The Three Contenders
Nalgene: Known best for its plastic water bottles, Nalgene sells individual bottles and packages like the $8 Travel Kit--four bottles and two jars, in various sizes, each with a screw-top lid and under three fluid ounces--at nalgene-outdoor.com and stores like REI, Eastern Mountain Sports, and Campmor.
Pitotubes: Founded by a former flight attendant, Pitotubes makes plastic containers with pistons at the bottom that rise as the bottle empties, making it easier to get the contents out. Available at pitotubes.com, they're $10 each and are also sold as a $52 collection of six (two each of 15ml, 30ml, 50ml), with labels so you can ID them.
Tumi: The luggage manufacturer gives anyone who buys a carry-on bag from a Tumi store in the U.S. or at tumi.com a set of four two-fluid-ounce plastic vials that are OK to clean in the dishwasher. All of the tops screw on, and two have press-open lids.
First, we chose two containers from each company. Then we filled them with two different substances: an oozy hair gel (for the ones with press-open and flick-open lids), and a liquidy mouthwash (for the screw tops). We packed each container in its own sandwich-size Ziploc bag--if there was leakage, we'd know which was the culprit--and then put them all in a one-quart Ziploc. We threw the bag in a carry-on, and flew from Raleigh-Durham to New York City, jiggling and jostling the carry-on as a normal traveler would. The only drama came when we took photos of the containers mid-flight: Would other passengers think we were mixing a Molotov cocktail from hair gel and Listerine?
The good news: no leakage. The flaw with Tumi's containers, however, was clear immediately. The plastic is very stiff, making the bottles virtually impossible to squeeze (a real problem with the press-top one), and the mouths are so narrow that the containers are a pain to fill and clean. The Pitotubes are sleek and stylish, but the mouths are just as narrow as the Tumi bottles'. Also, while the Pitotubes' neat pump tops worked well for the hair gel, they're a messy way to dispense something more watery like mouthwash. Pitotubes also lost some major points because they're not supposed to be cleaned in the dishwasher.
The no-nonsense Nalgene bottles are made of a plastic that gives nicely, and the containers have wide mouths that are easy to fill and clean. Plus, they're inexpensive, durable, and dishwasher-safe. That's something we can get on board with.