When the family is out and about on foreign lands, someone needs to be prepared. And in our family’s case, it’s me who is the packhorse. Here are my top tips to help you pack the travel handbag essentials.
It’s another day in paradise. We’ve had our hotel buffet breakfast. We’re ready for a huge day ahead exploring a new place and are just about to leave our accommodation. The Poolboy grabs his wallet, phone and the room key. Queenie puts sunglasses on, and picks up her phone. The Impossible Princess just puts on her shoes. They’re all set to go.
But Fairlie? Oh, Fairlie’s the family packhorse. I’m the one someone turns to half-way through the morning saying, “I’ve got a headache, do you have any Panadol?” Or in a minivan on a bumpy, winding road shouts to me, “Quick, quick!! I think I’m going to be sick.” Or even…”What was the address of our hotel again? Do you remember where it was from here?” and “My phone battery is dead. Do you have a recharger?”
So ever-reliable Fairlie, I like to be prepared. Which means carrying a handbag packed with all the essentials. In this post, I outline my top tips for packing a travel handbag that won’t weigh you down, so you and your travel companions can just glide through all the fantastic experiences the world holds.
Choose the right bag
Over the years, I’ve tried a few versions of travel handbags. Nowadays, fashion goes out the window, and I opt for something practical and secure. Through trial and error, I’ve settled on a black, oxford nylon Numanni shoulder bag that I found at a bag seller in Ho Chi Minh City. This is the handbag that I take with me each day when we’re out and about exploring foreign lands, and taking part in activities. I usually also pack a smaller, more glamorous leather shoulder bag into my suitacse that I will use to take the barest of essentials if we go out for dinner somewhere flash.
- Wearing a bag with a strap across your body spreads the weight while you’re walking about, leaves both your hands free, and also makes the bag a less-likely target for drive-by bag snatchers on motorbikes.
- Having several internal pockets or compartments allows you to separate items and keep them organised. Once years ago, while bouncing along in a mini-van on some back roads of Vietnam, I grabbed what I thought was a sick bag from a cavernous handbag, but instead pulled out a brochure…which was less than useful for the ailing Impossible Princess. We’re all still scarred by the result.
- Securing a bag from rogue light-fingered hands is a priority for peace of mind. I like a handbag that has a main zip and then a flap which folds right over the top. This makes the contents of the bag much less accessible to passers-by in a crowd.
The technology essentials
My iPhone is one of the first things into the handbag. But it’s so much more than a phone – it’s a guidebook, it’s maps for that city, it’s a travel itinerary, a bank, a camera, a post office… With the right apps on your phone, you can eliminate the need to carry a host of other items.
Of course, all those apps and the associated usage tax the phone battery, and most apps also require internet data…so you need to have those considerations covered off in the handbag too. I tackle the recharge on-the-go issue with a portable power bank tube. Having access to data however, needs a bit of pre-planning before the trip. I’ve tried a few different ways:
- For the United States, I purchased a US SIM card from Teleway for a month with unlimited data included. It was delivered to my home before we left for the US and I just swapped over my Australian SIM for the US one, and forwarded my Australian phone number to my new US one, while I was at the airport.
- In Japan, I rented a portable wi-fi router from Global Advanced Communications with 10Gb of data, which was delivered to our Tokyo hotel prior to our arrival. I returned it at the end of the trip by dropping it into a postbox at the airport in a pre-paid mail envelope. I carried the wifi router in my handbag and it allowed all of us to hook up our phones (within 20m of my handbag) and use data while we were out and about. It was the best $80 I spent. Having access to Google Maps was especially invaluable as we wandered the streets and laneways of Tokyo and Kyoto.
- In Vietnam, I have relied on free wi-fi access, which is widely available at many restaurants, cafes and hotels. But you do need to keep security issues in mind when using these types of unsecured free wi-fi points.
- For an upcoming trip to Hawaii, I’m going to use data-roaming on my own phone plan, as Vodafone has a deal for 47 countries where it is just $5 extra per day to use my own plan’s data allowance.
The right size of camera
Again, I’ve tried several options when it comes to cameras. I’ve done the tiny slip-into-a-pocket point-and-shoot compact camera, and the bulky traditional DSLR with additional lenses that requires a whole separate camera bag.
And finally, I’ve found the perfect solution for my needs – the Olympus OM-D E-M10. It’s a mirrorless DSLR which means that it is much smaller than a standard DSLR, but has greater functionality and better results than a compact camera. Most of the time, I wear it around my neck or across one shoulder. But when I want to put it away, it can slip into the main compartment of my bag.
I also have a spare SD-card (or two) in the bag. There is nothing worse than seeing the ‘card full’ message right at the moment when you’ve lined up the perfect photo. For future trips, I plan to include a spare battery, plus a polarising filter.
Carrying some pharmacy basics can save a whole lot of time and angst when they’re needed
A sheet each of paracetamol tablets, antihistamine and anti-diarrhea tablets, 6-8 bandaids, a small packet of tissues, a lip balm, spare hair elastics, a couple of motion-sickness bags and some individual wet wipes covers most minor medical and comfort issues. Sure, you can purchase these things from a nearby drugstore or pharmacy when the need arises, but first you have to find one…then you have to find the items on the shelves, often in a foreign language. And sometimes, there’s just no time to waste…this stuff is needed NOW. (Oh yes, the voice of experience.)
I also include a small bottle of hand sanitiser, and a tube of insect repellent. Both have proved to be invaluable items, particularly in South-East Asia.
Plastic bags have many uses
I always carry a couple of small plastic bags (nappy sacks or similar). They take up no space at all, and weigh practically nothing.
In the event of the motion-sickness bags being required, the plastic bags can act as a double-bag until a suitable bin is found. Plus, they can be used for any waste items throughout the day when you can’t find rubbish bins in public spaces (this was particularly an issue in Japan). In the event of rain, I can use a plastic bag to cover up the camera while I leave it around my neck, ready for a quick shot. And it doesn’t happen so much now, but in earlier years, The Impossible Princess would hand me things she wanted ‘to keep’ such as garnish flowers from a plate, or a fancy straw from a mocktail. Into a plastic bag they went.
A super-lightweight way to carry all your passport details without actually lugging around passports (we usually leave them in a hotel safe) is to photocopy or scan the photo page for each of the family, then laminate them. This can be used when you need to prove children’s ages, or when you’re claiming international tax-exempt status while shopping, or when you need to fill in customs and immigration forms, plus it is a good way to ensure you are carrying adequate photo and nationality identification for your family in the (hopefully, unlikely) event of an emergency.
I also like to pick up a business card or map from the concierge at the hotel. When a taxi driver can’t understand our mangled pronunciation attempts at communicating the address, I can hand over the hotel business card or map and point.
Plus I have a few of my own business cards in a holder…you just never know when an opportunity for a bit of blog-networking will arise.
What you won’t find in my handbag
You know those scenes in cartoons where the hot air balloon is sinking, and the characters are madly tossing items overboard to lighten the load? That’s how it is with my travel handbag. Over the years, I’ve tossed out all the non-essentials to make sure I’m carrying the least weight possible.
- So you won’t find any make-up in my bag. I apply it in the morning, then that’s it for the day. No touch-ups. It’s Fairlie au naturel by late afternoon.
- You usually won’t find any guidebooks. I leave those in the hotel room or rental accommodation (or sometimes, even at home). Any relevant details from the books are written in notes on Evernote, or photographed and saved to the Camera Roll on my phone (see ‘The Technology Essentials’ above).
- Irreplaceable valuables are left at home or in the hotel safe. That antique compact mirror with huge sentimental value? It has no place in a travel handbag.
- And there’s also no wallet or regular purse in my travel bag. I carry just a small coin purse with a single credit card (I leave a back-up card in the safe in the hotel room) and a small amount of notes and coins in the local currency.
What does this tell you about Fairlie?
So now you’ve had a peek into my travel handbag, what does this tell you about me? That I’m a slightly obsessive over-preparer? That misplacing my phone or being off-line would be like losing a limb? That I look a wreck by 4pm? That at least one of The Fairlie Entourage suffers from motion-sickness?
Yes, to all of the above! But more than anything, it tells you that I don’t let the small stuff weigh me down. Careful planning heads off any of those minor crises that could crop up on a day out and allows us all to relax and enjoy every memorable moment.
(PS – if you are old enough to remember the classic 1970s Glomesh magazine ad campaign that inspired the top photo layout in this post…there is a great collection of the ads at the Glomesh Facebook page. Of course, I was a mere babe in the 1970s, but I recall being fascinated by the glamorous contents of those women’s handbags.)