Your Guide to the Best Travel Sunglasses

Laura Lopuch

“Grab your sunglasses and hit the road.”

My sunglasses are the second item I grab before I head out the door, slipping them into my daypack or onto my face, for any adventure from a grocery store run to a thousand-mile trip. They give me effortless cool and the jealousy-inducing superpower of hiding my thoughts. 

What’s the first item?

Ah, now you’re getting cheeky. 

Six Must-Haves for Travel Sunglasses

1. Quality

Did the lens fall out after only a week of owning them? Useless sunglasses.

When you’re traveling, quality trumps quantity. Of course, you’ll be paying more for quality. But let me tell you — as a hardcore convert from the cheap-is-better camp to the I’ll-pay-for-long-lasting gear team — you’ll recoup your upfront costs in the years to come, and your frustration will be minimized.

A $150+ pair of quality sunglasses that last will actually save you money over shelling out $20 three times a year for 7 years to replace cheapo sunglasses that break, crumple, and pop out lenses for the fun of it. (For you numbers geeks, you’ll be saving roughly $270.)

Case in point: I’ve had my Oakley Inmate sunglasses for 7+ years. Still see through lenses? Check. Frames look good? Check. Money well spent? Check. 

That’s quality, baby. 

2. UV protection

Too much UV exposure has been associated with many long-term eye issues.

The most well-known issue is cataracts. Over years of exposure, UV rays damage the lens inside your eye, making it cloudy as the proteins unravel and tangle (which is what creates cataracts). Surgery is needed to remove those cataracts. Consider your sunglasses preventative medicine.

If that’s not a great case for UV protection in your sunglasses, you’ve got the short-term problems like photokeratitus (aka snow blindness). This condition occurs when light reflects from snow or water, giving your eyes a super dose of UV causing “sunburn.” 

Look for sunglasses that block 99% or 100% of all UV light. UV absorption up to 400nm equals 100% UV absorption. 

(Ahem, the first item I grab when heading out the door is my wallet.) 

3. Coverage

Know why the Kardashians don over-sized sunglasses?  There are reasons besides hiding under-eye bags, or saving them from looking like startled rabbits in the paparazzi’s camera flashes.

Those big shades prevent eye wrinkles from forming.

The more eye area your sunglasses cover, the more protection they give your delicate skin around the eye area.

Plus, the larger glasses provide extra UV protection by blocking rays that come in from the side. Meaning you squint and frown less, minimizing potential wrinkles and frown lines.

Wrap-around sunglasses do a great job of blocking the sun’s rays from coming in on the sides.

Unless you’re Leo DiCaprio and obtaining some deep, attractive frown lines between the eyes was was exactly what your career needed to pivot from dreamboat to complex anti-hero. (Exhibit A: Blood Diamond movie.) If that’s your goal, skip the glasses and age like a professional.

4. Style

Do you like the look of your travel sunglasses? You’ll be taking lots of pictures with those bad boys on.

Do they make you think of exploring Mayan ruins, sipping caipirinhas on the Brazilian beach, or that road trip you took down to the Grand Canyon?

Make sure your travel sunglasses fit your personality. And your face shape. Here’s how to find your face shape and the right sunglasses for it.

5. Polarized Lenses

Light usually scatters in all directions. When it’s reflected from flat surfaces, light tends to become polarized. Meaning it travels in a more uniform (usually horizontal) direction.

This direction creates glare, reducing your visibility. Usually, you’ll find lots of glare on roadways or water.

Polarized lenses have a special filter that blocks this type of reflected light, so you can see again without squinting. That way you’ll avoid eye health issues like redness, irritation, fatigue, and headaches.

 

Best Travel Sunglasses: Oakley Gascan ($150)

Quality — I’ve worn the, now discontinued, Oakley Inmate glasses for 7 years. They’re awesome. 

(Only available now on Ebay.)

The last two years, I stashed these glasses into my bag without their hard protective case. (Very disrespectful of me.)

My husband wears the Oakley Gascan and has for the past 8 years. He treats his glasses better than I do (yeah, yeah) and his glasses still look nearly new. 

Oakley has a killer warranty that covers any manufacturer defects. (It doesn’t cover scratched lenses.) I’ve sent my glasses in to get the rubber on the stems replaced, for free. 

UV Protection — Check. 

Coverage — Gascan features a semi-wrap-around style, effectively protecting your eyes from UV rays. 

Style — Time for the honest truth: Gascan sunglasses are manly. Rugged. And I’m not just sayin’ that because my husband wears them. 

In other words, if you’re a dude, these travel sunglasses are great. If you’re a lady, you might want more feminine travel sunglasses like these Oakley Feedback or Pulse

Polarized Lenses — Yes. 

Ray Ban New Wayfarer ($190) 

 

Quality —  Manufactured in Italy, with crystal lenses  Ray Bans are crafted to last. 

UV Protection — Yup. 

 

Coverage — Their slightly oversized style covers the tops and bottoms of your eyes. Sunlight sneaks in at the sides. If you’re in a situation where there is lots of reflecting sunlight — like on the water — you might find yourself squinting.

Style — Hands down, these are sexy glasses.

Check out Audrey Hepburn above in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’ll wait while you scroll through and enjoy the pictures. If she doesn’t look cool and collected, who does?

Or James Dean driving a car, smoking and looking so cool. 

Bonus: Wayfarers flatter most any face shape. Seriously. 

Polarized Lenses — Check. 

Best Travel Sunglasses for Driving: Maui Jim ($199 & up)

Travel sunglasses need to stand up to any situation. Including the long hours and abuse on the road that you’ll inflict on your travel sunglasses.

The Wirecutter named Maui Jim sunglasses as the best sunglasses for your road trip.

These “sunglasses had the clearest lenses—with no perceptible distortion—on the lightest frames we tested, weighing a barely there 20.4 grams. I’ve never encountered sunglasses that I can wear for hours on end without somehow hurting my nose, ears, or both, but during my trip I had a few afternoons where, despite five-plus hours of driving with them on, I had completely forgotten I was even wearing the Maui Jims.

The clarity of the lenses was a surprise as well. They’re so clear that it’s borderline unsettling the first moment you try them on. Thanks to their exceptional clarity and polarization, everything, including the scenery around you and the road ahead, looks sharper with these lenses on.”

As for what specific model of Maui Jim sunglasses?

“I suggest looking through the offerings on the Maui Jim website and reading the fit descriptions to find something that matches your aesthetic sensibilities. Unlike other companies that go only by lens size, Maui Jim lists face shape as part of its fit guidelines.” 

Best Travel Sunglasses Runner Up: Smith Colson ($169)

Outside Online named the Smith Colson sunglasses as one of their best sunglasses of 2016.  

“They’re crossover performers up to rec-level athletics and acceptable for the street. This pair is better than acceptable, with squared-off lenses and general elegance that doesn’t seem so wrappish. Springy arms hang onto your head, sticky rubber is artfully concealed at the nose and temples, and the optics are great for action, rendering the world sharp and vivid. Polarized bronze synthetic lenses feature Smith’s ChromaPop+ tech to punch up color. Design-wise, the Colson comes across as old-school—a comfort to some, meh to others.”

TL;DR

For great travel sunglasses, you want quality shades with polarized and UV protected lenses that are styling. Check out Oakley Gascans for guys. If you’re a gal, check out Oakley Pulse. Maui Jim, Smith and the iconic Ray Bans Wayfarer glasses are solid choices across the board.