Buying holiday gifts for frequent travelers can be a difficult task. (How many U-shaped neck pillows does one person need?) While there are plenty of useful gadgets and accessories to choose from, it's a challenge to determine what items are actually practical and what items will inevitably find a new home in the junk drawer. Whether you're buying for a frequent flier, an adventurer or a first-time globetrotter, these presents are as sensible as they are innovative. So put down the SkyMall and peruse U.S. News Travel's gift-giving guide instead.
Keeping tabs on little tykes while racing through the airport (or an unfamiliar city) is no doubt stressful. Though a leash or safety harness is a practical way to keep kids within arm's reach, there is a more discreet, technologically savvy gadget available for traveling clans. My BuddyTag is a child safety wristband that connects to a free companion app on your smartphone. Parents can set a customizable distance, and if their child wanders outside this preset radius, the app will automatically sound an alarm, vibrate and alert the user with a message about the time and location of where the child was last tracked by the BuddyTag App. The device provides some peace of mind for parents, and it also enables kids to activate a built-in panic button if they lose sight of mom or dad, which will alert the parent with an alarm and vibration. Each BuddyTag costs about $35 and comes with one of four varieties of wristbands: terrycloth, silicone, Velcro or disposable.
For those instances when you just can't squeeze everything into a carry-on compliant bag, or if you're forced to check your luggage at the gate, Trakdot will help you keep tabs on your suitcase. Stick this small, 3-inch wide device in your bag and program it with your cellphone number or email address. From there, Trakdot does the rest: The battery-powered device is equipped with a SIM card that enables it to transmit location data even when stored in metal containers, cars, hard suitcases and parked aircraft. Trakdot's built-in accelerometer technology means that it will automatically go into "airplane mode" when it feels the plane preparing to take off and it will reawaken after landing to send you a location alert using the local cellular network. If you're landing in Los Angeles, for example, Trakdot would send you an SMS message like this to notify you of your bag's location: "Your Trakdot [ID] is in Los Angeles International Airport, Los Angeles, California." The actual device is $59.95, but the manufacturers also tack on an $8.99 activation fee and annual service fee of $12.99. Recent Amazon reviewers also note that you should put a fresh set of batteries in your Trakdot each time you travel, as the device uses up battery life quickly.
Packables by Baffin
As anyone who's ever attempted to pack rain boots knows, carving out a big enough space in your suitcase to accommodate the clunky footwear can be tricky. You could just wear them while traveling, but the weight of the boots is bound to slow you down. And though cropped rain boots are more easily stowed, nothing beats the puddle-proof dryness of tall boots. Baffin, a Canadian boot manufacturer, offers folding rain boots for $75 that can be compacted to the size of regular shoes and are stashed neatly in a suitcase-friendly pouch. Though the company only markets the boots -- called Packables -- to women, the shoes aren't overtly feminine. Take your pick between four androgynous color options: black, gray, red and yellow. If you're in the market for some water-resistant footwear, but don't require the full coverage of rain boots, you might want to check out Pakems. Made in Colorado, these lightweight, insulated packable boots weigh about 15 ounces and sell for around $60.
BirkSun: Solar Backpack
At first, paying $150 for a backpack may seem a little extravagant -- after all, how many bells and whistles can a bag boast? But what if the $150 price tag included a solar panel for charging your gadgets on the go? BirkSun, a San Francisco-based company, offers a water-resistant backpack equipped with a solar panel. Whether you're out hiking mountains or lazing along a sandy beach, your backpack will soak up the energizing rays while powering all your gadgets (and weathering the elements). Though a solar-powered backpack may not be necessary for your day-to-day commute, it can come in handy when you're out sightseeing and don't want to race back to your hotel room to recharge your phone, tablet or GPS. Along with the solar panel, backpacks also come equipped with a lithium polymer battery that's TSA compliant. Backpacks start at $150 and range in price depending on the style.
eyn Smartphone Case
With all of the travel apps available, it comes as no surprise that travelers seldom stow their smartphones. Though having your phone in your palm at all times can make it easy to check your flight status or respond to emails, it also makes it difficult to juggle much else when you're shuffling through security or racing to your gate. With this in mind, eyn developed a phone case with a built-in storage area on the back of the case that clicks shut and keeps personal items like credit cards, your ID and a few bills hidden and secure. Along with the secret storage pocket, the eyn case also comes equipped with a mirror and kickstand for when you want to watch movies or FaceTime and Skype. Currently, the company only makes iPhone compatible cases (which cost $29.99), but it plans to launch Samsung Galaxy S4 cases in December. For an iPhone case that's as adventurous as the traveler you're shopping for, Photojojo offers a durable, waterproof case made for taking underwater shots. Photojojo's iPhone Scuba Suit (also known as The driSuit Endurance) allows users to take the phone underwater -- up to a depth of 15 feet -- and includes a gel screen cover that makes it easy to tap and navigate the screen even when below the water's surface. The iPhone Scuba Suit is $60.
Bose QuietComfort Noise Cancelling Headphones
While noise-canceling headphones have long been a boon for travelers eager to drown out the loud hum of a jet engine or the inevitable chatter of fellow passengers, full-sized headphones aren't easily packable. In June, Bose debuted its latest generation of noise-canceling headphones, this time in the more compact ear bud variety. Much like the company's full size headphones, the QuietComfort 20i Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones promise inaudibility to outside distractions, plus the ability to switch to "aware mode" in case you don't want to be completely isolated from your surroundings. Along with the noise-canceling technology, the headphones also boast StayHear+ tips silicone cones that fit securely in your ear and create a noise-reducing seal. But all this innovation comes at a price: one pair will set you back about $300.
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Frequent travelers who put a premium on maintaining their exercise while on the go can use this device to keep up with their workout and diet. Ideal for the health-conscious wanderer on your list, the Fitbit Force wristband allows wearers to track daily activity and sleep while monitoring progress over time. Thanks to the Fitbit's embedded technology -- like an accelerometer that measures the number of active minutes you log per day -- the device (which also doubles as a watch) can track your sightseeing steps, distance traveled, calories burned and hours slept (along with the quality of your jet lag-induced slumber). And since it syncs with your computer and smartphone, you have the ability to track your progress along with your exercise and sleep patterns through charts and graphs, even when away from home. You can also program personal goals: The free companion app rewards your hard work with "achievement" badges. Wristbands range in price from $59.95 to $129.95 depending on the model you choose.
Otis Batterbee Eye Mask
Fending off jet lag and catching some in-flight zzz's is a little easier when you've got a plush eye mask to lull you to sleep. British luxury brand Otis Batterbee makes eye masks with cotton velvet backing and adjustable velvet head ties, not to mention a built-in infusion of British-farmed lavender. Why lavender? Scientific studies show that the flower's aroma can help induce relaxation by slowing down heart rate and blood pressure and increasing deep sleep. Eye masks come in 18 different styles, with pinstripe and tweed designs for men and bright floral fabrics for women. Keep in mind that since Otis Batterbee is a luxury brand, eye masks don't come cheap. One mask will set you back £45 GBP (about $72 USD), plus an additional £20 GBP (around $32 USD) for U.S. shipping. But who can put a price on a sound night's sleep?
-- Ann Rivall