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7 tips from parents on how to pack lighter with kids

From strollers to packing cubes, traveling parents share their advice for what to pack (and what to leave behind)

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Alina Azizian and Rich Rodman always wanted a life full of travel, even if they had kids. When their daughter was born, the couple suddenly had two precious, unfamiliar gifts: their new baby and paid family leave. With the money they had saved by skipping a big wedding, they took their baby and traveled to Armenia, France and Germany.

“Preparing for it and planning for it was far more stressful than any of the travel,” Azizian says.

Now, Azizian’s advice to fellow parents is to minimize what you pack. But how do you know what’s worth bringing, and what you can leave behind? We asked traveling parents to share their best packing tips to get you started.

Pack: Packing cubes

To keep life organized before and during a trip, Megan E. McKay, a commercial airline ground handler in Montana who blogs about traveling with her toddler, Gavin, swears by packing cubes. She will divide her belongings into various cubes to make items easier to find; an example is having a cube for her clothes, one for her son’s and one for snacks on the plane.

“I organize my toiletry bag with little mini packing cubes, one for my makeup — and Gavin gets a little one for his toothbrush and toothpaste,” McKay says. “I feel like I could pack with my eyes closed now, but it was really stressful to pack at first because I was so afraid I would forget something.”

If you’re really tight on space, McKay recommends compression packing cubes that can squish down.

Pack: A travel-friendly stroller

Working at an airport, McKay has observed parents struggle with strollers for years.

“If you want to bring your BOB jogging stroller that weighs 40 pounds because that helps you feel prepared and comfortable, then just bring it,” she says. “But for me, I am very much ‘less is more’ mostly because I’m by myself.”

For quick trips, McKay goes with the GB Pockit Stroller that can fold so compactly “it fits underneath the seat of even the smallest commercial aircraft,” she says. It’s a no-frills option, but it is particularly handy going through airport security. Instead of walking it through the metal detector, which will require getting a pat-down, “it just goes through the regular X-ray machine,” she says. Plus, “it takes about 10 seconds to put together.”

McKay’s second pick is the 3DLite stroller because it is lightweight, designed for travel, and has features including a cupholder and storage basket. “If we’re taking a trip to a zoo or an amusement park, I want something that has a little oomph, a little more practicality,” she says.

Leave behind: Your normal wardrobe

Konrad Waliszewski, CEO and co-founder of TripScout, a travel planning and entertainment platform, swears by light packing, including when he’s traveling around the world with his wife and three kids. The family even brings along detergent so they can wash clothes in the sink.

“Make sure you as an adult are not bringing a lot of stuff,” he says. “Don’t bring the extra shoes; just keep it as minimalist as possible.”

Carmen Sognonvi of the blog Top Flight Family feels the same way, particularly regarding footwear. Her essentials are a pair of sneakers, slides or flip flops when heading to a warm-weather destination and potentially a pair of formal shoes to dress up for a dinner.

“Shoes take up way too much room, so be ruthless about cutting down to the essentials,” she says.

Pack: An ergonomic baby carrier

Mexico City-based travel blogger Luz Carreiro and her husband, Nico, have amassed a social media following by sharing their dreamy travels with their baby, Gaia. Whether it’s for beach trips or camping, Carreiro has one favorite item to pack to make travel easier. “My ergonomic backpack where I carry her is my best gear,” Carreiro says.

When Gavin was a baby, McKay loved her Tula baby carrier.

“They’re really comfortable to wear,” she says. “I always recommend baby-wearing through TSA just so you have your hands free.”

Leave behind: Most toys

When Waliszewski and his wife started traveling with their first child, they found themselves packing an array of toys to keep him entertained. “Then you just realize they can find a stick or a rock or anything,” he says. Now, they stick to packing one book and one toy for each kid.

For their carefully curated toy selection, Waliszewski and McKay both swear by magnetic toys, such as Tegu blocks, that won’t tumble over during turbulence.

Of course, tablets and smartphones are also a way to keep children entertained, depending on where you stand on screen time.

“Even if you’re flying on a plane with an in-flight entertainment system, sometimes those break down,” Sognonvi says. “You don’t want to be stuck without entertainment on a long flight or during a long layover.”

Make sure any games, movies or TV shows are downloaded ahead of a flight or trip so you’re not scrambling to do so at the airport. Equally important: Be cognizant of battery life. Not all planes have electric outlets for in-flight charging, so you may want to invest in portable chargers.

Pack: A travel car seat

To cut down on extra bulk when traveling with their 4-year-old and 16-month-old, Anthony Harris and his wife forgo the traditional car seat. Instead, they use the RideSafer travel vest.

“Research has shown that it’s equivalent in terms of safety to the more bulky child seat,” says Harris, chief executive and medical director of HFit Health. “It has been an absolute game-changer, particularly with two kids.”

McKay travels with the Cosco Scenera NEXT car seat. It is lightweight, costs about $50 and is FAA-approved for plane seats, too. It’s different from the everyday option she uses at home. “I recommend having a designated car seat just for traveling so you aren’t constantly uninstalling and reinstalling,” she says.

To check it, McKay uses a padded backpack that keeps the car seat’s safety features protected in cargo. “They do make some [car seat bags] that have attachable wheels and stuff, but that’s too much,” she says. “I just need my hands free.”

Leave behind: Checked bags

Controversial? Yes. Impossible? For some. But if you can, Sognonvi says, you should skip checking luggage and travel with carry-ons only. She follows this practice for most (but not all) family trips. This works particularly well if you’re traveling with kids who are big enough to carry their own bags.

“Their clothes are usually smaller, and kids don’t usually have a lot of toiletries,” Sognonvi says. “So you can actually use the extra capacity kids have for your own clothes and toiletries.”

Skipping bag-check lines — plus using services such as CLEAR and TSA PreCheck — saves the Sognonvi family precious time and effort at the airport. “I highly recommend it,” she says.

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