baby proof: packing light with littles.

packing lightly with kids | reading my tea leaves My big sister, Cait, and I have children that are only 16 months apart. And in parenting, and all things, I turn to her for advice and big-sisterly wisdom. Cait has taken my three-year-old nephew on more than 100 individual flights—for business and pleasure—and has learned a thing or two about the magic of packing lightly. Here’s Cait’s best advice:

About five years ago, before we had a child, my husband and I took a vacation with friends to Hawaii. It was New Year’s Eve when we departed, when my resolutions were fresh and the New York City winter was bearing down. The fact that I’d not yet recovered from a stressful year-end work project–and a longing for light dresses and bare arms–had put me in a lay-down-my-burdens mindset. Almost without meaning to, I packed lighter than I ever had before. Two dresses and a bathing suit, a pair of shorts and sneaks, a simple dopp kit: all went into a tiny, overnight duffel. On the plane, I tucked the whole thing under the seat, with room to spare. Seeking a light heart, I’d ended up choosing light packing, too. It was my first venture into minimalist travel.

It was also the first time I heard this phrase, though not the last: “That’s all you brought?” A well-meaning grandma-aged lady at the airport was half-admiring, half-scolding as I emerged toward the taxi line. “Just wait till you have kids,” she scoffed merrily—as strangers wielding advice so often do. “You’ll never be able to travel that light again.”

Consider the gauntlet thrown.

Now three years into parenting, having taken more than 100 individual flights with a child, I can assure you that light packing with kids is not only doable, it’s preferable. In three years’ worth of trips with our son, both close-to-home and long-haul, my husband and I have never checked a bag. It’s made our family travel far cheaper and more efficient than it would otherwise be. But it’s also made it more peaceful: an exercise in truly getting away.packing lightly with kids | reading my tea leaves

Here’s how we do it. You can, too.

Go gearless.

Whenever possible, avoid taking baby gear on trips. Sure, it’s enticing to think that the pack-n-play or the baby bouncer will magically soothe your child through jet lag or across the international date line, but the truth is that the headache of toting your cumbersome gear in taxis and through baggage claim just might outweigh the benefits said gear provides. Even if you’re not into co-sleeping or baby-wearing at home, you might want to try it out when you travel: the savings in cost and hassle is tremendous. And when you really need the consistency or convenience (or safety) of a portable crib or car seat at your destination, consider renting or borrowing. Most hotels offer free porta-cribs (or “infant cots”, internationally) for families; major cities always have lots of options for private baby gear rental (and they deliver!); car rental companies almost always offer a car-seat rental add-on for a nominal daily fee; and friends or family at your destination might also be able to lend extra or outgrown gear.

Gate-check like a pro.

If you do find yourself needing to bring a stroller or car seat, do not overlook the elegant simplicity of the gate-check. If you’re an infrequent family traveler, you may not realize that car seats and strollers can almost always be gate-checked at the end of the jetway, as opposed to dropped at check-in as under-plane baggage…and for no fee. We did this so often that Delta gave us a permanent, plastic gate check tag for our stroller. Just be sure to get to the departure desk a bit early to get a gate-check tag, and then board early, too. (Occasionally, crowded flights mean that even gate-checked baby gear gets checked all the way through to your destination, meaning you can’t just swoop it up as you debark.)

Experience local laundry customs.  

I never did laundry while on vacation or on work trips before having a child; now I embrace it as part of the travel experience. No matter how much (or how little) you pack, the laws of family travel dictate that if you are traveling with a child, your one nice blouse will encounter spit up. Or you will sit on an entire bar of chocolate for the duration of an eight-hour flight. Or a full mug of coffee will be accidentally knocked on your lap at an airport eating establishment. (All purely hypothetical examples, of course.) And so: local laundry. Rather than packing for every possible catastrophe, just plan to do some wash. Most cities have cheap wash-n-folds that can launder a week’s worth of clothing for under $10. If you’re staying with relatives or at an AirBnB, laundering will be even cheaper. And no one died from a little hand-washing, if the need arises. Bonus: you might get a travel anecdote out of it. At the time, washing liquid poop out of a onesie in the public bathrooms at the Tower of London didn’t seem funny to me. Three years later? I can’t write this without laughing. Memories!

Embrace the backpack.

Ever seen a toddler near a rolling suitcase? If so, you know it’s an invitation to dawdle strenuously for as long as possible in the exact center of a public walkway. Those suckers were designed for flight attendants, not two-year-olds in thrall to mechanical engineering. In our family, we now use either two very compact travel backpacks, one for my husband and one for me (this one and this one, minus their water bladders) or, for shorter trips or visits requiring more, er, style, two zippable cross-body bags (this one and this one). If we’re staying somewhere for more than a week, we often each take both—backpack and crossbody—and still avoid checking any luggage, since one counts as a “personal item.” Note, too, that once your child is old enough, you can also saddle her with a mini-backpack of her own. (See also: adorable niece with pack in action.)

Time travel.

When Erin and I were kids, we didn’t do much air travel, but we often made several 10-hour car trips each year. With four of us kids crammed in a minivan, and without millennial conveniences like iPads and Kindles, we made do with singalongs, handmade lists of things to “I Spy” on the road; slim Mad Libs pads and sticker books; and the age-old standby of minimalist travel activities: hours-long bouts of play-fighting in the back seat. I try to adopt the same inventive spirit when traveling with my toddler: eschewing power-hungry devices and clunky crafts for imaginative and interactive games that take up no space at all. When in doubt, time travel back to an era (the ‘80s or the 1880s), when small, age-appropriate entertainments like nursery rhymes and modeling clay were all children had to while away the hours. It’ll serve you well not only on travel days, but on ordinary ones.

packing lightly with kids | reading my tea leaves

Ultimately, the magic of travel—why we do it in the first place—is not born of carrying, but of leaving behind. It’s not about recreating the world we live in at home, thing by thing, but in discovering a new world altogether, often because we’ve taken some comforting things out of the suitcase. (Erin has more to say on this subject in my very favorite essay in Simple Matters.) Sound too Pollyanna? Lest you think I’m breezing through family travel with rose-colored glasses, I’ll share this: I survived a 72-hour, cross-country Amtrak trip—just me and my two-and-a-half-year-old—using only a sheet of temporary tattoos, a sticker book, and generous use of a memory game that involves arranging sugar packets and other sundries on a tray table and then daring your toddler to Guess What I Took Away. Sometimes, it was hard. Other times, it was very hard. Once, I caught myself looking wistfully at an Amish family who’d armed their brood of six with a cache of 90s-era Game Boys. And yet, my child and I together experienced those crystal-clear travel moments that will stick with us forever, like climbing into our train-bed, cuddled like puppies, as the sun set over the mountains of Western Montana. I wouldn’t give that up for a thousand Game Boys.

Go minimalist, I say, and let travel transform you. Because isn’t that the point?

More Baby Proof, right this way, including lots more from Cait.

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