Our tried and tested tips for traveling light with kids and carry on only travel strategies for families.
Do you know those families who show up at the airport with next to no luggage, breeze thought automatic check in and have all their belongings within easy reach at all times?
Have you ever wondered how they do it and maybe wished you had a little less stuff with you?
We are one of such families and in this guide, we share out top tips for traveling light with kids.
Packing light with kids: our experience
But first, a little bit of history: we did not become carry on only packers overnight.
The very first trip we took with kids saw us weighted down (literally) by a massive wheelie bag, 4 rucksacks, a baby carrier, a stroller, a car seat and a day bag and I tell you, it was a nightmare.
We arrived into Florence in 40 degrees heat, stressed not to have hands to hold the kids and worried about losing our belongings – it was awful.
I decided there and then it would be the last time we would put ourselves through such an ordeal and since then, I put a lot of research into good travel products and carry on only travel strategies that can cut down on the number of items you carry at any given time.
This guide is the result of my research and experience. Find here my easy tips to travel light with kids without renouncing comforts.
Why travel light with kids
If you are not used to traveling carry on, getting started may seem a lot of work.
While I wouldn’t go as far as saying that there is a steep learning curve to become a light packer, a little bit of effort at that start is likely to be involved and you may wonder if it is all worth it.
I believe there are several reasons ton travel light with kids:
Traveling light with kids leaves you hands free
I am starting this list of reasons to pack light as a family with a super practical consideration: one bag travel means you have free hands to hold onto your kids!
And also to your phone, you passport, your ticket and to whatever you may need to have access to straight away.
A simple consideration maybe, but when traveling with kids I find small things like that make a huge difference.
Carry on only travel costs less
This is not necessarily the case everywhere but in many cases, we have fond traveling carry on only to be a huge money saver.
Thanks to carry on only travel we are often able to get the cheapest fare on planes and we don’t need to pay extra fees in taxis.
Also, we never have to pay anyone to help us carry our bags, unless we want an excuse to tip them.
If you have doubts about what carry on means, have a look at this carry on luggage size chart with weight and size of allowed cabin luggage (airlines are listed in alphabetical order)
Traveling light with kids can teach them about need and want
Traveling light doesn’t have to mean you renounce essential stuff but it often means you make do with things instead of having one piece of gear for any possible situation.
I find this of great educational power: teaching the children what is a want and what is a need is important to me.
Also getting them to be crafty and resourceful with what they already have without thinking we always need to get ‘more’ is, to me, a good educational experience.
Traveling light can be environmentally friendly
Traveling with less stuff often means we treat better what we have and make each of our belongings last longer.
This has an immediate impact on the environment as it cuts down on waste but is also has a longer term effect: often, it puts us is a less consumeristic mindset and we manage to consume less even at home
Traveling light frees up your energy
Mary Kondo has built an empire talking about the powerful effects of de-cluttering and the same relief you get from a tidy space, you got from streamlined packing.
I don’t know why it works that way but I do feel that heavy bags and lots of stuff do indeed drag you down and having only what you need and an agile way of moving around is a great way to keep the stress away from your holiday space.
You also have to pick up less rubbish and mess so that keeps the stress at bay in a very real way too!
How to travel light with kids: top tips
These are our top tips for traveling light with children and a list of items we found invaluable to help up pack light.
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Packing light tip 1: make a minimal list of absolute must haves
To pack light with kids without leaving anything important behind, I always start by making a list of bare travel essentials.
This is an absolutely minimal list that answers the question: what do I absolutely NEED on this trip?
Stripped down to the very basics, this list is made of:
- Documents (find here a list of great family passport holders)
- First aid kit (read here what is in ours)
I know this sounds like very little and it is but bar with me:this is not the list of what you will end up carrying but and anxiety busting technique that really works if applied to packing and is at the core of all my travel packing tips.
If I have my list of essentials, no matter what I leave home, I know I am prepared.
With kids, the list is a little longer than the one outlined above, but the principle still applies: what do you absolutely need with you? Bottle? Soother? Nappies (how many to the next shop)?
Make a minimal list of things you really cannot do without ( be ruthless!) and make sure you have them in your luggage.
Remember: this is not the list of all you will bring, but the list of things that, no matter what, will STAY IN YOUR LUGGAGE, your non-negotiable items.
Travel Light Tip 2: be realistic about what they will/will not wear
Once you have your list of essentials, you can move on to clothes and niceties.
In this case too, I start from bare essentials: swimsuit for a beach family vacation, coat for cold destinations etc.
Once those are taken care of, I select additional items asking the following questions. As cute as the outfit may be:
- does your child find it comfortable?
- Is it appropriate for the country and the temperature?
- Can it be easily washed, can they easily take it off?
If the answer to any of this is no, you might want to reconsider: have you tried negotiating a child overall in a plane cubicle? Trust me, you don’t want to.
The best way to get this right, I find, is to involve your children in the selection: I always ask my kids what they want to bring and anything that encounters a clear ‘NO’, stays home!
Carry on only packing Tip 3: get clothing that goes together
This is one of the good pieces of advice that applies to adults as well.
If you want to travel light without feeling you are living out of a suitcase, bring clothes that do go well together for shape and color.
For kids, I usually start with a pair of comfortable trousers or leggings and choose tops that can go well with them – this way, I can use the same trousers over and over again (or at least, until a massive stain of sauce falls onto them).
Make sure everything you bring can be worn with something else and make sure things are not redundant.
If two items serve the exact same purpose, chances are you can leave one at home (with the exception of underwear and socks – I always pack those in abundance!).
RELATED: If you want a practical example on how to pack light with kids, have a look at our master family packing list for all trips
Tip 4: embrace laundry
Because the massive stain of sauce is a fact of life, when you have kids, you will inevitably find yourself washing their clothes more often that you would your own.
Laundry is one of the pains of my daily life, but to try to avoid it simply packing in more stuff won’t work.
Eventually all that stuff will need to be washed anyway and a pile of dirty clothes on your first day at home is sure to kill your mood.
I usually pack clothes for a maximum of one week, no matter how long we are travelling for and make a point of washing stains off as soon as they happen – avoid jeans to shorten drying times.
Washing stuff as you go also has another advantage: you don’t have to do tons of laundry once back!
I recently got into the habit of washing everything the day before we go home and this means I have clean stuff to put away when home instead of a horrible pile of dirty stuff.
Packing light with kids tip 5: pack clever items
I am not a huge fan of gadgets.
Many things that promise to solve a problem, usually create a new one in the process, however, for some clever travel accessories I made an exception.
I find the following items really useful, lightweight and perfect if you are looking for easy ways to pack light with kids without having to ‘do without’
Quick dry Lightweight towels are maybe the best travel accessory I have ever bought.
They take up very little space, dry very quickly and make towels, beach towels and bathrobes redundant. Basically, thanks to them you are already one bag lighter!
I also find them excellent if your children use a stroller.
Especially in hot climates, the materials of the strollers can get very sticky and feel awful on the skin. These towels make a great extra layer and your child ride much more comfortable.
You can find a good selection of microfiber towels here.
I love what I call ‘universal’ shoes or shoes that can be worn with almost anything.
For women, I love shoes that are stylish and comfortable.
Over time, I have fond brands that truly work for travel and that you can find on this list of great travel shoes for Italy (this works for city travel in general too).
I am also fond of foldable shoes such as Butterfly Twists, which are great to have an extra pair with you without having to give up space!
Socks for indoors.
If temperature allows, we always travel only with the shoes we have on, which saves an incredible amount of luggage space (and weight)
I am in love with my kindle and am passing the love on to the next generation.
As much as I love paper books, on holidays an e-reader will save you from lugging around kilos of paper and the choice of kids books on it is very wide.
For the kids, we signed up to amazon unlimited and while I don’t love it for adults, I find it great for children titles.
A baby carrier
A baby carrier may already be in your list of things to bring and is one item I always encourage to bring even if you think it may get limited use.
As well as being create for the job it is made of, a carrier can come in handy in many other circumstances for instance as a harness in restaurants with no high chairs!
Much easier than having to carry a high chair all the time (although there are some good ones for travel you can find here)
A travel booster seat
Some booster seats are made specifically for travel and are an excellent way to keep kids safe on the road without having to lug around massive gear.
We are fond of our Bubblebum (you can read our full review here) in particular which folds small and attaches easily to the kids backpack.
Tip 6: get carry on only approved travel luggage
The best purchase we ever made when it comes to traveling light is carry on approved travel backpack.
Both my husband and I have one and they are simply great.
They contain a lot, they are comfortable to carry and they can go in the overhead bin on the pane, you so you know they are always beside you.
My favorite is the Osprey FarPoint 40, which I am simply obsessed with
Tip 7: Use packing cubes
Packing cubes are a new entry in our packing strategy but one I love. They make packing light so easy, I simply cannot believe it took me 5 years or more to test them out.
I use two packing cubes each per adult and one each child. All is tidy, contained and easy to reach: probably my favorite travel item ever (after my backpack!)
Tip 8: encourage imaginative play
Toys are probably the biggest obstacle when trying to pack light with kids in general and with toddlers in particular.
We always bring toys with us but never more that an amount that can fit in the children luggage.
We usually give one bag to each child (the trunki is perfect – fun, easy to carry children luggage with wheels, have a look at our Trunki review here) and that is the space for clothes and toys – once that is full, the selection of toys is over.
I find this a good way to pack light but also to get the kids to engage with the reality around them and with us.
Games like ‘I spy’ or ‘who can spot a…’ are great to get them noticing their surroundings, with no clutter in sight!
Finally, to pack light with kids, embrace the fact that even if you have forgotten something ‘very important’, you will probably survive without.
This is why you started this process with a minimal list of essentials!
I hope you found my easy tips for packing light as a family easy and it motivated you to give a shot at carry on only travel. Have a great trip!
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This post was first published on this website in 2015 and had now been fully updated (2019)