How to travel light – with kids

Many years ago, when I was pregnant with my eldest, my husband and I took a trip to the Caribbean, where we met another couple who had a baby. They seemed to have packed a lot of stuff. They took a picture of all they had brought with them and all I can say is wow. Napoleon’s army invading Russia probably had fewer provisions than that. Or at least the French army probably didn’t travel with a supply of chlorine-free diapers sufficient to cover hourly changing, and their own sun tent (in case beach umbrellas didn’t work in foreign countries? Or something — I never quite figured this out).

We were the sort who rarely checked bags, but we didn’t yet have kids, and they did, so we assumed this was the way life worked.

Then we had children. And then a funny thing happened. Our packing style didn’t change.

This became a data point in my working theory that having children doesn’t change you, it just magnifies who you already are. I suspect that people who pack a lot for travel with kids are also the kinds of people who take their own hair dryers (in case the hotel’s is somehow different) and three sweaters for a tropical vacation, because you never know if it might be cold, and really dressy shoes and a dinner jacket, in case you’re invited to dine with the prime minister, and so forth.

As I wrote earlier this week, I recently spent a week in the UK with my husband and my three eldest children. In airline parlance, we had three official carry-on bags (two small duffel bags and one roll-aboard), and we each carried a small backpack or (in my case) a purse. Since my husband flew to the UK earlier than us, in fact I packed for myself and 3 children in two carry-ons plus personal items (see my packed car trunk in this photo). And this was plenty!

To be sure, my kids are at a good packing age. They can each carry a backpack (and my 10-year-old was responsible for hauling the roll-aboard when I was the lone parent with them). They are old enough not to need diapers, wipes, bottles, etc., but they are young enough not to need the teenage stuff (razors, deodorant, etc.) Basically, they each had a toothbrush, and then we used the hotel shampoo and soap. But still, here’s what I packed:

For me: I wore my winter coat, a pair of jeans, a sweater and tank-top, and my everyday wedges on the plane. The wedges (Clark’s Vendra Bloom) doubled as my walking shoes (I can go for miles in them!) and as my “formal” shoes for my few nice occasions.

I took one pair of nice black pants, and then two other pairs of jeans.

I packed my Polar-tec running pants, which I mostly used as pajamas, but occasionally ran in. I brought one sleeping top (but could also use the tank-top from the plane as a sleeping top).

I brought my running shoes, a pair of running shorts, two running shirts, two sports bras, my running jacket and my headband. And my swimsuit.

I brought one nice blouse, which I wore with the black pants to the theater, to dinner at my husband’s colleague’s house, and to church.

I brought three other tops to wear through the week. All could go with any of the pants.

I brought sufficient underwear for the trip, but only running socks, as my walking shoes don’t require socks.

I brought my curling iron, though I only used it a few times. I brought sample sizes (sub 3 oz) of toiletries/make-up (what could fit in the Ziploc bag). I brought my laptop, a book, a magazine and the normal purse stuff (brush, wallet, and in this case our passports). Oh, and two outlet converters.

The kids wore their shoes and coats on the plane. They wore tops and bottoms on the plane, and then brought 3-4 other pairs of pants, four tops, socks and underwear, one pair of pajamas, and their swimsuits.

I put most of their clothes in the roll-aboard, but then I distributed about 2 outfits per kid into their backpacks. Each child could bring one stuffed animal (though my 8-year-old wound up bringing 5 small ones…), their electronic device of choice (Kindle or Nintendo Switch), a book, pens/crayons/paper and headphones.

I think I put an umbrella and a few granola bars in there too. Anyway, when I spell it all out, it doesn’t seem like a small amount of stuff. We didn’t have to do laundry. The kids re-wore clothes, but not excessively. Since we were out and about, they weren’t bored with the amount of stuff they had to entertain them.

I think there are a few keys to packing light. First, get good carry-on luggage. My duffel bag is actually a speaker gift from a gig 2.5 years ago, but it is hardy, quilted, and has a good capacity! My husband has had his (soft) roll-aboard as long as I have known him. That’s what I used for the kids’ stuff (he took a duffel bag when he flew over earlier).

Second, commit to using only this luggage! If you bring a big suitcase, you will be tempted to fill it. Smaller containers force decisions, but since in general with travel it is wise to bring “twice the money and half the clothes” as the saying goes, this isn’t a bad thing.

Next, make sure that every item earns its place in your bag. Are you sure you’ll wear it? Can you wear it with more than one thing? Shoes in particular can take up a lot of space, so having one good pair is wiser than lots of different ones. For toiletries, being as low-maintenance as possible is good. If you can’t find it in a trial size, it may not be worth taking, especially since it’s liquids that often drive the need to check bags.

I would also strongly suggest supervising children’s packing. I gave them guidelines (e.g. four shirts) though I mostly let them choose within that. I reminded them that they would be carrying their backpacks. Too much stuff means a heavy load!

Finally, it helps to remember that most of the time, you’re not traveling to a wilderness area. Should you need more toothpaste, you can get it. Should you find yourself invited to dinner with the prime minister, you will make the time to hit a nice store prior. Once when my husband and I were traveling to a work event for him in Japan, we realized, upon arriving, that he had forgotten his dress pants. Fortunately, it turns out that men in Tokyo wear pants too! We stopped by Hugo Boss, got a pair that they hemmed quickly, and that we picked up that night, before his first formal occasion. I’m not saying that you should forget your pants, but if you do, it will probably be OK.

And there are major upsides to not checking bags. When we flew to Montreal this winter and had to bring ski equipment, one of our checked bags went missing, thus meaning we missed our shuttle to the resort as we tried to track it down, and meaning that we were woken at 1:30 a.m. by the bag’s arrival. Better, when possible, to avoid leaving yourself open to such woes.

If you wind up checking bags on trips, I’m curious why. What are you carrying in them?

In other news: Have you pre-ordered Off the Clock yet? My next book will be out on May 29! Find out how to feel less busy while getting more done. If you pre-order, I’ll send you the intro and chapter one so you can start reading right away. Plus more goodies. Check out this link. Thanks for your support! Strong pre-orders help convince retailers to stock books. Plus, pre-orders count toward first week sales, which tend to determine best-seller lists.

33 thoughts on “How to travel light – with kids

  1. We often still check bags when traveling as a family mostly because we need to check carseats and sometimes a pack-n-play. Once you are checking why not be rid of the suitcases too. I can pack 4 kids for a week in one medium sized suitcase (I do not pack enough diapers for hourly changes–hah!). Yes, you can rent carseats from the rental car company, but they won’t guarantee availability and they are often broken or expired. When we can get a pack-n-play or crib onsite we do. I look forward to the days of carseat-free travel but they are several years away in our family.

    1. @Gillian – we’ve always just rented them from the car company. Haven’t had any issues with broken ones yet! They do massively overprice them (like you could buy a seat for what you pay for the weekly rental sometimes). We’ve almost always gotten cribs onsite too.

      1. It’s obviously a risk calculation but I don’t trust rented carseats. I see them as the same thing as buying/borrowing a motorcycle helmet. Sure, it’ll *probably* be fine, but I’d hate to really need it and have it fail. With carseats they can look totally fine after being in an accident, but they actually need to be replaced. It’s a pain for traveling, but while the kids are <40 lbs, it's a thing we just live with (and check for free on any airline we've ever flown!)

    2. A carseat alternative is the Ride Safer Travel Vest (you can find it at Amazon among other places) which as I understand it is rated to the same safety standard as carseats for those at least 3 years old and at least 30 lbs. We used it for my son on several trips (he is now past the carseat stage) and found it useful — and it’s also nice to be able to take places where changing cars or catching a ride (or a taxi) is a possibility but you don’t want to or can’t really manage to bring along a carseat. Also, it makes possible squeezing 3 kids into a space where carseats would make that impossible (even if 2 are still in carseats). Of course, with multiple kids one would have to make the decision how many of them it was (or wasn’t) worth buying; OTOH, unlike us, you could presumably use it over a sequence of kids, depending on spacing.

  2. I pack light, but usually pack everything for our family in one suitcase and check that. I just think it’s easier with two toddlers not to deal with bags through the whole airport. Strollers and children are enough for me, especially now that we have 3 five and under.
    But I love the idea of letting my kids pack themselves and having them carry their own backpacks, so I may try that next time.

  3. We often check, but it’s not due to having too much stuff to carry on. We’ve even checked when we could have carried! It’s more b/c since kids aren’t old enough to responsibly wheel the bags (A is getting there) it’s just easier to not have them with us. We’ve also brought carseats although I think I’m officially over that (would rather rent or do something creative like ship cheap ones to the location!).
    .
    I look forward to the days when we don’t need to lug a stroller . . . we always contemplate leaving it home and then are so relieved we have it especially when kids fall asleep in the car (so good for transferring to hotel beds) or just completely run out of energy at the end of a long day. . .

    1. @SHU – I do agree that if you are actually carrying a kid, that will make it harder to carry a bag too. With the 10-, 8-, and 6-year-old, we were officially stroller free. The 3-year-old does still use one occasionally if we’re in a situation requiring a ton of walking (e.g. an amusement park).

    2. We ordered a <$20 Graco booster that we had shipped to the grandparents' house in AZ. Totally worth it and then we donated it before it expired.

  4. I’m a huge proponent of packing light, and I love this post! My rule is to put the most focus and attention on triple-checking anything that’s specific to me: prescription meds, glasses/contacts, IDs, credit cards, etc. If you forget anything else, you can just buy it.

  5. I check because it’s free for us (as a Delta Skymiles member), I hate lugging a suitcase around the airport, and traveling “light” just is not a particular priority for me. At this stage in my life (little kids), I’m only traveling a couple times a year and I am so much more comfortable and happy on a trip and feel freer to enjoy myself more knowing that I have anything I might need or want with me at the exact moment I might need or want it. 🙂 Plus I have a big mental aversion to spending precious vacation time and money in a CVS or whatever purchasing items I know I already own. If I traveled much more frequently than I do, I’d probably feel differently, but right now I’m 100% comfortable with the tradeoffs.

    That said, we did invest in TSA Precheck because it’s so cheap and standing in line for security almost always sucks any way you slice it, whereas I have no problem chilling out at baggage claim for a few minutes at the end of a flight, stretching my legs and freshening up in the bathroom or whatever.

    1. @Jenny- big shout-out to TSA Pre-check. If anyone reading this flies more than once a year, go get it. Now. There is almost never a line, plus you don’t have to haul all your stuff out of your bags in security. Having pre-check has definitely saved me time by letting me feel I can get to the airport much closer to when my flight departs.

      (Actually, if people travel internationally at all, they should get Global Entry instead, since it includes TSA Pre-check. I’m kicking myself for not having done that instead of just getting pre-check. When my pre-check comes up for renewal I will definitely go get it).

      I’m traveling every week these days, and especially when on my own, I have zero interest in hanging out in baggage claims. If I know it’s a small plane, sometimes I try to travel with only a personal item, so I don’t even have to deal with the overhead space or potentially gate-checking stuff. My 2-night trip to Michigan a few weeks ago was accomplished with one tote bag. 🙂

      1. Laura, I was actually thinking about this week’s newsletter when I was typing my earlier reply — about how even the most glorious sunset can be marred by an itch on the ankle. 🙂 That line really summed up how I feel about having my “stuff” with me when I travel, hence the checked bags. I barely remember the hassles inherent in traveling with more or bigger luggage, but I can get extremely fixated on situations where I didn’t have something with me that would have made the moment easier and more comfortable. Which is a little funny to me because I am a pretty hardcore minimalist in my “home life” but it does not at ALL carry over to travel.

        I just got back from a weeklong trip to Utah with my five-month-old son and we checked one medium suitcase holding both our stuff, and carried a small backpack as carry-on/diaper bag (gate-checking car seat and stroller). We bought a small pack of diapers at a nearby grocery store upon arrival and borrowed a PnP from a neighbor. We used everything we brought!

        I’m impressed with your two-night tote bag trip! On some level I wish I could be that pared-down, but I know myself. 🙂 Perhaps I will set it to myself as a personal challenge on some future trip.

  6. I think your example at the start is a bit apples and oranges via a “baby” vs older kids, and the packing situation with infants is much different. And even with older kids, there are many variations that would necessitate not packing light. We just traveled to Tokyo, Shanghai and Beijing with our 2 kids ages 10 and 8 for 2 weeks. The temperature varied from 32 degrees to 78 degrees and everything in between over the course of the trip, so we needed clothing for multiple seasons, not to mention rain etc as we spent a lot of time outside. We also had several dressy events to go to and the length of the trip meant needing to either pay for laundry at 5 star hotels or bringing our own clothes. We also prefer our kids to read books, rather than be on electronic devices and there were several long flights and train rides. We brought presents for Asian friends from the US and returned with souvenirs and presents for caretakers and family and friends in the US – all of these variables lead to needing larger pieces of luggage that need to be checked.

  7. We are a small family, 2 parents, 1 child (age 8 now) and travel light, sometimes checking to save the hassle of dragging the roll aboard through the airport, sometimes bringing it with us. We traveled to South America for 3 weeks when our son was 6, using only 2 rollaboards and personal items (our son packed his small backpack with mainly comfort items). I found that I was missing just a few things (for a costume party I didn’t know about a head of time) but also brought a few things I didn’t end up wearing (a dress comes to mind). We just traveled to Central America for a week and packed a similar amount but that also included fishing gear for my husband (son and I packed in one bag, hubby packed in the other). It wasn’t needed, but we could have used a laundry service, since we were in locations for more than 1 night. I do tend to forget to allow for space for purchased items- which for us usually is a food item (like local cookies) for friends back home.

  8. We usually check one large suitcase for all of us and I find that feels less annoying than dragging a bunch of carryon bags around the airports. Each kid has a backpack but just for their entertainment and a change of clothes. Thanks again for the reminder on pre-check. I need to get that going.

  9. I never, ever, ever check a bag, even on a three week trip to Asia. Running shoes and dress shoes in the roll-aboard, mix and match clothes, gym clothes, wear a sports coat and jeans on the flight and change into a sweatshirt once aboard. And, I usually always have extra. I’m lucky that my company will pay for hotel laundry if I’m gone longer than 5 nights, but I can usually do 7 days without. It’s especially helpful when the flight takes up two days (sort of, by crossing the date line)!

    1. @Jeff- I’m sure you have this down to a science! I have done “summery weather” 2-week trips without checking bags (with no laundry access) but winter is slightly harder. For longer trips we’re often renting a place though so there is a laundry option there. And the hotel, as you point out.

  10. Due to weight restrictions of carry on items in NZ, we have always checked in our bags when traveling with the family. Weight limit for carry on is 7kg (15lb), whereas it is 23kg for check in. Also contributing to this is having a child with type 1 diabetes, which results in more stuff that needs to be in the carry on bags (insulin, sites, blood glucose kits, hypo kit, etc). I’m usually paranoid and double up these items into two bags in case one gets lost.
    If I am flying by myself I would do carry on only, except if I was going to the US and planning on shopping – so much cheaper in the US compared to NZ!

  11. We travelled from Australia to the UK with our then-seven month old son and despite my best efforts to pack lightly, we ended up with a pile of checked luggage and the maximum allowance of carry-on luggage (two roll-on suitcases with 7kg each, a nappy bag, a backpack for my husband). It was a 38 hour trip door to door and we hadn’t even made it through security in our home airport before he’d pooped through his clothes. On the way to the UK, we used ALL the spare nappies, extra formula and sets of clothes. Then we used the back-ups. On the way home, he barely used anything and we could have halved the carry-on luggage.

  12. Three cheers for packing light with kids! We took our 5 and 7 year olds to Prague for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day 2 carry-on roller bags and 2 personal items. Kids read and played Switch on the plane (after watching the in-flight Captain Underpants movie multiple times, of course…). Everyone rewore clothing and had enough to stay warm in winter weather. It was so lovely to grab and go, no baggage claim, and not to worry about luggage loss during the plane change in Germany. Plus, not having the packing space made it easy to bypass the Czech crystal as a souvenir in favor of a few simple woodcut Christmas tree ornaments, which will be every bit the special memory 30 years from now that the crystal could have been (if not more).

  13. I just had to pack myself plus 3 kids to go to my parents house in Ireland from Rome (where we live). I was always a really light packer and never checked a case in. Now I do check them because the kids are age 4 2 and 12 mths so I need my hands free. Whats really drives me crazy the last few times traveling though is that clothes are really only about 30% of it. I lay out the clothes and feel ok now my packing is done…and then realise its barely starting – toiletries, waterproofs for ireland, shoes/wellingtons, chargers, crayons etc for the flight, snacks bottles etc for a day of travel with limiter access to appropriate food for a baby etc etc
    Also its happened me twice now that once I arrive I realise that most of the clothes are totally unsuitable – city living in rome is a lot different to countryside living in ireland. My daughter currently has 3 dresses unworn upstairs and has had to borrow tracksuit bottoms from her cousins to roll around in the grass and mud outside.
    This summer I have a huge packing challenge ahead of me so I need to address these issues!!

  14. I did a two-week tour of Italy a few years back, and we were advised to bring one small rolling bag and a daypack, period. We had to carry our own luggage everywhere, including up many flights of stairs in old hotels without elevators. I’d been a somewhat light packer before that, but that trip really converted me. Recently my daughter and I visited NYC with the same bag situation. We were able to easily stroll around before and after hotel checkout and eat in diners, etc., with so little luggage. Per usual, I had no regrets about whatever I didn’t bring. Packing light is very freeing once you try it!

    1. @Marie – yes, this is one of the more intriguing aspects of travel to places with small old hotels — watching people attempt to get their large bags up tiny staircases. I think people assume that all places are like US hotels with big elevators and halls. Or that you can park right in front (you can’t even really drive down a lot of old city streets!)

  15. I hate dealing with carry on luggage – traveling alone or with kids. I’d just rather have my personal item and be done. If I have to pay vs free, I’ll suck it up. It’s just a hassle I’d rather not deal with. But (knocking on lots of wood), my bag had also never been lost.

  16. My husband and I are carry-on-only people. I’ve had my bag lost (or at least, I have been separated from my bag) too many times in my younger years. And I’ve had enough flights messed up to know that being separated from your luggage is a real risk… if you’re running to catch a connection, your bag is probably not going to make it with you. And if you’re not ending up at your final destination, you’ve got serious problems. I’ve taken several trips alone with my young daughter, and it was intense, but I made it. I brought a car seat, suitcase, backpack, and handbag, as well as her — all carry on. When she was little, I had to pack all of my pumping supplies, in addition to general baby stuff, so that was a big load. When she was really little, I used a baby carrier wrap to transport her (no stroller). I usually bring a backpack as my main luggage, but when I had to bring the car seat alone, I brought a roller bag so that I could strap the car seat to the roller bag, and then pull the whole thing together. So carry her or hold her hand with one arm, and pull the roller bag with the other. Sometimes I’m a little jealous of the people who check their bags, but when things get crazy with delays/cancellations/etc, I’m happy that I have mine with me. If I’m traveling with my husband, or older step kids, carry on is a breeze since it’s much easier to share the load.

  17. It is amazing how much you don’t need when you just don’t have it with you. I’m a big fan of the Swiss Army knife approach to packing. Bring things that are multipurpose. As you say above, the hardest part about that is the shoes.

    I’m also a fan of letting the kids do their own packing, within guidelines and supervision. My son still hasn’t forgotten the trip when (aged 10) he forgot his underwear on a two week trip to Vietnam, which wasn’t the end of the world, as we did a bit of hand washing, but a good life lesson in consequences!

    We travelled the world for a year as a family, with one backpack each, so took more than you have above, but the kids backpacks were only 6kilos each, so not much more!
    http://www.ramblingabout.com/2010/11/13/packing/

  18. I read this with interest. I’m traveling later in the year to Europe with friends from Australia. I can’t do carry on as it is a 7 kilo limit. It frustrate me as l do travel light round 9 to 11 kilos. I’ve like most forgotten stuff which l have purchsed later whilst on the move.

    1. i frequently travel with >7kg in hand luggage. just a bit over. they don’t check it. and if they did, the worst thing that would happen is that they would take it off you and check it for you. Just like they do on those horrible american airlines if you are travelling codeshare (bc you are traveling internationally) so are a low priority customer. so they take everything off you – even your breast pump equipment…!!!) But it totally digress. i reckon you’d get away with it 🙂

  19. We fly quite regularly with our special needs daughter and check our bags. She is 12 and a very good traveller but we don’t want the hassle of looking after our bags and making sure she doesn’t run off or any other distractions she might throw at us. For example last time we flew we decided she was old enough so we would try carry on. Big mistake. She was more concerned with the bags and playing with them we almost missed our connecting flight. When we arrive at our destination and wait for our bags she has an opportunity to move about which she greatly needs after sitting for so long. The one time we had carry on she still headed to the carousel for bags and refused to leave until all bags were off. Not a time saver and very frustrating. We will continue to check bags and enjoy the freedom it gives for no fights. Just another spin why people may need to check bags. We still pack light though as we don’t want to pay extra fees.

  20. I think I’m a hybrid. When I travel alone for business, I pack very light – almost always just a carry-on. However, we just came back from 1.5 weeks in Cancun with our 4 kids, and there’s no freaking way I’d want to pack light. I needed not to have to do laundry or go shopping while on vacation, and kids can be messy. In fact, I don’t even see it as desirable (for me) to pare down the packing for a long family trip. Don’t really see the benefit at this point, though perhaps when all the kids are older my views will change.

    1. @Rinna- we didn’t have to shop or do laundry either! 3 kids and one week, so a bit less, but we really didn’t run out of stuff. After our lost luggage episode in Montreal I’m just really wary of having vacation interrupted by having to track down a bag, or wait for bag.

      1. I hear you on the lost luggage. To me, that risk is worth it compared to the risk of not having what we need with 4 kids. I’d just rather overpack a bit. I found I was right on the money with my middle 2 kids. Slight overpacking for the 13 yo and almost 3 yo (the latter ended up, ironically, being much less messy than the 8 yo). Overall, I just enjoyed handing over the suitcases on checkin, paying my $25 luggage fee and not having to worry. If it were a vacation where we moved from place to place a lot, that would be different story.

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