Why little things can make a big difference when you travel

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By Christopher Elliott

When you’re on the road, little things can make a big difference. Like extra bags, a deck of cards, and eating utensils.

I ought to know. I’ve been on the road nonstop for the better part of eight years, and have forgotten my fair share of items. Travel surveys dance around this important question. The latest poll from Hyatt suggests guests don’t pack their razors, toothbrushes, and mouthwash. But that’s just the toiletries. Zoom out, and you’ll discover other small things that travelers shouldn’t neglect.

We’re right in the middle of the busy summer travel season, so this is a great time for a reminder. I have to warn you — my cautionary tales about little things isn’t what you think.

Why little things can make a big difference when you travel
Waiting for a transfer to a connecting flight in Dubai. Extra bags are important for your return trip

It’s in the bag

Can we talk luggage? Every story I’ve ever read and written about luggage focuses on your carry-on bag. It’s important enough, but there’s an erroneous assumption the travel experts make when they obsess about that rollaboard. They believe you’ll be carrying the same amount of stuff back when you return.

Sorry, but that’s wrong.

We learned that the hard way when we returned from a trip to Kenya last year. All of our belongings fit neatly into our luggage on our way to Africa. On our return trip, toting blankets and souvenirs — not so much. (Related: Hey, did you forget to pack your common sense?)

We had to wear extra clothes and blankets in order to fit everything into our checked luggage. Ah, if we’d only bought a few tote bags with us — you know, the collapsible kind made of cloth — we wouldn’t have had to do something we’ve never done before, and never since: discard items at the airport in order to comply with an airlines’ check-in requirements.

Why little things can make a big difference when you travel.
A snowy day in Ogden, Utah. With nothing to do, games become really important. You never want to be without a deck of cards.

The games people play

Another seemingly small item we never leave home without is cards. No, not credit cards. I could write a book about the dangers of credit cards, but I’ll save that for another day. No, I’m talking about playing cards.

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We discovered the value of a simple deck of cards when we visited Reno, Nev., last summer. Our hotel had a deck of cards in our room, and I taught the kids how to play “Go Fish.” I’m kind of glad it did. Those cards kept us buy on a long drive to Oregon and Washington, in vacation rentals with spotty wireless connections, or when I declared a device-free day because of profound overexposure to electronics. Playing cards requires no batteries.

Just two problems with cards that I should mention. First, my 13-year-old son saw some YouTube video that taught people how to throw cards, like in a magic show. He soon learned the true meaning of the phrase, “Not playing with a full deck.”

My daughter is unbeatable at “Go Fish.” After a while, that became a small problem for the rest of the family. Playing cards was synonymous with “letting your sister win again.”

Still, this card deck trick is one of my favorite travel tips. Because you never know when you’ll be stuck on a nine-hour road trip with no devices to keep you company.

Aren Elliott in Temecula, Calif., in 2017. Eating utensils -- particularly knives -- are the key to a successful trip.
Aren Elliott in Temecula, Calif., in 2017. Eating utensils — particularly knives — are the key to a successful trip.

Eat this!

Oh, and don’t forget your meals. I know you won’t, but you might overlook an important part of your meal — eating utensils. I’ve lost count of the number of times we bought a meal in a grocery store and then didn’t have anything to eat it with. Try drinking broccoli soup from a plastic container. Mind if I take pictures?

Disposable forks, knives, and spoons clog landfills, so I try to avoid them. But you can buy reusable plastic utensils for your extended road trips. A word of caution: They look like they’re disposable, so if you’re staying at a hotel, room service will assume you want to throw them out. I strongly advise washing and storing them after every meal.

There’s another workaround, which is also a healthier one. Buy lots of fruits and vegetables that require no peeling or cutting. Grapes and strawberries are among our favorites. (Here’s how to survive a long flight in economy class and avoid jet lag.)

When you travel, it’s easy to remember the big things, like a change of clothes, or a passport. But spare a thought for the little ones. Because you never know when you’ll need a little extra room, something to pass the time — or something to eat with.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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