The sheer horror of lost luggage is enough incentive for families to pack carry-on luggage only, but with nearly all airlines charging checked luggage fees, doing so will also ease the burden on your wallet. Think it can’t be done? Following the tips below will have you packing light on your next family vacation:
1. Use the ‘roll’ method or packing cubes when packing.
Research (and when I say research, I mean thousands of Pinterest re-pins) shows that rolling clothes instead of folding them saves 30% more space in a duffle or suitcase. Line the bag with bulkier items such as shoes, then roll heavier clothing (like pants and jeans) on the bottom, layering next with shirts, t-shirts, and lastly, delicates and socks. Packing cubes can be essential to packing organization. I use shoe cubes to keep kids’ socks and underwear organized, but many families ‘cube’ by day, packing complete outfits for each child in each cube.
2. Pack more shirts than each child needs, and half as many pants.*
Assuming your family vacation is not taking you too far into the wild unknown (and if so, lucky you!), the majority of messes will occur to your child’s shirts (think food spills, sweat, and sticky hands wiping). Pants and shorts can often be re-worn with minimal noticability to their wear. Try to find clothes that do double duty, such as pants that zip off to become shorts, and sun protection shirts that can be worn during active play. Likewise, try to restrict each child to two pairs of shoes: a sturdy pair of walking/hiking shoes (to be worn on the plane) and a pair of destination and season-appropriate sandals or boots.
*Does not apply if you have a potty-training child, but that probably goes without saying!
3. Rent baby equipment at your destination.
By far the bulkiest part of the packing equation is baby gear such as portable cribs and play spaces, strollers, seats, and baby feeding equipment. Whether your destination is a hotel or resort or a relative’s home, there are numerous companies renting all of the above to vacationing families. Most allow parents to reserve the desired equipment online ahead of time, and will deliver equipment to their door. One I have used and recommend is Hotel Babies. And if your child is still in the logistically-difficult baby food stage, companies such as Petit Organics will deliver organic, hand-processed baby food as well.
4. Be prepared to do laundry.
No one wants to do laundry on vacation, but with a little preparation, it doesn’t have to ruin your day. We always pack 2-3 mesh laundry bags, which compact to almost nothing while empty. Travel-sized laundry detergent containers and stain remover can be purchased in TSA-approved sizing, and a roll of quarters can make finding change for washing machines far less painful.
5. Take advantage of the carry-on plus purse rule.
In addition to each ticketed passenger’s carry-on, he or she is permitted a personal purse, tote, or backpack. Since hauling a family’s worth of carry-on luggage can be challenge enough, consider foregoing each passenger’s right to bear a backpack and consolidate to only one or two totes or packs for family use. In addition to each passenger’s carry-on, we designate one large tote for in-air entertainment, which carries our laptop, iPad, and each family member’s book or Kindle and one backpack for snacks, medications, water bottles (to be filled post-security) and other essentials.
6. Board as early as possible.
Because so many travelers are now packing carry-on only to avoid luggage fees, those bulk-head luggage bins fill up quickly. And when they’re full, you’ll be forced to check bags against your will. If you’re carting several large carry-on roller boards or duffles, board the plane as soon as you’re able. Doing so will ensure there’s still space for your carry-ons.
7. Gate check for free.
If you’re carrying-on only for the cost-savings, and don’t mind waiting at the baggage carousel for your bags at your destination, almost all airlines will offer free checking at the gate, as an incentive for travelers to save some cabin space. On smaller commuter flights, gate-checked bags will usually be waiting for you on a cart directly off the plane, but beware that on longer flights, they’ll be checked all the way through to your final destination.
Note: Don’t forget about the 3-1-1 rule! The 3-1-1 rule states that you cannot bring any liquid or gel that’s more than three ounces, and these must be carried in one quart-sized clear, zip-lock baggie. We love the reusable kind for this purpose (find them at eBags and Timbuk2).
When packing carry-on only may not work for you:
Carry-on travel is possible even during extended or long-term travel (thanks mostly to the laundry tip!), but there are situations in which it just may not be practical, such as 1) during winter vacations, for which bulky snow or ski wear or multiple layers are needed, or 2) during adventure travel, during which a wide-variety of clothing types will be needed (think hiking gear and snorkeling gear, or 3) during multi-climate travel, during which several drastic weather changes may necessitate bringing both winter and summer wear.
Do you pack carry-on with your family? How do you make it work?