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Before I had kids, I had minimalist traveling down to a science. I once went on a 10-day trip to Italy where everything I brought fit in one small backpack — true story. I like flexibility and freedom while traveling, and the more I try to lug around with me, the less I enjoy my trip. Packing light worked for me.

When I had my son, I worried those days were behind me. After all, kids are messy, “hangry,” easily bored little creatures. What I could get away with as a single adult wasn’t going to fly now that I had a toddler. But with a little trial and error, I found a healthy balance between my yearning for minimalism and meeting the needs of my family.

To be clear, these tips aren’t meant for everyone. Every kid — not to mention every trip — is a little different. What you plan to do and where you plan to go could mean that some of these suggestions just aren’t feasible. And that’s OK. Minimalism is all about using only what you need and setting aside the rest. Here are some of my best tips for traveling light — and staying sane — with a toddler in tow.

Plan for What’s Probable, Not What’s Possible

Sure, my son’s raincoat would come in handy if we get caught in a torrential downpour, but what are the chances of that happening? And if it does, how big of a deal would it be that we didn’t bring it along?

Many items you pack “just in case” never end up getting used, yet you still have to lug them around from place to place. Think about what you’re planning to do and what you’ll likely need to do it. Going to Disney World? You’ll almost certainly get a lot of use out of that umbrella stroller. But hanging around a beach resort? Probably not.

The exception, of course, is for unlikely, worst-case scenarios that can’t be solved with a slight detour and a credit card. If your kid has a severe allergy, for example, the EpiPen gets packed regardless of the chances it’ll get used.

Packing raincoats for a trip to Scotland? Smart. Packing raincoats to see the Grand Canyon? Neurotic. Image courtesy of PeopleImages via Getty Images.
Packing raincoats for a trip to Scotland? Smart. Packing raincoats to see the Grand Canyon? Neurotic. Image courtesy of PeopleImages via Getty Images.

Leave Behind What You Can Rent/Buy/Borrow There

When I travel with my son, I don’t pack more diapers or wipes than what we’ll need for a day or two, opting instead to buy them at the destination, or even pre-deliver via online ordering.

Car rental companies often have child safety seats that can be rented for a small additional fee. Hotels almost always have pack ‘n plays or mini cribs available at no cost — you’ll only need to bring a mini-crib sheet. Even some amusement parks, museums and zoos have strollers for rent. Doing a little investigating before your trip could spare you from lugging around more than you need to. Just be sure to verify the safety of the equipment before accepting it.

In a pinch, many large stores like Target have lightweight umbrella strollers for just $20. They aren’t exactly built to last, but if you’re only using it for a few days, you really don’t need them to.

No one likes lugging around strollers. So why not just rent one at the destination? Image courtesy of Jupiterimages via Getty Images.
No one likes lugging around strollers. So why not just rent one at the destination? Image courtesy of Jupiterimages via Getty Images.

Prioritize Multipurpose Items

I was one of those parents who heaved a sigh of relief when the American Academy of Pediatrics relaxed its guidelines to allow for kids 18 months and older to use screens on a limited basis, not least of which because tablets and smartphones are huge space savers — they are books, TVs and interactive toys, all in one compact device. It’s still important that parents interact with their children when using screens, but having so many options literally at your fingertips means fewer heavy board books or bulky toys in your carry-on.

Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime will let you download movies and TV episodes onto your device so they can be accessed without Wi-Fi. And while kids’ apps can be hit or miss when it comes to pricing and quality, app packages from Sago Mini or Tinyhands are usually a safe bet. They have a variety of games that allow your toddler to explore a virtual environment or work on developmental skills like color matching or relationships, giving your little one plenty of options to avoid boredom.

If you aren’t a screens family or if you aren’t able to use them with your toddler, there are plenty of things you can do to keep them entertained, especially on a flight. Flash cards, window clings or sticker books don’t take up much space but can be used in a variety of ways to keep a child engaged. That in-flight magazine? Perfect for playing I Spy. Channel your inner MacGyver. You’d be surprised the games you can come up with using only a napkin and in-flight barf bag.

A number of other items can be used for multiple purposes. Baby wipes, for example, can be used to clean messy hands or tray tables or get food off of clothes. Baby shampoo can be adult shampoo, too, as well as used for shaving cream, makeup remover or for hand-washing clothes. A fleece jacket can also be a blanket, pillow or nursing cover. Thinking through the many uses of items you already plan to pack will help you reduce the number of items you bring along.

Sure, sure, sure, tablets and smartphones are the scourge of a generation. But they save space and won
Sure, sure, sure, tablets and smartphones are the scourge of a generation. But they save space and won’t necessarily turn your kids’ minds to mush. Image courtesy of David Lees via Getty Images.

Pack a Color Palette, Not Individual Outfits

It’s easy to overpack clothes, especially for kids. They get messy. Accidents happen. But you can avoid packing clothes that won’t get used by only bringing items that can be mixed and matched. That way, if a shirt or a pair of pants gets dirty, there’s no need to change the entire outfit.

This trick works great for adults, too. It reduces the number of shoes and accessories needed to look nice on your trip. The more items can be reused from one day to the next, the less you need to cart along with you.

Sure, you both like the color yellow, but maybe go with a mix-and-match hoodie and trousers instead. Image courtesy of Adam Hester via Getty Images.
Sure, you both like the color yellow, but maybe go with a mix-and-match hoodie and trousers instead. Image courtesy of Adam Hester via Getty Images.

Stay Somewhere With Space to Explore

My toddler hates being cooped up in small spaces. So to avoid meltdowns, we try to stay near places that he can run around and explore. Does the hotel have a courtyard? Is the home rental near a park or shopping mall? If the weather doesn’t cooperate, can you make a game of running up and down hallways or hiding-and-seeking small items found around the room? Exploring requires virtually no extra space in your bag and — best of all — it’s free!

Family vacation in Spain? Thousands of dollars. Cartwheels in the hotel garden? Free. Image courtesy of Tom Merton via Getty Images.
Family vacation in Spain? Thousands of dollars. Cartwheels in the hotel garden? Free. Image courtesy of Tom Merton via Getty Images.

Plan the Best You Can — And Then Just Roll With It

Being thorough when planning your trip can help you figure out what you need — but also more important, what you probably could get by without. Booking red-eye flights, for example, or flights that coincide with nap times, can help reduce the need for a lot of in-flight entertainment. Pre-determining each day’s activities will also help you determine what clothes you will need.

But you can only plan for so much. Minimalism requires a certain degree of comfort with risk and even sometimes expense. Traveling light isn’t the same as traveling cheap. Things could go wrong, and you might find yourself unprepared. Knowing that going in — and having a sense of humor about it — is important to help dial down the drama in potentially stressful situations. After all, the difference between a fiasco and an adventure is just state of mind.

But you know that. You have a toddler.

Do you have any tips and tricks for traveling with a toddler? Tell us about them, below.

Featured image courtesy of ballyscanlon via Getty Images.

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