There’s one stop I always make before I hit the road, whether I’m heading for the airport or driving to my destination: The dollar store.
Even if you’re not a regular shopper, it’s worth swinging by to pick up some essentials for the trip at a fraction of what you'll pay elsewhere.
Let’s start with the items that live in my suitcase all year round:
• A deck of playing cards: I don’t have to tell you how useful these can be, even with everyone obsessed with their electronics these days. You can’t count on having Wi-Fi or an outlet everywhere you go. And cards are — dare I say it — interactive. You can play them together. You can keep children amused. You can play solitaire when your plane is late. Your favorite store might even sell used decks from Vegas casinos, which can be a cheap souvenir to pretend you brought back with you.
• Tiny packaged rain poncho: Remember rain? That wet stuff that falls from the sky? Even if you don’t want to haul a big raincoat around with you, it’s useful to have one of these little disposable ponchos that only take up as much room as a pack of cigarettes. They’re good to bring to theme parks, too, by the way.
• Multi-packs of toothbrushes with 3-5 toothbrushes, sometimes individually wrapped. A great solution for the inevitable when someone’s forgotten his or hers. I just keep a set on hand.
• Dental hygiene kits: You can find a small two-pack of toothpaste-and-minibrush sets that are great for freshening up your mouth quickly after a long trip. Or a brush-and-toothpaste travel pack.
• Sewing kit: The thread is cheap and cheesy and the needles are low quality. But, hey, for a buck, it’s good enough to sew your pants button back on your suit just before the job interview.
• Chewing gum: You can buy a four-pack for a buck and it’s useful to help pop your ears on the plane, or alleviate boredom on the road.
• Wet wipes: A package of moistened baby wipes or travel wipes always comes in handy.
• Lip balm: You can buy two-packs of knock-off Chapstick imitators or a single jar or tube of slightly higher-quality stuff.
Now, even if you buy all these things, they only take up a tiny bit of room in your suitcase, while providing lots of practical uses. And you’ve only spent $8, compared to $20 to $40 for the same items anywhere else.
Here are some other items that you might want to pick up while you’re there:
FOR THE KIDDIES
• Three-pack of tennis balls: Lose one? You don’t care.
• Amusements: Jigsaw puzzles, coloring books and crayons, card games. I especially like the three-packs of card games such as Go Fish and Old Maid. Keeps the kids amused in restaurants, and if they lose some of the cards in one of the decks, hey, you’re only out 33 cents. I don’t recommend the plastic toys, they break in nanoseconds.
• Individual snack packs: They may or may not be a bargain, sometimes you can get them more cheaply elsewhere.
• Crossword puzzle and sudoku books.
• Mini-packages of staples such as olive oil, sweetener, tea and coffee for the room or campsite.
• Individual servings of canned tuna or chicken salad with crackers. These are good in suitcases for emergency rations, or to bring on long flights.
• Small sizes of emergency supplies to fill a first aid kit, such as gauze, ibuprofen and the like. I hauled a gallon-sized baggie of over-the-counter medicines all over the world when my kids were little, because when you’re alone in a hotel room with a sick kid, you don’t want to try to figure out how to get medications you trust. You just want them to be there. I don’t, however, recommend the off-brand dollar versions of stick-on bandages, which fall off practically instantly. Go with Band-Aid or Curad.
• Sunscreen and aloe vera gel: Yes, it only costs a dollar. And, yes, it works fine.
• Sunglasses and sun visors can be useful to have along.
• Flip-flops: The dollar version of these are very poorly made, but they’re so cheap, you don’t mind when you lose one or even leave them behind.
• Itty-bitty book lights: Why pay $10 at Barnes & Noble? These work fine.
• Headphones: They’re very poor quality, but it’s a good idea to throw a few extras in your bag in case yours get broken, you want to watch the movie on the plane and the flight attendants are out of them. Yes, it happened to me on the way back from Italy. I had to watch an entire movie on Alitalia with no sound.
• Flashlights: Dollar stores sell both miniature and larger versions. You usually have to put in your own batteries, but they’re useful to have, especially to give to the kids who will immediately lose them.
• Mini-clothesline kits: These can be useful for traveling. If you can’t find one, look in the hardware section for some heavy twine, or a pack of bungee cords you can string together.
And let me finish up by saying there’s one thing I would never travel without, even though it cost me a few more bucks than at the dollar store: My synthetic money belt.
I bought a good quality, lightweight synthetic money belt that’s comfortable to wear, which is very important. Because I wear it everywhere on a trip. Inside, I keep my plane tickets, passports for myself and the kids, most of my cash, driver’s license, credit card and ATM card.
I wear it tucked inside my pants all the time. There have even been times I wore it while I slept.
That way, I know we can always get home, no matter what happens. Even if I got robbed, the thieves would only get my purse with a small amount of cash in it. And I never have to worry about accidentally leaving it behind somewhere, as I did my purse on my first trip to Italy.