First rule of traveling with kids: You'll be better off when you face the fact that your own needs and preferences have nothing to do with packing for the family's vacation.
With young children in tow -- in my case, four-year-old twin boys -- packing well takes a little common sense and a lot of creativity.
As a professional travel writer with a husband who has family in India, we globetrot on a frequent basis. My boys took their first international flight -- from New York to Delhi no less -- before their first birthday, and many, many since. They've racked up 15 cruises. And the list goes on.
Through it all, I've learned to pack all of my stuff and my sons' stuff in one suitcase. My husband, on the other hand, fills up a second suitcase with just his belongings. There's a lesson here. Women are pros at squeezing things into little places.
On that note, here's some advice to help you pack more efficiently (and avoid back aches and access baggage charges) on your next family holiday.
Top Toy Tips
Aside from a stash of the usual crayons, paper, books and super heroes, when packing toys for young children, consider the noise factor and the pain quotient. I don't bring anything that will give me (or anyone else nearby) a migraine. I also skip anything my boys can use as a makeshift weapon.
- Inflatable toys. Safe, soft, quiet and easily stowed, blow-up beach balls and toys are a godsend. Go to www.orientaltrading.com to get great cheap inflatable animals.
- Old photographs. For airplane trips, I bring old or duplicate photographs of the kids and family members; my boys love looking at them, drawing on them, and plastering stickers all over them.
- Presents. After the boys' birthday and after Christmas, I stash a way a few unopened presents (when they're not looking of course) and bring those on plane rides and cruises. What kid doesn't love opening presents? It's a great distraction.
- Beach toys. Buckets and shovels can double as bath toys.
- Toy basket. I bought these great mesh light-weight storage baskets from Target. They collapse into a flat square, about two feet by two feet, and fit easily in a suitcase. Once in your cabin or room, set one up and dump in all of your kids' toys to keep the room tidy. A great sanity saver.
- Zone out. I still haven't succumbed to the portable DVD player or Game Boys, though I hear they're the ultimate antidote to long days in transit. Anyone with manners won't let his or her children use these without headphones or the sound muted.
Goes without saying (doesn't it?), but plan on wearing clothes more than once before washing. And don't, of course, bring stuff that wrinkles.
- Avoid whites and light colors. With young children especially, stay clear of packing white t-shirts, khaki-colored pants and delicate fabrics like linen that show stains.
- Do Denim. It's easy to spot clean and doesn't wrinkle easily.
- Pack two bathing suits. If you're going someplace warm, your kids will live in them. One can dry while the other's worn. Boys' trunks can double as shorts.
- Long-sleeved PJs. Even if you're headed some place warm, remember cruise ship cabins and hotel rooms are typically super air conditioned. Bring long-sleeved PJs for your kids.
- Souvenir t-shirts. Chances are you're going to buy a couple of souvenir t-shirts, factor them in and pack less.
- Splurge on laundry service. Suck up the cost to have your laundry done on the ship or in the hotel. Spending another $20 or so for a load or two of laundry sure beats the hassle of trying to squeeze too much into your luggage or spending a few hours of your precious vacation in the laundry room doing it yourself (some cruise ships, for example, have self-service laundry rooms charging a few bucks a load).
Gear: What to Bring and What to Leave Behind
I started traveling with my boys before they were a year old. There was a lot to schlep in those days, believe me, from jars of baby food to stacks of diapers. To cut down on the crap, here's what I didn't bother bringing:
- Bibs. Instead of going through three or four (or more) cloth or disposal bibs a day, on cruises I would tie the restaurants' cloth napkins around my boy's necks at meal time. They looked like sporty little Frenchman in ascots, and better yet, someone else was doing the laundry. Plus, as a part-time tree hugger, it felt good not wasting dozens of throw-way bibs.
- Baby bathtubs. Don't cart along a plastic or sponge baby tub. When my guys were babies, if the room didn't have a bathtub, I'd bath them on a folded up towel right on the shower floor (either using an extendable shower hose or cups of water). Their precious little bums weren't touching the germy floor and were on a nice soft, wet surface.
- Adult shampoo. If tight on space, bring just the kids' no-more-tears style shampoo and use it for yourself as well for hand washables.
- Beach towels. Cruise ships and hotels will always have them.
- Beach blanket. Skip the bulk, instead bring a large sarong. They're super lightweight, dry fast, take up no room and mom can also use it as a cover up when it's not being used as a beach blanket.
Now, here's what you think you might not need but definitely should bring:
- Diapers. Though some airlines supply them, for example, you'll never know if they'll have your size or brand. Don't take a chance.
- Baby food. Though some airlines have a few selections, most do not. Same for cruise ships and hotels, a few will offer jars of baby food, but the vast majority will not.
- Medicine. Cruise ships have infirmaries (that charge a fee), but save a visit there only for the serious stuff. Bring your own cold and fever meds.
- Of course bring snacks for the plane or car ride, but plan on bringing enough to last all day -- through flight delays and long queues. You know what your kid will eat. Mine love peanut butter sandwiches
- I make a stack and fill the bread bag back up with them. They can last the day without spoiling and they're not smelly. Avoid stuff that can get squished in your purse (like bananas) or food that can be a choking hazard (like grapes) in moving cars and airplanes.
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