One of the main objections parents have to traveling with their kids is all the c.r.a.p. they feel they must bring along. Four fifty-pound bags, three car seats, one double stroller, four backpacks, and two carry-on suitcases later, you’re exhausted… and you haven’t even left yet.
But, my friends, it really doesn’t have to be this way.
You can travel lighter and smarter, even with kids in tow. Sure, you’ll have to make sacrifices (you can’t bring your snazzy cardigan collection, sorry), but I guarantee the tips below will lighten the load on your shoulders… and in your luggage.
Whether you’re a travel newb or a packing pro, read on to get your hot little hands on 35 tips for traveling with your family using only carry-on luggage.
What (Not) To Wear
1. Don’t pack options. I love having multiple clothing options just like any other gal out there, but these are luxuries one can’t afford when packing light. Allow two shirts per person. Two long sleeve and two short sleeve for winter. Two short sleeve and two tank tops for summer. One long sleeve, two short sleeve, and one tank top for spring and fall. You get the idea.
2. Babies can claim an exception. If you’ve got an infant who is still in the poop-explosion phase (God bless you), allow a double clothing allowance. Those two extra onesies and baby legs won’t make much of a dent in your available space.
3. Pick a color scheme. For our boys, I gravitate toward black, blue, or grey. Choose items that can be mixed and matched. Both short sleeve shirts should be able to go with both long sleeve shirts. For the adults, this means sticking with brown or black depending on what shoes you plan to wear. Select your belt, scarf, hat, gloves, accessories, and clothing to match a color scheme that includes brown or black and two or three other highlights. But no matter what colors you choose, I highly suggest you…
4. Avoid extremes – no red or white items. If you need to do laundry, you don’t want to waste your time with multiple loads. Eliminating red and white means you can wash most of your clothes together in cold water without fear of turning your favorite white t-shirt a bright shade of bubblegum.
5. Think in layers. For winter, this helps reduce the bulk of what you need to pack. Items such as thermal underwear are typically thin, light, and extremely useful when you don’t know how cold it will be at your destination. They can also double as pajamas in a pinch. A nice sweater can be worn under a jacket for more insulation or dress up your jeans for dinner with friends. For summer, layers add versatility to your traveling wardrobe. For great examples of making multiple outifts out of only a few pieces, see here.
If fashion is not your forte and you’re having trouble coming up with multiple outfits out of so few pieces, check out this post by blogger Bridgette Raes or the One Suitcase series from Outfit Posts.
6. Pare down the pants. Bring only one extra pair of jeans (wear the other on the flight). Seriously, do this even for kids. You can spot clean denim after the kids hit the hay or just let it go (as long as you’re not expected someplace fancy).
7. (Slightly) Over pack underwear. For knickers and socks, I usually squish as many pairs as I can. Find slivers of space in suitcase corners, next to lumpy toiletries, and inside shoes. I’m not advocating a let-it-all-hang-out-and-bring-your-entire-sock-collection mentality, but it sure is nice not to be washing underwear every third day. My rule – five socks and five undies, max.
8. Take advantage of laundry facilities. If you’ll have access to a washing machine during your trip, plan to use it. Don’t take six outfits for a seven day trip. Take two of everything except undergarments and wash when necessary.
9. Go for low maintenance. All clothing items should be easy to launder (no ironing or dry clean only pieces).
10. Earn extra points for double duty items. Try to vary what you pack – for example, select one dressy pair of jeans that can be worn to restaurants and other photo-worthy occasions. Choose a comfy pair to wear on the plane and everywhere else. Or, instead of going with a sweater, opt for a cardigan that can dress up a tank top or be layered over long sleeves if you’re chilly.
11. Take the shoe challenge. Evaluate your activities, events, and obligations during your travels. Bring as few pairs of shoes as possible. Do you have to pack boots AND flats? Could you get away with only pair of shoes per child? Pack first for comfort, then for style. You don’t have room for a gazillion options (see #1) when you don’t check luggage.
Does your bed ever look like this the day before you depart? No? Really? Oh, okay, mine neither…
Powder Room Essentials
12. Clear things up in the bathroom. I put all toiletries in clear plastic quart/liter zip-top plastic bags. I’ll admit I do love a cute cosmetic case, but the bulky fabric, zippers, and handles take up precious space. With this system, I’m able to make separate bags with liquids for security inspection, solid shower items (bar soap, razors, face cloths, shower cap), oral hygiene, makeup, prescriptions and vitamins, etc.
13. Simplify shower needs. Instead of a separate brand of body wash for each person, consider using castile soap instead. This amazing liquid can be used for washing bodies, clothes, and teeth (really!). Bring one bar of solid shampoo that everyone can share and a small bottle of conditioner. For facial cleansing, use disposable cloths that will free up some room on the return.
14. Streamline your make up. Once you’ve chosen a color scheme (see clothing above), match your cosmetics to your outfits. Do you really need a rainbow of eye shadow while traveling? Several weeks before you leave, try using only a cream-to-powder foundation, concealer, dual duty cream blush & lip stain, one eyeshadow palette, a brown or black eyeliner, mascara, and one lip stick, gloss, or balm.
15. Shrink your hair styling needs. Most hotels and even many vacation rentals offer complimentary hair dryers. But, maybe you prefer to use a model that you can test drive before you travel or you have curly hair like me and need a diffuser. What to do? Shop for a miniature model. Features to consider.. does the hair dryer fold in half? Is it dual voltage for international travel? Mini flat irons, curling irons, and hair brushes are also available.
Baby on Board
16. Use disposable diapers. I cloth diaper part of the time, but never when I travel. Why? Because the paper nappies occupy space on the outbound journey that will be emptied and then subsequently used for supermarket souvenirs and other trinkets on the return.
Expert tip: Keep track of your child’s diaper usage for several weeks prior to the trip so you can make an accurate count of just how many diapers you’ll need. Round up or add one extra per day (two for infants) in case of accidents and emergencies.
17. Rethink the diaper bag. If you’re flying with carry-on luggage only, do you really need a fully-stocked diaper bag? Instead, I prefer to use a diaper changing wallet with a small case of wipes, a few diapers, and a trial-size tube of diaper rash cream. Need a change of clothes? They’re right there in your suitcase.
18. Ditch the pack & play and high chair. Unless you’re going to a remote location, you should be able to find accommodations with baby items. It’s worth it not to schlep your Graco across country (or the ocean!), even if you have to pay a nominal fee. If you really must have your own travel cot, test drive a pop-up tent like the Kidco Peapod or if you have a small baby, use the bassinet that goes with your stroller. For high chairs, I like my Sack’n Seat.
19. Determine whether or not your destination is stroller-friendly. Google it, ask a local mama blogger, or post questions on TripAdvisor. Many cities overseas are NOT stroller-friendly (Prague, Seoul, Italy, and Bulgaria to name a few) because the curbs are steep, elevators are rare, and stairs abound. If you won’t use it, don’t bring it. Consider a backpack carrier instead. If you prefer to have a stroller for use in the airport, go with a cheap umbrella model.
Read: Tips for Planning a Travel Itinerary with Kids
20. Shell out for a stroller and/or car seat bag. We own an old school Phil & Teds double stroller that I bought second-hand on ebay. A few months into love at first push, I invested in a pricey travel cover. It killed me to pay so much for what seemed like an unnecessary item especially since the stroller was used. But that concoction of black canvas and Velcro has earned its keep. With careful packing, Doc Sci is able to fit the stroller, doubles seat, rain cover, and sleeping bag in there. If you don’t need a rain cover or sleeping bag, you can sneak in a few bulky items like sweaters or scarves (shhh!). The same goes for a car seat bag. If you’re not using the car seat on the airplane, try squeezing a dozen or more diapers in the bum space.
21. Talk ’em down. Look for rental car deals that include a car seat, or negotiate a deal with your preferred company’s customer service center over the phone so you don’t have to bring your own. If your child doesn’t need to use a car seat in flight, you’ll save yourself a headache by borrowing or renting one at your destination (and if you do bring your own, it could be lost or delayed which means you’ll be stranded at the airport…).
Kiddos and Tots in Tow
22. Children carry their own weight. As soon as your son or daughter is able (for my boys this was around the age of 2), invest in a small backpack so he or she can take their own toys. If the toy doesn’t fit in the backpack or it’s too heavy, it stays home.
23. Allot each child a toy quota. It also helps to have a round number so that favorite play items don’t get left in your hotel or vacation rental. For instance, I usually allow the boys to take five small toys and two books each. When it’s time to pack up to head home and I only see four Matchbox cars in their bag, I know we’re missing something.
24. Leave special stuff behind. You might have to bring the teddy bear that accompanies your baby girl to bed every night, but insist on leaving collectable, valuable, expensive, and one-of-a-kind toys at home.
Read: Jet Lag Tips for Families
25. Keep them separated. If your airline (hello, easyJet) won’t allow a personal item and a piece of hand luggage, you’ll need to get creative in dividing up the space. Use large (gallon) zip-top plastic bags for kids’ toys. Offer a pile of sharpie markers, and let them go to town decorating their bag. Then fill the bags with a few toys and books, the only rules being that the bag must lay flat and close easily. These zip packs can be slipped into outer suitcase pockets for easy access during the flight.
26. Consolidate gadgets. Leave the laptop at home. Instead, pack a tablet or netbook loaded with games and media. Use it to watch movies, listen to music, read books, and check your email (be sure to confirm that you’ll have wifi at your destination). Besides, unplugging from all those devices will help you focus on the experience instead of Facebook.
27. Power everything in one go. Nothing puts a damper on your packing practices like a gigantic bag of chargers and adapters. Consider investing in products that will recharge two or more of your electronic items.
28. Go paperless. Use apps, websites, and online programs such as Google maps, Tripit, Evernote, and Dropbox to store your vacation notes, travel itineraries, photos, and copies of important documents such as your passport. Take advantage of mobile boarding pass programs if they’re offered.
29. Bring on the suds. If you aren’t staying with friends or family and plan to do laundry, stash a few scoops of powdered detergent or a small bottle of castile soap (see #?). Dryers are not standard in many parts of the world, so it’s a good idea to find room for a compact clothesline if you’re traveling internationally.
30. Beg and borrow (but please, don’t steal). If you’re visiting a family, this is usually easy. Take a look at your packing list and make a note of anything (really, anything!) you think your hosts would be willing to share or provide. I get that you might feel a tad bit uncomfortable asking for face wash from the in-laws, consider phrasing your request like this… “We usually bring our own (toothpaste / iPad charger / kids Tylenol /etc), but we are trying to pack as light as possible in order to spend less time at the airport and more time with you. Would you mind if we borrowed/used these items during our visit?”
31. Get specific with hotels or holiday apartments. I’ve also used a similar conversational approach to the one above with vacation rental owners. “I have a silly question for you… do you provide dish soap, a kitchen sponge, and dishwashing detergent in your flat? Normally we bring a small amount of these items just in case. But we have to pack very light for this trip, so I’d rather not put them in the luggage if you already have them available.” Don’t be shy. This email/phone call could save you a chunk of space.
32. Fold clothes into small squares. Make narrow, neat folds in your shirts (watch this video if you need a refresher) and then fold the final product in half and make a pile of very small, evenly sized squares or rectangles. Jeans, pants and sweaters need special attention (click here for some suggestions regarding technique), but the idea is the same. Make every item of clothing prim, proper, and as tiny as possible. I know others prefer rolling their clothes, but I find that folding works best for me.
33. Wear your heaviest, bulkiest, biggest pieces. Coats and boots travel on your person, never in your luggage.
Expert tip: No one will weigh or check your coat. What you put in your pockets is up to you… I’ve stashed everything from books to chocolate bar souvenirs in my winter jacket.
34. Don’t overlook petty cash. Leave room in your budget to buy what you might need but can’t stuff in your suitcase. Chances are you don’t need as much as you think you do; you might surprise yourself with how little you can live with for a few days! But if the diaper supply runs dry or your son uses his shirt as a permanent marker canvas or you receive a surprise invitation to a fancy dinner while on holiday, ask a local for the best place to buy what you’re after and consider the shopping trip part of the whole travel experience.
Practice Makes Perfect
35. Take notes. These tips come from years of traveling as a single person, then as a married couple, and finally as a family of five. These things work for us. In time, you’ll discover what hints are most helpful for you, what advice does or simply doesn’t work for your family, and what luggage sacrifices you are or aren’t willing to make. Jot down observations in your travel journal, and remember that practice really does makes perfect.
Which of these tips will you try during your travels this holiday season? What would you add to the list?
Full disclosure… At this time, I do not use affiliate links. If I’ve included a link, it’s because I’ve personally used and liked the product, or it’s on my wish list. I have not been compensated in any way by any company for this post.