USA TODAY gap year girl Monika Lutz takes a look at her essential items – all of which make great holiday gifts.

During the course of my fourteen month gap year, I will return to my hometown a total of four times. On each occasion, I have an average of 30 hours before my next departure. Thus, I have broken my “filling of the luggage” ceremony down to a social science that must be accurate enough to supply everything I need for any situation I may find myself in during the next four month adventure. The routine consists of a handful of go-to products that, should I only have one small bag for the entire duration, I could not leave home without. As I continue on my travels, I would like to share the personal favorites that make it into my luggage time and time again.

My “Presentation Pieces”: Presentation is the heart of professionalism; you can only go so many steps without it. My winning outfit starts with (what else) a Little Black Business Dress. XOXO’s Baton Rouge Floral Dress (Row 1, Picture 4) looks great under blazers and transitions smoothly into evening award ceremonies while the BB Dakota Creston Knit Dress by Private Gallery (see R1:P3, R2:P4, R3:P2) delivers a polished and minimalistic statement.

But the dresses wouldn’t say “business” without my favorite blazers. I fall back on the Classic Jacket in black by Hazel (R2:P3) for a typical day at the office because the cut and material are very clean. When I want to make a casual piece look polished or after a long flight, XOXO’s Velvet black blazer (R1:P5) never shows wrinkles, is soft enough to fall asleep on the plane in, and doesn’t constrict my arms (so I can put my luggage in the overhead bin).  Then there’s my show-stopper: the Bold Shoulder Ponte Jacket by XOXO (R1:P4) appears tuxedo-like in front, with lacing in the back for a perfect fit. I love that it breaks away from the black-blazer staple and gives me that extra confidence boost in an interview. For pencil skirts (such as the blue Band Practice skirt, shown in R2:P1), I head to Modcloth.

There are also a few investment pieces that transform an ensemble from “together” to “polished”. It starts with the timepiece. The Jorg Gray 2700-12 (see R1:P4, R1:P5) records the minutes, yet never ages. It feels so entirely classic that I know I will be looking down at this very piece for decades of professional occasions to come. After five pm, my wrist feels bare without Ice Watch’s Stone Sili (R2:P1). The piece is so modern and feminine it is part bracelet, part watch. Not to mention, the silicon band fits so comfortably around my wrist that I hardly notice its presence.

I only pack one pair of earrings and one necklace on my professional outings: pearl studs by Pearl Paradise (R1:P3, R2:P3) and the Hannah Lariat Necklace by Lindsey Marie (R1:P4, R2:P1). The earrings are a professional staple. As for the necklace, there is nothing stuffy about these pearls. I wear the Hannah Lariat long for evenings and weekends, doubled with any outfit, and tripled for big business occasions.

Go-To Gadgets: No matter which developed world I am in, my Amazon Kindle (R2:P1) is my virtual puppy. It delivers my morning newspaper to me (without tooth marks), accompanies me on trains and buses, and even sings me songs at night. I love that I no longer have to lug thick novels around and can still annotate like an honor student.

I know that when my year comes to an end, I will want my photos to be as vivid as my memories. I’ve applied nearly every tourism-appropriate verb to my Olympus Stylus TOUGH 3000 (R2:P3) –drop, slip, rain, run, record, capture—and it is still clicking away.

While it may not hold up in a rainstorm, the Sony VAIO E Series (R2:P4) has assisted me through storms of work, even in untypical work environments. With its multitasking maven, the i5 Core Processor by Intel, I can be Skyping my family, while streaming Pandora, answering emails, and reading through blogs. Even better: I can do it all in a wifi-less coffee shop, thanks to the WiMAX-enabled technology that covers entire regions and cities. For business, I tote it in Plaid Doctrine’s Briefcase (R1:P1) and Ogio’s Roadtrip Olive Berries Laptop bag (R2:P5) for days out.

Changing time zones and varying schedules always leaves me stressed about being late. I love my Moshi Voice-Controlled Travel Alarm Clock (R2:P2) for its compact size, light-up display, and ease of updating. You simply push the “command button” and speak a new time, alarm on or off, alarm sounds, light up display, and many more options.

Outerwear: Lutz face it: overcoats devour luggage space. Even on a four month journey, I simply cannot accommodate more than one jacket. Luckily, my Burton Elektra Jacket (shown in True Black Cheetah Print in R2:P5) covers all bases. Water resistant, hood-encompassing, and light, I don’t have to think twice about taking it to the office and when I get home to Colorado for the holidays, I’ll take it to the slopes. Now that’s an all-around winner.

My Echo gloves (R2:P1) save me from frozen fingers, dirty metro railings, and scalding hot chocolate in the morning. More than just a fashion statement, the built-in touch technology means typing on your touch screen and warm fingers can coexist.

While protection from the cold is important, protection from the sun is vital. However, after breaking my third pair of sunglasses last year, I pledged to never buy a decent pair again. I kept that promise until I discovered Lumete’s beautiful Attic Safari glasses (worn in R1:P4). Inspired by a former gap year girl, they provide fantastic protection without ever inducing headaches or slipping off your face mid-sprint. The major selling point for me: their butterfly shaped carrying case is super fortified. It even withstood me standing on it!

Fitness Frocks: To keep healthy on the road and sharp in the office, I grab my  Nike Lunarglide2 (see R3:P3), Nike Element Windless Women’s Running Tights (in  R1:P2, R3:P3),  Nike Ripstop Women’s Running Jacket (pictured in Solar Red, R1:P2, R3:P3), and Underarmour ColdGear Fitted Turtleneck (see R1:P2). The running pants have zippers down the calves for a perfect fit over the superlight Lunarglide2 shoes, mesh behind the knees for breathability, and a zipper pocket in the back for my keys or cards. The jacket has a light, water-resistant shell that keeps me comfortable in rain or shine, while Underarmour’s turtleneck fits snugly without suffocating my core. The Sport and Store collection of water bottles (see R1:P2) hold my keys, credit card, and other small items in a hidden compartment at the base of the bottle, so my days of key-clutching runs are long gone.

When the sun goes down, I do not like to be running around, so I turn to Nikki Fitness DVDs (R3:P1). In the series, Nicole Glor, a former Syracuse cheerleader, leads a challenging workout filmed in multiple locations around the world.

Shoe Savvy Selection: I never thought I would own a pair of Crocs. After stumbling upon the “YOU by Crocs” line, I now own three. The Chikata Black Boots (R2:P5, R3:P2) are by far the most comfortable knee-high boot with an extra-padded insole and rounded toe. I take mine through puddles and short sprints to trains, all without fear of blisters or scuffs. To save space, I pack my wrinkle-ables inside the boot in my luggage.

If you had to walk a mile in my shoes, I would suggest taking a jaunt in my beloved Tall FF Superboot FitFlops (see R1:P5). Stop by a couple museums or hustle through an airport on your way, you’ll get a workout without wearing out your feet and look too suave to be a tourist.

When I need to look sharp above all else, I show up early in my black Dinner Out by Poetic Licence (R1:P4) booties. The silky appearance and glitter-covered heal shows simultaneous confidence and class. But I want to remain aware of my big city environment at all times. On the way to the office, I rely on Delicate Soles (shown in faux snake in R1:P4), roll-able flats that fit to the size of a lipstick tube. When I get to the office, I switch into my heels (see R1:P4).

If you are looking for the “Most Comfortable (While Still Looking Good) Bootie”, look no further than the Tsubo Brown Cusus (R2:P1) whose extra-grip soles and intensive cushioning will have you wondering why you can still run to the train after eight hours on your feet at work. I have walked thirty blocks in them without ever getting a blister.

Life-Saver Luggage: After just three months of travel, my luggage was out for the count. Torn seams, busted zippers, and stains ran amuck. I even observed a TSA agent attempt to lift my bag onto the carousel by the pulley handle, only to snap it physically off in mid-lift. I had to drag my luggage twelve blocks home after that. Needless to say, I now take luggage selection very seriously. When I heard a fellow traveler mention Briggs and Riley refunded a bag after an elephant stomped on it, I knew I was dealing with a product that will last as long as its lifetime warranty. I decided to put my 27” Duel Compartment Duffle in Sunset (see R1:P5) to the test. I sat on it, took it on distance runs, left it out in the rain, and dropped it down the subway stairs. Not stains, no tips, no tears!

For my carry on, the Case Logic 22” Lightweight Expandable Upright Roller in silver (see R1:P5) has multiple divisions to keep everything organized with a sturdy, no-nonsense shell that can take more than a few tumbles.

From laptops to luggage. Day to night. These are the pieces that make my year go right.

Follow Monika’s journey in real time on Twitter: @MonikaLutz I would like to give a special thanks to the great Kathryn Heimsath, Giorgio Ravalli, and Amelia Harvey for making the corresponding photographs in this article a reality.




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