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Simple products for traveling smart

Helpful tips that may not have occurred to you

Ellen Warren

December 21, 2012

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It's that time again when we're abandoning our comfortable, familiar homes and heading out into the larger, chaotic world of holiday travel.

I've seen plenty of travel checklists that tell you how to pack light and pack smart. They're all pretty useless.

There are the travelers who absolutely need false eyelashes and four pairs of shoes for an overnight trip. But there also are the ascetics who can go away for a month with only a toothbrush and two sets of underwear, which they wash out every night in the hotel sink.

Packing is so personal, I think it's naive to put together a list of musts that works for everyone. For me, all the packing tips in the world won't enable me to jam all of my necessities into one of those tiny suitcases the airlines will let you carry on. My hair products alone could fill one of those.

So what I've put together here is an array of products and practices that you might not have thought of that I, and others I surveyed, have found particularly helpful.

For starters, my most essential travel item is the sleep mask shown here. Whether you're going by car, bus, train or plane these are essential if you want a little shut-eye. Once at your destination, a hotel or a bedroom at a relative's house, you'll often encounter window coverings that let light in. With a mask, you'll be so happy not to be awakened at dawn by light seeping in.

I've tried a huge number of mask styles (including the cute ones with the eyes painted on the front), but by far the most comfortable and light-blocking is the style shown here, sort of an eye bra that doesn't press on your eyelids (maskcraft.com, DreamScape Contour Sleep Mask, $8.99).

I'm kind of obsessed with this problem, so I also bring some big safety pins or a few of those classic wooden spring clothespins to keep the curtains tightly closed. Creep alert: They're especially useful if you're staying in a motel where passersby can peek in the curtains.

Next: I can't travel without my ear plugs. I don't go anywhere, even to the bus stop, without a pair in my purse. You never know when you'll be sitting next to a screaming baby or a fellow traveler whose boring blabber drones on from Boston to Los Angeles.

I once got on a plane for a short trip with a single magazine. Then we got trapped on the tarmac for hours. When we finally were airborne, I was done with my magazine and reduced to studying the emergency exit card and SkyMall shopping magazine. Now I never go on a trip without more reading material than I could ever get through on a trip to Tokyo. Obviously, e-readers or paperbacks are the lightweight choices.

No matter how you travel, you'll be glad you brought a scarf/shawl to use as a blanket, pillow or modesty shield — if you're wearing a skirt and afraid you'll fall asleep and offer a sideshow to your fellow passengers. The one I count on is sweater-weight cashmere, wider than your usual muffler (mine is a generous 22 inches) and black so it won't show the effects of a long trip or a messy offspring. But a pashmina I bought for $15 at the airport (also black) has served me well too. You'll probably use it even if you're going someplace warm, since evenings are cool and air conditioning is arctic, and it's easy to jam in a purse or tote.

I always throw a pair of flip-flops in my suitcase, even if I'm heading for Minnesota in December. They're almost weightless alternatives to bedroom slippers. The ones I've found most comfortable are the 2-for-$5 models at Old Navy (oldnavy.com). Can't beat the price.

Even if it's a short trip I have a toothbrush and a teeny toothpaste in my purse, carry-on tote or laptop bag. When things get dire (see screaming baby above), brushing my teeth makes me feel (slightly) better.

You can't go wrong with a bunch of quart and gallon Ziploc freezer bags. They're the toughest and tightest seal ones I've found. You'll find more uses for them than you think, including holding receipts, business cards you collect in your travels, as a coin purse, a cosmetic bag and a place to put a wet swimsuit (or diaper). And if your hotel offers a free continental breakfast or buffet, you can stuff some extras in your bag and save yourself the cost of a snack or a meal later.

If you're fussy about the kind of sweeteners you use for coffee or tea, and you think they might not be available where you're going, bring them with. Same goes for anything else you'd really miss if you couldn't have it on your trip.

I've been ridiculed for traveling with a power strip. They're heavy (I'm always on the hunt for a lighter one), but I know I'll have enough outlets and I won't leave my various chargers behind, because all of my electronics are in one place.

One final thing: a headlamp. It's a night light, a reading light when others in the room want to sleep, and if you've ever been on a darkened plane with a good book, only to discover the overhead light won't work, you will thank me.

You're welcome!

shopellen@tribune.com

Savvy travelers …

• Scan or photocopy the front and back of every credit card and picture ID they carry; one copy to someone at home, a second in a secure place — not with those credit cards.

• Carry a supply of their must-have medications, not in checked luggage.