Travel Logistics: Packing, Laundry, and Kids: The Complete Guide

For those of you who have read my other posts on the topics of family packing and laundry, this post will have a lot of repeated information.  On the other hand, one stop shopping is nice, so for those of you who want a single article to read before packing your family up for an international adventure, I consolidated the best of the information, into one, big, mammoth post starts with the major checklists (adding in the basics not covered in my other posts) and then goes through the long winded whys and hows.

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With a total of well over 80 different hotel rooms, two lengthy trips, and many shorter ones, 2018 was the test of our accumulated knowledge and experience in packing skills.  Our first extended trip was for five weeks and covered the extremes: hiking in the mountains in New Zealand during the cusp of fall and winter, sweltering heat in Bali and Singapore, and springtime in Japan.  Our other major trip included a 2 month summer adventure from Egypt to Israel to Europe.  This last trip was the one that convinced me that we may have gotten a hang of things.

When you travel, you read the packing lists suggested in the guide books, and you think to yourself that there is no way that you could live on that.  Or maybe you think that that list doesn’t apply if you have children.  Even if the list is a bit off, the principle of packing light it is the key to a fun, high intensity, fast paced vacation.  Lugging an overpacked suitcase or two or three all over the world is no fun.  If you truly need something that you didn’t bring, you can usually buy your way out of the problem.  If they don’t have it in the local stores, you will get a better understanding of the culture you are experiencing by doing without, just like everyone else around you.

The Checklists

While there are many methods for packing, I will start with the no-frills, picture-free checklists that work for our family.  If seeing the lists don’t give you the motivation to pack lightly, keep reading and you will get a better sense of how we ended up where we are now.  Save yourself trouble, follow the instructions, and skip the difficulties!

Evaluate Your Needs

Before you start packing, you need to figure out what kind of traveller you are, what your packing needs are, and how strong your back is:

  • What do you need to bring that is specific to your stage in life?
    • Single, couple, or family?
    • Young, middle aged, or retired?
    • No children, young children, or older children?
  • What style of travel are you doing?
    • Staying put in one location?
    • Hopping from hotel to hotel or apartment to apartment?
    • Backpacking through hostels?
    • Traveling by car, train, or something else?
  • How much stuff you can handle without killing your back or endangering your children by not having a free hand?
    • How many bulky “baby items” do you need?
      • A stroller, a front/back/hiking child carrier, a car or booster seat, and/or a pack-n-play may be considerations for the list.
    • Can you lift all of your stuff into overhead train bins?
    • How many wheeled or backpack style suitcases can you handle if you needed to walk for a mile?
      • Remember that quarter mile might be much longer if you get lost.
    • How many daypacks can your family handle?
      • If your child is carrying one, how much weight can he/she handle without you needing to carry it or the child?
    • Are there other items you need?
      • Example: CPAP or other medical devices, etc?
    • Remember that other countries are not near as safe as most places in America.
      • Are traffic signs/rules a suggestion?  Are there feral animals wandering the streets?  Are pick pockets common?  Any other dangers that might change what you bring and how you pack it?
  • What is the climate?
    • Hot, moderate, cold, or combo?
      • Shorts?  Sweaters?  Wool or cotton?
    • Rainy or dry?  How many umbrellas?
    • What kind of jackets do you need?
      • Consider a good 3-in-1 jacket that is both waterproof with an outer shell, and warm with an inner layer of either fleece or down.
      • I keep thinking about getting a packable down vest to work under my not-so-warm 3-in-1 jacket for cooler travel, but haven’t done it yet.
    • Do you need a hat, gloves, snowpants, or snowboots?  Cloth or waterproof gloves?
  • What activities will you be participating in?
    • Business or leisure?
    • Formal or casual?
    • Beach or pool gear?
    • Hiking clothes, boots, or other gear?
    • Skiing or another other activity that requires special equipment?
  • How often will you have access to a laundry machine or laundry service?
  • How many spare shoes do you need?
    • Dress shoes, walking shoes, and flip-flops may all be on the list, but try to combine dress shoes and walking shoes if you can.  Wear one, pack the rest.
    • Do you need hiking or snow boots?
  • What else do you need and/or want to bring with you?
  • Do you have space for souvenirs?
    • If not, eliminate, add a packable bag into your suitcase, or add another suitcase.  Remember to check whether you will be able to comfortably carry this bag once it is full.

Get Organized

Allocate a certain amount of luggage space for each person, assemble your items by category, see what fits, make sure you have space for souvenirs, and start eliminating.

  • Basic Luggage Checklist: Set out the ideal suitcases/backpacks/daypacks that you would like to bring.
  • Clothing Checklist: Set out packing cubes that work with your bags and allocate a certain number for each person’s clothing.
  • Toiletry Checklist: Buy travel size toiletries.
    • Get a good waterproof toiletry bag, or use a layer or two of gallon size ziplock bags.
  • First Aid Checklist: Make a first aid kit according to your needs, destination, risk tolerance, and language skills.
  • Baby/Toddler Gear Checklist: Make any additions needed for small or not so small children.
  • Other Stuff for Checked Bags: Add other items needed to make your activities, expected weather, and other considerations more enjoyable.
  • Carry-on Checklist: Assemble your electronics, and other stuff that should be with you at all times.
  • Other Stuff: Set out any other items that you want to bring.
  • Elimination: Remember that you might be eliminating some of this stuff later if it doesn’t fit.

Basic Luggage

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 the equivalent of 1/2 of a large suitcase, or 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.

  • Person 1:
    • A good stroller
    • One of the following:
    • A day pack 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 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.
    • Allow them to carry the following:
      • Comfort toy: Stuffed animal, blanket, etc.
      • Favorite book
    • You carry the following, unless you think they are both reliable and strong enough:
      • A few toys
      • A change of clothes
      • Outerwear: Jacket, sweaters, hat, gloves, etc.

Clothing Packing List

The below is in addition to whatever you wear on the airplane.  Make sure you read the complete section on laundry tips, before you start selecting specific items.

For Him

  • 2 pairs jeans or lightweight, casual pants
  • Optional: 1 pair dress pants
  • Optional: 1-2 pairs shorts (if traveling to a warm climate, or planning to work out)
    • Consider zip-off if needed to enter religious sites
  • 3-4 polo shirts, appropriate to season
  • 2-3 t-shirts, appropriate to season
  • Optional: 1 dress shirt
  • 1-3 sweaters, of various weights, depending on season
  • 10 pairs underwear (5 if planning to hand-wash clothing)
  • 10 pairs socks (5 if planning to hand-wash clothing)
  • 1-4 undershirts, depending on weather
  • 1 pair pajamas
  • Wear one pair casual shoes that hopefully work for formal as well
  • A jacket appropriate to the season, consider a 3-in-1 jacket.
  • Optional: 1 swim suit
  • Optional: 1 pair formal shoes
  • Optional: 1 pair flip-flops
  • Optional: 1 pair hiking or snow boots
  • Optional: Hat, scarf, and cloth and/or waterproof gloves
  • Optional: down jacket/vest layer
  • Optional: snow pants

For Her

  • 1-2 pairs jeans or lightweight, casual pants
  • Optional: 1-2 pairs dress pants or skirts
    • Opt for ankle length skirts if traveling to conservative countries
    • Consider zip-off shorts if needed to enter religious sites
  • Optional: 1-2 pairs shorts or skirts (if traveling to a warm climate, or planning to work out.)
    • Bring knee length or longer if traveling to conservative countries.
  • Optional: 1-2 pairs of leggings
  • 3-5 layering tank-tops
  • 4-6 layering tops, appropriate to season
    • Optional: 1 of which is formal and could be worn to the opera or similar.
  • 1-3 sweaters, of various weights, depending on season
  • Optional: 1-3 open front, cardigan, or zippered tops of at least 3/4 length sleeves, depending on season and conservativeness of travel location
  • 1-2 lightweight scarfs or sarongs, big enough to cover head, shoulders, elbows
    • Bring 2 if you will need to cover knees as well.
  • 10 pairs underwear (5 if planning to hand-wash clothing)
  • 10 pairs socks (5 if planning to hand-wash clothing)
  • 1-2 bras, stuff socks in cup to keep shape
  • 1 pair pajamas
  • 1 pair walking or hiking shoes
    • Wear either these or your dress shoes when changing locations.
  • 1 pair dress shoes, Rothy’s are my shoe of choice
    • If Rothy’s, wear these anytime your suitcase may be left in a hot environment that could shrink the shoes.
  • A jacket appropriate to the season, consider a 3-in-1 jacket.
  • Optional: 1 swim suit
  • Optional: 1 pair flip-flops
  • Optional: 1 pair hiking or snow boots
  • Optional: Hat, scarf, and cloth and/or waterproof gloves
  • Optional: down jacket/vest layer
  • Optional: snow pants

Add these Clothes for Babies/Small Children

  • Have a total of at least 5-8 tops, dependent on how dirty they tend to get
  • Have a total of at least 5-8 bottoms, dependent on how dirty they tend to get
  • Make sure your kids shoes are in reasonable shape and have room for growing feet
    • If their feet are tiny, consider a second pair of shoes in case they get wet.
    • If their feet are large, consider a pair of flip flops for emergency use (plus they work to go to the pool)
  • A few extra socks
    • Kids like puddles
    • If you encounter high mountain summer snow, use extra socks like mittens
  • A few extra underwear, in case of accidents
    • A bathroom is rarely there when they need it
    • Their stomachs are not used to the local food and the bacteria that may be in it
    • There is no shame in travel related accidents, even for older kids or adults
    • Bring a travel-size pack of baby wipes for your purse/daypack
    • Bring a quart sized ziplock bag for your purse/daypack if you don’t want to throw out the underwear, or plan on wrapping it in a ton of toilet paper or paper towels, but not always available.
  • Diapers, if necessary
  • Pullups for up to pre-k kids,  A.K.A. “airplane pants” or “city doesn’t have reliable public bathrooms pants” or “my kid ate something funny pants”

Toiletry Packing List

For Him (No sensitivities to hotel toiletries)

  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • Contact essentials
  • Glasses
  • Comb
  • Razor and charger
  • Prescription medication
  • Washcloth or scrubbie
    • Unusual for mid-range European/Asian hotels to provide this.
  • To get at hotel (bring if unsure accommodations will have)
    • Shampoo
    • Conditioner
    • Soap
    • Lotion
  • Anything else you typically use in morning or evening

For Her (Sensitivities to hotel toiletries)

  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • Shampoo (I like Cleure for sensitive skin)
  • Conditioner
    • Also use as shave gel, be careful of slippery shower floor
  • Body Wash (Again, Cleure)
  • Lotion (I like Aveno Exema Therapy)
  • Face lotion (I like Oil of Olay SPF 15 Sensitive Skin)
  • Face wash
  • Makeup
  • Contact essentials
  • Glasses
  • Hair Gel
  • Brush
  • Razor
  • Prescription medication, including birth control pills
  • Pads/Tampons
  • Washcloth or scrubbie
    • Unusual for mid-range European/Asian hotels to provide this.
  • Anything else you typically use in morning or evening

To Share

  • Hand sanitizer — soap can be scarce
  • Small packs of tissue to use in bathrooms that don’t provide it
    • Eastern Europe and other countries, you pay for a small piece of scratchy paper
    • Other countries don’t have any
  • Floss
  • Q-tips
  • Nail clippers
  • A pack of earplugs
  • Enough sunscreen for entire trip.  It’s cheap in America!

For Kids

  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Orthodontic equipment
  • Washcloth or scrubbie
    • Unusual for mid-range European/Asian hotels to provide this.
  • Share everything else with mom or dad
  • Anything else they typically use in morning or evening

First Aid Packing List

Minimal Kit

When creating a travel first aid kit, at a minimum you should have the following in an easily accessible location.  Don’t put anything in your checked luggage unless you can go the entire trip without it.  Once, while in Istanbul, my bags were lost for 5 out of 7 days.

  • Labeled prescription medication in original container
    • You should have enough for the entire trip, in case bags get lost or you can’t get the prescription filled.
  • Orthodontic equipment: flossers, sprayer, wax, retainer case, etc
  • Chapstick
  • A few Cold Eeze (or another zinc supplement to reduce duration/severity of colds, take the instant you even suspect a cold
  • A few cough drops
  • A few individually wrapped doses of Imodium, at least 1-2 per person (carry in purse or daypack)
  • Tylenol and/or IbuProfen
  • Bandaids
  • Neosporin

Consider Adding These

Other things I typically bring for extended trips (put in purse, daypack, carry-on, or checked bag as needed for your situation, activity choices, and risk tolerance):

  • Vitamins (your kids are likely picky about unusual foods)
    • Gummy is good
    • Chewable is only good in low humidity environments, they will turn dark and taste nasty in places like Hawaii
  • A full pack of Cold Eeze, or your choice of zinc lozenges
  • A larger supply of cough drops
  • A few Nyquil/Dayquil capsules (or your favorite similar medicine)
  • Benadryl
  • Pepto Bismol tablets (ofter a better first measure in place of Imodium)
  • Larger bottle of Imodium
  • Cortisone cream for bug bites and heat rash
  • Aloe for sunburns
  • Abreva for surprise cold sore
  • Diaper Rash Cream (not only for infants, but also for use when Imodium is greatly needed)
  • Rehydration tablets (Jeremy used these on his 10 day bike ride, but could also be used with Imodium or Pepto Bismol)
  • A thermometer (Once I bought a glass/mercury one in Peru, but I was scared to keep it in my suitcase and transport back to U.S.A.)
  • An ace bandage (if hiking)
  • Gauze wrap
  • A couple of large medical pads
  • Medical tape
  • Moleskin
  • A few cotton balls
  • A few q-tips
  • A multitool
  • A pair of tweezers
  • A pair of small, narrow-tipped surgical scissors
    • Useful for removing stitches, cutting medical tape, or cutting moleskin
  • Travel pack of baby/hand wipes to clean up gross messes
  • Optional: Pill cutter for reducing tablets to child sized portions
  • Optional: Photo of ingredients of prescription or otherwise necessary medication
  • Other necessary medical equipment or prescriptions
    • Pre-travel vaccinations and prescriptions, usually 2-6 weeks before, often need to pay out-of-pocket
      • Vaccinations may include: Hep A/B, Typhoid, Meningococcal disease, Yellow Fever, Rabies, Malaria, etc.
      • Prescription medications that need pre-authorization to be covered in needed quantities may include: Birth control, high altitude meds, antibiotics, other prescription meds you take, etc.
    • CPAP machine
    • Check if high-elevation hotels have access to on-demand oxygen (Puno, Peru)
    • Anything else you need to be medically safe

Baby/Toddler/Under12YearsOld Gear Packing List

  • Typical diaper bag contents
  • Pediatrician’s phone number, including after hours clinic
  • A good stroller, read about small children gear below
  • Optional: Car seat or booster seat, dependent on travel mode
    • Some countries don’t require this, and even if you bring it, there may not be seatbelts in the car to install it.
    • Other countries may require this until age 12.
    • You can rent one, but taxis and shuttles may be an issue depending on local laws.
  • Optional: Pack-n-play, best for car travel
  • Optional: Front/back/hiking Carrier
  • Optional: A very well stocked first aid kit
  • Optional: Food/drink related items.  (e.g. sippy/straw cup, bowl to make baby porridge, eating utensils, dish soap, a sponge, a straw cleaner, a jar of peanut butter, granola bars, etc.)
    • In many countries, you will need to use bottled water to prepare your child’s food and drinks.  If the problem with the water is heavy metals, boiling won’t make it safe.
    • Some countries (e.g. New Zealand) require you to throw away all food items, including some herbal supplements, before entry.

Other Stuff for Checked Bags Packing List

  • Laundry Detergent – double or triple bag if liquid
  • Long, sturdy, white rope that can be used for clothesline
  • A laundry bag
  • Travel sewing kit
  • Extra quart and gallon ziplock bags.  Do you really want to put your paprika souvenir in with your clothes?  Did your waterproof toiletry bag break?
  • A few small plastic bags and at least one big plastic trash bag to contain nastiness
  • Optional: Dishwashing soap, sponge, straw cleaner, etc.
  • Optional: A travel luggage scale, if you will be close to airline weight limits
  • Optional: Small or collapsible daypack that can be used for water bottles and other things you want to bring with you while touring
    • Makes it so you don’t need to empty your carry-on backpack
  • Optional: Collapsible shopping bag
    • Useful if you are cooking in an apartment and don’t want to buy shopping bags (common in Europe)
    • Useful if you run out of space for souvenir shopping in your daypack
  • Optional: Moneybelt
  • Optional: Umbrella, 1 per pair of people, or buy as needed
  • Optional: Lightweight swim towel (share if your accommodations are likely to provide this)
    • We bring 2 for a family of 4, or buy them as needed
  • Optional: Flip-flops for pool or beach
  • Optional: Hiking gear, if needed
  • Other stuff appropriate to itinerary activities
    • Biking, skiing, snow, etc.

Carry-On Packing List

Here is what should go in your daypack for airplane travel:

  • Pens, pencils, small writing tablet, and/or a journal
  • Camera
  • Electronics: Travel size computer, tablet, kindle, etc.
    • Consider getting a tablet and/or kindle for each older kid in case they don’t like the movie selection.
  • Chargers
  • Plug converters
  • Copy of all travel documents: Passports, flight/train/bus/car rental itineraries, hotel reservations, etc.
  • If a parent is traveling alone with a child, he/she should have a notarized copy of a travel consent form giving permission to cross boarders without the other spouse.
  • Change of socks and underwear for each person.
  • A sweater, jacket, gloves, hat, and/or other appropriate outer wear for your destination.
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, glasses contacts, contact solution, chapstick, orthodontic equipment, etc.  (Current TSA rules indicate that liquids should be in 3.4 oz/100mL containers and placed inside a single quart sized ziplock bag.)
  • Basic first aid kit.  See first aid kit packing list.
  • All medications that cannot be skipped for the entire trip if you lose your checked bags.  (All medically necessary liquids should be placed in a separate ziplock bag and declared to TSA if they are over 3.4 oz/100mL or don’t fit in your allotted quart sized liquid bag.  This could include things like liquid children’s medicine, a small bottle of contact solution, prescriptions, etc.)
  • Optional: Refillable water bottles if traveling to a country with safe drinking water.
    • Also bring a sharpie to mark the caps of disposable water bottles with each person’s initials.
  • Extra stuff for babies through pre-k:
    • Full change of clothes for infants and toddlers
    • Diapers , bib, and other diaper bag stuff for babies
    • Pull up pants for potty trained toddlers/pre-k (call them “travel pants” or “airplane pants” if necessary, sometimes the fasten seatbelt sign can be on for a looong time.)  My kids fussed about it, but I didn’t want to have to deal with accidents on the plane.  Sometime we would even use them around town if we knew bathrooms were going to be a problem.
    • A few toys/books for kids that aren’t happy watching TV and/or playing on a tablet for 10+ hours at a time.  (Did you really watch Frozen 5 times in a row?  Good job on staying awake when we asked you to.)  For ideas, see my section on gear for young children.
    • Security stuffed animal/blanket/etc.
    • Lollipops, gum, a bottle, or a sippy-cup with a valve for assent/decent until your kids know how to pop their ears by themselves.  Your neighbors will thank you.

Elimination

Now, put it all in your bags and check to see if you have room for souvenirs.  Make sure you can carry all your stuff comfortably for reasonably long distances.  If not, it’s time to start eliminating.  Do you really need both heels and flats?  Will you really use your flip-flops, swimsuit, and towels?  Can you get by without the pack-n-play?  Can you survive with one fewer pair of jeans?  Can you bring a less bulky, but still warm, sweater?

Still not enough space?  Check to see if you can physically carry one more bag without ruining your health or bring a larger bag without going overweight.

Evaluation of Needs

Now that you have read the checklists, let’s get into the details.  To re-cap, when thinking about packing, you need to evaluate the following:

  • 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?
    • 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 don’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 carry-on 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, 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.

Laundry

Before you even think about putting anything into your suitcase, you need to evaluate your laundry strategies.  Above all, consider whether you have access to a reliable laundry machine, or whether you will need to rely on the hard work of hand-washing everything.

Materials

If you read the section on basic packing, you should realize that you are packing light.  Each person should have 1/2 of a large suitcase or the equivalent of one carry-on size suitcase.  Accept the fact that you may be wearing every shirt and pair of pants up to 3 or 4 times before washing.  When going on a two-week trip and planning to hand-wash socks and underwear only, this is a very real possibility.  If this is not acceptable, remove the item from your bag and bring something else.  Your clothes should be durable and sturdy.  You do not want delicate items that can’t handle wear and tear.  You never know when there will be a problem with the laundry machine that you thought you would have access to.

Think quick-dry materials like polyester, nylon, spandex, or some combo.  Get tiny, quick-dry underwear.  (One person in our family prefers cotton, but the others are flexible.)  Bring thin socks and double up if you need more cushion.  (I usually do this, while Jeremy and the boys bring their sturdy, sweat absorbing athletic socks that take 18-48 hours to dry.)  Consider a few nice looking athletic shirts.  Get quick dry shorts.  Think about zip-off pants.  Women should definitely look at flowing, breezy, ankle length skirts when traveling to hot, but conservative countries.  Crinkle skirts are awesome since you want them to wrinkle.  The more things that are both durable and quick dry, the better.  Just make sure that you aren’t sacrificing your look too much to achieve this.  That said, Jeremy will often suffer in jeans and a cotton polo in extreme heat rather than look too scrubby.

Optimizing for Wearing Dirty Clothes

All of your clothes should be reasonably dark, particularly if you have toddlers.  They will wipe their ice cream cone or spaghetti sauce on you.  You might spill your coffee on yourself or your spouse.  Your child or a car may splash a puddle onto you.  Any age kids could have stomach problems that end up on you.  Prepare to have some levels of minor or major nastiness that happens to your clothes.  And prepare to keep wearing them unless they are truly disgusting.

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To facilitate this, all of your clothes should be centered around a common theme:

It’s easy for the men and boys.  Jeans or dress pants, at least one shirt that matches the dress pants, and sweaters that go with every single shirt.  Or at least one v-neck sweater that works with the polos and one crew-neck that works with the t-shirts.  Or one that works with half the shirts and one that works for the other half.

Women and girls are more difficult.  I like layers.  A tank top, a short or long sleeve shirt, and a cardigan or sweater.  I love long skirts in hot or conservative countries.  I like a little color.  I have found that sticking with black and one or two other color themes works fabulously. First,  I will take a long black skirt and pair it with 2-3 colorful tops.  Then I will take a colorful skirt and pair it with 2-3 black tops that could also work as layering options with the colorful tops.  I will bring at least one tiny, wide, lightweight scarf to keep in my purse to cover my shoulders, head, elbows, or any other exposed body part that will prevent me from seeing the various sites.  Most of the tops need to work with jeans, one of them should be dressy enough to go to the opera.  If you bring shorts, at least half of your shirts need to work with each pair.  Everything needs to be as interchangeable as possible.  Just because one top or bottom gets dirty, it should not mean that most of your wardrobe is dead.

Below you can see 2 brightly colored skirts/dresses that I brought to India.   The pink themed one is actually a dress that could stand alone, but I added a black top to make it a little more casual and to add warmth.  (India is a great country to bring your brightest clothes that you rarely wear at home.)  The skirts are paired with 4 black layering tops: 1 tank top, 1 basic short-sleeve, 1 basic long-sleeve, and 1 zippered long-sleeve.  I could wear one, two, or more at a time, and then add a jacket if needed.  On the colder mornings, I added a pair of leggings and my simple black skirt underneath.  Since we were traveling by car, I could shed the layers throughout the day, as needed.  Add in a couple more black tops, a couple of pairs of jeans, and a few other colorful tops that would only be used with jeans or a third skirt like my black one, and you have a ton of options with minimal suitcase space.

If possible, bring enough socks and underwear until you can make it to a laundry machine or a laundry service.  Bring a few spares, just in case laundry doesn’t work out, things get lost, or they develop holes.  If you are traveling to the mountains, bring even more socks.  In a pinch, they can work like mittens if needed.  Who knew that snow and tank tops were compatible?

Some people will tell you to buy clothing as you travel through hot and low cost countries.  If you are tall, or not super slender, don’t count on it.  I don’t consider myself to be particularly large, but it is work to find things that fit me in Asia.  Once I forgot to pack Jeremy’s spare jeans.  Good luck trying to find pants in a 36″ length in China.  He ended up making more use of his dress pants than we expected.

Organization of Dirty Clothes

Anything in the packing cubes should be clean.  Anything outside the packing cubes has been worn at least once, but could probably be worn again.  Anything in your laundry bag is so filthy that it would take vomit or other nastiness on all your other clothes to make you wear them again.  Anything truly nasty goes inside a plastic shopping bag or a gallon sized ziplock bag and does not come out until you find a washing machine.

Washing Machines

If you are staying in apartment rentals, look for units that have washing machines.  Note that they may or may not have a dryer, so try to get these units on multi-day stays so you don’t have to put wet items back in your suitcase.  Also note whether it is an in-unit machine, or one shared by the whole building.

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If nothing else, a laundromat may work for you.  With this option, get a good laundry bag, preferably one with shoulder straps, to carry your things in, or just pull your packing cubes out and use your suitcase.

If you are in a country with low labor costs, consider using a laundry service.  They usually take at least 24 hours.  In Bali, we paid someone about $.50/pound to do our laundry.  In Udaipur, India, we paid someone $.10-$.25 per item to do our laundry.  And we probably could have gotten lower prices in both locations if we would have felt like bargaining.

If you do laundry yourself, prepare to see no English on the machine.  Which button is for cotton/permanent press/delicate?  Hot/warm/cold?  Etc.  Consider using the Google Translate App or something similar to help you, just make sure that when you have wi-fi access that you download the language that you want for off-line use.  If the machine is in an apartment, there is often an English translation in the welcome book.  Or if you meet your host to get the keys, ask them to show you before they leave.

Also prepare for mistakes in heat.  There is the obvious washing machine water temperature, but some driers seem to heat the clothes to burning temperature.  Even after two hours at this temperature, the clothes are ridiculously hot, but no closer to being dry than when they started.  Mysterious.  Try to only bring clothing that can handle the problem.

Bring a long, sturdy white rope that can work as a clothesline.  Tie it to chairs or other pieces of furniture.  Ladder back chairs are your friends.  Weave it back and forth and make as much hanging space as possible.  This works for problems with non-existent or finicky driers, but also works if you need to hand-wash items.  In one case, I cut a piece off the clothesline and used it as a makeshift shoelace when all the stores were closed on a Sunday.

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Hand-Washing

Hand-washing is a pain, but sometimes necessary.  I used to do all of our socks, underwear, and some of the nasty toddler or adult clothes on every trip.  Here are the steps:

  1. Fill the sink, add the whites, add the soap, scrub vigorously, then set the whites aside.  If there is no plug, be creative.  A wad of saran wrap or a ziplock bag will often work if you are careful not to dislodge it during the scrubbing stage.
  2. Now add the darks.  If there is a good drain stop, you can use the same water, otherwise add more water and soap and repeat.
  3. Now repeat the scrubbing for both whites and darks with clean water until there are no more soap bubbles.
  4. Wring everything thoroughly.  Maybe do it twice if you have a towel shortage.
  5. Figure out how many towels you have in the apartment and how often you get new ones.  Either use a clean towel that won’t be needed, or a towel that was already used for a shower and lay it flat.
  6. Lay a single layer of clothes on the towel, roll it up tightly, and wring.
  7. Repeat until all the clothes have been towel wrung, using a fresh towel as needed if the current one gets too wet.
  8. Hang the clothes on your rope/clothesline that you strung on furniture around the room.  Or, in Eastern Europe and sometimes other locations, they often have heated drying racks that may or may not function year round.  If you have one that works, turn it on, drape your clothes on it, and they may be dry in as little as an hour.
  9. If you have daily cleaning service, consider taking down the clothes in the morning and re-hanging them in the evening if there is any possibility they could be upset with your laundry procedures.  Mainly, they don’t want water dripping on the floors or wet clothing ruining wooden furniture, so try to at least respect those rules.

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This is easy for one person, not so easy if you are washing for a family of four.  I would do the laundry, Jeremy would sort through the pictures and plan the next day.  The hassle of one person doing more than 4 pairs of socks and underwear is why the most guide books only suggest bringing at most five pairs.  When you get more than about four pairs per person – 16 pairs total – it is not pleasant and approaches horrid.  Doing laundry for four every single night is also not pleasant.  Spending a couple hours in a laundromat, rather than sightseeing, is not pleasant.  If you don’t have a washing machine at your accommodations, pick your pill.

History

To give some perspective and insight into the various stages of life and choices you might want to make or not make, I will walk through my experiences, starting with my high school status as “the cargo lady” to the woman who is able to take my toddlers on many international trips to being able to live for two months out of half of a large suitcase with my older kids.

Highschool

I was fortunate to be able to do a ton of travel in high school.  I lived on a small island in Alaska, and if I wanted to do something as simple as play in a volleyball game, then at a minimum, it usually involved an overnight trip with either a ferry or a flight.  Since this was a bit of a waste for one game, often there were multi-day tournaments where all the towns would send their kids.  Since it was a small school, as in less than 60 students in the high school, almost everyone was involved in almost everything.  For some events, I would be out of town for an entire week.

My first of those long trips, I was trying to figure out how to fit my oversized sleeping bag and all my other stuff into a single oversized suitcase.  Since the sleeping bag took up almost the entire suitcase, the answer was “obviously” to bring two oversized suitcases, one of which included a pair of nice boots in the original box.  When I showed up at the airport, everyone rolled their eyes and one of the boys hauled my stuff around for me, and I earned the nickname, “the cargo lady.”  Embarrassing!  This is one of the disadvantages of your parents letting you learn lessons on your own, rather than forcing you to do the right thing.  Lesson learned, and I never made that mistake again.

Alaska pictures from our college days:

Couple Travel

Fast forward to our honeymoon, and I brought a large suitcase and a large backpack, telling myself that I was bringing the minimum necessary to have a fun trip.  I never used the travel steamer, cute but uncomfortable spare shoes, at least half of my clothes, and the other nonsense items that I thought were essential to make sure that I looked nice.

Once we started traveling more as a couple, we became really into Rick Steves travel guides, and tried using some of his techniques.  At the time, they felt a bit draconian, but I tried my best and came close to his list, still coming home with plenty of unused items.

We were now able to fit everything into a single large suitcase or a top loading hiking backpack similar to this one, and one of Rick Steves backpacks similar to this one, and a couple of daypacks.  That said, we did have a lot of room left to bring back souvenirs.

When I look back on these days, I laugh at my “necessities” and now I enjoy the freedom of traveling much lighter and freer.

Travel with Small Children

Kids complicated packing a lot.  We needed to make sure that we had at least one hand free per kid to keep them safe, so there was no way to increase the amount of luggage we could bring.  Fortunately, baby/toddler clothes are small and don’t take up much room, even if you have to bring a lot more items than for an adult.  On the other hand, diapers take up a lot of room, and while you can buy them at your destination, I never wanted to spend the time looking for them and potentially buying the wrong size/quality the first time around.  The pleasant surprise was that as you use up a huge quantity (3 weeks worth) of diapers, you suddenly have tons of room in your luggage for souvenirs.  One trip we replaced our diaper space with Swiss chocolate bars.  You will think I’m joking, but it was well over 100 bars, plus other souvenirs.  Good times!

Baby Stuff

The bigger problem is that you might want to bring things like a stroller, a car/booster seat(s), a pack-n-play, a front/back/hiking child carrier(s), toys, food items, baby dishes, diaper bag stuff, and more.  The stroller isn’t a problem.  You can put the child in a front/back/hiking carrier, your luggage in the stroller, and you are set until you reach a flight of stairs, at which point, you need to be creative.  This isn’t so much fun in European train stations, but we figured it out.

The Car/Booster Seat

You may want your child car safe at all times, but in some cases, bringing a car seat is complicated.  The time I decided to avoid having the airlines check my carseat and risk damaging it was a disaster.  When I installed it, forward facing, into the airplane seat, it put my son’s feet half an inch from the seat in front of him and he spent the entire flight kicking away.  At the end of the (fortunately) 2 hour flight, the man sitting in front of me turned around, shook his finger at me, and said, “When I tell my kids not to kick, they listen.”  Sigh.  The joys of traveling with small children.  We were all children once, and my attitude is that parents should do their best, but despite your best intentions, sometimes it simply doesn’t work out.  Some parents try harder than others, and given how much we travel, we do try to be ones that try the most.  Lesson learned, and I always checked the car seat from that moment forward.

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If you are planning on taking trains, buses, and planes, leave the car seat home and research ways on how to get to the airport without one.  If you are traveling to a country that has no carseat laws, and typically no seatbelts in the cars, leave the car seat home.  On the other hand, if you are traveling to a country like Germany and your child is under the age of 12, yes that is 12, measure your child carefully to ensure that you don’t need to bring, rent, or purchase and donate or throw away, a car or booster seat.

When the kids were young, we almost always planned our trips around never entering a car once we were at the airport.  The times we did need to do international car travel, we would typically overpay and rent one.  If we were traveling in the U.S., and were renting a car for the entire duration of our trip, we would often bring our own and check it on the plane.  The one time they lost it, the airline provided a spare until they found ours.

The Pack-n-Play

This is a great thing to bring if your accommodations won’t have a crib and you can lug it around without injuring yourself from too much weight or putting your child in danger from not having a free hand.  We mostly limited this to car travels.  I had a fear of my son rolling out of the super high beds.  Plus if there was a large bathroom or a large walk-in closet, we could suddenly pretend a one room hotel room was now two bedrooms.

Note that this should be one of the first things you eliminate if you have too much stuff.  Often times you can arrange a crib, or figure something else out, even when staying in apartment style accommodations:

The Stroller

If you have toddler age children, the stroller is what will make the difference between a terrible vacation, a fun vacation, and an amazing vacation.

Many people will tell you to bring an umbrella stroller when you travel.  Don’t listen to them unless you are less than 5 feet tall and will only be pushing it on very smooth surfaces.  Also avoid double wide strollers.  They do not work anywhere except suburban America.  There is no way you could take it down a grocery isle in most other countries.  In some cases, you may not even be able to get through the door.

If travel is your goal, you should instead get what the city dwelling Europeans that don’t own a car buy.  Get the best stroller you can afford.  Get it lightly used if necessary.  If you are imaging a urine covered monstrosity, you will be amazed by how little some people actually use their stroller.  Inspect it carefully, and you might be surprised by what you can find.  Just make sure that you don’t buy it from someone who used it like we did.  Regardless of whether it is new or used: yes, it will get dinged on the airplane.  Yes, it will add extra weight on the train.  But you will enjoy traveling with it.  Spend the money and get it.

When selecting a travel stroller, make sure:

  • It is not much wider than the width of your body.
  • The handles are tall enough to be comfortable for everyone in your family.
  • The wheels are sturdy enough to handle cobblestone.
    • If it has inflatable wheels, also get an emergency repair kit.
  • It is easy to fold and unfold.
  • It is easy to carry with one hand on a train.  One person needs to keep a hand free for this.
  • The seat will fold down for naps.
  • It is comfortable for the child.
  • It is durable and can withstand rough treatment by airplane baggage handlers.
The First Single Stroller

We started with a Maclaren XLR, as it was one of only three strollers my super tall husband could comfortably push.  Even then, I usually needed to push it down a steep hill.  He got the uphill.  Yay me!  It was fine for travel, but cobblestone and gravel was where it started to melt down.  We would often have to take James out and make him walk or carry him whenever it got too bad.  Thus, defeating the purpose of bringing a nice stroller.

The Double Stroller

When John came along, we knew we did not want a double wide stroller, so after facing sticker shock on the stroller we wanted, we went on Craig’s List and bought a very lightly used Phil and Ted’s Sport Stroller for an incredible price (we were planning to negotiate, for an even lower price, but the sob story about the miscarriage changed our minds).  This was a game changer!  It was super maneuverable, the inflatable tires were excellent on cobblestone and gravel, and it was easy to fold and unfold.

The main down side is when you run over a nail and end up with a flat.  The first time this happened, it was a pain to deal with.  But after we put together our emergency kit that included a patch kit, a travel pump, and a spare tube, we were set!  Something like this, plus a tube would work.

The next down side is that it unfolds into two pieces, which takes some getting used to and you want to figure out how to carry it in one hand, but after that, it is fine.  The actual space it takes up is minimal in comparison to other strollers.  Note that this was many years ago, so our info on current competitive products is limited.

The last down side is that it is a bit heavy.  But then again, what do you expect from an extremely rugged and durable double stroller that can withstand cobblestone, gravel, and easy hiking trails.

We used this stroller extensively.  On arrival to a new destination, most of our luggage would go in the front seat.  A child or the other suitcase would go in the back seat.  The other child would walk, go in a front/back/hiking carrier, or be carried in someones arms.  I would push, Jeremy would deal with the rest of the luggage and any children not in the stroller.  It was as close to perfect as we could imagine!  I lost 10 pounds with the first kid, and another 10 pounds with the second kid.  Now that they pull their own weight, my weight has returned.

Once we dropped our luggage off, we were set.  Since, as toddlers, our kids were close to each other in weight, we could interchange them between the front and back.  Often, we would keep the youngest buckled in the front, and the oldest would sit unbuckled in the back and would get in and out as he got tired of walking or bored of sitting.  This was great training for being able to walk long distances.  The kids could nap in the stroller.  If a situation was unsafe or precarious (crazy traffic, wild animals, museums, etc.), it was easy to contain them.  It was narrow and short enough to fit in almost any situation.  Many people were surprised when kid number 2 would pop out of the back seat.

The only surface we ever had trouble with was soft sand in Hawaii.  The stroller simply would not budge, even if both kids were out of the stroller.  Other than that, it fit every need we had.  Assuming we didn’t care about footprints, we could even store a small daypack and large SRL camera in the storage basket at the back child’s feet.  If we really needed more space, we would use a saddlebag or two, but be aware that this will increase the width.  Often, we would just use a backpack instead, or would hang the saddlebags by the handle bar, if needed.

Once the kids got older, the stroller started to show its age.  Pieces of foam would randomly fall off the handlebar, so we wrapped it in electrical tape, which eventually started to leave sticky residue on our hands.  We had to stitch up some small tears in the fabric.  The patch kit had been used many times and we had replaced at least two tubes.  The airplane travel and intense usage had taken its toll.  Even so, remember that even if the airlines ding up your ridiculously expensive stroller, it is still worth it since your enjoyment at your destination will be significantly higher than any other option.  If you travel frequently, and walk ridiculous distances, it is money well spent.  Just note that if you have a fitness watch, you will register next to zero steps, even if you walk from sunup to sundown.

Converting the Double Stroller Back to a Single Stroller

As the kids weight increased, we took off the second child attachment, turned it back into a single stroller and made one child walk while the other rested or napped.  If cobblestone wasn’t an issue, we would bring our original stroller since it wasn’t as heavy.  This worked quite well, even if we got some odd looks and befuddled comments.  “But your child is 5 years old, why can’t he walk?”  The person was probably thinking, “Those lazy Americans!”  Well, we like to walk from breakfast until dinner.  Is that a reasonable expectation for a 4 and 5 year old?  Of course not.  Ignore the looks and comments and use it as long as your kids fit in it and can’t walk for an entire day.

The Child Carrier

When we went for a hiking vacation in the Swiss Alps, we knew that a stroller was not going to work once we reached the mountains.  We could still use it to get around cities, but for hiking, we would be limited.  The solution was to put the youngest child in a framed hiking child carrier.  As the child approaches the weight limit, it will become increasingly unpleasant, but particularly when they (and you) are still fairly young, it can enable to you to be able to do most of the hiking trails you were able to do before kids.

With one kid,  I would usually carry the front pack, particularly if we were walking over ice.  Jeremy would carry the day pack.  When the kids got heavier and we started using the hiking carrier, or when I would get tired, we reversed positions.  Jeremy would usually don the carrier, and I would carry the water and picnic lunch.  I had the advantage that my load got lighter as the day progressed.

With two kids, Jeremy would carry the youngest in the backpack with the picnic lunch.  I would carry the water, and when the oldest needed a break, I would carry him in my arms on the flatter stretches.  We were a bit more limited in what we could attempt, but we discovered that the Jungfrau region of Switzerland was ideal for this scenario.  The train or gondola takes you up the mountain.  You walk down until you are tired, admiring the couple that is carrying their two children up the mountain, then you catch the closest train or gondola to take you back to your accommodations.  It’s an expensive location, but my favorite place in the entire world.  If you like hiking in beautiful, but civilized and well connected, mountains, come here.  Too bad Jeremy doesn’t like my idea of moving there.

As far as bringing the hiking carrier from hotel to hotel, one of us would normally need to carry our regular backpack on our back, but if the kids were in the stroller or walking, we could simply put the backpack in the stroller or the cavity in the carrier where the child normally sits.  We could also use the storage space in the carrier for diapers, putting most of the heavier items in the wheeled suitcases.

Of course, there are times that you don’t want to hassle with either a carrier or a stroller, in which case, be prepared to carry the kids in your arms or on your shoulders when they get tired.

Toys

As toddlers, your kids are likely to be bored on the plane.  James was an amazing traveler.  An exception, rather than the rule.  He mostly just wanted to look out the window and observe things around him.  John was another story.  All he wanted to do was kick the seat in front of him, stand up and peer over the seat behind him, and scream when we would let him do neither.  Gone were our days of airplane passengers complimenting us on how well behaved our children were.  Grin and bear it.  The person scowling at you was once a child and probably drove people crazy at some point in his/her life.

After the kids became old enough to love watching hours of TV, we were set, but until then, it was work to occupy them.  Toddlers will watch the TV for 5 minutes, then need to move on.  A few, favorite, lightweight books are a good option.  Paper, crayons, and/or playdoh are also favorites.  Stacking cups are fun to play with, eat snack out of, and (if you are brave) pour water back and forth between.  If you have a pair of toy pliers, they make a fun and slow eating utensil for goldfish and the like.  The cups can be used as a bath toy later in your trip.  The flimsy earbuds the airlines often give break easily, and if they do, they make a nice fishing line for pretend play next to the isle.  Otherwise, focus on small, lightweight toys.  James liked his model airplanes and a stuffed animal.  John liked hot wheel cars and a stuffed animal.  Sometimes they like the duty free magazine or the pictures in the travel themed magazine.  Sticker books, paper dolls, sewing toys, and other such items are all good considerations.  The key is to focus on not taking up a lot of space and maximize entertainment value for both the plane ride and the destination.  You know what your child will respond to best.

And even if you don’t bring the right things, it makes the opportunity for the  kids to be creative and make their own toys.

Packing

Now that you know what “extras” you need, you can read the next section on travel with older children and apply those principles with a few exceptions:

Clothing: For babies and toddlers, you will want to bring more clothing than suggested for older children.  They crawl/roll/play on the ground, spill food on themselves, and jump in mud puddles.  One of the worst incidents was during potty training when we stopped at a beach porta-potty.  Plopping onto the floor and filling his hands, one of my kids said, “Look mom, sand!”  Gross and double gross.  Make sure you read my suggestions on laundry, hand sanitizer, and baby/hand wipes.

Food: Kids are often picky.  Even baby food can be challenging.  In Russia, we accidentally got a jar of potatoes with rabbit.  Odd, but James seemed to like it.  A bowl of porridge can be more complicated than you might think.  Do you have a bowl or cup you can mix it in?  Is the water safe?  Does the water need to be boiled or have heavy metals to the point that you need to use bottled water?  Do you have a spoon that will fit in your child’s mouth?  Do you have dish soap and a sponge to wash your child’s dishes.

Will your child drink the local milk?  Yes, it is different.  Fat free milk is usually non-existent.  Spanish milk made one of our kids vomit every time he tried it.  Kids tend to rebel the first time they have to drink the non-perishable boxed milk.  Our main solution was to buy a box of chocolate or strawberry Nesquick, and mix it in.  Or just buy them ice cream.  Trust me, they will not complain if you go that route.

Fortunately, rice, mashed potatoes, bread, and/or plain noodles is fairly universal, and if you are in a restaurant, odds are, if you are creative in your language skills, you can get one of those for your child.  Add a multi-vitamin, and some milk or ice cream cones, a bag of bananas or oranges, and you are set as long as you aren’t staying longer than a week or so.

When you do order other food off the menu, try not to be upset when they don’t eat it.  In Italy: Why does my spaghetti have chopped hard boiled egg in it?  In Peru: Why does the cheese on my pizza taste funny?  In Russia: Why is my cherry turnover actually stuffed with meat?  In France: Why doesn’t my hamburger have a bun?  In China: Why do I have to drink tea rather than water?  Why is my water hot?  Even when you order things that they should like, chances are, you will make mistakes that your kids won’t appreciate.

Sometimes having something as simple as a jar of peanut butter (bread and jam is easy to buy, but peanut butter is an American thing), a bag of peanuts or tree nuts, a few granola bars, or some other protein packed snack food in your suitcase can make a huge difference in a child’s attitude.  If nothing else, stop at a convenience store or bakery after meal time, and let them pick something.  It will make the museum you are planning to go to next much more enjoyable.  If they are tired of walking, slept through dinner, or or otherwise making sightseeing difficult, seriously consider a snack or soda.  It will make them much happier, which will make you much happier.  Since it is usually only for a weeks or two, and they are walking at least 3x more than usually, it probably isn’t a big deal if they get more chips and soda than normal.

Daypacks: You will also need to keep in mind that a toddler isn’t going to be able to carry their own backpack for hours on end.  Everything you bring for them needs to fit in yours.  While we could technically get 4 carry-on bags if we paid for the kids seats, we really didn’t want to have 4 items for the two of us to carry.  Yuck!  Jeremy would carry the electronics, camera, and travel documents, and I would carry the kid stuff.  Division of labor is key!

Other Suggestions for Small Children

See the checklists at the beginning of this article for more details on what other items you might want to consider.

After packing, think about how you are going to deal with stairs and make sure that you will be able to walk at least a mile with all your stuff without developing injuries, and that you will still have energy to go back out and sightsee.  If necessary, re-evaluate and eliminate.

Travel with Older Children

Once the kids outgrew the stroller, carseats, pack-n-play, and hiking child carrier, we were suddenly free from extra luggage, but now we were limited by the kids physical stamina.  Before each trip with high expectations for walking, we would get new hiking or walking shoes in the right size, and we would try to take 1-3 hour destination oriented walk every single day.  A trip to Jamba Juice one day, a trip to McDonald’s for a cone another, a hike in the mountains the next, a walk to the farmers market might follow.  By the time the trip came around, the kids were in good shape, had their shoes broken in, and had exhausted their primary complaints.

I still remember the time we were hiking in the Swiss Alps.  John was 4.  “Mommy, I’m really tired, can you carry me?”  We resisted for a while, but eventually it was simply too much, so we carried him the last mile.  When we got back to our apartment, we looked to see how far we had gone.  As it turns out, it was 11 miles.  Almost all downhill, but still 11 miles.  What a trooper!  Our goal of having kids who could walk ridiculous distances was met!

3 Bag Travel to New Zealand, Sydney, Bali, Singapore, Taipei, and Japan

These days, we try to fit all of our luggage into 2 bags, or 1/2 bag per person.  This is next to impossible when we need to bring 4 pairs of increasingly larger hiking boots or 4 snow boot (a toddler size 3 is very different from a boys size 6), heavy sweaters, snow pants, and related gear.  When we truly need those items, we will reluctantly bring a third bag.

When we spent 5 weeks working our way from New Zealand to Japan, stopping in Sydney, Bali, Singapore, and Taipei, that was a test of packing and we didn’t do as well as we could have, but it prepared us for our next trip that would last over 2 months.  After talking to a friend who had recently traveled to New Zealand, we asked her how necessary hiking boots were.  Her opinion was that sturdy walking/tennis shoes should be enough for what we wanted to do.  Given that we also needed to bring wool sweaters, beach stuff and everything in between, this was the first item to be cut out.  Even with that, our stuff simply wasn’t fitting into two large, wheeled suitcases, so we decided to bring our hiking backpack as well.  As it turned out, we were highly annoyed with the third bag and wished we would have cut a few things out.

One thing we did experiment with on this trip were some travel cubes.  Jeremy decided to go to his barber two days before traveling, and his barber was raving about how they made travel so much easier.  Not having time to wait for the online sales, we went to Target, liked the look of the large 3-piece sets and overpaid for 4 of them.  Here is a blog post by OurNextLife that goes into a lot of detail on the efficiency of packing cubes and gives some other ideas for using cubes for carry-on travel and how to get better prices than we got.  Since we are a family of 4, and they are retired/business travelers, our needs/methods are a little different, but their theories definitely work when in a stage of life that we are not ready for.

After experimenting a bit, I discovered that if we used our two 25″ Samsonite suitcases, each person could have one extra large gray cube and one large blue cube.  This would fill 3/4 of each suitcase.  In the remaining space, we would also be able to fit a change of shoes for me, toiletries, a first aid kit, swimsuits, 2 smallish towels, and 2 umbrellas.  Unfortunately, adding in hiking clothes, sweaters, jacket layers that we would only need for at most 2 weeks out of five, and a set of dress clothes, we simply could not bring everything we wanted.  So, I put the hot weather stuff, dress clothes, and jacket layers in the hiking backpack and put everything we wanted in New Zealand in the suitcase.  Once we arrived in Bali, I switched things around to put our cold weather stuff in the hiking backpack.  (See my notes below on rebalancing for airplane travel.)  This worked reasonably well, except when we needed to move the luggage to the next destination, then Jeremy started showing that he was no longer 25, and he both looked and felt like a mule.

The blue and teal sized cubes worked like a charm in our top loading hiking backpack.  I could rummage as much as I wanted without fear of wrinkling everything.  I could simply dump everything out, get what I wanted and dump the cubes back in.  Beautiful!  The gray cubes did not fit well, so I reserved those for our Samsonite suitcases.

2 Bag Travel to Egypt, Israel, Italy, Ukraine, Austria, and Germany

Upon returning home, we found quite a few things got minimal use and we started thinking about what the boys and I should bring on the road trip to my parents house, as well as what we would need for our 2 month trip from Egypt to Israel to Europe, and the following road trip home.  We knew that it would be unpleasant to do in more than 2 suitcases, so we filled them to the brim and stuffed a spare collapsible backpack style suitcase (similar to this one) on top, just in case we decided to buy souvenirs, wanted to consolidate day packs into a single bag, or wanted to throw jackets or other items into a bag.

Note that I did bring an extra bag for road tripping across the US.  I decided that I wanted my stuff for our international trip to be mostly separated and I wanted to bring a few things that I would never wear while traveling internationally.  For example, most of the world frowns on American style shorts in non-beach settings, tank tops are often forbidden in religious sites, etc.

So, what did we bring for the international portion?  I gave everyone one extra large, gray, 17.5″ x 12.75″ x 3.25″ cube, and one large, blue, 13.75″ x 9.75″ x 3″ cube.

The blue cube is for your pajamas and underthings:

Many sites tell you to pack 5 or fewer pairs of socks and underwear, and to wash them in the sink.  Great if you are a single person backpacking.  Not so great if you are the mother washing everyones stuff every night or two.  Bring 10 each and try to find a laundry machine during that time.  Assuming you find one every 7 days, this gives you a few spares if some get lost, end up with holes, wet from puddles or snow, or your kids have Delhi belly accidents to the point that you simply want to toss them.  Add in a pair of pajamas and an undershirt or two, and you have filled your blue cube.

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The gray cube is for your clothes:

On the plane, Jeremy wore jeans, a polo, and a pair of fashion tennis shoes that could look reasonable both in casual and formal settings.  In his cube, Jeremy was able to fit 2 pairs of jeans, 1 pair of khaki’s for nice wear, 1 pairs of shorts (his second pair doubled as pajamas in his blue cube), 3-4 polo shirts, 2-3 t-shirts, and a dress shirt.  His sweater didn’t fit, so it went into one of the small teal cubes that could be crammed somewhere else.  He has the biggest body, so he is the only one who got to over stuff his cube and have the privilege of a smaller cube.

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Since we were going to very hot and conservative Egypt first, I decided to wear a long skirt, a base layer tank top that covered most of my collar bone and could stand alone in tourist areas like the pyramids, a somewhat conservative layering top that covered my shoulders and elbows for when we were in regular areas, and a scarf that could be used to cover my head and/or elbows in super conservative areas.  I also brought my favorite travel shoe: my Rothy’s.  I would wear these shoes anytime we boarded a plane or left the suitcases anywhere super warm to avoid shrinking them, and would pack my tennis shoes.  I packed a second long skirt, 2 pairs of jeans, 3-4 layering tank tops, 4-5 short sleeve tops, a lightweight 3/4 sleeve open front cardigan, and a sweater.  I accidentally left a pair of conservative shorts at my parents house, but since I had my long skirts, it worked out okay.  I also packed a pair of tennis shoes into the extra space in the suitcase.  The gigantic Google Shopping Express ziplock bags, or other plastic grocery bags, work perfectly for sealing off nasty shoe bottoms from the rest of your clothes.

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The boys wore jeans, a reasonably nice t-shirt, and their tennis shoes that were thoroughly checked to make sure that they were in reasonable condition and had plenty of room for growing feet.  I packed them 3 pairs of jeans, 1 pair of navy pants, 2 pairs of shorts, 2 polo shirts, 4 t-shirts, and a dress shirt.  I decided that even if we went to an opera, they could probably get away with showing up in dark colored tennis shoes, so I elected not to pack a pair of dress shoes.  If they were toddlers of the age where they fell frequently, I would have put in extra pants and shirts to avoid having to hand wash stuff very often.

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Toiletries: Jeremy prefers to bring his toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, contact stuff, glasses, hand sanitizer, a comb, his razor, and little else.  He used the hotel/apartment toiletries.  Since apartments occasionally will not have toiletries, I decided to throw in a couple of travel size bottles of shampoo and a bar of soap, just in case.  Worst case would have been that we would need to refill one of the shampoo bottles at a hotel or that we would need to buy some.

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The boys brought their own toothbrush, toothpaste, vitamins, and orthodontic equipment, but will otherwise shared Jeremy’s stuff when needed.

I, on the other hand, have some sensitivities to various ingredients that are often used to make soap lather, and typically don’t want to risk having problems.  So I packed a 2 month supply of my ridiculously expensive shampoo and body wash, some conditioner (also used in place of shave gel, being careful not to slip on the shower floor), deodorant, lotion, face lotion, face wash, makeup, contact case, contact solution, glasses, hair gel, a brush, a razor, prescription medications, pads/tampons, and other toiletries.  Visit the travel/sample size section of your local Target or Walmart for both ideas and more appropriate sizes of various items.

To share, I packed some travel sized bottles of hand sanitizer, small packs of tissue to use in bathrooms that don’t provide it, floss, q-tips, nail clippers, a pack of earplugs, and a few bottles of sunscreen.  Once we saw how expensive sunscreen is in Bali, I wish we would have packed more.  I also bring a travel sewing kit (has been used on buttons, dress pants our suitcase, our hiking backpack, and the tiny scissors were even used for an emergency removal of a stubborn earplug) and a few individually wrapped stain removing wipes.

I also bring a travel sized bottle or two of laundry detergent and a long piece of sturdy, white rope that can be used as a clothesline.  We typically buy more as we need it.  If you aren’t picky on the kind, some apartments even provide a small supply of detergent.

Medical Kit:

Over the years, my medical kit for traveling with kids has grown.  Sure, you can buy stuff in other countries, but sometimes the pharmacist’s English isn’t so good.  When my son had heat rash, we ended up with a bottle of rheumatoid arthritis cream, rather than the cortisone cream that we wanted.

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Imodium is frequently needed, and isn’t something that you typically want to hassle with trying to find when you aren’t feeling well.  There has been one or two cases my kids have had a mild hive outbreak, and quick access to Benadryl relieved a ton of fears.  We have used an ace bandage wrap while hiking and Cold Eeze to fight off sniffles.  My Leatherman multitool has been used for picnics, cutting stubborn medical tape, cutting a clothesline to create a makeshift shoelace, fixing eyeglasses, and more.  The list can go on and on.  When traveling for myself, I am willing to leave some things at home, but the tradeoffs are different when you have kids or are in a country where you have low language skill confidence.

Make sure if your kids can’t swallow a tablet, that you bring the liquid or chewable versions of anything important.  If using tablets, you may also need a pill cutter or a sharp knife to get the correct dosages.  The first time my kids had to try swallowing a tablet was in China when they needed some Imodium.  They couldn’t do it, so I made them chew it up and swallow it.  Gross, but the next time around, they had a much stronger motivation to try.  It took my son with a tongue thrust a really long time to learn, but fortunately he rarely gets sick, so it didn’t matter too much.

If you bring just a few of a particular medicine, keep the bottle when you run out.  Often the pharmacist can look at the ingredient list on the bottle or on your phone and get something similar for you.  Or, if you are in a large touristy city, you can usually just use English and hope that the pharmacist’s skills are decent enough to get you what you want.  Worst case is you act out your symptoms and point at body parts.  Or draw a picture.  Once, in Russia, I had to draw a picture of a roll of toilet paper for the hotel staff.

One oddity that we have found is that most European pharmacies do not carry cough drops.  By accident, we finally figured out where they keep them.  Look in the candy section of the grocery store.  Strange, and a little worrisome.

One recent addition I made for our trip to India were a travel pack of baby/hand wipes.  They came in super useful to (1) clean vomit stains off the upholstery of the car we were riding in, and (2) to clean fresh cow pies from the bottom of my son’s shoes.  Sigh.

See the Checklist section above for the complete list of items you should have in your first aid kit.

Daypack:

Each adult should have a day pack.  If your children are old enough to walk without ever being carried, they can also have a small day pack with a weight limit appropriate to their strength.  Don’t let it get to heavy, or you will end up with a grumpy kid and you will be the one carrying it.

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Your daypack should contain your camera, electronics, chargers, plug converters, and a copy of all travel documents.  If a parent is traveling alone with a child, he/she should have a notarized copy of a travel consent form giving permission to cross boarders without the other spouse.

At a minimum, bring a change of socks and underwear.  Also consider a sweater, jacket, gloves, hat, and/or other appropriate outer wear for your destination.  In Russia, we weren’t allowed to walk down the jet-bridge with our son in a zipped/hooded winter coat.  We also had to put on his snowpants, hat, and mittens.  Then we got in trouble for not having his hood over his hat.  For the enclosed, covered, and, yes, slightly cold, jet-bridge.

Toiletries should include a toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, glasses contacts, contact solution, chapstick, orthodontic equipment, etc.  (Current TSA rules indicate that liquids should be in 3.4 oz/100mL containers and placed inside a single quart sized ziplock bag.)

You should keep with you all medications that cannot be skipped for the entire trip if you lose your checked bags.  All medically necessary liquids should be placed in a separate ziplock bag and declared to TSA if they are over 3.4 oz/100mL or don’t fit in your allotted quart sized liquid bag.  This could include things like reasonable quantities of liquid children’s medicine, a small bottle of contact solution, prescriptions, etc.

If you have a baby, toddler, or pre-k, you should also bring a full change of clothes, diapers, a bib, and other diaper bag stuff for babies.

Also consider bringing pull up pants for potty trained toddlers/pre-k.  You can call them “travel pants” or “airplane pants” if necessary,  Sometimes the fasten seatbelt sign can be on for a looong time.   My kids fussed about it, but I didn’t want to have to deal with accidents on the plane with minimal changes of clothing.  Sometime we would even use them around town if we knew bathrooms were going to be a problem.

To deal with ear-pressure during take off and landing, bring lollipops, gum, a bottle, or a sippy-cup with a valve.  Once your kids know how to pop their ears by themselves, these can be skipped, but until then, your neighbors will thank you.

You should also bring a few toys/books for kids that aren’t happy watching TV and/or playing on a tablet for 10+ hours at a time.  “Did you really watch Frozen 5 times in a row?”  If your child has a security stuffed animal, blanket, etc., make sure it ends up on the plane.  See my previous section on gear for young children for other toy ideas.

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Everything Else:

Everything else needs to fit in your remaining space.  And you want to leave room for souvenirs.  Whatever you do, your bags should not be expanded before you leave home.  If they are, you need to either get rid of stuff or add an extra bag, even if it is just an extra bag that collapses and sits inside your other bags until needed.

Get a travel luggage scale.  We don’t have this particular one, but use a similar model to check every bag, including our carry-ons, before every flight.  It can be off by a couple of pounds, so don’t cut it too close.  Make sure you have a backup plan if the airline says the bag is too heavy.  We always put our heaviest bag on the airport scales first.  A lot of international airlines will also weight your carry-on bags to make sure they meet the requirements.  This was a surprise the first time it happened to us and we needed to temporarily shifts some stuff into the kids bags.

Bring some laundry detergent.  Sure, you can buy more at your destination, but do you really want to spend the time looking?  Buy more, as convenient, when you start to run out.  Make sure that liquid laundry detergent is double or triple bagged in case it leaks.

If there could be rain, make sure you have a good waterproof jacket or an umbrella.  We usually bring 2 umbrellas and share between 4 people.

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Make sure your shoes work for both casual and formal occasions.  Bring a second pair only if strictly necessary.  Flip-flops, hiking boots, and/or snow boots should be considered if beaches, pools, hiking, or snow will be on your itinerary.

If you will be at the beach or pool a lot, in addition to bring some flip flops, also bring two small towels and share them if you can’t use the hotel/apartment towels.  We often go to the beach while driving between hotels.  And some apartments only have 4 towels that need to last an entire week, so you don’t want to dirty those up at the beach.

You could add a zillion other things, but before you put them in your suitcase, give an honest guess about how many times you will use the item and whether it is really necessary.  If in doubt, leave it home.  You can always buy your way out of the situation if you actually do need it.  We have bought a few umbrellas over the years.  My kids love their towels from the Dead Sea and Santorini, and I love my Hawaii towel.  We have hats from Bali and Thailand.  All of these things make excellent souvenirs, and if you can’t buy them, then the locals can’t either and you probably don’t need those items anyway.

The Re-Balancing Act to Minimize Difficulties with Lost Luggage

Don’t you hate it when you lose a suitcase?  Once we lost one of our bags for 5 days while in Istanbul.

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Well, there are strategies for this.  First, Make sure prescription medication is never in your checked bags.

Assuming we are bringing two suitcases, after we pack, I then take half the clothes out of each cube and combine these with half from someone else’s cube.  Now, everyone has at least one complete change of clothes in each of the suitcases.  I make sure that pajamas all go in one bag and dress clothes all go in the other.  Same thing for swim suits, hiking boots, etc.  Either everyone loses a particular type of item, or no one.  If we are traveling for more than a week, I will often have duplicate travel size toiletries, so I separate those into two separate bags.  As long as you don’t lose all of your bags, travel will be a little more pleasant, even if you don’t have all your stuff.  If we will be going at least a week or two without an airplane ride, or if we will need to split up into two different hotel rooms without the clothes being divided properly, I will put everyone’s clothes back where they belong and re-balance again before the next flight.

I also tie a bright ribbon to each suitcase.  When someone sees that on the handle of a black suitcase, they will immediately know that my black bag is not theirs.  At one point, Turkish Airlines was giving out incredibly sturdy luggage tags and used them for years.  Unless we are traveling to Turkey, most likely our bags will be the only ones with this distinctive label.  The only problem was when we went to Israel, when the security asked us about them for a few minutes during the mandatory interview there. So much for unique luggage tags.

Conclusions

If you learned anything, hopefully it is the importance of packing light and focusing on comfort, durability, and a blindness to mildly dirty clothing.  If you follow these basic principles, you are well on your way to an enjoyable vacation!  Just because you have young children, it doesn’t mean that you need to stay home.  Travel can be fun, no matter what age children you have.

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