5 great travel inventions that desperately need inventing

Part of the reason I enjoy writing about travel gear is that I get to see new ideas all the time. I’d probably be doing this anyway, because that’s how much of a dork I am, but I get even more info sent to me than what I could find on my own, because people let me know about new things every so often.


Lots of great ideas have shown up in the last several years, including some industry-upturning apps like AirBNB. It seems like there’s something new you can do with your phone pretty much every time you leave for a new trip.

But I can think of a few ideas that haven’t quite shown up yet. Or if they have, they haven’t been good enough. So here are a few ideas that I expect would go over rather well with long-term or frequent travelers, which, as far as I can tell, haven’t been sufficiently invented yet.

1) Solar powered phone charger cases

We’ve already got smartphone battery cases, and they’ve got a big, flat surface in back, so…why not put a solar panel there? Seems like a great way to charge things up when you’re sitting down for a meal, which, for most normal humans, happens multiple times per day. You could just leave it out on the table and let the burning hot fireball in the sky take care of the rest.

The problem, however, is that it probably wouldn’t be good enough. Solar panels are getting better all the time, but maybe not enough for a tiny one to charge up a whole phone. On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be the only charging method; if you catch an hour or two of sunlight here and there (as well as a few seconds pretty much every time you take a photo), it’ll at least last longer on a full charge, which could work nicely for people who are out and about in the sun all day, using their phones.

Weirdly enough, this invention kind of exists, but it’s such a cesspool of cancelled Kickstarters and allegedly-fake Amazon reviews that maybe it’s not too late for someone else to go for it. This invention has a time limit, though. Apple has already patented a method to turn the entire screen of an iPhone into a solar panel. Quick! There’s only so much time to make a third-party accessory and reap enormous rewards before it’s too late!

2) Shoes that pack flat

Olukai Pahono Lace Shoes Comparison
The Olukai Pahono Lace Shoes are a great example of shoes that can pack flat.

Shoes are probably the worst things in the world to pack, and although it’s true that you can stuff your socks inside them to save space, I just like it better when the shoes can be flattened, so you don’t have to keep pulling socks out of your shoes whenever you want them. All you need is a heel that folds down flat, and that’s it.

While we’re at it, shoes can be improved in all sorts of other ways, too. I’ve always suggested that the best way to travel with just one pair of shoes (if you’re a guy) is to get a nice-looking pair casual leather shoes. But leather can get warm a little too quickly in the summer, which is why I’d like to see some other fabric options; soft shell fabrics could reasonably emulate the appearance of leather, and nylon canvas can look just like cotton canvas; but they’d be super durable, weather-resistant, and pack flat. Get to it, people.

3) Flip-flops that neither flip nor flop

Vivobarefoot Ulysses
The Vivobarefoot Ulysses is a great (though extremely rare) example of a hybrid sandal/flip-flop that won’t fall off your foot. I’m not much of a barefoot shoe fan, but I like the strap layout here.

I’ll start by saying that this has largely been solved when it comes to women’s sandals, simply because there are far more options available. When it comes to men’s non-shoe footwear, however, there are only two options, both of which are terrible.

Sandals, for some reason, most often put one of the top straps right over the goddamn hinge between shin and foot and it’s just the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. Every step you take means the strap scratches against a moving hinge, and, eventually, blood ensues. Chacos have an objectively superior strap layout that everyone should steal, but they have problems too, like scratchy materials and ridiculous heaviness.

Flip-flops, on the other hand, allow your feet to move around way too much, and if you’re stuck walking with them continuously for several hours, there’s a good chance they’ll scratch up the spot where your foot moves up and down against the strap. Certain flip-flops fit better than others, but this problem would be completely solved with a heel strap in back, and everything would be great.

4) Eco-friendly fabric alternatives

Performance fabrics are spectacularly useful for ultralight backpackers, as they allow you to handle oppressively warm weather without bathing yourself in your own sweat, and you can wash your clothing in a sink and hang it up to dry overnight. This is great.

On the downside, every time you wash polyester or nylon, tiny little particles go right into the ocean, where they show up in fish and find their way into your dinner. Someone actually checked, and found plastic remnants in 25% of the fish at a San Francisco fish market, which means there’s a pretty good chance you’ve eaten your own workout t-shirt at some point (or, even worse, someone else’s). This is especially annoying, because fish are supposed to be good for you dammit. Synthetic clothing also starts to smell pretty bad after a short time, and the oil drilling required to make them can create some rather awkward mishaps.

Cotton has a pretty horrific environmental record too, which is why we need some alternatives. I wouldn’t say we have perfect replacements yet, but merino wool is a spectacular fabric for t-shirts and other next-to-skin items, and there’s some promising research regarding milkweed for use in insulation (as a replacement for down jackets, for example), and I keep blathering on and on about how Tencel would work pretty well for casual or semi-casual/semi-performance clothing.

Polyester and nylon will probably be around for a long time, but I like seeing alternatives showing up here and there.

5) AirBNB for currency exchanges

Yes, this would be totally illegal, but, then again, so is AirBNB…in some places, anyway. It’s still a big mess.

So imagine if you have to cross a border, and you’ve got a few hundred whatevers of whatever currency that you want to get rid of. You’ll get a terrible exchange rate at the banks, and it’s a pricey souvenir that’ll never have the opportunity to be used for alcoholic purchases of some sort. But what if you had an app that located some guy willing to buy the cash and send a payment through Paypal or Venmo or whatever? Problem solved.

Too bad this’ll never fly. Cops would disguise themselves as currency exchangers and crack down on everyone right away. But oh well. It was a tiny niche idea anyway. But if it’s backed by a massive corporation or billions of dollars in startup capital, I bet they could find a way.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook or Twitter.

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28 Comments on “5 great travel inventions that desperately need inventing”

  1. My ‘thing’ is finding a ruggedised case with a set of good integral lenses for the iPhone. Seems you can get rugged cases, but with an average lens selection, or cases with a good lens selection that aren’t so rugged but not both. Meh, frustrating.

    BTW, don’t expect that solar panel thing to be fixed soon, the technical problem is that they run hot (solar heating + power generation + battery) so they’ll overheat your phone if the case is in strong sunlight and you’re in a temperate to hot climate. Also a shadow on the face causes a short cct and no power. I eventually went with a solar-monkey adventurer unit that I strap to the back of my day pack. More ‘stuff’, meh again.

  2. For shoes that pack flat, have you checked out The UT Lab’s Ninja Kick (theutlab.com)? The uppers are microfiber, they weigh very little and pack flat.

    For sandals, check out Luna Sandals and xeroshoes.

    1. I tried a pair of Tyvek shoes from UT Lab (the Franklin) but they were so thin that I might as well have been literally barefoot. They were excruciating and required replacement insoles. And they still didn’t feel very good…

    2. Shoes: Softstar shoes are my daily shoe for all occasions including jogging or business travel.

      Sandals: I second the vote for Xeroshoes.

      Fabric: Merino wool is working well for my frequent travel. I have two dress shirts, one tee shirt and a vest that I can wear often without washing. Quick to wash and dry. My pants, however, are fish feeding nylon.

      1. Yeah, I don’t think there’s any pant fabric that works better than synthetic, in terms of rain resistance, quick-drying ability, and lifespan. Maybe some sort of tough natural fabric with some sort of water-resistant coating would work well enough…

  3. I’ve dabbled with localbitcoins.com in the past to solve the “AirBNB for currency exchanges” problem. You could sell your local currency for bitcoin, then just send yourself that bitcoin to your home-country-based bitcoin wallet, and then back in USD. It’s easier than it may sound. LBC has user reviews (much like AirBnB) to help add some additional security/trust.

    1. Good idea. I hadn’t thought about that, but that would work out pretty well, especially if you trade quickly in order to avoid price changes and so on…though of course that might work in your favor anyway.

  4. I am starting to think the best travel pants are simply lightweight wool dress pants. Not a perfect solution, but they are readily available, affordable, look good, and will dry faster than cotton.

    1. If you’re looking for a good one, take a look at the Makers and Riders 4-Season Washable Wool Pant. They sent me a free pair to try out, and I think it looks great, and the addition of polyester and spandex make it stronger, faster-drying, and slightly stretchy. I like how the jean-style pockets keep things from falling out. No hidden pockets, but money belts can take care of that anyway.

        1. Oh, and another minor tip; order 1″ bigger than your regular size, and you can remove the rubbery shirt-gripper waistband liner and it’ll be more comfy. They’re working on a less aggressive one, but it was easy to undo the stitching and I like how it feels that way. Shirts stay tucked in well enough anyway.

  5. I have actually seen something similar to what you describe in idea 5 in Istanbul airport. A machine that collects your cash left-overs and send you the amount via pay-pal. Ok I know, not for all currencies and probably with a bad rate, but…..I found the idea good :)

    1. I saw a machine in an airport somewhere that lets you drop coins, which is pretty good, because currency exchangers only accept bills most of the time anyway, so coins are the ones that end up being the most useless. Also, they designed it as a weird funnel and it made the coins go around in a weird circle like at a science fair exhibit for kids to enjoy. Plus it would donate the coins to charity. Pretty good idea all around, at least for the coins.

    1. The ones I kept running into had allegedly-fake Amazon reviews and things like that. One of them was just a regular case with a solar panel IMAGE printed on the back.

  6. The currency thing is already happening in London. This summer we saw all sorts of ads on the Tube that said something like: “Get your money exchanged by an NYC cop” or “a teacher” or stuff like that. If I understand it correctly, it’s a service where you get matched up with someone who has the currently you want and wants the currency you have and you trade or something. We didn’t do it, but it looked intriguing.

    1. Neato. If it has government backing, then it would be legal, though usually countries are strict about who’s allowed to exchange money, probably so that only trained professionals deal with it, and can spot fakes. But for small amounts, it’s probably no big deal.

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