Creative Leadership

Things I Never Travel Without

I travel nearly 200,000 miles a year, and over the course of millions of miles and more than 100 countries, I’ve learned a few things about not just “surviving” but “thriving” on the road. A few years ago I was really frustrated about so much travel, but then realized it was part of what I was called to do, so I could either be miserable for the rest of my life or embrace it. Since then I’ve gotten more and more comfortable on the road, and to help, here’s a handful of things I never travel without:

1) TSA Pre-Check: Even if you only travel a few times a year it’s worth it. You won’t believe the number of times I waltz by 100 or more people in the normal security line and breeze through the TSA Pre-Check line. Plus, I don’t have to take liquids or electronics out of my bag or take my jacket off. In today’s travel environment, and as much as I travel, I might be in a mental institution without it.

2) A Clothes Steamer:  I discovered early on that most irons in hotel rooms – even the nice hotels – either don’t work, or have years of gunk stuck to the bottom. I ruined more than a few shirts before I had my epiphany and bought a steamer. It’s quick, light, simple to use, and does a great job on any fabric.

3) Black Painter’s Tape:  The digital revolution has left hotel rooms looking like the Las Vegas strip. Turn off the lights in most hotel rooms today and you’ll find:
– The fire alarm has a flashing light (why???)
– The alarm clock is way too bright.
– Even turned off, the flatscreen TV has lights in the back and often are cast on the wall behind and can light up a room.
– Most hotel room doors are cut incorrectly and have huge gaps between the door and door frame. So the intense light in the hallway shines in.
– The mounted hair dryer in the bathroom has a “on” light.
– There’s probably a few more than I’ve forgotten.
For whatever reason, hotels don’t seem to care about your room being dark, so that’s why I always have a roll of black painter’s tape in my suitcase. When you remove it, painter’s tape doesn’t pull off paint, so it can be used anywhere and then easily tossed in the trash. Want to actually sleep in a hotel room? Get the tape.

4) A light jacket or sweatshirt:  My wife Kathleen made me realize this because controlling the temperature on planes is difficult, and rarely is it actually comfortable. A light jacket or sweatshirt is a godsend when it gets cold up there.

5) A Club Membership:  If you travel a lot (especially on a single airline) then I’d strongly recommend you join the airline club. At airline clubs, they offer free drinks and snacks, and a bigger food menu for purchase. There’s plenty of plugs, flight assistance, and free WIFI. It’s the only place where I can find a private table to work. The amount of time I spend waiting for flights adds up, and the club allows you to turn that time into productive time. You can also purchase most club memberships with airline points so you can save money.

6) The Airhook: In coach, trying to juggle a drink and work on your computer at the same time is impossible. Even the tray table is too small for both. The Airhook is a genius gadget that attaches to the closed tray table and holds your drink so you can work unencumbered on your computer or read a book. Trust me – this may be the best gadget ever!

Any other great ideas or gadgets you won’t travel without?

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  1. I have a V60 pour over, a hand-grinder and my personal selection of coffee beans. I realize it is an extravagance but I will wake up an hour early to have one good cup of coffee for the day. So much about travel is out of my control but I can give myself one good cup of coffee a day and that makes me feel like I can handle everything else. Even when I’m overseas It is my one thing. Here’s a morning cup from Cambodia!

      1. If I’m traveling to a cold region, I have been know to rock the sweat-pants and crocs combo… but only in my hotel room!

    1. Note that on an ocean cruise the cruise line will not allow you to bring household appliances like a travel iron or coffee maker. An alternative to the steamer is Downy Wrinkle Releaser.

  2. I have recently found a pair of wireless earbuds to be incredibly productive. (Beats-X) When I make calls in an airport or walking to the gate, I can actually concentrate and the audio quality is amazing. When I’m in my hotel room, I leave the phone on charge in one area, and can walk around or even go to the lobby and still be connected.

    1. I should try those. I use Bose Noise reducing ear buds and love them, but they’re wired. As it is, when I check into a hotel room, I have a small factory that needs to be recharged…

  3. I would add to TSA Pre-Check the Global Entry program for international travel. Saving 20 minutes at the end of an international journey when you haven’t seen your wife and kids for 11 days is a must…

    1. Could not agree more Josh. When I got my Pre-Check, I got the Global Entry at the same time, so I think of them as the same program. But you’re right, make sure you get both!

  4. Dr. Sam Chand is traveling internationally and sent me an email this morning:

    …in addition to what you have already…
    1. Global Entry Clearance on your passport will allow you to reenter the US without going through long immigration clearance lines.

    2. Stomach Care can be done by carrying something to soothe the stomach or stop over-regularity.

    3. Walking shoes and leisure wear for travel.

    4. For over 6 hours time-zone difference, I carry sleeping aids which I take the first 2-3 nights to regulate my sleep.

    5. If platform speaking requires business attire, I carry two suits—grey and blue. Those and their combinations give me multiple looks.

    There are others…they’ll come to me…

  5. Great list– (Love the painter’s tape idea)

    I’d add:

    – Headphones (Godsend on planes and in airports to help focus)

    – Multi-plug mini charger (make friends at the airport)

    – VGA cables (for any speaking/presentations & cut IT hassles by 80%)

    – Travel hairdryer (coming from a female perspective, what’s provided in most hotels are awful)

    – Foam earplugs (Found at most gas stations/convenience stores, these are helpful when the neighbors in the next room are partying)

    – Single packs of antacid, cold, & allergy meds (found at most gas stations) It’s not fun to have to head out or look for meds if I feel like I’m coming down with something

  6. I have been with people who have lost their passports or have had their passports stolen. I have since scanned my passport and emailed it to myself. I have it stowed away in a gmail folder. I also keep a scanned copy of the image on my phone. In addition, I have a paper copy of my passport ID page in every carry-on and suitcase I own. Some customs agents in less modern countries still like to hold a piece of paper in their hands. I’ve seen this paper copy trick get someone back home when their passport disappeared overseas.
    I always have a bottle of Tylenol PM with me to help get past jet lag issues. Some people need something stronger but luckily for me the over the counter stuff works.
    I’m also a huge fan of the multi charger. It just seems I always need to charge at least 4 devices.
    If I have camera batteries or other things to power en mass I’ll pack a power strip and use a local adapter to plug it into the wall. Just make sure you pay attention to voltage!

    1. Glad you brought that up Truett. I totally agree on the passport. I have an email attachment as well as a paper version in my briefcase. You’re right – it’s better than getting stuck!

  7. I always carry a Lacrosse ball or similar rubber ball just about the size of a tennis ball but harder, several dog toys fit the bill and are cheap. When your low back, shoulders, etc. start getting tight on those flights you can just place it one the sore spot sit back on it and give your self a mini massage ( yeah, might look a little strange, but jealousy often dose ), move on to the next spot. Also great for a little extra little lumbar support.

  8. I too travel with a sweatshirt and love my ScottEVest Hoodie with tons of pockets. Also, hiking pants with zip-off legs are nice for regulating on flights.

  9. Great tips Phil. A few small things to add is to always cary a lighter adapter and plug in adapter to the various receptacles beside your arm rest or seat for powering up your lap-top or keeping a charge on your phone. Nothing like arriving somewhere with no ability to call. The other thing which really helps me is to have a go-go account in place for internet service. Lastly for me I always have a to do list on traveling overseas to activate my international cell phone plan and alert my 2 most used credit card companies and my bank card to be aware of charges from an international destination.

    1. Glad that you mentioned alerting the credit card company Tom. Getting caught overseas and your cards not working is a real bummer, and yes – I’ve experienced it… 🙂

  10. As a cancer patient, I’m no longer traveling much (other than the bucket list trip I just took to Cuba!). But as a former video director / engineer, I spent at least 200 days or more on the road each year before I was diagnosed. I agree with all of your list, although I’d never seen the Airhook – wish I had!
    I’ll add – a small portable multi-output USB charger for my phone, iPad, Kindle, and most importantly, my portable humidifier that connects to that charger, and drops into almost any water bottle, giving a small amount of continuous vapor to notoriously dry hotel rooms.
    The light thing in hotels ALWAYS drove me nuts – I always carried a few binder clips to close up curtains, in addition to the dark paper tape to block the ever-present LED’s in the room.

    1. Oh, and the White Noise app on my phone and tablet – soothing noise to drown out the sounds of ice makers, kids running up and down the hotel hallways, and the ding of elevators.

        1. A life hack I stole from a website: use the pen that the hotel provides to clip together both parts of the curtain. 🙂

  11. Great tips Phil! I have a premium credit card that gives me access to hundreds of Priority Pass lounges around the world. With free food and drinks and often showers too, these spots not only make traveling a lot more pleasant they save me money. During a recent one week trip I used them nine or ten times! The card also provides TSA Pre and other benefits.

      1. Great tips with which I wholeheartedly agree. Club memberships are not just a luxuery or even a convenience. Access increases my productivity significantly. The choice of credit card should be driven by the airlines that serve ones base airport. Delta is my best choice at PBI, but that’s not necessarily the case for someone else. If I lived in Dallas, American would be a better choice. With Delta, as the saying goes, when I am called home to heaven, I’ll have a layover in Atlanta. I personally carry an AmEx Delta Reserve card, which gives me access to all Delta Sky Clubs and the annual fee is roughly the same as buying a Sky Club membership. I also carry an AmEx platinum corporate card, which gives me access to all AmEx Centurion lounges and, as you noted, Priority Pass lounges. The annual fee is tax deductible and, as Paul notes, provides reimbursement for TSA Pre and Global Access fees.

  12. Great comments already. Here are a couple of things that I always bring: Cipro and Pepto Bismo — when the stomach gurgles, chew a couple of Peptos… if that doesn’t work to stabilize things, drop a Cipro and it will often kill what is bothering your digestive tract. (note: I’m not a doctor and this is not to be construed as medical advice, before taking any medicine, talk with your personal doctor). I always pack a Leatherman or Gerber multi tool, obviously for those who only carry on your stuff this won’t work for you, but I have to carry gear, so I can pack it into my baggage. I have an assortment of international power adapters, but pack only one of each that I will likely need. Then I bring a dirt cheap power strip — not a surge protector — and with one adaptor I can charge all of my stuff. Most surge protectors blow if you plug them into 220v, rendering them totally useless. I also bring cash – $1000 rolled into a money belt. I have bought my way out of many sticky situations with that stash in the past. And, I put a paper clip on one of my zipper pulls on my carryon. It is wonderful for opening the SIM card slot on my iPhone when I put in a local card. Finally, passport photos. I always have a few of them.

    1. Love the suggestions, and the paper clip is a great tip. Fortunately, cell companies are starting to offer better international plans, so I don’t have to do the SIM card thing as much, but you never know, so thanks for the ideas!

    2. I have found that Joe’s suggestion re: cash has been especially helpful in select Latin American countries, saving my production gear from confiscation.

  13. Great blog post, Phil. I travel extensive too and the trick in my mind is to maintain productivity.

    In addition to your list I would add: copious packets of anti-bacteria wipes ( When traveling, I cannot get sick. I channel my inner Sheldon Cooper and wipe down the airline seat arm rests and tray table. When I check into a hotel, I wipe down the door handles, light switches and, especially, the TV remote.

    Also, there are several apps that are essential. One is White Noise (, which can effectively hide noisy hotel hallways and outside street noise.

    I think the black painters tape idea is brilliant.

    1. Ha! I sat next to a woman this week who went nuts with the anti-bacterial wipes. Can’t say I blame her after what I’ve seen planes. I’m heading to the drug store now… 🙂

  14. You hit the nail on the head with this commentary Phil, Makes me realize how fortunate I am to be retired and not on the road again.

  15. Great post, and props for surviving all these flights. Some things I carry whether I fly one or 16 hours:

    – Sennheiser IE4 in-ear headphones: extremely affordable, excellent sound and they drown out that loud jabber behind you while listening to music/watching a movie really well. Long cable, too.
    – Tea bags: sure, many hotels make coffee, but tea is slightly healthier and making my own isn’t really that much of a chore either.
    – Trail mix: high energy density and healthier than candy bars when in need of a sugar fix to stay awake.
    – Comfy clothes: I don’t want to sit in my hotel room writing in the same clothes I’ve worn all day at a conference or trade show – shorts or a thin sweat jacket fit in any carry-on.

    Bonus tip:
    – Remember to wash any glass/cup you are using. Some hotels don’t have the kitchen clean them. If they have paper/plastic cups too, use those.

  16. Black painters tape! What a great idea! I’ll be adding that to my bag from now on.
    Here are my must-haves:
    1) Ear plugs. I’m a very light and easily annoyed sleeper. These have saved me multiple times.
    2) A large black scarf. I’m typically freezing on airplanes, so this can double as a blanket if needed. I keep this in my carry-on. Black is a must because it hides the inevitable coffee spill.
    3) A tote. It’s small enough to place it in my roller bag (whether large or carry on). I use it to go to the hotel pool, or walk to a market, etc.; and at the end of the trip, I put my dirty laundry in there.
    4) Healthcare card! You never know when you might end up in the ER.

    1. Love the tote bag idea – especially one that you can collapse into another bag. The scarf is great as well – my wife does that. But the health care card is REALLY important – and especially traveling overseas. I always recommend to people that they check to make sure their insurance has an overseas option – even if it costs extra. Because Kristine is exactly right – you never know when you may end up in the ER. Brilliant additions – thanks!

  17. Great tips here, Phil…. totally agree with the clothes steamer. in addition to some of your suggestions, I never travel without the following:

    1. a few binder/bulldog clips – Hotel drapes are notorious for not closing all the way and letting light from the city, parking lot or neighboring businesses stream in. I just pinch the drapes together, fold them over onto one another a bit and attach 2 or 3 binder/bulldog clips. No more light leaks.

    2. packets of emergen-c vitamin drink mix – When traveling, I begin each morning with a quick glass of emergen-c. For overnight flights, I mix up a pack right on the plane.

    3. small flashlight or headlamp – When I arrive in my hotel I put the flashlight or headlamp on my nightstand so it will be handy in case of a power outage or emergency.

  18. I keep a small directional LED nightlight for the bathroom in my shaving kit for middle of the night trips. Better than getting blasted with bright lights. Also keep a power strip in my suitcase so I can charge laptop, iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch at same time. Surprising how many even newer hotels don’t have enough outlets, especially near the night stand.

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