My big sister, Cait, and I have children that are only 16 months apart. And in parenting, and all things, I turn to her for advice and big-sisterly wisdom. Cait has taken my three-year-old nephew on more than 100 individual flights—for business and pleasure—and has learned a thing or two about the magic of packing lightly. Here’s Cait’s best advice:
About five years ago, before we had a child, my husband and I took a vacation with friends to Hawaii. It was New Year’s Eve when we departed, when my resolutions were fresh and the New York City winter was bearing down. The fact that I’d not yet recovered from a stressful year-end work project–and a longing for light dresses and bare arms–had put me in a lay-down-my-burdens mindset. Almost without meaning to, I packed lighter than I ever had before. Two dresses and a bathing suit, a pair of shorts and sneaks, a simple dopp kit: all went into a tiny, overnight duffel. On the plane, I tucked the whole thing under the seat, with room to spare. Seeking a light heart, I’d ended up choosing light packing, too. It was my first venture into minimalist travel.
It was also the first time I heard this phrase, though not the last: “That’s all you brought?” A well-meaning grandma-aged lady at the airport was half-admiring, half-scolding as I emerged toward the taxi line. “Just wait till you have kids,” she scoffed merrily—as strangers wielding advice so often do. “You’ll never be able to travel that light again.”
Consider the gauntlet thrown.
Now three years into parenting, having taken more than 100 individual flights with a child, I can assure you that light packing with kids is not only doable, it’s preferable. In three years’ worth of trips with our son, both close-to-home and long-haul, my husband and I have never checked a bag. It’s made our family travel far cheaper and more efficient than it would otherwise be. But it’s also made it more peaceful: an exercise in truly getting away.
Here’s how we do it. You can, too.
Whenever possible, avoid taking baby gear on trips. Sure, it’s enticing to think that the pack-n-play or the baby bouncer will magically soothe your child through jet lag or across the international date line, but the truth is that the headache of toting your cumbersome gear in taxis and through baggage claim just might outweigh the benefits said gear provides. Even if you’re not into co-sleeping or baby-wearing at home, you might want to try it out when you travel: the savings in cost and hassle is tremendous. And when you really need the consistency or convenience (or safety) of a portable crib or car seat at your destination, consider renting or borrowing. Most hotels offer free porta-cribs (or “infant cots”, internationally) for families; major cities always have lots of options for private baby gear rental (and they deliver!); car rental companies almost always offer a car-seat rental add-on for a nominal daily fee; and friends or family at your destination might also be able to lend extra or outgrown gear.
Gate-check like a pro.
If you do find yourself needing to bring a stroller or car seat, do not overlook the elegant simplicity of the gate-check. If you’re an infrequent family traveler, you may not realize that car seats and strollers can almost always be gate-checked at the end of the jetway, as opposed to dropped at check-in as under-plane baggage…and for no fee. We did this so often that Delta gave us a permanent, plastic gate check tag for our stroller. Just be sure to get to the departure desk a bit early to get a gate-check tag, and then board early, too. (Occasionally, crowded flights mean that even gate-checked baby gear gets checked all the way through to your destination, meaning you can’t just swoop it up as you debark.)
Experience local laundry customs.
I never did laundry while on vacation or on work trips before having a child; now I embrace it as part of the travel experience. No matter how much (or how little) you pack, the laws of family travel dictate that if you are traveling with a child, your one nice blouse will encounter spit up. Or you will sit on an entire bar of chocolate for the duration of an eight-hour flight. Or a full mug of coffee will be accidentally knocked on your lap at an airport eating establishment. (All purely hypothetical examples, of course.) And so: local laundry. Rather than packing for every possible catastrophe, just plan to do some wash. Most cities have cheap wash-n-folds that can launder a week’s worth of clothing for under $10. If you’re staying with relatives or at an AirBnB, laundering will be even cheaper. And no one died from a little hand-washing, if the need arises. Bonus: you might get a travel anecdote out of it. At the time, washing liquid poop out of a onesie in the public bathrooms at the Tower of London didn’t seem funny to me. Three years later? I can’t write this without laughing. Memories!
Embrace the backpack.
Ever seen a toddler near a rolling suitcase? If so, you know it’s an invitation to dawdle strenuously for as long as possible in the exact center of a public walkway. Those suckers were designed for flight attendants, not two-year-olds in thrall to mechanical engineering. In our family, we now use either two very compact travel backpacks, one for my husband and one for me (this one and this one, minus their water bladders) or, for shorter trips or visits requiring more, er, style, two zippable cross-body bags (this one and this one). If we’re staying somewhere for more than a week, we often each take both—backpack and crossbody—and still avoid checking any luggage, since one counts as a “personal item.” Note, too, that once your child is old enough, you can also saddle her with a mini-backpack of her own. (See also: adorable niece with pack in action.)
When Erin and I were kids, we didn’t do much air travel, but we often made several 10-hour car trips each year. With four of us kids crammed in a minivan, and without millennial conveniences like iPads and Kindles, we made do with singalongs, handmade lists of things to “I Spy” on the road; slim Mad Libs pads and sticker books; and the age-old standby of minimalist travel activities: hours-long bouts of play-fighting in the back seat. I try to adopt the same inventive spirit when traveling with my toddler: eschewing power-hungry devices and clunky crafts for imaginative and interactive games that take up no space at all. When in doubt, time travel back to an era (the ‘80s or the 1880s), when small, age-appropriate entertainments like nursery rhymes and modeling clay were all children had to while away the hours. It’ll serve you well not only on travel days, but on ordinary ones.
Ultimately, the magic of travel—why we do it in the first place—is not born of carrying, but of leaving behind. It’s not about recreating the world we live in at home, thing by thing, but in discovering a new world altogether, often because we’ve taken some comforting things out of the suitcase. (Erin has more to say on this subject in my very favorite essay in Simple Matters.) Sound too Pollyanna? Lest you think I’m breezing through family travel with rose-colored glasses, I’ll share this: I survived a 72-hour, cross-country Amtrak trip—just me and my two-and-a-half-year-old—using only a sheet of temporary tattoos, a sticker book, and generous use of a memory game that involves arranging sugar packets and other sundries on a tray table and then daring your toddler to Guess What I Took Away. Sometimes, it was hard. Other times, it was very hard. Once, I caught myself looking wistfully at an Amish family who’d armed their brood of six with a cache of 90s-era Game Boys. And yet, my child and I together experienced those crystal-clear travel moments that will stick with us forever, like climbing into our train-bed, cuddled like puppies, as the sun set over the mountains of Western Montana. I wouldn’t give that up for a thousand Game Boys.
Go minimalist, I say, and let travel transform you. Because isn’t that the point?
More Baby Proof, right this way, including lots more from Cait.
Things to note: you cannot gate check a double stroller. We discovered this when flying to Denmark with 6 month old twins to go to their grandfather’s funeral. We had called ahead and were told we could gate check a stroller. When we got there, they looked at us like we were nuts…of course you can’t gate check a *double* stroller. Thanks, Newark 😉
Good tip! It’s true: Every airline, airport and even specific flight can have different policies!
At least when you fly to Copenhagen, the airport there has strollers for you to use (for free). Talk about amazing!
Yep, Copenhagen is my favourite place to travel to with our 3 year old daughter. Makes returning to the UK quite difficult! Denmark is so family friendly.
Sydney airport does too
amen! this is so lovely. and so true. we recently traveled to visit family with our 2.5 year old and three month old and for all of us we had two suitcases (the size you can put in the overhead compartment), a diaper bag and a small backpack. and we could have gone even lighter! we definitely relied on the laundry at my in-laws, and their generosity in having diapers there for us so we didn’t have to bring them along. backpacks and babywearing don’t always mix super easily, but light packing definitely does.
Awesome! Thanks for sharing!
I love the article. Thank you. Two questions: What is a Dopp kit, and is your pictured bag filled with all things just for your child or is it part child’s and your purse contents as well?
Hi Kim! A dopp kit usually just refers to a small “shaving kit” or bag of toiletries. (It’s most often used to refer to men’s items.) You can read a full history of the term here: http://wingtip.com/why-is-it-called-a-dopp-kit.
As for the pictured bag, it actually holds clothes and personal items for both me and my toddler! (I snapped it while packing for a two-night trip I took with my son last weekend.) In the overhead shot, those items on the right-hand side are mine, and the items on the left-hand side are his. 🙂
Thank you, Cait! Love it.
Enjoying this travel light series. I am a light packer [love my Everlane backpack] and have traveled with two kids at different stages. Now, my 5 year old can be happy with crayons, coloring books, dot-to-dot books and stickers and my 7 year old brings his own books – he also carries a backpack. Music and audio books in IPod – we can travel for 20 hours car rides as well as 20+ hours international flights without much hassle.
Amazing! (Small) backpackers unite.
I love this post!! I really like the small clutch option as an alternative to carrying both a handbag and your tote with clothing. Do you have a resource for that?
Hi Katy! The clutch is my absolute favorite for everyday use and travel, too. It’s from Herschel Supply Co. and it’s called the “Casey Clutch“.
I really enjoyed this post even though I don’t have kids. You’ve inspired me to try packing lighter just for myself (and also have piqued my curiosity about the 72 hour Amtrak trip :)!
Thanks for the kind words! (And definitely check out Amtrak’s Empire Builder route. We went all the way from New York City to Portland, OR, but you can take shorter legs, too!)
Awesome, awesome, awesome advice. As we start to think about building our family, these are the things that inspire me to think that traveling doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom! It can be very intimidating when people are always making comments like, “Oh just wait until you have children…”, and when friends come over for dinner with enough stuff for a week! It really makes you think that suddenly every single minimalist habit you have will mysteriously and magically fly out the window because of your little bundle. As you said, “Gauntlet thrown”.
I have the same mini-backpack that I used for a diaper bag and now my son (3) uses it as his backpack. It is great that you can adjust the straps for big and little people! I am in LOVE with the little bunny! Did you make that? So cute!!
Yay for adjustable luggage! And no, the bunny came courtesy of a grandmother! We’re lucky it’s travel-size!
Thank you so much, Erin and Cait, for these last two posts on travelling light. We don’t travel often and we don’t have small children. In fact, our next trip is to Toronto for my eldest child’s university graduation. But we very much need to pack lightly for that trip as we have to fly Air Canada, and the only service they provide for free and do well is losing one’s luggage.
Ha! It’s true that packing light has benefits for all of us, even without littles!
So inspiring! I just got back from a week trip with my 7 month old and I thought I packed pretty light (one smallish checked suitcase and a backpack) but I could definitely do better! Goals for next time.
It’s always a work in progress!
Hi Erin, I’m new to your blog and am enjoying every word! You always seem to touch on something relevant to my life! My husband, myself and our two girls (ages 2 and 3) have driven thousands of miles with only a small basket of toys each trip. A pack of band aids, reenforcements or stickers, a stuffy to stick them on, audio books and CDs, and a set of small plastic characters, a couple of books… And your set! Travel is so much easier when the games are in your head and not in twenty pieces across the back seat. When you don’t have to dig through an overstuffed bag to find the pjs. When you don’t have to play Janga every time you stop.
Thanks for your words, always looking forward to your next post!
Audio books are such a good idea!
Wow ! I thought we do travel light – but now that I admire your version of it …. our carry-on bag (for two plus baby) seems to be huge ! I have to size down. Thank you for the inspiration !
Ah, but I’m impressed by your ability to co-pack with a partner! (I make mine pack his own.) 😉
I totally agree! We travel long-haul at least once a year from the UK to NZ now with my 3 girls (8, 5 and 2 years old) . I laugh when I look back at how much I used to take when it was just me, and how much I take for the 4 of us (my husband packs his own and takes twice as much!!)
I swear by a good pair of kid sized headphones with noise limiters, a notebook and new pencils (we always get a new one for a trip, the girls add all sorts and draw and they are my favourite snap shot of a moment in time!), and a book. But be warned. I only take my phone, and get MASSIVE grief for not having an ipad for each girl and me as a minimum! Airport security just don’t believe me! Oh, and I almost forgot smelly dog, peppa pig and fox/baby/pippi depending on THE night time toy of the moment which I spend the whole time stressing I we will leave behind!
Oh yes, I have gotten the side-eye at security, too!
I have 4 young boys and we travel light. We are diplomat living abroad and we travel almost every month. We never check our bags until we are heading home. It’s just too risky – lost luggage is very common in the developing world;) We learned the hard way to never bring a stroller (think Vietnam, 3 kids and navigating a stroller on a very old train with many locals) Not Good!
We just returned from a long trip to Indonesia and origami entertained my boys for almost the entire trip. Gotta love folding paper.
Origami! What a fantastic idea. On my list for next time!
Ahh, this is so reassuring for someone who is 38 weeks pregnant with their first and seems to hear on a regular basis similar comments from strangers! Thank you 🙂
What about diapers? When I have traveled, I ditch the cloth and use disposable because of laundry issues…. but they still seem to take up a lot of space. Any tips for managing that (besides potty training haha).
I shrink wrap the disposables 🙂
Cait’s guy is long-since potty trained, but we both have sometimes used disposables when traveling too! (And buying a stash upon arrival has been the trick to keeping luggage light in transit!)
So refreshing to read posts from young women with common sense – I was beginning to despair that it had survived into the 21st century 😉
Thanks so much!
Now I want to go on a train ride across America with my kids.
Very useful and inspiring post.
I absolutely volve your handbag. Where is it from, if I may ask?
Details in post and comments!
Oh, I love this post, especially the sentiment re: travel being about leaving behind, not carrying with. I’m a light packer by nature–whenever someone marvels at my little pack, it’s all I can do not to wonder aloud what in the world they’ve filled their multiple bags with. Great tips here for (someday) adding a kid to the mix! Thank you!
We regularly travel light with our little one: a single carry-on suitcase for 2 adults + toddler, plus a backpack with in-flight necessities, such as books, diapers (we buy most of what we need when we arrive), flight entertainment (small toys, stickers), and snacks (I refuse to buy food at airports and so always pack lunch/breakfast/etc). In general, these are great tips, although I have no problems with my 2-yr-old and a roller bag. I actually find it essential since we often end up carrying him through the airport (and we also carry on our small dog in his bag), so I don’t have the strength to carry another bag.
I do want to comment on how it sounds crazy to have gone on 100 flights in less than 4 years. Not exactly what I was expecting on a blog that normally espouses such earth-friendly goals. I’m pretty sure that amount of travel negates the more earth-friendly affects of any use of cloth diapers, reusable bags, etc.
Hi Mags! Glad the rolling suitcase option works for you! And yes: 100 flights in less than four years sure is a lot; the cost to the environment is not lost on us. In our case, my husband and I are both obligated to travel very frequently for our jobs, so I live very lightly on the earth in other areas where we have more choice (eating vegetarian, dwelling in a small home, growing some of own food, using public transit, etc.). Doing our best!
Great post! But I would LOVE a travel post about sleep!! Turns out I can handle packing for a little, but we cannot figure out the sleeping situation while traveling with our toddler. Our kid (now 2) does not sleep when he’s not home. It makes overnight stays anywhere a nightmare and we’ve begun to avoid traveling altogether, which seems so sad. I’m due with our second any time now and I’d love any pointers. How do other parents do it?
This may be one of those very kid-specific things. In our case, we traveled frequently from the newborn stage, out of necessity. We *think* it’s made our toddler very comfortable sleeping in new places. But who knows? Maybe he’d just be a flexible sleeper no matter what!? The mysteries of parenting…
Ah okay. We actually traveled a lot with our newborn as well, but after he was out of that stage sleep was a battle. Well, maybe the second time around we’ll luck out!
Such a great post! I started traveling early and often with our toddler and every trip got lighter, especially when it was just the two of us. My saving grace in airports has been Babywearing – ring sling as a young infant, ergo, and now a toddler Tula on my back. Even if I take a small rolling suitcase to carry on we can move fast. If I need a second bag I have no shame in wearing my back pack on my front 🙂
Such a wonderful and inspiring post – reinforcement in the pledge to tread lighter, do better and be an example to our toddler. I have added trip to Hawaii with your packing to my bucket list.
Hi! What is the leather bag pictured in your overhead shot? Is that the Madewell bag thats linked or something different? Thanks’
Hey there: The large bag in the overhead shot is the Madewell bag. The smaller clutch is from Herschel (link in comments above!).
I have to ask – where is your bag from? I love it!
Links in the post and comments!
I would love recommendations on how to pack minimal for a winter ski vacation. Wear our snow gear/boots on the flight? Good packable ski clothes for toddlers?
Have never been on a toddler/included ski vacation! But we love wool under layers for staying warm!
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