Travel Logistics: Luggage Choices and Kids

When you read most of the packing checklists in travel guides, the assumption is that you are a single traveler, a couple, or a group of adult friends.  Packing with kids in tow is a completely different beast and I know that I always felt overwhelmed and inadequate.  How in the world are you supposed to follow the travel suggestions and fit everything you need into a carry-on suitcase when you have toddlers in tow?  They certainly aren’t going to be able to pull their own weight.  Even a 10-year old will occasionally let you down in this regard.

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The solution is in careful evaluation before you even think about touching a suitcase or anything that might go in it.  Once you have figured out who is going, where you are going, what your needs are, and have made a wish list for everything else, you can make intelligent decisions that will make travel much more pleasant.  Who wants to lug a ton of suitcases, plus all the baby gear that you think is necessary to satisfy your image of what your kids need?

Evaluation of Needs

The good news is that the length of the trip doesn’t matter.  Whether you are gone for 5 days or 2 months, you will almost always pack the same way and use the same amount of space in your luggage.  What does matter is the destination (weather), your activity choices, and your mode of travel.  Once you have these things figured out, packing is much simpler.  Read through the following questions, and you will likely have an idea of where to start.

  • Where are you going?
    • What is the temperature like?  Highs/lows?
  • What are you going to do when you get there?
    • Beach?  Pools?
    • Hiking?  Skiing?
    • Something else that needs specialized equipment?
  • What does your family look like?
    • Single person?
    • Couple?
    • Family with small children?
    • Family with older kids?
      • Can your kids reliably carry anything of substance?
    • Multi-generation travel?
    • Travel with friends?
    • Some combo?
  • What is your style of travel?
    • Backpacker staying in hostels?
    • Staying in a single hotel or apartment the entire trip?
    • Hopping from place to place?
    • Budget, mid-range, or luxury?
    • Traveling by car, train, or something else?
    • Do you have someone meeting you on the other end to help you with extra luggage?
  • Do you have access to a laundry machine, or will you be hand-washing your stuff?
    • Note: Baby wipes are wonderful for wiping tar off hands at the La Brea Tar Pits.  Soap and water doesn’t work.

The answer to these questions should give you some clues to how you should pack.  If you have a wide range of activities that require special equipment, you may want to consider changing your itinerary to focus on one type of activity this year, and another type of activity next year.  It really will make packing much simpler.

If you are only going to be staying in one place and you are going to be using a car or taxi to get to and from the airport, maybe you can pack ridiculously heavily.  However, if you are going to be taking public transportation or transferring from hotel to hotel, you want to think about maneuverability.  Consider the following:

  • Can you easily carry all of your stuff up and down many flights of stairs at a train station?
  • Can you easily walk with all of your stuff from the train/bus station to your hotel?
    • What about if you get lost and it takes longer than intended?
    • How many subway changes, with really long distances between train A and train B, are you going to make?
  • Can you lift your bags into overhead bins on long range trains/buses or stuff them between/under the seats?
  • Will your stuff fit into train station luggage lockers?
  • Do you have a hand free to keep young children safe?

Typically, you have a few options:

  • Do you want a wheeled bag or a backpack?
    • Will the wheels survive cobblestone, gravel, or other surfaces you are likely to encounter?
    • Will the backpack be too heavy to carry for at least a mile?
  • Large size or carryon size?
    • Can you lift the large bag to fit it into whatever storage is available?
  • Expandable/convertible?
    • Will you be bringing back souvenirs?
    • Do you want to convert it from carry-on to checked for your return flight?
  • Day pack?
    • Backpack or satchel?
    • Large purse or small purse?

Jeremy tends to favor backpack style suitcases, putting his daypack on his front when navigating to/from the hotels.  I did it for a few years to humor him, but since I started having back and neck problems, it is simply too painful and I prefer the wheeled version.  If I am traveling by myself, I always make sure it is small enough to be able to get it into an overhead bin without asking for help.  If I am with my family, Jeremy can either lift both large suitcases up and down the stairs, or one of my kids can help me if I grab the handle on the side of the suitcases and he grabs the handle on the end.  Consider your strength and physical limitations before you choose your luggage type and kid accessories.

For daypacks (which are different from our carryon backpacks), Jeremy usually carries a small backpack and I carry a large purse.  Jeremy will carry water, snacks, umbrellas, our camera, purchases, and/or other bulky items.  Since it is annoying to unload his backpack that he took on the plane, we will often bring a collapsible one that we stuff into the suitcase until needed.  The added advantage is that, when empty, it can also go into my purse and only used as a backpack as it becomes necessary.  I also keep the passports in a ziplock bag (in case of rain or a water bottle in my purse leak), a small first aid kit with bandaids, medicines like Ibuprofen and Imodium, our travel guide, and a few other items in my purse.

Suggestions for Travelers with Young Kids

Assuming that you are a family of 4 with small children, here is my suggestion for where to start.  If your kids are older, or you have no kids, eliminate all the baby stuff.  Your goal should be 1/2 of a large suitcase, which is the equivalent of 1 carry-on size suitcase per person, plus whatever baby gear you need and fits your style of travel.  The larger your family, the less space each person gets, at least until they are old enough to start pulling their own weight.

Basic Ideas

  • Person 1:
    • A good stroller
    • One of the following:
      • A large wheeled suitcase that can fit in the stroller while you or your spouse carries your child in a front/back/hiking carrier
      • Or a suitcase style backpack or a large hiking backpack.
        • Note that the first is side loading, where the second is top loading.
        • Top loading bags can often hold more stuff, but can also be annoying to access.  Packing cubes can alleviate this.
    • A daypack sized carryon backpack that can go either on your front or back while you push the stroller.
    • Optional: A front/back/hiking child carrier
    • Optional: A car/booster seat that can fit into the stroller or go in a backpack style carrier.
    • Optional: A pack-n-play that can fit into the stroller or go over your shoulder.
    • Double check that anything that goes on your front won’t interfere with pushing the stroller.
  • Person 2:
    • One of the following, or both only if truly necessary.
      • A large wheeled suitcase
      • And/or a suitcase style backpack or a large hiking backpack.
    • A daypack sized carryon backpack that can either go on your front or back, depending on your suitcase option.
    • Optional: A front/back/hiking child carrier
    • Optional: Any other gear needed for your child that the other person couldn’t carry.
  • Kids that can carry a daypack without needing to be carried themselves:
    • Avoid having them bring their own suitcase until they are teenagers.
      • Jet lag can make them much more tired and cranky than you expect, so you may be carrying anything they bring.
    • If they are reliable enough, allow them to carry the following:
      • Comfort item: Stuffed animal, blanket, etc.
      • Favorite book
      • An adult carries the following, unless you think they are strong enough:
        • A few toys
        • A change of clothes
        • Outerwear: Jacket, sweaters, hat, gloves, etc.

Hiking in the Alps with 2 Toddlers

The addition of 4 pairs of hiking boots, as well as a hiking child carrier changes the strategies a bit.  You do get the extra space in the child carrier storage compartment, but hiking boots always take up a ton of suitcase space.  What did we bring:

On the way to the alps, we would fill the hiking child carrier zippered compartment with diapers.  You want something light in here so you don’t kill your back before you even start your trip.  If we needed more diapers, they would go in the suitcase.  I have an aversion to buying diapers that may be a different size/quality than I am used to.  As we used the diapers up, we suddenly had a ton of room for souvenirs.  For us, that meant chocolate bars, lots of delicious Swiss chocolate bars that would be way too heavy to put in our regular suitcases for airplane travel.

For the suitcases, each of the adults would get half a suitcase for clothes.  The toddlers would each get a quarter of a suitcase.  Hiking boots, toiletries, and anything else would fill up the remaining half of a suitcase.  If we were running out of room, sometimes we would stuff the hiking boots with our socks.

Jeremy would take the hiking child carrier, putting his day pack on his front or in the stroller.  I would push the stroller.  If the kids were up for walking, we would put the suitcases in the stroller seats and Jeremy would hold the kids hands or put one of them in the hiking child carrier.  I would often put my daypack in the lap of my oldest child, or in the compartment at the feet of the back child.  When we needed to fold the stroller to get on a train, Jeremy would take the stroller in one hand, a suitcase in the other.  I would take the other suitcase and the hand of the youngest child.  The older child would hold onto the suitcase.  If the safety situation made this unacceptable, the youngest would go in the hiking child carrier, and I would hold the hand of the oldest.

Travel with One Carseat and One Booster Seat

We were fortunate in that the only times we had to travel with two carseats, we had someone waiting on the other side of the airplane to help us either with our kids or with our stuff.  When this is not possible, you need to be more creative.  If you can get away with one carseat and one booster seat, here is what would have worked for us:

This would leave the equivalent of  a little more than 1.5 suitcases to pack the rest of our stuff into.  Since baby stuff is small, it usually worked.  When we didn’t have enough space, I would put my daypack into a suitcase style backpack and fill the rest of the space with the remaining necessary items.

Typically, if the kids could walk, the two heaviest items would go into the stroller, as well as any backpacks that we could fit in there, making sure that Jeremy could either have both hands free to help the kids, or that one of the kids could safely hold onto the safety tether on the stroller and the other could hold onto Jeremy’s hand.  The rest of the stuff would go on our backs.  If necessary, we would also turn a backpack around backwards and put it on our fronts.  If your child is light enough to go in a front carrier, also consider this as an option.

Travel with Two Carseats

When you need to travel with two carseats, and you don’t have anyone who can help you, here is what would have worked for us:

In this case, each person can have half a suitcase worth of stuff.  If necessary, store some of the diapers in the carseat carriers.  One person will push the stroller that is loaded with either suitcases or kids, the other will deal with either the suitcases or the kids.  Each of you will put a carseat on your back and your daypack on your front, or in the stroller.  The only tricky part will be when you need to fold the stroller up and hop on a train.  Hopefully your travels will be limited to the car, or that one of your kids is old enough to manage without a direct hand on them at all times.

Travel with Older Kids

As soon as you can get rid of the stroller, carseats, hiking carries, and pack-n-play, you are open to a whole new world of travel.  Your kids can start carrying a day pack appropriate to their strength and reliability.  Continue to pack light and avoid having your kids carry their own suitcase until they are teenagers.  They can always help you with the big suitcases, but when jet-lag or crankiness sets in, you can’t always count on them to pull their own weight.  Continue packing into bags that two adults can manage without exhausting themselves, and be happy when your kids carry them for you.

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Here is what we like to bring when traveling with our pre-teen kids:

Once everyone is old enough to bring a carry-on sized suitcase, start following traditional travel advice like Rick Steves or Our Next Life.  But until then, don’t get discouraged and travel as much as you can!

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