My father taught us that we were only ever allowed take a maximum of half our official luggage allowance on the outward-bound flight so that we would have room to bring plenty of things home if we wanted. This rule was applied no matter how long the trip. Sometimes, all five of us got our gear into one suitcase. We never questioned this rule and always made it work. I’m fairly sure my sister’s one suitcase for living a year in Canada was literally half-full with her favorite soft toys coming along for the ride, she chose to reduce her clothing options instead.
As a child, I figured that this meant we would be buying plenty of souvenirs and saw that as a good thing. While this is true, as an adult I’ve realized that my father was also teaching us about minimalism, long before it was a trendy lifestyle. You really don’t need all that much when you travel. You just don’t. If you ever were to forget something you desperately need, more than likely you’ll be able to pick it up from a local drug store, supermarket or department store. Traveling light has taught me to live lighter. If I don’t need any of those toiletries with me for a month of travel, why do I even have them at all? Besides, carting extra luggage gets tiring, quickly.
Backpacking through South America for a month with the bare minimum of necessities left me feeling simple joy from the knowledge I was carrying everything I needed on my back. On returning home I felt uncomfortable seeing many things I discovered there was no real need for. Our children have expressed this same sentiment: while they are initially excited to see some of their old toys after a break from them, my son once said he would be quite happy to give away all the toys since he didn’t play with them anymore. Belongings look and feel different after a break away from them.
We still start off our travels with a lot less than half our baggage allowance, taking over suitcases nestled inside other suitcases to be used for the journey home. By doing this, we can take advantage of the cheaper cost of goods abroad which are often three to four times the price back home in New Zealand. Our luggage returning home with us is not full of the typical souvenirs but of tapware, tools from Home Depot, Weber BBQ, a doll’s house, Costco diapers and dryer sheets, towels from Target runs and more. Everyday corners and parts of our home are slowly being transformed thanks to our travels.
Before we travel to the United States for a month or more, I do an audit of what we have and need and then go shopping online for our children’s entire wardrobes for the upcoming year. The orders are shipped to a temporary UPS box and collected on the day we arrive. For the rest of the year, we make do with what we have bought and hold off buying any clothing or shoes unless absolutely necessary. Our children often only have one change of clothing in the suitcase when we travel, the rest is waiting for them at our destination. Bonus: less dragging tired children around the stores when they’d rather be at the beach.
As a new mother, I was full of confidence for traveling on an upcoming long-haul with our oldest son but after a few flights wondered what practical tips were out there that I could make use of. Mommy bloggers’ long lists of essential items to bring in-flight for kids left me feeling intimidated, exhausted and second-guessing my intuition. Was I going about this all the wrong way? On the next flight, I took far too much on board by following well-meaning advice to get your toddler to “open a new little toy each hour!”, bringing all his favorite books and providing him 100 different snack options. I was embarrassed by how much food was wasted at the end of that flight. I regretted having to lug all that extra weight around on top of a carrying a solid baby.
After dozens of flights with our children, here is my refined list of in-flight essentials for traveling with children:
- Diapers* and a change of clothing (if they’re not potty-trained)
- Wipes (no matter the age)
- Food, lunchboxes and drink bottles
* I fatefully checked these once on an hour-long flight thinking there would be no need. Lesson learned for life.
On most flights these days, food is an additional cost. For example, a ticket costs $50 more on a nine-hour flight from New Zealand to Hawaii to have two meals served. One of those meals is served at 11 pm at night when our kids are already fast asleep. Multiply that meal cost up for a family of six flying both directions, and that’s $600 worth of food. I’d rather use that cash for a few really fancy restaurant meals instead of plane food which might not even be eaten.
Instead, we ensure the kids are well fed at their usual time before boarding the flight. We don’t eat any late-night meals and pack any other required meal in their lunchboxes. We get them started eating these when the first special meals are brought out to passengers around us on the plane or when the smell of food being heated up comes wafting down our way. For fluids, we take empty drink bottles to fill with water once we’re through security. It is so much more relaxing not to have to worry about lightweight airplane cups being tipped over trays and onto blankets and feet below. I usually bring a couple of little extra snacks to bring out if needed – typically granola bars (without chocolate, less mess left on faces and fingers), plain potato chips (no orange-colored fingertips to clean) or apples (oranges are too juicy and sticky). Avoiding candy or sugary treats saves drama: no-one needs to deal with a sugar high or the inevitable crash in such a confined place. The less wastage left over, the better.
While pre-planning food might sound a little daunting amongst all the other last-minute trip errands, it is worth it. Rather than wondering what meal to prepare, I turn the task into the more mundane job of packing their lunchboxes just like I would on a typical school day. My husband and I have lunchboxes now too.
Instead of having limited in-flight options, you will know that your kids will like what you’re offering them – great if your kids are fussy eaters and one less thing to worry about if they have allergies or intolerances. They’ll be fed when they need their meals too, instead of waiting for an airline’s schedule.
Airline meal trays have food containers, condiments and utensils arranged optimally to maximize the small available space. They’re not particularly child-friendly. It’s easy to drop things on the floor, struggle with peeling juice, yogurt or ice cream foil seals off, or pull too hard when opening sealed plastic cutlery only to have things flying off in all directions. Lunchboxes are a familiar sight and so much simpler for your kids.
Do ensure you dump all leftovers when the crew walks down the aisles collecting trash before landing so you’re not stung with a fine for accidentally importing undeclared food. These are rather hefty coming into New Zealand: $400 for a piece of fruit.
I’ve largely abandoned bringing any toys or activities for the kids on flights now and prefer to go without. A little Matchbox car or book can occasionally be useful to pull out when kids are getting scratchy waiting around at an airport gate. The airline we most often fly on, Air New Zealand, always has a fantastic activity pack for kids with colored pencils, games, stickers, and a badge inside. Once they’re three or older, the appeal of the almost unrestricted use of their own TV, gaming, and music on the screen in front of them is what they use to pass the time. Having a period of no screen time at home before long-haul flights has helped make the in-flight entertainment even more appealing.