If you’ve ever found yourself overwhelmed by the process of packing for a family vacation, you’re not alone. It can be overwhelming. Parents tend to overpack, imaging every possible scenario. With thousands of travel-related products available, it’s difficult to determine the most important thing for each family member. But here I’ve narrowed it down to my favorite item for each age category—because less is more. Parents need to be free to keep track of their kids, rather than being preoccupied by their stuff.
Am I the only person who thinks it’s ironic that the smallest person in the family supposedly requires the most gear? As a new mom, I traveled by myself with a 22-month-old and a 2-month-old to Buenos Aires. I had a stroller, an infant car seat, a toddler booster seat, a backpack child carrier, an infant wrap, a large carry on and one massive rolling suitcase. It’s possible I could have brought more, but I ran out of hands.
Since then, I’ve discovered the freedom that comes from traveling light. The most important product has been a good carrier in the form of a baby wrap. Among my favorites are the Solly Baby Wrap (for young babies), left, and the Maya Wrap (for when they get older). The wraps keep my baby safe and close while leaving both my hands free to pull a suitcase or help another child; the wraps can be also be used as a blanket or breastfeeding cover, to help secure a baby in a seat and create a makeshift high chair or temporary swing. Keep in mind that baby products like wraps shouldn’t be reserved for travel only; they are most successful when used daily, creating comforting familiarity for babies, even when far from home.
This is the age when most parents think, “Maybe we should wait until they’re older” to travel. Bear with me while I disagree. Sure, traveling with young children requires a bit of resilience from parents, but these little humans will help you experience new places, new foods and new people in a wonderful way. The earlier they start traveling, the more easily your children will adapt. Instead of being viewed as another faceless foreigner, you’ll be welcomed as a family. For instance, while in the picturesque whitewashed town of Grazalema, Spain, we were repeatedly invited into homes because our cheeky daughter wouldn’t stop waving to strangers. Grandmothers would play with her during dinner, airport security would speed us through lines and airlines allowed us to board early.
The biggest challenge with these young adventurers is keeping them entertained during long flights and drives. That’s why Tropic of Candycorn created the TOC Travelpack, which is filled with smarter, sweeter prepackaged fun like the travel-size Cornelius (a cuddly unicorn-shaped zen pillow, infused with lavender oil), inflatable world globe, stickers, mini flashlight, crayons and other noise-free and mess-free surprises. While it’s designed for toddlers, my oldest daughters (ages 10 and 11) still insist that they replenish their travel pack for each trip. It’s been a game changer.
It’s tempting to plug kids into electronic devices that keep them quietly entertained, but my kids regularly hear this message: “I’d rather you fight than be disconnected from each other.” While I hold to that philosophy, it’s a lot to ask of neighboring strangers on a seven-hour flight.
We travel to help our children appreciate different landscapes and cultures. We travel to learn. All of these travel goals are hard to accomplish when children are focused on devices.
We travel to build stronger relationships with one another. We travel to help our children appreciate different landscapes and cultures. We travel to learn. All of these travel goals are hard to accomplish when children are focused on devices. So bring one family-owned electronic device (like an iPad or a Kindle), but use it to reward good behavior and make them share. Adults who don’t have good behavior or know how to share make for pretty miserable travel companions, don’t you think? Use these early years to rear kind, compassionate adults—adults who will connect with the people around them, instead of staring blankly into a screen.
What parents want them to pack: a good attitude. What teens want to pack: a good friend. Perhaps the most important travel product for teenagers is something that develops both: a camera. When teenagers have the power to shape and preserve their experiences, they are more likely to remember them. Photography gives them a creative outlet and a way to express the trip on their terms.
As they click, they’ll want to share their experiences with friends back home, but a camera can also help them connect with new friends while traveling. Have you ever seen a crowd of teenagers hover around the digital screen of a camera? We love traveling with a Polaroid, especially when visiting less-affluent countries, where our children can share instant images—small treasures—with new friends.
Efficient packing keeps me sane, especially when moving to new places frequently. I am the family Super Packer, a title I deserve but despise. When traveling with children, staying organized and moving freely with dependable luggage is necessary. A certain 6-year-old looking for her swimsuit can unravel all of my packing efforts. I don’t want to spend hours packing and repacking, so I use a few items that provide ultimate dependability and convenience.
I prefer the North Face Rolling Thunder or Patagonia Black Hole wheeled duffle bags. I like the rigid back paired with the flexibility of a durable, water-resistant shell that can shift and collapse as needed. Both brands have strong handles and sturdy wheels. I appreciate checked luggage and carry-on bags that have just enough pockets, each with a specific use. An essential: one designated zipper pocket for our brick of passports. With passports secured in one spot, you’ll always know where to find them.
I fill our checked luggage with Eagle Creek Packing Cubes (aka portable drawers), which have become the thing I just can’t travel without, especially with children. Depending on the trip, and the number of nights away, I separate clothes by child or activity. Now, when everyone wants to go swimming, I have that 6-year-old grab the blue packing cube and I won’t spend the night repacking after everyone falls asleep.
Adults should also pack (and hide) one of their favorite treats: fine chocolate; the perfect assortment of nuts; gourmet jerky; or noise-canceling headphones. Traveling with kids of any age is seldom relaxing. Even though we know it’s totally worth it, it’s nice to be rewarded with a little instant gratification for that effort.