People who love watches love pigeon-holing them. One for diving, one for flying, one for racing your classic car around the track. In the lore of horology, these niche use cases have exceptionally clear cut and rigid criteria which, more often than not, bear no resemblance to reality.
One genre of watch that is a little more opaque is the travel watch. The people who are responsible for naming watches and writing the associated press release seem to have decided that the only real constant is to have a watch with more than one time zone.
Objectively this makes sense. After all, there are as many ways to travel as there are places to travel to. One man’s overland trek in a beat-up Land Cruiser is another woman’s transcontinental Gulfstream jaunt. Given such diversity, a one-watch-fits-all approach is clearly not going to cut it. Now it might be because I haven’t so much as caught a whiff of avgas in the last 24 months, but I’ve spent an unreasonably large amount of time pondering the pros and cons of the ideal frequent flying watch and have honed it down to a few key factors. So, let’s take a virtual trip and explore the nuts, bolts and bezels of what makes a perfect travel watch.
Oh, I almost forgot. Before we push back, there’s a bit of a pre-flight safety announcement to make, and that comes down to the fact that 99 percent of the time, it’s smarter, safer and all-round less stressful to travel only with the watch on your wrist — OK, maybe you’ve got something digital and plastic in your gym bag — but anything more and you’re asking for trouble. All you need is one good watch.
Convenience and Results
The first consideration for a travel watch and the factor from which all others flow is convenience. The watch you take with you — and I cannot stress this enough — needs to make your life easier. And immediately, we can see the subjectivity creeping in. Your watch should, broadly speaking, enhance your travel experience. Or, to put it another way, you don’t want to be worrying about your watch on the road. For most mere mortals, I’d make the bold suggestion that anything finicky — be it valuable vintage or highly complicated — should probably stay in the safe.
I don’t think I’m way out of line here, but for me, convenience while traveling comes down to three words: grab and go. After the numbing soul-drag of long haul flight and associated jet lag, I often struggle to remember my own name and the location of my passport. Any watch-related drama is very much unwanted. So for me, inconvenience includes (but is not limited to) impossible to read, possessing a fiddly crown, a fiddly buckle or crown, or being irritating in any way, shape or form.
Convenience, then, is the primary argument in favor of using a multi-time zone watch while traveling. It makes sense for a dual timer — you have your home and destination locked in, and you don’t need to try and work out time zones as you move through them. In a pinch, a watch with a 12-hour bezel makes a perfectly adequate GMT substitute. And while many purists seem to think the date display was invented by the dark lord himself, when you’re tracking multiple time zones, I’ve always found it pretty handy.
If you’ve ever set the time in an airport lounge, you’ll likely understand just how great a modern caliber with quick-adjust hours is. Popping the crown out to the desired position and breezing through a bunch of hours without messing with the minutes makes changing the time idiot-proof, and in my book, that’s a good thing. On the other side of the fence, world timers are often billed as travel watches. And while I’m sure they work for some people, for my tired eyes, there’s just too much information packed on the dial for them to be optimal.
It should come as no surprise that Rolex’s GMT- Master, for many the ur-travel watch, comes equipped with all these bells and whistles. Makes sense really.
Comfort is King
I know I said above that convenience is the primary consideration in a good travel watch, but you can make a strong argument for comfort. After all, if you’re wearing one watch for an extended period of time, those little niggles that you might overlook during occasional wear become amplified: the sharp edge of a clasp, the way a crown digs into your wrist on a certain angle. On the road, these details matter. Balance on the wrist also matters. Your deep diver might tick all the boxes below — indestructible, rock solid and more than up to the task — but say it’s 45mm across and 15mm tall, this brick of a watch might not be the one to take. In my experience, a height somewhere between 8 to 12 mm is the real sweet spot for a comfy travel watch. Not so slight that it feels insubstantial and not so massive that narrow doorways stress you out. In terms of material, steel is the default, but titanium and even bronze are solid options too.
The case is only part of the comfort conundrum; the strap matters too — specifically what it’s made out of. It might also be an idea to ditch the fine alligator strap; rubber and bracelets are your friend. Rubber especially, as it’s typically a more under-the-radar option than a perhaps blingy bracelet. Fabric is another great choice (and any form of single-pass strap offers additional security benefits, more on that in a second). Scrapes and sweat don’t stress rubber out, and scratches are part of the appeal of a steel bracelet.
Keep it Safe
Horror stories around watches and travel abound. From watches going missing at airport scanners to targeted — and sometimes violent — crime. It’s a wild world out there, and it never hurts to play it a little safe. If you typically wear a recognizably pricey piece, from Richard Mille down to your shinier Rolex pieces, consider whether or not that’s something you need to do, based on your destination. And, regardless of your watch, it doesn’t hurt to take a little security advice from Gandalf in Lord of the Rings: Keep it secret. Keep it safe. Not that we’re suggesting you entrust your watch to Elijah Wood and his fantasy friends, but having a sleeve you can use to discreetly cover your watch isn’t the worst idea in the world. In fact, most watch-related safety advice comes down to common sense. Don’t be flashy, don’t travel with anything you can’t afford to lose. Simple stuff, really, but worth it.
Another aspect of safety has nothing to do with ill-intent and everything to do with a poorly timed mechanical failure. If you’re really putting your watch through its paces, or just love redundancies, consider the humble NATO strap. Aside from dressing down any watch, the greatest advantage of this sort of strap is the fact that should a spring bar fail (hey, it happens), your watch is staying safe on your wrist.
Reliable and Rugged
The hypothetical scenario of the popping spring bar highlights another important factor in a travel watch — reliability. To really break it down, you need to think about the inside and the outside of your watch. For the mechanism, go with something that works. That vintage chronograph that hasn’t been serviced in the last generation and is full of “quirks” is not the watch you want to be relying on when you’re running late for the train. Instead, go for something that’s never steered you wrong.
In fact, travel is one place you can make a particularly strong argument for quartz. Say what you will about the so- called evils of the crystal oscillator, it outshines mechanical tech for both accuracy and reliability. In terms of the exterior elements — go for something you’re not afraid to knock about, or wear in a surprise rainstorm. Steel case, sapphire crystal, 100+ meters of water resistance. This is the sort of combination you should be considering.
Fun in the Sun
If by this point in the article you’ve come to the conclusion that the only watch you’re allowed to travel with is a G-Shock, that’s … kind of fair. Honestly, they make a great travel watch — especially if you have one with Bluetooth and the app, which means you don’t have to deal with pushing buttons. But also, I’m prepared to admit that a bunch of silicon chips wrapped in plastic might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, especially if your regular rotation includes some of Switzerland’s finest. Fun is as important as — if not more than — every other aspect on this list. In fact, they’re intermingled. Having had the privilege of wearing (borrowed) watches I will never be in a position to afford, I can tell you — it’s not as fun as it might seem on Instagram. It’s stressful and anxiety-inducing.
Luckily though, there’s a new breed of watches that do a very good job indeed of having real character and personality, while not being catastrophic if damaged. Really want that mid-century chronograph feel? Try Furlan Marri — they’re quartz, they’re cool, and they retail for a few hundred. Retro divers more your style? How about Baltic? The Aquascaphe is an outstanding watch, and it even comes in a GMT — perfect for travel. Want that integrated steel flex? Have a look at Autodromo. It comes packed with personality but without quite the same conspicuous silhouette.
The three above examples are priced between a few hundred to a few thousand and are all less obvious, but still cool options. Sure, you can travel with your usual fare of Rolex, Omega and the like, but, just like travel, I find the best experiences are slightly off the beaten path.
Find Your Own Path
The dream of the ideal travel watch is precisely that — a glorious, if impossible, dream. No single watch will do all the things for all the people, but that doesn’t stop watch brands from trying their darnedest to make one, or convince us they’ve made one. And while your mileage may vary when it comes to my somewhat arbitrary criteria, I hope you find your perfect travel companion. Happy Trails!