I survived all five weeks with a single carry-on, no checked luggage, a smartphone, and almost no local currency.
If you haven’t traveled in awhile and have an upcoming flight, domestic or otherwise, take my advice — based on my experience of four years as a digital nomad, six years working for a globally distributed company, and a quarter-century of international travel — on how to get where you’re going with both ease and everything you need
- Navigating the airport
- International travel
- To be continued
Finding and booking flights warrants its own post — but in the meantime, I can help you organize what you need for your flights.
Before you book flights or start packing, sign up for TripIt. This freemium service aggregates all your reservations, from rental cars to museum visits to hotels and more; anytime you receive a booking confirmation email, just forward it to
email@example.com, and it will automatically be sorted into your agenda. You can then attach PDFs or notes, share the itinerary privately with other people (whether or not they’re on the same trip), get updates when flights are delayed or canceled, or more.
TripIt will also remind you to check in for your flight, which you should always do. Airlines often overbook their flights, and the seats they give away first will be from the passengers who check in last. Give the airlines one less opportunity to screw you over by checking in early.
When booking a flight, it’s a safe bet that the more legroom a seat has, the more it will cost. But punching your flight details into SeatGuru (owned by Tripadvisor) can give you additional details, such as if the seat doesn’t recline or if the window view is obstructed. I always consult SeatGuru before making a selection to preclude unpleasant surprises later.
Until I figure out how to sleep on a plane, I’ll leave you with this advice: the longer the flight, the more justified you are in tilting your seat back. Always avoid seats you can’t adjust!
Although many airplanes have power outlets, you shouldn’t count on them being available. And even once you touch down and are navigating your way to the hotel, you may still need a charge. A power bank recharges the battery of your mobile device, extending its life.
There are three qualities I look for in a power bank: it has to be shaped like a phone, so that it can sit alongside the phone in my hand or my pocket with minimal discomfort; it needs both USB 3.0 and USB-C ports, for maximum compatibility; and there should be an LED display indicating its current charge, so I don’t have to guess how long it will last. This Omars power bank meets all my criteria.
Experts recommend being judicious how you use these portable chargers, though. “Don’t use a power bank as indiscriminately as you would electricity in your own home,” I said, because advice sounds more official when it’s a quotation. “It’s far more important you charge your phone to get directions or to call a friend than to get an extra five minutes on your Switch. Given the higher power consumption of larger devices, you won’t get much bang for your buck charging anything bigger than a phone, anyway.”
Any flight that travels east or west is likely to leave you out of sorts as your body acclimates to a new timezone. For that, my co-worker Melanie recommends the mobile app Timeshifter, which offer personalized recommendations that will mitigate the effects of jet lag. By inputting your origin and destination, as well as your willingness to consume caffeine and melatonin, the app will produce a schedule for sleeping, eating, and light exposure that will acclimate you to your new timezone just as you arrive. The schedule begins the day before your departure, so you’ll want to install this app well before you get to the airport.
I tried Timeshifter for my flights to Hawaii and Australia, and while I wasn’t able to adhere to all its suggestions (such as avoiding sunlight during hours I would still be sightseeing), the advice I did follow was noticeably beneficial.
Timeshifter costs $24.99/year or $149.99/lifetime, but your first roundtrip is free.
Whatever essentials you bring on your trip is almost as important as how you bring it.
Exhaustive analyses have been conducted to determine the absolute best suitcase — but my needs are not so rigorous. Any four-wheeled spinner luggage will do, preferably one with a hard case, TSA-approved lock, and no lithium-ion batteries that need to be removed. My Samsonsite Winfield 2 fits that description.
More important than the type of luggage is the quantity: one carry-on. That’s it. If that’s all you have and you check into your flight online before arriving at the terminal, then you can skip the baggage drop-off area entirely and go right to the security gate; likewise, when disembarking, you can walk right past the luggage carousel. The expedience is worth it.
In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham estimates 35 minutes per flight are wasted waiting to drop off and pick up checked luggage; at 270 flights a year, that’s 6.5 days spent checking and retrieving luggage. I don’t know anybody who travels that often, but the point remains: after a long day of traveling, do you want to wait another half-hour for your luggage?
Having just carry-on does come with some restrictions, such as being subjected to the TSA’s arbitrary 3-1-1 liquids rule, which makes it hard to come home from Mexico with a case of your favorite salsa. If you must, here’s a trick: most airlines will let you check carry-on-sized luggage for free. Don’t wait until you get to the boarding gate — if there’s no line at the baggage drop-off, you can do so there, then go through security completely luggage-free.
Whether or not you’re checking luggage (but especially if you are), use trackers. These small, Bluetooth-enabled devices update your phone with their location when they’re within 25 to 250 feet of almost any smartphone, providing much greater coverage than if it were dependent on your phone alone.
I rely on two brands of trackers: Tiles and Apple AirTags. Each has their strengths, so I place one of each in my suitcase. (Ideally, any thief who discovers and discards one won’t look for another.) These trackers let me know when my luggage is on the same plane as me and when it’s waiting for me at the carousel. Such devices won’t prevent your bag from getting stolen, but they can aid in their recovery. There are plenty of horror stories, such as this one where the airline insisted a lost suitcase was in its distribution center — even as a tracking device enabled the owner to watch her bag take a trip to a local McDonald’s.
However many bags you’re tracking, it pays to be efficient. The way to survive with just one carry-on suitcase isn’t a matter of what to pack so much as it is how you pack it. My co-worker Kayla recommended the folding and rolling techniques in these two videos, which I now swear by.
One benefit to this approach versus the traditional stacking method: I can see my entire wardrobe at a glance and grab just the item I need.
The mobile app AnyList, which I also use for grocery shopping, doubles as a packing list. I use it to review not only what I need for this trip, but also what I’ve historically needed for any trip, as doing so might remind me to pack something I didn’t think I’d need.
I usually carry six sets of shirts, socks, and underwear, one pair of pants, some sleeping apparel, a pair of slippers, and toiletries. I expect to do laundry at some point during my trip — but I’ve learned not to pack detergent pods. Not only can they appear suspicious on x-rays, but they can also explode in transit. I once anticipated that latter scenario and double-bagged my pods — which only made it look more suspicious upon arrival.
Aside from my carry-on luggage, I also carry a backpack (“a small, personal item that can fit under the seat in front of you”) for easy access to in-flight necessities, including my laptop, Kobo ereader, Nintendo Switch, Bluetooth headphones, protein bars, water bottle, and hand sanitizer.
A handheld luggage scale ($10) will tell you if any of your bags have gone over an airplane’s weight limit, saving you the anxiety of having to repack at the airport.
Navigating the airport
There’s a lot that happens between getting to the airport and boarding the plane. Here’s how to make those steps through the airport less frustrating.
The only thing I hate more than giving the government my personal data is being groped by the TSA. But that was the tradeoff I faced every time I flew, as opting out of the full-body scanner meant getting an uncomfortable, time-consuming pat-down. I finally caved and signed up for Global Entry, which costs $100 for five years and includes TSA PreCheck. Both programs minimize what you need to remove from your bag or your person when passing through security, while Global Entry also grants access to an expedited passport control line when returning to the United States. The time saved on both ends of your travel is significant.
One more benefit to Global Entry: it comes with a photo ID that works nearly the same as a passport or driver’s license when checking into your flight. It will often be the only ID you’ll need!
Ever since I was a kid, I loved pockets that I could fill with pens, notepads, even books. Now there’s a retailer just for me: SCOTTeVEST, whose line of jackets feature literally dozens of pockets, to the point that there’s an included map to help find them all.
Those pockets are essential when going through airport security. Instead of placing my wallet, keys, Fitbit, phone, passport, and airline ticket into a dish, I store everything in my coat and put it on the conveyer belt. Recomposing myself on the other side of security is as simple as putting my coat back on.
SCOTTeVEST’s coats also have two security benefits: all the pockets are zippered; and there are more interior pockets than exterior. Both these qualities are essential for deterring pickpockets, so keep your coat close — and its pockets closer.
I’ve been mocked for having a George Costanza wallet. The classic bifold contained all my cash, credit cards, business cards, and even a few photos.
But the pandemic accelerated the proliferation of Apple Pay and Google Pay, allowing me to eliminate cash in favor of paying with my phone. Now I carry Supr Good Co.’s Slim Wallet for the few cards I still need. This low-tech flexible case is only 3mm thick and fits neatly in any pocket without putting my spine out of alignment.
You should be using a password manager such as Bitwarden or 1Password to track all your website credentials. These same programs can also store scans or photos of your passport, license, and COVID-19 vaccination record. Don’t store those documents in email or Google Drive, which are inaccessible when you don’t have access to the Internet; your password wallet stores all that data locally and securely, right on your phone.
Passengers at a crowded airport will guard their power outlets jealously. So instead of competing with them for access, offer to share it by expanding one outlet into several.
I use an Anker 340 charger, which costs $28 and has four USB 3.0 ports. For more modern devices, the Anker 747 costs $110 and comes with one USB 3.0 port and three USB-C ports. Either will let you charge multiple devices (or let multiple people charge a device each) simultaneously.
Traveling outside your home country requires additional preparation. Take these measures before entering foreign territory.
Confirm your passport’s expiration date
A friend’s family vacation was recently ruined when they didn’t realize until the date of departure that one family member’s passport was expired; the disruption to their schedule cost them thousands of dollars.
Even a valid passport isn’t an automatic guarantee for smooth travel. “As a general rule, passports must be valid for six months beyond the date the traveler will exit the United States,” advises U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And passport applications take 6–8 weeks to process. For example: if it’s January 2024, you’re planning a trip for July 2024, and your passport expires January 2025, you should submit your passport renewal by March 2024.
The general rule: never assume a passport is or will remain valid for your trip. Check your passport’s expiration date early, and take any necessary measures months before the trip.
Register with STEP
If you’re a United States citizen who’s traveling out of the country, register with our government’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). If anything disruptive happens in the country you’re visiting (anything from national celebrations to a natural disaster to a war or riot), your free registration will confer two benefits: you’ll receive a warning of the activity; and if anything happens to you, the United States will be aware that it has citizens in the affected area, which is important for protection and recovery. Many other countries offer programs similar to STEP for their citizens, too.
Headed to an international destination? Don’t rely on your usual carrier’s data plan, as their overseas rates can be disgustingly excessive. (My carrier, Mint Mobile, charges US$20 per gigabyte, which is seven times their domestic rate.)
Fortunately, most phones made in the last five years support eSIMs, which let you install alternative network providers just by scanning a QR code. I use Airalo, which sells eSIMs for almost all countries and regions at about $3 per gigabyte. Each plan is valid for only a limited time, but the clock doesn’t start ticking until your plane touches down in the covered area. This referral link will get you $3 off your first Airalo eSIM.
To minimize your use of that precious international data, download offline maps before you leave home. Whichever region you’re going to visit can be preloaded into Google Maps and used for navigation without connecting to the Internet.
The wonderful thing about standards is there are so many to choose from: any country you visit may use a different electrical outlet from the one your devices were designed with. An adapter will let you fit a plug of one shape into an outlet of another shape; by contrast, a converter will transform that outlet’s voltage to your device’s needs. Most modern devices that aren’t hair dryers or curling irons can get by with just an adapter, in which case I recommend spending $20 on a compact JMFONE international travel adapter. Its includes a variety of plugs in one neat package, with no separate parts or plugs to lose — though the resulting bulk means it will sometimes fall out of any vertical wall outlets it’s plugged into.
I also travel with a slightly bulkier Bestek voltage converter. It has three AC outlets, four USB 3.0 ports, and four interchangeable adapters for use around the globe. There are no USB-C ports, but my laptop has three of those, so I can charge devices off that instead. The Bestek also has an internal fan that can be a bit noisy, to the point I wasn’t able to get a good night’s sleep if my devices were charging overnight. Still, it works well in a conference room where it can be shared by multiple attendees.
Learning the language
Google Translate is as close as we’ve ever gotten to Star Trek‘s universal translator: two parties speak into the mic in their native languages, and the phone translates in either direction. But more useful to me is the ability to hold the camera up to a sign and have a translation overlaid in real-time. Knowing that a store is closed, photography is not allowed, or the train is running late is invaluable.
But a mobile app won’t endear you to the locals like honest effort will. DuoLingo is the gold standard for mastering a foreign tongue — but inspired by this CNN article from 2003, I try to get by with just these ten phrases:
- Thank you
- Yes, no, OK
- Do you speak English?
- I would like …
- Where is …
- … the bathroom?
(An optional eleventh phrase: “Oh my God! There’s an axe in my head.“)
In Budapest, where English is broadly spoken, the only phrases I ever needed were “Hello”, “Thank you”, and “Do you speak English?” The locals greatly appreciated even my butchered efforts to not be an arrogant tourist, and starting the conversation in their own tongue improved my reception.
To be continued
When I asked my colleagues what travel scenarios they wanted this guide to encompass, the responses were far broader than I felt a single post could cover. This initial installment should address the most common topics — but what questions are you left with? Leave a comment with the tips and advice you want (or have!) for me to include in the next chapter!