10 unexpected travel items that always come in handy, all under $10

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  • Travel gear doesn’t have to be pricey to function well.
  • I pulled together 10 of my top travel essentials that consistently come in handy, all under $10.

The travel industry is rife with high-end luggage and pricey gadgets, but travel gear doesn’t have to be expensive to serve you well. Many items I always pack are under $10, and some you may even have already laying around your house. Plus, all of these useful items are lightweight and compact enough to easily fit in a carry-on or weekender bag without giving up much precious packing space.

Of course, like most people, the pandemic has upended my travel plans over the past year, and I haven’t set foot on a plane since last March. While many of my favorite travel accessories continue to sit idle in storage, my inexpensive essentials continue to serve me well on shorter trips I’ve taken locally. From silica gel packets to a stuffable grocery tote, these cheap and oft-overlooked travel accessories will surely come in handy on your next getaway.   

Read on for the 10 travel accessories under $10 I always pack. 

Ear plugs

A decent set of ear plugs is a lifesaver when the hotel walls are thin or your travel companion snores. They’re also useful when you’re trapped on a noisy airplane or other loud place and don’t have noise-canceling headphones. I buy the disposable foam kind, which you can get in pairs for less than $1 in most drugstores or hardware stores. Alternatively, you can buy them in bulk and get 50 pairs for less than $10. Some hotels offer ear plugs at the front desk, but I always carry at least two pairs: one in my backpack where they’re easily accessible, and another with my toiletries as a backup.

Silica gel packets

These highly absorbent packets are great for keeping items dry and can often be salvaged at no cost from food and other packaging. I put them in my shoes overnight when I’m hiking, and I keep a few in my camera bag or with other electronics when humidity is high. They won’t dry out something that’s completely soaked, but they’ll protect your gear from pervasive dampness.

Quick-dry towel

If “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” got one thing right, it’s the broad, unparalleled utility of a towel. However, regular bath towels are bulky and heavy, and hotels are often reluctant to let you take theirs off the premises, so I carry a small, quick-dry towel like this one. It’s absorbent enough to get you dry after a swim or shower, but light and small enough to take just about anywhere. Plus, it even has most of the same practical applications as a bandana.

Stuffable grocery bag

I use self-stuffing bags like this one all the time at home and find them equally handy when I travel. They’re great for light shopping and carting a few necessities to the pool or beach. I break mine out on flights so I can put my main bag overhead and keep only what I need with me in my seat. It can also serve as a small laundry bag or emergency carry-on if you’re forced to check bags unexpectedly.

Foldable backpack

I sometimes use a hiking backpack as my primary travel bag instead of standard carry-on luggage. It’s the perfect size for overnight treks or for transiting between destinations, but it’s overkill as a day pack, so I also like to bring a compact spare. You can find foldable packs like this one for under $10. Not only is it a great option for a day bag, but it can also come in handy as a last-minute extra packing bag — especially if you’re one of those travelers that always tends to come home with more than you originally brought. However, I suggest spending up for something more durable if you anticipate heavy use.


I have a free flashlight app on my phone, but I also carry a keychain light for more power and to conserve my phone battery. It’s great for night use outside urban areas, to facilitate a late arrival to a dark Airbnb rental, or simply as a reading light. I particularly love my rechargeable option, but this less powerful one from the same company is also a fan-favorite and will do the trick.

Soft picks

Have you ever had something stuck in your teeth, but you either didn’t have a way to get it out or risked a faux pas by breaking out your toothbrush and floss? Here’s your solution. Dental soft picks like these come in packs of varying sizes from 50 to several hundred, and should cost you no more than around ten cents per pick. While I don’t love the plastic waste, they’re more discreet than floss and far more effective than wooden toothpicks. I always pack a handful with my toiletries when I travel and tuck one or two in my backpack or phone case so I have them at hand while I’m out and about.

A Forever stamp

Every once in a while I have to mail something when I travel, whether it’s an important last-minute document or a fun postcard. If I’m not staying near a post office or at a hotel where I can buy postage, then having a stamp with me saves as much as an hour of valuable vacation time. I only use my stamp on maybe one in ten trips, but it’s so small and light that bringing it has no downside, and each stamp costs just over 50 cents. I can usually fabricate an envelope if needed, but sometimes I tuck one into a book or laptop case as well. 

Emergency whistle

You don’t have to be deep in the wilderness to get lost or find yourself in need of help, so pack a whistle anytime you’re venturing out on your own or into unfamiliar terrain. Any whistle is better than none, but I recommend you get a high-quality plastic model like this one that can blast out at least 100 decibels. Bonus tip: memorize Morse code for SOS so your whistling will be construed as a distress signal rather than random noise.

A picture of your travel companions

This is useful in crowded places or wherever communication is spotty, but it’s vital when you’re traveling with young children or anyone prone to wandering. You should have a plan (like meeting at your hotel or another landmark) in case you get separated, but you may have to start asking around if that fails, and having a visual cue will help. A digital image is usually fine (I even recommend snapping a high-res photo of your group each morning so you can zoom in on individual faces and see what everyone is wearing), but it’s always good to have a backup. You can also print photos inexpensively at your local drugstore or even at home.

More great travel gear guides

  • The best carry-on luggage
  • The best travel backpacks
  • The best packing cubes
  • The best checked luggage
  • The best duffle bags

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