Kid + Carry On: The Chronicles of Packing Light

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Back in March, my 9-year-old and I strolled off our plane, straight past the luggage carousels, and out to the pick-up curb where our ride was waiting. My mom and uncle were there, ready to pick us up.

As my uncle went to load our luggage, he looked at our two small suitcases for the first time, and then back at me, politely surprised.

“Is that all you brought?”

It was. I’m a dedicated zealot of traveling in a carry on. I can’t remember the last time I checked baggage for a flight. I’ve traveled to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, all over the US, and to England twice, entirely out of a carry on.

This habit started after a nasty streak of bad luck. The third time my bags got delayed was the last straw. I decided to downsize, and never looked back.

Now, it’s become a challenge. Every trip is an opportunity to perfect my packing game. The whole point of travel is to push outside of your comfort zone and paring down your existence to just a handful of essentials is both terrifying and liberating.

Having perfected the art of flying solo in a carry on, I am passing this sacred duty on to my son. We assemble his outfits, small toys, travel games, and books to load in an adult size carry on suitcase. Usually, everything he takes still leaves us with room to spare in his bag, which is perfect for bringing souvenirs home!


The Perks of Packing Light

There are SO many perks to packing light that I’m just gonna start with my favorite. I love saving money. I love finding great travels deals and cheaper ways to do things. Carry on luggage is the first and easiest way to save money when you travel! Airline baggage fees are only getting more expensive. Carrying everything with you eliminates the need to pay extra fees for every flight you board!

Carry on luggage will save you time, too! There’s no need to visit the baggage claim and get stuck waiting for another hour, only to find that the bag in question is unaccounted for! That hour of waiting can be better spent relaxing in your hotel room or continuing your journey on-time and relaxed.

Packing light also makes for easier transitions from airport to cab or public transport, and navigating terminals is less stressful when you aren’t dragging the weight of the world behind you.

Always having your belongings with you will come in handy! There’s no risk of losing your precious cargo and having nothing to wear. There’s no risk of your luggage or possessions getting mishandled or damaged! You’re always in control.


How To Pack a Carry On

The first word of wisdom: buy the right kind of bag.

We both use the smallest carry on suitcase from different luggage sets. I remember buying the sets, and now couldn’t tell you where the larger bags are. I never use them. Our suitcases are lightweight and hard-walled, but next time I’ll invest in a soft-sided rolling duffle. Soft luggage gives you more flexibility. If you need structure, get creative with Ziploc bags, travel cubes, or other soft-walled containers.

When packing toiletries, only take the absolute essentials. Most everything can be purchased at your destination! Take advantage of the extra suitcase space. I like to carry a toothbrush, travel toothpaste, travel contact solution, and baby wipes with me at all times. We buy everything else when we arrive, and usually, I buy things my son and I can share.

Don’t forget that any liquids you take MUST be within the 3.4-ounce rule and packed in a 1 quart Ziploc. Make your life easier at security and put this right at the top of your bag.

Baby wipes are the holy grail of parenthood – they do everything from getting out stains to removing makeup and freshening up after a long flight when your options are limited to the airport bathroom or the airport bathroom.

Don’t forget that prescription medications must be in their original containers! I also recommend packing things like Pepto tablets, pain killers, and small first aid kit. I usually just throw all the OTC meds I take in the same bottle and play roulette!

Just kidding, the Pepto tabs are pink, and I buy Advil gel caps versus Tylenol tablets so everything is visually distinct.

Kids = random injuries and accidents. Travel = upset stomachs and random headaches.

When packing electronics, take ONLY what you NEED. Being a freelancer, I always have my MacBook with me. I also take my phone, our iPad (for both reading and kid entertainment) and the two chargers in their own Ziploc bags. The charger and device get packed at the same time, so I never end up stranded with a dead battery.

If you’re traveling internationally, do some research on your destination and try to find a power outlet adaptor that will suit your needs. Other travelers have suggested taking a compact power strip so you can charge everything at once, but I’ve never felt the need to do this.

Entertainment is important for you AND your kiddo. Traveling tends to be a bunch of hurry up and wait scenarios. I always download my favorite titles digitally, but also take a physical book, just in case bubba is using the iPad. We also take travel games, cards, and small toys. I never travel without my earbuds, and for long layovers, we’ll tap into the airport Wi-Fi and watch some Netflix while we wait.

The adulting essentials have been compiled from observation and experiences alike. After watching another traveler get closed out of a flight because he couldn’t pull up his digital boarding pass, I vowed to never learn that lesson the hard way. When we travel, I always carry a folder with hard copies of every single travel document, arrangement, confirmation, and itinerary. Be sure you pack your passport, driver’s license, and any other documents required for international travel if you’re leaving the country!

They seem like small and silly things, but pack a pen and a water bottle. The pen comes in handy for filling out immigration forms on the plane, expediting your journey through customs when you land. A water bottle can be refilled, and saves you spending $22.50 and your firstborn for a bottle once you’re past security. It’s really important to stay hydrated when you travel! I’ll spare you the gory details, but take my word on this one. It’ll keep you, um… regular.



Picking and packing your wardrobe shouldn’t be a big ordeal! Take a deep breath, and pick a color palette. I personally like jewels tones, white, black, and gray… but this is totally up to you. Pick a few colors that work together, and choose your clothes from that. Everything will mix and match nicely, allowing you dress down or up as your travel requires.

When traveling, I adhere to the palette and ratio rules. The ratio rule is simple, and will help you meet most every occasion. If you’re traveling in cold climates, invest in warm, lightweight items such as fleece and thermals.

I always pack enough socks and underwear to last each day of my trip. If you wanna save space, you can always wash your skivvies in the sink.

The ratio goes as follows:

  • 2 pairs of pants (jeans/slacks/yoga pants – choose these as your travel plans dictate)
  • 1 pair of shorts (for sightseeing, comfort, and warm days)
  • 1 pair of athletic shorts or sleep pants (for, y’know, sleeping and stuff)
  • 2 short sleeve shirts (I usually pack one simple t-shirt and one nicer shirt)
  • 2 tank tops (I usually pack a simple tank top for layering and then something nicer)
  • 1 long sleeve shirt (consider your destination when choosing casual or dressy)
  • 1 dress shirt (save space and omit this if you don’t need a button down)
  • 1 dress (I always take a dress or two, just to be safe)
  • 1 cardigan/sweater (if I’m traveling somewhere cold, I take a cardigan AND a coat)
  • 3 pairs of shoes (wear the bulkiest shoes on the plane)
    • Tennis shoes
    • Flip flops or sandals
    • Dress shoes

For men, roll belts up and insert them in the collar of your dress shirts to keep the collars sharp. For ladies, pack jewelry in pill organizers to keep things tidy.

This should be sufficient for a week-long trip. If you’re going to be on the road longer, most hotels offer laundry services, or you can always pop in a laundromat and knock your entire wardrobe out at once.

ROLL you clothes when packing! This will save you TONS of space, and let you load your clothes into the suitcase like little logs. Roll your socks together and stuff them inside shoes, to utilize every spare inch.


Kid Considerations

I think it’s easy to forget that your child is a ticketed passenger with the same baggage allowances as anyone else. Take advantage of this! That gives you an entire carry on FULL of storage space because kids’ clothes are smaller and take up less room.

This extra space can be filled with toys or souvenirs… or both, if you plan well!

Same rules for ratio and palette apply! I might throw in an extra pair of pants and a shirt… because, kids. And the clothes are smaller so I can get away with the spares.

Don’t forget to pack entertainment! I try to take a variety of things for bubba to do, so he isn’t constantly asking me for the iPad. We love travel games, coloring books, small legos, matchbox cars, play-doh, books, etc.

Kids get a personal item, too! Backpacks are great personal items for kids, mostly because it’s one less thing they have to wrangle through the airport. They’re roomy, with lots of random pockets to tuck toys into.

I also always pack non-perishable snacks (again, because, frugal) such as beef jerky, trail mix, pretzels, goldfish and dried fruit or apples. We usually eat pretty clean, so fast food tends to tear my stomach up and I’d rather not, unless we have to.

Get Out and Go!

Anything that simplifies travel is good in my book! Every penny saved just goes toward other fun things to do. I hope y’all found this helpful!

If you have any awesome travel hacks or advice, leave a comment below!


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