Once you make the decision to travel with your kids, it’s only logical that the next question is “what do I need to take with us?”
There are hundreds, if not thousands of companies and products out there that claim to solve all sorts of problems for parents who travel, but after 6 years of traveling nearly nonstop with my kids, I’m hear to tell you that less is more. You don’t need all the gadgets and gizmos that are out there!
While you absolutely can start traveling with kids without buying anything new, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite things below - and the absolute must-pack item I never leave home without.
A quick note, these are all my personal reviews. None of these companies know I exist, and I don't use affiliate links. This is just me sharing my favorite things with you!
1. Rent a car seat or take one with me?
One of the first questions that comes up if you’re taking a trip that involves air travel or rental cars is - should I rent a car seat or take one with me?
While both are technically viable options, I would never rely on rental agency car seats. They’re often dirty, expired, or unfamiliar. And the safest car seat is the one you can install without error - not one you’re trying for the first time, installing in the dark while jet lagged.
Plus if you travel frequently or have multiple children the rental fees add up quickly.
Our solution? Buy highly rated, light weight carseats that paid for themselves on our first trip!
We learned to install them at home, ahead of time. And they were light enough to carry onboard, gate check, or check in at the counter, giving us endless options for years of trips. We were able to use them for over 5 years before upgrading to booster seats, meaning they saved us so much money and headache in rentals. After at least 20 trips with these seats, I got to the point that I could probably install them in my sleep!
There are so many options out there, and you might even be able to use the seat you already own. But the two we used and loved were:
Evenflo Maestro Booster Car Seat
The maestro weighs in at just under 10 pounds and easily converts to a high-back booster as your child grows. My son actually preferred this seat to his standard (very expensive) everyday seat and always looked forward to using it when we travelled. We loved it so much, our parents bought one to keep at their house for when we visit!
A less-expensive, comparable seat in this range is their “Chase Plus” model.
Evenflo Tribute LX Convertible Car Seat
This inexpensive seat weighs just 9 pounds, but with high-quality cover and easy install, we loved this seat. The best part about it? It’s convertible, so we were able to use it from 6 months until 5 years! The easy to-remove cover washed well (a must when your child is carsick in every country you visit!) And the straps were easy to rethread as she grew.
You can install with latch, ratcheting seatbelt, or with a locking clip (see below).
If you’ve got a baby still in a bucket seat, most of them can be safely installed both in a car or on an airplane using the seatbelt install. No need to buy a new seat, just take the one you already use at home!
The bags that we carry them in:
Ok, so you have car seats - how to transport them? We opted to use a backpack style so that we could go hands-free (essential if you’re pushing a stroller or holding little hand.) Plus with the zipper cover, we could stuff diapers, rain jackets, or extra plushies into the bag. Car seats (almost) always check free at the airline counter, and they don’t care if you stick extra stuff in the bag, so use that to your advantage!
J.L. Childress Ultimate Backpack Premium Padded Car Seat Travel Bag
They are roomy and adaptable so we’ve continued to use them with our high-back boosters now that the kids are older.
Upgrading to boosters
If your kids are older or you are ready to upgrade, booster seats are the next decision. We really like the adaptable “Graco TurboBooster Highback Booster Car Seat" - target always seems to have the cutest colors! We know we can detach the back as the kids grow, but I have it for now, and when my nieces come to visit.
There seem to be an endless number of boosters and they’re all much lighter weight than carseats. Even if you’re less worried about easy-install with boosters, I still recommend bringing your own. I once saw a taxi in Kenya try to use a dining-style booster as a child restraint. Definitely not the same thing.
Don’t forget the locking clip
If you’re used to using LATCH or are depending on a ratcheting seatbelt for your install, your first trip overseas might be eye-opening! While it is changing slowly, most other countries don’t use these systems. It’s a good bet to bring a lock-off clip with you and know how to use it!
They can be purchased for just a few dollars, and with an easy install over the seat belt you’ll have piece of mind that your seat is installed properly.
Depending on your kids’ age and your family’s travel experience you may or may not need a travel stroller - or even take a stroller with you at all. You definitely don’t need a dedicated travel stroller, especially if yours collapses and travels easily. But because we travel so frequently, we bought our standard “everyday stroller” with travel in mind, eventually taking it to 10 different countries!
Our Phil and Ted’s Sport, with the second seat below, was invaluable on our trips throughout Europe when the kids were both under 2 years old. It’s rubber, air-filled wheels made it the perfect stroller for cobblestones, and it small profile allowed it to fit in tiny European elevators. Once we learned how to properly break it down for airline travel, we even took it with us to Scotland! It’s rain cover, adjustable sunshade and accessories made it such a great asset for any sort of weather.
The Graco Breaze Click Connect stroller was another great asset - we used this one early on and as the kids got older. It’s one of the few umbrella strollers that allows you to clip in an infant seat, so it made traveling with a new baby a breeze. (Maybe that’s why it got the name?) As the kids got old enough that they no longer needed to consistently use a stroller, it became our travel stroller of choice for those days that they needed a little extra support. I loved that you could lay the seat totally flat for impromptu naps along the way!
This stroller can be hard to find, but it's worth keeping an eye out if your primary stroller is too bulky to travel with.
Eventually, we started leaving the stroller behind completely, and the kids have been able to walk around with us as long as we use public transit (more than we might otherwise) to keep from completely wearing out those little legs!
3. Keeping Kids Occupied with Age-Appropriate “Tools”
Ok, I’m about to say something that some travelers won’t agree with: kids don’t have to be entertained with toys while you travel. You can use your surroundings and plan your day to make sure that the kids are stimulated and exercised, without having to lug a thousand toys around with you!
Find a playground (most European cities have them), engage your child in looking at the art or colors around you, let them walk instead of stroller. Allow them to interact with the trip as well.
Find your play in nature. If you're out on safari or camping, there are endless opportunities for play with sticks, rocks, and streams. The simplest things become treasures and forts, and their imaginations begin to flow.
All that being said, I do usually allow the kids to bring a couple of matchbox cars or a doll for for excursions, but nothing more than will easily fit in the pocket of the diaper bag or backpack.
When you plan your day with an activity for the adults and an activity for the kids, you can be sure you're addressing the kids' deep need to play, along with your desire to travel!
Some non-toy items we bring to make our trips run more smoothly?
Magnifying glasses: these come in so handy for museums, gardens, anywhere really. My kids have spent so much time enjoying how things look close up!
Checklists: these can be as simple or complex as you like! You can make it eye-spy style, have the kids count how many of an object they can find, picture based or text based, even look up artwork to find throughout a museum. The sky is the limit and with just a little advanced planning this is a great resource to take with you.
(Get my free travel scavenger hunt here!)
Coloring books and stickers:
When you know you’re going to be at lots of restaurants and on airplanes these can help the time pass quickly. I keep a small bag of crayons (these retractable ones are great!) and markers with me - many restaurants abroad do not provide them as you might be used to in the US. Check out the Busy Toddler blog for lots of great ideas about how to use the “dot stickers” for easy activities on the go.
As the kids have gotten older, they’ve also enjoyed using these slim magic boards. They’re so lightweight and versatile they go with us almost everywhere now.
One of the best investments we’ve made as the kids have gotten older is to get them their own little cameras. This has allowed them to be invested what they’re seeing and create their own photo memories but has saved me from wondering if they’re going to drop my phone out of a safari car when they borrow it!
This one has been great for kids over 5, we actually just upgraded my younger daughter to this one as well. It has some great features like green screen effects. You can disable or restrict the games feature as well, if you prefer your kids not to use it.
For younger kids who need fewer buttons, this one was an inexpensive purchase. It’s not as robust as the KidiZoom, but it has served its purpose and allowed my daughter to capture some nice memories, and stood up to quite a bit of abuse.
4. Jackets and Shoes
No matter when or where we travel, I always take jackets for the kids. Even when we go to the beach it seems the sun goes down and they end up freezing!
Over the years I’ve learned that 3-in-1 systems are the perfect solution for us, although I rarely buy the system pre-packaged.
I like purchasing a fleece and rain jacket separately, the kids can wear one or both layers so that we are prepared for any weather. This also means that its easier to find colors they love, since pre-made 3-in-1 systems tend to have limited color ranges.
I’m a big fan of the Columbia line of kids coats, so each child has a fleece and a rain jacket. Even I use this plan, with my trusty Columbia rain jacket and its permanent place in my suitcase. Depending on the trip we pack one or both!
Save your money - you don’t need the “packable” version! Any jacket can be packed down into its hood or folded up into a neat package - YouTube has endless tutorials on packing clothes for travel!
Shoes - the nemesis of many travelers.
Basically you want to be comfortable, dry, and clean. I have loved using Natives shoes for messy travel (camping, safari, beach) because we can clean them easily and the kids say they are so comfortable.
For cities, a good solid pair of athletic shoes with socks is a must. I loved the Strider brand when they were little and wanted to run free of the stroller, but as they’ve grown I’ve let the kids choose whichever brand feels best on their feet.
If you’re going somewhere with a high chance of rain, throw some rainbows into that carseat back I mentioned earlier. It will give you the flexibility to let the kids jump in puddles and have fun along the way without worrying that their tennis shoes are going to take hours to dry.
One Item you Definitely Don't Need: Tablets
This is a hugely debatable subject and I will come right out and say - our kids have tablets, and I hate them. I’m not an analog mom or anything, I just have found them to be a huge pain.
Yes, there are times that they have been helpful like when flights were cancelled and we needed to occupy them while we dealt with rebooking. But for the most part they’ve been a nuisance to keep charged, keep connected to wifi/internet (the Amazon Kids profile seems to dump all their downloaded games as soon as you leave wifi!) They are also one more electronic you have to take out at security. Plus even if we can keep the tablets a secret until they're really needed, once the kids know we've brought them along, that's all they want to play with - even though they know we have strict screen time rules.
If you have tablets you like and use, by all means incorporate them into your travel. But I would never advocate for buying them just to try to make your travel easier.
There are so many other ways to occupy your kids as you travel, that will let immerse a little more into the trip as a family - and make more memories than just playing on their devices.
The item I never leave home without: An Emergency Kit
I am not kidding on this one. I have an emergency kit in my car. I have one in my purse. And I take it with us when we travel, where it lives in the backpack or diaper bag that we use during the day to explore.
What’s in an emergency kit and why is it so important?
It’s a small zipper pouch (about 7x9”) that I keep important medicines we might not be able to access quickly away from home - things like dramamine, children’s pain medication, heartburn medications, Imodium, pepto bismol, Benadryl, nyquil, etc. So to be clear, these aren't prescriptions, but the kind of medicines you might want in the even of upset stomachs, or an allergic reaction. Depending on the country you’re visiting these may be hard to find when you need them in a hurry. Whenever possible, I select these items in tablet/solid form so that I can bring them easily in my carry on and don’t have to worry about leaks.
A few other things in my emergency kit:
A contact lens case, eye drops, a couple of feminine products, safety pins, hair ties, earring backs, a pen, solid/roll-on sunblock, a nail file, in-sink laundry packs, q-tips, extra masks (we still wear them for planes to avoid getting colds and flu in travel!), and a large plastic grocery bag or gallon-size ziplock.
Why a plastic bag? It’s a great place to stash clothes that have gotten soiled until you can wash them without the smell or fluids leaking!
I keep this kit updated regularly, and depend on it! I cannot tell you how much time it has saved us not having to run to a pharmacy, store, or doctor when the unexpected happens.
There are so many considerations to make when you’re traveling with kids, but you don’t need to go out and buy a whole bunch of special products. Making sure everyone is safe, comfortable and prepared is the key. Beyond that, whereever you're traveling, people will live in the area. You can almost always find what you need, so don't feel the need to pack every last "just in case" item. You'll be amazed how traveling with less can lighten even your mental load. And your kids will be just fine using their imaginations, playing with nature, and making their own fun as you go along.