The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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Travel Essentials, Essentially Updated
September 1, 1996 -- For all the new and notable technology buzzing around our heads and carry-on bags these days, sometimes the basics are what should command our attention.

So here's a look at four evergreen travel products--language aids, binoculars, rain gear and video cameras--and what's new and notable in the categories.

SPEAKING IN TONGUES
Fast and Cheap How do you ask for restroom in Germany or change rooms in an Japanese hotel? Langenscheidt's Instant Language Phrase Cards have the answers. Each pocket-sized, two-sided cheat sheet keeps it simple: a key travel word or phrase is printed in bold type followed by the translation and phonetic pronunciation. At two bucks a card, you can't go wrong. Available in 15 languages, the cards are sold at Barnes & Noble bookstores or directly via Langenscheidt (718-784-0055).

Just Enough Want to fake your way through a conversation? The Just Enough pocket books have just enough words, phrases and cultural data to help you sweet talk a French telephone operator and stand your ground with an Italian cab driver. There are Just Enough books for 13 languages ($4.95 each) and a three-tongue guide for Scandinavia ($6.95). Available from the Magellan's catalog (800-962-4943).

Tale of the Tape
We promise: the "Berlitz Basic" audio cassettes sound nothing like those language-lab lessons you were force-fed in high school. These tapes cover real travel situations and conversations. Pop them in your Walkman or your car's tape deck a few weeks before departure and you'll pick up plenty. Available in six languages, each package includes three cassettes and a study guide. They cost $29.95 or $34.95 each and are sold in bookstores or by Berlitz (800-526-8247).

WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN?
Thunderstorms or even summer showers can literally wash out an otherwise sunny vacation. But who wants to pack a rain coat? One solution: lightweight rain gear that folds into a travel pouch and slips into your carry-on bag.

Cheap Is as Cheap Does The snap-front Drizzle-Proof Raincoat from Crew Gear (800-848-2739) is inexpensive ($8.50) and has a drawstring hood. But the clear plastic construction is flimsy and the coat is too short. It is drizzle-proof, but you'll look like a drowned rat after a heavy rain.

Ugly But Lovable The moss green Nylon Poncho from Magellan's (800-962-4943) is ugly as sin, but this hooded pull-over will keep you dry in everything except a monsoon. It's made well--waterproof fabric laminated to nylon--and a good value ($19.85).

Style in a Bag The Packable Trench Coat from Hammacher Schlemmer (800-543-3366) is a credible fashion statement (no epaulets, but a jaunty belt), good protection against a downpour, and made from machine-washable nylon. There are four colors and sizes for men, three for women. The bad news: the price is high ($99.95) and you'll need the patience of a saint to fold the coat back into the pouch.

A NEW LOOK FOR BINOCULARS
Binoculars used to be big, heavy, black, ugly and expensive. Not anymore. The best of the new-wave specs are lightweight, compact and come in snappy designer colors. Best of all, quality glasses now sell for less than $100.

Powerful not Pricy Bnox binoculars weigh just four ounces, measure only 2x2x4 inches, and, at about $20 a pair, might be considered disposable. Bnox are easy to use--they are pre-focused with a seven-power magnification--and made from water- and shock-resistant plastic. Sold in six colors, Bnox (800-454-2669) are sold in major sporting goods stores.

Miniature Marvels Mini-Binoculars from Eddie Bauer (800-426-8020) weigh 7.8 ounces and slip into a pocket-sized nylon case. The fully adjustable glasses have a center-focusing system that brings objects seven times closer. Including case, the Mini-Binoculars sell for $85 and are available in black, red or royal blue.

Contemporary Classics Nikon Travelite III binoculars are more traditional, but the black glasses are light (about 8 ounces), trim and manufactured from durable plastic. The seven-power, center-focus glasses sell for $99 from L.L. Bean (800-221-4221).

CAMERAS, SMALLER AND CHEAPER
Just as 35-millimeter cameras have replaced primitive box cameras, video camcorders have made old-fashioned home movies obsolete. This year's camcorders can cost as little as $350. Most models have shrunk to "palm-sized" now that they use compact tapes instead of traditional VCR cassettes.

Basic Buy The GR-AX200 camcorder from JVC (800-252-5722) weighs less than two pounds and sells for about $500. It offers the equivalent of point-and-shoot video recording and a black-and-white viewfinder with auto focus. It records on VHS-C tapes that can be played on any VCR by using an adapter included with the camcorder.

Colorful Choice The Handycam CCD-TR33 from Sony (800-222-7669) costs about $600 and features a full-color viewfinder with auto focus. It records on 8mm video tapes.

Big Picture The two-pound Viewcam VL-E47U from Sharp Electronics (800-237-4277) costs more--about $1,000--but features a revolutionary focusing system. Instead of a traditional viewfinder, the Viewcam uses a swiveling, full-color, 4-inch screen. The huge screen allows you to make recordings while holding the camera away from your face and is easier to use if you wear glasses.

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

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