The Things We Carry

THE SCOURGES of modern-day air travel. I can think of a few: TSA, delayed flights, garbage in your seat pocket. Screaming kids and misdirected luggage. “CNN Airport News.”

Or, how about the blizzard of cardboard placards that hotel chains insist on littering their rooms with? I spend a quarter of my life in hotel rooms, and I resent having to spend the first five minutes of every stay gathering up an armful of this diabolical detritus and heaving it into a corner where it belongs. Attention innkeepers: this is fundamentally bad business. One’s first moments in a hotel room should be relaxing. The room itself should impart a feeling of welcome; it shouldn’t put you to work.

And here’s another one: the ever-expanding collection of electronic cords, adapters, chargers and other gadgets I’m obliged to haul around with me. You know what I’m talking about. Anybody who travels regularly knows what I’m talking about — an assortment of technological tackle that seems always be getting larger and more cumbersome. It keeps us “connected.” It makes our lives easier and more productive.

That’s what they tell us, anyway.  We’re increasingly at the mercy of commercial products, both tangible and virtual, and taught to behave as if we truly need them.

Don’t get me wrong. Riding the subway out to Logan, I love being able to pop in my earbuds and catch a few cuts from the Wedding Present or the Jazz Butcher. And my MacBook Air is as essential for travel as a change of socks. But there is, or was, something to be said for that unplugged, disconnected age of not-so-long-ago. If nothing else, our carry-ons were lighter, with more room for clothes.

The photo below shows the assortment of electronic gadget and gizmos I take with me pretty much every time I hit the road, be it for work or pleasure. As recently as a decade ago I owned none of this. I didn’t even have a cell phone until 2006.

Clockwise-ish, from upper right:

— My camera. It’s a Nikon 1, now that I’ve retired my Panasonic DMC-LX3 — a decent point-and-shoot with a Leica lens and super-long battery life. The Nikon takes better photos but it’s heavier and the battery doesn’t last nearly as long, meaning I sometimes have to bring along a charger as well (not shown). The camera comes with me on all of my vacations and half or so of my work assignments.

— Power adapter for laptop.

— Ethernet cord. Useful in those (too many) hotels where Wi-Fi is weak and a wired connection runs more robustly. Hotel-supplied ethernet cords are often broken.

— USB-to-ethernet adapter (see above).

— iPhone 4. (Product unplug: Am I the only person who despises — and I mean really despises — the iPhone’s messaging keypad? Because the special function keys — caps, space bar, backspace and return — are so close to the normal character keys, I’m constantly capitalizing, spacing and backspacing when I don’t mean to. This happens in either the vertical or horizontal layout, and it’s especially annoying for those of us with fat fingers. It takes me five attempts to complete the simplest sentence.)

— USB charger for iPhone. Includes a USB-to-AC connector (optional, but a good thing to have).

— Earbuds. It’s a Klipsch set.

— 32GB flash drive. For my backup files and for transferring to and from my master computer at home.

— AC adapter set. Essential when traveling overseas.

— And in the middle of it all, my beloved MacBook Air.

All together, we’re looking at roughly five pounds of gadgetry that, for all intents and purposes, is mandatory carry-on. Sometimes it’s slightly less, other times slightly more. Not shown, for instance, is a spare battery or charger for the Nikon, or my Flip video camera. (Flip is what I used to record this footage in Egypt and Senegal.) )

Thus, the real must-have gadget is a decent case or container in which to consolidate all of this crap. For me, most of the more wiry components above fit nicely into an old business class amenities kit, which keeps them out of the way and avoids tangles. (How frustrating is it, meanwhile, that so many electronic devices require their own proprietary charging cord or adapter? Imagine if every lamp took a different kind of light bulb.)

As for the rest of my luggage… I’m something of a pro when it comes to short-notice, multi-climate packing. Here’s a tip: go with lightweight clothing. What a concept, I know, but I’m amazed by how many people travel with heavy cotton jeans — even to hot climates. I own a lot of fast-dry synthetics. They’re not stylish, but when have I ever been? On the other hand I can launder a pair of pants in the hotel bathtub and they’re dry before morning.


a version of this story orginally ran on the website Salon.


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16 Responses to “The Things We Carry”
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  1. Ethanq says:

    Is the title a reference to the Tim O’Brien book?

  2. MG says:

    That’s about the same amount of gadgets I travel with now, but I would argue that they (including chargers) weigh less than the novels, maps and guidebooks, and paperwork (documents, registrations etc) that I used to have to lug around, especially on business trips. These have unequivocally made my travel more pleasant (as someone with no sense of direction, the various map and direction features alone are worth it).

  3. Vinny Noggin says:

    Last week at the San Jose Norman Mineta place, I saw a guy wearing a kilt.It was plaid. Other than the kilt he looked normal and harried, was dragging the standard wheeled bag behind, wasn’t wearing a beret. It crossed my mind to ask him if he was wearing a jockstrap or what underneath. But you don’t do that.

  4. Msconduct says:

    A key thing in my kit that you don’t show is a common-or-garden power board to plug all the other stuff into. That way I only need one adapter.

  5. Randy S says:

    Remember when we needed voltage converters also?

    My USB drive is on my keychain. It’s surprising how often I use it. Significantly reduces the chance of losing it.

  6. phs3 says:

    Devices are *mostly* moving toward a few more universal connections: micro-USB, Apple’s own thing, some mini-USB. In any case, hotels *could* offer micro-USB charging ports, hard-wired, and sell adapters. So if you have a non-micro-USB device, you’d buy the adapter *once* ($5?) and just carry that. This is assuming you’re a frequent traveler with a hotel chain preference. Would be differentiator for the hotel chain, build loyalty, etc.

    1) Adoption wouldn’t be instant. But we all book online now, right? So you could check before traveling.
    2) “Broken” rooms, where the adapter doesn’t work. That’s solvable with a dozen or so portable adapters kept at the desk and lent (WITH DEPOSIT) to travelers. Make ’em bulky so there’s no incentive to keep ’em.

    HHonors, are you listening? 🙂

  7. Don says:

    Couple of suggestions:
    * Try an Android phone. Same charger works for that and many other devices.
    * Put smaller chargers, headphones, flash drives, etc. in sandwich-sized plastic baggies and stick them in the Tumi. They stay untangled and access is easy.
    * Try a Mi-Fi device that uses the same charger as the android phone, then you don’t have to worry about hotel Wi-Fi (and can use in a taxi or shuttle bus) or a cable.

    • Simon says:

      You don’t need to give up your iPhone to be able to use a micro USB charger. You simply get a $5 micro-USB to iPhone 30 pin adapter. Done. Apple sells theirs for $19 but there are cheaper ones that do the same trick.

  8. Mike S says:

    You totally need to get a GRID-IT for all your electronic accessories. It has literally saved my life and slips in and out of your carry-on very easily, just like a laptop.

    Here is a picture of mine on a recent trip (FYI: THAI Airways A380 CDG to BKK in First, AWESOME FLIGHT!).

  9. Roberta says:

    Great post! I know you’re not ready to do this, but how about upgrading to an iPhone 5 and using the camera on there instead? I am also a photographer (amateurish) and I finally stopped carrying my camera because I was really impressed with the quality of the iPhone pictures.

    Also instead of carrying the flash drive, I’d like to suggest that you get a Dropbox account. That way you can simply drop files into your Dropbox, and they will always be there if you need them. I’d be afraid of losing the flash drive in some far-off place, not knowing whose hands are on it….

    • Patrick says:

      If the camera on the iPhone 5 is anything like the one on the iPhone 4…. I’ll continue lugging around my Nikon. Cell phone pictures always look great when viewed on the phone, but they’re never as good once downloaded and enlarged to a normal viewing size.

      As for Dropbox… I’ve thought about it, but I don’t always have a Wi-Fi connection when I’m working. Plus, I cannot bear the thought of setting yet another user name and password. I’ll stick with the two-step manual file transfer for now.

  10. Ryan K says:

    When will we get a camera battery charger that works with USB? That would save another bulky device. And how about, as standard on laptops, a USB port that produces current even if the laptop is turned off (for night-time or during-travel charges)?

    In my ideal world I would have two cables, one to plug my laptop into the wall and one to plug every other device into my laptop.

  11. Bob Palmer says:

    You got about all my complaints, but here is another one:

    How about the dearth of water-resistant, shock-resistant devices? Anything costing over a hundred dollars should be able to survive an occasional dunking or a drop from table height. I have a small Canon camera that meets those requirements. But my iPhone, iPad and Apple Mac do not. I spend a lot of time on the water, and caring for those delicate electronic devices is a chore I resent. Yes, there are clunky milspec devices available at a price, but I think robust versions of popular devices could find a market.

  12. Sharon Crawford says:

    Tumi: You can buy better, but you can’t pay more!

    (I have some of their overpriced junk as well.)

  13. Eva says:

    I’m ok with my iPhone’s keypad, but I have small skinny fingers. What about using Siri?, I’ve been surprised by how well it works.

    • Prior to the tech we enjoy today, I always traveled with several books and a stack of cds and cd player. And remember film? I’m so grateful for my tech. It’s thrilling to me to watch whatever movies I want on the plane and have a library of 100 books with me on my kindle. I can fit everything I need in a tiny lightweight bag (organization freak here). I choose not have a smart phone though (for now)–I think that’s the real clincher and it gives me freedom to be unavailable and unplugged the way I need to be. Agree that it would make a ton of sense to have universal cords (and something else I’d love–uncomplicated international cell phone abilities).