The Tech You Need to Travel Better

Instead of buying “smart luggage,” a few simple upgrades will make your favorite carry-on smart enough to charge your gadgets, weigh itself, and warn you if you’ve forgotten it.

With airline seats getting smaller and highways more crowded, it’s a good thing there are plenty of high-tech, budget-friendly solutions to our travel woes. While there is no gadget that will make your seat wider or lessen traffic, there are some that will help you sleep better and stay relaxed on your next trip.

Here are a few suggestions you may want to invest in, with the help of our colleagues at Wirecutter, the product recommendations site owned by The New York Times.

“Smart” luggage is luggage that will charge your phone or comes with location tracking so you won’t lose it. I have had the opportunity to travel with a smart bag, and it was nice to have a bag that would alert me if I walked too far from it or could charge my phone while I sat at a gate, far from an outlet, waiting for my now-delayed flight to board.

However, smart bags are expensive, and changing airline policies and confusion over how the bags (which often include lithium-ion batteries and other electronics) should be screened at security have crushed the industry. Companies like Away still make them, but our colleagues at Wirecutter suggest you save money and hassle and make your own luggage smart with a few simple additions.

“When we first looked into smart luggage, we concluded that buying a suitcase that had a USB-battery pack, scale, and Bluetooth tracker embedded wasn’t worth it,” said Christine Ryan, an editor at Wirecutter. “We thought it smarter (sorry!) to buy those things separately and use them with the bag you already have, and hopefully love. Two years later, we stand by that decision, especially now that two of the major ‘smart bag’ companies have folded.”

For example, the addition of a USB battery pack that’ll fit neatly in your bag will keep your phone or tablet charged while you’re on layover or waiting for a delayed flight or train. A Tile Bluetooth Tracker can slide anywhere inside your bag and pairs with an app on your smartphone to let you know how far away your bag is at all times. A simple USB travel scale like the Balanzza Mini USB scale even lets you weigh your bag on the go, the same way smart luggage can.

Speaking of batteries, you shouldn’t travel without an external battery pack (to keep all the other electronics in this list charged) and a portable surge protector to turn the only outlet in reach in your hotel room into two or three.

Ria Misra, another Wirecutter editor, called out the hotel/airport outlet problem: “Outlets aren’t always readily available or convenient when you’re traveling, particularly on international trips where you may also need an additional adapter to get the plug to work. I take a charged USB battery pack with me when I head out on the road, especially if I know I’m going to be using my phone’s GPS to navigate unfamiliar terrain, which can drain a battery fast. It’s also great to bring along when I plan to take public transport at my destination, so that I can charge up while in transit on a bus, train, or even on a long walk.”

Consider the Jackery Bolt or the Anker Powercore 20100, both Wirecutter favorites that are small enough to toss in a bag or backpack and will keep your phone topped off all day. The former comes with built-in cables, and while the latter requires you to provide your own cable (which we suggest you pack anyway), it offers more power in exchange.

If you want to be everyone’s best friend at the airport — or at least make sure no one in your party fights over the single outlet available at your departure gate — bring a portable power strip and surge protector. Wirecutter recommends the Accel Home or Away 3-port surge protector or the Tripp Lite Protect It 3-port surge protector. Both options turn a single power outlet into three surge-protected ones. You also get two USB ports, perfect for charging phones or e-readers while you use a laptop or other device. Also, don’t forget an outlet adapter, if you’re headed somewhere with different electrical outlets than here at home. Some of the best also work as port extenders, and even have USB ports, like this Ventev model.

If you have trouble sleeping, especially when you travel, a white noise machine may make a world of difference. At home I keep a fan on while I sleep, and I find the sound (and breeze) soothing. But when I’m on the road, I don’t have that luxury.

In that case, Wirecutter recommends the Lectrofan. It’s a stand-alone white noise machine that masks out barking dogs, snoring roommates or other mysterious hotel sounds. “I don’t need a noise machine at home, but having a white-noise app on my phone has been a life (well, night) saver when I’ve stayed in hotels with thin walls,” Ms. Ryan said. “I bring a Bluetooth speaker too, which helps the app drown out those outside sounds.”

It’s affordable, only about $50, and easy to use, even in the dark. If that sounds like $50 too much, I’ve had some luck recording the sound of my fan at home and then playing it back on my phone while I sleep, but Wirecutter also suggests a few apps for your smartphone that can create their own white noise.

myNoise, available for the Apple iPhone and iPad, and Noisli, available for devices running Google’s Android, are both great options. I’ve used Noisli with much success in the past, and its web app is great for helping you focus while working. myNoise is free, and offers additional sounds and features are available as in-app purchases, while Noisli is $2 with all of its features unlocked.

I don’t know anyone who pays for movies in hotel rooms, although I’m sure such people must exist. However, whatever broadcast, cable or pay-per-view hotels usually leave much to be desired. I like to travel with a Google Chromecast in my bag, although any streaming stick (Wirecutter likes the Roku Streaming Stick) will do. Streaming sticks are palm-sized, connect directly to a TV’s HDMI port and use Wi-Fi to stream media you control with your phone.

Not every hotel has HDTVs where you can access the ports, but many do, specifically for this purpose. With a Chromecast or Roku Stick in your bag, you get to choose what you watch on the hotel TV, and it’s great to log into your own Netflix account and continue the series you’ve been binge watching. Even better, if you’re traveling with children, you can pull up shows you know they enjoy, rather than try to find something from the TV’s on-demand or cable choices.

Frequent airline travelers know that a good pair of noise canceling headphones makes all the difference between a relaxing, pleasant flight, and one punctuated with engine noise, inconsolable children or overly chatty seatmates. At the very least, they dull the noise of the engines so you can get some sleep, or play your favorite tunes so you can enjoy that instead of the sounds of the people around you.

By virtually all accounts (including Wirecutter’s) the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II are the headphones to beat. They can function in both wired and wireless modes, feature long battery life when you do use them wirelessly, and block out most external noise so you can sleep or enjoy your music, movies, or anything else in peace. They can be pricey though, generally about $350. For a more affordable option, consider the Audio Technica ATH-ANC7B, available for about a third of that price.

A good sleep mask will help you sleep whether you’re on a long haul flight or at a hotel. Wirecutter likes the Nidra Deep Rest, which sports individual eye cups and sizable straps to block out the most light. Ms. Ryan uses Wirecutter’s additional selection, the Alaska Bear sleep mask, and praised it highly. “I went to Iceland last summer, right at the solstice, and if I hadn’t brought my Alaska Bear sleep mask, I’d have been terrible company,” she said. “First we were staying in a big-windowed camper van and then in an Airbnb with lovely, lacy, not-at-all-blackout curtains, so sleeping without a mask would have been … challenging.”

Also in the comfort department, a good pair of compression socks are great for any long day on the go but especially comfortable on long flights. They can boost circulation and are useful to prevent deep vein thrombosis, but are no excuse not to get up and stretch your legs on a long flight. “I know I’m supposed to get up and walk around the cabin when I fly,” Ms. Ryan said, “but if I’m sitting by the window, often I’ll just curl up and wait it out rather than try to crawl out over my neighbors. So I wear compression socks in the hopes that they’ll do something to counteract the sitting. They do feel good, at least.”

Similarly, a collapsible day pack is great for any shopping or souvenir-buying wherever you travel. The L. L. Bean Stowaway Day Pack is a great option that packs down and fits into a smaller bag when you don’t need it, but expands into a full backpack when you do. Also consider a set of packing cubes (I own a Wirecutter recommendation, the Eagle Creek’s packing cube system) to help keep the rest of your luggage neatly organized.

“Packing cubes make it easy to neatly compress your clothes to save space in your suitcase,” Ms. Misra said, “but, I’ve also found them especially useful in keeping my things organized throughout my travels. Even after I’ve dug to the very bottom of my suitcase in search of a lost item or two, my clothes are still tidily folded and zipped away.”

These last few things may not be apps, or gadgets you can plug in, but they’ll make sure your next trip is that much more manageable — and most importantly, less stressful.

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