I’m convinced the best things you can bring along when traveling with kids are a sense of humor and a willingness to engage with them. We try to pack light and keep all purchases minimal. These are the most useful things we’ve brought along while traveling with our two kids (currently ages 5 and 2); recently we traveled for two months around Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, and each of these items came in extremely handy***.
When you want to pack light and simply, extra shoes should be the very first thing to go. They’re bulky, heavy, dirty and hard to pack; if at all possible, only bring one pair. If you’re going to be engaging in very many different activities on your travels, this can be tricky—you’ve got to find a shoe that makes sense for every situation. For versatility, we love these Keen sandals. They’ve got a protected toe, work great for hiking and walking, can be adapted for chillier weather with the addition of warm socks, and work as water shoes, too. They can be expensive, especially in a kid’s shoe that’ll be grown out of quickly. We’ve had good luck finding them used at consignment shops; they’re very durable, so they’re perfect for passing down within families, too. And while it’s usually ill-advised to put kids in shoes that don’t fit right, we started both kids in sandals that were a few sizes too big and they never had trouble with tripping. The sandals are also accommodating and adjustable for the chubby or high-arched.
I’ve tried lots of gadgets in pursuit of the elusive Good Airplane Sleep, and my quest became even more urgent once I had kids. I don’t care for the U-shaped pillows since they push your head forward, and while I’ve liked other things I’ve tried, it never seems worth the space in my suitcase when it only gets used on the plane. But since we had some super long flights and brutal connections on this trip, I decided to try these footrests. They inflate to fill the space between your seat and the seat in front of you, essentially turning the space into a tiny (but functional) recliner. With more than one, you can make a pretty good bed out of your row, and that’s what we did. I laid down with a kid on each side and we slept soundly for a good 8 hours. I’m torn on whether those two good sleeps were worth the space these took up in our suitcases, but they’re really not very big and they worked great.
A few tips: Don’t inflate these and then try to stuff them down between the seats—they won’t fit. Instead, inflate them a bit, get them in place and lean over to fill them up the rest of the way. You don’t have to fill them quite to capacity, as the cabin pressure will probably inflate and deflate them a bit as you go.
I’ve heard that some airlines will give you trouble with these, so maybe be a bit discreet about inflating them, but we had no problems on our long-haul flights (we went over with Singapore Air and came back with Hawaiian Air).
We’ve sung the praises of our Ergobaby carrier lots of times before: it’s our go-to carrier for Margie on every hike, short or long. The carrier is equally good for travel; it’s lightweight and easy to stuff in a suitcase and you can use it for hiking, long days of sightseeing, on-the-go naps, hands-free carrying through airports, etc.
Mifold Car Seat:
For the over-4 set, this compact booster seat is worth bringing along if you’ll be driving at your destination. Its safety ratings are just as good as for typical booster seats; it works by positioning a shoulder belt so that it fits properly for a tiny human and stays in place. We brought one for Graham. For Margie, we purchased a car seat once we got to Australia and carried it with us to New Zealand and Samoa. Buying one was less expensive than the daily rental cost, and we just donated it right before we left.
We dealt with high heat and scorching sun on our trip, as well as freezing cold and snow. A sun hat each and a warm beanie were indispensable (if you’re going light and not sure what weather you’ll be dealing with, these things are easy to acquire en route, but they’re also light and small to pack, so if you have them at home you might as well bring them.)
We knew we’d be spending a lot of time around water on this trip, so the kids' puddle jumpers were a packing no-brainer. While bulky, they clip easily to the outside of a carry-on and they’re light. There are inflatable options, of course, but we like these because they’re durable and Coast Guard-approved, which means if we go on a boat tour or guided kayak trip, they won’t cause problems with the company’s insurance.
Having PFDs (personal flotation devices) for the kids is not only safe, it also makes pool and beach time immeasurably more fun. The kids can be a bit more independent and while the grown-ups stay very close by, we don’t have to hold the kids the whole time we’re in the water. More fun for everyone, builds confidence in the kids, and much safer. It’s a win on every front.
A swim shirt with UV-protection is ace beach gear for everyone. It’s especially good for protecting sensitive kid skin and you’ll save on sunscreen, too.
White noise machine:
We sleep with a fan at home and we’re all used to the white noise. When you’ve got four people sleeping in a small space, having some ambient sound going can really help everyone sleep better. We’ve typically played rain sounds on our phones when we’re sleeping away from home, but on this trip we didn’t often have access to a plug overnight to keep a phone charged, plus the noise can sound tinny and harsh through a phone’s speakers anyway. So we tried this little machine from Soundbub and it’s worked great. It holds a charge for two nights, has three sounds to choose from, and gets nice and loud.
On this trip, we listened to The Hobbit and the first four Harry Potter books. Graham LOVES this. We’ve done some very long drives on this trip and the books kept us all going. Margie doesn’t like it as much as the rest of us, but she hangs with it.
Toys and books:
I know a lot of people recommend getting special travel toys that are just for the plane, with the idea that the novelty will be more fun. You know your kid best—maybe they love a novelty and that would be a good route to go for them. Ours tend to get excited by a new toy for a few minutes, and then go right back to their old favorites. If that sounds more like your little people, I highly recommend bringing along the exact few toys that see the most playtime at home, along with a book or two that get read over and over again. These are our kids' favorites, and they’re what we brought along on our two-month trip. You’ll have your own favorites, but if you’re looking for something new, maybe give one of these a shot:
Uno: We love playing games as a family; Uno is a classic, perfect for Graham and graspable for Margie (with occasional help :).) Good for the plane, it can also fill up a lot of time when we have unexpected waits, which inevitably happens when you’re traveling. Here’s another game we’ve loved on other trips.
Transformer: Endless fun for our 4-year-old. It can be taken apart and put back together, driven around, and cast in all manner of imaginary scenarios. Ours is pocket-sized and came from a game shop with a collection of classic and vintage toys.
Matchbox car: Just one. For our kids, one car can occupy them far longer than a bucketful.
This book: A perennial favorite. There are enough stories here to occupy a good bit of time and some of them are interactive.
And this book: Another favorite. Margie loves flaps and this one keeps her going for a long time.
Magnetic tiles: We love these versatile little building tools. We’ve tried other kinds at home, but these are the best for travel and the easiest for little hands to manipulate (because of the holes in the middle.) They’re a perfect size and the magnets are strong; this is hands-down the most played-with toy we own, even though we only have 12 squares and 12 triangles. We brought about 8 of each shape and they’ve continued to be a hit. Great for building, but also for any kind of imaginative play—David and I have been served many a pizza or cake made of these tiles.
Coloring book and pencils: We picked up a few books and a box of colored pencils in Australia to occupy the kids for some long drives. They’ve been an ENORMOUS hit; the kids don’t normally spend a long time coloring at home, but for some reason on this trip (maybe because they didn’t have much else to do) they really took to it and they’ve spent all their down time drawing and coloring.
Sketchbook: I got a cute little blank book inside a magazine I picked up in New Zealand and gave it to the kids. Graham has adopted it and started writing a book by drawing pictures and copying words he sees on signs and packages. He has had hours of fun with it and I can’t tell you how much David and I love seeing his little creations.
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