Some of the best childhood memories occur during family vacations, but let’s face it: Traveling with kids can be a challenge. I, for one, already had a tendency to overpack before I had kids, so when once my son, Javier, was born, things got even crazier. In some instances I packed all sorts of things I didn’t end up using, while other times I lugged bulky items that actually had simpler alternatives — had I known.
I remember taking a trip with Javier to Arizona a few years ago when I was still a single mom, and man, did I struggle. He was 3-years-old at the time, so he still needed a car seat. You try carrying a diaper bag, a stroller (with a baby), a car seat, and your luggage to the airport, then try to get some of this through security while taking off your shoes and belt and carrying a baby. Not exactly good times. When I arrived, I was exhausted, and I promised myself to streamline the heck out of my next vacation.
It’s not just packing and flying that can be a challenge when traveling with kids, though. From how to make the most of the limited space in your hotel room to easy hacks that will ensure your next road trip yields more “woohoos” than whining, following are genius travel hacks you haven’t heard before.
1. Mark your luggage as fragile so it comes out first at baggage claim. If the idea of waiting in a crowded terminal for your bags to slide down the conveyor belt sounds awful, imagine doing it with screaming little kids itching to let off steam after a long flight. Not only does marking your bags fragile ensure your luggage is handled correctly, it keeps it at the top, making it one of the first bags released — so you can get the heck out of there.
2. Give kids cookie sheets so they have a level service for crafting and coloring during your road trip. This hack is handy at snacktime, too. And here’s the thing: The more activities they have to keep them busy, the fewer times they’ll bug you by asking, “Are we there yet?”
3. Pack space-saving clothes that do double duty. Columbia’s Silver Ridge Convertible Pants for kids can be turned into a pair of shorts with a simple zipper. Both comfy and durable, they’re perfect for when the weather fluctuates during a day of sightseeing, and they transition easily from daytime to evening. The pants come in three colors, so you can coordinate them with almost any outfit.
4. Use a library card to keep the power going in your stateroom, so you can charge your devices when you’re away. These days, virtually every cruise ship stateroom features an energy-saving main light switch that requires you to leave your key card in a slot in order to power the cabin — and therefore charge your electronics. The idea is to prevent you from wasting power, but this can be a pain since families spend little time inside cruise cabins. Outsmart the power slot by putting a library or loyalty card in the slot as a placeholder. When you return to your cabin and everything is charged up, simply remove it.
5. Protect your Smartphone from sand-kicking kids at the beach with a waterproof pouch. Coastal vacations are perfect for families, but no matter where you try to hide your Smartphone, one of your kids will inevitably get sand all over it. Stash it and anything else you want to protect into a waterproof, floating pouch and even if you take it on a boat trip, you won’t have to worry. This one from TravelOn lets you access your touch screen through a clear cover, so you can still talk and text.
6. Roll and stack clothes (instead of folding them) to save space. Rolling clothes into tubes creates more room in your luggage and minimizes wrinkles, but the best part is that it’s something you can ask even a preschooler to do.
7. Instead of giving each family member a suitcase, stay organized by designating each bag for a different purpose. For example, place everyone’s swimsuits and beach accessories in one bag, and sightseeing or dinner clothes in another. This way when it’s time to get dressed every day, you won’t need to have every suitcase out in the open. In an already cramped hotel room, this can be a space and sanity saver that helps to keep things organized.
8. Use a bento box to prepare special meals for kids with allergies before flights and road trips. Bentgo offers sleek versions of compartmentalized lunchboxes that keep foods and even medicines organized, so kids aren’t confronted with a jumbled mess when they’re mid-air and it’s time to eat.
9. Always have a deck of cards on hand for unexpected delays. “I pack playing cards on family trips because the kids like to play card games and they take up almost no extra space in my carry-on,” says mom Misha Gillingham, founder of Wild Luxe, a luxury travel blog. Cards are ideal during layovers and other delays, and given the different games you can play, kids of all ages can get in on the fun.
10. Use a white noise machine to drown out unfamiliar sounds. The most important thing while traveling is to make baby’s sleep space as similar to what he has at home as possible, says Batya Sherizen (aka Batya the Baby Coach), a child sleep coach. Bringing along a familiar blanket or teddy bear is great, but the real trick to making sure they sleep well on vacation is to pack a portable white noise machine. “It can help drown out scary and unfamiliar noises, and literally save your sleep on a vacation!” she adds.
11. Ditch the bulky booster seat for an inflatable one. This booster seat from BubbleBum weighs less than a pound and deflates in minutes, making it simple to throw in a backpack or purse. Another option is the RideSafer Vest by Safe Ride 4 Kids, a wearable five-point harness that meets the same safety standards of a traditional car seat. “What makes the vest a great travel hack is that it’s portable, it easily folds to fit in any carry-on bag, and it’s almost impossible to install incorrectly,” says Melissa Smuzynski of Parenthood and Passports, a family travel blog.
12. Download your cruise line’s app to text for free when you sail. Many cruise lines now have apps that provide deck plans, a daily rundown of activities, and more, so you can ensure you don’t miss any experiences or special events. Some apps, such as the Disney Cruise Line (DCL) Navigator, take it a step further and allow texting between family and friends while on board — a great alternative to pricey roaming charges. DCL’s version is free, allows for group chats, and unlike other cruise lines, it’s available across its entire fleet of ships.
13. Scope out your hotel on Google Maps for an unbiased viewpoint. If you’re traveling to a hotel where Google has street views, use the images provided to get a better idea of what the hotel really looks like on the outside and how close it may be to street noise or questionable establishments that may not be ideal for little kids. “Since Google takes a snapshot without letting the hotels know, you’re more likely to get an unbiased look at the hotel,” says Smuzynski.
14. Stock up on collapsible beach essentials to save space in your suitcase. As much as they keep kids busy at the beach, buckets and shovels are generally too bulky to pack. But once you arrive, you can end up with whiny kids who want to build sandcastles, prompting you to cave for the pricey beach toys sold at the gift shop (which you’ll probably have to leave behind anyway). Packable Pails completely collapse, so you can take them with you on any beach vacation. You can also look for collapsible coolers to tote cold drinks, breastmilk, formula, and snacks.
15. Use your stroller as a luggage cart at the airport. A lot of airports don’t let you take the luggage cart beyond certain points, so asking kids to walk alongside you while you push the piled-on stroller is often less of a hassle.
16. Put milk or formula in its own bag when flying, instead of in your carry-on. Make room in your purse or carry-on for essentials by storing breastmilk or formula in its own separate bag. “Most people don’t realize it doesn’t count as a carry-on bag or personal item, and it makes it easier to separate for screening purposes,” says Smuzynski.