We’re a family of seven, so it’s hard for people to imagine that we do anything “minimally” or “lightly.” And of course, any time someone hears that we strive towards minimalism, we get the jokes about how we’re not minimalist when it comes to children.
Joking aside, it is possible to travel with fewer things, even if you have a bunch of kids. We’ve found ways that work for us, so I want to share the tips we’ve learned.
We travel light, yet we come prepared for anything. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive, and I’ll prove it to you.
This is a compact, but highly packed, guide to traveling light with five kids, but it applies to anyone with any amount of kids. I’m even going to show you specifically what we pack and take with us.
We’ve done our research and found the best things to take with us when we travel. I link to many of the great things we’ve found, so be sure to take a look if there’s a link.
Some of the items I link to are affiliate links from Amazon, but I only link to things we love and use.
Now let’s talk travel!
Vehicle Vs. Plane Travel
With a large family, it’s often easier to drive.
Plane tickets and rental cars are expensive. This is even truer when you’re accommodating many people.
We live in Europe where plane tickets are cheaper than most places, but we still fork over more than $2,000, on average, when we fly to nearby countries. Flying back to the States can cost upwards of $8,000.
So we try not to fly often. We drive when possible. Driving also provides more room to bring things along. Granted, that’s not always a good thing.
When we travel in our van, we take a few semi-essentials with us just because we have the room. But there are only a few differences between how we pack for vehicle travel and plane travel.
In fact, these are the only additional items we bring when we travel by van:
- A van – We never leave home without it.
- Pack ‘n Play – For the baby to sleep in, but we usually don’t need this. I’ll explain why below.
- Fans/Heaters – Most of my family prefers to sleep with one, but it doesn’t really work out when flying.
That’s it. Other than those things, we’ve learned that if we can leave it at home when we fly, why take it when we drive?
Now let’s get into how we pack light…
What You Shouldn’t Pack
With five kids, we skip the hotels. We’ve found AirBNB (you can use this link to get a discount if you’ve never used it before) to be more accommodating, and less expensive. Honestly, we don’t even fit into hotel rooms anymore. Most hotels have a maximum occupancy of five people per room… pesky fire codes!
Since we’ve been using AirBNB, we’ve found that we can pack much lighter.
The AirBNB will list everything that’s provided for you. All you have to do is make sure the following things are provided so you can pack even lighter. Here’s an example of the amenities provided by a unit:
These are the things we’ve been able to cut:
- Half Our Clothes – It’s easy to find a unit with a washer and dryer, so you can bring half, if not less, what you would normally bring.
- Shampoo and Soap – Practically all units have this. There’s no reason to bring your own.
- Crib/Pack ‘n Play – Most units will provide this if you tell them ahead of time. If the listing says it’s included, make sure you let them know you need it so you don’t risk showing up late at night, and it not being set up.
- Coffee Maker – I used to bring my AeroPress, since it’s the most compact coffee maker I own, but even that isn’t necessary anymore. If the unit doesn’t provide a coffee maker, the AeroPress is still my choice.
Communicate with the host ahead of time. Ask about the little things:
- Will there be coffee provided?
- Or at least a coffee maker?
- If so, what type?
- How are the pillows?
- Do you need to bring your own special pillow or does the unit have pillows that would suffice?
The more you communicate up front, the more accommodating your trip will be. There’s no reason to pack things that are already provided.
Worst case scenario, if the items are supposed to be there and they aren’t, just contact your host or go spend a few dollars and buy them.
Packing for “just in case” leads to overpacking. Don’t do it.
Teach Your Kids to Pack Light
Think of cutting travel items like cutting expenses.
You start by cutting things you obviously don’t need, and then you go item by item to see how far you can take it. There are a few things we used to pack until we audited our packing list.
We first started teaching our kids to pack light by examining every single thing they wanted to bring with them. We have them lay everything out on their beds, and we discuss each item.
For example, our youngest daughter was bringing a stuffed animal every time, until we pointed out how she often forgets to sleep with it, it gets thrown on the ground, and we risk forgetting it at the unit. One item down.
If your child wants to bring more things to feel safe—a “just in case” item—don’t rip it out of their backpack. Simply let them bring it, and then spend a few trips analyzing what they bring. Show them how they can eliminate things and make their backpack lighter.
It takes time, but it’s worth the time.
Create a Packing List
We have a simple list in Google Tasks that has everything we need to bring with us. It’s one list with separate sections to differentiate what we bring based on the type of travel.
I have a list for official military travel, which would add things like uniforms and military orders, and we have a list for just the two of us, when we don’t take the kids along (not that it happens often).
Using a packing list—the same one every time—eliminates the stress of forgetting something. Here’s what our list looks like, whether it’s a 3-day or a 3-week trip:
We have a Quechua daypack for each of the kids. We paid less than $10/each for them and they’ve held up for 30+ trips now. Plus, the small size forces minimal travel.
- Coat/jacket (1 each)
- Shirts (3 each)
- Pants (2 each)
- Shoes (1 pair each, multi-purpose shoes that look good and work for all of the walking we do)
- Socks (3 pair each)
- Underwear (4 pair each)
- Bose SoundLink Reolve – For music and white noise
- Cell chargers
- FitBit Blaze x2 (and charger)
- Laptop charger (and applicable plug adapter)
- MacBook Pro (though the MacBook Air is better for travel)
- Portable battery charger
- Plug adapters (depending on the country)
- Baby Carrier – Either this Osprey carrier or a compact stroller
- Books – My wife keeps hers on a Fire HD, and I mostly stick with Audible on my phone. The kids bring one small book each.
- Camera (if we’re going to a scenic location, otherwise we just use our phones)
- Medicine – We bring the amount we need in ziplock bags, with a few extra. This eliminates bulky pill bottles.
- Money Bag (currency from multiple countries – whichever applies)
- Selfie Stick (for family photos)
- Deodorant – Travel size
- Eye drops
- Tooth brushes
- Tooth paste – Travel size
- Blankets – Only when needed
- Pack ‘n Play – If one is not provided
- Popup Kid’s Tent – This is great as an alternative to a bulky pack ‘n play or as a bed for our 5-year-old, which he much prefers to a normal bed.
- Towels – If not provided
- Sleeping bag – If we’re staying in a unit without enough beds
- Swim suits
- Official passport
- Military orders
- Military uniforms
This could be your business list, to remind yourself to bring your briefcase, important papers, etc..
Reduce Every Time
Like I mentioned earlier, go over everyone’s things each time. Figure out how you can pack lighter next time.
You don’t want to get there and not have everything you need. This can create subconscious insecurities, and cause your kids to overpack for the rest of their lives. This is how hoarding is formed.
If you plan ahead, and prepare for everything you can to already be in place, you can pack light. It’s just like minimizing your home; you can take baby steps to rid yourself of more things over time.
A minimal trip helps you focus more on the experience. That is, after all, what it’s all about!
Happy and safe travels! May your next trip be lighter than your last.
Last Updated: June 23, 2020