Pack light? With kids? Sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it??
We didn’t do it for fun. We did it out of sheer necessity.
Being the penny pincher that I am, I wanted to take advantage of a cheap flight deal to Italy last April. But with that cheap price tag came some added stress. With multiple airlines and connections ahead of us, this was no time to be running to baggage claim and rechecking luggage at every leg of the journey.
So we decided to downsize. We would cut down everything we needed for our 2 week trip into just two carry on suitcases and 2 backpacks. If it were just Matt and I, this would be no big deal. But this time, we also had to fit not only our clothes and electronics, but also a bed for Evelyn, along with enough diapers, snacks, and other fun toddler essentials to make it through our first couple of days.
To say it took a few packing test runs would be an understatement. But after careful consideration (and some serious rethinking of the word “necessity”), we did it. All tightly packed into two 20″ carry ons.
So how did we make it work?
Here are a few tips to help you on your way to packing light, even with kids!
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Start with a Good Piece of Luggage
You don’t need fancy luggage to travel well, as evidenced by my beat up entourage above. If you’re in the market for new luggage, I would recommend getting a 20″ hardside spinner. While most airlines in the US have a carry on limit of 22-24″, you’ll find most international airlines are more closely limited to 20-21″ (you can find a full listing of carry on requirements by airline here.) So if you plan to do any amount of international travel, get yourself one solid case that you can take on any plane.
I like this one from Kenneth Cole because it’s cheap, but solid. It rolls smooth, surprisingly fits a lot of stuff, and has held up nicely against all of our crazy adventures down rough roads and on numerous planes, trains, and automobiles. Sure, the outside’s a little beat up, by everything on the inside is kept safe and secure.
I’ll probably need to invest in a new one sometime in the near future, but at $80 and for something airline baggage handlers throw around without a care, I prefer to go for something slightly more disposable anyhow.
Keep Your Airplane Bag to a Minimum
Along with our hardside carry ons, Matt and I each wear one small backpack to keep under the seat on the plane. This is where I keep all of Evelyn’s snacks, a spare set of clothes, and entertainment items, while Matt carries the electronics with room to spare for miscellaneous things we might accumulate (or can’t fit anywhere else).
My backpack is still this same old one from Target. They don’t sell it anymore, but you can find a similar one here. She’s seen better days, but it’s lightweight and nice enough that I don’t mind taking it into nicer establishments if I have to.
For our toddler, I stick to 1 good activity/coloring book, a small bag filled with tiny toys like finger puppets and mini flash cards, and of course, we always have the iPad. I find there’s really no need for more stuff than that, as most of the time she’s begging for the iPad anyway. Instead, I use that extra space for snacks. Lots of snacks. And of course diapers, wipes, and a mini first aid kit.
Whether you’re flying with a baby or toddler, you can find a ton more ideas for your carry on packing list on either of my posts below:
Read More: 50+ Ways to Occupy a Toddler on an Airplane
Ditch the bulky baby gear
Now the big stuff.
You might be thinking it’s impossible to travel carry on only with littles because you need so much baby gear!
I’ll admit, when we first started traveling with Evelyn, we fell into this trap. We traveled with our giant stroller system, car seat, pack and play, you name it. But over the past 2 years (and with the help of a growing daughter who has become more adaptable), we’ve slowly learned to shed all that bulky weight.
So we ditched the stroller for a nice hipseat carrier (since Evelyn rarely sits in her stroller anyway), and loved how freeing it feels to be totally mobile.
(If the thought of leaving the stroller behind scares you, I’d recommend the gb Pockit Stroller which folds up small enough to fit in a tote bag under your airplane seat!)
We also left our pack and play at home, and instead got Evelyn accustomed to sleeping in her KidCo Peapod tent (also small enough to fit in a carry on when folded up!)
If all else fails, there are still plenty of options for parents wanting traditional baby gear on vacation without having to drag it along. Many family-friendly vacation rental services can provide everything you need already in your accommodation when you arrive! And if not, do a simple google search for “baby gear rentals” + any city name. You’d be surprised how many of these services have popped up in popular vacation destinations all around the world in recent years!
Buy Essentials and “What If’s” at Your Destination
This should be obvious, but diapers, wipes, and formula should never get packed in your suitcase! (Ok, never say never, but for the most part, you can always buy these things after you arrive). Even things like sunscreen and beach towels we waited to buy until after we were in Mexico so we weren’t wasting unnecessary space in our suitcase.
And what about those “what if’s”. You might need an umbrella if it rains, right? Unless you’re going to Ireland, leave it at home. You can always easily purchase these one-off items at any drug store if necessary. Same goes for the first aid kid – keep it minimal. My goal is to only pack items that I’m 100% sure I will use. Anything else, I can buy later if needed.
Create a Capsule Wardrobe
If you aren’t already packing a capsule wardrobe for every trip, what are you waiting for?! Since taking this approach, it’s made packing for long trips a breeze!
The concept is simple. Pick a minimum number of pieces for your vacation wardrobe, and then mix and match them to make several outfits! It’s how we were able to get away with flying to Italy with 4 shirts and 2 pants and then stretching those options out for the entire 2 weeks!
Here’s what each family member essentially brings on every trip: 4-5 tops, 2-3 bottoms, 2 laying items like cardigans or jackets, 2 pairs of shoes, a few accessories and undergarments, and…that’s it! Keep in mind, one of each of these items gets worn on your travel day.
If you’re thinking this is a little too extreme for you, I’d challenge you to try it just once. You’d be amazed how freeing it feels!
This method does require that you do laundry frequently though, which is something we plan ahead for by always booking a hotel or Airbnb with a washing machine. I also pack a few of these Tide laundry detergent pods, just in case our host doesn’t have any laundry soap or we have to visit a laundromat as a backup.
Use packing cubes
Packing cubes are such a simple concept but can make a huge difference when it comes to visually planning how much space you’ll have in your carry on.
I assign one packing cube to each of us for our clothes, along with one slim packing cube for undergarments and miscellaneous items like swimsuits. (One caveat – my extra pair of pants gets rolled up and squeezed in my suitcase separately). If the clothes I pick can’t fit within these limits, then I know I need to trim back somewhere!
I roll everything first, and then layer them into the cubes, compressing everything once zipped up. When we arrive at our destination, I simply remove each cube and place it on a shelf, and voila, unpacking complete!
Skip the extra shoes
Seriously, just trust me on this one. I’ve learned over and over again that if I take more than 2 pairs of shoes on a trip, there’s a good chance one of them is not getting worn…like, ever.
Shoes take up a ton of space in your already tight carry on, so instead, pack a nice capsule wardrobe and stick to a couple of casual shoe options, wearing your heaviest one on your travel day. A nice, comfortable sandal or flat that goes with just about everything and can be dressed up or down is the perfect travel companion.
Also especially important, make sure you’ve had plenty of time to break in that new pair of shoes. Since you’ll only have one backup, you want to be sure you can stand walking in the same pair for hours on end if need be (something I learned the hard way more than once ?).
Ok, we’re about to get crazy minimalistic now. You know those 3 oz. travel size containers you can buy at the travel store – those are too big! Instead, look for travel size samples that come in 1 or 2 oz. containers and can be refilled. 2 oz. is more than enough for most shampoos, body washes, etc. (3-in-1’s are best!) I also keep a stock of travel-size toothbrushes, deodorant, razor etc…the tiniest version of anything I need.
For creams and gels that I don’t use a lot of (like my facial moisturizer or Matt’s shave gel), we fill a spare contact lens case. It’s just enough to get you by for a week or two, and the best part: they are totally leak proof!
I’m already pretty low maintenance when it comes to makeup, but I strip my cosmetics down even further to only the basics for travel. Foundation, bronzer, eyeliner, 1 small eyeshadow palette, and mascara. That’s it. I’m traveling with a kid here, so while I still want to look presentable, I’m not exactly going for glamour.
Share toiletries with your spouse or kids to really save space. I can fit everything for Evelyn and I in one decent sized toiletry bag and it’s absolutely perfect!
It takes a little investment and work to set up your travel toiletry bag the first time, but as long as you keep it stocked and ready, all you’ll need to do is grab and go before your next trip – so easy!
Read More: How to Fly to Europe for Cheap!
Invest in travel size electrics
This is another one that may seem silly, but when you’re working with minimal space, every inch counts!
Better yet, if you’ll be staying in a hotel or Airbnb that supplies one, skip the hair dryer altogether. (If all else fails, you can always buy one at your destination, keep the receipt, and then return it to the store after a few days use…not that I’ve done that or anything…)
Wrangle all electronics and cords together
We travel with a lot of various electronics (cameras, GoPro, iPhones, computers, iPad…), so it’s not uncommon for us to have cords and chargers everywhere!
To tackle this mess, I purchased a Grid-It organizer to organize the chaos. It’s really helped us to see just how many of the same charger we use for everything (hello, USB), so we aren’t bringing unnecessary duplicates. The organizer fits right between our laptops in a backpack, so everything’s safe and snug as a bug. ?
Have any hacks for traveling light with kids? Let me know in the comments below!
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