Traveling with Carry-On Only

Packing with two little ones used to be a nightmare. It was a process that required multiple large suitcases, and careful coordination with car seats, temporary beds, and shipping ahead diapers and baby food. Then something happened. My babies became kids. They had their own seats on the plane and were able to drag their own suitcases. Two summers ago, as an end of the school year present, they each got their own carry on suitcases. Since then we have been carry on only and haven’t looked back.

So..how do we do it? Here’s how we manage to travel carry-on only as a family of four:

The Gear

American Tourister Frozen and Star Wars Suitcases: At 18” high, they easily fit in the overhead bin. In addition, they easily fit a medium and small packing cube of the kids clothes, a pair of shoes, and even room for a jacket, doll, and/or travel booster seat.

Samsonite Ziplite Hardside Spinners: at 20.5”, this fits US domestic standards for carry-on. It might be a little big for domestic lines in Europe and Asia. It easily fits a large, small and medium packing cube, as well as shoes, accessories, etc.

Backpacks: The kids usually use their school backpacks. I have a JanSport that holds my electronics, and my husband has a Tamrac camera/laptop backpack for his camera and laptop.

eBays Packing Cubes: Packing cubes are my life saver. I used them to keep everyone’s clothing organized, to compress and pack more in, and to even keep dirty shoes and clothing separate from clean items. I’ve tried a number of brands, but eBags brand is by far the best for our uses. We have them in all different sizes, shapes and colors to make sure we make it work for all.

Our bags are bright and colorful, but allows everyone to have their own, know what they are in charge of, and travel fairly light

What’s Inside

Kids Clothing: For the kids I usually pack for six days worth of clothing. That lets me do laundry every five days. We usually pack:

  • 6 bottoms, at least one long and one short
  • 6 tops, at least one long sleeve, warm layer
  • 1 swimsuit
  • 7 underwear
  • 5-7 pairs of socks
  • 2 PJs, at least one with long pants for the plane
  • Sneakers and sandals

My daughter will usually have a least one dress that counts as a bottom and a top. If there is a special event, we may throw in a fancy outfit and dress shoes. But we try to sacrifice something else to get it to fit in.

When packing I always include a warm layer and a swim suit, but try and make sure the rest of the clothing is trip appropriate, be it hiking in Yellowstone or attending an Indian wedding

My Clothing: I usually try to use Pinterest packing lists as inspiration for outfit ideas. But in generally I try to stick to:

  • 3 bottoms
  • 4 tops
  • 1 set of exercise/sleep clothing
  • 1 cardigan/light jacket
  • 1 dress
  • 1 swimsuit and a cover-up
  • Under garments
  • Socks
  • Shape wear (as needed)
  • 1 versatile scarf
  • No more than 3 pairs of shoes

I alway make sure to have one veristile dress that I can dress up or down, a nice swimsuit, and clothing that serves as both exercise clothing and sleepwear

My Husband’s Clothing: I honestly don’t know what he packs. He’s given guidance, it needs to fit in the carry on, and I’m only doing laundry every five days. I let him know the general agenda. Then he has to pack his own bag. He always seems to pack more than us, but he gets it to fit in the carry-on bag.

Toiletries and Extras

Everyone knows that the hard part of packing is all the “extras” that are outside of clothing. Here is what we typically have to pack once we’ve figured out the clothing:

  • Toiletries, typically travel sized:
  • Light Make-up:
  • Over the counter and prescription meds. Always include:
    • Children’s Motrin
    • Ibuprofen
    • Thermometer
  • Daytime bag/purse
  • Travel/Hidden wallet
  • Costume Jewelry
  • Sunglasses
  • 6-USB Port Charger & cords for all the electronics
  • Converter and International Adapters if traveling internationally
  • Electronics (Phones/tablets for all):

Always make sure to pack a day bag that matches your trip. I love my Travelon cross body bag with pockets for water bottles. But I also love my OGIO bag is also often in rotation, and I have this cute clutch that packs flat for nights out.

How we pack it all up

I usually try to load up the carry on suitcases without expanding them. In the backpack, I try to only carry what I think I’ll need during the plane ride (or road trip) and expensive items such as electronics and jewelry. I also keep the meds in the backpack and easy reach.

Kids Backpacks:

  • 1-2 books
  • Sticker or activity book
  • Pencil pouch with markers, pencils and crayons
  • Quart size ziplock of snacks
  • Phone

The kids back-packs always have activities for the airport and plane ride

My and My husband’s Backpacks:

  • Family passport wallet with everyone’s IDs and tickets
  • iPad with downloaded book and shows/movie
  • Phone
  • Camera
  • Prescription Medications
  • Hairbrush
  • Ziploc of toiletries
  • Cardigan and scarf
  • 1 pen
  • House keys
  • Eye mask

I’m sure there are lots of posts out there that can get the gear down down even smaller, to just backpacks, or even just one backpack per family. But generally on vacation I don’t want to find the time needed to search for a place to do laundry. I don’t want to worry about the fact that the kids got stuff all over their clothing..again.. and we need to do laundry..again. And I like to have room to bring back souvenirs. It helps keep the memories of the vacation alive. So we have found this happy balance that lets us travel relatively light while enjoying the trip. And don’t worry, the day will soon come where you too can travel carry-on only. Just be prepared to help with a bag or two if needed with the littler ones 😃

What are your trips for traveling carry-on only?  Any must-haves for your trip?

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