Ah the carry on bag. Its so necessary yet produces the biggest dilemma when traveling by air. And when you are traveling with small children the decision as to what to include and what to omit is even more pressing. What items are so absolutely necessary that you can’t be without them for a few hours? A change of clothes for each family member? Snacks? In-flight entertainment to keep kids of all ages occupied during those inevitable delays? And more importantly, how do you fit it all in what seems like a microscopic space? I’ve always strived to be more of a minimalist than a packrat but even I’ve struggled with this issue.
But now I live in Europe where discount airlines provide abundant opportunities to travel cheaply all over the Continent. As with all good things, however, there is a catch. While I can snag a seat to Italy for less than $10 USD it will cost me $40 to check a suitcase. A small carry-on (52” x45” x 25” for EasyJet), however, was free. All of a sudden that great deal doesn’t look so good any more. But enticed by the lure of Italian sun I decided that my family was up to the challenge and yes we could spend a week-long pasta and gelato feast with nothing more than a backpack each.
So how do you pack when you are allotted such little space? Very carefully! But here are my top seven tips for a packing a successful carry-on:
- Have one of your bags double as a daypack/purse: As the official document holder in my family I used a backpack as my carry-on bag and was able to keep our passports and wallets close at hand. Once we arrived at our destination I was able to use the backpack as our day pack when we were out exploring.
- Invest in a single pair of comfortable shoes: Footwear tends to weigh a lot and take up valuable space in any bag so find a comfortable pair of shoes to wear. I’m a fan of the brand Clarks and their black leather Mary Jane style shoe is the only one I take with me on trips. I can wear them with both pants and skirts and they are comfortable enough to withstand an entire day of walking over cobblestones.
- Neutral colored clothing: When I pack I stick to basic colors that allow me to mix and match outfits. Dark colors are better than lighter ones since you will inevitably get a stain on a white sweater the first time you wear it. Black will hide the stain. Wrinkle resistant clothing is great but not essential because most hotels will let you borrow an iron if needed. If you want to add variety to your outfit use a scarf that can also double as a shawl in cool weather or a head covering in churches and mosques. For adults I love clothing from the Travel Smith catalog. (You can also find a nice selection of carry-on bags here).
- Pre-plan your outfits: For each family member I will lay out an outfit for each day of our trip then I will remove half of what I have laid out. A single sweater can change the look of several outfits. Tee shirts can be layered both over and under other tops. Barring disasters, jeans can be worn several times before needing to be washed. For women and girls, I’m a fan of dresses and leggings when traveling. They pack well and expand your wardrobe options without taking up a lot of space.
- Wear your heaviest clothing on the plane: Your three-in-one jacket? Wear it if the weather calls for it and once you arrive at your destination you have a waterproof coat for the rain and a warmer jacket for cool evenings. The same goes for heavy sweaters. They take up less room on your body than they do in a bag.
- Invest in an all-in-one entertainment device: For us it is an iPad. It can provide entertainment on the airplane, let you check email when connected to Wifi and serve as your guidebook when you download city guides before you leave home.
- Use hotel amenities: There is no way to avoid airline restrictions when it comes to the amount of liquids you can bring onto your flight. I leave it all at home and use the shampoos and soaps provided by my hotel. And if all else fails I have yet to visit any country where I couldn’t buy replacements once I arrived. It saves on weight, allows me to meet the airline regulations and gets me into a local grocery store where I inevitably discover new things. The same goes for diapers and baby products. Take what you need for the flight and buy the rest when you get there.
Not only did we successfully survive Italy with just our carryon luggage, we had an amazing week. For the first time ever when traveling, we wore every item we brought with us. Because we only had our small bags to contend with we were easily able to navigate the narrow and cobblestone covered Italian streets and sidewalks. And what did we do with all of the money we saved by packing light? We ate more gelato of course!
What would you not be able to live without on a week backpacking with your kiddo?? Any other tips you can share?