We've carried compact travel binoculars and, usually, a monocular on travels around the United States and around the world. Wherever we go, we feel a little under-dressed without a binocular or monocular simply because we know how much there is beyond the range of our normal vision!
Many of our friends and acquaintances keep compact binoculars in their vehicles all the time — just because there's so much more you can do and enjoy when you have one handy.
There are a number of questions that are typically raised when a person first considers compact travel binoculars. As with nearly any selection of binoculars, there may be personal considerations which might suggest a choice other than what would satisfy a majority of users. If that's your situation, please indulge us while we consider typical questions from the majority who are looking for travel binoculars. (Those with special priorities may find the How to Buy Binoculars page of particular assistance in tailoring their choice to their needs. For example, if your travels include a safari, you may find a mid-size or full-size binocular a better choice.)
Perhaps the one that is most often raised regards magnification power and why less is often better than more. If we're considering a typical travel binocular size, its objective lenses are typically limited to a diameter of about 25mm. As the magnification power is increased, the field of view (the distance across your view through the binocular) is decreased. A wide field of view is important for travel binoculars because it enables you to find landmarks quickly and easily and take in a larger area with a quick look. A narrow field of view will have you spending more time looking for what you're trying to find and likely getting frustrated in the process.
Forgive us for dwelling on field of view for a moment — we'll come back to magnification shortly. All other things being equal, a larger field of view will also provide a brighter view than a narrower field of view. A brighter view nearly always means being able to see more details. It's a bit like going into a room without windows — you can see things with only the light from the open door, but the more light you have, the more you can see!
A larger field of view and a short close focus distance may be critical if you'll be using your travel binoculars in places such as museums, art galleries, cathedrals or other similar buildings or if you anticipate using them at events such as concerts during evening outings. The wide area of view lets you get the entire view instead of having to look at something one small section at a time. The short close focus distance will allow you to easily bridge the restricted area gap between you and exhibits you'd like to be able to see "up close."
Coming back to magnification now, we find the reason that most people want a higher magnification power in their travel binoculars is because they logically believe that higher magnification will provide a more detailed view. The truth of the matter is that higher magnification in poor quality optics usually gives a bigger picture, but doesn't give the additional details that were desired. It's better to go with quality optics — meaning quality optical glass components, excellent lens coatings and lens systems that will provide details.
For compact travel binoculars at affordable prices, getting good resolution of details means going with a reverse-Porro prism binocular. Good roof prism binoculars are available in compact sizes, but you'll typically spend about twice as much for one that will give you as good a view as a Porro prism design. Alternatively, a modestly sized "normal" Porro prism such as a 6X30 has been favored by many who decided its advantages warranted finding room for it in the luggage.
For all of the above reasons, getting the best compact binoculars will mean sticking with a good quality 7X or 8X magnification reverse-Porro prism or a 6X or 7X "normal" Porro prism design in a mid-size binocular. The vast majority of us will love using travel binoculars in these configurations.
One last question frequently asked by our fellow travelers involves weight. For those who travel with a quantity of luggage, weight may not be as meaningful from a packing perspective. We've found traveling lightly with only carry-on luggage whenever possible is more convenient, but we've nearly always found a way to carry a compact binocular without exceeding weight restrictions. (When traveling on business, weight is sometimes required for business items. If this means you're nearly at the absolute weight limit, you may wish to consider a monocular as a super-lightweight option.)
We've sought out the best compact binoculars that would provide a particularly attractive optical value for their price, bought and tested them to verify their value, and written thorough reviews for our fellow travelers. Here are what we consider to be among the best compact binoculars and a very good mid-size binocular to serve a traveler's needs.
The Bushnell Elite Custom 7X26 is a compact binocular that has been a travelers favorite for many years and was even involved in NASA's efforts back in the early 1960s. Whether your travels are within your state or province or further afield, you owe it to yourself to consider this binocular for your travel companion.
Nikon's Travelite VI compact binocular is a good one and particularly so when you're goal is a good view with the absolute minimum weight. You'll learn how it achieves such lightweight status in the full review — it's enough to simply mention here that many travelers, whether super-lightweight backpackers, hikers or others, find the Travelite VI an invaluable window into the world outside their normal range of sight.
The Leupold Yosemite is a mid-size binocular (not a compact) in the traditional Porro prism design that's still small enough to be carried by many travelers. Indeed, a number of travlers say the larger size is not a problem for the way they travel.