BootsnAll indie travel guide

Packing for a RTW Trip – Family Style


We’ve all seen THAT family at the airport: Dad with baby in backpack and computer bag is wrestling eight large bags off the luggage carousel, while Mom balances a car seat on top a stroller loaded with a nappie sack stuffed to the max, while holding the hand of a toddler who’s bouncing at the end of her arm like a ping pong ball. They nervously count bags and try to shove the contents of the bag with the split zipper into the outer pouches of the other bags. How two adults and two little kids will manage to haul eight overloaded bags and a backpack each to the shuttle (much less their final destination) is a mystery to all.

It is precisely that image which causes most new parents with wanderlust to hyperventilate with the mere thought of: “I’ve been reduced to THIS?!”

No wonder traveling with kids has a bad rap.

Right next to that family is a sleek Gypsy Mama with twin eight year olds, carrying their own backpacks, and a 9 month old baby tied securely on her hip, gumming a chew toy. She’s got a shoulder bag the size of a normal purse. She lifts one medium sized bag off of the carousel and rolls it gently toward the bus stop. No baby gear in sight.

Which one would you rather be?


If you’re planning a RTW trip with kids, what and how to pack is probably near the top of your stress list, and not without reason. Kids come with a prodigious amount of “stuff,” and the prospect of taking that lot on the road is daunting, even to well traveled parents.

Of course there’s no one answer to the packing problem, is there? So much depends on your unique family make up, where you’re traveling, which seasons you’re going in, and whether this is a three month jaunt to one continent and one climate zone, or a year long open ender with no holds barred on where you might find yourself. Are you carrying everything because your kids are little? Or do you have an army of teenagers happy to be your sherpas? Are you packing for a road trip or a backpacking adventure?

Of course the next burning question is what kind of bag should you travel with? Suitcase? Roller bag? Backpack? Hybrid? The answer to that question will be determined by where you are going and how many kids you have to carry in addition to a bag! If you are carrying a child, I suggest a bag that rolls. If you are going anywhere that is going to have something other than smooth sidewalks and easy transitions, I recommend a backpack. Roller bags will drive you crazy and break quickly on anything but pavement. Choose your bag wisely, it will either be your best friend or your worst nemesis.

When it comes to what to put into that bag, there aren’t any “rules,” but there are some principles that, if adhered to, will minimize the stress of moving luggage (my very least favorite part of travel) and maximize the freedom you have to enjoy your journey.

Less is more

I know, I know, everyone says this… but no one listens! Lay out everything you “need” and then cut it in half. No one takes that advice either, but they should!

So how do you go about really reducing the amount of gear you pack when you’ve got little kids? Here are a few ideas:

Rent it.

Most cities have companies that will rent you baby beds, car seats, even strollers and high chairs if you’re coming to town for a few weeks to a few months.

If you can’t rent it, buy it inexpensively second hand and donate it to a charity when you leave.

You can buy it.

If there are people where you are planning to go, you can get what you need when you get there. Notice I said, “What you need,” not necessarily your favorite brand. If you can let go of your first world brand loyalty, you’ll simplify your travel life immensely.

No need to pack a month’s worth of diapers, or toiletries, or baby food, or bibs, or any of the other myriad of things that take up space and add weight.

Pack what you need for 48 hours and then buy it when you get there.

One bag rule

Kid in suitcase

Okay, now you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I’m going to suggest that you limit yourself to one bag for your family. Yes, really. It can be done, and it simplifies things SO much!

The fine print:

  • If there are six or fewer in your family, you get ONE bag. It can be the biggest bag you can find, but ONE only. If you have seven people or more, you can have an extra bag.
  • If you are going for three weeks or less: ONE bag. A trip of one month or longer: two bags.
  • If you are going to travel through more than one climate zone, this also earns an extra bag.
  • If you are participating in gear heavy sports (like SCUBA) you may take an extra bag for that gear.

What you do NOT get an extra bag for: having a small child.

Maybe you’re shaking your head now, thinking, “What is she NUTS?! That’s impossible!”

I point you back to the two families: which do you want to be?

Long term and lifestyle travel is simply not sustainable if you are bogged down with ten bags for a family of four (and too many families are!) Dealing with lost baggage, too much baggage, heavy baggage on public transport, and packing and unpacking are the biggest joy stealers and time wasters of traveling. Less is more.

One bag for a family of six or fewer is NOT impossible–it’s totally doable, and it simplifies EVERYTHING.

What goes in the bag:

  • Three changes of clothes per person (five for a baby)
  • Toiletries (the smallest possible, remember, you can buy them!)
  • Swim suits
  • Two comfort items for your child; blankie and bear, perhaps?
  • Secondary sling (if you have a child under 5 years-old)
  • Mini-package of wipes for emergencies
  • A two pack of extra soothers (pacifiers) if you have a baby who needs them
  • First aid kit
  • Educational Supplies
  • Rubber ball (universal sink stopper for hand washing clothes in the hotel tub.)

That’s it.

Alternatives to the one bag rule

Kid with Backpack

There are times when packing one bag for the entire family is not the most convenient option. If you’re taking a short trip, of a week or less, you might want each child to carry his own clothing and toiletries in his regular sized backpack. Or, if you’re taking off for six months of backpacking in Central America, like we did, you might want each family member to have his own “real” backpack for the adventure.

The advantages of each child having his own bag are many:

  • It teaches personal responsibility
  • He learns how to pack appropriately
  • She learns to carry her own weight
  • It allows your child to learn, by trial and error, what they really need to travel.

**If you are planning to have your child carry his own bag, be aware that she should not carry more than 10% of her body weight, as a general rule. It’s not good for growing bodies to be overburdened with heavy bags!

Carry-on bags

If your child is over three, he can carry his own carry-on bag of personal items for day trips or plane rides. Giving a child ownership over her own gear, packing and carrying it, is an excellent way to instill pride and personal responsibility and make her feel as if she has some control and investment in the family adventure. Being responsible for his own carry-on, and its contents, will be an excellent lesson in choices and consequences as your child learns what is really worth making the effort to carry!
Some possible items for a carry-on or day pack might include:

  • Books or ebook reader
  • New colored pencils
  • Activity books, such as sudoku, crosswords, or our favorite, the “Anti-Coloring Book”
  • Sketch pad
  • Journal
  • Camera
  • Playing Cards
  • Tape
  • Travel-sized chess set
  • Toys small enough to fit into a zip-top bag
  • iPod or iTouch for music, audio books, and communication

Secret weapon

The final thing I would recommend that every traveling parent tuck into his bag is a Secret Weapon.

What is it? It is a secret stash of things sure to entertain, amuse, intrigue, distract, wow, or otherwise keep a kid busy when you REALLY need it. The greatest power of this weapon lies in it’s secrecy. If the child KNOWS the weapon exists, it will be far less amazing to its intended target, and all benefits of the weapon will be outweighed by the major detractor of the child ASKING for it every five seconds. What should you load it with:

  • Balloons
  • Tiny toys
  • Rubber bouncy balls
  • Deck of cards
  • Fun pad activity books
  • A new story to read aloud
  • A few postcards to write home to friends
  • Stickers & paper
  • A magnetic travel game or puzzle
  • Bubbles (not for in the car or airplane!)
  • Scotch tape, hours of fun!
  • Old hotel key cards (kids love these!)
  • Wikki stix

To deploy the weapon, bring out just ONE of the items you have squirreled away and milk its entertainment value for all it is worth. For our family, the general rule was no more than one secret weapon deployed in a given hour, unless of course there were extenuating circumstances, like a snowed-in flight or an impending toddler implosion, in which case, all bets are off, and I fire away with all available ammunition!

So, the short version run down on packing for your longer family trip or RTW?

  1. Choose your bag wisely
  2. Pack less. MUCH LESS
  3. Go for the One Bag Rule (you’ll thank me, I promise!)
  4. Keep weight in mind for kids carrying their own bags
  5. Rent or buy what you can when you arrive
  6. Pack carry-ons carefully
  7. Don’t forget the Secret Weapon!


Photo credits: treehouse1977, Sydney Treasures Photography, Bert Dickerson


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