Family travel tips: How to pack only carry-on bags for air travel

Outside Charles de Gaulle Airport

There comes a time in the life of every blogger when they are forced to reveal something about themselves that they’ve never done publicly. I’m no exception. So here it is:

Hi, my name is Mara, and I am a heavy packer.

For years the fact that I had small children masked this sad fact. That enormous duffle bag we hauled with us and of course had to check was full of toys, booster seats, and diapers but it also held numerous pairs of my shoes and full-sized bottles of shampoo. The photo that leads this post is from our trip to Paris two years ago. We were there for two weeks and as you can see, we needed a Sherpa. Whose fault was this? Try as I might to blame them, it was not those innocent children, oh no. It was me.

But I’m happy to report that as of this summer I am a changed woman. In spite of my love of hair product and shoes, in July of 2010 my family managed to travel for two weeks in England without checking a single bag. And I’m going to share how we did it.

(Those of you with infants and toddlers may want to read this so that you know what you have to look forward to. I’m not going to tell you that you have to try to travel light because that would be pure hypocrisy. However, if you are someone who does carry-on luggage with little ones, I’d love to hear how you do it in the comments.)

Here are my top tips for traveling with non-stroller-or-car-seat-bound children without checking bags:

Remember when you are flying that each of the kids gets one backpack, one carry-on suitcase, and one baggie for toiletries. You’ve purchased a ticket for those children and they get to bring just as much luggage as you do. Even for a product junkie like myself, that’s usually enough room to store what I need, especially since we can all use the same shampoo and soap. And don’t feel like you have to segregate each person’s clothes into his or her “own” suitcase – kids’ clothes are smaller and take up less room. That leaves all the more space in their bags for those cute sandals you can’t live without. Or, depending on how you roll, a pair of sneakers for your early morning runs.

Make sure you have the right suitcases. Before this summer, I can’t remember the last time I bought luggage. We got a set of bags as a wedding gift and had been using those same suitcases – heavy, large, and coming apart at the seams – for all of our travel. Then it finally dawned on me that this travel gig thing was pretty permanent with us and I went to a discount store (Marshall’s and T.J. Maxx are good resources for luggage) and bought small, lightweight, wheeled bags for each of us. That’s right: Each boy got his own suitcase and for the most part was responsible for handling his own luggage during the trip.

The one I got for Teddy is perfect not only because it is purple, but because the wheels move in all directions whether or not you are using the handle. He could (and did) easily push the bag through airports and train stations.

Teddy pushing his suitcase in Heathrow Airport

Invest in travel sizes. I’d always used my love of perfume and my specific brand of shampoo as a reason to pack an entire bag just for toiletries. Then I discovered that Lo! My scent comes in a travel size! (With a cool little roller top so it doesn’t spill no less). And at the drug store they sell small bottles that you can fill from your larger ones! I also hunted down products I’d never use at home, like those all-in-one face wipes for cleaning off makeup and dirt – they aren’t liquid and don’t have to go into the baggies like a bottle of face wash would. Did it cost me some money up front? Yes. But I didn’t use all of the stuff up on a two-week trip and am discovering that some of those small bottles will stretch quite far. And if there’s a product that you use in bulk – in our case, contact solution – buy a larger bottle once you get to your location. At least until they change those restrictions to something bigger than 3.4 ounces per bottle.

Oh, and for the love of Pete, keep those baggies all together and under your control so that you can easily toss them into the bin at the security check. You don’t want to rely on your five-year-old to do it.

Leave some of the clothes and toys at home. Make careful piles of everything you think your family will need to wear. Then remove at least one top and one bottom from everyone’s pile – yes, even your own. You probably don’t need quite as much as you thought you did. Have the children do the same with the toys and books for their backpacks. Promise them they’ll be having so much fun they won’t need a ton of stuff to do – and then surprise them with the occasional coloring book and box of crayons that you purchase while you’re on the road.

Wear your heaviest clothes and shoes on the plane. It was literally 100 degrees Fahrenheit the day we left for England in July, but I made the boys put on their sweatpants and hoodies for the flight. And I’ve been known to wear three or four tops on my body as a way to transport more clothing. Clothing you remove can serve as blankets or pillows on long flights. And if you’re like me, you’re always cold on planes anyway.

Plan your trip so that you can do laundry. Make sure you have access to a washing machine (and if you’re lucky, a drier – in Europe, much to my amazement, they are often the same appliance) at some point during your trip. You can do this by renting an apartment with laundry facilities, which is my favorite approach. You can also stay in a hotel that has a laundry service or scope out the laundromats in your neighborhood, although you will then of course need to add the cost to your budget. And if you’ve got friends in a foreign city who are hosting you or showing you the local sites, don’t be embarrassed or afraid to ask them if you can use their washing machine. You’d do it for them, right?

Use the postal service. Finally, if you are going somewhere domestically for more than a week, will be staying in the same place, and have a need for gear like hiking boots or more toys than will fit in your kids’ backpacks, consider shipping a box ahead of you using the postal service. You’re likely to pay less than you would for your baggage and you don’t have the hassle of waiting at the airport. You can also insure the contents, not a service offered by most airlines to my knowledge.

So there you have it: I’m officially a reformed heavy packer. And the best part is, I really don’t feel like I’ve had to compromise – I just pack smarter. In fact, I was fortunate enough at a conference I attended this past weekend to be singled out for my fashion sense on camera despite the fact that I had packed only a small suitcase for four days (another open secret: I loves me my clothes). Which has me thinking that I may need to write a post about looking good on the road, even when traveling with kids. What do you think?

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  1. says

    I pride myself on packing lightly. Spent a week in Hawaii with two kids under 5 & didn’t check a single bag. The tips you’ve shared here are great. I also encourage buying basics at your destination. In fact, our first stop in Hawaii was a Longs where I purchased toiletries, diapers, fave snacks and other such “necessities.”

  2. says


    I feel like we’re kindred spirits. I, too, must confess. I suck at packing. I’m probably better than someone who has never done it before, but the bottom line is I can’t think of a single family trip where we weren’t overloaded on some aspect.

    Your tips here are excellent. And totally agree… make piles of everything you think you’ll want and then remove things. For me, this requires I start packing a day or two in advance. Last minute packing — perhaps my biggest issue — always leads to us bringing far more than we need.

    One day, I’ll get it. I just need to keep trying and reading articles like this.


  3. Molly says

    I agree about investing in travel sizes. I discovered a website that sells travel sizes beauty products and the best part- they’ve got a baby section. I pack a lot of the wipes- both in the sunscreen and the towelettes- it saves room and aren’t part of the restrictions of liquid.


  4. says

    I use to be a heavy packer too, when I went to the USSR I packed more than anyone and carried a balayka all over that huge country. Ugh.

    On Sat we will leave for 8 months to 12 countries & everyone in our family will carry only one very small carryon case.

    LOVE the freedom! We bop through airports, cargo ships, on trains, buses, ferries etc like a breeze because we are so light. Definitely makes like so much easier.

  5. says

    Mara, you have me longing for the days when our little arrow will be schlepping his own bag around! :) But for now, one thing I’m going to be using for a couple of upcoming trips is an equipment rental service–in many of the popular U.S. destinations (think Florida, California, etc.), you can rent all kinds of baby/toddler products, such as strollers, cribs, high chairs, boxes of age-appropriate toys and books, beach supplies, etc.

    And please… I’d love a post on traveling fashionably (actually, forget travel… just being fashionable in general!)

  6. says

    Great tips, especially about having a laundry! Here is a post I wrote about this very subject:

    One thing I would add to your list – don’t pack toys. Pack a few books, and if the kids really need something for long trips, a small iPod Nano, notepad and pencils and maybe a very small toy. I have learned that kids are actually very good at readjusting their expectations – if travelling means no toys but entertainment in other ways, they seem to get the idea pretty quickly.

  7. says

    I completely agree with you Natalia – we bring very few toys, mostly card games, books, and a few art supplies, all of which the boys carry in their backpacks. And since I go screen free, we don’t have video games either. Less to lose, less to carry, and yet we never are bored.

  8. Kat says

    We traveled light with an infant by pre-purchasing a pack’n play at our destination, and picking it up when we arrived. same for baby supplies. We left the pack’n play with our friend who was hosting us. we spent $65 on it, about the same as it would cost to check it! he wanted to keep it but if he didn’t we would have donated it to a local shelter.

  9. Lici says

    I know that this post is quite old, but I just wanted to mention that contact lens solution is NOT included in the TSA liquid limitation. It is considered a medication and is therefore exempt from the allowed amount. You could take a large bottle in your carry-on and there’d be no problem. I’ve successfully traveled without checking luggage many times; the hubby, a toddler, and an infant were easier to pack that I was! We had three carry on suitcases, a strap to secure them to each other (hubby could one-hand them through the airport), and our personal items (one each: backpack for hubby and toddler and large tote for me and baby). We brought the toddler carseat on the plane, and gate-checked the double stroller and the infant carrier. We were the last passengers off of the plane because it was easier for us and the other passengers and when we de-boarded, the crew already had the stroller ready for me to put the kids into. Hubby did have to literally do the heavy lifting with the seats and the chain of luggage, but we bungeed the carseat onto the luggage and he carried the infant seat. We did have a rental car, though.

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