In February 2016 John and I embarked on our first European vacation to Ireland. We’d spent the last nine years seeing as much of the US as possible (38/50 states!) but it was finally time to go abroad.
Up until this point our vacation of choice has been road trips – we’ve done four big road trips in the last 6 years: two cross country trips (Boston to Las Vegas in 2010 and Boston to Portland, Oregon in 2012), San Diego to Portland, Oregon in 2013, San Francisco to Denver in 2014, and hundreds of smaller road trips in between.
In 2015 we tried another new-to-us vacation and went on our first ever cruise to Alaska. Cruising is a whole different beast, and I won’t touch on those specific details here, but I mention it because, depending on if you cruise internationally, some of this blog may be applicable.
The differences between domestic and international travel are obvious and abundant – logistics, packing, passport requirements, cost, route, sightseeing, currency, political/cultural differences, etc. The main point of this post is simplicity. International travel can be complicated and challenging. By keeping things simple you can focus more of your energy on enjoying your adventure, and making a ton of great memories while staying safe. This post also focuses on travel essentials that have a small footprint – smart packing is all about items that can double duty/serve multiple purposes or are small/light/compact in your luggage.
My only preface is to say that I am, by nature, a person that enjoys being prepared for any and all situations. I carry the world in my bag at all times because I like to. I feel best knowing that whatever my day brings, I can handle with minimal fuss. If you are more of the spontaneous type, this post might not be for you.
First things first, sleep! Traveling, by nature, is stressful and exhausting. Sometimes you have to catch a flight at 3AM, or you have to adjust to a major time difference, or you may be a light sleeper or have trouble sleeping in strange places. The bottom line is that getting enough rest, or being as comfortable as possible while you try to sleep, is crucial. Here are my two recommendations for comfortable resting in any location:
1) The Rest Easy Inflatable Neck Pillow – I love this thing. John got it for me for Christmas and it saved me on our trip to Ireland. I used it on the red eye flight we took to Dublin, in the airport while we waited for our guide to pick us up, on the bus throughout our trip to nap, etc. It’s super soft, comfortable, the cover is washable, it’s simple to use (you don’t even have to blow it up, there’s a built-in hand pump), and when you deflate it you can tuck it anywhere in your luggage. I had hated neck pillows up until now because they are such space wasters but this one is super compact.
2) Eye Mask – I bought this Alaska Bear sleep mask because of the adjustable strap and the soft material, but as long as the eye mask blocks all light, the brand doesn’t much matter. I don’t like anything that goes around my head because I am prone to migraines but this was really comfortable. The mask is great because it makes resting/sleeping in daylight possible (which is normally impossible for me). I used this on the plane and in the airport to block out the light so that I could rest. Eliminating the distractions around me really helped me relax, whether I actually slept or not.
Another thing that is critical on vacation is time. Especially ones where there is a packed itinerary. John and I don’t do the whole lay on a beach vacation thing; we like to have a full schedule with activities, sightseeing, and fun things planned. Either type vacation is good – as long as you’re enjoying yourself and relaxing. That said, the action-packed variety means that time is at a premium.
Getting ready and out the door is my biggest time suck (on vacation and in daily life, let’s be honest). The thing I spend the most time on is blow drying my hair. I’m a long haired cat and prefer to bring my own salon-style hair dryer wherever I go. Those crappy hotel ones just don’t cut it for me! Bringing my own wasn’t feasible for our Ireland trip because 1) it’s too big and packing space was precious and 2) it wouldn’t have worked in the outlets and I didn’t want to risk it blowing out our adapter (see below).
So I invested in the Aquis microfiber hair towel. It was great! Lightweight, very small folded up, and dried my hair really well. It really cut down on my blow drying time (I have since been using it at home and at the gym). It takes up way less space than a hair dryer and is much more practical. The only thing that is a bit of a pain is drying it when you’re on the go. But I just folded it up damp, put in a ziplock bag, and hung it to dry when we reached our next destination. No mildew, mold, or weird smells. It dried just fine. I washed it when we returned from our trip and it’s like new again.
The only thing that caused me actual stress when we were preparing for our trip was the electricity conversion. Not all countries use electricity the same way and I knew nothing about this prior to our Ireland trip. John and I did a bunch of research (the internet has a million great articles on the subject – here’s my favorite one) and ended up buying the Bestek 200W travel adapter and power converter.
The basic thing to know is that the adapters are the plug attachments that allow you to plug in to outlets provided abroad. The power converter allows you to utilize the correct voltage, depending on where you are in the world.
This Bestek one is great because it has 3 outlets and 4 USB ports, is small and can fit into any bag, and it can be used in over 150 countries.
Another issue when traveling is hydration. I am a thirty person and drink a lot of water, and I never drink enough on vacation and end up feeling gross. Planes, airports, buses, hotels are all so drying too. They typically keep the air cool and dry, which is comfortable, but very dehydrating. I end up feeling parched and my skin gets super dry. So, in addition to common sense travel essentials like water and moisturizer, I highly recommend a hydrating spray. I tried this Kiehl’s In-Flight Refreshing Facial Mist and it was wonderful. Just spray on your face and you feel instantly refreshed. Plus, it smells like delicious lavender. I now use it at home and at work just for a little hydration pick me up.
I’m a bag lady; I have a bag for every situation in life and travel is no different. A daily bag for traveling, for me, is utilitarian and is always based on where I’m going. Sometimes I trot out my nicer bags (Marc Jacobs and Kate Spade are my faves) and sometimes I go with a basic backpack, it really just depends. My bag for our Ireland trip needed to be all about function, space, and durability – with a focus on waterproofing and the room to hold my Canon DSLR camera. I went with Timbuk2’s Classic Messenger Bag (size: small, color: smoke). I am a loyal Timbuk2 customer and this bag was as perfect as the others I have by them.
There are a gazillion pockets, which is the best feature of this bag. Quick access exterior pockets for chapstick, interior pockets for my phone and Clif bars, and interior zippered pockets for more secure things like money and my passport. The bag fit all of my essentials – wallet, camera, water, snacks, cough drops, hand sanitizer, pens, etc – and kept them completely dry.
The messenger bag style was perfect because of the easy access in and out and comfy crossbody strap. Plus, I love the four size options from Timbuk2 – this bag is big enough for my stuff but small enough to look like a purse (I don’t like carrying a big huge bag to places where there are bag size rules).
And speaking of waterproofing – I knew I was going to need a warm, 100% waterproof coat for this trip. Going to rainy climates doesn’t bother me as long as I have the right gear. We love Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland, so we were ready to take on Ireland rain!
I bought this coat for a few reasons: I love the zip-in fleece lining – it makes the coat a 3 in 1 which is awesome for traveling, especially to a place with variable weather. It has 3 exterior zip pockets to hold my stuff securely and also without getting wet. And it has an oversized hood with a toggle so you can really keep the rain out of your face/hair. These kinds of coats are everywhere so you can find them at any store – I’d recommend a outdoorsy type retailer for the best construction though (REI, Columbia, North Face). I ended up wearing this coat all winter long, so I’m very happy with this purchase.
Last bit of waterproof preparedness – shoes! They aren’t as cute as flats or heels but, as I mentioned, my gear for our Ireland trip was all about function. I did a bunch of research and picked up these waterproof Merrell Azura shoes. I bought them 4 months before the trip to have time to break them in and to test them during our New England winter. I really love them – they are comfortable for hours on end, look good with jeans, and kept my feet bone dry.
There are a few other essential items I would recommend that weren’t pictured here.
1) An international roaming add-on to your phone plan – Whether it’s for maps, Yelp, documents, or posting pictures to Instagram, you’ll likely want to use your phone during your trip. If so, you’ll need international roaming coverage unless you want a hefty bill when you get back.
John and I both have AT&T and they have a few international traveling packages (most providers will), at three price points. It’s a one-time, 30 day add-on that allows you to use data without additional roaming charges. We chose the AT&T Silver Passport package and I’m so glad we did. Typically vacation is a time to unplug, for sure, but on this trip we needed to be able to have maps available, the ability to text each other and call our hotels, and have the internet for spontaneous information we needed.
2) An iPad/tablet loaded up with TV shows, movies, and podcasts – This goes without saying but long flights and bus rides are boring. I know streaming apps are ubiquitous now but you can’t always count on airlines having satellite TVs or your bus having wifi. Prior to our trip we loaded up our iPads to capacity with Better Call Saul and The People vs. OJ Simpson episodes, Serial season 2, and a few of our favorite old movies.
iPads/tablets are also great because of the size. I would not at all recommend bringing a full laptop on an international vacation, or any trip for that matter unless you absolutely have to.
3) Headphone splitter – We have this Belkin one and love it. It allows us to enjoy the same shows/movies/music podcast at the same time but with our own headphones. It also affords us more media storage space on our devices – I usually load up my devices with podcasts, while John loads up on shows/movies.
4) Ziplock bags – I regularly buy gallon, quart, and portion measured food storage bags from Target for every day life but they come in so handy for travel. Diverse in size, waterproof, and secure – I never go away without them! I toss a few of each kind in my luggage and if I need them, great – if not, they take up practically no space. On our Ireland trip I used all of them! (eg. I used the gallon size to hold my damp micofiber towel (see above) and the candy we bought on our trip, I used the quart size to hold toiletries and postcards/gift cards we bought for safekeeping, and I used the portion bag to hold cough drops and the bar of soap we brought on the trip).
5) Snacks. Can’t say it enough!
6) Last but not least, research. If you’re not the researching type, no big deal. If you are, I highly recommend the following approach (in addition to internet research, of course).
John bought me these two books for Christmas and they were amazing (Concise History of Ireland and Illustrated Dictionary of Irish History). John was a history major in college and always found he learned best with a historical text accompanied by an illustrated dictionary. The history book is dense and rich with information – with such specific details that, on its own, would have left me on information overload. But having the illustrated dictionary as a compendium allowed me to switch between the two books while I was reading, so that I actually learned the information. I cannot recommend this approach enough!
We’re going to France in August so I look forward updating this list with any new tips afterward!
(Products listed on my blog are never sponsored; I am in no way paid, given free samples, or told to say anything you just read. I have posted about the above products because I went out, purchased these items myself, and want to share my thoughts in a candid and informative way.)