Travel Hacking: Best Holiday Gifts For Low-Tech Travelers

I’m an unapologetic Luddite. My colleagues at Gadling will attest to this. The fact that I write for AOL is both cosmic luck and hilarious irony given my initial reluctance to embrace the digital era.

I can’t help it; it’s hereditary. At least, that’s what I tell myself, whenever I watch my dad pecking away on my grandparent’s 1930s Smith-Corona (not a lie), or fumbling with the remote.

It’s unsurprising that when I travel, I try to keep things as low-tech as possible. It’s a matter of both practicality and part of my old school aesthetic that leads me to eschew costly devices and other gadgets. I’m also incapable of figuring out how to use them, so I look at it as less items to get stolen or malfunction.

I know I’m not alone, so I’ve compiled a list of holiday gifts for the die-hard travelers on your list who refuse to change their old-timey ways. Just remember, one of these days, us minimalists are going to be cutting-edge for being retro.

Gift card to an actual bookstore (preferably independently-owned), or travel store.
Yeah, books are heavier to lug than a Kindle or a Nook, but as a writer, I value the written word. So do a lot of people, and one of the joys of traveling for us is exchanging books with fellow vagabonds or trading in at a guesthouse or hostel.

Prepaid international phone card
Cheap, abundant, and a hell of a lot less of a hassle than dealing with Verizon overseas (in my experience). A prepaid international card is easy to purchase, although do note it’s usually less expensive for travelers to purchase cards at their destination. It’s the thought that counts.

Netbook or airbook
I may be tech-challenged, but I’m not crazy. I can’t earn a living if I don’t travel with a computer. My inexpensive little Acer has seen me through a lot of countries and fits neatly into my daypack, along with its accessories. Don’t forget a wireless mouse to go with it.
Waterproof journal
Many travelers keep journals, and some of us who travel occupationally still carry notebooks (I don’t even own a tape recorder). It’s a huge bummer, however, when the inevitable rain, beer, wine, or coffee renders covers soggy or writing illegible. An all-weather notebook is the solution.

Ibex undergarments
I used to work in a mountaineering/ski shop in Telluride, and I swear by Ibex. Their 100% merino wool, American-made boy shorts, long johns/long “janes,” cami’s, sports bras, and adorable, long-sleeve, stripey tops are the ultimate underlayers for cold weather adventures. I road-tested some items on a month-long backpacking trip through Ecuador, from the Amazon Basin to one of the highest active volcanoes on earth. I was able to do laundry exactly twice. Ibex: 1, Stench: 0. Men’s and women’s items available; they also make outerwear.

Travel scarf/shawl/blanket
Many women get cold on airplanes and long, AC-blasted bus rides. Since I backpack, I’ve found several different drapey items in my travels that pull triple duty. Depending upon what part of the world I’m in, I’ll use a soft, alpaca shawl to dress up outfits, as a lap blanket, or an impromptu pillow. In the Andes, I sub a llama wool poncho. In the tropics, it’s a pretty, airy sarong. When I get home, I have a wonderful souvenir.

If you’re buying for someone departing on a trip, any department store will have a wide assortment and price range of pashminas or scarves. Just be sure it’s a dark color, to hide dirt and stains, and that it’s made of soft, preferably natural-fibers, so it won’t absorb odors as readily. The item should be able to withstand sink-washing.

Multi-purpose beauty products
Regardless of gender, everyone loves multi-purpose travel products: more room for souvenirs! I like Josie Maran Argan Oil, which can be used as a lightweight, yet rich, face or body moisturizer, or to condition hair (use just a few drops for soft, gleaming strands). Rosebud salve comes in cute, vintagey tins, smells lovely, and soothes everything from dry lips and cracked heels to flyaways. Many top make-up brands produce multi-use products: I crave Korres Cheek Butter, which is also gorgeous on lips (all available at Sephora).

Lush makes luxe bar soaps that work on body and hair, but perhaps the kindest gift for the female adventure traveler? Inexpensive fragrance that does double duty as perfume and clothes/room freshener. I never leave home without Demeter’s Gin & Tonic Cologne Spray.

[Photo Credit: jurvetson]

Gadling Gift Guide: Tech for Travel

Tech Gift Guide: Samsung 9 laptopTravel has certainly changed in the last decade and most of us would probably agree that those changes haven’t always been for the best. Fortunately, technology has been one of the bright spots over the past few years however, and we now have a plethora of options for entertainment, staying connected, and getting work done while on the go. Here are a few great gift ideas for the techie traveler on your list this holiday season.

Laptops
More and more of us are traveling with computers these days, even if we don’t always need them to do work. A laptop keeps us connected while on the go, allows to play games, watch movies, upload photos, and so much more. With that in mind, here are three great options for travel.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1
This powerful and rugged laptop is perfect for adventure travelers heading to remote destinations. Built on a carbon fiber frame and packing a water resistant keyboard, the X1 is designed to take a beating and still keep working. It also happens to be one of the thinnest ThinkPad’s ever built and weighs in at just 3.7 pounds, which is amazingly light for a ruggedized laptop. The battery lasts a solid 5.5 hours and can be recharged to 80% of its power in just 30 minutes. ($1467)

Samsung Series 9
If you’re looking for something a bit more stylish than the ThinkPad X1, without compromising durability, then look no further than the Series 9 from Samsung. It’s Duralumin case is built from the same materials as modern aircraft, which makes it strong, yet light and flexible. This ultra-thin notebook is just .6 inches thick and weighs in at a mere 2.9 pounds, which makes it a lightweight and powerful travel companion for those extended trips abroad. The 7 hour battery life will be appreciated on long flights as well. ($1550)

Asus Zenbook UX21
One of the first of a new line of laptops dubbed “ultrabooks,” the Zenbook UX21 from Asus is a great option for individuals who like to travel light. This diminutive notebook weighs just 2.4 pounds and is razor thin, allowing it to slip inside your carry-on with ease. The Zenbook offers 5 hours of battery life, features a 128GB solid state drive, and premium sound for listening to music and movies while on the go. It also packs a pleasant price tag, with Amazon offering it up for just $966.

Logitech Ultimate Ears 600vi headset
MP3 players have made possible to take our entire collection of music with us when we travel, but you’ll need a great pair of headphones to get the best sound possible. We were suitably impressed with the Ultimate Ears 600vi ear buds when we reviewed them a few weeks back, awarding them high marks for both comfort and sound quality. The integrated microphone, volume, and track controls work great as well, and the included hard carrying is more than appreciated when throwing them in your pack before you go. ($95)

Travelers looking for a more traditional set of headphones that are both super-comfortable and noise isolating, will want to investigate the Bose QuietComfort 15. While pricier than the Ultimate Ears, they also set the standard for sound quality on a mobile device. ($300)

Want to share your music with friends? Then check-out the iHome iHM79 portable speakers. They feature rechargeable batteries and great sound, in a tiny package. ($42)Amazon Kindle E-Reader
Sure, the Amazon Fire is the new hotness (pun intended!), but it is tough to beat the original Kindle, especially at it’s new $79 price point. The device’s e-ink display is perfect for reading in nearly all conditions and the device has outstanding battery life that is measured in days, not hours. The Kindle has done for books what MP3 players did for music – allow us to bring our entire library with us when we go, and it is still a great gift for the tech obsessed traveler on your list. ($79)

Tech Gift Guide: Nikon 1 J1 CameraNikon 1 V1 Camera
Digital cameras have revolutionized the way we capture photos and video from our travels, and Nikon has one of the best new options for travelers this year. The Nikon 1 is the company’s first foray into the micro 4/3 category, which offers up a compact and lightweight body, as well as a line of interchangeable lenses. Smaller than a DSLR, but more powerful than a point and shoot, the Nikon 1 takes amazing photos and video, without taking up too much room in your bag. ($599)

For those looking for simpler and more affordable option, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FP1 is tough to beat. It is a compact point and shoot camera with great image quality, fast focus, and outstanding battery life. ($120)

iPhone 4S
While the iPhone 4S is rightfully getting lots of attention for its new digital assistant, Siri, and it’s outstanding camera, that isn’t why we’re putting it on our holiday list. The newest version of Apple’s iconic device is also a World Phone, which means you can now use it in over 200 countries. That alone makes it easy to recommend for travelers looking to stay connected while visiting foreign lands and previous iPhone users will rejoice that they will no longer need a separate phone when traveling abroad. ($200)

Outlets To Go Powerstrip
Keeping our gadgets powered and charged while traveling can be a real challenge, especially in hotel rooms, which seem to always lack convenient places to plug-in. A simple travel powerstrip, like the Outlets To Go from Monster, can help solve that problem. The tiny device packs three AC outlets and an integrated USB port, which is fantastic for keeping your phone, iPod, or other small electronics charged. ($12)

International travelers may want to pair the powerstrip with the Kensington All-in-One Plug Adapter as well. I take one with me whenever I leave the country, and have found it useful on many occasions. ($15)

Roku 2 HD
While not specifically a gift for travelers, who doesn’t enjoy returning home from a long vacation and curling up on their own couch? The Roku 2 HD streams all kinds of Internet content to any TV, including Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, YouTube, and so much more. It is also a great way to share photos from your latest adventure with friends and family, on your big-screen, high defnition television. Best of all, it costs just $70, which isn’t much for a tiny wireless device that offers so much entertainment. ($70)

Galley Gossip: Electronic devices & the passenger with the cat-like reflexes

When a passenger said to me with a straight face that he had cat-like reflexes, I tried not to laugh. Only it’s impossible not to laugh when a person says something like this, and actually means it. FYI: I’ve been around a lot of passengers and I have yet to meet one with these kind of reflexes. At least not in this day and age of distracted air travel.

How did I meet my funny feline friend? We had just touched down at La Guardia airport in New York. While taxiing to the gate, I spotted him, a business man, sitting in the aisle seat of the last row of coach with a mammoth-sized computer resting on his lap, fingers typing away.

From the back of the airplane over the roar of the engine, I called out, “Sir, excuse me, Sir! “

Either he couldn’t hear me or assumed I was speaking to someone else. I unbuckled my belt and gently tapped him on the shoulder. “You’re not supposed to be using that right now.”

Fingers continued to peck at the keys. Eyes remained glued to the screen. “I thought we were allowed to use electronic devices after landing.”

“It’s okay to use your cell phone after landing, but not a computer. That should be off and stowed.”

On a mission, the fingers kept moving. “I’m….almost…done.”

Almost was not soon enough.

“Do you know why you’re supposed to have that stowed?” I asked. Finally the fingers came to a stop, and for the first time during the course of a two and a half hour flight, the gentleman and I made eye contact. “If there’s an emergency and I have to pop the slide and evacuate this plane, you’re going to waste a lot of precious time fumbling around with that fifty pound laptop! Do you think your neighbor wants to gets blocked in, or worse, whacked in the head? Also what if I need your help?!”

Sheepishly he smiled. “What if I told you I have cat-like reflexes.”

And there you have it. That’s how this passenger, a middle-aged man, became known as The Cat Man. As for his amazing reflexes, I’d seen them in action and I was not at all impressed. During the flight when I went to put a cup of club soda down on his tray table, I had to wait a few minutes for him to figure out what to do with the laptop. And the Blackberry. And the other Blackberry.

On a recent flight a first class passenger thought nothing of pulling out his cell phone and texting while I stood right in front of him demonstrating the safety announcement! Another chatted away in coach as we turned onto the runway. “I heard you!” barked a woman when I asked her to turn off a game boy. Now I had already asked her twice to put it away and I kinda-sorta needed to take my jump seat before takeoff, so now wasn’t a good time to discuss why she couldn’t keep it in “airplane mode.”

Last week on a flight from New York to Aspen, after the lights were turned to bright and the flight attendant in charge made the announcement about turning electronic devices off, stowing bags, and putting seat backs in the upright and locked position, I went through the cabin and row by row had to practically invite each and every passenger to do as they were told – not once, but a few times! No joke, my four year-old has better listening skills than most of the adults on this flight. And there were 124 passengers on board! Never in my life has it taken me so long to prepare a cabin for landing! Because some of these passengers had more than one electronic device in use, I couldn’t get their attention, and when I finally did, they still couldn’t grasp what I was saying. I had to resort to a game of charades. Try acting out “head phones off. Power down computer” twenty times in flight and you’ll know what it’s like to be me.

Now when I encounter these kind of passengers, I can’t help but think of my old friend and his not-so cat-like reflexes. But instead of laughing, I feel more like hissing and scratching. Just consider yourself warned.

Meow.

Photo courtesy of Svacher

Top five travel gadgets NOT to take on your next trip (and what to pack instead)

gadget, gadgets
I’m in the throes of packing for a two-month journey to Ethiopia. I try to pack light, other than the inevitable pile of books. While some tech freaks pack a lot of travel gadgets, I find these to be more of a hindrance than a help. Here are five things that you might want to leave behind if you’re heading out for some adventure travel.

GPS
Yes, these are handy, but they can break with rough handling and are very attractive to thieves.
What to bring instead: A compass. It’s cheaper, much less likely to break or be stolen, and with a good map is just as useful. It also makes you notice the terrain more and become more aware of the lay of the land.

Ereader
Ebooks certainly save space, and many travelers like ebooks, but ereaders are far more stealable than some tattered old paperback. Plus you need to recharge your device and you can’t give or exchange books with the locals.
What to bring instead: A paperback or three. Preferably something you don’t mind trading or giving away.

IPod
Music is fun to have on the road, but it cuts you off from the sounds around you. I want to hear the muezzin’s call, the chatter of foreign languages, the local tunes blasting from shops and cafes. My playlist is part of my life back home, so I don’t need it while I’m away. I can listen to it when I get back.
What to bring instead: Nothing.Translation software
Translation software has improved a lot in recent few years. There’s even Word Lens, an iPhone app that overlays English onto foreign writing. When Jeremy Kressmann visited me in Madrid earlier this month we tried it on a menu. It was impressive but didn’t translate some of the culinary terms. I prefer learning a language the old-fashioned way. Except for France, all of the 31 countries I’ve visited are filled with people who want to help you learn their language. What better way to hook up with locals?
What to bring instead: A good dictionary and phrasebook. Also pack a good attitude.

Laptop
To be honest, I do take a laptop on some of my trips, but not on an adventure. My laptop means work, and while part of my work is travel writing, the best way for me to do that job is to focus on what’s going on around me. Computers can be a huge distraction and you always have to worry about them getting stolen or blasted by a power surge. If you do take your laptop to a developing country, pack a voltage regulator.
What to bring instead: A notebook and pen. Don’t worry, even Ethiopia has Internet cafes.

If there’s a theme to this, it’s that all of these gadgets distract you from the place and people you’re visiting. Doing without them for a month or two can be a welcome break, and your trip will be richer because of it. I didn’t need any of these things twenty years ago when I started doing adventure travel, and I don’t need them now that they exist.

[Photo courtesy user rkzerok via Gadling's flickr pool]

Only approved electronic devices allowed in the cockpit?

Maybe the flight attendants should start talking to the cockpit, too. When a plane overshot Minneapolis last month because the crew was playing around with personal laptops, national attention turned to what actually goes on in the front of the plane. Congress is kicking around the idea of a new bill that would kick personal electronic devices from the cockpit.

Unsurprisingly, the pilots and airlines aren’t crazy about the idea. They say that the measure would impede progress by making innovation less accessible. Scott Schleiffer, a cargo pilot who’s also thrown some brain time at safety issues for the Air Line Pilots Association, told USA Today, “We would like to have access to tools, and as tools evolve, we would like to have better tools.”

FAA chief Randy Babbit agrees, saying, “We need to be very careful,” in regards to the prohibition of personal devices in the cockpit.

Airlines are starting to bring new technology into the cockpit, with laptops and other devices used to improved weather and safety information. The devices aren’t all that different from what distracted the Northwest pilots who missed Minneapolis. JetBlue has issued laptops to pilots, which are used to push through calculations during takeoff and landing. But, the airline doesn’t allow personal use of them.

So far, two bills have been introduced in the Senate. They would exempt devices used to operate the plane or help with safety issues, but pilots don’t believe that this is enough.

Neither side of the argument addresses the core problem: keeping pilots focused on the job. In theory, extraordinary measures shouldn’t be necessary. Professionals, by definition, should not need that kind of intense oversight. It’s already against the against the law for pilots not to pay attention to their responsibilities, and that’s probably enough regulation. Instead, the solution needs to come to the airlines — organizational measures are needed to ensure that professionals remain professional. Executed properly, the good ones shouldn’t even notice a different.