I adore watches. They feel like a trusty tool that’s always on my wrist, that survives high dives and low clunks, hopefully without fail. In this day and age, using a watch is still more satisfying than looking at my phone.
And they communicate something about me (a delicate, elegant timepiece versus a rugged field watch).
Despite what you may have heard, watches aren’t dead.
The question is, what is the best watch for travel, and why is it different from the watch I wear everyday?
Some travelers look for a watch that is less expensive than what they wear at home to guard against theft. Others are on the hunt for travel-specific features, such as multiple time zones or additional durability to survive on the road.
To figure this out, here is my own survey of the different ways to approach buying a travel watch.
What to look for in a great travel watch
First, a list of considerations:
- Durability — Is it strong enough to survive a rugged trip?
- Versatility — Can I wear it for active pursuits and dressy occasions?
- Power source — How is it powered and what are the chances it will it die while traveling?
- Visibility — Can I see it in the dark?
- Time zone aware — Will it automatically reset the time as I travel?
- Alarm — Does it have an alarm to supplement my phone?
- Style — Is it nice enough for a fine dinner or museum?
- Comfort — Is it comfortable enough for long wear?
- Risk — How appealing is it to thieves?
For travel of any duration, the material of the band is also significant.
- Metal bands can survive anything, but have a tendency to scratch me and typically accompany a bulky watch.
- Rubber or woven bands also survive anything, but present a more sporty style.
- Leather bands look fantastic, but can show wear, particularly in hot and humid climates.
In terms of price point, my suggestions are typically under $500.
For someone who wears an expensive watch at home, $500 is a reasonable target. Some people will be shopping at a different price range. The good news is, there are lots of options to be had. Anything that is considered a true, luxury, multi-thousand dollar watch, I ignored (and can’t afford anyway).
Here’s one last great thing: I’ve noticed how gearing up for a trip is often a good excuse to buy new things. Maybe one of these will find its way onto your wrist for your next great adventure.
The best smart watches (that you haven't already heard of)
For a certain kind of person, a smart watch meets all the criteria of a great travel watch. And, if you own one already, odds are it will accompany you on your trip.
Looking at smart watches, here are some considerations that are specific to travel:
- Coverage — Can you connect to a carrier at your destination?
- Standalone — Does the watch operate independently vs. need to be connected to your phone?
- Durability — Most smart watches are strong, but will you be upset if it gets damaged?
- Theft — Is a smart watch likely to attract attention at your destination?
The major advantages of a smart watch are obvious, in that you can maintain your connected functions on the road — and your watch will always know what time it is.
Here are a couple of options in this category that are less obvious than the ones you may already know:
Montblanc Summit 2
Skagen Falster 2
Google Wear OS packaged within the unique Skagen design.
There is additional benefit of smartwatches that might be of interest to some travelers: Recently, a member of our team took an overseas trip with her parents. Her mother was having heart issues, and they relied on the pulse and EKG tracking of an Apple Watch to track her vitals while traveling. It ended up being significant because it made them less anxious about being away from their typical medical care. If a smartwatch enables you to feel more comfortable taking on a big trip, then by all means.
High powered world traveler watches
The next step in a technical watch for travelers is a highly powered world time watch.
These watches come with a lot of features specific to travel, like multiple time zones, alarms, light up dials, and — in some cases — automatic GPS setting of time. Even just using a dual time watch, which allows you two hour hands in order to indicate two different time zones — is a popular combination for travelers who want to set a “home” reference.
Worldwide autoset of time via GPS. Titanium case, sapphire crystal, is able to manage up to 40 timezone / locations.
Citizen Satellite Wave
Like the Seiko, also powered by solar, but made out of stainless steel. Includes a rotating bezel.
More economical, ha a dedicated hand for a second time zone, and still runs eco-drive / solar, but does not auto set via GPS.
One step further in travel features is selecting a digital / analog hybrid. The question is, do you like having a digital readout on your analog face?
Watches with a slide rule
One interesting feature for a certain kind of traveler is a watch with a slide rule.
Early in the growth of aviation, pilots had to perform a lot of calculations. Things like distance, fuel consumption, and others — and these calculations really mattered. They did this using a rotating bezel dial on their wrist watch, essentially a slide rule.
Some watches persist with a rotating bezel that that I think are relevant to travelers, because you can use to calculate currency exchange. I can see the appeal of this. If I didn’t enjoy math, I would much prefer to fiddle with my watch than take out my phone to use as a calculator, as it seems so much more elegant and respectful.
Check out this video to see how it works:
Eco drive and radio controlled auto time set (similar to GPS, but not as fast to update), includes slide bezel for calculations.
Small manufacturer who makes a simple and elegant slide rule, with a sapphire crystal.
Feature-rich chronograph, with an internally mounted slide rule bezel.
Extra durable watches for travel
For many travelers, a primary consideration is choosing a watch that is highly durable. There are two schools of thought on this matter: one is to buy something economical in case it doesn’t survive the journey. But the second approach is to choose something more durable that you know will.
The first consideration of durability is holding up to general clunks and abrasion. This happens more when you travel from all the moving about, schlepping luggage, etc.
Real watch fans know that a good watch is often the most durable. For example, a Rolex made out of a stainless steel will last for many years under the harshest conditions. A higher end watch is specifically made with a very strong crystal (the glass face of the watch) which will resist scratches and can be buffed out should they occur.
An elevated level of quality typically comes with a higher price tag. The problem with this level of durability is that they’re not great for travel. They’re sharper, more bulky, and many people find them less comfortable for the long haul on the road.
One style of watch known for extraordinary toughness is the diver’s watch.
A cult brand known for exceptionally bright markings and high durability.
Swiss Army Maverick
Stainless housing and a sapphire crystal combined with a tough rubber band.
Part of a large collection of diver’s watches made since 1965.
A second approach to durability is to buy a modern rubber or plastic watch. They’re some of the most durable you can buy, and have zero risk of being penetrated by water (for example, if you were to leave the crown of your dive watch pulled out, it would be ruined). As a result, this watch is constantly on your wrist, and never at risk of being stolen.
Casio’s GShock brand is known for being the most durable. The drawback being, their bulk.
A combination of rubber and stainless steel.
A full package GShock with all the features.
A smaller and lower profile choice with all the toughness.
Options for the best pilot watch for travel
Pilot watches are one of the most romantic types of watches built for travel. They are known for their easy to read dials, and often an aesthetic that resembles an avionic gauge. In fact, the first ever wristwatch for men was made by Cartier in 1904, for Alberto Santos-Dumont, an early flight pioneer. The same style persists today.
Some are very intricate, with many calculations and tools built into the dial. I prefer more simple expressions that prioritize being easy to read.
Historic maker of aviation watches in the US, now Swiss made.
A great price for a classic piece from a German brand since 1925. Automatic movement and sapphire crystal.
An upstart making beautiful, strong, yet accessible watches. This is the piece I would add to my collection next.
Options for the best field watch for travel
Field watches come with an ultra-utilitarian pedigree and an understated style. I like that they say “practical and tough.” These watches also happen to be some of the least expensive and the right selection can be elegant enough for a fine setting.
This is the realm for me. Durable, stylish, not too flashy, with a strong identity. Oh, and by the way, they are watches I can afford.
Part diver, part field watch, an effective and classic piece.
A different take, with a color scheme that feels like it could be worn anywhere.
Highly focused maker of field watches, with lots of options, this one made out of a solid titanium case.
Watches with international style
If you’re headed to a stylish destination like London or Paris, in the same way you wear a blazer to feel good, you’ll want a watch that fits in. A watch is often a mark of distinction, and will be noticed when you check into a hotel, dine in a restaurant, etc. And in some places, dressing well is a sign of respect. Your watch needs to go along.
Options for a GMT watch
The hallmark of a GMT watch is a dedicated hand that tracks a second time zone.
I thought this collaboration with Filson (an iconic apparel brand), came out beautifully. But, it won’t be available forever.
Farer Carter II
Great use of color on the face, and numerous choices of bands. This is a watch that will be noticed, but remain subtle.
A unique combination of conservative style with a GMT hand and an automatic movement.
Minimalist men's designer watches
Minimalist, Scandinavian design inspired watches are so interesting, I had to include a section all their own. I like them for their international feel.
A beautiful expression of 1960s modernism, that is just 8mm thick.
A case with no crown, that requires setting the time on the back of the watch.
I still remember buying my first Skagen, and they remain an affordable and reliable option with a distinct aesthetic.
But, there are tradeoffs with stylish timepieces. We’ve already discussed how fine watches can be some of the most durable, yet most bulky. I find that one of the major aspects of a watch with travel style is maintaining a low physical profile that is good for movement, doesn’t scratch me or others while moving around, and isn’t too heavy or ostentatious on my wrist. All of the above options fit the bill.
About travel security
Another significant consideration when selecting a travel watch is security. In fact, many travelers are specifically looking for a “travel watch” so they don’t have to bring their regular watch on the trip. With watches, a few things come to mind:
- Getting Stolen — I think this is everyone’s biggest concern: that the watch will disappear when it’s not on their wrist. Choosing a watch that you don’t have to remove, because it’s durable and water resistant, for example, can go a long way to mitigating this fear. This is certainly my approach; I prefer to wear a watch I never have to take off.
- Getting Robbed — When traveling, I am keenly aware that the value of a watch can match a significant portion of someone’s annual income. First of all, this doesn’t feel right. Second, while aggressive crime is rare, there are certainly places in the world where I would think twice about the time piece I would wear.
- Signaling That You’re a Target — More than just losing your watch, a high end timepiece can be an indicator of your overall wealth and jeopardize your travel security. Imagine two guys in jeans and a t-shirt, one wearing a Casio and the other a Patek Phillipe. A watch can say a lot and attract undesired attention.
In fact, in many of my travels, have found people to specifically focus on watches. It is my most commented on personal possession, and so sought after by people I have met, that I have traded my watch or given it away more than once.
Here’s something I hadn’t thought of before: You could buy a watch that you plan to give to someone special you meet on your trip, as a watch that is inexpensive from back home can become a prized possession overseas.
Suffice it to say, high-end watches don’t fare well in the security category. So, here are three highly economical watches that are also designed to be strong enough to last your trip. And if they don’t, losing them won’t break the bank.
A quality watch at an affordable price. Originally founded on Kickstarter, they provide a unique choice.
Simple, basic, can’t go wrong. Includes an indiglo light-up face, which at the time of its introduction, was revolutionary.
An unbelievable price for a reliable, fully featured digital watch.
Don’t forget: you can dress up many inexpensive watches with a different strap to elevate their style.
My personal collection
From left to right: A rare Swiss Army watch that I love; a Shinola given to me by a best friend; The Stunt Watch that was advertised to be ultra strong, and I broke when I was just 13 years old; an Elliot Havok I backed on Kickstarter that goes well with our blazer; a Citizen Eco-drive that served me well for many years, but now needs a refresh; a Skagen I bought long ago when they first became popular in the U.S.
Now that you’ve seen my personal collection, guess what? They’re all dead. Most of them are just the battery, but for some reason, I find it a hassle to get them fixed.
So in addition to durability, one of the most important attributes of a good watch to be its ability to run for a long time.
Options for a watch’s power source are as follows:
- Manual — If you don’t wind it, it doesn’t run.
- Automatic — A mechanical watch that winds itself as you move your wrist.
- Battery — Made famous by adding a tiny little piece of quartz that oscillates at a precise frequency such that it accurately keeps time.
- Solar — Used to require a conspicuous solar panel on the face. (Mine was the coolest thing in 1985.) But now can harness energy from the sun directly through the face, and look like a normal watch.
- Rechargable — A hallmark of smart watches
It stands to reason an automatic mechanical watch would make the sense, because it’s powered by the movement of your wrist, and should never die. However, these watches are usually more expensive and aren’t typically ideal for me in terms of the rest of my life. Therefore, my personal favorite power source is some kind of solar or Eco-Drive, so I know my watch will run for a long time without incident.
Phew! That’s a lot to digest.
When I buy a watch, I ask myself:
- Will it last?
- Will I tire of it?
- Will it work for many situations?
- Will I be happy I bought it? I feel like it’s worth getting something slightly special for something I will wear every day. I can’t bring myself to spend thousands of dollars on a watch, but a few hundred for something I love seems OK.
Finding the right choice among all the options can be daunting, and the watch you choose will be a factor of personal preference and the trip you’re taking.
I hope this discussion has given you a starting point.
What did I miss? I’m interested to know your most important criteria for a travel watch.
And is it just me, or does the ideal travel watch not yet exist?
Warning: when I get frustrated enough with something, it often turns into a Bluffworks product. Who knows...