simply mean there are some alternatives you can think about.

I’m a huge fan of Lululemon underwear. The men’s briefs and women’s undies are amazingly comfortable and super easy to clean. I bring two kinds with me: regular briefs and performance briefs (for running or playing basketball). The performance ones are wicking and are perfect for long flights. They’re also great for walking miles and miles, which I love to do in cities like London.

The best part is that they dry fast. This is why you don’t want cotton! You can, literally, wash these things in the sink, roll them in a towel and sit on them for 5 minutes (rolled up) and they’ll be dry enough to put on a walk out the door. No kidding! More on laundry later.

The same thing goes for socks: avoid cotton, get some performance ones. Your feet will seriously thank you.

Finally: pants. You can find stretchy cotton pants everywhere these days and they’re great because they wrinkle less than full cotton. Blue jeans are the worst choice because they take forever to dry (which is horrible if you go to a rain climate), don’t insulate well at all, don’t wick worth a damn and tend to “dress you down” unless they’re the expensive kind. They also take up a ton of space and weigh a lot.

For this trip I brought two pairs of Vans chinos and they’ve been perfect:

Believe it or not this isn’t me.

Tip: Recycling Your Clothes is OK

When we went to Europe for the year I knew we would be facing all kinds of variation in temperature and weather so I came prepared to recycle my clothes. There are a lot of second-hand stores across the world and they’re easy to find – just Google for “Good will store near me” (or Oxfam, Salvation Army, etc).

I often find myself caught out with clothes that are either too cold or too warm. There are bargain stores everywhere or, if you like shopping like I do, just get the thing you need and recycle something you brought with you.

I try not to emotionally attach myself to my clothes. On our big trip I recycled 90% of what I brought with me.

Hotel Laundry

Most people I know have done hotel laundry: dumping some bath gel or shampoo into the hotel sink (or bath tub) and doing it all by hand. This works fine, but there’s a better way! The laundry bag itself:

Me, doing laundry in a bag

Most hotels provide a laundry service and give you bags to put your clothes in that you want cleaned. This service is pretty expensive and you can easily spend $50 on a single load.

Some hotels offer coin-operated laundry as well, but that’s a pain and it also doesn’t apply to us because we’re not bringing enough clothes to justify that much energy/water consumption.

A super-simple easy way to do laundry is to fill the laundry bag to half-full, add a few squirts of your Dr. Bronner’s soap and shake. This will foam everything up and then you dump your clothes in.

You can spin everything by hand or just roll the bag around the tub – but keep it in the tub! These bags can easily pop open!

Here’s another tip: turn the bag upside down while holding it semi-closed. Water will come out and create a siphon within the bag, squeezing out a lot of the water so you don’t have to.

Refill the bag 2 more times for the rinse and you’re done.

Simple Drying With Hangers and a Line

Once you’re done with your laundry you’ll be very happy that you don’t have cotton. Drying synthetic fabrics is so much faster and simpler.

For this I’ll use the hangers in the closet, which usually have those clips on them, to dry things. If I have more clothes with me (and therefore more laundry) I’ll bring a drying line, which you can find at any camping store. That’s a bit more stuff, however, and recently I’ve let the thing stay at home.

Quick Dry With a Towel

As I mention above, if you need some undies quickly you can lay a towel on the floor, put your undies on one side, fold the towel over them and then roll it all up as tightly as you can. Sit on the rolled towel for 5 minutes and you’ll be amazed at how dry everything is.

Super Quick Dry With an Iron or Blow Dryer

Be very very careful with this one – if you bought those nice undies you can easily melt them! Make sure you set the iron appropriately.

When I was in college I had a job as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant which made us wear these ridiculous tuxedo shirts. They had to be cleaned and pressed every day, and it was a huge pain. Until I learned how to “shower wash” them.

I was always late, but I had enough time to take a quick shower and bring the shirt in with me. It turns out that shampoo is a pretty good laundry detergent so I would wash the thing quickly, wrap it in a towel to dry it, and then put it under an iron.

Within 5 minutes the thing was almost perfectly dry. You can do the same with a blow dryer as well, which works great for socks.

Coffee!

I like good coffee but when I’m traveling I have to let that idea go. Hotels (especially internationally) will usually offer you instant and if you want anything better you have to go downstairs and wait at breakfast. Even then, it tends to be crap.

This triple sucks when you’re jet lagged, awake with a caffeine headache at 3am and just want something right now. For this I turn to Starbucks VIA Instant – my life saver.

There are Starbucks in most airports around the world, including my home airport in Honolulu. Before I go I’ll buy 2-3 (depending on how long I’m gone) boxes of the stuff and put the little packets in the side pocket of my bag:

Coffee in the morning in my room

Most hotels will give you a carafe of some kind for tea or instant coffee if you’re in Europe, but in the US this often isn’t the case so I bring this thingy with me on every trip:

These can be hard to find, but I found mine at REI here in the US. Most camping stores have them and you can Google “submersible water heater” to find one near you.

My wife laughed at me when I brought this thing on our big trip, telling me I was being a “techy camper” with goofy gadgets. When she was craving coffee at 4am in our hotel in Iceland that didn’t have a water carafe she gave me a massive hug! That one moment (which has repeated 4 times in my life) will make this gadget a necessity for you.

Most hotels will put coffee mugs in your room, but I don’t like trusting that so I bring my “special cup” with me, which I suppose is a bit of a convenience but this is also where my socks/underwear are packed inside my bag:

A Yeti in London

I have yet to find a cup as versatile and useful as this here Yeti. I can put two packets of coffee in here and it stays delightfully hot on these cold London mornings. Later I can put a nice cold beer or some water that I’ve lifted from the breakfast buffet.

Shoes

This is my weakness. I love a good pair of shoes and I tend to lose focus when packing. I convince myself that I’ll need a dress pair (for speaking or just going out) and a pair for walking/exercising. This is almost never the case, but I still give in anyway (as I did on this very trip).

I gave in because I knew it was going to be cold and rainy and that I’d probably soak my shoes more than once. I was right, but I could have done this better!

If you get some comfortable, non-cotton performance socks then a simple pair of trainers or running shoes will dry incredibly fast if your feet get wet. I was thinking about this last night because I went out and bought myself some trainers! I left mine at home fearing the cold and rain – turns out walking 5 miles in a pair of Vans slip ons really really hurts.

Some stylish women’s trainers from Allbirds

You just have to look around a bit and you should find some super comfortable performance trainers that you can use for a run or a nice dinner out.

I found some New Balance on sale for $40 – an amazing deal – and have been wearing them ever since. I soaked them last night as I was walking around but I had my non-cotton (wicking) socks on so my feet were fine. I got home, put the blow dryer on my shoes for 5 minutes and they were passably dry.

Fewer/Smaller Toiletries

Most grocery stores have a “trial section” where you can shrunken versions of most toiletries. Every time I travel I grab:

  • A new toothbrush (which I leave behind)
  • Toothpaste and deodorant
  • A single razor
  • Small thing of Advil (just in case)
  • Visine (lubricating)

I also bring along nail clippers because it really sucks to find out, after a 5 mile walk, that your toe nails are a bit long (sorry I know that’s gross but hey, we’re adults here).

I leave most of this stuff behind, but if I have room and haven’t used most of an item I’ll bring it back with me.

Have Some Tips for Me?

I’m not a super travel guru, but I have done my fair share and hacked together some fun little tricks. If you think I forgot something or have a question/comment/suggestion, feel free to leave in the comments below.

Cheers!

8 Replies to “Random Travel Hacks”

  1. What do you use for bag organisation? Just the various pockets in the bag/backpack itself? Or do you stuff your toiletries in a clear bag for airport security, clothes and gadgets in separate bags inside the main bag? I only travel a few times a year, always with just a backpack, and I find I switch between various “organisation” ideas. About the only one I stick to is “things I will need on a layover go as close to the top of the backpack as possible” – power adapters and charging cables.

  2. Awesome advice! Would you care to link to an example of the undershirts you use? (The ones I can find don’t seem suitable under work shirts)

  3. Packing cubes are a game changer for one bag travel. The Wirecutter reviews them, but I’ve been happy with my eBags ones.

  4. I use a bunch of these packing cubes and LOVE THEM:
    https://www.amazon.com/Eagle-Creek-Specter-Compression-Strobe/dp/B00OY893YI

    I bought 10 before our big trip and labeled each one (socks, pants, shirts, etc). The trick with these is they’re super light and durable – but it’s the compression that’s the best part. As opposed to other packing cubes, these guys will compress to almost half their size. You can then strap them in for even more compression.

    The downside is fitting them in your backpack properly. I’ve been able to squeeze more in using various rolling techniques but on the flip side, if I find myself doing that I think I’m carrying too much :).

    I use these for everything, including the electronic bits I bring. Baggies are better for toiletries since they’re nice and cheap and you can toss them when you spill something.

    Optimizing your various cables and chargers is a whole different blog post. They drive me bananas.

  5. With those compression packing cubes, do they work for you the way they do in the product pictures? I got a set of those same ones, but when I used the compression zipper I found that the middle of the packing cube stayed about the same thickness as before, and only the edges were compressed. I’ve been curious whether that’s just how they are, or whether they work better for other people. (Maybe I’m packing the packing cube wrong!)

    I enjoyed your post, by the way! Another Tom Bihn fan linked to it. I agree, their bags are great!

  6. I think they do… the edges do compress as you describe and make little footballs which you can then jam together in your bag to further compress but this leaves void space which is annoying. If you didn’t use them, however, you wouldn’t be able to fit the same amount. Interesting conundrum – I’ve found that for some items if I roll them up and try to use up as much space as possible I can sometimes fit more (depending on item and material). Guess that’s why they call the problem “Knapsack” :).

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