5 best lightweight travel bags for under $40

When it comes to traveling with a lightweight bag, not all bags are created equal. Canvas totes that many people use for grocery shopping are often too bulky to pack as a spare travel bag, and many don’t have zippers to keep your valuables secure.

Consider packing one of these lightweight bags on your next trip — each bag costs much less than LeSportsac’s $98 classic Travel Tote, and all of these nylon bags are compact enough to fold up until you need them. Let the souvenir shopping begin.

The Reisenthel Mini Maxi Carryall ($15.95, www.reuseit.com) is the most stylish — and affordable — of the bunch. To close the bag, use the zipper or the drawstring. Best of all, the bag folds flat into a zippered pouch for tidy storage.

Timbuk2‘s Hidden Messenger ($30, www.timbuk2.com) is much lighter than the company’s signature ballistic-nylon messenger bags. This version, which launched in July, is mostly made with materials from recycled plastic bottles. Stylish, rugged, and good for the environment — imagine that.

Sea to Summit’s Ultra-Sil Sling Bag ($29.95, www.seatosummit.com) debuted this month. The bag (also with a zippered top) has a strap that’s long enough to wear diagonally across your body like a messenger bag. When not in use, the bag balls up into its own pouch and can be attached to a key chain or tossed in your suitcase to help corral those last-minute purchases.

The RuMe ALL ($26.96, www.rumebags.com) has simple yet thoughtful touches — a zip-top closure, outer pockets for a water bottle or an umbrella, and an exterior zippered pocket for stashing a cell phone or subway card. Whether you’re putting your bag on the conveyor belt to go through airport security or you’re sliding the bag under an airplane seat, the zipper helps ensure that your stuff doesn’t go flying.

The North Face‘s Flyweight Map Bag ($39, www.thenorthface.com), which can also fold up into its own pocket, has an adjustable shoulder strap and its coated nylon fabric can withstand light rain. Perfect for sightseeing, the bag will be available until February, when it will be replaced by the new Flyweight Shoulder Bag ($25).

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Stay at the Hard Rock San Diego hotel in December, get a free hybrid car rental

Travelers who stay at the Hard Rock San Diego from Dec. 1 to 30 will get a free hybrid car rental during their stay. Considering that the fees for renting a car can quickly add up, this affordable deal gives you more for less.

The “I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas” package starts at $149 per room per night. The one-day hybrid car rental (either a Toyota Prius or a Nissan Altima Hybrid from Enterprise-Rent-A-Car) is worth at least $70.

Perfect for families, the Hard Rock San Diego hotel is about a 10-minute drive from the San Diego Zoo, a 15-minute drive from SeaWorld, and a 40-minute drive from LEGOLAND in Carlsbad.

Details: Book at least 24 hours in advance. Mention promo code GREEN or check availability at www.hardrockhotelsd.com/greenxmas. Limit one 24-hour car rental per stay.

How to keep your house plants alive when you travel

There are pet sitters, of course, but do you hire someone to water your house plants while you’re on vacation?

Since I live in a New York City apartment building, I don’t usually bother asking anyone to pick up my mail or to water my plants when I’m gone. I hate to inconvenience friends, so unfortunately, I pay the price with dead plants (and stolen newspapers).

Though I rarely travel for longer than a week, I’ve killed two potted basil plants since June and recently had to throw out an orchid plant, which had shriveled up during my absence and was beyond salvation.

After feeling like a terrible person for neglecting my orchid, I was happy to come home from a recent trip and find that my two Clearly Good soil-free plants were still very much alive. Sadly, the rest of my plants looked a little parched. (R.I.P. orchid).

Small enough to sit on a windowsill, the Clearly Good plants help brighten apartments or office cubicles without the mess or maintenance of typical potted plants — and the leafy plants look a little more cheerful than, say, a cactus. The see-through vases also clearly indicate the water level, which only needs to be replenished once every 10 days.

These Clearly Good plants, which were introduced at select Lowe’s retail stores in August, are being rolled out to Lowe’s stores nationwide over the coming weeks.

Price: $12.98 each

Where to Buy: Go to lowes.com to find a Lowe’s location near you. According to a Lowe’s spokesperson, the Clearly Good plants will become available for online purchase sometime next year.

Have you found other hardy house plants that can survive when you’re on vacation? Feel free to share.

[Photo by Amy Chen]

How to travel overseas with an iPod touch

Rather than face exorbitant cell-phone roaming charges, my travel companion and I recently traveled to Europe with just an iPad and an iPod touch. Though that meant that we could only look up restaurants or things to do when we were in a free Wi-Fi spot, I enjoyed the break from my inbox. And rather than being tethered to Facebook updates, we both paid more attention to the scene at hand — though as soon as we landed at JFK, my travel partner immediately turned on his iPhone to check Facebook.

Over the course of eight nights, I stayed in six hotels that all had free Wi-Fi access. Here’s what I learned about traveling overseas with the fourth-generation iPod touch:

The iPod touch is an affordable way to stay connected while on the road. For the newest 8GB version with FaceTime, the iPod touch starts at $229, compared to the iPad’s $499 starting price tag. Since there is no data plan for the iPod touch, you don’t have to worry about incurring a monthly bill. Also, since both devices are light and compact enough to carry, I didn’t have to fret about leaving a laptop in our luggage, which we left with the hotel’s front desk during the day before moving on to the next one. Though I normally travel with a netbook in order to back up digital photos and clear memory cards, I solved the memory problem by bringing 18GB’s worth of SD cards, which was more than enough even when shooting RAW files.

Sometimes the iPod touch was able to log on faster than the iPad. For whatever reason, we sometimes couldn’t get the iPad to connect right away. Having two devices that could access the Internet also proved invaluable when plotting our next destination. I used the iPod touch to check simple things like the weather, the time (I still don’t wear a watch), and the train schedule. I also downloaded the free Oanda currency converter app, which I used to calculate exchange rates. Conversely, we used the iPad for booking hotels and travel entertainment.Keep your turned-off cell phone in a safe spot. I made a point to keep my regular cell phone turned off during my vacation, but I experienced a moment of panic at a restaurant when I discovered the phone at the bottom of my messenger bag — turned on. I spent the rest of my meal worrying about how expensive the roaming charges would be. As soon as I got back to my hotel, I checked my online cell-phone statement and was relieved to see that no major damage had been done by my carelessness. (I still have no idea how the phone powered on). Nevertheless, after that incident, I moved my cell phone into my bag’s side pocket so it would stay off and yet still be accessible during emergencies. And though my travel companion could have switched his iPhone to airplane mode and achieved the same effect as with the iPod touch, we found it easier to keep everything off — just in case.

Many hotels generate individual Wi-Fi passwords for each guest.
Some hotels used a computer system to print out a unique Wi-Fi code for our stay. Other hotels used our passport number to create a password. One downtown hotel gave us a username and a password that we could use while sitting in the attached cafe. Even after we checked out, we’d stop by that cafe to order a coffee, rest our feet, check our e-mail, and look up restaurants. At one hotel, we were given a code for one week of complimentary Wi-Fi access, but unfortunately that was our last night so we weren’t able to take advantage of the pass.

Some hotels provided free Wi-Fi in the lobby but charged for Wi-Fi access in the room. In one hotel, we decided that sitting in the lobby was better than paying 15 euros for in-room Internet access. As it turned out, our room smelled like cigarette smoke so the less time we spent in there, the better.

[Photo by Amy Chen]

Travel Technology: No Netflix streaming outside the U.S.

During my recent European vacation, I left my netbook at home and instead relied on my iPad for travel entertainment and on-the-road research.

With no individual in-flight entertainment screens aboard my Delta 767 flight, I was especially grateful for the TV episodes that I had downloaded onto the iPad. Other than the fact that my iPad kept toppling over when the person in front of me shifted in his seat, it was like having a personal seat-back entertainment system.

It is easy, however, to forget that the tools that I rely on for domestic travel aren’t always readily available for international travel. For example, instead of forking over $8 for the hotel’s pay-per-view channel, I often use my Netflix account to stream movies in my hotel room. (After spending hours walking around during the day, I find it relaxing to fall asleep while streaming a movie or some TV shows.)

Unfortunately, when I logged into my Netflix account from my hotel room, I received this message: “Watching instantly is not available outside the U.S. We noticed that the computer that you are using is not located within the 50 United States or the District of Columbia. Due to studio licensing reasons, movies are available to watch instantly only in those locations.”

I ended up downloading more episodes from iTunes, which was painfully slow using the hotel’s Wi-Fi.

As it turned out, Netflix wasn’t the only travel tool that was unavailable on my trip — I couldn’t access Yelp in many cities (I kept getting the message that there were no nearby restaurants even though that clearly wasn’t the case). Interestingly enough, Foursquare had a few check-ins — unfortunately many check-ins appeared to be several months old, so I didn’t feel like I could trust that as a travel resource.

Lessons Learned: Had I known that I wouldn’t be able to use my Netflix account while overseas, I could’ve saved time by downloading extra movies and TV shows before I left on my trip. I also should’ve done more advance research on where to eat instead of assuming that Yelp restaurant reviews would be available. Instead, I had to resort to Google searches, old New York Times travel articles — and following the crowds (a travel tip that never seems to let me down).

[Photo by Amy Chen]