I travel for a living—here's how I still cook for myself
Buying every meal gets old when you travel a lot. Here's everything you need to cook on the road.
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Whether you’re planning an extended vacation or you go on a lot of business trips, there’s one thing about travel that can get old fast: Eating out for every meal.
Whether you’re health conscious, you’re a picky eater, or you just want to save a few bucks on your trip, cooking your own meals while you travel has a ton of advantages. There’s just one problem: That hotel kitchenette or Airbnb kitchen just isn’t stocked like the setup you have at home.
Luckily, it’s not too difficult to build up a collection of compact, travel-friendly essentials that will take any bare-minimum kitchen to the level you need to whip up your favorite comfort food from home, no matter where the road takes you. As a digital nomad myself, I’m on the road 100 percent of the time. Here’s what I keep in my checked luggage that’s helped me eat well in 34 countries and counting.
1. A sharp, well-balanced chef’s knife that’s better than your Airbnb’s
Nothing takes the joy out of cooking like hacking and squishing your tomatoes with a dull knife. And while most every Airbnb kitchen is going to be stocked with a knife of some sort, the odds of it being a quality, sharp knife that keeps your prep work from taking an hour? Not great.
That’s why the first thing a traveling cook needs is a knife. The 8-inch Victorinox Fibrox Pro Chef’s Knife has great control, and when our tester tried it, they found it balanced and easy to use. It helps that this knife is solidly mid-range on price, which is what earned it our badge of “Best Value” among all the best chef’s knives. So if it gets lost or damaged on the road, it’s not a total tragedy.
This is best for car travelers, but it can go in a checked bag for a flight, as long as it meets the TSA’s security requirements and is sheathed or wrapped securely in your checked luggage.
- Get the Victorinox Fibrox Pro 8-in. Chef’s Knife on Amazon for $29.95
- Get the Victorinox Fibrox Pro 8-in. Chef’s Knife at Walmart for $29.99
2. A multi-tool with everything but the kitchen sink
There is nothing as annoying as getting halfway through a recipe and realizing the kitchen of your vacation rental is missing something necessary—and trust me, you do not want to resort to peeling a mountain of potatoes with a knife because you thought you had a peeler and it turns out you don’t.
Enter the Gentlemen's Hardware 12-in-1 Kitchen Multi Tool. In this surprisingly compact 6-inch stainless steel multi tool, you get a cheese grater, zester, garlic crusher, channel knife, small paring knife, serrated knife, peeler, fork, spoon, bottle opener, corkscrew, and can opener. Sure, the tools might be too small to be great for everyday use. But in an emergency, like the aforementioned Thanksgiving potato situation, they more than get the job done. Just remember to keep it in your checked bag if you fly—like most multi tools, the TSA only allows you to store it in your checked luggage.
- Get the Gentlemen's Hardware 12-in-1 Detachable Kitchen Multi Tool on Amazon for $30
- Get the Gentlemen's Hardware 12-in-1 Detachable Kitchen Multi Tool at Williams Sonoma for $24.99
3. Cutting boards for every occasion—and ingredient
One of my biggest travel pet peeves is checking into an apartment that only has one cutting board—or worse, none. As a little bit of a germaphobe, I subscribe to the kitchen philosophy that says you should use different cutting boards for meats and produce. It’s just good food handling.
Obviously, it’s tough to travel with a thick, quality cutting board. But these flexible cutting mats will practically make you forget all cutting boards aren’t made of lightweight, bendable plastic that’s easy to pack away in a suitcase. They’re lightweight enough to add nary a pound to your luggage, yet thick enough to handle months of chopping, slicing, and dicing. And the textured back keeps them from sliding around, which is a huge concern when using plastic boards.
4. TSA-approved containers to carry your most important liquids
Outside of North America, a good hot sauce can be annoyingly hard to find. That’s why spice-loving travelers have just started carrying their own preferred brand, whether it be sriracha, Cholula, or Frank's. It’s also nice to be able to travel with your own oils and vinegars—it’s not like you can’t find these, but are you going to use up a whole bottle of olive oil on a trip that lasts a week or two? Probably not. It’s wasteful (and expensive) to buy a bottle every time you travel. That’s why containers like these aren’t just for toiletries anymore.
Many travel containers that are meant to hold liquids that contain chemicals like BPA, but GoToob’s silicone travel bottles are specifically food safe. And in the two years I’ve been using them, they’ve never leaked on me.
5. Everything you need to store ingredients, leftovers and more
One of the biggest hurdles to cooking while traveling is that hotel kitchenettes don’t come with any kind of food storage. You end up with nowhere to keep your ingredients, no way to store your leftovers, and no way to take a home-cooked meal with you to work or on a day trip or tour.
Luckily, there are some travel-friendly food storage options out there. Every seasoned traveler will tell you that plastic bags are one of their top tools for everything, not just cooking. But they’re handy in the kitchen, too, and rezip's Lay-Flat Lunch Leakproof Reusable Storage Bags are more durable than your average disposable bag (and they’re better for the environment, too). We even named them the best multi-purpose reusable food storage bags because if their versatility.
I also recommend Thin Bins Collapsible Silicone Food Storage Containers. They collapse to lay flat so they’re easy to pack, and they’re microwave- and dishwasher-safe.
- Get the rezip Standup Food Storage Bag 5-Pack on Amazon for $19.99
- Get Thin Bins Collapsible Food Storage Container 4-Pack at Walmart for $17.99
6. A way to bring the taste of home wherever you go
A lot of what I cooked back home was influenced by Tex-Mex flavors, which meant cumin and chili powder went in almost every meal I made. Guess what spices are virtually impossible to find in Southeast Asia? That’s right, cumin and chili powder.
It’s so helpful to be able to take a small stash of familiar spices with you wherever you go, which is why I love the GSI Outdoors Spice Missile. It can hold up to six spices in containers that all screw together into one space-saving “missile.” It’s leak-proof and waterproof, and holds plenty of spice to get you through even several months of travel.
- Get the GSI Outdoors Spice Missile on Amazon for $9.95
- Get the GSI Outdoors Spice Missile at Walmart for $9.55
7. A way to grind the spices (and coffee) you do find
When I finally found cumin in Croatia, it was only whole cumin—not the ground powder I was used to buying and using at home. That’s where a portable grinder comes in really handy, and I love the Krups Fast Touch Electric Coffee and Spice Grinder. It’s smaller than most electric grinders—barely bigger than a coffee cup—so it doesn’t take up a lot of luggage space. And while the grind isn’t perfectly consistent, it’s still able to handle small spices and coffee beans alike. That’s why it was our choice for best blade grinder this year.
- Get the Krups Fast Touch Electric Coffee and Spice Grinder at Home Depot for $16.47
- Get the Krups Fast Touch Electric Coffee and Spice Grinder at Walmart for $15.96
8. A way to get your measurements just right
Serious home cooks (and health-conscious eaters) already know how handy a kitchen scale can be. But it’s even more so on the road—combined with a unit conversion app on your smartphone, it can replace measuring cups and spoon for when you Airbnb doesn’t have any (or is missing half of them, because that definitely happens).
The AmazonBasics Stainless Steel Digital Kitchen Scale is small and compact, meant to save on counter space. But it’s great for saving space in your luggage, too. And it just so happens to be one of the best digital kitchen scales we’ve ever tested, earning the title of Best Value for its balance of quality and price.
9. A low-tech measuring backup
A kitchen scale might be a bit of a daunting investment for some traveling cooks, which is why you can’t beat the basics. For a long time, I traveled with my own sets of measuring cups and spoons.
Cuisipro’s Stainless Steel Measuring Spoon Set and Bellemain’s Stainless Steel Measuring Cup Set both have nesting designs that save space, and their spoons and cups are held together with chains instead of bulky, cumbersome storage rings, making them especially ideal for travel. Plus, both sets came out on top in our review for their accuracy and ease of use.
- Get Cuisipro’s Stainless Steel Measuring Spoon Set on Amazon for $10.99
10. Something to help you find the perfect pairing
There is nothing worse than getting back to your hotel room with a nice bottle of wine… and not having a way to open it. Good food and good wine go hand-in-hand, so you need to do what you can to prevent that scenario from happening to you. Trust me.
The Rabbit 6-Piece Wine Tools Set has everything you need to get into the bottle you just picked up from whatever wine region you’re visiting, with a corkscrew, foil cutter, bottle pourer, champagne sealer, wax remover, and extra spiral. Plus, it all comes in a handy box that’s compact and easy to tuck away into your suitcase.
- Get the Rabbit 6-Piece Wine Tools Set on Amazon for $30.40
- Get the Rabbit 6-Piece Wine Tools Set at Bed, Bath and Beyond for $49.99
- Get the Rabbit 6-Piece Wine Tools Set at Williams Sonoma for $59.95
Prices are accurate at the time of publication, but may change over time.