How to Stop Packing So Much Crap When You Travel with Kids

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Julie Schwietert Collazo
Later this week, Mariel, our four and three-quarters year old daughter, will finish her first year of school (!). Two days later, we will all (Francisco, Mariel, Orion, and myself–did I mention I’m seven months pregnant?) board a plane bound for Utah, where we’ll be working for a week, doing research for an article.

We will, no doubt, be jockeying for overhead bin space with other parents who are starting their summer travels. Before Francisco even starts grumbling about the bin hogs, wondering where he’s going to store his camera gear, we’ll have “Excuse us, please”‘d so many times past SUV strollers laden with The Things Parents Absolutely Can’t Travel Without that we’ll be tired before our plane takes off.

I applaud parents who travel with their kids because there are so many moms and dads who don’t do so; it seems too overwhelming to them. But I wish more moms and dads would realize they really don’t need to bring everything and the kitchen sink with them, especially when they’re traveling domestically. All of the items they’ve convinced themselves they can’t leave home without are so burdensome that they’re frazzled and hunched over and snapping at the kids and each other, ruining their vacations before they even begin.

Clothes bag for myself and two kids... for a three-day road trip.
Clothes bag for myself and two kids… for a three-day road trip.

I see these parents in airports and I want to walk up to them and say, “Really, you don’t have to pack so much crap.” Your kids don’t need all the things you think they need. Children are far more resourceful than we give them credit for. In fact, they are far more resourceful than you are. For them, anything can be turned into a toy. The emergency card in the seat pocket in front of you? Mariel has spent long stretches of time looking at the pictures and making up stories about what she thinks is happening. The barf bag? It makes for a great hand puppet. Besides, if you’re honest with yourself, the main reason you probably want to distract your kids is to ward off your own anxiety about whether they might have an on-board meltdown. As with most tasks and challenges of parenting, if you just let your kids inhabit their natural rhythm, they’ll do a fairly decent job of self-regulating. And when they don’t, then it’s time to pull out the window clings (which, by the way, fit MUCH better into your carry-on than the “educational” toy you packed).

One of the ways to pack less crap is to subject everything to the wants and needs test. Lay everything you want to take out on your bed. Now, look at each item one by one and ask yourself if you’re really going to need it, or if you’re packing it “just in case.” Most “just in case” items aren’t necessary. And even plenty of needs (the 32-count bag of diapers, for example) don’t actually need to be packed; you’d be better off picking them up once you’ve arrived at your destination. Decide what your list of non-negotiables includes and stick to it. Type it up, print it out, and refer to it each time you’re getting ready for a trip.

Once you’ve eliminated some of those “want” items and you’ve slimmed down your suitcase and carry-ons in the first round of ruthless packing, ask yourself the “Can I carry it comfortably?” question. If you can’t carry it comfortably, it doesn’t need to come with you. When you’re traveling with kids, you want to be agile and mobile, not burdened by two overpacked shoulder bags, a backpack, and a rolling suitcase. For me, packing for my family is a lot like clothes shopping: If it’s not comfortable, it’s not for me.

Finally, pack items that serve multiple functions and require minimal management. Rather than pack a blanket, a changing mat, a picnic blanket, and a scarf, I pack a 20-year old sarong that serves these and at least a dozen other purposes. Because it’s thin and dries quickly, I can wash it out in a sink when needed.

Inevitably, you will forget something you or your kids really do need. (This would happen, by the way, even if you overpacked). When this happens, consider it an excellent opportunity to teach your kids a lesson in creative resourcefulness.

TSA, flight delays, surly service… there are already enough reasons to be cranky when you’re traveling. Don’t carry so much crap that you make the experience even tougher on yourself and your kids.

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Julie Schwietert Collazo

Julie Schwietert Collazo and Francisco Collazo. For more information, please contact us: e-mail:

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