Here’s What You Need to Know About Packing for Amazing Family Travel

by Janelle Schroy

I’d be a rich woman if I had a dime for every time someone has asked me, “How do you pack six people for a non-stop journey to 50 countries?”

When we started our family adventure to travel the world together 4.5 years ago, we traveled WAY too heavy.

We had a two year old in a stroller with all that comes with toddler-hood including diapers, toys, wipes and multiple changes of clothes per day. That was already too much.

Türikye — İstiklal Avenue in Istanbul

Add to that three siblings aged 4, 6, and 8 years old, and all THEIR stuff. Oh, and two adults and their clothes, shoes and extras.

Then add gear for our TV shows plus laptops, iPads and all the charging cords and international converters, and, and, and.

It all seemed so necessary at the beginning.

But once you’ve carted all that STUFF around a labyrinth of cobblestone streets in Prague, or dragged it up and down 20 footbridges in Venice or lugged it all up four floors of narrow stairwells in Paris, it soon becomes clear that every square inch of that luggage is precious.

EVERYTHING is up for being cut. Heels? Nope. Gloves and scarves? Nope. Rain boots? Nope. Legos? Nope. Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut.

These days, we have it down to much less.

Argentina — On the Beagle Channel

WHAT WE CHECK ON BOARD

We check ONLY ONE large suitcase on board as a family.

Some people we know are stickler about traveling with backpacks only — but that is NOT for us. I think that works for seasonal travel or short-term trips, or maybe for older teens, but for indefinite travel with little ones, we don’t see the point. But having only one checked bag saves us a ton in baggage fees and in car space too.

In our one checked bag we have:

  • Off-season clothes for six people such as sweaters, jeans and socks
  • Family liquids and toiletries
  • A set of plastic Ikea dishes and cutlery (yes, this IS necessary for us)
  • travel spice pack since we mostly stay in Airbnbs which are typically not stocked with spices
  • An AeroPress travel — because, good coffee is part of our family’s DNA!
  • Three thin throw blankets, which we use either as picnic blankets or as “sheets” to put down on the floor or sofas to make beds for kids in hotel rooms. Sidenote: The girls cover up with their own cozy blanket and use their travel pillow, or we order a few extra pillows from the hotel. This means any hotel room in the world equals bedding for all six of us when the smallest child is in bed with mom and dad. #travelhack
London — Leadenhall Market in the middle of the night

WHAT THE KIDS CARRY ON BOARD

MINI SUITCASE

Each of our four kids have one small rolling carry-on suitcase which looks like this. This is what they take onboard the plane. We love hardshell luggage as it lasts so much longer than soft luggage and it packs neatly into small spaces like the trunk of a car.

In each suitcase are three compartments:

  • Right Inner Section — One half holds 7–10 days worth of clothes for the current season — which is usually warm weather because we can make that choice as travellers — and an extra pair of shoes. We use plastic shower caps to cover the shoes.
  • Left Inner Section — One half holds their personal stuff. For the teen that’s jewelry, art stuff, and accessories. For the six year old, that’s bath toys, a Build-a-Bear teddy, some Disney princess loot, and so forth. For the two tween girls, their things include a range of toys, small treasures, and crafting stuff.
  • Outside Laptop Compartment — The outer pocket of the hardshell suitcase is accessible without opening the suitcase. The girls have in it a few workbooks (math, ahem!), a nature journal, a few chapter or sticker books, an iPad and some art supplies.

PERSONAL BACKPACK

Each have a small backpack, which is their “personal item” to put under the seat in front of them. We chose this backpack because it has many pockets, thoughtful design, it is waterproof, and it has a charging bank inside.

Most importantly, it has a strap at the back of it which attaches it to the carry-on suitcase. This way, the kids can roll everything they own with one hand. When kids are tired after double overnight planes or a multi-time zone travel day, carrying a backpack can mean game over. Strap it to the handle of the rolling suitcase, mama! #travelhack

We have this backpack in four colors and it matches their suitcases and iPad covers, so they feel very cute and put together because they have their own personal color. Ex: Reagan has greens, Madison has purples, Devyn has blues, and Peyton has reds.

This backpack holds their earbuds, a cozy blanket (with fun prints that match their interests), an inflatable travel pillow, a silk eye mask, playing cards, play dough or molding clay (endless fun!), fidget spinners, and a drawing pad with coloring pencils.

Usually the international planes we are on have a screen for each person, so the kids don’t need their iPads out when we’re on board. When this isn’t the case, we pull out the iPads before we put each suitcase in the overhead bin.

INSTRUMENT

The three older girls (now ages 9, 11, and 13) also carry their instrument by hand. The instruments are a flute, ukulele, and violin. We never, ever check these, and it’s never been a problem in 4+ years.

Morocco — Tea in the Agafay Desert

WHAT THE PARENTS CARRY ON BOARD

MINI SUITCASE

My husband and I each have one rolling carry-on suitcase which we take onboard the plane. In it is our entire season of clothes which equals about 7–10 days worth of outfits and an extra pair of shoes. I usually wear sandals, and I have a pair of tennis shoes or boots in my bag.

Side note: Yes, ladies — my entire seasonal wardrobe is in that carry-on suitcase. I used to model, act, dance and live in Southern California, so I’m no hippie and definitely not a backpacker type. I love fashion and accessories, so this is no small feat for me to be down to JUST THIS. It’s way easier for my husband as a dude!

TECHIE BACKPACK

Mom — In our family device backpack (which is a built to carry laptops with multiple compartments and waterproof through and through), I carry:

  • Two Macbook Pros
  • Gear related to all the family’s devices such as cords, drives, converters, etc.
  • Passports and important papers like international drivers’ licenses, copy of marriage and birth certificates, vaccination cards, and so forth.

Dad — In our family gear backpack, my husband carries all the filming gear — and there is A LOT of it. That pack weighs easily 40 pounds and includes:

Word to the wise — we do NOT like transiting through India, where they require a FULL inspection of every last cord and item in that blasted gear bag. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean. Nightmare. Avoid transiting through India at all costs if you are carrying a lot of tech or gear.

Regarding the drone — we specifically chose a small drone which isn’t a problem to bring and fly in most countries. But when we see that a country has a long list of rules around bringing in drones, we will take the drone apart before we transit and separate the parts of the drone (i.e. the controller and the blades) and stash them separately into different carry-on bags between the six of us. It’s just easier than dealing with the drone entry conversation. #travelhack

We film two travel shows while we travel: Adventure Family Journal & Journey Into Wild, so all of this is necessary for our line of work.

HAND PIECE

Mom — I carry on my shoulder a medium-sized mini tote with a variety of items including:

  • My personal items
  • First aid kit and medicine for the family
  • Protein snacks and large water bottle
  • Six toothbrushes / toothpaste
  • Perhaps most importantly: 8 lollipops! When planes ascend and descend, I always give lolly to my kids to help with air pressure. It distracts them and keeps them sucking, so their ears feel better. I never leave home without a bag of lollipops.#travelhack

Basically, it’s the “catch all” bag for the whole family as we make our way from one country or city to the next.

Dad — He carries in his hand a mini, nylon, collapsable duffel bag with our six winter jackets squeezed tightly inside.

If and when an airline agent says we’re carrying on too much, we just take out the jackets, and everyone carries or wears their own. Then the nylon bag fits into my husband’s pocket.

Save that travel hack!

Lapland — Crossing into the Arctic Circle

So there you have it — what we travel with as a family of six including kids ages 6, 9, 11 and 13. And yes — our six year old does handle her own suitcase and backpack, like a boss!

With this luggage configuration, we only ever check one bag and we can get our whole family and our luggage into any medium-sized car. Plus, we are fully mobile on foot to criss-cross a city by public transportation if needed.

Takeaway—if we can do it, YOU can too! So get those passports out and book a trip with your family. The luggage thing…sorted. Bon voyage!

Janelle Schroy
South Africa — On safari in Addo Elephant Park
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