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Travel Gear Review - What Worked and What FAILED

As I review my packing list I am astounded at all the stuff we lugged around for six weeks.  All of it fit into our two carry-on bags, plus a small backpack for me and a small gym bag for K.  Because I take a lot of vitamins and supplements, the bags were pretty heavy starting out, but lightened week by week as we consumed things.  Read onward for my reviews of things we took with us.  Keep in mind that the links embedded below are to provide product information.  Nearly everything was purchased for WAY less than retail from eBay or Amazon.  Do your own research.


Tumi Luggage - Alpha Travel large satchel, T-Tech Forge Lambert medium satchel, and a small Tumi backpack - this stuff is durable, versatile, and easy to live with. Mr. D was right.  And you can find this stuff new and used on eBay.  Used along with Tumi combination luggage locks to make your own hotel safe right inside your room!  My rating 10/10.

Black Wigwam Merino/Silk Scout socks (4 pairs) - Warm when cool, breathable merino wool when hot, easy to wash and fairly quick to dry.  My rating 8/10

Wickers Men's Moisture-Wicking Mesh Stretch Brief underwear (5 pairs) - comfortable, easy to wash, fast to dry.  My rating 10/10

Woolrich long-sleeve dress shirt - Very high quality stuff that takes a beating and hangs out flat, as if fresh from the cleaners.  Made for active people - durable and always looking nice.   My rating 10/10

Outdoor Research Men's shirts (one long sleeve, one short sleeve) - made for travel, action and adventure.  These shirts are nice enough to wear to a nice restaurant and tough enough to wear mountain climbing, hiking, etc.  Easy to wash and very fast to dry.  The two models I used are out of production, but they always have something interesting coming out new.  My rating 9/10

Columbia Men's outdoor shirt - Had good ratings on the internet, but always looked rumpled, got a "run" in the hem like a pair of pantyhose, and pilled up around the waistline.  Total garbage.  My rating 1/10

Cushe Men's Manuka Sandals - lightweight, comfortable, and durable. Wear with or without socks.  These became my primary footwear for the majority of the six week trip, including many miles of walking, hiking, and climbing - mostly due to the failure of the Cushe shoes I took (see below).  My rating 9/10

Cushe M Men's Moccasin Loafers - ultralightweight, and theoretically comfortable and easy to wear.  In my case my second toe is longer than my great toe, and this location is where these particular shoes came together in a 3 way seam.  Shoes seemed lightweight and comfy for a while, but after an hour the minor pressure against the second toe became agony.  Just as uncomfortable to wear while riding the bus as while walking.  Used steam and a broom handle to expand them slightly every 2-3 days before finally consigning them to the lixo (garbage) in Såo Paulo.  Even when they "fit" without pain, the soles are too thin and walking on trails or cobblestone streets was painful.  My rating 2/10

MacBook Air MC965LL/A (July, 2011) laptop computer - the only solution for a lightweight travel computer.  We did most of our planning on the fly, usually in our apartment/hotel/B&B room, and always with the MacBook Air.  Incredibly thin, incredibly light, incredibly capable.  No moving parts - hard drive is flash memory.  Not a lot of drive space for tons of movies, but we took half a dozen standard def movies and a couple hundred hours of music on it and had plenty of room left over for apps.  One blu-ray movie would have maxed it out.  I got the older model, used, off eBay.  Still using it today for any travel - work or pleasure.  Not a big/strong enough PC to do serious programming or run a business, but plenty good for household activities, email, web-surfing, etc.  Ironically the charger and cable takes more space and weighs as much as the PC.  I only wish I had bit the bullet and gotten the newer model with retina display.  My rating 9/10  (retina display would make it a 10)

Apple iPhone 3GS - I bought three of these older iPhones from friends who had upgraded, one for me, one for K, and one backup if one or both got stolen.  No need to worry on that count - nearly everyone we saw had better/newer phones.  Really useful for web surfing and email anywhere there was free Wi-Fi, which is nearly every restaurant and coffee shop in South America.  These were so capable I could leave the MacBook Air secured in the room.  Apps for anything you needed, rated separately (see below).  Worked flawlessly with sim cards procured relatively cheaply in every country, except Argentina - that was the fault of the Argentinian phone company, not the iPhone.  My rating 8/10

Kenu Highline iPhone bungee leash - keeps slippery iPhone from escaping, and also deters "snatch and run" thievery.  One end ties to your beltloop or a button, and the other goes in the iPhone charging port.  Very slick.  I used it most of the time.  My rating 8/10 

National Geographic international SIM card by Cellular Abroad - DO NOT BUY THIS!!!! The most famous name in travel magazines has linked up with some fly-by-night ripoff artists to take your money and provide nothing of value.  Purportedly a SIM card that works anywhere by finding a local phone company and hooking up for a high premium.  I got it for emergency use and to make emergency calls, either to home or to each other.  Ideally we would never have used it.  But since we had so much trouble with the local phone company (Personal) in Argentina, I did not get a Personal SIM card for K's phone.  Her Brazilian SIM did not work in Argentina for phone calls, but the iPhone worked fine on Wi-Fi.  No worries while we were together, but when I was sick in bed for 3 days and K ventured out alone, I wanted her to have cell service for emergencies.  This NatGeo SIM card was completely useless.  Could not make a call.  Could not receive a call.  I had tested it in the USA, and it worked OK.  Their website's support email, contacted on a Friday, returned an auto-reply that emails were queued for 48 hours before being evaluated, and that we should call the international toll-free number instead.  Of course this was impossible, because the SIM card would not permit any calls.  Since it was Friday, the email was queued until the following WEDNESDAY, when I got an email that my problem was under review.  Since then, NO CONTACT from them even until this present day.  $60 completely wasted and pissed away.  I see now the price has dropped to $30.  Don't be fooled.  Run away!  I tried to put a short, polite version of this negative review on their website, but it was not accepted.  DO NOT BUY THIS!!!!  My rating zero/10

This SIM card is so annoying, that it receives my coveted EPIC FAIL award!



iPhone App - LocalPhone VOIP telephone - I was able to call the USA for half a penny per minute from anywhere with good Wi-Fi.  Slight lag in speech, but generally clear as a bell.  Great service and great app.  I had a complex setup where all my USA phones were forwarded through Google Voice and on to a LocalPhone rented number (US$1/month) and from there to my South American cell number.  Worked fine, with greater delay in speech lag (making 2 internet hops to get to the cell), but caller ID always indicated local numbers.  So I had a couple of telemarketer calls to deal with, but no biggie.  For friends/family, we would call them back.  Was anywhere from 8-40 cents per minute to receive calls (depending on country), but always half a penny per minute to call back.  Google voice speech to text forwarded to my email when we did not answer.  Pretty handy,  but mostly indecipherable text from Google Voice.  As for LocalPhone, it was just like using the phone normally, only MUCH less expensive.  My rating 9/10

iPhone App - Jibbigo Offline Translator (Spanish-English) - Great in theory, useless in practice.  Theory was that you speak into the app in English, and it translates and both displays and speaks the Spanish.  Also works in reverse for the person answering you back.  In reality, the speech grabber was 20% accurate, and even when you did get the right input, there was a 2 minute delay to get the output.  Even with a friendly local and plenty of time (Sebastian in Buenos Aires), it was easier to just do without and work within our limited vocabularies.  There are dozens of apps that do something similar when online, but this is the only one that works offline.  VERY slowly.  It is slightly better than nothing.  My rating 1/10

iPhone App - AirBnB - Useful to check and verify existing stuff, but a bit fiddly to research and find new places.  Macbook Air with Firefox browser was much better for that.  My rating 5/10

iPhone App - United Airlines - Useful to get flight status, notifications, electronic boarding passes, etc.  It can only be as good as the info the airline feeds it, which is highly variable.  My rating 7/10

iPhone App - MapsWithMe - This app removed the fear of walking around strange cities.  You download the entire country (in most cases) and there are detailed street maps of the big cities.  Press a button and location services find you on the map.  Zoom in and around to see where you are and want to go.  Database of restaurants, etc. better than nothing, but not very complete.  No whipping out a paper map on a crowded street and looking like a tourist.  Huddle over the smartphone and look like a local.  I wish I had known about it when we were in Beunos Aires.  Uses a lot of battery to keep it running, so I had to turn it off and on.  My rating 8/10

Clothing Arts P3 Pick-Pocket-Proof Men's Pants - Travel pants made with double secure pockets - zip and button.  Very secure, if not very handy.  Heavy duty cloth, water resistant finish.  Difficult to wash and took FOREVER to dry.  I had 3 pairs - Adventure Pants, Business Pants, and Business Shorts.  They were pretty secure, but the several hidden pockets would not survive a patdown from a mugger.  I would have preferred the Adventure shorts, but they were out of my size.  In future I would get something less secure but easier to wash and dry.  My rating 6/10

Olight T15 AA flashlight - Major lumens from only a single AA battery.  Low is plenty bright for wandering around a dark apartment at midnight, and High will blind anyone in its path.  Really awesome to play with outside at night.  Small and lightweight - never leave home without it.  A bit "fiddly" to switch between high, low, and strobe modes.  My rating 9/10

Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 Camera - Small, light, and powerful point and shoot camera.  Small size makes it easy to stick in a pocket and take everywhere.  You saw the pictures here, in a lower-res version for uploading.  Awesome camera, if not professional quality.  It's always better to have a lesser camera with you than a really nice one locked in your room when you are out and about and see the perfect photo opp.  My rating 10/10

 Bestek Universal Travel Adapter - We had two of these, one each.  It plugs into the wall socket for pretty much any country in the world and accepts US and other plugs.  Truly universal on both ends.  It also has a 5v USB output, so it can charge a phone or other device, but not an iPad (which requires 9v).  We had the cheaper model that did not do power inversion, but it does have handy lights to indicate power is on and flowing.  Seemed a bit large for what it was, but worked flawlessly.  The only device I took that used a standard US plug was the MacBook charger, and the fine print on it told me that it would accept 220v inputs, so no power inverting necessary.  More than one USB charger port would have been nice, but I had another device with two more.  Never needed more than 3 at a time. My rating 8/10 (due to bulky size).  The power inverting model is the same size, and that would be justification for its bulk.

Monster To Go MP OTG300 LTOP - When combined with the Bestek adapter (see above), you get a total of three standard USA power outlets (at 220v or inverted to 110 if you get the Bestek inverter model), plus 3 USB 5v charging ports.  Sweet!  I will be using this device (by itself) extensively in my domestic travels.  Compact, but a bit inflexible non-pivoting arrangement to insert the male plug end - making it impossible to use in some domestic hotel USA power sockets (in lampstands and such).  My rating 10/10 for foreign travel, 7/10 for domestic travel.

Mini TP-Link TL-WR700N 150Mbps Wi-Fi Wireless AP Router - This handy device converts a corded internet access port  (LAN cable) into your own, private Wi-Fi hotspot.  Useful for places that have wired, but not wireless, internet.  Worked like a charm, but I got the Chinese version from eBay (very cheap) with complete instructions for setup and usage in Chinese.  Thanks to the internet for a translation, combined with some cut and paste into Google Translate for menu choices not specifically covered in the instructions.  Once you get the thing set up, you don't need the Chinese anymore, unless you forget the password - so don't forget!  I will also use this handy device in domestic travel for cheap hotels that have only wired internet.  My rating 9/10

Plantronics DSP 400 USB headset - These USB digital, folding headsets were procured to use the LocalPhone software on the MacBook Air.  I had some idea we would be sitting in a noisy coffee shop somewhere and calling home using the MacBook and headset.  The need for these was obviated by the existence of the excellent iPhone LocalPhone app (see above), so we both could use our phones to call family and friends.  That said, this headset worked flawlessly, but is a bit bulky - even when folded up.  My rating 8/10 for performance, but I would not take it with me next time.

Travelon Security-Friendly Money Belt - This webbing belt is another one of Mr. D's excellent recommendations, and we each wore one constantly.  One could easily place 15 US $100 bills in each and never have to worry about discovery or exposure.  All nylon design means no taking it off for airport security, either.  We had these emergency cash reserves at hand for the entire trip, and thankfully never needed any of it.  Looks like a cheap and uninteresting belt.  Even in a patdown, nobody would discover the secret stash.  My rating 10/10

Flat leather fannypacks - Each of us also wore one of these, when moving locations and flying, under our clothing, below the waistline, with the pack at the back.  Completely invisible, although one needed an un-tucked shirt to be long in the back when bending over.  These held our passports and main cash sources (eventually in several currencies) and also copies of our identification documents.  Handy and reasonably comfortable.  When not traveling, these were locked securely in the room safe or Tumi luggage. These things are made in various sweatshops in Asia and the design, size, and finish is pretty variable. My rating 8/10

Since it is impossible to keep eBay links up to date, I have enclosed photos of the two we used.  I preferred the thinner one with the bungee strap (left photo), while K used the bigger one with regular webbing straps (right photo).  Both of these have another single zipper compartment on the other side.

















Spare AA Batteries & AAA Batteries (5 each) - These add some weight but don't take up much space.  Very handy when you need them!  Take both even if you don't have devices that need both.  We used some to replace bad/missing batteries in remotes, etc. in some of the places we stayed.

Sturdy hotel laundry bag (plastic) - This folded down to nothing, and was very handy for transporting laundry to and from the machines or the laundromat.  I also had a smaller nylon drawstring bag which we also used for laundry.  These also serve to isolate your clean clothes from dirty laundry inside your luggage while traveling.  

3M Earplugs - The only way to sleep in noisy downtown apartments.  High quality, comfortable, and easy to carry.

Franklin Speaking Spanish/English translator - Cool as heck, easy to use, and really handy - whether you are reading a label in a store, or just trying to communicate with a local.  Much faster than the iPhone app (although the Wi-Fi ones would have been much faster), and saved our bacon more than once.   My rating 9/10  

We tried to find a similar gadget for Portuguese, but nothing in the same price range, so we went low-tech and old school with a paper book Portuguese/English dictionary.  Cheap and easy to use, but the print is VERY tiny.  My rating 6/10

K also took some specific women's clothing and underwear, and perhaps she will provide reviews for them in another posting some time.

2 comments:

  1. Really good list here. I can't wait to use the tumi luggage on my next trip. Did you run into problems with the satchel?

    For the laptop, can any Apply laptops be comparable to the macbook air that you have? I need to buy one asap but still not sure which ones to get since they all look the same.

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  2. I prefer the Macbook Air. It is very lightweight and does everything you need. For travel use, I recommend getting a previous generation used one off ebay. That way you won't lose a lot of money if it gets dropped or stolen.

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