Smart packing tips for international travel with kids
“It’s not what you pack, it’s how you do it…”
Simple right? I bet other than surviving the flight, packing is the biggest nemesis that sits on your shoulders before an overseas vacation. Starting possibly even weeks out from when you need to leave, it slowly saps the energy out of you in the lead up to a supposedly “relaxing vacation“.
Do you daydream of being that family that glides through the airport with your matching carry-on bags (containing your capsule wardrobe, of course), the kids strutting along behind you with their cute little wheely cases, everyone marvelling at where these adventurous Globetrotters are off to next?
Snap out of it and welcome to family travel reality
If you’ve got young kids (and I say it in the plural – I know some amazing folk with singular little babies who still make this packing thing look relatively easy) – then packing for even a weekend away, let alone an overseas trip takes on a whole new dimension.
Now if you’re looking for compact packing and carry-on only advice, you’ve come to the wrong place I’m afraid! You’ll find a great list of ideas here on how to start packing lighter if you’re ready to lighten your load a little, and also this pretty impressive family guide to packing for multiple seasons in just a carry on.
Now we are nothing if not honest, and our international travel for many years has looked more like this:
Although not overly proud at times of our packing effort, I’m not utterly ashamed either. Kids come with a lot of crap and having more than one kid…. well you can imagine.
Living as expats as well, a lot of our trips also involve shopping for supplies like clothing, favourite foods and taking gifts back with us. Bringing your own strollers and car seats can also save you a lot of money and convenience on arrival, even if quite bulky to carry.
We long ago accept we are not light travellers, but we do attempt to be smart packers and only bring what is necessary to then maximize case space.
So if you’re ready to lighten the load but can’t quite imagine yourself as “that carry-on only family” yet – read on!
We’ll take you through our 7 steps to being smart, stress-free family packers
Step 1. Write it all down
Use a packing list! With the best will in the world without a list to refer back to or putting together a packing system, you are going to forget key items and end up panic-packing which is where over-packing can occur and items get left behind. I’m not fussed if you want to start the process a day, a week, a month before your trip but being organised is key.
TIP: If you don’t have a packing checklist, we strongly recommend you to download “Your Family Travel Checklist” – free to all Our Globetrotters subscribers it covers everything from house preparations to what you’ll need on the go and in your suitcase for every member of the family.
Even with our pre-filled Check List, there are bound to be items that are specific to your family that you can’t live without. As you go through your daily routine pre-departure, jot things down; from the minute kids wake up, breakfast, getting out the door until going to bed, what are the must-have items that make your family day function?
RELATED READING: Our Ultimate Baby Travel Checklist
It’s also worth writing to or calling your accommodation or contacting your airline to determine exactly what they provide for families to save you on your packing space – especially big bulky items like high chairs/boosters, baby cots or bassinets.
What is the destination weather?
A key determinate to what’s going in your case is the weather – summery beach and cold snowy holidays can actually be the easiest to pack for as you know what to expect with clear wardrobe expectations!
Where temperatures can vary, rain is a possibility and big variances in temperature exit packing can get all that much trickier! Look out for a long-range forecast – there are loads of popular weather forecasting sites like the Weather Channel and Accuweather that can give you a fairly accurate forecast for at least 10 days out to help prepare you for the possibilities, as well as historic climate charts to assess the possibility of extreme weather changes.
What are the destination activities?
Beyond your basic clothing and kiddo paraphernalia, do you know what specialized activities will be at your destination? A swimming pool? Bushwalking? Fancy Restaurants? Religious buildings? You may need special outfits for these occasions, or need to add extra gear if it’s important for your location.
Will you have washing facilities?
One of the most critical points on how much to pack. It’s nice to believe we can fit a week’s worth of clothing in our case and take it all home to wash at the end, but we know our kids get more dirty than usual while travelling – with more frequent dining out and extra activities – so is going laundry free for a whole trip a realistic expectation? At the same time, you don’t want to spend half your holiday doing the washing. Packing outfits that you can mix and match is essential (I’ll make you a capsule wardrobe packer of you yet!)
Step 2. Selecting your bags
This might be determined by airlines and weight limits. It pays to know your airline’s rules (including any codeshares and connected flights) and determine your weight allowances. Remember joining the airline’s frequent flyer program might afford you extra weight allowances, even at entry level.
Generally speaking, flying to/from destinations in the Americas they use a piece system (ie total number of bags, with a maximum weight limit per bag), while the rest of the world uses the weight system – total kilos regardless of how you spread it across bags. Again, check our family flying home page for specifics by airline.
Big or small bags?
Do you go with multiple smaller bags where everyone has a suitcase of their own, or fit everything into one or two larger bags? We have a preference for the later (the Samsonite Wheeled Duffel has been our weapon of choice for years) as we are still needing to maximise free hands during transit.
With less bags in total to cart around this leaves one grown-up to do the bag carting and the other to do the child-chasing and stroller shoving. Taking a big bag though does open up the temptation for over packing and exceeding weight limits YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!
If you are looking for luggage sets that work for families you can check out this guide here.
(Alternatively, if you still think you’re in the backpacker category, there is a great backpack guide here that covers every shape size and combination you can think of!)
As for carry on
Assuming you’ve stuck with me this far, you’re probably more of a suitcase family and will need to have checked items. In which case pack as much as you feasibly can under the plane, leaving your hands free for documents and kiddy wrangling.
Choose a backpack that is expandable and lightweight so you can pack all the family essentials in one bag. Using the right backpack for travel means you won’t have to worry about extra baggage fees when you get to the airport.
And for the kids?
Although we do think bags like the Trunki are pretty cute, we have long since learned that a three-year-old has zero intentions of dragging it after them for more than 3 metres.
Only pack your kid their own little bag or suitcase if you know they will carry it/drag it (at least 2 years old+ in our experience). Accept that you will end up carrying it at some point no matter how small and light and it will get left behind on numerous occasions.
We are small travel backpacks all the way now when it comes to international kiddy travel. This summer we are going with these super cute BeatrixNY Backpacks for each of the kids to carry on their own as their super light but plenty of space for all their toys as well as a small change of clothes.
Bonus Tip: Did you know that while infants on a lot of airlines are only given an extra 10kg weight allowance for checked luggage, they are allowed to take extra items like carry cots and strollers free of charge? Put these items inside bags to protect them during transit – and fill up all the empty space! This is usually where you’ll find our bulky coats or dirty laundry…
If you’re still keen they have something with wheels, check out this really comprehensive guide we found on what sort of wheelie bags to pick for your kids.
We also recently reviewed the Jet Kids Bed Box which doubles not only as a sleeping aid for flying but a pull-along suitcase with ample storage.
Got tweens or teens? You may want to check out these ideal teen suitcases for kids that are ready to take responsibility for their own packing and are fully capable (even it they don’t alway show it!) of pulling or carrying their own luggage.
Step 3. Setting yourself up for the pack
It really helps if you have a “staging area” set up in a corner or spare room of the house. Spread things out in a grid system – by person and by item type (call it my inner nerdy accountant method), it’s much easier to see what is missing this way.
With a clear space you can start this process several days in advance, and if you still have items in the wash cycle, you can clearly see where they need to be slotted in.
RELATED READING: 30 Steps to Prepare you and your home for vacation
Step 4. All those little extras add up – leave enough space
I can honestly say these days less than half our packing space – and time – goes into packing our clothing. When you’re travelling with an infant – diapers, bibs, bottles, breast pumps, snacks, toys, iPads – you name it, take up an awful lot of valuable cargo space.
After the 4.5 seconds it takes Mr Globetrotter to pack his 5 shorts 5 shirts and 5 jocks (don’t get me started on his diva shoe collection though. Why so many? They all look exactly the same??) his job is electronics and documents.
We’re going to cover this in a separate post but just remember at this point to leave extra time and space for packing these items too. Many of these you may not be able to pack until “last minute” so don’t go high-fiving yourself about how efficient you’ve been just yet.
Don’t forget your toiletries and first aid items too. We like to keep these items ready packed for each vacation so it’s just a quick grab of an extra bag.
Step 5. Tactics for packing the suitcase
Oh, there is so much healthy debate on this subject (yeah, these are the sorts of forums I’m hanging out on this days; to think I used to worry about the corporate structure of multi-billion pound companies now I’m entering suitcase packing debates….).
But think about it – to roll or to fold? Pack by day or by person? We are getting into some serious travel issues here!! As always impartial me, I’ll give you the facts (while cynically mocking others techniques) then let you decide;
To roll or to fold? Its true rolling takes less space. It can, of course, lead to crinkling (but I assure you the last thing I bought that needed ironing, I still lived with my mum!!) Seriously you’re on holiday, go crinkle free material! Have a wedding or something – laundry service. Or bring your mum. Roll and stuff into shoes too.
Pre-pack for each day? Some people like to take the organised packing process a step further and pre-pack an outfit by child and by day into small labelled plastic bags (I’m picturing the Crafty Mom brigade here on their annual outing to Disney….).
I find this utterly over the top (and seriously who has the time) – but mostly I object to this approach because it doesn’t give me enough flexibility for weather and dirty clothes situations. Others, of course, do swear by it saying it saves decision making and arguments on the road, maybe this method might suit your family but Lord let there be some spontaneity in life.
Organising inside your case What I can of course recommend is the use of travel packing cubes. Especially if you are all sharing a big case, it’s easy to pull out a cube for each person to keep you all in order, keep snack items, toiletries or electronics altogether and minimizing the manic bag-hunting. When travelling with the kids I also like to keep things like pyjamas and toothbrushes as near to the surface as possible for arrival.
Step 6. Pull out your transit day requirements
Before you do the final pack actually into the suitcase, remember to decide what outfits you will wear on the day of travel. Think about layers. Planes can be cold but will it be very hot on arrival? Will jackets need to come on board if it’s freezing? On a long flight will pyjamas be needed?
The spare outfit
What are the chances kids and you will get wet or dirty before reunited with your suitcase (if you have a layover factor this in as well as delays)? When you still have young children, I find it essential to still have a spare change of clothes for everyone!
TIP: Trying to save on space? Pick mutual colours and items of clothing – is there an easy short / t shirt combo any of the kids can share? Can you and your partner share a spare tshirt if need be?
Step 7: Plan ahead for the return journey too
When doing your initial packing, don’t forget to give some consideration to return packing space; will you be buying souvenirs or other items to take home? The bag inside a bag trick works well for us, or we take consumables like diapers and snacks that are needed for the outbound leg but will be consumed before our return – creating a ‘space saver’ for extras to come back.
Our most valuable lessons learned in 7 years of family packing
- There’s a fine line between being completely prepared and avoiding surprises. While it’s tempting to pack every item you can think of so you don’t run out or get caught short, is it really necessary? The best travel memories can come down to those unplanned moments, did you get caught in a freak rain shower with no umbrella? So be it. If it won’t ruin your holiday or leave you with a great expense, or an epic toddler meltdown, can an item be left behind? Question this every time something goes in the case.
- There is definitely such a thing as too many toys. You don’t need to cover all possibilities here with kids, they have far more ingenuity when it comes to entertainment than you might think. You do need to be well covered with basics for plane entertainment, but most long hauls will have things like plane packs, and your accommodation may well have a kids club and games you can use at your destination. Don’t take any toys that can involve small parts that get lost, and for heaven’s sake, if the favourite lovey comes on the plane or through transit with you, always, always, always check behind you every time you move!
Related Reading: What’s NOT in my toddlers plane bag
- Assess the need for large items like car seats and strollers on a by location basis. If hiring is relatively cheap and easy at your destination (and vehicles will have seat belts), I’d always recommend this option. However where it doesn’t make financial sense (trust me when you need to multiply everything by 3…) IT IS worth the inconvenience of taking them. The money you saved on hiring, put a little towards paying for a porter to help you at the airport and buying protective covers for your gear.
- Do come prepared with snacks and items need for the first 24 hours, frequently we’ve landed late at night and it might take us a day to find a convince store to stock up on milk, juices, kids snacks.
- You don’t need to start the process from scratch every time. Once you’ve found a packing list that works for you – keep the basics and just adapt it to location. Things like toiletry bags can be left pre-packed in a cupboard ready to go – as long as you remember to restock after each trip and refresh anything out of date!
And don’t forget
- Label everything, not just luggage tags, inside as well in case the tags get pulled off
- For expensive items and your big baby gear, photograph everything in case of loss or damage during transit
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