Shopping for frequent flyers can be difficult: Due to sheer necessity, they likely already have everything they need to navigate the inherent challenges of air travel. Here's a selection of innovative gifts and gadgets that should surprise and please even the most well-equipped of travelers.
To the untrained eye and ear, high-end headphones seem like a tech anomaly: When there are mini-earbuds to be had, why are audiophiles paying a premium for a set of bulky cans? Well, they're (often) much, much better, since they can fit in comfort-enhancing, ear-protecting, audio-boosting technology.
Noise cancellation is one of the top features for frequent headphone-wearers. By counteracting environmental noise like plane engines and the murmur of a full cabin, the wearer can more easily ignore some of traveling's most pervasive discomforts. Plus, it helps protect hearing: You don't need to turn the volume up as high, since you don't need to drown out background sounds.
Of course, not all headphones are created equal, and some models imitate the bulk of high-end headphones without the tech to back it up. Here are our favorite picks for active noise-cancelling and sound quality:
Premium travel pillow
Within airports, horseshoe-shaped neck cushions are as common as overpriced coffee, shoeless businessmen and recycled air. But there are several novel options that could astound even the most well-equipped traveler.
For instance, Aros hooded sleep sweatshirts have inflatable cushioning within the hood, for adaptable, streamlined comfort on demand. They also ship with a removable inflatable pillow. With several selections for fit, style and technical fabrics, these should please elaborately casual types that are too cool to be seen with a dorky accessory. Prices range from $68-$198.
Ostrich Pillow also makes some innovative, cuddly and arguably bizarre products to facilitate sleeping on the go. The $45 Ostrich Pillow Light can be worn as a neck bumper or a padded, ready-to-lean on eyemask, plus it is adjustable for fit and compressible for easy packing. The $99 Original Ostrich Pillow is vaguely reminiscent of a Dr. Seuss creation, but its bizarre fluted shape and weirdly placed openings enable sleeping in any number of positions. In addition, the more conventional-looking Ostrich Pillow Go is currently on Kickstarter and seems on track to ship in April 2017.
Treasured time-wasters: video, music and games
One of the bright sides of travel time? It's an excuse to tune in and zone out. Even workaholics indulge in movies, music and games during air travel, since it's all but impossible to get anything else done.
A few safe bets are either Google Play (for Android users) or iTunes/App Store gift certificates (for Apple devotees). Either of these can be used for mobile apps and games, music, TV shows, or movies. A Netflix subscription could also be a good choice, since its new download feature enables offline binge-watching, even in airplane mode.
For travelers that like to read, it's hard to beat an e-reader. These slim devices boast long battery life and enough capacity for thousands of titles, so there's no need to worry about charging, running out of reading material, or taking up too much luggage space.
We recommend the Kindle Voyage ($200), which has a lit screen for reading in all types of lighting conditions, along with capacitive page-turning buttons for super easy wielding. The $100 Barnes & Noble Nook Glowlight Plus is a more affordable option with water resistance to boot. Check out our 2016 e-reader comparison for a spec-by-spec look at all the top picks.
The cost of e-books is a common deterrent to an e-reader purchase, so it's not a bad idea to include an Amazon or Barnes & Noble gift card (depending on the type of device) with your e-reader gift. E-book titles are cheaper than their paper counterparts, but price point could easily be a turnoff to those who expect a dramatically lower price for a non-physical item.
Ultra-portable laptops & tablets
Frequent travelers that ignore the sirensong of completely zoning out for a flight's duration will likely benefit from a small laptop or tablet. Larger laptops are often unusable when opened on a tray table in coach, especially on the back of a reclined seat. A smaller one can be opened more fully and make better use of paid amenities like inflight Wi-Fi.
Keep in mind that business travelers probably have company-owned machines, but a compact mobile device could go a long way for freelancers, jet-setting families and other types of travelers.
If you expect that the frequent flyer is actually trying to get some work done, 2-in-1 laptop/tablets like the Microsoft Surface Book (starting at $1,499) or Surface Pro 4 (starting at $899) are solid options for fully-powered and ultra portable machines. Additionally, the 12-inch MacBook (starting at $1,299 for current-gen model) does not have tablet functionality, but its size is right for working travelers, and the Yoga Book 2-in-1 ($500-$550) is a particularly affordable and unique idea for creative types, because it incorporates a drawing tablet.
If you're shopping for a techie but can't break the bank, consider getting an on-the-go charging device. Airports often have plenty of outlets, but that's not always enough to last through long flights or stand in for a forgotten cable.
We like the Jackery Bar. At $17, it's priced low enough to be a stocking stuffer, but it's still reliable, travel-sized and packs enough juice to gives two full charges to leading smartphones like the Galaxy S7 or iPhone 7. The $19 Lumsing External Power Bank is just a couple of dollars more, and is a little bigger in form and capacity. It should be able to fully charge a smartphone three times or a small tablet 1-2 times. Both of these battery packs are rechargeable.
For more options, check out our roundup of the best portable chargers.
Smart luggage and accessories
Nowadays, there's more to quality luggage than look, feel and build. Smart luggage and luggage tags can make it easier to maneuver your bags, charge your devices, and keep track of its location.
For instance, the $50 Trakdot luggage tracker aims to prevent lost suitcases. Pack it in your luggage and you can check its real-time location using the accompanying app, or rely on the automatic notifications that are generated after each flight. If a problem occurs, you'll be able to alert the airline (or track down the person that rolled away with it) as quickly as possible.
Or, try an all-in-one solution. The Bluesmart One (available for $359, discounted from the original $449 retail price) includes quick-access laptop compartments, a location tracker, a battery charger, a digital scale for avoiding excess-weight fees, and a TSA-compliant remote lock. We did express some reservations in our full-length review, but the 100-day no questions asked return policy mitigates some risk.
On the high end of things, the Bugaboo Boxer takes a modular approach designed for effortless gliding, ergonomic maneuvering, and easy access to essentials – but pricing starts around $1,490.
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