How To Travel With Your Watches Like A Pro: All The Dos, Don’ts, And Maybes
Are you ready for an article on how to travel with your watches that features all sorts of watch rolls, cases, and other implements? Well, if so, move along because this article isn’t that! I’ve traveled a lot over the past 25 years, and I’ve been a watch nut for a good portion of that time. In this article, I’ll share a few things that I’ve learned — sometimes the hard way.
Travel is something that I’ve always enjoyed about my personal and professional life. As a result, I’ve spent a huge amount of time on the go, with the bulk of it on airplanes. I often spend at least two months of the year in hotels and, in prior years, somewhere around two weeks per year on a plane. That’s so enviable, isn’t it? Not really… The funny thing is that when I am away, I do like to bring certain things along that make me comfortable or remind me of home. For someone who also dabbles in a bit of writing on a certain site called Fratello, that means I like to bring some watches.
Travel with watches — a deep subject
Traveling with watches can be an incredibly simple thing, but if you’re a collector who enjoys bringing even a small slice of the collection along for the ride, it involves thinking and planning. The considerations involved are the type of thing that non-watch people simply don’t understand. So yes, I will share some of the mental gymnastics that I go through when preparing to head out, and I’ll be curious if you have little ticks that you follow. As always, feel free to comment below and share.
How many watches to bring with you?
I reckon that 2012 was the beginning of my real collecting affair. After this, a lot changed, and I went from grabbing my trusty Rolex Explorer 14270 as the sole travel partner to wanting to bring additional watches. Frankly, when I brought more along, I gave it very little thought and used something like a simple watch roll in my briefcase. All went well until that fateful day in 2019 (read it here) when I was randomly stopped by Swiss customs in Basel and had to hand over several thousand Swiss francs because I lacked the proper paperwork. So, where does that leave me in 2023?
When in doubt, less is more…
I have largely stopped bringing a small gathering of watches with me when I travel. Yes, there are exceptions, but these days, I typically bring one nice watch that will get the bulk of wrist time. However, I always — and I do mean always — throw in something easy like a Citizen Eco-Drive Ray Mears or BN0220. Returning to the one nice watch, this is where the planning comes into play.
I still remember picking up a vintage Seiko 6139 Chronograph on a visit to the USA that had been shipped to a friend’s house via an eBay seller (it was a pawn shop). I took it back to my hotel room and recall that the watch fired right up and had no issues running. Heck, even the bracelet fit my slim wrist, so it seemed like the perfect partner for dinner that night. It was August, though, and seriously humid in Pennsylvania. Imagine my surprise when I emerged from the frigid hotel and the inside of the watch started to fog because the seals were long gone. Yes, that was a particular situation, but I think about this when choosing my “one weapon” for travel.
What will I encounter?
Will this be a beach or pool holiday? Or will I be in a seriously rainy or humid climate (I used to spend a lot of time in Asia, for example)? Conversely, will it be incredibly cold? When was the last time I had my watch pressure tested? I consider all of these types of questions when choosing what to bring on a trip.
Then there’s the relatively recent hot topic of safety. It’s amazing to think that I rocked whatever I wanted wherever I went. Rolling around London before the holidays in 2019 with a Moonshine Gold Speedy was something I did without concern. That wouldn’t happen today. Before violent watch crime started to escalate in big cities, I reserved caution for known theft hotspots. Now I often opt for something incognito no matter where I am. I tone it down even more if it’s warm outside and I’m wearing short sleeves. Crimes of opportunity are certainly rarer than shocking news videos would have you believe. But is it worthwhile to always be looking over your shoulder while on the move? Nah, I’d rather wear something nondescript but cool and carefree like a modern Aquastar or Doxa.
Going vintage or modern?
When it comes to travel with a vintage watch, there’s even more to contemplate. We’ve heard about my foggy-crystal Seiko chronograph from earlier, but I had another doozy. Roughly ten years ago, I was standing in the airport lounge grabbing a coffee. I was on the way to Florida with my family for a nice two-week vacation. On my wrist was a newly acquired (service unknown) Omega Seamaster 200 “Deep Blue.” I wore it because I was really excited to show it to my dad. I looked down, and something was amiss. Yes, the seconds hand was sitting at the bottom of the dial. Oops! I had brought along another watch, but imagine if I had chosen this as my sole companion. Now I always think about how robust or recently serviced my vintage watch is before choosing it.
What else concerns me about a vintage watch as a lone wolf during travel? Well, I’m often handling heavy, ungainly luggage, or I’m in tight, crowded spots like subways, buses, or taxis. Then there’s the immovable, edgy airplane armrest. All of these are potential hazards for an old watch with a flimsy, possibly crazed acrylic crystal. Am I overthinking things? Absolutely, but I always come back to the fact that I own multiple watches, so why take the chance with a piece that might not be up to the task? On the rare occasion that I do choose vintage, it’s typically an old Speedmaster or Rolex — they simply feel more solid to me. Or I go with a reissued watch that will provide the same vintage feel but with modern specs.
Storage and more storage
I know that people go gaga over watch storage for travel. I don’t for the sole reason that I don’t have space for big, bulky hard cases. Normally, I use a simple watch pouch or my old leather watch roll from DECAMP (sadly, Erik no longer makes these). I like to use something slim that I can fit into whatever I’m carrying. If I need more protection, I may choose one of the old-school Oakley round zippered cases or a red Omega service case. These are small enough, but they’re still a bit bulky.
When it comes to storage at your destination, the in-room hotel safe looms large. Is this the perfect solution? Absolutely not because the hotel can always open it, but I admit that I’ve never had an issue. A safe is a deterrent, and unless a hotel worker has watched what you’re wearing and noticed that you’ve changed, I think it’s a better bet than locking something in a suitcase. What I don’t like is that these safes are often on top of the hotel mini-fridge and can feel like an oven inside. The other issue is that I often store my laptop in the safe and if it’s not a wide enough space, it forces me to consider placing my watch on the laptop. This feels like an opportunity for magnetizing.
Are you going on vacation where it’s warm and the food and drinks will be plentiful? Of course! I always bring a spring bar tool for my watches on bracelets that lack an easy micro-adjust system. Plus, I throw in quite a few strap options. This is an easy way to add variety to your travel game without adding more watches. And, depending on the watch, it can make it more or less formal.
My favorite travel subject — borders
Since my Swiss adventure, I’m incredibly mindful of crossing borders. Every day, collectors fly in and out of countries to meet-ups or for general travel with multiple watches. That’s risky unless you’re using a Carnet (a document that allows one to take a good into a country temporarily), and even then, you need to ensure that the country accepts it. I don’t use one, so it’s the leading reason why I travel so lightly (meaning: one nice watch). Of course, I will throw in a several-hundred-euro beater watch into my bag at times because I consider it a low risk. However, if the letter of the law were applied, duties could be applied on the watch.
So, if you are going to carry multiple watches across non-tax-union borders, know that it’s a risk. If you’re going to do it anyhow, it’s a good idea to wear the nicest one on your wrist. It’s probably not failsafe advice, but this was deemed as personal property during my run-in and, therefore, wasn’t considered. Then again, I’ve witnessed an agent asking someone about the Balenciagas they were wearing in baggage claim and where they were purchased. In the end, there seems to be a fair amount of subjectivity. Do your research!
In the end, common sense prevails during travel
It can be tempting to bring along a pile of watches wherever you go — especially if you’re early on in your watch-collecting journey. It’s fun to have so many options during travel, and if you’re joining a get-together, it can even feel like “giving back” when you allow other collectors to see a watch for the first time in person. However, there are plenty of risks. If you do it on official business or are supporting some sort of brand-led retrospective, do it all above board. Consider insurance, and prepare the right documentation for border crossings. Anything else is a gamble.
Feel free to let us know some of the considerations you take into account during travel with your watches. If you’re up for it, share some of the encounters you’ve had as well — for better or for worse!