I am a budget traveler in every sense of the term. I buy budget airline tickets on sale and will skip meals just to save a few bucks if I find myself in a tourist trap. But when it comes to gear, there are definitely some things that you shouldn’t forgo for the sake of saving a penny. Almost all of the things on this list are still very cheep (some you could even get at the dollar store) but they’re things that I either recommend you not get the absolute cheapest version of, or to pay attention to details when you are bargain shopping.
I will be linking product examples on Amazon. These links are without affiliation or commission.
I’m sure we’ve all had those really cheep felt sleeping masks (like these) that oftentimes come bundled with travel pillows. I think eye shape plays a big part in this, but those flat masks simply don’t work for me. So much light comes in through the space between my cheeks and nose and they sit on my eyelashes in the most annoying way possible.
I recommend, if you have this problem, that you find a mask (like this) that holds a little dome shape over each of your eyes and with a space for the nose (often made with a neoprene or scuba-type fabric). Firstly, the fabric is much more comfortable and durable and secondly, they actually do their job. The one I have came as a freebie so you don’t even necessarily have to spend more; just pay attention to what you’re getting and how it functions.
Plugs & Adapters
Gone are the days of 5 pound bricks (like these) that people tried calling power adapters. Those were so incredibly big and heavy for backpacking and are now super outdated. I got a simple 4 USB power adapter (similar to this) that has removable/exchangeable plugs and made sure that everything I needed to charge when traveling used a USB charger. This has worked amazingly and it’s even what I use at home. (I have a similar kit for my Mac charger.)
For those of you who need actual plugs for heavy duty chargers or (heaven forbid) hairdryers, I recommend something like this which is also universal, compact and a much better option than carrying a brick around since you can plug everything in at once. Finally if you don’t want to shell out for international options online and are not going to be changing countries/adapter types often, just buy local adapters when you arrive. You can find them for a few bucks in grocery stores and kiosks just like you likely can in your home country.
RFID Passport Holder/Wallet
This is super important and probably the most underrated item on the list. Many passports these days have chips in them and basically all credit cards do which means that people near you could potentially be stealing your information while it’s seemingly stowed away securely in your bag. Take the extra precaution and get a passport holder or wallet (whatever you prefer to carry) that is RFID lined to block the scammers.
Hard-Sided Sunglass Case
If quick access to sunglasses when backpacking is something that you value, then keeping them in a water bottle pouch on the outside of your bag is a great idea until they get crunched or scratched. That’s why I forked over an extra buck at the dollar store for a cheep hard-sided sunglass case so that I could keep them at arms reach without worrying about them getting banged up. Sounds simple but it’s something that many fellow backpackers have reveled at during hostel chats.
If you are sitting at home getting ready for your first adventure, you might be thinking about just grabbing your towel from the closet and going. This would be a huge waste of space. I’m sure you’ve heard of how small microfiber towels are and how great they work so I am not going to pitch that idea to you.
Rather, my suggestion is to forego the regular, bath sized option in favor of a hand towel size in order to save yourself a few bucks and even more space when packing (just take a look at the additional space saved between the small and large sized towel in this 2 pack). The microfiber towels work so well that a hand towel size is plenty capable of absorbing all your post-shower water and then some.
I’ve saved the most expensive item for last, but I’m guessing that if you’re a true bargain hunter like me, you will love the challenge. What I mean by travel outerwear are coats and jackets that are thin, compact, and made for travel (not necessarily expensive or backpacking/outdoor brands). Without a doubt, coats, jackets, sweaters, and other cold weather clothes are the bulkiest items to try and pack, but if you get items that are functional and meant for packing, you can travel much easier and be well prepared for any weather that might come your way.
When I do winter backpacking, I basically never pack sweaters because they’re too bulky. Instead I layer long sleeved shirts or thermals with a jacket or two. My favorite is a micro fleece jacket by Jack Wolfskin (got the female version of this on clearance for €30ish). You would not believe how warm it is for being thinner than some t shirts! The problem with micro fleece is that they let wind and rain though, so I also have a windbreaker by Jack Wolfskin (that I won for free) and another by Columbia (like this but I got mine on eBay) to layer on top. The combination of a fleece and windbreaker are as warm and functional as a full coat, but are easier to pack, more versatile, and less cumbersome for fitting a backpack over.
If I am still needing something warmer, I will also take my winter coat that is very thin. I got mine for Christmas and couldn’t believe it when I found out it was from JCPenney! I wish that it folded into a pocket (which is a feature common with travel jackets) so that it is easier to pack when I don’t need it, but for how warm, cheep and compact it is, I’m not going to complain.