The one-bag experiment

Our reality for the next three days.

Our reality for the next three days.

Little R and I head out tomorrow for a weekend trip to LEGOLAND California (and to see family), and I’m going to try and fit all of our stuff in one carry-on bag.

I’m subjecting us to this challenge for one very important reason: I’ve only got two hands, and somehow I’ve also got to bring my laptop bag (technically, it’s a work trip) and R’s Britax Roundabout car seat, and I need to guarantee I’ll have a free hand as we get ourselves from the airport to the rental car facility.

On the front end, the logistics of this strategy seem easy-peasy. We arrive at the Charles M. Schulz Airport near our house in Santa Rosa, California. We check the car seat. I wear the big daypack on my back and the small laptop bag (it’s also a backpack) on my front. This leaves me with both hands to navigate the TSA checkpoint and corral R when she gets feisty.

On the back end, at San Diego International Airport, the plan is only minimally different—backpacks will go on the same sides of my chest, car seat bag will go in my left hand, and R’s hand will go in my right.

Yes, I know I’m insane. Yes, I’m sure I’ll probably regret this choice when I’m dripping with sweat on the rental car shuttle. And, yes, I’m sure something completely unforeseen will happen (and cause me to curse out loud) and I’ll be forced to rethink everything on the fly. But the way I see it, at least at 12 hours before our time of departure, I’ve got no other option.

Still, all of this planning has me thinking about some bigger-picture considerations:

  • To what extent can I—and we, as family travelers in general—downsize our load to maximize efficiency when traveling with kids?
  • Why do we as a society think roll-aboard/wheelie carry-on suitcases are so great?

Of course I also have been fixating on the reality of single parents who travel with their kids: How on earth do they do it, especially when they’re traveling with more than one?

I’m guessing I’ll have some answers to these rhetorical questions by Sunday evening. In the meantime, between now and then (but especially between now and Friday around 10 a.m.), if you have advice you’d like to share about these issues, please do. And wish us luck!

Downsizing what you pack on family trips

Building fairy houses on the road.

Building fairy houses on the road.

I was inspired earlier this week when I read a post by my writer friend and family travel buddy, Julie Schwietert Collazo, about how to stop packing “so much crap” when you travel with kids. The story, which Julie published Monday, prefaced a trip she and her family were taking this weekend. The gist of the piece: Among family travelers, downsizing what you bring on trips always is a good thing.

I’ve got many favorite lines from the piece, but this, by far, is tops: “Your kids don’t need all the things you think they need. Children are far more resourceful than we give them credit for. In fact, they are far more resourceful than you are. For them, anything can be turned into a toy.”

In our family, we’ve proved this very sentiment countless times. Just this week, in fact, during stops on two of three local road trips, L’s used twigs and tree leaves to build “fairy houses.”

Beyond this advice, I *love* Julie’s recommendation for subjecting all of the kids’ items to a “wants” and “needs” test. This is something we do before every trip as well—down to laying everything on a bed and evaluating the items individually. Our needs: a few basic outfits, a streamlined toiletries bag, a box of crayons and some paper. Our wants: Extra princess dresses, travel board games, maybe some bubbles.

As Julie suggests, it also is a good idea to prioritize packing items that serve multiple functions and require minimal management. Julie’s best example is an all-purpose sarong. Our fave: The Kindle Fire HD, which currently has about 100 kids’ books (we used to schlep the old-fashioned kind everywhere).

In addition to these great suggestions, we have some other tips to share—secondary recommendations for downsizing the stuff you bring on family trips:

  • Bring sponge and tiny squirt-bottle of dishwashing detergent. This enables you to leave multiple cups and snack containers at home. If you’ve got a little little one, this setup also is a great way to clean pacifiers (and minimize the number of pacifiers you bring in the first place).
  • Embrace the glue stick. Having this little sucker will allow you to leave at least half of your child’s coloring implements at home. It also will allow your child to make artwork that incorporates items and objects from real life. (Such as leaves. And twigs. And local currency.)
  • Give each child the opportunity to bring three small personal items. This process teaches them how to be selective. It also gives them the opportunity to feel like they have an important say in how the packing experience plays out.

Finally—and Julie suggests this, too—consider packing only backpacks instead of roller bags. This strategy minimizes the Sherpa-shlep for us dads, and allows for freer movement around airports. It also eliminates those inevitable moments where we parents accidentally roll over our kids’ feet. Traveling is challenging enough on its own; the last thing we need as mom or dad is to spark an unnecessary meltdown.

What are your tips for downsizing the stuff you bring on family trips?

The things they carry (on family trips)

Just some of the stuff we'll be bringing to Yosemite.

Just some of the stuff we’ll be bringing to Yosemite.

When you leave home on an extended trip, you never know when you’re going to want to have a tin pencil case in the shape of a mummy. Or when you might need that unwrapped green straw from Starbucks. Or when you’ll be looking for a ladybug eraser.

But if you’re one of my kids, you bring these items anyway. Just in case.

Yes, as we pack up for this week’s family vacation to Yosemite National Park, the girls have opted for some unusual items to bring along for the ride.

The mummy tin, green straw (??!!??), and ladybug eraser are only highlights. Also in the gyre of ridiculousness they plan to take: A die-cast double-decker bus, a Lego rectangle, a plastic Cinderella amulet (which sings when you depress the center), a bunch of bow-shaped hairclips, two pieces of wooden model railroad track (but, peculiarly, no trains), a Candyland game piece, a ball-pit ball, and old t-shirts that are way too small (apparently these will serves as “nightgowns” when the stuffed kitties get cold at night).

Powerwoman and I don’t really understand why the girls want to bring all of these tchotchkes—not one bit. At the same time, we recognize the familiarity our kids have with each of these items, and respect the notion of bringing some of those familiar goodies along for a trip to somewhere new.

Sure, travel is exciting. But for little ones, it also must be scary (to a point). We’re in favor of anything the girls can do to make the experience more comfortable.

And if we need to invoke ancient Egypt along the way, we’re covered. Thank goodness.

What silly/ridiculous totems do your kids insist on bringing for family vacations?

Packing Tips for Air Travel with Little Ones

Playing with Play-Doh balls on a recent flight.

Playing with Play-Doh balls on a recent flight.

Packing for travel is sort of like kissing—you always can improve. This statement rings especially true for family travelers; as our kids get older (and as we add more kids), the challenges of squeezing all of their stuff into a manageable number of bags and boxes require increasing doses of innovation and skill.

Fittingly, a reader recently emailed with a multi-part question about packing, and I thought it best to address her query here. The question:

“The hubs and I will be traveling with the 15 month old and the new baby soon. I wondered if you had packing advice – do you and your wife wear backpacks or bring traditional carry-ons, do you use one of those wheelers for your car seats, do you usually do a suitcase for the kids or just squeeze everything in one?”

Backpacks vs. carry-ons
On the subject of backpacks vs. carry-ons, the answer is yes—that is, both of us bring both, on almost every trip.

One of us takes a backpack filled with practical stuff—toys for the plane, two sets of back-up clothes (in case of accidents), a first-aid kit, and a Ziploc bag with child-strength Motrin, child-strength Benadryl and a thermometer (in case the kids get sick). The other takes a backpack that we’ve turned into a diaper bag; we’ve found this essential is easier to carry when you can just wear it on your back.

Powerwoman and I also each take one carry-on; usually we each pick a daughter for whom to pack. This keeps their clothes separate (and makes it easier to unpack).

Three other items we make sure to pack in one of the suitcases: A nightlight, a bag of outlet covers, and a camping kitchen so we can wash the kids’ cups daily (for more on the contents of that kitchen, click here).

Wheeleers
On the subject of “wheelers,” the answer is N/A.

We’re not big fans of car seats on the plane (largely because our kids aren’t big fans of sitting in them), so whenever we bring them with us, we check them (it’s free!). Before our kids were old enough to sit on their own, we took them as lap-children. We started purchasing each girl her own seat around the 20-month mark.

Still, I know dozens of parents who use “wheelers” and love them. It really depends on personal preference—and whether you want to spend a flight crammed next to a convertible car seat.

(As an aside, we do own a set of wheelers—the GoGo Kitz Travelmate, to be exact—but it has sat in the same spot of our garage since L was three months old. In fact, if you’re reading this post and you want the wheelers, let me know; if you pay the postage, they’re yours.)

Kid suitcases
Finally, on the subject of kid suitcases, the answer here is “sort of.”

Yes, we do bring one kid-sized (and kid-themed) suitcase for each girl. No, we do not pack it as we pack normal grown-up suitcases. Instead, we usually let the girls “pack” their bags with stuff they know they’re going to want to bring along—for L on a recent trip it was three or four different stuffed cats; for R, it was a bunch of fake flowers.

I recognize this strategy is completely and utterly impractical. I also can tell you it is the part of the packing ordeal our girls anticipate most. The way we see it, this is a small price to pay to fuel some excitement for a day of traveling.

Also, on a more practical level, it’s good for them to experience what it’s like to pull a suitcase through a crowded airport.

What packing tips would you share with other moms and dads?

Family Travel + Fatherhood = Life as a Sherpa

 

Par for the course.

Par for the course.

Magnus Ver Magnusson has nothing on me. Sure, the dude has won four of those “World’s Strongest Man” competitions. And, yes, he can do crazy-ass stuff like drag a car with his bare hands and lift kegs full of lead (or something like that). I’m sure he could even bench-press all 185 pounds of my Italian-Jewish self, without so much as breaking a sweat.

That said, there is NO WAY the Icelandic He-Man can carry more crap than I carry on Villano family vacations.

Whenever we go away (and despite my steadfast beliefs in equal parenting and obliterating traditional gender roles), I automatically assume the role of Sherpa, schlepping everything from suitcases to diaper bags, car seats to inflatable pools.

Most of the time, I’m also carrying the baby.

Like competing for the title of World’s Strongest Man, these efforts require a number of sophisticated skills. For starters, they require strong fingers, especially when you’re carrying a grocery bag on each one. Second, they require balance; it’s hard work fumbling for keys when you’re lugging a suitcase and a 20-month old with the other hand.

Finally, being the family bellhop requires a good sense of humor, since inevitably you will find yourself pushing a plastic shopping cart of princess dolls through a crowded airport.

For years, I thought this phenomenon was something only I experienced. Then, this past weekend, at a party celebrating L’s fourth birthday, I found myself in a circle with three other dads, talking about family travel. And the truth came out.

One dad talked of a recent trip during which he was tasked with carrying seven suitcases by himself. “I was holding one with my teeth,” he admitted proudly.

Another Dad joked about the ridiculousness that ensues when he and his wife travel with their twins—and the boys’ twin car seats. “We have these special car seat bags you can wear like backpacks,” he said. “I usually wear one on the front and one on the back.”

The more the four of us shared, the more we all realized we were in the same exact boat.

Which, of course, begs the question: Why? Why is it that family travel + fatherhood = life as a Sherpa? Why does a vacation with kids prompt us dudes to do our best Magnus Ver Magnusson impressions? Most important, if we dads always are carrying the majority of gear on family vacations, why aren’t we more ripped?

I’m not suggesting that our wives carry more stuff. I’m also not saying that we all should hire full-time servants like the family on “Downton Abbey.” Really, I think it’s time we dads got our own television show—the modern-day, daddy-centric version of World’s Strongest Man.

The concept is simple: Over the course of a season, the dad who lugs the most stuff through a busy airport—without dropping it—wins a title.

If the show were serialized, I’d watch every week. And with more practice (which, BTW, totally would benefit my family on trips), I might even compete. If I close my eyes, I can almost see the Wikipedia page now: “Matt Villano, World’s Strongest Traveling Dad.” Who needs a Pulitzer with a distinction like that?

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