Going home for the holidays might be synonymous with family, friends, and food, but it’s also synonymous with travel delays, unpredictable weather, and time spent with people whose company you intentionally left behind to live somewhere else. Those details don’t always make it into the Christmas movies. Fortunately, a few wise purchases and downloads can go a long way in easing the stressors of a holiday trip home.
If you’re taking a plane, a train, or a bus, put these little miracles at the top of your list. Or any of the best noise-canceling wireless earbuds, really: Apple AirPods Pro are a hassle-free pick for iPhone owners, and Bose QuietComfort Earbuds offer outstanding sound quality. Regardless of which you pick, modern noise cancellation makes slipping them into your ears feel like closing an invisible door to the outside world. Droning engines disappear, crying babies fade into the distance, and your music or podcast takes center stage. The $150 expenditure is a small price to pay for sanity.
Traveling with a gadget armada means frequent plug-ins. It’s tempting to purchase a whopper of a battery that can recharge your phone 17 times, but here’s the thing: You’ll never need that much juice, and you’ll never want to lug it around. The best portable charger is the one you have on you when you need it, which is why we recommend a smaller model, like this pocketable Anker. Pro tip: If you travel with a laptop, you already have a capacious gadget charger. Check your laptop settings to see if you can enable device charging (even when off) from its USB ports.
Bypass your parents’ antiquated cable TV setup with this portable wonder, which you can set up in just minutes … after they spend a half hour finding the handwritten index card with the Wi-Fi password written on it. (It’s in the kitchen drawer, and the last eight digits are your birthday.) Just remember to set up all your streaming accounts before you leave home, and be prepared to buy your parents one after they discover the wonders of saying “Alexa, play Succession,” instead of fumbling to find the right recording on the DVR.
The guest room in grandma’s house has just a single ungrounded outlet, and it’s already occupied by a seashell lamp with a buzzing bulb that Edison himself may have crafted. Do you want to charge your phone, or be able to turn on the lights? With the pass-through design of this charger, you can simply plug the lamp into the charger and do both. It’s also handy in airports, Airbnbs, and all the other places that never seem to have enough free outlets. An extra-long charging cord can also come in handy, since they never seem to be in the right place.
When Aunt Helen insists on unloading the dishwasher at 4 a.m. to get a start on her Christmas ham, you’ll slumber blissfully unaware thanks to the white noise from this tiny godsend. Five different types of white noise let you pick your aural sedative, and when you’re more in the mood to party than sleep, it doubles as a conventional Bluetooth speaker. Yes, the noise-canceling earbuds above can do the trick in a bind, but if you’ve ever slept with earbuds in, you know why this is worth every penny.
Dead car batteries suck at any time of the year, and doubly so when it’s sleeting outside and you’re about to be late for Christmas dinner. If your trek home involves driving instead of flying, this jump-starter is cheap insurance to make sure you get there. A modern lithium-ion battery lets this beast jump engines up to six liters in size, despite being small enough to kick under your passenger seat and forget. Even if you don’t end up needing it yourself, it’s also much easier to help a stranger in need when you don’t need to maneuver your car across six lanes of traffic to get your cars nose-to-nose for jumper cables.
Hauling out old photo albums can be a fun way to relive the past with your family, but the snaps you capture with your phone camera and post on Instagram never seem to do Mom’s outrageous ‘70s hairdo justice. There’s always glare, or a weird reflection, or odd lighting. Google’s PhotoScan app uses computational photography to stitch several angles of the same photo into one masterpiece that’s almost as good as a scan.
From airports to bars, you’re going to get asked for your COVID vaccine card practically everywhere you go this season — so keep it in your phone. While a photo will suffice at most bars and restaurants, both Google and Apple offer ways to store verifiable cards, which are linked to your health care provider and should be as good as the paper version. Apple Health allows you to add vaccine cards by simply scanning a QR code, while Google has instructions for downloading digital COVID vaccine cards on any Android device, with or without Google Pay.
Turn boring moments of holiday downtime into an opportunity to read all the engrossing articles you don’t have time for during a workweek. Installing the Instapaper extension in Chrome lets you capture those epics from The Atlantic with one click, then revisit them later on your phone or e-book reader while you relax next to a Yule log. Besides working offline, Instapaper clips out all the obnoxious ads and formatting, leaving you with a clean, booklike reading experience.
Showing up with a nice bottle of wine is one way to arrive in style, but a good mixologist can shake things up with more unique libations. If you don’t know a Mai Tai from an Ai-La Palu, Cocktail Flow is the best way to fake it. Just plug in the liquor you have at your disposal, and it will offer up a curated selection of cocktails with dead-simple directions for making them. Just add ice.
From family drama to travel delays, holiday travel can make your brain feel like it’s going to explode. Meditation helps. If you think it’s all hippy woo-woo nonsense, this is the app to convince you otherwise. And if Joseph Goldstein’s guided meditations don’t bliss you out, you are exactly the unlovable monster your family thinks you are. Just kidding. Take a deep breath. You’ve got this!