(Women readers will probably find this post rather annoying as convention dictates that they have to look smarter than men.)
I was recently talking to Charlemagne and we noticed that we were dressed identically—heavy cords, tweed jacket, brown shoes etc. That’s the ideal journalistic clothing: warm, presentable and clean, and easily made informal by discarding the tie.
The tie is a useful signalling device. Some people plan this carefully (eg, wearing blue-black-white when going to Estonia). I find it better to wear my university (LSE) tie. It often starts conversations at airports or on trains. LSE alumni are just the sort of people you want to meet.
Here are a few other tips from 25 years of life as a perpetual traveller.
You can manage for a week out of a laptop bag, so long as you fold your shirts neatly. It is good to have one with three compartments as it is embarrassing if you have to rummage for a pen and notebook at a meeting and find your dirty laundry emerging from the bag. The bag itself should ideally cost nothing—the kind given out at conferences are ideal, especially the World Economic Forum ones.
The sponge bag should be tiny and light. Key contents: an almost exhausted tube of toothpaste which weighs nothing and doesn’t show up at baggage control; a sliver of soap; a battery-powered razor, using the kind of AA batteries that you can recharge from a USB port on the computer. Then you can use them for your dictaphone as well. Also, a tiny sewing kit, a couple of pills (two sleeping pills, two pain-killers, two Imodium; a couple of sticking plasters (band-aids in American); spare cufflinks; an almost exhausted roll of sticky tape, a blob of Blu-Tack, a few yellow Post-it notes, spare fountain-pen cartridges. In backward places a film canister full of green tea leaves is handy. In travels round the ex-Soviet Union I used to carry another canister full of Marmite (a strange British food product that you spread on bread or dissolve in water). But it looks disconcertingly like raw opium and in these security-conscious days can attract unwelcome attention. However, a few sticks of biltong weigh nothing, keep for ever, and ward off hunger if you are stuck on the Moldovan-Transdniestrian border in an immobile queue for a couple of hours. I also keep pay-as-you-go SIM cards for the main countries that I cover and use them in a lightweight $20 mobile phone that I bought in Dubai: much cheaper than roaming charges, both for you and people wanting to call you. And it confuses the chekists.
Travel comfort: an inflatable neck cushion, a blindfold and earplugs are a lot cheaper than flying business class. Take off your shoes as soon as you get in the plane.
Electronics used to take up too much space but that’s getting better now that you can recharge things with a USB cable. That means no Blackberry or iPod chargers. If you know you are staying in a hotel with a kettle in the room you can even leave your laptop cable behind and use the one attached to the kettle. The little Sony ICF-100 radio is still useful sometimes, but increasingly I listen to radio on my laptop. (That way you get Ekho Moskvy as well as the BBC.) But it is well worth the extra weight to get an extended battery for your laptop.
In Soviet days I never travelled without several thousand dollars in cash, just in case I needed suddenly to rent a satellite phone or buy an air ticket from a cash-only travel agent. However, it’s still useful to take postage stamps—I carry them for all the countries that I cover. Plus lots of passport photos—you never know when you will need some pointless accreditation or visa. Also handy: lots and lots of business cards, in wallet, jacket pockets and the bag. At a good conference you can get through hundreds. It’s annoying in this electronic age that these are still necessary, though if someone gives me theirs first I just get out my Blackberry and e-mail them my contacts, explaining that this is the modern thing to do. Also useful in the wallet is a tiny credit-card shaped torch.
Reading material: a photocopy of a good poem, preferably in Russian or some other foreign language that you have to think hard about, folded in the wallet just in case you are stuck with no electronic or other diversion.