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I’m a Neurotic Traveler, and These Are the Things I Never Leave Home Without

Photo: @naomi/Instagram

I haven’t been on a plane in 472 days, but when I can finally buckle into that window seat on an even-numbered aisle in the front third of the aircraft, I’ll be ready. Well, as ready as someone who insists on sitting in a window seat on an even-numbered aisle in the front third of an aircraft can be.

As a neurotic, I worry about everything — especially things I cannot control. I am paranoid and ritualistic and struggle to keep my OCD brain from running hell circles through the million ways I could die every time I leave the house. And that’s in pre-COVID times.

Being so in my own head can make my work as a professional travel writer challenging. Before the pandemic, I was on the road six months a year, reporting from dozens of countries. I must act calm, collected, and extroverted when parachuting into unfamiliar situations, even if I’m spinning out on the inside. The isolation of the past 14 months has exacerbated my neuroses, but I have learned over the years that the more I plan ahead — particularly with packing — the less I freak out when it comes time to go.

I’m now fully vaccinated and am already dreaming of the places I want to visit next: the Faroe Islands, Yakushima and Okinawa, the Republic of Georgia, Iran. My packing list will include a new immunization-card-holder and AirTags on every bag, but I’ve got a few standbys that keep me feeling grounded as well. Here, what I won’t leave home without.

A face shield

Of course I am that person. In addition to carrying a bottle of hand sanitizer, scouring every surface with hand wipes or travel-size disinfectant spray, and wearing a KN95 mask, I am not above donning a COVID face shield. The ZShield wrap, which a colleague at Condé Nast Traveler raved about after a 16-hour flight to Hong Kong, is unique because it’s worn from the neck up, as opposed to the forehead down. The design offers better visibility, causes fewer headaches over an extended period of time, and makes it (slightly) easier to sleep on a plane. Whatever weird looks I may get, it’s not as weird as Naomi Campbell’s hazmat suit.

Paper soap

In this era of rampant disease, I would never risk a restroom running out of hand soap. Instead, I throw a wee packet of portable soap leaves in my purse, lather up with whatever water I can find, and shake ’em dry, trying my darndest not to touch any gunky door handles or knobs on the way out. Some soap sheets smell overwhelmingly floral or perfumy; these just smell straight-up clean. Plus, I like that the brightly colored cases can be easily spotted in the bowels of my carry-on.

A clean key

Speaking of gunky handles and knobs, so-called clean keys are great for opening doors, pushing elevator buttons, and dialing numbers on ATM keypads or touchscreens. Most hook-and-stylus models are made with naturally antimicrobial copper alloy; this one is unique because it comes with its own containment case, key ring, and retractable carabiner.

Plane snacks

I don’t like eating airline food in ordinary times (who does?), let alone in a pandemic. That’s why I always pack my own snacks: dried fruit, nuts, and these highly poppable almond-butter bombs from Alter Eco. Enrobed in rich dark chocolate from Ecuador, the mini keto balls pack a wallop of flavor while checking off a litany of neurotic boxes: organic, fair trade, non-GMO, gluten free, heirloom cacao, made without soy lecithin or refined sugars, and wrapped up in a plant-based compostable wrapper.

A reusable straw

Though I can resist eating on a flight, I can’t go without water. My solution: carry a reusable straw and covertly slip it beneath my mask to take a sip. This pretty purple stainless-steel straw is durable and easy to clean, but more important, it’s engraved with my astrological sign. Sagittarius is the traveler of the zodiac, and I like the subtle reminder that no matter how anxious I may feel in the moment, the payoff of seeing the world is always worth it.

A serious pen

Global Entry has many perks, but it doesn’t save me the headache of filling out passenger declaration forms in other countries. I have no intention of sharing grubby communal pens at Passport Control, so I bring my own — specifically a shiny Fisher Space Pen recommended to me by a well-traveled pal who works for the State Department. Not only do these pens last forever, but they can write in zero gravity, upside down, underwater, and in extreme temperatures. In other words, it’s guaranteed to work in every worst-case scenario my mind could invent.

A mobile pharmacy

My doc gives me Valium for anxiety and azithromycin for traveler’s diarrhea. I fill in the rest of the medicine cabinet with Band-Aids and blister pads; travel-size packets of antihistamines, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen; and chewable meclizine tablets, which I take regularly to combat crippling vertigo. Bonus: Meclizine is also good for heading off bouts of motion sickness, be it on a cruise ship or road trip.

Packing cubes

The first time I used packing cubes was on a yearlong backpacking trip through Asia and Australia; I have been a devout worshipper ever since. They help me organize all my junk before a trip (underwear and bras go here, would-be leaky toiletries go there) and reorganize it along the way (dirty laundry in this, clean clothing in that). Eagle Creek’s cubes are made from water-resistant nylon, so I can separate a still-damp swimsuit from my dry clothing without worrying that it’ll make everything in my bag stink vaguely like a locker room. But they’re also monster-truck tough. My cubes have toured dozens of countries with me and never split a seam or broken a zipper.

Zippable cubes, like these new ones with collapsible dividers from Away, are also good for quarantining hiking boots and sneakers — though in a pinch, I’ve also used a free hotel shower cap to keep muddy treads from mucking up my other gear. Bottom line: They’re a germophobe’s dream.

Adapters, chargers, and portable battery packs

My iPhone 12 Pro Max is my everything on the road: camera, map, translator, currency converter, calculator, ride-hailer, vetter of tourist traps, all-knowing seer, lifeline. To imagine it dying before I’ve reached my destination sends me into a panic. That’s why I pack multiple devices to keep that little battery symbol as close to 100 percent as possible. When I’m in an airport, hotel, or café, I’ll plug it into the compact Anker 32W port, which goes from zero to 50 percent in 25 minutes. Even better, I can use the second port to simultaneously charge my MacBook — you know, just in case.

If I’m out all day and don’t know when I’ll be able to access a wall outlet, I pack an Anker PowerCore portable charger. It can juice my iPhone 12 to full capacity five times over before needing a charge itself.

I once wasted half a day hunting down a G plug adapter in Nairobi. Now I pack an international travel adapter any time I go abroad. Mingtong’s universal adapter has four USB ports and four retractable plugs and works in more than 170 countries. The voltage range is 100 to 240 — good for phones and laptops and bad for blow-dryers.

Portable toilet spray

I am one of those self-conscious people who will sit in a stall for 20 minutes, waiting for others to clear out of a public restroom before doing my business. It’s one of the many reasons I love Japan so much: high-tech toilets that play sound effects to hide indecorous bathroom noises. When I can’t hide the sound, at least I can disguise the scent. Poo-Pourri is a goofily named but surprisingly effective toilet spray, blending natural essential oils (in this case, bracing lemon) to mask embarrassing bathroom odors. The travel-size vial is a godsend when frequently forced to relieve yourself in the company of strangers.

Body wipes

I discovered these BO-fighting biodegradable wipes on a camping trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. They’ve also proven indispensable on safaris in Botswana and Namibia; following day hikes in humid countries like Singapore and Thailand, where I don’t always have time to change at the hotel before dinner; in lieu of bucket baths in rural Airbnbs, where the water sometimes runs brown; and in airport bathrooms following a miserable long-haul flight. Short of a real shower, nothing feels better after a 16-hour ride in a winged metal tube than scouring your nether regions before heading down to Passport Control, fresh as a daisy.

A great pair of tweezers


I mean, God forbid my mustache grows as thick as a raccoon’s tail while I’m on vacation, or I need to disentangle a fistful of necklaces that were jostled around in transit, or one of those tiny screws on my sunglasses comes loose, or I have a splinter that gets oozy and infected and I have to go to the emergency room in some backward-ass town to have it removed, but instead of removing it, they tell me they have to amputate with a chain saw — you get the point. Tweezers are the Swiss Army knives of makeup bags — super-versatile in so many circumstances — and you can’t do better than Tweezerman.

Hemp oil for my neurotic dog

Like mother, like daughter — right? I have two senior rescue dogs who regularly join me on road trips. Mia, the 14-year-old Chihuahua, is a basket case, shaking and crying in the back seat until I get so exasperated I bring her up front to cuddle on my lap. What helps is drizzling a little organic hemp oil over her breakfast on travel days. This vet-formulated, full-spectrum hemp extract contains less than 0.3 percent of THC, and the milliliter dropper makes it easy to dose the correct amount of cannabinoid oil for a four-pound being. So while it doesn’t turn Mia into Cheech Marin or anything, she’s noticeably chiller after she’s had a hit — and that reduces my own anxiety by a mile.

Noise-canceling headphones

In more normal times, I might take 50 flights a year. It doesn’t matter if I’m sitting in business class on an Airbus A380 flying over the Atlantic or stuffed into a four-passenger Cessna 185 circling a glacier — my mind ping-pongs back and forth between two thoughts: Wow! Flying is amazing! Earth is wondrous! and OMFG, we’re all going to die. Because airlines never have enough Amy Schumer movies on tap to keep me from tumbling down a rabbit hole of potential calamities, I rely on these cushy-eared, noise-canceling headphones to keep me preoccupied with podcasts. While they cannot prevent turbulence, they do a fine job drowning out the “Hail Marys” of other neurotic passengers.

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I’m a Neurotic Traveler — These Are the Things I Always Pack