My most useful inexpensive travel items

Sat Jul 21, 2018 · 9 min read


Constant travel provides some level of complication when it comes to things that more stationary folk can tend to take for granted. Having a “junk drawer” stockpile of useful fasteners, cutters, and knick-knacks is no longer a luxury the minimalist traveller has access to. Combine that with an ever-lengthening list of things you can’t pack in carry-on luggage, and suddenly life takes a little more creativity and MacGyver-ing.

This post is a rundown of my most useful and inexpensive travel items. These are things that don’t take up much space to have on hand, and can be very helpful in a variety of situations. If you might be planning to spend some time living out of hotel rooms, I’d go so far as to call these “essentials!”

My “travelling junk drawer” consists of:

Here’s why, and how, I use these items.

The quintessential zipper storage bag

If any of the items on my list needs no introduction, it’s these. A favourite organization tool for any traveller, zipper storage bags are useful for umpteen reasons. I tend to reserve them for uses that aren’t a one-shot deal, since I think it’s a bit of a waste to put a sandwich in one for a half hour, then throw the bag away.

What can it do? I use these to compartmentalize my personal items, “laminate” useful documents, and protect my passport from water ingress should I get caught with it in my pocket in a sudden monsoon.

A zipper storage bag as a passport protector

Protected from rainstorms, sudden submersion, and Squirtle attacks.

A few reasons zipper storage bags are awesome:

To my last point, as it may not be obvious: if you put a hole in a Ziploc bag, its material will not (usually) continue to tear away from the hole. Thus, if the items it contains are larger than the hole, its function as a container has not diminished. This line of thinking is not applicable, of course, if you’re trying to keep water out.

What’s it cost? A whole box of them for a few bucks at convenience or grocery stores, or find them free with some packaged goods.

Carabiners and split key rings

If it has a loop, you can put it on a carabiner. If it has a loop and hangs on your body, you can put a carabiner on it. Somewhere between these two combinations, you can carry quite a lot of things hands-free.

What can it do? It’s hard to articulate all the uses I’ve found for these little guys - there are so many! Anytime you need a temporary, reliable, reusable attachment point, a carabiner should be the first thing you try. I have one that attaches a compass to the shoulder strap of my daypack, helping me to orient in new cities or on cloudy days. My Stanley mug has a D-ring attached, so I can carabiner it to my backpack strap for hands-free travel coffee.

For uses that don’t require frequent decoupling, a split key ring is also ideal. You can also use them to put a loop on an object to which you could attach a carabiner.

A split key ring and four different styles of carabiner

Keep a few styles and sizes handy for different functions. They’re relatively small and light, so you’ll hardly notice them until you need one.

What’s it cost? Depending on material, quantity, and whether they’re load-bearing, carabiners will run $5-$15 for a set from Amazon. I especially like this $4 one from Night Ize because of its dual gates that individually lock.

I don’t think I’ve ever had to buy a split key ring in my life. They just sort of turn up.

A disposable lighter

What can it do? From lighting candles to lighting up concerts, there’s plenty of reasons for a non-smoker to carry a lighter. It can help you finish the ends of your cut paracord, or neaten up fraying straps and polyester fabrics. In a pinch, it makes a night-vision-friendly dorm light.

Disposable and Zippo lighters are permitted in carry-on luggage by the TSA. Other kinds of lighters, including electronic ones, are not.

A souvenir lighter

Plus, they make a useful souvenir. Above is one I picked up at a cheeky restaurant called Propaganda in Ho Chi Minh.

What’s it cost? A dollar or two, if that, at convenience shops.

550 nylon paracord

If you’re going to carry some general purpose utility cord, make it 550 paracord.

What can it do? Need a lanyard? Easy. Key chain? Check. Clothesline? No problem. Find yourself in a sketchy area? Hang your wallet around your neck under your shirt. Broken shoelace? Pull out the core yarns and melt the ends, and you’re good to go. Stranded in Antarctica? Use the yarns from the core you pulled out when your shoelace broke as an ice fishing line. I sure hope your luck improves, but at least you’re prepared.


Black paracord in a storage braid

As a lightweight, all-weather cord, paracord is hard to beat. And in anything less than a potentially threatening survival situation, you can use paracord to make some pretty fancy things, like this decorative bit on my compass.

Some fancy paracord knots holding my compass to a carabiner

What’s it cost? Depending on length, and sometimes colour, $7-$18 for 50ft to 200ft on Amazon. Unless you’re interested in the fashion statement, I wouldn’t bother paying a premium for the pre-made paracord survival bracelets. They don’t contain much cord, are usually cheaply made, and are a PITA to undo if you actually wanted to use the cord. If you want a paracord bracelet to wear that might actually be useful, get a neat buckle and braid one yourself while you’re stuck waiting at an airport gate.

Safety EMT shears

Gee, since you’ve got all this paracord, it’d sure be nice to have something to cut it with once in a while. Unfortunately, not many sharp things are allowed in carry-on baggage these days. While the TSA says scissors less than 4" long from the pivot point are allowed, I’ve had nail scissors less than 4" in total length confiscated while flying in Asia. Heck, I regularly lose my (rather dull) metal nail file when a well-meaning security agent insists it constitutes a blade.

Thankfully, there are scissors that I’ve so far seen 100% success with packing in carry-on luggage. They’re called safety shears, EMT scissors, or sometimes trauma shears, and they look like this:

Safety shears

What can it do? Cut things, duh. The rounded tips don’t set off any “what-ifs” with security agents, especially when I pack them in my personal first aid kit. They also offer some advantages over regular small scissors, as their leverage and rugged blade help cut through tough material like denim and nylon straps.

What’s it cost? About $6-9 on Amazon. You can get some pretty fancy ones for upwards of $15, but I don’t think the higher price adds much to the function.

Hair or elastic bands

What can it do? The ubiquitous rubber band comes in handy in an unfathomable number of situations. I most frequently use them to open tight jar lids (a little extra grip goes a long way!) or to prevent the loose lids of various containers from opening when I don’t want them to. I guess you could think of them as a lightweight, self-integrated, customizable container control system. :P

Hair bands, especially the fabric-covered types, tend to be less grippy. This makes them useful in a variety of situations where you might want the elastic hold, but without the sticky grip.

Here are a couple uses for these items that I like:

Given the option, I will always choose a single long cable over having more cables of different lengths for different situations. Par for the course of having long cables is needing some way to conveniently and quickly tidy them up, either for storage and travel, or just to take up extra length.

Some high-quality cables, like my preferred Anker Powerline II Lightning Cable, come with a well-made hook-and-loop fastener strap to keep the cable tidy. If you don’t have one of those, you can repurpose stretched-out hair ties or rubber bands as a super fast cable tie! Just attach the band to one end of the cable, then wrap them around the coiled cord, like this:

Steps to use a hair tie as a cable tie

This method is fast, easily adjusts to the amount of cable you want to coil, and keeps you from losing the band when the cable is fully uncoiled.

If you roll your clothes to pack them, you’ll know that some fabrics are better for this than others. Sheer polyesters, like that of my ruffle-y LBD, just don’t want to stay rolled. This can make things a little complicated when you regularly live out of a packing cube, and all your clothes are black. Thankfully, an old hair tie does a great job of keeping your garment rolled up. Unlike a rubber band, the softer material of a hair tie is less likely to pull on delicate fabric.

Using a hair tie to keep a slippery dress rolled up

Finally, the often-overlooked hook-and-loop fastener

If you need a strong, stable, fixed-length, adjustable, and removable form of fastener, your best bang for the buck will be to cut off a custom length from your Velcro roll. In situations where elastic is a detriment, paracord can’t do it, and a carabiner won’t cut it, this stuff is your savior.

A roll of black Velcro

What can it do? Here’s a short list:

What’s it cost? Depending on how much you want to carry with you, ranges from $5 for 12ft to $20 for 45ft on Amazon. You can also find it at hardware and craft stores.

Scarcity breeds creativity!

I think we have a real opportunity to have fun and be creative in situations that require us to make do with what’s on hand. Hopefully this list has given you some ideas for being prepared, and at minimal cost. If you’ve come up with other neat solutions using everyday inexpensive items, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.