Finding the perfect holiday gift can be maddening — is this the color they’d want? Is it something they already have? Is it so last year? — but really, once you have a sense of a person’s taste, it’s not impossible. This season, we’ll be talking to members of various tribes (we’re calling them the Hard-to-Shop-Fors) to find out exactly what to get that serious home cook, outdoor enthusiast, or Instagram influencer in your life. Think of it as a window into their brain trust — or at least a very helpful starting point.
If you’ve ever sat in the middle seat during an overnight flight or dragged your carry-on suitcase through a crowded train station, you know how important is is to have the right travel gear. That’s why the best travel gifts are also often the most practical, things that’ll make that long flight or an interminable layover a little more comfortable. And to find the best gifts for people who travel, we spoke to frequent travelers, including expats and travel writers and couples who travel together, about the items on their wish lists this year. Don’t miss all the rest of the Strategist’s holiday gift coverage, which you can find right here.
Chris Bergaust, who has spent over a decade abroad as an expat, lost his Fisher Space Pen on a flight after coloring with his daughter. “In the rush to get out, we accidentally left her bag of pencils and my pen,” he explains. “While I quickly got some new pencils for her, I haven’t gotten my replacement yet.” The appeal of this pen, especially for a hardcore traveler, is that it writes anywhere. “Too often, I’m stuck in a line, trying to fill out customs forms with a crappy ballpoint that doesn’t work. The Space Pen never has that problem and lasts forever. As long as you don’t leave it on your chair, that is.”
Several of the travelers we spoke with wanted gifts to help them sleep on planes. Yael Boyle, author and full-time traveler who has visited more than 25 countries in the last four years, would like this melatonin spray from Sprayable Sleep for overnight flights. She much prefers this to “melatonin pills, [which] tend to stir up some pretty intense dreams, like watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on a loop all the way to Thailand. Sprayable Sleep claims to be different.”
For those who struggle to find a comfortable sleeping position while cramped in economy class, writer Alyse Whitney tipped us off to this airplane-friendly foot sling called the Sleepy Ride: “The 21-inch-long, 7-inch-wide footrest is made of plush memory foam, but is flat enough to fold up neatly in a little pouch that I tucked into my backpack. The straps are adjustable and hook around the tray table in front of you so that it becomes a foot hammock, rocking gently with the motions of the plane.” Not only does it make your seat feel a little more comfortable, it also helps prevent swelling ankles and feet.
“I’ve always wanted to be the kind of traveler who looks stylish and put-together no matter where she’s landed,” admits Billie Cohen, a travel writer and content director at WendyPerrin.com. “Instead, I always look rumpled and frumpy. So I’ve been dreaming about starting from scratch with an entirely new travel wardrobe: A bunch of versatile, wrinkle-free, light-to-pack, easy-to-wash, quick-to-dry pieces that would ensure I always appear as the neat and fashionable digital nomad I feel like, and not as the living-out-of-a-suitcase, long-term traveler I sometimes look like.” High on her list is Eddie Bauer’s 7 Days 7 Ways Cardigan, which “is exactly what it sounds like.”
If they love their compression socks for long flights but wish they looked a little cuter, they’ll be charmed by these ones from VIM & VIGR. As Strategist contributor Allison Freer explains, “The beauty of VIM & VIGR is that it takes nice-feeling black or tan compression socks and injects them with actual style. You can choose from tasteful micro-dots, nautical stripes, or maybe a rugby look if you’re so inclined.”
“I’ve had my eyes on Bose noise-canceling headphones for a long time, but Sony’s new Bluetooth set with a longer battery life and higher sound reviews looks even better,” says Bergaust, adding that they’d be great for shorter trips, too. “Just imagine drowning out all the hustle and bustle of your commute. Stylish, too!”
However, if they do just want a pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones, there’s nothing wrong with that. Either way, over-ear headphones are more comfortable for long-haul flights, according to Dr. W. Chris Winter, a sleep specialist, and these have enough padding to help with that, too.
Boyle has long had her eyes on the Dash Pro from Bragi. “Saving space is paramount on the road, and the Dash Pro packs a lot into a little: playing music from my phone or laptop, doubling as earplugs on naps over the Atlantic, and keeping me motivated on 5 a.m. jogs through downtown Budapest,” she explains. “The Dash Pro even includes a real-time language-translation app, helpful not only for asking directions home after a half-conscious ramble through a foreign city, but also for ordering a bag of warm chocolate croissants on the way back to the apartment. Which means another predawn run the next day, and probably the next, too. That’s the circle of life (and pastry).”
Three of the travelers we spoke with have this new camera on their wish lists this year. Chanel Cartell and Stevo Dirnberger of How Far From Home go so far as to say that the DJI Osmo Pocket “might be the best piece of tech to come out this year — a teeny-tiny video camera, enabling us to produce high-quality, 4K, stabilized footage.” Olivia Christine Perez, travel blogger at O. Christine, agrees, adding that this three-axis stabilized camera “fits in the palm of your hand and is perfect for capturing your travel memories. As someone who is always going on outdoor adventures, I love that it is uses a gimbal for stabilization [and] is travel-sized and reasonably priced for its features.”
James Feess, one half of The Savvy Backpacker along with his wife Susan, also has his eye on a small camera this year. “We travel light so we are always looking for ways to cut down on how much we pack. That’s why we’ve been lusting over the Canon RX100 VI digital camera,” he says. “This camera takes insane photos but it’s small enough to fit in your pants pocket.”
“As a food writer and photographer who spends most of his time wandering around taking photos in remote markets and rural villages in Latin America, I need to lug around a clunky DSLR camera with several lenses and a backpack to get the right shot, which can be tiring and attracts a lot of unwanted attention,” says Nicholas Gill, co-founder of NewWorlder.com and co-author of Central with Virgilio Martínez. “My iPhone is okay on occasion, but the quality is lacking, and the types of shots I can get are limited. The Leica Q is a full-frame camera that’s as good as any DSLR — I can stick it in my pocket, and it isn’t flashy. Plus, it easily connects to Wi-Fi, so I can upload a shot to Instagram in real time.”
“My job is quite selfish in many ways, in that I take so much from people. I take their picture, I take their time, I take their life story, I take their personal space in their home, and I take their food, tea, and more from hosts who never give less than the best of whatever they have. I find myself feeling I wish I had something to give back,” says Maria de la Guardia, staff photographer for Save the Children Australia. That’s why she wants “a portable printer that can connect to my DSLR or even mobile phone, that doesn’t need ink cartridges and will print out high-quality images. [It] would mean I [could] leave a part of the story with the storytellers themselves — many of whom will otherwise perhaps never have a personal or family photo in their lifetime.”
“My 3-year-old has logged some pretty serious miles already, which is par for the course when your mom is a travel editor,” says Julia Cosgrove, VP and editor-in-chief of AFAR Media. “She’s just getting strong enough to lug her own stuff around with her — and the compact size of this stylish carry-on from Away is very appealing. No more overpacking allowed!”
Alexandra Brown, co-author of A Year Off with her husband David, has her eye on this collapsible infant travel bed, which was first introduced to her and her family “by friends who had been using it for both international travel and camping. This baby tent doubles as a bed and a cozy shelter for outdoor chill-time and napping. It’s compact, lightweight, and incredibly versatile — and so much easier to bring with you on trips with your little one than traditional ‘pack-’n’-play’ travel crib options.”
Meanwhile, Alexandra’s husband, David, has his eye on another collapsible item: a fold-up duffel bag from Paravel. “Most every time I travel, I find myself needing a duffel for a day trip or overnight, or in situations where I want to bring back gifts and goodies from our travels home with us,” he explains. “These bags are light and tiny when folded but very large and strong when unfolded, and they look good to boot!”
Susan Portnoy, founder of TheInsatiableTraveler.com, wants the TLS Mother Lode wheeled duffel: “I love the two-compartment design, perfect for when a trip includes hot and cold climates; reconfigurable dividers to keep everything in place; and expansion zippers, for when you need a little more room. Basically, a one-stop shop for all my packing needs.”
Cartell and Dirnberger have their eye on a new travel backpack, specifically this one from Swedish YouTuber and free-skier Jon Olsson’s Douchebags: “We’re already geared up with big Douchebags on wheels (and the quality is so good) [and] we want to extend our collection and have a Douchebags day bag as well (for the smaller adventures).” The Avenue backpack is one of their newer designs, big enough to fit a 15-inch laptop and with enough compartments that nothing will get lost.
Speaking of travel backpacks, Guillaume Viau, DJ, producer under the alias Flight School, and founder of Daily News Project, says, “I really stand behind my Haerfest backpack,” which is made of nylon with rubberized fabric straps and pockets. “I’ve been using this one style for over a year now, traveling all over the world, and it’s still in great shape. They really did find the perfect balance between functional and stylish.” The New York City-based brand has a backpack designed specifically for travel, with a back panel that secures to your carry-on suitcase as you roll it around.
“Since I’m usually on the road for several months at a time, I typically rent or borrow a sleeping bag, so I don’t have to lug one around when I’m not hiking,” says Anna Mazurek, an Austin-based freelance travel photographer and writer at TravelLikeAnna.com. “But after freezing every night on a Kilimanjaro trek last month in my rented sleeping bag, and dealing with a bulky one in Torres del Paine a few years ago, I’ve decided that I finally need to invest in my own sleeping bag for hiking trips. REI’s Joule 21 is on the top of my list because it’s one of the lightest water-resistant bags I’ve found with a temperature rating below freezing. It weighs around two pounds. This is my Christmas gift to myself this year.”
“I travel to some pretty scary places with awful water,” says Bergaust. “Surprisingly, most water purifiers don’t actually filter everything out. While taking care of bacteria and protozoa are nice, the smaller viruses will quickly ruin your dream vacation. Since this came out, I’ve been wanting to pick one up, but the high price tag has put me off. Would make for a really great gift (hint, hint).”
“I like to go to extreme places when you aren’t supposed to be there, which is why I’m headed to Alaska this winter,” says Sherry Ott, founder of Ottsworld.com and nomad for 11 years and counting. “I’m going to Fairbanks to do some aurora-viewing, dogsledding, and snowshoeing in February. I am a super-cheap traveler, so I seldom buy myself the right equipment, but in this case, I can’t really screw around. I need the right cold-weather gear to survive these adventures!” That includes a hardcore parka from Canada Goose, which can withstand temperatures as low as negative 13 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cartell and Dirnberger are also spending winter in some cold countries, which is why “we’d love to upgrade our jackets to these gorgeous Fjällräven Greenland Parkas.” Bonus: The inside is lined with teddy bear fleece.
“As an editor for a publication that covers luxury travel, I get to lay my head in some fabulous places,” says DeMarco Williams, managing editor of Forbes Travel Guide. “I remember one particular rest not too long ago at rural Virginia’s Primland that was so heavenly, I almost took a sick day from my own vacation. While I’m sure I could probably find the cloud-like mattress online somewhere, this Christmas I’d be content with re-reating the experience at home with a set of fine Frette sheets similar to the ones used at the Forbes Travel Guide four-star resort.”
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