We've all been hearing Muzak carols for weeks now, but because the "official" start of the Christmas shopping season has arrived with Santa at the end of all those parades on Thanksgiving Day, I feel now is the right time for my nearly annual offering of gift suggestions for travelers.
I should admit right up front that my review of what's out there on the market leads me to but one conclusion: As far as new items are concerned, the pickings are a bit slim.
That is not to say, however, that there isn't some dandy stuff in the stores and catalogs that any serious traveler would love to find under the tree. A lot of it simply represents refinement -- and improvement -- of products that have been around for a while.
Take luggage, for example. The so-called soft-sided versions continue to expand (no pun intended) in variety and specialization. These zippered nylon/canvas/miracle-fabric bags come in every possible size and shape, from a passport pouch no bigger than a wallet and the ubiquitous fanny packs and backpacks, all the way to duffels large enough to carry a young water buffalo.
Of course, soft-sided luggage is a great gift idea because, in addition to its inherent practicality, it comes in a range of prices to match the variety of sizes -- teeny-tiny to fairly hefty.
One new item in the travel stores that caught my eye this year combines practicality with low price. It's called "Travel Shave" and it looks like a slightly larger-than-life fountain pen. When you take the cap off, you have a mini-aerosol container of shaving cream packed with enough foam for 10 shaves. Once you've lathered up, the razor is easily assembled from the cap and you're set to shave.
The gizmo was priced at just $6.50 at the store where I saw it. That's only 65 cents per shave -- a bargain for that kind of welcome refreshment.
Refreshment for those who do their traveling behind the wheel can come in the form of cassette tapes that provide a welcome break from all-talk, all-news or all-rock radio programming. There are plenty of offerings in the books-on-tape category, but it was Bob Magee of Bethesda who came up with a truly valuable idea: taped narratives about the history and points of interest of the part of the country you're driving through.
His "Ride With Me" tapes cover, for example, Interstate 95, from Massachusetts to northern Florida. He also has tapes for I-81, from New York to North Carolina, I-80 from New York to Chicago and I-10 across Texas from Houston to El Paso.
More tapes are in the works for next year, but a major addition to the collection is available in time for this holiday season: Historian Shelby Foote's (Remember him from PBS' "The Civil War"?) authoritative three-volume account, "The Civil War: A Narrative."
Most of the interstate highway tapes go for $9.95 per segment -- the entire set for I-95, for example, costs $89.55. For information on ordering, phone (800) 752-3195.
Finally, this year brings what may be the ultimate gift book for the serious traveler -- "Dave Barry's Only Travel Guide You'll Ever Need" (Fawcett, Columbine; $18).
Mr. Barry, the certifiable wack-a-doo whose humor column in the Miami Herald won him a Pulitzer Prize a couple of years ago, has brought his zany view of reality to the world of travel -- and travel guidebooks.
Maybe this book isn't for the serious traveler, but my advice is: Buy it anyway.