We travel quite frequently thanks to grandparents on opposite ends of the country and a love of weekend getaways. (I have boarded well over 100 planes with my kids in tow and taken more little weekend car trips than I can count!) This post is going to tackle all of our best tips and tricks for traveling on the road or by air with kids, and my next post will handle how do weekend getaways on a budget.
A few years ago I found myself sitting on the floor of my parents house surrounded by mounds of stuff, literally crying the night before we flew home. I was so overwhelmed as I tried to tackle the massive mess of re-packing for the trip home. That night I said through my tears to Ethan, “We are never bringing this much stuff again.”
And we never did.
We currently fit our entire family of four in a single large suitcase when traveling. I will easily be able to add the baby’s things in to the same suitcase once Peanut is born. I have *never* regretted such minimal packing on a trip yet. Traveling super light saves a substantial amount of mental and physical energy when you no longer have the burden of managing too much stuff.
Here are ways to drastically cut down on how much you pack:
- Pack for half the days you will be gone. If we are going for a week trip I pack enough for three days. I’ll do laundry on day three, and again the afternoon before we leave. That last night we neatly pack everything up that we washed that afternoon and get to skip trying to zip up our suitcase around a massive bag of dirty clothes. Plus, coming home to a nasty bag of five day old dirty laundry just never feels good, but quickly unpacking clean clothes right back into your dressers is a breath of fresh air. (Also, this is not the time to do a fancy laundry sorting routine. Use a garbage bag for all of your dirty laundry, chuck it all in the same load, and call it good.)
- Mentally walk through each day of your trip and make a list of what you are realistically doing. Typical things that may require special clothes or supplies would be a trip to the beach or going to Mass or a wedding. Outside of that, you probably just need regular day clothes. Pack for what you’re *actually* going to do and you won’t end up with a bunch of extra outfits you don’t need.
- Limit shoes. Shoes are heavy for adults and take up valuable space with their odd shapes. We try to only pack two pairs of shoes for a trip, and that’s if we are going to Mass and need dress shoes. When we go see my parents this summer we will be there Monday – Saturday. Since we won’t be going to a Sunday Mass, we will not be bringing extra shoes.
- See if you can borrow things at your destination. When we go to my parents in winter, Ethan and I just borrow coats from my mom and dad. If you’ll be with cousins or friends who have extra snowsuits/jackets/gloves/hats/beach towels/beach toys etc. that your kids can make do with, you’ll save so much space in your suitcase. Bonus points if you can borrow any needed car seats and/or strollers from family or friends for trips where you are flying in!
- Don’t pack for your dream self. We are just not accessory heavy people. My girls don’t often like hair bows and I don’t usually wear extra jewelry, hats, etc. It’s tempting while packing for a trip to suddenly dream about how you’d like to be on this vacation and bring all these extra accessories – just don’t. You’ll probably not suddenly use all this stuff that isn’t routine for you anyway, and it is all just more clutter to keep track of.
- Don’t pack for too many what-ifs. You could pack every medication, supplement, lotion, toiletry etc. and the likelihood is you won’t touch 99% of them. I would rather run to the store for one thing that burdens me for the 20 minute errand, than lug around a ton of extra stuff for the entirety of the trip that I never touch.
Packing cubes: You’ve just got to get a set like these on Amazon. They keep each person’s things together. They keep your suitcase from looking like a bomb went off. They let you instantly unpack into a dresser when you get to your destination. They help you remember to pack everything you need for each person since all of their stuff is together one place. Most importantly: they let you fit so much more in a suitcase because they compress your stuff down.
Pack per special outing: We each have a packing cube for all of our regular clothes, but if there are any special outings on a trip, I use a cube for each outing. There is a cube for a beach day with bug spray, swimsuits, hats etc. There is a Mass cube that has chapel veils, our missals, the girls’ dresses, tights, dress shoes etc. On beach morning you will save your brain so much mental energy by not having to think of pulling each person’s swimsuits from their cube, the bug spray from the toiletry bag, the loose hats from the suitcase etc.
Car Organization: Put things back in the same place every time so you aren’t constantly looking for a pen or the phone charger. Try to thoroughly clean out the car before the trip. (Yes, it’s going to get messy, but it helps to have a clean-ish slate to start with.) Have lots of extra trash bags so you can keep gathering garbage and throwing it out at gas stations as you go. Don’t put a bunch of dream-self stuff in the car. You may love the idea of bringing tons of books, knitting projects, crossword puzzles etc. in the car and imagine doing all kinds of stuff in there, but if you know deep down you’re not going to actually do any of those things in the car, just skip the clutter and mess.
Plane Organization: Pack light for the plane and put what you do bring back in the same place every time. (My carryon backpack is always packed the same way: birth certificates in the outer bottom pocket, cell phone and charger in the top outer pocket, pen and little notepad in the one behind that, wipes, diapers, and a change of clothes for the girls in the next pocket etc. It saves a lot of time on the place not to have to constantly dig around for stuff). Bring trash bags so you can keep throwing away trash as the flight progresses and just toss the whole bag when the flight attendant comes by for the last garbage pick up.Also, pack non messy foods and activities. (I’ll share some of these below!)
It is usually trickier for kids to go to sleep in a strange place. A few things that help us are:
- Get kids showered or at least wash faces and hands and maybe a clean rag/wet wipe for their underarms and feet. Feeling fresh before putting on pajamas really helps after a day of travel.
- Pray the Rosary with kids in bed if you haven’t already for the day. That rhythmic prayer time really helps them settle down.
3. Make the room dark and put on some sort of white noise or calm music. If you usually use a white noise machine bring it, otherwise turn on a fan, turn on some gregorian chant on Youtube on your phone… something. Kid’s brains race in a new place and white noise or chant helps their brains focus on something and settle down.
4. Sit with them. At home our girls go to sleep on their own in their room, but in a hotel or AirBnB we usually need to sit by at least our youngest and hold hands or rub her head or back. If we don’t do this she is just so excited she won’t stop getting out of bed or bugging sister.
Our girls are screen-free at this point, so here are our favorite non-tablet/phone options for them to enjoy.
- Skip Hop Leash Backpacks – The girls love these cute animal backpacks found here on planes or in the car. (We only attach the leashes for me traveling alone with them in busy airports as a safety precaution.) We fill their packs with a couple snacks and the various activities listed below, and they will spend so much time busying themselves getting things in and out of the packs!
2. Drawing – my girls love these reusable Water Wow books found here, pen and paper, magnetic drawing boards like these, and coloring books with crayons. I recommend these triangle crayons found here if you’re flying so you don’t have them rolling off the tray table to the ground. Dollar Tree usually has mini magnetic drawing boards that my girls love.
3. Silly Putty found here – This is just for plane rides for us as it doesn’t stick to the leather seats or plastic tray tables. I know when it gets old it can really start to stick to other fabrics or get super stringy, but just the girls using it for 20 or 30 minutes on a plane ride has never caused a single mess and they will stay happily occupied for that long with it, easy. I can usually find this at Dollar Tree.
4. Foam Puzzles – I can’t find a reputable place to buy these online, but my local Dollar Tree usually carries them.
The pieces are cut identically so any two will fit together, and they can even make 3-D boxes with them.
5. Books – we don’t go overboard with books for planes in that they are really heavy, so we pick one board book each for their little backpacks and something longer like a current favorite Dr. Seuss for our backpack. We have a lot more books on car trips.
6. Stickers – My girls love stickers and you can get huge sticker booklet multi-packs for pretty cheap, or sheets of them at the dollar store. Sometimes the girls just scatter them all over paper, but they also like if you draw shapes or squiggly lines on note cards and then they can go over them with stickers.
The biggest thing I can say about traveling with kids is to try to relax. Things are going to go wrong eventually. You’re going to miss an exit or a connecting flight at some point, and I think it’s federal law that you have one night where everyone is particularly exhausted and frazzled on a trip.
Kids can just sense your tension and it makes them behave worse when they feel anxious that you’re anxious. Even if I’m really tired, I try to really play up the fun adventure idea to the girls and they do so much better. Even if you’re having a terrible time, maybe on a red eye flight with a teething baby who won’t stop screaming, just take a deep breath and know that the time will pass and you will be tucked in safely in your home or hotel before you know it!