I recently wrote an entry about our ways of traveling, 6 reasons we travel using just a carry-on luggage and a backpack. This triggered me to reflect on my top travel essentials. We’ve been traveling as a family for many years, and have increased our travels in 2014. We have four kids, and you can just imagine that prepping for our travels could be a nightmare. But each time we travel, we learn new things along the way. I figured I’d share what worked for us and I hope that some of these tips will help you, too. These are the tips that have worked for me, a family man with 4 kids. If you have any tips that work for you, please let me know.
NOTE: I am not affiliated with any product or brand that I mentioned in this blog entry.
1. Use a fee-free debit card anywhere in the world
No need to go to Currency Exchange booths or get foreign money before you leave home
For awhile now, we stopped ordering foreign money before leaving the US. These days, we always get foreign currency at a local ATM at our new destination. But wait, what about the charges from the local ATM? We use a fee-free debit card to extract local currency from an ATM at our destination. The one that we use is a brokerage account with Charles Schwab and I also now have a new debit card from SoFi Money Account (click here for a $50 welcome bonus).
How do I get fee-free debit card with SoFi account
- Apply for a SoFi Money account (click here)
- It’s a cash management account, you earn 1.80% APY
- No account fees
- No hard credit pull when you apply
- ATM fees worldwife reimbursed (I’ll write more about this below)
- Open a new account with a minimum $100 deposit
When we order foreign money from the bank, the exchange rate when you order the money while in the US is most likely going to be higher. There are fees that you will pay when you buy foreign money while in the US. Plus, in many cases, the foreign money that you order is almost always not readily available. You’d have to wait a few days.
We now have a SoFi Money Account and Charles Schwab account, and we can use any ATM in the world (unlimited times) and they will reimburse us the ATM fees. As of this writing (October 2019), new SoFi Money Account clients get a $50 welcome bonus (click the link).
All you have to do is open up an account and deposit at least $100 (or more), and within two days, you get your $50 welcome bonus. The bonus is yours. You will get your debit card from SoFi in the mail.
SoFi Money Account holders are also rewarded when you refer others to get a similar account. SoFi rewards you with $100 referral, and the new account holder gets a $50 welcome bonus.
You will see my example below when I opened up my SoFi account with a $100 deposit. I got my bonus two days after opening the account. I plan on adding funds to this account before my next international trip.
So, you travel with no foreign money in hand?
That is correct. Once we get to our destination (i.e. at the airport, or somewhere in the city), that’s where we begin withdrawing local money using our account, in this case, I’ll have my SoFi Money Account and I plan on carrying Charles Schwab debit card as well.
Do we go to those foreign exchange/currency booths?
We used to. But we stopped doing that now that we have a fee-free debit card. Do we withdraw a lot of local money for our entire visit? Nope. We only take enough money that we would need for a day or two. Again, we could use another ATM and not be charged the fees or have the fees reimbursed.I felt that we did so well during our last trip to Hong Kong and Taiwan. We were left with $50 HKD (roughly $6). I had forgotten that I had the $50 HKD in my pocket, otherwise, we would’ve spent it before our flight back to Los Angeles.
Consider bringing another debit card (preferably fee-free debit card)
Why? When you already have one? I’ve read many instances where people lost their debit card, and they had no back-up. Or, in some cases, the debit card they used didn’t work, and again, they had no alternative debit card to use. As mentioned, I plan on using my SoFi Money Account and my Charles Schwab as the back-up card. And knock on wood, should both of them fail, I’ll have my other debit card from my other bank. I can’t be too underprepared.
2. Use credit cards with NO FOREIGN TRANSACTION FEES
How do you avoid carrying loads of cash during your trips? Use a credit card to charge. But, if you use a card with Foreign Transaction Fees, they will charge an extra percentage on top of your purchase price. I’ve seen foreign transaction fees in the 3% range. It is advisable to carry a card that will not charge foreign transaction fees. These charges do add up. Imagine if you stayed in a hotel and paid $1500 for your stay. Add another $45 to that for the foreign transaction fees. Plus you factor in all the other times you used your cards with dining, transportation, or other purchases during your trip. Every little thing adds up.
There are many cards out there with no foreign transaction fees, and one of my favorites is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. I have other credit cards that we use that charge no foreign transaction fees. Just ask me or check this list of my favorite Top Travel Credit Cards that I use myself.
3. USB Hub
With all the gadgets we have, it’s easier to plug in and charge. I can easily plug this in, and it will charge the rest of our gadgets. Just make sure you have the right charging cable for your phone and other gadgets. I normally bring my Macbook Air during our trips, and we plug in our gadgets overnight while asleep.
4. Power Bank or spare battery charging unit
This has been a major lifesaver for us during our trips. Whether I’m traveling alone or when I travel with my large family, having a reliable Power Bank has been quite helpful in ensuring that our smartphones are charged. This allows us to stay in touch during our travels, use social media, or the various apps to help aid us during our trip. Power Banks are not the cheapest, but every now and then, there are deals to be had and I tend to share them with our readers over on Facebook at DaddyTravels News and Updates.
I tend to like the ones made by Anker and Aukey. I have one that was able to fully charge 3-4 iPhones in one single full charge. That saved us all during a trip to Disneyland.
5. Noise-cancelling headphones
I used to depend on any wired headset provided by the airlines. Heck, they’re free. Some airlines still charge, but the ones I’ve flown recently offer them for free. Now that we travel quite a bit, I’ve decided to invest in getting Noise-Cancelling Headphones. My most cherished ones are my Bose QC25 and Sony WH-CH700N. I also have other noise-cancelling headphones for the rest of the family that were recommended by Amazon (made by Cowin and TaoTronics). My advise, find one that works for you, preferably with bluetooth. These headphones are great in blocking out the noise, and they are so comfortable.
My Bose QC-25 is technically wired. But I found an adapter that could make it appear semi-wireless. I love using my headphones. Excellent sound quality. The headphones itself don’t need to be charged. They’re also light and comes in a sturdy carrying case.
The headphones could range from as low as $19 to over $300. Find one that fits your budget. If you buy something online, check the return/exchange policy. If you don’t like the performance or the comfort-level, return it or exchange it, and make sure you know the guidelines how to do so.
6. Download movies before your flight
With all our flights, and the numerous times we travel by bus or train, this is the perfect time to binge-watch. Before leaving the house, I download movies, TV shows, especially the ones with many episodes. I get my movies from Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. I could easily finish one to two seasons on a long round trip flight. On our flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, I watched the entire season of Homecoming, featuring Julia Roberts on Amazon.
If you’re lucky, the flight that you’re on could have a great selection of shows to watch. But I have been on flights where the in-flight entertainment was down the whole time. Or, in-flight entertainment was an extra charge. So always be prepared.
7. Amazon Fire Stick
I bought two Amazon Fire Sticks during Amazon Prime Day. I used one in our Master bedroom, and the other one is on reserve whenever we travel. Watching a movie or TV show while on vacation is not really needed, but it gives us an option to watch shows that we want to see. As long as we have a place with free Wi-Fi then we’re good.
During a recent trip to San Diego and Disneyland in Anaheim, California, we found ourselves just relaxing back in our hotel rooms after long day’s exploration. We had our Fire TV Stick and we watched the movies that worked for the whole family. We enjoyed that a lot.
8. Bring comfortable walking shoes
My past few trips involved lots and lots of walking. It’s imperative to have comfortable shoes. They don’t need to be new. And if they are new, make sure you’ve worn them and have broken them in. I made the mistake of bringing new shoes, or shoes that were snug, and my feet hated me. I ended up not wearing those shoes during the trip. Do I have any favorites? For over 4 years now, I swear by Skechers GoWalk shoes. Not just any Skechers. But they have to be the GoWalk technology. It’s like walking on clouds. Here’s what I have now.
I have a new pair that I started using after coming back from Taipei and Hong Kong. What I like about these shoes, I can wear them with shorts and no socks, and I can pair them with clothes I can wear for a semi-casual night out. Other than Skechers, when I’m just exploring around, I wear comfortable running shoes by Nike.
If it’s visiting a place like Hawaii, we’re all about sandals and flip flops. We love our Rainbow Sandals. They’re not the cheapest. We buy them directly at the Rainbow Sandals Outlet in San Clemente, CA to get discounted price. They have a great reputation of having sandals that last long. They’ve repaired sandals that broke, and have shipped them back to us at no extra cost.
Daddy Travels readers have also recommend Ecco, Naot, Birkenstock, Chaco, Keens. These could all vary in price. So find out that works with your budget. At the end of the day, make sure you find a pair that you’re happy with and will work with exploration.
9. Warm layers and comfortable travel accessories
You might be headed to a tropical island, but your plane better not have the tropical heat while you’re inflight. Chances are that your plane will be blasting the air-conditioner during your flight. I’ve been in many flights where I needed a jacket plus a blanket.
I like to travel comfortably. I bring a light jacket or sweatshirt that I could easily wear or remove should things get a bit cold. I also wear comfy socks during my flight. Nancy likes to wear compression socks. I want to try this on our next trip.
I’ve experimented with a bunch of different travel pillows. At the end of the day, it’s my neck pillow. I’ve acquired quite a few over the past few years. Some of them, sadly, I lost after deplaning. While I still have a few pillows in my possession, I can’t believe that I’m actually raving about this Walmart Modern Sleep pillow that went on sale at $3.50 (regular price $7.99). It’s true. I actually used this lately during our road trip to Vegas and San Francisco, and have taken the pillow around my flights in the US, Asia, and Europe. It provided such great neck and head support and I was able to sleep comfortably during the ride. I won’t feel as bad should I leave this pillow behind, although I’m gonna do my best not to.
I’ve also tried the inflatable neck pillows. After two years of use, it ended up with a hole and I just never bought one again. Again, find something that works with your budget.
10. Sachets of Conditioners
When we travel and stay in hotels, it is expected to be provided with basic toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, lotion, etc. This just might be a Filipino thing (please correct me if I’m wrong), but my wife always brings along small sachets of shampoo and conditioners such a Sunsilk, Palmolive, Cream Silk (a name brand in the Philippines). She’s quite particular with her choice of shampoo and conditioner (as I’m sure many folks are particular with their choices as well). We bring enough of these sachets for our trip. They are easily disposable.
The closest I can think of in the US is by purchasing your own travel size shampoo/conditioner. Where do we buy these sachet-sized conditioners? We usually order them from friends/family who travel from the Philippines back the US. These sachets may also be available in some Filipino stores in the US.
11. Personal medicine
Ooooh this was a biggie and I can’t believe I forgot to add this to our list. I have my regular meds that I take, and I make sure to bring them along with me. I have a Weekly Pill Container, they come in different sizes, and I bring the smallest size available. My daily meds fit in here. My kids also tend to get allergic reactions to certain foods, so we always bring Benadryl with us. The pill or tablet works just fine for them.
Another must-have for our kids due to their allergies to have an Epipen handy. According to MedicalDaily.com:
EpiPens have become a necessity for families with children suffering from severe allergies to counter effects like wheezing, uneven breathing, increased or decreased heart rate, swelling and other potentially fatal reactions.
We have Epipens that we give to the school nurses for our kids. These have to be prescribed since they are not easily purchased over the counter. We’ve practiced “how-to” use them in case of an emergency. You basically push the Epipen onto the thigh for the epinephrine to be administered. Fortunately, we’ve not had to use the Epipen on any one, but we are ready.
We also bring typical over-the-counter meds for pain relief, or stomach-related problems. Thankfully, I’ve only gotten sick once during a trip, it was in Singapore. I ended up with a stomach flu. I was sick for a couple of days and went to a local doctor who prescribed meds for me. I was better the next day, and was well enough to travel back to the US.
12. TSA Precheck and Global Entry
I’ve written about this quite a few times. It’s changed the way we travel. To be TSA Precheck, it’s allowed us to expeditiously cut through long security lines at the airport. We simply fall in line at the TSA Precheck designated lines, and then head to security. When you’re TSA Precheck approved, you don’t need to remove your shoes, laptops, belts and light jackets.
This benefit works as long as you’re flying with an airline that participates in the TSA Precheck Program. Here’s an updated list.
Global Entry on the other hand is a perk when you return to the US from an international trip. Global Entry approved travelers go through an expedite processing on their return. These are the low-risk travelrs. You skip the long lines on your return. You go directly to one of the Global Entry kiosks to process your return.
The fee for TSA Precheck is $85 and it’s good for 5 years. The fee for Global Entry is $100 (also good for 5 years). If you are TSA Precheck approved, you don’t automatically get Global Entry approval. But when you are GE approved, you also get TSA Precheck approved automatically. So if you are considering this perk, you might as well go through Global Entry program, pay the $100 and get both GE and TSA Precheck.
Or, you could get Global Entry and TSA Precheck for FREE or covered
How? By having one of the premium cards such as Chase Sapphire Reserve or American Express Platinum card. Carrying one of these cards entitles you to having your Global Entry/TSA Precheck Fee credit. You will receive a statement credit of up to $100 every 4 years as reimbursement for the application fee charged to your card. We have had quite a few premium cards and we were able to get Global Entry and TSA Precheck credit for all members of my family.
13. Priority Pass and Centurion Pass for Lounge Access
My friend, Scott, reminded me about his travel essential which is using Priority Pass. To those who don’t know, Priority Pass gives you access to worldwide airport lounges that are part of the network. We also have access to Centurion Lounges. As you could imagine, the access to Priority Pass lounges or Centurion lounges have to come with a price or a catch.
The catch? It’s not free. BUT, with having the right premium credit card, you can avail of these charges at no additional cost. I have two premium credit cards that offer access to Priority Pass and Centurion Lounges:
- a. Chase Sapphire Reserve
- b. American Express Platinum (personal/consumer card), and American Express Business Platinum
These cards come with premium benefits but they also come with premium-sized annual fees (starting at $450 per year). Make sure you apply for the right card accordingly. There are other cards out there that offer benefits to use the Centurion Lounges or Priority Pass Lounges.
The two mentioned above are the ones that have worked for my family. So if you tend to travel a lot, and travel with your family, this perk could be of good use to you. Here are a couple of entries I wrote when I used these lounges.
- How to access airport lounges for free
- How we visited six airport lounges on one trip
- How to eat at LAX’s PF Chang’s (up to $90 value)
- Complimentary mini-spa day at Amex Centurion Club (Mexico City)
- Visiting LAX Delta Sky Club
14. Google Maps App
When asked how we get around whenever we travel, I’m quick to say that it’s thanks to Google Maps. You can easily enter where you’re headed and include your starting point. If you’re taking public transportation, it will tell you which train or bus to take. In many cases, it will also specify the line that you need to get on. The app also tries to capture real-time data (but not always guaranteed). It tells you approximately what time the bus/train will arrive, and what time time you will get to your destination. The sample below shows you your transportation options from JFK International Airport to Central Park in New York City.
I’m sure I have more tips
I plan on writing a separate entry on ways to stay in communication with friends and family back home. I’ve experimented on quite a few and will include that in my next blog entry. But for now, I’m very interested in learning everyone else’s travel essentials. What can you not live without during your trips? Let me know.