It’s Go Time

Unless there are any snags, we’re flying to Barcelona tonight. This is our first international trip since we started the blog and while it’s not a home swap—our next swap is scheduled for July, near Amsterdam—it’s still an interesting opportunity to discuss some of travel preparedness habits we’ve developed over the years.

I travel a lot for work in addition to whatever personal travel that Steph and I enjoy. And as you might expect, I’ve developed some rituals and traditions aimed at making this process as efficient as possible. And these apply regardless of the type or duration of the trip, and whether I’m traveling alone, with Steph, or with the entire family.

Here’s a look at how I get and stay ready for travel, and how I’ve adapted, when necessary, for this particular short trip to Barcelona.

Toiletries

For years, I’ve maintained a toiletry bag—with shaving equipment, toothbrush and (travel-sized) toothpaste, floss, comb/brush, contact lenses, Q-tips, and so on—that I use both at home and while on trips. The idea here is that I’m always aware of what’s there, and I won’t ever find myself on a trip without razor blades or other items I need. The familiarity of the bag really helps. I know what I need and where it goes, and it’s always ready, no matter where I am.

Changes for Barcelona trip: None. I’ll just make sure I have enough contacts for the trip. The rest is set.

Carry-on laptop bag

While your situation may be different, I bring a laptop for work on every trip, so I require a carry-on laptop bag that can accommodate such a device. That said, I also want that bag to be as small and useful as possible. And I’ve been using the Rick Steves Velocé Shoulder Bag ($70) for several years, and like it quite a bit: It can accommodate a 13-or-14-inch laptop plus numerous other accessories, and it has lots of zippable separate pockets. And because it’s soft and expandable, it takes up much less space (and weighs less) than a typical leather bag.

If I didn’t need a laptop—hey, a boy can dream—I’d still want a smaller carry-on handbag of some kind, maybe a Rick Steves Velocé Guide Bag for iPad ($40) or Civita Day Pack ($25). That’s because I also want to carry on an iPad (for reading and offline movie/TV show viewing), various charging cables, extra contact lenses, my glasses (in a case), a small travel blanket (for making hard-edged airline seats less painful), whatever international currency we have from previous trips, and a few other things.

Changes for the Barcelona trip: We’re flying on Norwegian Air, a low-cost carrier with strict carry-on requirements, plus we’re only going to be in Barcelona for three days. So, I’m minimizing what’s in my carry-on laptop bag (and gadget bag and carry-on luggage, both below) in order to minimize the size and weight. The laptop bag will carry my laptop and charge, an extra phone (see below), my headphones, my phone charger(s), my travel blanket, and some extra contact lenses. I’ve taken out a number of items I normally bring, including a computer mouse, small bags of SIM tools, USB memory sticks, and other doo-dads, extra (small, earbud-type) headphones, and more.

Gadget bag

My toiletry bag and gadget bag go into my carry-on luggage (below). The contents of the gadget bag rotate based on the trip, but it always contains a travel power strip, which I just upgraded to this Anker unit ($25), which includes a 5-foot cable so you can position the USB ports and power receptacles where you want them; a power strip lets you power multiple devices from a single power receptacle, which is key in hotel rooms and internationally, where there are usually fewer places to plug-in. It also carries charging cables, international power adapters (when needed), a travel fingernail kit, a headset and mic for podcasting (when needed) and so.

Changes for the Barcelona trip: I’ve really stripped this one down for the Barcelona trip. The gadget bag only contains the travel power strip, a micro-USB cable (for charging my noise-canceling headphones), an extra USB-C cable (for a phone), and a couple of international power adapters (see below). It will take up almost no space in my luggage.

Carry-on luggage

I have two core concerns for my luggage: It has to be something I can carry-on, always—I never check luggage, ever—and it has to be something I can carry-on while flying on European carriers, which often have smaller maximum bag size allowances than is the case in the US. For this reason, I’ve typically turned to Rick Steves again, and I’ve been using his Ravenna Rolling Case ($190) for years and really like it. The bag is light, small enough for European carriers, and yet also big enough for any trip, whether it’s a weekend locally or three weeks in Europe. In addition to clothes, I put my gadget bag (above) and toiletry bag (also above) in the carry-on luggage.

Changes for the Barcelona trip: None. The Ravenna is coming along, and I’ll just bring enough clothes for the short duration of the trip.

Adapters

I wrote about powering your devices in Europe previously, but here’s how I use the adapters on trips. I maintain bags of adapters, divided by location/adapter type, so that I can pull out what I need whenever we travel internationally. In this case, we’re going to Spain, which uses the standard European plugs, meaning we’ll need both two- (smartphones and gadgets) and three-prong (laptop) adapters. If I’m traveling with Steph and/or the kids, I’ll make sure everyone has some number of adapters and that at least some of them are in their carry-on bags. (Typically, this means one large 3-prong adapter and two smaller 2-prong adapters per person.) Plus, remember that I always bring a travel power strip to maximize charging capabilities.

Changes for the Barcelona trip: Steph and I are both bringing one 3-prong adapter and two smaller 2-prong adapters to Barcelona. I’ll bring the two smaller adapters in my carry-on laptop bag and put the larger 3-pront adapter in my gadget bag, which will go in my luggage.

Smartphone(s)

In 2013, we stopped using a digital camera and we now take all of our photos using our smartphones. Which smartphones we use varies by year and by trip, and because I write about personal technology in my day job, I often have multiple phones and/or am reviewing a certain phone at the time of the trip. Generally speaking, I will bring two or more smartphones on most trips. (No, this is not typical for “normal” people.) And because I use Google Fi, I can simply use my data in Europe with no additional fees. (Texting is also free in Europe, and phone calling is inexpensive.) I’ll be writing about the wonders of Google Fi later this year, but it’s a lifesaver for anyone who travels internationally and just wants to use their phone normally.

Changes for the Barcelona trip: My main phone on this trip will be Huawei’s amazing Mate 20 Pro, which takes the best photos of any smartphone I’ve ever tested. It has my main Google Fi SIM card, which means that it is my primary phone, and is attached to my actual phone number. I’m also bringing an Apple iPhone XR with a Google Fi Data SIM and a Google Pixel 2 XL, which also has an amazing camera and a built-in eSIM with Google Fi data capabilities. My wife is bringing her Samsung S8+, and because of the short duration of the trip, she’s just paying Verizon $10 per day to access voice, text, and data normally.

Noise-canceling headphones

I never travel without noise-canceling headphones, and neither should you: Airplanes, in particular, are incredibly loud, but so are buses and trains. I use the Bose QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones ($250) and strongly recommend them: The noise-canceling is excellent, they are small and light, and won’t take up any space in a carry-on laptop bag, and they work as headphones even if the battery dies (which it won’t). They are wonderful.

Changes for the Barcelona trip: None.

Steph

My wife has her own rituals and traditions when it comes to traveling. But the one notable addition to what I do is that she’s always been more concerned about the impact of travel on sleep. So she’ll usually bring along some combination of melatonin and over-the-counter sleep aids so that she feels more rested. I sometimes participate in this, but the truth is, I don’t sleep well or at all on planes regardless, especially when I’m jammed into a crowed coach-class seat.

For longer international trips, Steph will begin taking melatonin and adjusting her sleep schedule to more closely match the destination several days before we leave. The idea here is that you can minimize the impact of the time zone differences if you edge towards the destination schedule in advance. She says this works for her.

Changes for the Barcelona trip: None. We’re kind of hoping that the short duration of the trip will help us when it comes to adapting between time zones.

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