Gift Ideas for Travelers on your List

As the holidays approach and the shopping ensues, I get that ominous sense of dread that I will give or receive something that will inevitably become useless clutter. Living out of a backpack for a third of my days has taught me that I really don’t need half of the things in my house, that less really is more if I can live nicely with only the things on my back. Also, I’m a terrible housekeeper and the prospect of more things to clean just makes me shudder. So, I have become deeply practical in my gift giving and in what goes on my wish list. I’m a big fan of Quality rather than Quantity, of choosing one or two things that the recipient will actually use, no matter how un-glamorous they may be. As I assemble my very practical wish list, I thought that I’d share with you some very practical gift ideas for travelers on your list.

Over the next week or two, I’ll do a little series on gift-giving. I’ll be posting basic gift ideas for travelers who are newer to travel, a couple of handmade travel gifts you can make yourself, a book/movie list for the arm-chair traveler, and gifts for the advanced traveler that might have the standard gear already. I’ll put links to things when I can find them so you’ll be looking at exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve also started a little page on Amazon with the actual travel gear I use and all of the things I have previously written about, so you can browse there if you want other ideas. I’m using that page to also save cool things I’m planning to buy or ask for this Christmas, so I’ll be adding to it frequently. You can find it here:

Basic Gift Ideas for the Traveler

Today I’ll focus on the basic stuff, the kit I think every traveler should have. This list might be good to review no matter how experienced the person you are shopping for is, gear wears out and travel gear designs have become so much better in the past few years.

Top Pick

Bose SoundTrue Headphones

My top pick for travelers, one that will work for all sizes, shapes and persuasions, and one that they may not already have, is a great set of headphones. They are necessary for the plane and for any tours or audioguides you will use abroad. Also, as a music lover, I’m a little picky about sound and headphone comfort. The Bose SoundTrue headphones are the best gift I’ve gotten.

They sound great and don’t ear-itate your ears, you can barely feel them. They also don’t plug into your ears, they just set on the outside, which was a big deal for me as my eardrums are very sensitive to that suction. I have the ones with a microphone for my iPhone, which has been helpful for using FaceTime and Skype while I’m gone, so I’d strongly suggest getting the microphone. Can’t love or recommend them more. And, yeah, that’s them in action in the Forum about a month ago!


Luggage is surprisingly personal, but I can give you the benefit of my long experience. The choice boils down to backpack, rolling bag or hybrid. Price point depends on you, so I’ll give you a couple of options there.

Backpacks- The two that I can suggest to you are the ones I use in Europe all the time and and have written about previously. Rick Steves offers a couple of nicely designed, basic bags. Of the two, I prefer the Convertible Carry-on, it has a few more features than the basic bag. It’s on sale right now for $80, and while I’m obviously a little biased since I work for Rick, still, I don’t think you’ll find a better bag for the money. For a bag that is on the high end of the price spectrum, (and a totally unbiased opinion as they don’t know who I am at all!) I’m a big fan of local luggage maker Tom Bihn. Their bags are virtually indestructible and carefully designed, but you’ll pay for that excellence. I use their Tri Star backpack, I have had it for ages and somehow it still looks almost new. They also have cool, interchangeable parts in their packing system. Beware, though, at $315 for the bag alone, their cool gear can be an expensive habit. Trust me.

 Rolling Bags- I’ve used the Rolling Carry-On from Rick Steves for years, but there is a new bag in town that I’m a little smitten with. The brand-spanking new Ravenna is a sleek adaptation of those cool hard-sided European bags. It’s nicely designed and solves the issue of over-packed bulging soft-sided bags that don’t fit in the overhead compartment. Both are on sale and well priced, $128 and $152 respectively. My high-end suggestion is not a bag I own, but rather one that I drool over in the travel stores. It’s the Briggs and Riley Baseline, a rolling suitcase that reminds me of a miniature steamer trunk or Mary Poppins bag. It has all sorts of magical tricks, like compressing itself to fit carry-on dimensions. And at about $450, it better make me coffee every morning too. You get what you pay for though, the value of the Briggs and Riley brand is their extremely generous warranty, a lifetime guarantee that even covers airline damage.

Hybrid bags- If you don’t know which bag your gift recipient would prefer, you can compromise with a rolling backpack. It’s not the best of both worlds, sadly, as the backpack wearing is a little awkward, but if you just need to carry it on your back occasionally, this will work. The Rick Steves hybrid bag is a good choice, especially as the frame weighs less than their standard rolling bag.

Travel Accessories

Brand new travelers, especially young or forgetful ones, should have a good money belt. There is nothing better than the gift of peace of mind (that’s what the card on the gift should say). 😉 Nobody loves wearing a money belt, so it’s worth it to pay a little more and get the silk version, its more comfortable and lightweight so it might actually be worn.

Packing cubes

My favorite gift to give to a traveler is packing cubes. This is the difference between a novice traveler and a tour guide, well, that and a few other things, but that’s another story after a few glasses of wine. These lightweight little sacks fit together in a bag like a puzzle and organize all of the clothes and odds-n-ends, making packing and unpacking a snap.

Instead of using a new plastic Ziploc bag for toiletries on every trip to the airport, this durable clear quart bag can be reused again and again. This, in reality, is all I use for my toiletries kit as I wrote about here.

For my shampoo and conditioner, I like the bottles called GooToobs. They are silicon travel tubes with suction cups on the back. Considering how many bizarre showers I’ve used, let me tell you that the suction cups are genius. Just don’t leave the tubes stuck to the shower wall when you leave.

 If you are shopping for a traveler who is new to electronics, the best entry-level tablet for travel is a Kindle Fire. I bought the 8″ size HD tablet for my son recently and it’s really just perfect for travel. It’s a great size, about the dimension of a small book, and displays books books very clearly. The battery life is good and this new generation seems to be much more durable than previous ones. I have the Prime membership, so he was able to load as many apps and movies as he wanted on the tablet for free right out of the box. Considering the price, which hovers around $150, it’s very well priced for what you get but keep in mind that the Prime membership, at $99, is pretty necessary to make it meet its potential.

Travel books are a great gift, if you know where the traveler is going. Our Rick Steves guidebooks are the best…again a biased opinion as I’ve written for them for a decade. But still. They are! I like to give them in hardcopy format along with the little plastic cover we sell and a small pair of scissors, allowing the recipient to cut the book to pieces and make a personalized copy, binding them with the plastic cover. Or do that for them if you know the itinerary.

All of these gifts can be personalized, combined and embellished. Buy a bag and put a guidebook inside and sew a patch on it. Buy a money belt and put a little bit of foreign currency inside. Buy headphones and include an iTunes gift card. Buy the toiletries tubes and fill them with your favorite shampoo, conditioner and lotion. It’s the personalization that makes it fun and the extra thoughtfulness that makes great gift ideas for travelers even better.





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Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.

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