Top 10 holiday gifts under $20 for travelers (2012 Christmas shopping guide)

Save money this Christmas by giving your friends what they actually want: travel accessories that fit easily into a carry-on bag (whether it’s a backpack or a Louis Vuitton).

Our top 10 holiday gift picks all cost under $20 and make perfect stocking stuffers or Secret Santa gifts. These are my personal favorites and served me well on my year-long Round the World trip and other adventures.

The best part of giving a practical gift: You know it won’t end up at the bottom of the closet like an ugly Christmas sweater!

#10. Space-saving travel bags

With airlines charging steep fees for checked bags, it’s more important than ever to maximize space in your carry-on bags. Simply folding clothes won’t do the trick when you need to cram in as many socks, bras and boxers as possible. These “vacuum” bags compress your clothing without causing wrinkles. Simply place items in the clear plastic bag and roll one side down until all of the extra air escapes. Voilà — it’s a packing miracle!

#9. Camera memory card

No self-respecting traveler leaves home without their camera. Help a friend document her journey by giving an 8-gig memory card; it’s large enough that a traveler won’t have to frantically delete photos to make space for new ones. If you want to splurge, a 16-gig card is available for just over $20 on Amazon.

#8. Packing cubes

I never travel without fabric packing cubes– whether I am packing a small backpack for an overnight trip or a suitcase for a longer vacation. These rectangular cubes help organize luggage while preventing wrinkles. During my Round the World trip, I never had to dig around to find an item of clothing because I had separate cubes for shirts, pants, and accessories. You can find packing cubes from brand names like Eagle Creek and Rick Steves on Amazon and at discount stores like Nordstrom Rack.

#7. Travel adapters

A set of travel adapter plugs is a must-have for any international vacation. You don’t want to be in a hotel room with a dying camera and no way to charge it (trust me). An adapter will also come in handy if you travel with a laptop, tablet, mobile phone or hair drier. These inexpensive gifts are available at major retailers like Bed, Bath and Beyond, Walmart and even drug stores. If you prefer online shopping, try Amazon or Magellan.

#6. Old-school travel guide

Traveling is a great time to break an Internet addiction. When your friends are lounging on a hammock in some Caribbean paradise, they’ll want a good book in their hands– one made of actual paper. Guide books are solid options since they appeal to a traveler’s sense of adventure. Consider choosing a title that caters to a friend’s dream destination or relates to an up-coming trip. I found this guide to Round the World travel helpful when planning my own escape.

#5. First aid kit

It’s best to be prepared for little travel mishaps– like scratches, sprains or insect bites– so you don’t need to run to the pharmacy at the first sign of trouble. Whether your friend loves camping, laying on the beach or skiing down a 4,000-ft peak, a basic first aid kit will come in handy. You can even create your own first aid gift set by combining items from a drug store or a 99-cent store. This makes a great last-minute present.

#4. Hanging toiletry case

Toiletry cases are a must-have for any traveler since they hold and organize basic hygiene and personal products. These hanging kits have spaces for toothbrushes, combs, shampoo, contact lens solution and other essentials. I always keep a stocked Eagle Creek toiletry kit in my closet so I’m ready for a last-minute adventure. If you want to pimp-out this holiday gift, fill a toiletry case with travel- or sample-sized items so your friend doesn’t have to do any work. These cases are available at discount stores like Nordstrom Rack and many websites.

#3. Inflatable travel pillow

An inflatable pillow isn’t just for napping on an airplane; it can replace a dirty pillow at a hostel or hotel, and feels a lot better than a pillowcase full of clothing (a classic option for campers). A coworker recommended this pillow to me in 2008, and I had to visit an obscure luggage shop in midtown Manhattan to find one. It’s now available on Amazon– and you should get one for your favorite traveler. It’s much better than a standard travel pillow, since it fits into any suitcase and its fleece cover can be separated and washed.

#2. Swiss army knife

This is a classic gift for a traveler, and with good reason. You never know when you’ll need a nail file, tweezers or a sharp knife– and a Swiss army knife combines all of these tools into a single unit. It has an array of uses: cutting kindling while camping, spreading PB & J on sliced bread and even escaping a fall into a steep canyon (as in the film “127 Hours”). One caveat: Make sure your friend packs the knife in checked baggage since it isn’t allowed in carry-on luggage.

#1. Flip flops

This casual footwear is comfortable, fashionable and protects travelers’ feet from scary germs in shared showers and common spaces. What’s not to love? Flip flops (aka “thong sandals”) are a great holiday gift since they are inexpensive and available just about everywhere. My favorite brands are Locals and Havaianas– but you can pick up a generic pair for a few bucks at Old Navy or online.

Editor’s note: No compensation or freebies were received for endorsing these products, and all picks are my own. Photos of these products link to the affiliate portal of


What’s you favorite travel-related gift?

Suggest another inexpensive gift idea by leaving a comment below!

About Leslie Koch

I'm a New Yorker with a passion for travel and art. I founded after returning from a year-long backpacking trip around the world. Find me on Twitter at @leslietravel.