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Having, or not having, the right luggage on a family trip can make a significant difference, especially if your family travels frequently, or on itineraries that involve multiple transitions. While you can just stuff all the kids’ stuff in any old bag, you may regret that choice as you transform into a human pack mule going through the airport, city streets, etc.
Family luggage selections are truly right up there in the pre-trip planning priorities along with mapping routes, figuring out the itinerary and researching destinations.
Whether a child is a preschooler or in elementary school, their luggage can act as a touchstone to home and help them remain relatively self-sufficient. The size and style of child’s bag should be dictated by their age, size, what they want and need to bring with them, how they can manage the bag and by how the adults who are traveling with them can add the child’s bag to their own when needed. (Learn more about the best travel gear for kids.)
Here’s a rundown on children’s luggage from Karen Jacobs, a clinical professor of occupational therapy at Boston University, and other experts in the field. Jacobs takes each of her grandkids on an international trip when they turn 10, and is the moving force behind National School Backpack Awareness Day.
Luggage for Preschoolers
Look for compact wheeled bags and backpacks: “The most important thing for preschoolers is to have a few items to keep them busy on the plane in a tiny wheeled bag,” says Jacobs. (Back in the day, Mommy Points chose a Trendy Kid Travel Buddies wheelie and backpack for her own toddler.)
Almost by definition, preschoolers’ bags and backpacks are small enough to go under an airplane seat, which makes easy (and frequent) access a given, says Jacobs.
Because it’s highly unlikely that the bag will be checked and equally likely that it will endure spills and stains, she usually assumes that a child’s bag won’t last forever. Viewing a preschooler’s bag as semi-disposable also frees you to buy one that fits the child perfectly, with no expectation of having them grow into it. “For little kids, it’s not an investment piece; it’s their little bit of the world with them,” says Jacobs. That said, consider making the purchase with a credit card with good purchase protections in case it really doesn’t hold up like you hoped.
Encourage children to become familiar with their bags before the trip, adds Sandra Schefkind, who heads the pediatric practice of the American Occupational Therapy Association. “It’s not just the mechanics of moving it but making sure we don’t lose it. Will there be an attachment to it so you can identify it and keep track of it?” she says. Easily identified bags can give a small child a reference point throughout the trip.
One flexible option with a distinct look is the Heys brand Travel Tots line. Scaled for preschoolers, the hard-shell bags come in coordinated, animal-themed sets of a backpack and a roller. The handle on the rolling bag extends sufficiently for an adult to pull it. The wheels are designed to keep the bag off the ground even if it is being pulled by a very small child, says designer Jo Cho.
“It can become frustrating for kids if the zipper is hard to hold and zip. We design with larger curved zippers that just feel right when kids are opening and closing their luggage,” she says.
Get familiar with the bag well before departure, says Jacobs. “Packing is part of the anticipation,” she says. Let children choose their en route activities as well as a change of clothes and, she recommends, a change of shoes so a bad spill doesn’t force the child to traipse in wet shoes and socks.
The bulk of the child’s clothes should either go in a checked bag or in the accompanying adult’s carry-on, advises Jacobs.
Jacobs thinks that both rollers and backpacks are suitable for preschoolers … as long as parents realize that they, not the kid, will also be managing the bag. That said, a preschooler is usually capable of taking charge of their bag for a portion of the trip, just likely not when they are tired or over long distances.
Always experiment with children’s luggage before buying it, says Jacobs. First, she advises, test the length of the handle to the child’s height and comfort. Then, experiment with how the accompanying adult will be able to add the bag to his or her load. Finally, experiment with the accompanying adult’s ability to handle the child and all the bags.
Trunki offers a novelty rectangular suitcase that doubles as a preschooler riding toy. While not commenting on any specific product, Jacobs says that it’s important to clarify how you’d safely use a bag that a child can ride on: Would a toddler insist on trying to ride it in crowded or small spaces? If items of this sort might provide an enjoyable play option at a hotel room or grandma’s house, consider how you will manage expectations en route.
Luggage for Elementary School-Aged Kids
Search for multipurpose bags with plenty of storage space: Children in first- through fifth-grade are likely to be entranced by collecting souvenirs and treasures along the way, says Jacobs. Her recent weeklong trip to Paris with 10-year-old granddaughter Sophie involved hunting for the perfect light-up Eiffel Tower souvenirs.
Schefkind, the mother of three grown children, recommends nesting bags, such as a small backpack that fits into an under-seat roll-on, to offer elementary school kids several options. Nesting bags can also help organize — for instance, a change of clothes and basic toiletries can be tucked into a small lightweight backpack that occupies a third of a roll-on, she says.
Magi Raible, president of LifeGearDesign, and a longtime luggage designer, drew from real-life packing and lugging hassles to create extra-sturdy bags and backpacks that are also extra-light. The company’s brand, LiteGear features nesting bags and packs that offer plenty of mix-and-max options for quickly rearranging toys, snacks and a change of clothes among parents’ and children’s luggage.
LifeGear’s Hybrid Rolling Tote is designed to stow under an airplane seat, which makes it a good in-between size for elementary school-aged children who are too old for a cute luggage beloved by preschoolers, but not old enough for a carry-on designed for even a small adult. Similar under-seat totes are available through LL Bean.
Convertible backpacks that let elementary school-aged kids carry a bag on their backs or pull it behind them are another great option, say occupational therapists. LiteGear’s Rolling Mobile Pro has a telescoping handle that snaps out of sight when the bag is used as a backpack. The pack also offers easy-access, padded front pockets for electronics.
Kids’ bags take a lot of abuse: crumbs, uncapped markers, damp clothes. But bags that can keep up with a child for the duration of a trip more than earn their keep — even if they get used up pretty quickly in the process.
As your traveling child ages out of elementary school, a bag like the Away Kid’s Carry-On, a slightly scaled down version of the adult model, may become worth the investment for frequently flying families.
Pre-Trip Luggage Tips
Allow plenty of time for shopping and fitting children’s gear, advises Jacobs. Preferably, shop at physical stores so you can test the fit on the spot. If you buy online, be prepared to fit the gear and potentially return items that are the wrong size, fit or proportion for your child.
Evaluate the total amount of stuff that you have to bring for each child and how it will be divided up between carry-ons and checked bags. Don’t give in to the temptation to use the child’s carry-on as an overflow for his or her checked bag. The carry-on, say occupational therapists, should be reserved for the child’s emergency change of clothes, toys, snacks and treats.
- Consider what kids’ activities and snacks you want to dole out throughout the trip and save space for those in your own carry-on to preserve the surprises.
- Always keep the child’s medications in the bag of the accompanying adult.
- Bring a bungee cord so you can easily add a small child’s carry-on to your own. This will make it easier and safer to bundle the child’s bag with yours for quick boarding and exiting.
- Leave room or expect to make room in the child’s bags for souvenirs. Try to anticipate whether the child is likely to want to buy and bring a bulky souvenir in his or her carry-on (we’re looking at you, Mickey).
- Check to see if your child’s electronics can easily be managed within the confines of his or her bag. If not, expect to carry the devices through security in your own bag and manage them accordingly.
- If you can, create a common visual among all your family’s luggage, especially among all your carry-ons. A common tag, stencil or color enables children to quickly identify your bags at security checkpoints and gives your child a bit of a reference point in the midst of large, chaotic spaces, say therapists.
The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. offers tips for choosing and adjusting children’s backpacks.
Your child should be trusted with his or her own carry-on as soon as realistically possible. Buy something your kid can manage independently, but be ready to step in and carry it when your little one peters out.
What kind of carry-on or suitcase does your child use on family trips? What’s the best and worst feature?
Featured image by justhavealook / Getty Images
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