I’ve always been a bit of a gear geek, but that all went into overdrive when I finally booked my one-way ticket out from Sydney. In the space of a few weeks, I sold most of my possessions, donated the rest, and packed what was left into a backpack.

Since then, I’ve bought and sold an endless combination of travel gear, tested hundreds of technology tools, and treated myself as a human guinea pig (example: how to bypass proof of onward travel). Trying to find the ultimate gear setup while debunking travel myths and online misinformation has turned into a weird obsession.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Summary

The sections below will cover everything in more detail, but here are the highlights.

  • FlightsSkyscanner for price comparisons, research and booking.
  • AccommodationAgoda (my first choice), Hostelworld and Airbnb.
  • Travel InsuranceWorld Nomads, or free insurance from my credit cards.
  • Getting AroundUber or Grab (SEA) to avoid getting scammed by taxis.
  • UK/EU Travel: Use GoEuro for buses and trains across Europe.
  • SEA Travel: Use 12Go.Asia for buses and trains in SEA countries.
  • Money: ATM withdrawals with Charles Schwab (US), Citibank (AU), N26 (Europe).
  • Currency ExchangeTransferWise is the only forex option that isn’t a rip-off.
  • Rail Passes: ACP has you covered for almost every region around the world.
  • VPN: After months of research and trialling, AirVPN is the clear choice.

Now, let’s dig into the details.

Flights

Flight comparison websites help you get price comparisons, research and book flights. I’ve tried dozens of services but have always come back to Skyscanner, which offers a great user experience and covers all of the airlines you can probably think of- even the budget carriers. The “Everywhere” feature is a particularly invaluable tool.

Momondo is a decent alternative, though I’ve experienced issues with prices mysteriously changing once I click away from their website. They also have the “Everywhere” feature, however I’ve found that it often fails to show updated prices from time to time, while Skyscanner has zero issues.

Accommodation

I rely on Agoda for almost all my accommodation bookings. They somehow undercut the market rate for a lot of rooms – sometimes it can be more expensive to book directly through the hotel’s own website, or even at the front desk. Agoda also gives out free members-only vouchers from time to time, and the mobile app often has further discounts.

That being said, I sometimes compare hostel prices against Hostelworld, which seems to have competitive pricing in Europe (not so much in Asia). If you want a more “local” experience, Airbnb is a great choice. If you’re travelling on a budget, you should also give Couchsurfing a try.

Travel Insurance

If you’re going on a short trip with a return ticket, it’s possible that you have free travel insurance built into your credit cards. Use it! If this doesn’t apply to you, I highly recommend World Nomads. They’re possibly the only insurance provider that has brought their company into the 21st century, with great customer service and a claims process that’s 100% online.

Getting Around

Let’s start with three key tips on getting around.

Firstly, local transport options will allow you to travel for a fraction of the cost – do you research before arriving at your destination.

Secondly, don’t trust taxis. In all of my travels, I’ve consistently found taxis to be overly expensive and have experienced more scam attempts than not. Stick with Uber or Grab (a local version for South-East Asia).

Finally, consider substituting travelling by flight for a train or bus for shorter distances. It’s easy to underestimate how long it takes (and how much it costs) to travel to and from the airport, not to mention check-in and security checks. By contrast, trains and buses typically have less bureaucracy and will pick you up and drop you off in the city centre.

After months of experimenting, I now use GoEuro in Europe and 12Go.Asia in South-East Asia to book buses and trains. Still, keep in mind that some countries aren’t fully supported – for example, I found GoEuro had limited options for the Austrian ÖBB network, and the ZSSK Slovakrail in Slovakia wasn’t listed at all. Do your research!

Money

The best way to get anywhere near a market rate (set by Visa or Mastercard) for local currency is to use a fee-free debit card. Your options depend on your home country, so it’s difficult to give specific information – but here’s a few things I’ve picked up from experience.

In the US, the Charles Schwab debit card has no international fees, as well as offering a rebate for ATM fees. In Europe, the relatively new N26 digital bank is a great option for local and international use (both purchases and ATMs), and are available for almost anyone as long as you have a shipping address and valid ID. For Australians, the Citibank Plus debit card is your best bet, with no international or ATM fees.

I’ve also heard good things about Revolut and Monzo, who are also digital banks based in the UK (but are available for the rest of Europe as well).

Just be sure that you’re not getting charged fees by the bank that manages the ATM. This should be fairly obvious from the notification on the screen – if this happens, simply get your card back and try to find another branch ATM.

Currency Exchange

When it comes to getting local currency, the only real options are TransferWise and ATM withdrawals with a fee-free debit card (see above). Travel money cards are a total scam – don’t even bother.

TransferWise offer “real” (without hidden fees) exchange rates with extremely low fees, and are the only decent option when it comes to currency exchange. Their Borderless accounts are also a nice touch, which allows you to hold a virtual bank account in multiple currencies – I actually use this service to receive foreign currency for my online work outside of Australia.

Rail Passes

If you’re travelling quickly from place to place, rail passes can be a very economical way to get around. ACP Rail International covers a substantial number of rail passes, from Europe (Eurail and Interrail), Australia and Japan (JR Pass).

Luggage

Whether you choose a backpack or a wheeled suitcase (don’t), what you choose to put your things has a big impact on your ability to travel. The reason I don’t recommend wheeled suitcases is that they simply suck outside of airports. A lot of countries simply aren’t suited for bags that roll on the ground – for example, cobblestones and steep staircases in Italy and rough, uneven streets in Vietnam.

Personally, I prefer a carry-on backpack to travel light and avoid the hassle of baggage claims in airports, but it really comes down to what kind of traveller you are.

Carry-On Backpacks

In theory, any small backpack could be a carry-on, so this list will be strictly limited to MLC (Maximum Legal Carry-on) backpacks – or at least, as close as possible. A word of caution though: European budget airlines tend to have stricter rules around capacity and weight than anywhere else. I’ve personally never had any issues, but keep it in mind!

I currently use the Osprey Porter 46, a great all-rounder which is is now even better value with a recent price drop. Still, if I were to do it all over again, I probably would have picked the Osprey Farpoint 40, which has long been a favourite of carry-on travellers. In terms of what you get for the price, you simply can’t go wrong with the trusty old-timer, which has been around for years with minor updates along the way.

Some other backpacks I’d recommend:

There are also highly publicised backpacks such as Tortuga, GoRuck, Minaal and Tom Bihn, but I personally don’t think they offer anything to justify their high price points. For example, the Tortuga and GoRuck both have great features, but they’re are also very heavy, which is an issue with airlines’ carry-on weight limits. Minaal and Tom Bihn are nice and light, but are also exponentially more expensive – again, not really worth it in my opinion.

Hiking Backpacks

I prefer to travel light with just a carry-on, but if I wanted to go bigger, I’d choose of my favourite hiking backpacks. Even if you’re not planning on finding yourself on a mountainside somewhere, hiking backpacks are a good choice for almost every kind of traveller.

If you haven’t noticed already, I’m a big fan of Osprey. From my research and personal experience, very few brands come close to their near-perfect balance of price, build quality, and after-sales support. They have decades of experience and have a rich history in creating class-leading bags.

Day Packs

Rather than lugging your main travel bag around, a lightweight day pack will help you carry your essentials as you explore. Realistically, any bag that holds all your things and packs down into a small size should qualify as a “day pack”, but if you need recommendations, here are three:

I’d generally recommend a proper backpack over a sling bag or tote, simply because it’s bad for your back in the long run – especially if you regularly carry more heavy gear such as cameras, tablets, and power banks.

You day pack also qualifies as your “second item” when travelling with a carry-on backpack, which you can keep close by after putting your main bag in the overhead lockers. Waterproofing is a big plus in some countries, but not a necessity.

Technology

Making recommendations for tech is always a little tricky as it’s so dependent on each person’s software requirements, OS preferences, weight restrictions, and so on. More comprehensive lists are coming soon, but here are some of my favourite picks at the moment.

On a general note: if you don’t plan to work while travelling, I’d recommend against bringing a laptop. A tablet is a good alternative, but even that might be unnecessary. A modern smartphone coupled with a good power bank is more than capable of handling anything you need to do on your travels.

Laptops

A few years ago, the Macbook line of laptops were the clear leader of the pack. Now, it’s a little trickier to decide – Apple’s improvements have been incremental at best, Windows stopped having an identity crisis, and Microsoft released the phenomenal Surface Pro, which also doubles as a fantastic tablet device.

So it comes down to this:

I personally have a 15-inch Retina Macbook (2013). I wouldn’t recommend this size to most people as it’s a little heavy to carry around, but if you need a larger screen (e.g. graphic designers), it’s a great choice – and the updated versions are even better.

A common complaint from some budget travellers is that Macbooks and Surface Pros are unnecessarily expensive, but I’ve found that it’s well worth the money in the long run. They have far better build quality, last longer without needing an upgrade, and (most importantly) have great global support. My Macbook Pro is nearly 5 years old but still runs perfectly, and the support at Apple Stores around the world have all been stellar.

Tablets

When it comes to tablets, Apple’s iPad range are the only ones really worth considering – and that’s coming from a long-time Android user. Perhaps the only exception here is the Microsoft Surface Pro, which doubles as a fully featured laptop.

Pairing the iPad with a keyboard case gets you even more functionality. Some remote workers that I’ve met actually prefer to work on a iPad (or two), which is something I would love to try at some point. I’ve heard great things about the following:

Smartphones

Smartphones are perhaps even more polarising than laptops, so this one is down to you.

If you don’t have any preferences (or prefer iOS), it’s hard to go wrong with an iPhone. The iPhone 8 or iPhone 8 Plus should be more than enough for anyone, however technology enthusiasts might want to get the iPhone X. If you don’t need the latest and greatest, the iPhone 6S is a great choice (even cheaper if you go with a refurbished version).

For Android users, the Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are the best options available now, with the OnePlus 5T leading the mid-tier category. If all you want is a solid phone that nails all the basics for less than $200, the Huawei Honor 7X is the phone to beat.

Also see: Best Dual SIM Android Phones for Work & Travel

Cameras

The camera landscape has changed a lot in the last few years, so I’d recommend doing your own research to find what suits you best. Still, here’s a quick summary:

Canon and Nikon continue to lead the crop and full-frame sensor DSLR race. Sony offers unparalleled full-frame performance in a relatively small mirrorless package (for example, the a7R III), with feature-packed options in the consumer-level as well (a6500). Fujifilm has built a reputation for amazing in-camera JPEG colours, class-leading lenses, and great physical controls (X-T2). Olympus uses the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system, which is a slightly smaller sensor than the crop-sized Sony and Fujifilm, however offers some amazing class-leading optical stabilisation, extremely compact camera bodies and a great selection of lenses (E-M1 Mark II). Panasonic also uses the MFT system and has built a strong reputation with video (Lumix DC-GH5), and has the ability to swap lenses with Olympus – and vice versa.

However, the following compact cameras should suit most travellers:

You’d also be surprised at how good mobile photography can be – in fact, most of my photographs on my Instagram are taken with my 2-year old Android phone.

Power Banks

The problem with all technology is that they seem to run out of battery, just when you need it the most. To prevent this from happening, I consider power banks to be a necessity for all travellers – no exceptions.

For more information, see the in-depth guide to power banks.

Headphones & Earphones

Bringing a good set of headphones or earphones on your trip are a necessity. I prefer noise-isolating earphones as they’re cheaper and low maintenance, but I can see myself upgrading to noise-cancelling earphones in the coming year or two.

I currently use the Beyerdynamic Byron, some astonishingly affordable earphones that punch far above their weight in sound quality. If I were to upgrade to noise-cancelling earphones, I’d go for the Bose QuietComfort 25. As for noise-cancelling headphones, my pick is the Bose QuietComfort 35, the bigger brother of the QuietComfort 25.

E-Book Readers

While I love an old-fashioned paperback book, it’s impossible to deny the convenience of the Amazon Kindle. The best option for most people is the Kindle Paperwhite, which is the mid-range option from Amazon – however, it’s worth having a look at the full range of Kindle devices to see which suits you best.

While other devices also exist, Amazon is so far ahead with their readers and online bookstore that it’s not really worth mentioning the competition.

Travel Essentials

While some might consider these luxuries, I would argue that the items on the list below are non-negotiable. A good set of earphones will keep you sane on long-haul flights, ear plugs are a must for sleeping in hostel rooms, and TSA-approved locks with prevent an over-zealous airport worker from breaking your lock open.

Of course, it’s possible to travel without these, but these are a consistent part of my travel kit for both work and recreation.

Nice-To-Haves

Some other gear that will improve your trip:

Keep in mind that Swiss Army Knives and multitools will likely get confiscated at security. Either put into checked luggage or ship it to an address at your destination. Don’t be like me and get your shiny Swiss Army Knife confiscated after forgetting to take it out of your carry-on luggage 🙁

Clothes & Packing Tips

I’ve travelled through temperatures from -10°C to 40°C with just a carry-on backpack, but this doesn’t work for a lot of people. As such, I’d say that the clothing you pack depends really on your destination. However, there are some universal recommendations that can help you out.

With every passing year, there seem to be a lot more quick-drying, odour-free (insert buzzword here) clothing available, but a lot of it really isn’t essential – it often just comes down to being smart and thinking ahead.

Travel Shoes

This depends on where you’re going, your budget and personal tastes. But here’s what I like to bring (though rarely more than two pairs at a time).

As a general rule, I would also recommend getting a good pair of insoles for your shoes.

Packing List

I’m still working on this – please check back soon 🙂

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