Full-time traveler and mom-on-the-road, Jenn Miller has a Ph.D. in packing for a family. Here are her favorite strategies for traveling light, even with kids in tow. Get instant pricing and complimentary advice
Traveling with children?
Build Your Trip
Full-time traveler and mom-on-the-road, Jenn Miller has a Ph.D. in packing for a family. Here are her favorite strategies for traveling light, even with kids in tow.
Get instant pricing and complimentary advice
Packing is the bane of the existence of most travelers. Very few people do it “right.” The evidence abounds in airport baggage lines everywhere. People, traveling solo, with two checked bags, a full sized carryon, AND a personal item. Families of four with maxed out baggage allowances who have lost their small children in the madness of trying to move that mess through the airport towards a shuttle that’s already clogged with oversized bags.
I’ve traveled for nearly 8 years, full time, with my four kids, across six continents. We’ve used every major mode of transportation, from bicycles for 10,000 miles to ferries across the Mediterranean, trains the length of Thailand and super discount airways hopping between continents. We’ve lived out of backpacks only, tried on RV living for 6 months in New Zealand, and have crisscrossed continents on epic road trips that included camping and five-star resorts. I have a Ph.D. in packing for a family. And packing less with kids is possible, I promise.
If you’re dreading your next family vacation because the idea of packing for your little tribe makes your palms sweat, let me share five of my best tips for getting there with what you need, and actually having some space in your bag left over to pack a little joy for the journey.
The Right Bag: Either the “One Bag Rule” or Carry-on Only for Everyone
The baggage strategy you choose, as a family, and the bags themselves, are very important. There are only two options, to my way of thinking. Either adherence to the one bag rule or traveling carry-on only, for everyone.
The One Bag Rule
When my kids were too young to carry their own things, I instituted the one bag rule: One checked bag, for the entire family. I will freely admit that at times this was the biggest bag I could find and it tipped the scales at just barely under the maximum weight for a checked bag, but we were, all six of us, packed into one checked bag.
Why one bag? Because if your kids are too little to carry their own stuff then that means you’re probably carrying some of them at least some of the time. You don’t have extra hands for extra luggage. You need to minimize the crazy at that stage of life, especially on travel days. Having only one bag to keep track of does that.
The fine print of the one bag rule: One bag, for your whole family (up to six people) for trips to one climate zone, and up to one month’s travel. If you’re traveling longer than a month, or to multiple climate zones (to Antarctica, and the Amazon, for example) you may pack a second bag and check it.
The Carry-On Only Rule
Once my kids were old enough to carry their own bags we were adamant that they do so. This freed us up from the tyranny of the baggage carousel to travel carry-on only. For kids, you want to think carefully about the sort of bag you choose (it should fit properly) and the weight they carry (in general not more than 10% of their body weight, which isn’t very much, once you start doing the math!)
My bags of choice, are the line of Tortuga Backpacks. In the interest of full disclosure, I work for them, but I traveled with their bag before I did. The quality of the luggage and their ethos were what made me want to join the team. The full sized Tortuga Backpack is perfect for adults. The Air fits most middle sized children. The ultra-light daypack is a great solution for smaller kids and minimizes the weight of the bag itself, meaning they can carry more of their own stuff in it. That’s a win for mom and dad!
Official carry-on policy for major airlines includes one carry-on bag and one personal item. This means that, technically, your kids can carry two bags. One with their stuff, one with their airplane entertainment. Pack properly to max out this policy and you shouldn’t need to check anything.
Pack Properly: Cubes & Rubber Bands
How you pack matters more than you might think. The proper approach isn’t just folding everything neatly and stacking it in the bag. Nope. We all know that results in a bag that looks like a hurricane struck in transit halfway through the trip . You’ll get more into your bag, have an easier time accessing it, and keeping it all organized if you purchase and use packing cubes and roll the clothes, securing them with rubber bands.
Rolling minimizes wrinkles and reduces the amount of air taking up space between layers of fabric. Especially if you’re following the one (big) bag rule, get a set of packing cubes for each family member, in different colors, ideally.
Plan to Wash
The number one mistake people make, especially when packing for children, is to pack far too much. All of the “what ifs” can be thrown out the window. If you’re taking a one-week trip, you don’t need more than three outfits per person. If you’re taking a month-long trip, you don’t need more than three outfits a piece, and perhaps one nicer item for an unforeseen special occasion. If you’re traveling for six months, you don’t need any more than you’d pack for a week or a month. Why? Because you’re going to wash, just like you do at home.
Your on-the-road wash plan is simple. Carry a bar of laundry soap and wash soiled items at the end of the day in your hotel room sink. Now lay out a bath towel, put the damp item, that you’ve wrung out thoroughly, on the towel. Tightly roll and press the towel; it will absorb even more water leaving the item barely damp so that by morning if hung in a well ventilated place, it’ll be dry and ready to pack or re-wear.
Besides, you’ll be able to find laundry service almost everywhere in the world, either in your accommodation, or nearby, and if you’d rather not, you’ll rarely need to hand wash.
Once you realize you can just wash and re-wear, all of a sudden you don’t need to pack your entire closet.
Invest in Quality Items that do Double Duty
Investing in quality pieces that will do double duty and are color-coordinated will help you pack in a way that maximizes your wardrobe. For children, pack bright colors (for high visibility) that are dark enough that stains aren’t going to be a major problem (yellow shows stains more than a deep blue, or green, for instance). Invest in microfiber pieces that will dry quickly when you wash them, and consider smart wool pieces like those made by Ice Breaker, to minimize odors and then number of times you need to wash.
My packing list for our family:
- 3 T-shirts each
- 3 Bottoms each (shorts, pants, or skirts)
- 4 Pairs of underwear
- 4 Pairs of socks
- 1 Swimming suit
- 1 Long-sleeved layer
- 1 Light jacket
- 1 Pair pajamas (if pajamas are something that could be worn in public in a pinch, all the better)
- Toiletries (One bag to share, planning to buy more on longer trips.)
Everyone carries his own entertainment choices and we encourage economy in this department too. Although this is a self-teaching lesson for your little over-packer. Nothing like struggling with a too heavy bag to encourage lighter packing next time. Do everyone a favor and don’t bail them out, let ‘em learn.
That’s really it.
Keep in mind that ONE of those outfits you are wearing, so you’re only actually packing two outfits each. Wear the heaviest one on your transit day.
Are you beginning to see how you could get everyone into one packing cube each on that plan?
One of the biggest secrets in light family travel is that you can rent much of the “big gear” you would need at home in many major destinations. Google the name of your city and “baby gear rental” or “kids gear rental” and see what comes up.
What can you rent?
- Car seats
- High chairs
- Sometimes even toys
Can’t find a way to rent?
Consider popping into a thrift store on arrival and purchasing the items you need, second-hand, and then re-donating them when you leave. This probably won’t cost you any more than your excess baggage fees for checking the items, and you’ll not have to wrangle it all in transit.
Just because you’ve got kids doesn’t mean that you have to give up your carefree days of traveling light. It just means that you’ve got to pare down, adjust your needs vs. wants equation, and teach your little people to travel footloose and fancy-free.
What are your best strategies for lightening the load with littles?
Build Your Trip
Get instant pricing and
any route • any airline • any change