Shopping for a person who travels often is a little tricky, I know. I am perfectly happy living out of a backpack for months at a time, so I don’t have much need for more STUFF. I have all of the basic gear. What do you buy for road warriors? Upgrades to gear and cool travel gifts to improve the quality of life on the road are always something I appreciate. Big ticket items like an Apple Watch would be fun, but I’d also be thrilled to get witty BandAids for restocking my Box of Awesome. Be careful, if you get injured on tour with me you’re liable to end up with a ridiculous bandage, it’s kind of my thing.

Here I present to you a list of cool travel gifts that have caught my eye, that I don’t own but am hoping Santa will put in my stocking. I can’t vouch for all of these things as I don’t own most of them yet, but I have done some research. My motive is, always, to travel smarter and lighter, so I’m keen to find things that are durable and smartly designed. The architect in me is drawn to the design aspect, but my taste often exceeds my income tax bracket. So, what you’ll find here are some reasonable picks that would please any traveler, and some that are splurges and may stay on the want list for a while.

Sonic Toothbrush

I have been drooling over this Quip toothbrush that shows up all over the web. It’s light and sonic, lasting on a battery for months. I have beautiful, straight white teeth that are like Swiss cheese…soft and full of cavities. I can’t live without a sonic toothbrush. Is this new toothbrush equal to my Sonicare? Doubt it. But I am willing to try because I just can’t keep lugging that stupid thing around, it’s too heavy. At $25, I think it is worth experimenting with. I’d avoid any subscription options, it seems a little excessive.


One of the great tragedies of modern traveling is the loss of the Swiss Army Knife. I have a big beauty, with every conceivable tool and my name engraved on it, which I bought in Interlaken. Being a carry-on traveler, knives never make the cut into my bag. (Oooh! Bad pun!)

I’ve become fascinated with these little multitools that claim to do a million things. Most of the functions are things I doubt I’ll ever use, but some of them might come in handy. If only they made one that can rub your feet and bring you a glass of wine.

The Wallet Ninja has some practical features that I probably would use, including a little slot that turns itself into a cell phone stand. It’s small and light enough to make the cut for my backpack.

I’ve always seen myself as the kind of girl that is looking for things of Swiss extreme-functionality with Italian aesthetics. For the functional and fashionable girl in your life, check out this cool, designer bracelet, made by–wait for it– Leatherman! Both a stylish bangle and a screwdriver? Swoon!

Folding Sunglasses

Sunglasses are a little like umbrellas for me. I like them, use them often, but hate to invest much because I lose or break them. I experimented this year with a stylish (cheap) prescription pair from and surprised myself by not losing or destroying them. I’m ready to step up my sunglasses game. What I want now is a pair that can fit in a pocket. I’ve seen some beautiful folding sunglasses in Italy, but they were insanely expensive. I recently found something that made my packing-goddess heart skip a beat: ultralight folding sunglasses that are also cool. A kickstarter project called Roav offers well designed sunglasses that are durable and slim. As with all Kickstarter projects, you have to invest to buy a pair and you don’t get to try them first. They look cool, but even glasses from the Dollar Store look cool on sexy models like the ones in the ad. Despite those drawbacks, if they can even barely live up to the promise of the demo video, they’d be well worth the $99 investment.

If you like the idea but not the Kickstarter aspect, my second choice for folding sunglasses are Ray Bans. Ray Bans are always well made and classic in style.

iPhone Camera Lenses

Last year I was drooling over the Olloclip set of lenses for my phone. Through some magic, I received a set over the summer from a friend of a friend who works there.

I had a good time playing with them in Europe. The set comes with wide angle, fisheye, and two macro lenses that all clip on to the top of a phone quickly. The biggest ding that reviews give the set is that you are required to use the Olloclip phone case to fit the lenses correctly. That didn’t really bother me because I rather liked the case. After several months of use, I feel sort of lukewarm about them. The macro lenses are great for taking pics of tiny alpine flowers, but not much else for me. The fish eye lens is fun for a few shots, but it’s gimmicky for people who are serious about getting great shots. The wide angle works well, but the distortion of the image bothers me, and the image quality suffers at the edges. All in all, I think they are a fun toy and would consider giving them to someone who likes gadgets, but not a serious photographer. I just got an iPhone 7, so I may upgrade to their new system, which addresses some of my concerns.

I have realized that what I really want is an optical zoom or telephoto lens of some kind. I found that I am often wishing I could zoom in more, like when the Pope is on his balcony. On my list this year will be a telephoto lens for my phone.

There doesn’t seem to be a perfect solution as far as I can tell, but the one that has caught my eye is a set that covers all lens needs, from Ztylus. Every set I’ve looked at has reviews that complain about distortion, but this set, while pricey, seems to be one of the few that doesn’t have that problem.

My favorite phone photography accessory of the moment is my tripod. I bought it to record my slide lectures, but have found that it comes in handy for photography in general. I like the tripod with bendable legs that can attach to things, and is activated with a remote. These run about $20 and are well worth the cost.

Portable Printer

Remember when you had a Polaroid way back when? Remember how satisfying it was to watch the picture develop before your eyes? Well, I miss those olden days and was delighted to see this new gadget on the market. These little printers will print sticky-backed pics on the fly with a Bluetooth connection.

There are a few companies making pocket printers, one sold by Apple called Lifeprint, one from HP, and one from -wait for it- Polaroid. They all have decent reviews, although none of them can match a high quality printer.

This is not a must-have travel gadget, especially not for the princess of packing light. But I have been considering expanding my travel to more exotic places and thought this could be a great way to make friends in a village in Thailand or to leave a rememberance of a visit in Botswana. It would be fun to give pics on the spot to my tour members as well. I think this could be a great gift to any avid world traveler.

Travel Hairdryer

Ok, ok, I know. I am always saying you do NOT NEED a hairdryer to travel well. It takes up so much room and weight in a bag and most hotels have a hairdryer in the room or one available for borrow. Take it from a girl with very long, voluminous thin hair, you really can live without it. However, it has been brought to my attention that even if you CAN live without it you may not want to. That’s cool. So, I have been asked to look into the subject.

My research has netted two good choices.

The smallest, lightest model that gets the best reviews is by Sephora. It’s ugly hot pink, which is a great idea because you’ll never overlook this one in the hotel bathroom when you’re packing up. It is less than a pound and gets the job done well. It’s a little pricey in my book, but you get what you pay for.

If you just want something small and cheap, the Andis Micro Turbo gets good reviews at a rock-bottom price, even if it’s a little bit heavier than the Sephora model. This would be fine for short trips.

Travel Beauty Goodies

I’m not a particularly girly-girl, but after weeks on the road even I need a little self care. I was wishing this fall that I had things in my bag for a facial or something like that. I was too tired and too short on time to go find that stuff at an Italian farmacia, so I’m putting these little kits on my list to try.

Sephora sells two kits that have caught my eye. The Ole Henriksen set has four types of creams and cleansers for an impromptu hotel facial. The  First Aid Beauty kit seems about my speed, also including potions to hide the bags and road rash.

You could also hit your local drug store and assemble a kit of your own with a few packets of single-use facial masks and creams in travel sizes. A little beauty care package of someone’s favorite beauty products in travel sizes would be a thoughtful present.

My current beauty splurge in my bag is the BaByliss Straightening Iron. I don’t use it to make my hair straight, it does that on its own, no problemo. I use it to curl my hair. Yeah, it’s a little vain, but I am usually traveling for work, and looking good is helpful. It’s tiny and light, running so hot that my persnickety hair has no choice but to curl or wave as I command. I do love this and highly recommend it for its weight and usefulness.

Super Small Umbrella

I mentioned earlier that I lose umbrellas easily. For that reason, I rarely spend much on one. I think I might be ready to get a nice one and try to keep track of it.

I’ve done way too much research on travel umbrellas. I’ve had a hard time finding one that was truly small and lightweight. They are all bulky and heavy, except this one I found recently by Davek. It is actually small, like palm sized, and could fit in a normal pocket. I’m sure the size takes away canopy radius, but that’s ok. The reviews of this umbrella are great, but they’d better be considering the price. There are few places selling this brand, so I’d go directly to the retailer. The same company is developing the holy grail of umbrellas- one with a GPS locator in it. Genius!

Ugg Boots

I’ve often thought that Ugg boots should have been called Uggly instead. They seem to be the domain of teen girls in leggings and scream to be a fad that we will some day be ashamed of. However, once you own them you will totally forget that you ever judged anyone wearing them. They are so warm and soft! You don’t need to wear socks! I love my Uggly boots and wear them constantly in the winter in Seattle.

It only occurred to me recently that Uggs would be great travel shoes for winter travel. They are lightweight, for boots, and are the coziest shoe you can find. They would be ideal for air travel, as they slip on and off easily for security and are extra warm on those freezing airplanes. I wear them in the house too on extra chilly days.

They have introduced new styles that are a little more fashion-friendly, so I’m looking at a style with buttons or ribbons or possibly a shorter boot. They make them in men’s styles as well as moccasins. Yes, they are an investment, but I’ve had mine for 4 years and they are still going strong and miraculously do not stink! If you or someone on your list is traveling this winter, consider Uggs.

Travel Blanket

This is a pure luxury, bringing a blanket is not on the travel light packing list. I brought a soft blanket to Italy this summer with my son and I was so happy I did. We cuddled under it in the plane, used it on trains, and added it to the bed in hotels with overzealous air conditioning. Having your own warm blanket is lovely, especially as the airline blankets are so static prone and thin.

The Lug blanket is one of the smaller and lighter ones, and it comes with the bonus of a pillow with an inflatable insert. I got this for Christmas ages ago and have only now realized its’ genius. This is a great gift for a regular traveler, and for the kid who’s got a big vacation coming up, they have an adorable kid version.

Travel Jewelry

I recently received a personalized bracelet from a reader with the initials WWSP on it. The letters stand for “What Would Sarah Pack?” and I’ve been wearing it ever since. It’s my reminder to keep up the writing and that I’m not just some crazy lady on a laptop laughing at her own jokes with only her cat for readership. Well, that could still be true. The point is, jewelry is such a nice gift, even something inexpensive, if it gets to the heart of what a person cares about.

I’m kind of nutty for Etsy right now, since I’ve started my own shop there selling my art. Of course I get distracted when I’m working on my shop and find all kinds of ways to spend what I’m making. My favorite thing to browse is Travel Jewelry.

Necklaces with maps, coordinates and such. Passport earrings! Squee! I want the necklace in silver with the continents! Would be cool to add a gem on for each one as I visit them. Anyhoo, Etsy is a good place to find a nice present for the girl explorer in your life and support small artists with big dreams.

Last Minute? No worries. Amazon gift cards are great and can be instantly emailed, Kindle books for travelers can be sent electronically, and iTunes will please any traveler’s ears.

I’ve got so many other ideas, but I’ll stop there for now. If you need suggestions, feel free to ask. And if you have found the best gift for a traveler ever (like bacon scented bandages!), please do share! Happy shopping!

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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.

2 replies on “Sarah’s Christmas List: Cool Travel Gifts”

  1. Sarah, I have found that you CAN travel with the smallest (about 2″) Swiss Army knife. It is TSA compliant, and has enough features to make it very useful. My favorite thing about it is the scissors–Can’t tell you how many times I have used them. If you go through security in Canada, they WILL confiscate them–different rules– as I found to my sorrow after losing the knife I had had for over twenty years. I have never had an issue in the US or Europe with this knife, and wouldn’t travel without it.

    I enjoy your blog very much. Ciao!

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