Caffeine to go

What’s the most useless ‘essential’ item you have ever packed? You know, the thing you thought you had to have, but it stayed in the suitcase through three countries? In the interest of helping travelers pack lighter and maybe even save some fees, I thought I’d ask around.

C’mon, I’ll start.

When I traveled through five Asian countries two years ago as part of a humanitarian mission, I packed two whole suitcases full of Coke cans. I’m a bit of a caffeine addict, I’ll admit, and was afraid I’d be unable to find Coke in the Mekong River delta.

Totally unnecessary. The one most enduring lesson I took from that experience is that you can find Coke anywhere in the world, even down the most remote forest trail in a third world country. In fact, you can even find Diet Coke.

Friends and relatives were up to the challenge and started inundating me with their suggestions. Not counting the responses that contained the word “spouse,” the consensus seemed to be that the following items are almost never needed: shampoo, hair dryers, first aid kits, towels, aspirin, more than three pairs of shoes, and hair spray.

Some not-so-obvious suggestions included: pantyhose, expensive jewelry (do you really want to lose it?), flashlights, nail polish, diapers, and laundry detergent. Some folks were honest about having good intentions that didn’t work out: “I took laundry detergent to save the cost of valet service, but when I got there, I just called the front desk anyway.”

Many travelers take stuff as a habit without really thinking about what their hotel can provide. All hotels stock basic toiletries these days, the hair dryers have gotten better (I have waist-length hair and now leave mine behind), and most family destinations and cruise ships will provide band-aids, antibiotic ointment and general first aid for free.

If you’re skiing, scuba diving or doing some other activity with large equipment, see if you can rent it there.

The type of trip you are taking is certainly going to dictate what seems essential. The flashlight might come in handy for a hiking trip, but apparently was unneeded for a family cruise. Some contributions recognized the modern fact that if you are traveling anywhere there is a Walmart, you can buy a lot of those needed items at your destination at the same cost, so why schlep them through an airport? I’ve even pared down on the clothes I take, since I usually end up buying some items as souvenirs.

The flip side of this is the truly needed item that gets left behind to make room for those swimfins. That week in Cancun will sure feel good in February, but it helps to have a winter coat for the trip home to Kenosha.

Knowing your surroundings, before and after, is key. Before you leave, go on the Internet and research your location, both in terms of where you’ll be staying and what the local shopping offers. Call or e-mail the staff to find out what’s provided. If the currency’s in your favor, you might even save by leaving stuff at home and buying necessary items when you get there.

Lastly, don’t put yourself in the position to make this women’s confession: “I made my daughter take her violin on our month long trip through Europe so she would practice. You guessed it, it stayed in the case the whole time.” But unfortunately, it got even worse, “Then the airline lost it in the luggage on the way home.”

So – out to the floor! What’s the most useless thing you’ve ever taken?