One of the biggest, saddest obstacles to international travel with kids is the perception that you’ll need to haul around a ton of luggage. It’s a misperception, as Eric Stoen, the founder of Travel Babbo, shows us. Eric is a frequent international traveler whom I met when he won Condé Nast Traveler’s Dream Trip Photography Contest, and he uses many of the same strategies I use when packing for my own family.
This past summer we took a Disney Cruise from Venice to Barcelona and then, with suggestions from the kids (and a little research on TripAdvisor), kept adding on European destinations post-cruise. What started as two weeks in Europe turned into six weeks. Those six weeks included everything from a formal night on the cruise to operas in Salzburg to hiking and swimming, with temperatures ranging from the 90s in Turkey to the 50s in Austria at night. We were still able to pack everything for two adults and three kids (ages 4, 6, and 8) into just two suitcases and two carry-ons. Here are our packing suggestions—based on this trip and many others—and they work just as well for a one-week trip as for a longer vacation:
1. Use packing cubes. In our case, each adult gets two and each kid gets one. These allowed us each to pack enough clothes for four to five days each (which was sufficient, given that we would have laundry access at several points during the trip or could do laundry in hotel sinks and bathtubs when necessary). The cubes have the added benefit of neatly organizing our clothes, which comes in handy when we are in non-connecting hotel rooms and need to place each person’s things in the correct room.
2. Pack empty duffels, and be prepared to ship things home. We packed two empty duffels in our suitcases and filled both (with souvenirs and new school clothes for the kids) over the course of the first four weeks. In Austria we bought boxes at the post office, loaded them up, and mailed them home. It was inexpensive, and all of a sudden we had empty duffels again for shopping at our remaining destinations. We always have to bring back several bags of Batticuori cookies from Italy, after all!
3. Limit your colors. It’s often said but bears repeating: Take clothes that mix and match.
4. Forget formality. Hauling around a sport coat for six weeks that you’ll use on only one or two nights doesn’t make sense. My son and I were fine in slacks and button-down shirts for both the “formal” cruise dinners and the operas. The girls found it easy to make a few skirts and dresses fit any occasion.
5. Eliminate shoes that aren’t practical. Does anyone really need more than three pair of shoes on a trip? Each of us brought one pair of comfortable walking shoes, one pair of flip-flops or sandals, and one pair of slightly nicer shoes for dressing up. No heels: If it can’t be worn on cobblestone streets, it wasn’t allowed in the suitcases.
6. Bring kid medicines. We bring an assortment of medical items that may not be easy to locate in foreign cities. Our emergency kit consists of Pepto-Bismol and Tums for kids, Band-Aids, Neosporin, hydrocortisone, and children’s ibuprofen—the chewable pills, not the liquid. Every trip we (unfortunately) need to use most of those items at least once.
7. Don’t forget sun hats and sunscreen. If we forget sun hats, we have to buy them at one of our first stops. It’s not fun being somewhere like Ephesus for hours with no shade.
8. Take a linen blanket. We find ourselves at the beach frequently and often have impromptu picnics in parks. A large, thin linen towel or blanket works for both: It’s a towel for wet kids, or a picnic blanket. It can also double as a skirt/sarong for the occasional church that doesn’t accept visitors in shorts, and it can be used to pack breakable items on the way home.
9. Don’t spurn electronics. Books are great at home, but on the road we rely on lightweight iPods and iPad Minis. They’re lifesavers on airplanes, as well as at long European dinners when it takes 45 minutes to get the check.
10. Remember packing and repair supplies. We bring a small kit with scissors, packing tape, blue gaffer’s tape, and a Sharpie. We use these for everything: shipping boxes, labeling cups, wrapping fragile souvenirs, taping up shampoo tops before flights, and on-the-fly repairs.
What’s your best family packing tip?