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?
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