I’ve done quite a lot of travelling on my own and it’s never been at the luxury end of the scale, where in my imagination there is always someone around to resolve your issues for you – a personal concierge or perhaps, a la early 20th century upper class ladies, a travelling companion whose job is to amuse and take care of the boring practicalities while one admires the scenery and talks down to the natives.
These days when I travel I have responsibility for others as well as myself: most often my two-year-old daughter, but occasionally my husband who, while definitely the practical, problem-solving one in most areas of our relationship, seems to cede that role to me when it comes to non-boat-related travel.
So over the course of my wanderings I’ve developed an essential list of 5 travel basics that I won’t leave home without.
1. Pashmina scarf (the real thing).
I once had a fantastic, lilac pashmina scarf. It was two metres long and one and a half metres wide, and it was made of a beautiful, soft mix of pashmina wool and silk. It had cool points, being bought for me in Nepal from traders representing the local women who created it (though the cool points will disappear when I mention I was in an office in Surrey at the time, and the purchaser was the marketing manager Arabella’s far more intrepid brother). It was as light as a feather, about half a centimetre thick, and folded up small enough to be stuffed into a biggish trouser pocket. During its life as my top travel accessory it metamorphosed from glamorous, drapey evening scarf, through travel pillow, knee blanket, picnic blanket, muslim-woman disguise (probably not that convincing given my amateur headscarfing skills but did the job of keeping away unwanted attention on a long and crowded bus journey), to toasty duvet in an icey-cold hall of residence in Malmo, Sweden. I lost it on a bus journey: I have a habit of leaving items of value under my seat or tucked down the side, so do feel free to have a rummage if you ever see me on my travels, getting off at my final destination.
2. A pack of wet wipes.
My godmother, who has far more travelling experience than I do and in places of higher dysentry risk, swears by antibacterial gel cleanser but for versatility I’ll go with wet wipes, preferably alcohol-free. Savlon have great ones which are antiseptic, sting-free (there are places on your body you definitely don’t want to be rubbing with alcohol-soaked cloths) and come in individual packages. Pre- and post-food, in unsavoury lavatorial facilities, on burns and cuts, freshening your face, wiping your feet, as a general shower-in-a-packet, wiping off fish scales… Mothers of small children know the value of a good wet wipe but for me they’re a travel essential I’ll never grow out of.
3. Long trousers.
No matter where you’re going, don’t leave home without long trousers. The precise style might depend on your destination but even in the hottest or ruggedest places, long trousers could come to your rescue. Mine have kept me warm when marooned at an icy air-conditioned US airport despite outside temperatures in the high 30s. They have protected me from ticks and snakebites when camping in France. They have permitted me into a posh restaurant in Copenhagen, and helped me feel a bit more appropriately dressed for a last-minute wedding invitation in Rimini and a mosque visit in Istanbul. I expect if I ever did do any high end travel they’d get me onto the captain’s table on the cruise ship, or in through the doors of that luxury hotel in Monte Carlo too. Or who knows, they could double as a tourniquet, a slingshot, a thingy for sliding down the cable of a broken ski lift… Long trousers are the new black.
4. A packet of dried fruit and nuts.
I don’t know whether I just have blood-sugar issues but I’m one of those people who need to eat frequently. Sometimes food is easy to come by but sometimes there just isn’t the time to stop, or there’s too much time thanks to transport delays but nowhere to find food, or there’s food but it’s too expensive, or of provenance too dubious to risk. Nuts and raisins are a great travelling snack option. Healthy, high in energy, aroma-free, don’t crush easily (and it doesn’t matter if they do get squashed), don’t spoil easily, clean to eat and the only rubbish they generate is the container you brought them in. Also they’re a very acceptable thing to offer your neighbour as a gesture of friendship (as long as your neighbour doesn’t have a nut allergy in which case you’d better hope they decline or you’ll be wishing your travel essential was an anaphylaxis pen!).
5. Credit card.
I know that seems a bit obvious and should be on a desert-island-discs -style group of “free” items that are just so basic they come as a given, like the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. But I find a credit card fits into my bag much better (even in these Kindle
days) and that little piece of plastic beats even my mobile phone for helping me out of a travelling jam. As well as sundry purchases, my card has bought me these things:
- An alternative flight home when I got on the wrong train at Sants in Barcelona and ended up stranded at El Prat de Llobregat, watching the non-stop trains hurtling their happy passengers to their homeward flights, little realising that, had I but known the way, I could have walked from the station to the airport in less than the two hours it took before a stopping train finally arrived and deposited me, five minutes and a missed flight later, at Barcelona airport.
- Medical attention on several occasions, happily all minor, at a variety of hospitals, dentists and pharmacies.
- Into a country, and out of a country, both times Turkey (proving that no matter how hospitable the people, passport officers are rarely happy souls). The first was due to an insufficiency of cash dollars, despite having carefully got a Turkish friend to call Dalaman airport in advance and check exactly how much was required for a US passport holder and two Portuguese ones to buy their tourist visa on arrival. The memur was unsympathetic to the plight of these foreign women and their 3-month old baby at 3am and was quite willing to turn us away to wait in no-man’s land for the next flight out. Fortunately we were with a French citizen, who needed no visa to enter Turkey and found a friendly police woman who berated the passport officer until he agreed to accept payment by credit card for the difference. The exit issue was for an inadvertently overstayed visa at Istanbul. I was sent away at the first passport control and not allowed back through until I’d found the correct police department, been presented with my fine, dispatched to a cash machine for the money to pay it (which I withdrew on my precious credit card), back to the police and finally back to passport control, who broke with hostile passport officer tradition and very kindly let me jump the queue so I didn’t miss yet another flight.
What have I missed? And I realise this list is very low-tech – what’s your must-have app or piece of technology you won’t travel without?