One of the things we love most about travel is discovering the many ways others think differently than us. Witnessing new ideas challenges our way of thinking and adds to our own personal arsenal for tackling problems. Besides, it’s exciting to experience something we hadn’t before considered!
During nine months abroad across at least 20 countries, we encountered some brilliant ideas that made us wonder: why isn’t this standard around the world? From the bathroom to the kitchen, at home and on the road, these were some of our favorites.
Gadgets and Ideas We Loved
People around the world have some fantastic ideas! Fortunately, we can actually get some of these at home! Others would take a bit of work…
Aaron especially loves this idea. Electric kettles are simple: just fill with water, press the tab down, and it automatically shuts off when the water is hot. I understand their popularity especially in the UK, where tea is so prevalent. But these were in every single place we stayed – all around the world!
Americans are far more likely to find a coffee maker in any rented room. If you want hot water, you either run it through the coffee maker (without the coffee grounds), or you boil water on the stovetop in a pot or kettle.
Since we drink a lot of herbal tea (as I take a sip while I type…), this new gadget was revolutionary for us!
Power switches on the outlets
Aw man, this is so much smarter than the silly solutions we come up with in the States!
Ok, so in America, we’re used to every power outlet simply being always on. If you want to change this, you can clip a tab within the outlet to make it controlled by a room-level light switch (provided the outlet is also wired up properly). If you don’t want to go through all that hassle, the only other option is to plug the holes with harmless plastic caps (to protect from curious infant fingers, etc.).
The Brits (and those in a few other places) have a much better solution: just put a switch on the outlet! True, this likely has historical origins in differing voltages and the early prevalence of DC current in Britain that led to a need for switched outlets. And plastic plugs are probably cheaper now than redesigning our residential electrical wiring. But perhaps we could learn some things from our neighbors across the pond.
Cigarette butt catch grates
Neither of us smoke. Therefore, one of our biggest pet peeves is when smokers just toss their cigarette butts on the ground. It’s still littering; can you please throw them away?
Knowing smokers have a propensity to flick their butts, Rotterdam came up with a clever solution: provide a catch grate where people can do just that. It even has a sheet of metal on the backside to better catch the discarded cigarettes and funnel them into the receptacle. And the grate is level to the ground, so any wayward butts can just be swept in for easy collection.
Standalone public urinals
Speaking of keeping public spaces clean, we’ve all gone down those alleys that smell a little more like a bathroom than a street.
Amsterdam has public stalls surrounding a drain. Cologne took it one step further with these standalone triple urinals. While not useful to the entire population, it’s a much better option to the all-too-common alternative.
Exercise equipment in public parks
We thought it was really awesome to come across public parks with a whole line of exercise equipment. Ellipticals, fly machines, power towers, leg presses, and stationary bikes, among others. Nothing was powered, and the all-steel machines were painted in bright primary colors. It actually made us want to use them! What better way to encourage the public to exercise?
Self-powering bicycle headlights
When we first saw these in Japan, we were beside ourselves in awe. This is brilliant! Friction energy generators aren’t new. So it’s no surprise this would lead to powering a fundamental component to biking: a headlight.
But just powering them with the turn of the bike wheels wasn’t enough. These headlights also have a light sensor so they only illuminate when it’s dark out and only while one is riding. Never forget to turn off your light again!
You can get friction-generated Dynamo lights in the US, but I have yet to find one with the smart light sensor.
On-demand water heaters
This really isn’t a foreign concept to Americans, but it’s certainly in the minority. Instead, we would rather keep 50 gallons of water hot at all times.. y’know.. in case we decide to impulsively take a bath at 3am.
Almost everywhere else in the world, they’ve done away with this nonsense and have the much more energy-efficient on-demand water heaters. Water is only heated when needed, so you don’t waste the energy, and you never run out of hot water.
Some of the ones we encountered were propane-powered, and some we even had to manually light the pilot a few minutes before our showers. Automatic electric units are already available in the States, though they are expensive. It’s difficult to replace a water tank system, but I think Americans are slowly starting to move in that direction.
This one also comes from the Japanese (there were many things we loved about Japan). While we saw bidets all over Europe, they were always a separate appliance. If you weren’t already accustomed to using them, it was awkward.
However, with the smaller version that sits inside your existing toilet, you don’t even have to get up. Just push a button, and get a refreshingly clean bum! Best yet, these bidets can be added to any toilet you already have installed, and they can help during toilet paper shortages.
Heated towel racks
While we’re talking about posh bathrooms, I have to mention heated towel racks. Nothing compares to stepping out of the shower and wrapping yourself in a nice, warm towel. It also has the added benefit of drying your towels much faster (useful in humid climates)!
Just pair these with heated floors, and you’ve got yourself a luxurious way to start (or end) your day!
Prevalence of tapping to pay
In an increasingly cashless society, Americans are quite familiar with paying for everything with a credit card. However, we’re only just coming onboard with chip cards and readers, and some places honestly still swipe.
All across Europe and in many other places, tapping is the way to go. The customer never lets go of the card, and there’s no risk of forgetting it stuck in some machine. Just tap, confirm, and you’re done.
This cross-platform chatting app is used everywhere except in the US. Radio stations, doctors, businesses, and individuals use it as a standard. Nobody texts in the traditional sense.
We like it because we can easily create groups with anyone we meet on the road and exchange photos, videos, voice messages, etc. without messages getting clipped or divided. There are no iPhone vs. Android compatibility issues, and everything is more secure than standard texting.
It’s also entirely wifi-based, so we don’t have to worry about cell coverage or using international minutes while traveling. Chances are you’ll quickly download this app, too, once you travel internationally.
Gadgets and Ideas We Didn’t Like So Much
While the world has some amazing ideas to offer, there are a few we didn’t really like all that much.
In the States, we use quilts or comforters for warmth on the bed. Many countries in Europe instead use duvets. These are basically a neutral-colored down comforter that is meant to be tucked inside a patterned encasing, much like a giant pillow case that zips or buttons closed.
I really did not like this system. I get that this better protects the blankets, and it’s easier to clean a cover than it is to throw an entire comforter in the wash. Besides, it also protects the top from spillage, while our sheets system in the US does not (though an additional sheet on top could easily fix that).
But besides being really difficult to get this big blanket inside the duvet cover, this is typically all that’s on the bed. In other words: there’s no temperature control if you get warm in the night. I much prefer to have the freedom to strip the warmer layers, with the option to get down to nothing but sheet (the comfort of still being covered without any associated heat).
Pay-to-use public toilets
This was so annoying. This is a basic need, and one should not need to pay to use the toilet. While the amounts were seldom high (although paying £1 in a London train station was pretty steep), we didn’t often keep change on us (see the section on tapping above). It just encouraged people (usually men) to find a nearby friendly tree – or just the outside of the building – (though devices can grant women this freedom, too) and it discouraged us from drinking enough while out because we didn’t want the stress of trying to find a free bathroom.
Paying for a bathroom did not guarantee a well-maintained facility (and even some of the free squat toilets in Japan were cleaner than the paid ones in Europe). Besides, I believe it would be a better experience for all visitors to have this provided free of charge. After all, tourists bring money to those areas that more than cover the expense.
Needing a key to exit
Coming from a country of fire codes, this one really shocked us. In many places in Europe, the lock on the front door just has a keyhole on both sides. The only way to lock the door from the inside is to turn the key. And if you need to leave, you must have the key.
This had us nervous about fires, probably because we’ve been raised to make sure we always have a means of escape. We felt a little trapped.
Light switches on the outside of rooms
This just didn’t make any sense to me. Sure, it’s fine to have the switch on the way into a room, but it’s awkward when leaving and even worse if you just want to turn the light on or off without leaving. Sadly, this practice also wasn’t very consistent across areas we stayed in, so we had to break and remake habits frequently.
Floor numbers starting with zero
Brits: I love you, but why??? I still don’t get this one! We were never sure where to go when someone told us “go to the third floor.” Ok… is that the actual third floor, or is that the third floor above ground level?
I understand the ground floor is the bottom floor, but that’s still the “first” in counting. A building has four stories but the top is the third floor? We wound up on the wrong floor so many times… and I’m a programmer well-versed in zero indexing.
Combined with their affinity for reporting the time as e.g. “half eleven” (seriously, is that 10:30 or 11:30; I still can’t remember), we never knew when or where to meet anyone!
Gadgets and Ideas We Missed From Home
America also has some good ideas, too! As we trotted the globe, these are some of the things we missed from home.
It’s convenient to know we won’t clog our sinks with bits of food rinsed from plates. If some food goes down the drain, just flip a switch to grind it up. Sadly, this seems to only be popular in the US.
Self-starting stove burners
Now, this wasn’t lacking in every place we visited, but we were a bit surprised by the number of stovetops we had to manually light. Especially in well-developed countries, we figured technology would have won out.
Electronically adding a tip to the tab
Tipping cultures are different all over the world. Some refuse tips; some always expect a tip; some believe tips should be given only for exemplary service. But even if you know when and how much you want to tip, it isn’t always as convenient.
In the States, tips are typically added to the bill as part of the credit card charge. The server swipes your card and presents you with a receipt. Upon it are lines for you to write in your desired tip, the final total, and your signature. It’s this final amount that is ultimately charged. If there’s no line for a tip, one isn’t typically expected. And since your card has already been validated, once you sign, you can leave. No need to reveal how cheap or generous you are in their presence.
Most places we went either required a cash tip – which meant we had to keep some on us – or required patrons to inform the server the tip amount prior to charging the card – which can be a bit awkward. A select few allowed us to digitally enter an amount for tip during the charging process, but most were one of the other two methods.
Full-sized washing machine
Americans are known for doing things bigger. So it’s no surprise washing machines felt so much smaller to us around the world. Fortunately, we packed light, so our laundry loads were small anyway. But if we needed to wash anything more than a few clothes, we were looking at multiple loads.
Most places we went to didn’t bother with this additional appliance. And most of our wool clothing needed to air-dry anyway. But it would have been nice to have a dryer for the more difficult items like sweatpants. We just got used to laundry typically having a 24-48-hour turnaround.
With the exception of the Japanese, most countries just don’t seem to take baths. I get it; it can be a huge water draw. But after a day of hiking almost a marathon, we sometimes want to soak our aching legs in some soothing hot water. We actually got excited when we came to an Airbnb or housesit with a real bathtub.
Speaking of hygiene, since everyone is so fond of showers, one would think they’d also be fond of not killing themselves by slipping on a slick wet service. However, we found rubber shower mats surprisingly absent. And this wasn’t because showers around the world tend to have non-slip surfaces; they’re just as slippery as ours. We had to tread very carefully.
In the States, almost every public restroom is accompanied by a water fountain. Abroad, these were frustratingly hard to come by. Germany was particularly bad, but they apparently have a cultural aversion to communal water sources.
While we’re really good at carrying water bottles with us everywhere we go, we often need to refill (reduce plastic waste and all, right?). Our first few days in Japan were spent very parched because we couldn’t find any non-vending-machine refill options (thus our unfortunate introduction to Pocari Sweat… eww….). Most places, we resigned ourselves to refilling from bathroom taps and hoping for the best.
This is probably why we were so pleasantly surprised to find bottle refill stations along hiking trails in Santiago, Chile.
The world has some great things for us to learn. From bike headlights and bidets to shower mats and electric kettles, we have all solved problems in a lot of unique ways! We can’t wait to explore more and experience other new perspectives!
What is the coolest gadget or idea you have encountered in your travels?
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