Like that certain je ne sais quoi that exemplifies a French woman’s style, and one which I sorely lack as my scarf-wearing snafus will attest, I long thought packing was a skill that you either had or you didn’t. Before I had kids, I tended toward quantity over quality, often lugging an extra four or five extra pairs of shoes and a different jacket for every weather eventuality, from gale to blizzard to sandstorm, no matter what the destination. In short, it was a disaster.
In nearly eighteen years of traveling with three kids, I was forced to pare our clothes and supplies down to the bare essentials. These days, if it there’s even a chance that it will not get worn, it no longer gets packed. I’ve also learned that maybe packing skills are not genetic after all. I may never reach the packing prowess of my packing guru (have you seen this video of how she packs 100 items in a carry-on?!), but I’m getting there.
Here are ten things, in no particular order, that I never leave home without when traveling with my family.
Travel packing cubes
I resisted these for years, just as I didn’t believe that rolling your clothes when you pack them actually lets you cram way more into your suitcase (it does). But it’s true. Packing cubes work. When you’re traveling as a family, they let you separate everyone’s clothes in your large suitcase, making it much easier to unpack when you get to your destination. You can also bring extra cubes for dirty laundry, wet swimsuits, etc. Click here to see loads of packing cube options at eBags (pun intended and affiliate link–thank you for supporting this site with your clicks!).
Books set in your destination
One of our favorite things to do in preparation for a trip is to read a book set in our destination (not just the guidebook). We loved reading Gennifer Choldenko’s Al Capone Does My Shirts before our outing to Alcatraz on a recent trip to San Francisco (see The 411 on San Francisco if you’re heading that way, too). If your travels include a long road trip, get the audio book. You can get them for free at your local library and many are available on Audible (click here for more info about the Audible Membership). Just make sure you don’t leave library CDs in your rental car!
A travel scarf or pashmina
It’s inevitable. You’re either going to freeze or broil on your airplane ride. There is no compromise and seemingly no temperature control. The best way to deal is to dress in layers (yes, mom was right—she is always right) and bring along a large travel scarf or pashmina. This will not only keep you toasty on the plane when temperatures dip below zero but will come in handy as an extra layer or even a blanket for anyone in your party if you’re headed somewhere chilly or you need to spend time in transit in an overly air-conditioned airport. Better yet, consider a travel scarf with benefits–like this infinity scarf with a concealed pocket.
Easy-packing reusable shopping bag
Not only do these save our oceans and wildlife from long-term damage caused by plastic bags, they come in handy when you find yourself in a local grocery stores or market stocking up on snacks to bring back to your rental or hotel room. Many cities (San Francisco) and even states (Hawaii) along with some European countries have already banned single use plastic bags and even disposable bags so it may in fact be your only option. Look for compactly folding reusable bags that pack into their own pouch and make sure to tuck one into your travel purse or day pack to have when needed during travel.
Travel-friendly foldable raincoats
The European child in me has fond memories of my foldable K-Way navy windbreaker/rain jacket (I grew up in Belgium). You can fold it up and wear as a belt around your waist, ready for whatever the weather may bring. It was the perfect thing for vacationing on the windy and sometimes misty Belgian coast. I’ve bought them for my own children and they’ve traveled with us to Maine, Peru, and Scotland, saving us during many a sudden rain or wind storm.
Tide or other laundry spot cleaner
It’s hard enough to find laundry facilities when you’re traveling domestically. When you’re traveling abroad, it can be a real adventure. This is why you should never, ever leave the country (or really your home) without a good spot cleaner. Stuff it in your backpack or purse and you’ll be ready when the inevitable happens and the gelato/street taco/red wine spills on your favorite clothes. Because who knows how long it will be before your next load of laundry.
A couple of years ago, I took a ten-day trip to three different countries, which, while not too far in distance, each had a different electrical outlet. Rather than fussing around with different adapters and transformers, I purchased a universal adapter which worked seamlessly in each country. Even if it’s your first trip abroad, I would recommend the universal adapter rather than one for your specific destinations. It will save you money in the long run. Just remember that it is not also a converter, so make sure your devices you’ll be traveling with are dual voltage (most cell phones, lap tops, and even curling irons sold in the U.S. are “Dual Voltage 100-240V” these days; check labeling to be sure).
The combination of jet-lag, unfamiliar foods, and strange new places to sleep will undoubtedly ring in a whole new level of meltdowns in your little one. One airport in particular is still referred to in our house as “the one where J had that epic meltdown.” So while it’s tempting to pare your packing down to the bare minimum, do not skimp on the comfort. A favorite storybook, Matchbox car, stuffed animal, or blanket can really save the day. I recommend getting a new special toy/cozy a week or so before your trip and talking up the fact that they will be traveling with you on your adventure. Your child can also document the trip with photos of their special new friend on the plane, on a hike, and sitting quietly in the airport lounge visibly not having a meltdown.
Your family’s medical records
In our eighteen years of travel with three boys, we’ve never had to visit a doctor in another country—I am knocking on wood as I write this. However, if you are traveling abroad, it’s a good idea to be prepared for that eventuality. Yet if your child is over the age of six, her immunization record is probably already longer than your arm. But I’m sure you’d be hard-pressed to tell anyone what exact shots they’ve had to date. And since immunization schedules are different in every country, you can’t assume doctors in a foreign country will know what you mean when you say they are up to date, or whether your child has a sensitivity to any specific medications or allergens.
Before your trip, ask your doctor to send over copies of your children’s records, just in case, or check if your health insurance or health care provider offers electronic health records. Having any allergies noted in the language of the destination where you’ll be visiting, along with the current weight of your children converted to kg. where appropriate, could be very helpful should someone fall ill during your trip. For simple over-the-counter medications, many pharmacists will need to know your child’s weight to help you get the appropriate medicine and dose.
The best credit and ATM cards for traveling abroad
Imagine arriving in Istanbul off a red-eye from the U.S. You stumble through customs half-asleep and somehow identify your luggage bleary-eyed from a conveyor belt spinning with similarly sized black suitcases. You made it through are finally standing in the main lobby where a glimpse outside reveals sunny skies and a brand new day.
All you need to do to start enjoying this new city is get some local currency from the ATM and hail a taxi. Except the ATM machine won’t dispense any cash. Odd, you think, and you try the next machine. You won’t try a third because you’re afraid your card will get eaten, and so you spend the next forty-five sweaty minutes on the phone with your bank, assuring them that you are, in fact, you, and you really are in Istanbul.
To avoid this scenario when traveling abroad with your own family, make sure you call your bank and your credit card provider to alert them of when and where you’ll be traveling. Also, make sure you’re packing an ATM card with no foreign transaction fees (click here to see some of the best-rated credit cards with no foreign transaction fees). Then determine which ATM network your bank belongs to–PLUS, Cirrus or Maestro–so you can determine which bank ATMs at your destination won’t charge extra (or at least not outrageous) fees (more helpful info on this here).
More tips: You can also use the International Mastercard ATM Locator or the VISA Global ATM Locator to help find ATMS as you travel. And if you’ll be using credit cards in Europe, read this helpful post by Rick Steve’s on what you need to know about the European chip + PIN system.