Air travel can be…less than pleasant. Doubly so if you have to deal with the American TSA. But some thoughtful selection and packing in your carry-on can make it more bearable.
The following gadgets and tools are almost exclusively designed to ease the stress of air travel and make those elevated miles go by in a flash. Whether you prefer to snooze your way through the skies, entertain yourself, or just be as comfortable as possible while in the restrictive, chilly, and dry environment of an airliner cabin, you’ll find something useful in the selections below.
For Pretending You’re Somewhere Else: Noise-Cancelling Headphones
This is the classic companion for frequent air travelers. Between the noise of the engines and the distraction of your less polite travelling companions, a means of blocking all of it our for your music or movies is essential. You can go for an inexpensive over-the-ear headphones for some basic noise reduction, but for a truly blissful escape, you’ll want to step up to a pair of cans with active electronic noise cancelling capabilities. We recommend the Bose QuietComfort 35 for full-sized headphones or the QuietComfort 20 if you prefer in-ear buds.
For Pretending You’re Nowhere: Pressure-Regulating Earplugs
Regular old foam earplugs will do fine if all you’re concerned about is silence while you snooze or read. But if the variable air pressure of climbing or descending altitude bothers you, consider going for a set that’s specifically designed to alleviate that pressure. Airline crews love EarPlanes, latex-free plugs that open up your ear canals and make them less prone to plugging while giving you some noise protection at the same time. They come in sizes for adults and children, with disposable and washable options, too.
For Catching Some Zs: A Sleep Mask
Sleep masks are great for restful sleep in your own bed, but they’re even better for environments where lights are on constantly…like, say, the middle seat next to someone who wants the window open constantly. Since they’re light and compact, a mask makes a great travel companions, even for the non-flight portions of your trip. We recommend the Alaska Bear Natural Silk Sleep Mask.
For Keeping Your Toes Toasty: Heated Insoles or Socks
The pressurized cabin of an airliner can get chilly, especially if you’re naturally prone to cold extremities. A neat solution is a heated set of insoles for your shoes, which will provide you with enough extra warmth to counteract the cabin’s aggressive temperature controls. There are rechargeable versions available, but they seem less reliable and thicker than they could be.
We recommend a disposable set of Hot Hands chemically-activated soles: open the package before you board to start heating and throw ’em away when you land. Alternately, if you prefer to slip off your shoes when the wheels go up, the MMLove battery-powered thermal socks offer the same functionality with three levels of heating.
For Keeping Yourself Hydrated: A Collapsible Filtered Water Bottle
The plane’s cabin is also surprisingly dry, and you’ll find yourself getting thirsty quickly…but bringing bottled water through security is no longer an option, and flight attendants may be too busy to keep up with your thirst. Frequent flyers like to pack their own bottles and refill at a fountain before boarding. But that means less space in your bag, and perhaps you don’t trust the tap water at the airport. The Katadyn Befree Hydrapak Flask is the solution.
It holds a full liter, which should be enough to get you through a mid-length flight, and includes a micron water filter in the cap. Best of all, its flexible plastic folds down for easy storage in a pack, but stands up on its own when full. This bottle also makes a great companion for hiking or camping at your destination.
For Entertainment: Tablet or E-Reader
You’ll almost certainly have your cell phone with you on your flight, and that’s enough if all you plan to do is listen to music. But the small screen is less than ideal for extended sessions of reading or video, taks for which e-readers and tablets are respectively perfect for now that economy seats don’t even have enough room to comfortably operate a laptop.
The Kindle and iPad lines are the de facto standard recommendations: we like the Kindle Paperwhite (with the built-in LED lights) and standard ten-inch iPad for their combination of utility and value. Amazon’s virtual monopoly on the ebook market makes any competing models hard to recommend, and the selection of premium Android tablets has unfortunately dried up in the last few years. Upgrades to more premium models, like the Kindle Oasis and iPad Pro, should be reserved for those who constantly use them when not travelling.
For Comfortable Entertainment: Portable Kickstand
If you are partial to a movie or two on your flight, you’ll want an easy way to prop up your phone or tablet while in the air. Since most manufacturers are loathe to include them on their own designs, you’ll have to pack your own. Plenty of tablet and phone cases include a small kickstand as part of their protective design, but we prefer a dedicated option for its stability and flexibility. This adjustable aluminum model from Anker has served me well on several transatlantic flights, and it’s cheap enough that you won’t regret it too much if you accidentally leave it in your hotel room.
For Keeping Your Gadgets On: A Portable Battery Pack
Of course, your phone or tablet will need to be powered up. You’ve probably packed your charger, but not all planes have powered access for every seat (especially on domestic flying buses). The solution is a portable battery pack that can fully recharge your gadgets several times over.
There are plenty to choose from, and we like dependable, economic models from Anker and Aukey. But the Heloideo 10000mAh Compact Power Bank is particularly travel-friendly, since it includes an Apple lightning cable, USB-C cable, and MicroUSB cable all integrated into the case, so all your gadget needs are covered without having to scrounge for another cord. It also has a fold-down US-standard wall plug for directly recharging it. And if you happen to need to charge a gadget without any of those cables, or need to recharge the battery itself from a non-US plug, it has standard USB ports for power in and out as well. It’s a very well-thought-out little package; you can read our full review here.
For Keeping Your Stuff Safe: An Anti-Theft Backpack
Airports and other travel centers are notorious spots for pickpockets, since everyone’s packing bags filled with valuables. You can keep yours safe by selecting a bag that’s designed specifically to keep thieves out. We’ve rounded up the best of the bunch, but our pick for general users is the PacSafe Anti-Theft 25L. It offers reinforced material and straps, security clips, and even an RFID-proof pocket for thieves of the digital variety. A tablet/laptop sleeve is built in as well.
For Keeping Your Stuff Close: A Hanging Flight Bag
But what about accessing all of these gadgets when you’re in the air? For avoiding uncomfortable dives beneath the seat in front of you or squeezing around fellow passengers to access overhead storage, we recommend the Genius Pack High Altitude Flight Bag.
This smaller pack includes straps designed to wrap around the in-flight tray on the seat in front of you, giving you quick and unencumbered access to all your electronics and accessories. It’s small enough to pass as a second carry-on without rubbing up against the size constraints, and a shoulder strap lets it double as a general tablet or laptop bag when you reach your destination.
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