5 Things Worth Buying Before Heading Overseas


From the bizarre-looking ostrich pillow, to jackets riddled with specialized pockets, you could spend thousands of dollars on supposedly must-have travel accessories. But which gadgets, innovations, or services are actually worth your money? This short list includes the items and services that globetrotting friends and I have found to be truly indispensable.

1. A Better Travel Pillow

Search Kickstarter or Indiegogo and you'll find a ton of variations on the classic travel pillow, and for good reason. Airplane seats are tiny, and some airlines still don't have reclining seats. If an accessory that costs $40 could help you sleep comfortably on a long-haul flight, it could save you thousands of dollars compared to the cost of upgrading to first class.

Normal inflatable or stuffed travel pillows have never been comfortable for me because the back of the U shape prevents my back from resting comfortably against the seat. So, on a recent 13-hour flight to Australia, I brought along not one, but two new travel companions: the Kuhi Comfort pillow, basically two plush mini pillows connected by a strap that goes behind your neck, and the Trtl Pillow, which is really more of a combination scarf and neck brace. Each cost about $40.

I found the soft and cozy Kuhi more helpful than the Turtl, which is supportive for sleeping without a window seat but can dig into your chin a bit. While I'm not 100% sold on either of these particular pillows, I'll never go back to a standard travel pillow again. Even if you don't want to experiment with a newfangled pillow, swapping a standard travel pillow for a memory foam or loose bead-filled pillow will increase your comfort significantly because the part behind your neck will flatten when you lean on it.

2. An Aeronaut Carry-On

Wheeled carry-ons have become the norm, but have you ever thought about what you sacrifice for those wheels, such as the ability to easily jump on a crowded escalator or bus?

Designer Tom Bihn has developed a cult following among travelers for his ultra-customized, highly organized bags.

"There's a bit of an "ethos" you subscribe to when you buy a Tom Bihn bag. It inspires you to lighten your load and be a more efficient traveler," explains travel blogger Liz Gross, who recently carried everything she needed for a five-day business trip in an Aeronaut 45 duffle bag, which fits under the seat in some planes and in the overhead bin in others. Starting at $295 (without straps or the coordinating packing cubes that Bihn acolytes swear by), the bag is not cheap, but it has well-thought-out features such as clips to keep things in place, and pockets that can be combined to make larger pockets if needed.

3. A Personal Wi-Fi Hotspot

Using your cell phone overseas can be a pricey proposition. AT&T international plans start at $40 for minimal data use, in addition to your regular plan fees, and on top of that, phone calls can cost up to $1 a minute.

A more affordable way to go — especially if you are traveling with one or more companions — is to rent or buy a wireless hotspot. I brought Tep Wireless' portable Wi-Fi device to Australia, and my whole family was able to connect to it to use the web for navigation, looking up ferry schedules, and even making phone calls and sending texts via Google Voice. At $9.95 per day for the device rental and unlimited data, this makes a lot more sense than purchasing separate data roaming packages for multiple people.

4. A "Spinner" Suitcase

When I replaced one of my kids' suitcases a couple years ago, I didn't immediately realize how the new one was different than the rest of the family's. But after taking all three of our kids to Europe, I noticed that my daughter was having an easier time than the rest of us maneuvering her bag, especially in situations wherein she needed to move the bag in a tight space. Her suitcase was a "spinner," or a suitcase with four wheels that can move in any direction. These extra wheels are especially helpful for handling heavier bags.

But wait, didn't I just recommend a bag with no wheels at all? Indeed, with four wheels sticking out, spinners aren't ideal for fitting into overhead bins. They're best if you need to carry a lot of stuff and plan to check your bag. Make sure to get one with larger wheels, as these models are easier to tip and pull like a two-wheeler when desired.

5. Airport Spa Services

When flying to England for a wedding last year, fears about long TSA lines pushed me to arrive at the airport two and a half hours early, leaving no time to dash off for the mani-pedi that I was going to need for the big event. So imagine my delight when we passed a spa on the way to our gate in the international terminal of the San Francisco airport! I spent an hour in a massage chair there and strolled out, wedding ready, just as boarding began.

Since then, I've learned that the company XpresSpa has spas in airports all over the United States, including Chicago O'Hare, LAX, and JFK. Yes, it's more expensive than the same service in a neighborhood salon, but given the alternative of spending that sharing an armrest in a plastic waiting area chair, it's so worth it.

Disclosure: I used a Tep Wireless device at no charge in order to evaluate it for this article. All opinions are my own.

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Jonathan Dyer

Strong list. Depending on the country you're going to and what type of phone you use, buying a SIM card with pre-purchased data can also be a good option in addition to or instead of a Wifi hotspot. And funny you should mention a spinner suitcase — I have my eye on one as we speak ;)