If you're a traveler, do you need travel clothes?
Travel clothes are specialty attire – belts, dresses, hats, pants and vests – designed for the jet set. With the busy summer travel season just around the corner, travelers may be tempted to buy this attire, which typically costs anywhere from 30% to 50% more than comparable department store clothes.
I say "maybe" because there are travelers and there are travelers. If you take a few trips a year, you might not need all of the features travel clothing offers, like fast-dry or wrinkle-free fabric. But if you're on the road more often, you should consider it.
When travel clothing isn't worth it
"I have never paid those premiums," says Patti Worsham, a retired travel agent from Long Beach, California. She says she's thought about buying those pants "where the bottom zips off" but in all of her travels, she never really needed a pair. Worsham also likes the designer hats, with mesh fabric and water-resistant fabric. But she buys those at the mall, not at an online specialty store.
"I wore a pink floppy hat in Costa Rica," she says. "I blended in beautifully."
Donna Pucciani, a retired English teacher from Wheaton, Illinois, also avoids travel-branded clothes.
"But I do purchase practical clothing specifically for travel," she says. That includes nylon pants that drip-dry fast, and jogger cotton-polyester blend pants, which take a little longer to dry but are not as heavy as jeans. For her, the premium to pay for travel-branded clothes just isn't affordable.
"I would love to be able to afford some of the pricey catalog or retail store pieces," she says. "But then I'd have no funds left for travel."
When you should buy travel clothes
For other travelers – and I include myself in this group – travel clothes make perfect sense.
"Having a collection of travel clothing is the only way to go," says Barbara Howell, a retired registered nurse from Carpinteria, California. All of her shirts and long pants are easy-wash and fast-dry. When she's on the road, she washes them in the shower and hangs them to dry overnight. Her travel jacket can be worn three different ways, depending on the conditions. She bought everything through the Magellan's travel gear site (magellans.com).
Gary Arndt, a Minneapolis photographer who spent years traveling the world, says some specialty travel attire is definitely worth the money. For him, that includes Scottevest jackets, which have multiple pockets. "They're pretty handy for carrying things with you if you don't want a backpack," he says. He also likes his Bluffworks sports coat, which is "very wrinkle-resistant."
"I can fold it into a carry-on suitcase, and it still looks good after I unpack," he says.
I agree. I'm on the road for more than 300 days a year, and special travel clothes are a lifesaver. Like Arndt, I've used travel clothes to keep wrinkle-free and pack extra stuff. If you're a serious traveler, you'll probably want to consider paying a little more for your threads.
What to look for when you buy travel clothes
If you're thinking of switching to specialty travel clothes, look for something machine-washable, wrinkle-resistant, odor-resistant and lightweight, with features specially designed for travelers, such as hidden or zippered pockets. That's the advice of Stefan Loble, who founded Bluffworks.
"Historically, garments with those qualities aren't always the most fashionable or stand out as technical gear," he says. That's where travel clothes come in, taking materials used for technical purposes, like fishing vests, and turning them into something elegant.
In the end, though, it's function over form, says Dima Zelikman, co-founder of travel clothing manufacturer Unbound Merino.
"Most clothing in the category comes with a lot of gimmicks, false claims, frills and solutions to problems that don't really benefit the traveler," he says. "Gimmicks like a secret battery pack to charge your phone, a blow-up neck pillow in the hood of a hoodie, or a bottle-opener zipper tab."
Zelikman says it makes more sense to have a hoodie that's so light and packable, you have room to take your favorite neck pillow.
If you don't have the budget for travel clothes, you can make smarter shopping decisions. Avoid cotton and denim, which don't travel well. Find a polyester or spandex blend that will withstand the rigors of the road. But if you do have the money, don't just rely on the travel label. Look for something practical. You – and your clothing – will go far.
Ask these three questions before you buy travel clothes
• Does it match my trip? For example, UV-protective clothes and bug-repellent clothes are great if you’re going on an African safari or any other trip where you’ll be exposed to the sun for long periods, says Chris Wain, a sales director at Africa Travel. "However, many people buy these unnecessarily," he adds. On an average beach vacation, your regular clothes and bug-repellent sprays should do the job.
• Does it help me blend? A lot of travel clothing does the opposite: There are logos, bright colors, flashy designs. "Many travelers want to blend into local communities, not necessarily announce that they are the foreigners who stand out from afar with their branded travel outfits," says Nicos Hadjicostis, an author who spent more than six years traveling the world and who now lives in Nafplio, Greece.
• Does it simplify my choices? The most experienced travelers have just one set of clothes – what fashion expert Andrea Pflaumer calls a "preset" wardrobe. "You won't have to recreate it every time you pack," says Pflaumer, who wrote the book "Shopping for the Real You." "And when you return home, you know which pieces have to be cleaned, which should be replaced, and you are aware of any gaps that might need filling for the next trip."
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate. Contact him at [email protected] or visit elliott.org.