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13 tips for packing light with small children

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by Tsh

Tsh is the founder of this blog and is currently traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

Since we live overseas, we travel a LOT together as a family. In fact, I’m sitting in a hotel room as I write this – my baby is next to me on the bed, playing with his toes; my three-year-old is also on the bed, coloring in her special travel notebook with crayons. My older one has already been to seven countries!

Rachel at Small Notebook recently posted excellent advice on traveling light. She ended her post with the question, “How can we travel light with small children?” I’m still looking for frugal, simple hacks on this one, but here are a few I’ve discovered:

1. Bring lots of ziploc-type baggies. There are a myriad of reasons you need them, especially with kiddos. Since a lot of kids don’t like taking showers, and because many hotels don’t make it possible to take baths, a ziploc bag makes a great drain plug. Fill it with a little bit of water, and it becomes an instant weight that snuggles nicely in the drain.

2. You need less toys than you think. Because you’re going somewhere new, the most unexpected things become interesting. A baby can finagle for hours with a shoe horn. A toddler can pour water from one hotel glass into another.

3. Laundry soap. Bring some in a baggie. Kids’ socks and underwear can easily get soiled, so it’s good fallback insurance to have some soap on hand when you run out of these essentials. Depending on your location, you might also want to bring a small ball of twine and some clothespins.

4. Unless you’re going into the Congo, just bring enough diapers for a few days. You can easily buy more wherever you are.

5. Save a special toy just for this trip. For us, a clean, fresh drawing notebook and some crayons do the trick for our artistic preschooler. Keep it small and easy to play with minimal adult help. Books and drawing materials work well.

6. Pack some small kid-friendly snacks. Raisins and granola bars can stave off hunger when your little ones’ eating schedule doesn’t match with the restaurant’s – they hardly take up any space.  It will also save you money instead of buying overpriced snacks in tourist traps.

7. Call ahead to your hotel to see if they have pack-n-plays available for your baby. Nine times out of ten, they do, and you won’t have to bring yours.

8. If you’re renting a car, find out if the rental company can provide a complimentary car seat. Many times, they will.

9. Just pack an umbrella stroller. If you have more than one stroller (and that’s a whole other post topic!), just bring your small umbrella stroller. That’s all you need.

10. But if you’re wavering, do bring your stroller – especially if you’re flying. I’m amazed how often the stroller comes in handy at airports, even if your little one wants to walk. It’s an instant luggage transporter, and you can push it all the way to the end of the jet way, where the airlines will store it underneath.

11. Research where you’re going ahead of time, and create a basic scavenger hunt or bingo game based on what you’ll see. If you have preschoolers, keep the game simple, like “a purple flower,” “a statue,” or “a big dog.” And of course, draw the clues for them, instead of writing them. With slightly older kids, you can make the game more complex, based on the specific landmarks of your destination.  This keeps them entertained, without having to bring tons of toys.

12. Pack basic, solid-colored clothing that mix and match – for your kids, and for yourself. Keep it cotton and wrinkle-free, too.

13. Keep your expectations low. It’s inevitable that at this stage of life, we will be packing more than we’d like. It often feels so – well, silly – that the smallest people in our lives “need” some of the biggest things. But it’s short lived. As kids grow, you need to bring less and less. So give yourself grace right now, and be okay with packing more than your ideal.

The key for me is to pack smart, not necessarily light. Almost every time, packing smart inevitably means packing light, but when your goal is to pack light at all costs, sometimes you’ll leave behind something that really could come in handy. It might seem superfluous to pack laundry soap before you leave, but you very well may breathe a sigh of relief when your kiddo just dirtied up his last pair of socks.

Do you have any tips on packing light with children? What can you add to this list?

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Comments

  1. This is a great list. All the traveling we have done so far with our toddler has been by car, and it has essentially meant one overstuffed bag after the other. Then we’d get there and realize we really didn’t need half the stuff we packed. A stroller, however, is one thing we will never travel without. My little one always claims she want to walk. Then after about an hour or so at the aquarium/zoo/mall/etc., she doesn’t want to do it any more. And you’re right…a stroller is the best baggage and shopping bag carrier :)

    Jennae @ Green Your Decors last blog post..Non-Toxic Showering Part II: PEVA Shower Curtains from Ikea

  2. Good call on taking the stroller! We’ve left it behind a few times (some intentionally, and at least once we just plain forgot it!). They are great for airports and when doing a little shopping to help carry bags, etc. And liks Jennae says, our little one usually tires out and is ready for a ride not too long into a visit.

    I’ve thought to ask for a crib when our was little, but never a pack-and-play. Great tip!

  3. I thought I knew all the uses for ziplock baggies. But I never would have thought of “tub-stopper” on my own. Thanks!

    Jills last blog post..Look over there -> -> -> -> ->

  4. Well, this adds to the list, but they’re important for us when traveling: nightlights for hallway or children’s room, and safety plugs for outlets. The nightlights can make a hotel or relative’s home seem less strange at night, and the outlet covers are important if you have a baby or toddler who might put fingers or fork into an outlet. These take up nearly no space but can help everyone sleep at night and stay out of the hospital!

    Amy G.s last blog post..Busy Monday

    • Instead of outlet covers, I bring a roll of packing tape. Many uses, but a strip of it will cover outlets in a jiffy.

  5. We just did something like you mentioned on #11 on our 4 day road trip. Stephen made an I-spy game with clip art and printed them out on labels to create stickers. He made one for each state boarder and sights he guessed we would see along the way. It was a big hit and a good learning experience too.
    Thanks for all of the other great tips.

  6. @Jennae, Frugal Dad – Yep, our preschooler always wavers back and forth between walking and stroller – lately, it seems like whenever her baby brother is in the stroller, she conveniently lets us know that she HAS to be in the stroller because she’s SO tired. :)

    @AmyG – Good tip on the nightlight! Never thought of that one. I’ve never had kids with outlet issues, but that’s a good tip for those parents who do.

  7. I’m loving these ideas! For sure, the nightlight is a definite must-have. I was so thankful last weekend when the hotel we stayed in had one. I never thought about a ziploc being used as a drain stopper. Great! One less thing to buy. I’ll think to call ahead next time before lugging around the pack-n-play.

    Rachel@SmallNotebooks last blog post..Reasons to Keep Clutter

  8. We bring along some blue painters tape on every trip. It’s great for babyproofing (you can tape right over the electrical outlets) and you can also use it to make a car racetrack or hopscotch court right on a hotel’s tile bathroom floor.

    I keep a packing list that I use for each trip. After the trip, I make some quick edits (removing the things we didn’t use) and throw it back in the suitcase. We’ve been able to travel a little lighter on each trip and now we often travel with carryons only (we have an 18 month old and a 3 year old)

    One final note. . . be really careful about car seats in rental cars. We’ve had a horrible experience with showing up after a long flight to find old, broken, and filthy seats waiting for us. Talk about feeling trapped! After I posted about my experience on my blog, I heard from lots of other parents who had the same problem at car rental agencies nationwide (and not just the discounters)

    Debbie
    http://www.deliciousbaby.com

    Debbie Dubrows last blog post..Favorite Family Travel Articles This Week

  9. Okay, this may sound wasteful…..But, the last time we went on vacation, I grabbed a package of onsies that were on sale and dirt cheap. There were like ten in the small package. I brought these as clothes for my baby (since we were going somewhere warm) and threw them away when they became dirty. This saved me a ton of stress from matching and packing outfits. And I didn’t feel bad if they got dirty. I had plenty to last the whole trip, I didn’t have to keep the clean “clothes” seperate from the dirty ones, and didn’t have so much laundry when we got home. At the price I got these for, they were “disposable” in my mind.

  10. We just got back from two weeks in New Zealand with a one year old and three year old. Snacks are key to happy kids. I also brought rice noodles and bread because I knew they would be very expensive and our kids have gluten allergies. I packed enough clothes for one week and did laundry. Put wipes in a ziploc and flatten it out to save space. Love those ziplocs! You can pack their clothes in the plastic bags with zippers or large storage bags. This keeps all those little socks from falling out during security checks. Thanks for the great tips.

    Keilahs last blog post..Devotion

  11. This is a great list! I totally agree about needing less toys. It’s so true. I travelled with my three kids by myself across Canada last summer and the big kids were happy with their Nintendo DS’s and the little guy was happy to watch movies on the portable DVD player. That is a must have!

    I also color coordinated the kids to make them easy to see at all times and had my son on a child leash. Worked like a charm especially in busy airports like Toronto.

    Org Junkies last blog post..Menu Plan Monday ~ June 16th

  12. When our kids were little, the umbrella stroller was a lifesaver! Now, I sometimes wish I had one for ME!

    We’re getting ready for a very long trip out to Yellowstone National Park. I particularly like your idea to pack some laundry soap and a LOT of zip top bags. I’ll have to show your post to my wife!

  13. @Org Junkie – I forgot about the portable DVD player! That’s a mixed blessing, for sure, but if you’re going to be sitting for a long time, they really are useful.

    Glad it’s all helpful to you!

  14. @Debbie – Blue painter’s tape! What a great idea. I never would have thought of it. And thanks for the heads up about car seats in rental places. I suppose people should ask what make and model of car seat is available before planning on using it.

  15. This is a fantastic list! I really struggle with packing light… I want to be prepared for everything and anything, so that always ends up meaning the double umbrella stroller (which is massive) for our twins AND two padded baby carriers, etc. But one normal umbrella stroller and one padded carrier would probably be the best solution!

    I *love* your scavenger hunt idea… it sounds like the kind of thing our four year old would really get into (and that would make the trip very memorable).

    Some things I would add… not specific to traveling with kids, though. I have trouble sleeping if a room isn’t quite dark, so I find it handy to bring along an eye-mask and a small roll of black electrical tape (for covering up bright LED displays on smoke alarms or digital clocks). And tape is always useful for a million things!

    Kid-specific, I like to bring a stash of some treat our four year old doesn’t get to have on a regular basis… fruit leathers or lollipops. They make great rewards and – um – bribes for good behavior!

  16. I just found your blog and I love your philosophy and tips. I’ll have to spend a lot more time, as you have some great information here! Your post on traveling with children is timely for me…we are packing today! Thank you for the great advice.

    CarrieBs last blog post..Corn Chowder and Honey Sesame grilled wings for Father’s Day Dinner

  17. Great tips. With 3 kids under 7 years old, my wife and I learned to pack light the hard way! I will never forget trying to get through security at the airport last year with way to many small bags and car seats. I still have nightmares and cold sweats!!

  18. Well, we just got back home, and I have to say that one sanity-saving tip is to CLEAN THE HOUSE before you leave! Ours isn’t bad, but it’s always a bit disappointing to come home after vacation to a slightly disheveled house. Oh well. We’re going to sleep it off and get to work on it tomorrow…

  19. Love the idea of a baggie as a stopper and blue tape for babyproofing and games. Brilliant.
    If we are going somewhere with a washing machine a dryer, I just pack two outfits for each of us. Plus we have the clothes we’re wearing, so we can rewear things (if they aren’t too stinky!) or do laudry while we are there.

  20. And I LOVE the photo. Such cool old suitcases.

    chrissies last blog post..How do you keep up with your laundry?

  21. Great list! We have 3 children under the age of 4 so just going to the local mall is a trip for us. I found toddler-sized backpacks for our kids to use as their “luggage”. The are able to put some of their favorite things in as well as a few snacks and art supplies. It helps them prioritize what they want to take with them (because it doesn’t hold a lot) and gives them a sense of ownership. It’s also one less thing I have to carry!

    Alanas last blog post..5 Eco-friendly Ways to Cure Summer Boredom

  22. Excellent list! And I agree with them all.

    The laundry bags are an absolute must, and I’ve only recently gotten it into my head that we don’t need travel sized toiletries because everything is available wherever you go. Ive never found the need for toys, unless for a really, really long day car trip, maybe because my son was always too excited about the trip to get restless or edgy!

    PreSchool Mamas last blog post..A Different Perspective

  23. Great site! Glad I found you!

    I have been trying to take it easy on the planet by using fewer ziplocs. For some of the uses you describe, they are necessary, and I neither judge nor begrudge such uses. For other uses (such as wrapping dirty disposable diapers to put in the trash), the bags your newspaper came in this morning will do nicely. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

    Happy trails to all!

    P.S. I love the scavenger hunt idea!

    • avatar
      Alison Currie says:

      just a side note on the ziplock bags – I too have a love/hate rel’p with them. I love to use them, hate to trash them. My solution? Once used and mucky for whatever reason I invert them and throw them in the washing machine with my clothes and then reuse them (not for food though). I hang them up to dry (don’t put them in the dryer – they’ll melt). There are just so many uses!

  24. This is my first time to your site (found you at Blissfully Domestic) and I love your content. Definitely adding you to my Bookmarks list! We have to travel a lot with our toddler too, so I really appreciated your ideas and suggestions. I especially like the reminder to pack solid-colored, mix-and-match clothes. I have a habit of wanting to pack cutsie coordinated outfits for my daughter, but then I end up packing different complete outfits for each day. Ugh. Not necessary!! I also totally agree that you don’t need nearly as many toys as you might think you do.

    If you get a chance, check out my tips for flying with a toddler at:

    http://psychmamma.wordpress.com

    PsychMammas last blog post..Sun salutation

  25. Darn,I should have read this before our trip, I overpacked way to much, oh well now I know!

    Vanessa’s last blog post…Wednesday: Mid Week Ramblings—Ideas for School Lunches

  26. Backpacks! In the airport I find it much easier to use a backpack as a carry-on — it leaves my hands free to carry kids, tickets, etc. w/o a shoulder strap sliding down my arm. On car or plane trips my older kids each use their backpack to carry their own activities and snacks for the trip.

    While away, we use the backpack to carry all of our supplies on our day-to-day outings. (snacks, water bottles, diapers, camera, sunblock, etc.)

  27. I wouldn’t go anywhere without a baby carrier such as a Beco, an Ergo, or a mei tai! When we’re away from home, my 18-month-old feels secure and naps well on my back. And my husband or I still occasionally wear our 3-year-old when he’s too tuckered out to walk or simply wants to be held. We seldom use a stroller anymore, and it’s liberating to leave it behind.

  28. Good…Thank for the new knowledge.Thank very much.

  29. Thanks for the list. Since we moved to another Country when our Child was 6 month we were travelling (and still are) a lot. To go back home we have a 6h Train travel with 4 changes and a 2h flight followed by a 40 minutes drive by car (if someone is picking us up).
    What helps us most is to borrow everything at your final destination you possibly can. Of course this is not always possible but most of the time you know someone who knows someone who lives in the area you are going.
    Since we are staying with my parents when we go “home” we arranged to have various things stored in their shelf. But we are still using most of the possible weight if traveling by plane ;-)

    btw: great blog!

  30. I am planning our first vacation with our son (he will be 16months old when we go). We will be heading to Washington DC. You have some really great ideas. Thanks!!!
    .-= Angela´s last blog ..Benign Keratosis Update =-.

  31. I would also suggest that if you have a smart phone, become aware of the different applications and functions it has. We are able to pack much lighter by using ours as a baby monitor (yep, it’s great!!!) ; GPS (just with free googlemaps – no talking, but it does the job); playing audiobooks; DVD player for our 3 year old on longer trips; special games for when we’re stuck in traffic etc; laptop for internet research of places where we are travelling; and keeper of checklists and itineraries. Just one small piece of equipment with so many funtions, saves us a lot of space when packing, just don’t forget the charger!

  32. I love all these suggestions! I wanted to add my own, which have been lifesavers for us!
    -All my kids (age 1-15) have MP4 players that play videos…no dvd player and they all take the same charger! Great for cars or planes.
    -A power strip is a must for us, which prevents leaving charging cords in hotel rooms! I have one that has USB ports for all those devices.
    -An M&M or Airbourne tube is perfect for holding quarters. Combine with a ziplock of laundry soap (powdered, of course, if traveling by air) and a ziplock with dryer sheets and you can pack HALF as many clothes for the family! Almost all US hotels have coin-op laundry available.
    -Most cities large enough to have an airport also have a Wal-mart. Anything you find that you NEED, you can buy along the way.
    -Think small for toys. We never leave home without an inflatable beach ball and those baby nesting cups. I’ve seen a toddler play with a beach ball in the hotel pool, hotel room and even in the airport during a particularily frustrating delay! Those stacking cups can be blocks in the hotel, bath toys, and best of all, sand castle molds on the beach! Inflatable and nesting are a great way to go!
    -A good rule of thumb: Mommy should always have one hand free. If you can’t push your stroller, pull your luggage and push the elevator button, you’ve got a problem! Use backpacks and such so that Mommy (or Daddy) ALWAYS has a free hand.
    -My final tip, especially if you are traveling with older kids who are “carrying their own weight”…everyone is excited to pull/carry their carry-on at the beginning of a trip–but 5 days later on the way home you may find yourself packing three suitcases and a seven year old who is a puddle of tears. Splurge for the extra money to check EVERYTHING but the bare essentials on the way home! ;) Who cares if your dirty laundry is a day late!

  33. Thanks for sharing your list. There are so many lists but there is always one little bit of information that makes it easier. I think the best bit of advice I got from the list is keep you expectations low, this can make a huge difference in mnay ways.

    Here are two things I like to ensure when we travel with our kids.
    1. Small Bags – The key to packing light is keep the baggage small, you can always purchase etc bags on route if you find yourself in a shopping frenzy for the kids.
    2. Like the bring one toy, pack 1 favourite toy plus forlong haul trips pack wrap a surprise gift that is small and give the gift to your child while travelling. To wins kids love surprises, and the gift will keep them entertained. (Pencils and a nice pad are great idea).

    Cheers
    J

  34. These ideas are great but you mention being overseas. Is there somewhere you have ideas about bing on a plane? Or did I mioss that?

  35. We’ve lived overseas since my oldest (now 6) was 9 weeks old, in Central Asia, the Middle East and now Southeast Asia. Sometimes it seems like we’re always packing or unpacking! My kids are now 1.5, 3.5 and 6, so we’re still firmly in the “little kids” travel category. Here are a few of the things I’ve found:

    Know the climate of your destination and keep that in mind when deciding how many clothes to pack – now that we live in Southeast Asia I can’t count on things drying in under 24 hours, but when we lived in the Middle East I could wash a shirt at bedtime and it would be ready to put on again in the morning. When we were packing to go home from our first trip in Malaysia I ended up packing still-damp (washed) kids’ underwear that just wouldn’t dry in the humid climate!

    I agree on the toys, we usually need fewer than I think we will. I love the little sticker activity books from Dover now that my oldest two are able to use them – they take up no room and keep them occupied for nearly an hour.

    I also second the suggestion to bring a nightlight, and we always make room for several kids’ books (I just try to pick the ones that are thinner and lighter if possible) since my older kiddos usually want to sit looking at books before they can fall asleep in a strange room.

    I always travel with some peanut butter, a bit of bread or crackers, and the little boxes of UHT milk. That way, if we don’t get to our destination until nearly bedtime and everyone is ready to crash (which seems to happen more often than not), we can give the kids a peanut butter sandwich and some milk and put them straight to bed instead of trying to find some place to get dinner when everyone is too exhausted to deal. This has saved us more often than I would have thought.

  36. I use to leave my children with our maid because it’s hard to travel specially when you have kids around. But this tips is just so amazing. Next time I travel I will bring my kids. Thank you for this.

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