Every time I get ready for a trip (and I start getting ready months in advance, because that's how I roll), I scour the Internets to see if there is anything new under the sun in family/kid/(until recently)baby travel gear or tips, just in case. In this way, in the past, I have learned about all kinds of new toys and gadgets for the young set, read countless articles on how to pack light with/for kids, explored myriad lists of best baby/kid travel gear, and seen, it appears, all there is to see on the subject online. Because, lately, every time I go off on one of my research benders, I don't see anything new. In fact, I see the same old recommendations (many of which are great, but been there, done that) in much the same format on the same sites, time and time again.
All of which led me to wonder: could it be (and I hesitate to even type this, lest karma decide to smite me or whatever) that we have actually learned all we need to know about traveling? Could we now call ourselves experts in successful kid travel? Granted, we are not the most well traveled bunch by any stretch of the imagination. Toddler E has yet to even leave the country. But we take both short and extended domestic trips regularly, most often by air though also by car, and I've noticed that we have had fewer and fewer unpleasant traveling experiences of late, our preparations have become quite streamlined, and our trips have been more and more enjoyable. Part of this stems from the fact that our children are growing up, a bit, but it also comes from the homework we've done that have made traveling so much easier for everyone.
Our next trip is one of those I used to dread, a cross country solo flight, just me and the boys. But this time around, I think we're ready. Wanna know why? Of course you do! How about (yet another) list?!
The last time I traveled alone with the boys, Toddler E was just walking, and he was terrifying. He would walk up to anyone, smile, and hop into his or her lap without a second thought. Or, worse, he would just wander away whenever the mood struck him, following his curiosity. Cute but deadly! So I was worried that I would lose him in the airport, particularly since he would no longer stay forever buckled in the stroller. I looked into child protection monitors that you attach to a child's shoes or backpack, temporary tatoos with his name and phone number, child leashes shaped liked monkeys or puppies, identifying wristbands, and on and on. You name it, I investigated it. But every option had some sort of flaw. Monitors were either too sensitive or too expensive or just too impractical. Child leashes seemed much too punitive and too cumbersome for travel. I didn't like the idea of having Toddler E's name emblazoned on his arm or wrist so anyone could seem like a friend instead of a stranger. But I did like having a phone number available to call in case of emergency. So I came up with my winning idea:
t-shirts that say "If Lost, please call xxx-xxx-xxxx." These were a hit on our last trip (the boys pictured here at the airport on our last trip). People kept coming up and asking me if that was my real phone number (it is) and if I had bought the shirts (I hadn't) and if I sold them (I don't, but maybe I should!).
Can you believe the new airline rules about strollers?? Every stroller weighing more than 20 pounds has to be checked (not GATE checked but checked). It's ridiculous! No stroller to take to the gate? Criminal! Not that I would ever travel with a stroller weighing that much, but the principle still rankles! Regardless, I always travel with a cheap umbrella stroller that I got for $15 from Burlington Coat Factory (baby product depot extraordinaire, people!). My husband complains that the stroller is too short for him, which it is, but it's just right for me and I'm the primary consumer! I only travel with one stroller even though I have the two boys, but, in a pinch, both boys can ride in the stroller together for a short stretch (they think it's a game!). It's light enough for me to carry with one hand and for J to roll along behind him when it's collapsed, sturdy enough to handle two boys at once and toss onto the jetway for gate checking without a second thought, and cheap enough that I don't worry about it at all. I LOVE my umbrella stroller!
Also, before our last trip out to see our families, we ordered two well-reviewed but inexpensive car seats and had them delivered (for free!) to my in-law's house. BEST decision ever! Now we don't need to travel with or check or borrow car seats when we head to our most common destination. And these seats are convertible booster seats as well, meaning they will grow with our children, and we'll be able to use them for quite a while to come. We should have done this as soon as Baby J was born 4 years ago!
As I've mentioned before, my mother says we are a list making people! And I have almost perfected my packing checklist and how to use it! The process involves saving a new copy of the list after I modify it BEFORE each trip and then revise it AFTER each trip, then opening that new copy for the next trip, modifying and revising again, and resaving. This way I don't have to keep reinventing the wheel, I note what worked and what didn't for each trip, I am able to change what we pack for the seasons, and I never worry that we've forgotten something vital. I bring a copy of the list with me for repacking when we leave and in case they lose our luggage, and I leave a copy on top of the contents of our checked bag in the hopes that it discourages TSA from rifling through everything haphazardly. (Does that work? I have no idea, but it gives me comfort anyway!) If you look, you'll see that the web is chock full of packing checklists, many of which I've tried, but I believe that even if you use one of these lists as a starting point, everyone is going to have to revise them, often substantially, to fit individual circumstances. That's why I went with designing my own list. It's not pretty, no bells and whistles, just a word document, but it works for our family.
This is the secret to all my packing success, truly. Before I even consult my lists, I start a Pile. That's the technical term for it, a Pile! I pick a place (right now a shelf in my kids' closet, used to be on the guest bed) where I put everything I come across that I think we might need for the trip. Clothes, luggage scale, airplane toys, non-perishable snacks, our bags themselves, everything. Not all of these items will make it into our final bags, of course, but at least I know it's all in one place if I do decide to take it. With children, so much of what you need on a trip are the same things you are using with them on a daily basis so you can't pack or collect it all in advance. Which means a lot of your packing has to be left to the last minute, which I hate. So I try to gather as much as possible beforehand. I also pick the kids' clothes (and color scheme, to make things easier, natch: two colors and denim, just like mom) and stack them in my Pile so I DON'T use those pieces in the time before we leave. My kids have enough clothes (they are their mother's sons, after all!) that we can afford to pick out three days worth and save them in the all important Pile.
Oh, that's another crucial tip: do NOT pack more than three days worth of clothes, which means, counting what you wear on the plane, you've got four days total. Do some laundry and save some space! You know you're going to need to wash the kids' clothes anyway, so plan for it. Granted, I bring a few extra t-shirts and shorts for Baby E, because he is a bigger mess than all of us put together, and I know we'll collect a few more outfits each on the road, particularly when we are visiting the grandparents (hooray!), but that makes starting with three days of clothing even more vital. As I have said here before, when we travel, the boys and I get my large carry on diaper bag and their two small backpacks TOTAL on the plane and ONE checked bag to share between the three of us. That's it. I want to be able to handle all our stuff alone if I have to (you never know!) so we get no more than that. We do pack an extra duffle for whatever we accumulate on the road, but we start light, very, very light!