I'm on a Year-long Trip With a Toddler and I've Never Checked a Bag — Here's How I Do It

What to pack is just as important as what not to pack.

Mother, child and father hiking along the coast line - Newman Family, year long trip
Photo:

Jocelyn Newman

On a drizzly morning near Queenstown, New Zealand, a series of obstacles stood between us and our 7 a.m. bus to the next town: We hadn’t fully packed, our toddler was exhausted, and cabs and transit weren’t exactly plentiful in our sleepy hillside neighborhood. But despite the obvious challenges, we were unfazed. Right when my alarm went off, we shoved the last of our laundry into our packing cubes, pulled our cranky, bleary-eyed son from his portable cot, clipped the waist straps on our backpacks, and began our brisk, 20-minute walk to the town center. 

This wasn’t perfect planning, but it wasn’t entirely unplanned either. Our decisions about how we pack and travel made this rushed morning possible. We were able to carry all our luggage and our two-year-old while hustling to the bus stop. I even had my hands free to pull up directions, while also offering an array of breakfast snacks to my son. We’d been on the road for nearly eight months, with plans for about five more, and this luggage contained everything we’d brought with us. 

Stepping back, this may seem wild. One of the most common questions I get when I tell people we’re living nomadically with a young child is, "How do you manage all the kid stuff?" Well, we’ve found a way, and that approach enables us to save money, remain flexible, and live leanly. Here are some of our top tips for never checking a bag, even for a whole year on the road, with a toddler in tow

What’s the benefit?

Let me clarify why we strive to avoid checking luggage. The first reason is the simplest and most tactical: It allows us to skip the ever-rising airline fees and the potential risk of lost baggage

But that reason is also perhaps the least important. More strategically, carry-on luggage affords us flexibility and speed. We’re able to get around by foot, public transit, or car, so we have many options upon arrival. We don’t have to wait at the carousel upon landing, so we can be one of the first on the road, often avoiding additional lines and waits. If we need to check out of an accommodation early, with hours before we fly, it’s not a big deal to carry everything with us for a day of sightseeing. 

My third reason is more philosophical. As a mom, I value the lessons we’re able to reinforce for our son by packing lighter. Our smaller load helps us emphasize the value of experiences over possessions, and model more intentional purchasing habits. While there’s so much our two-year-old won’t remember from this year, I believe that foundational values can be instilled through decisions as seemingly minute as what goes into a suitcase. 

Pick the luggage first.

Small child with his luggage and dad pushing son in stroller in Europe - Newman Family, year long trip

Jocelyn Newman

Now that we've shared the why, let’s focus on the how. My first suggestion is to pick the luggage before you decide what to pack. Your bags can be a great forcing function for lighter, smarter packing decisions. 

In choosing that luggage, envision how you want to get around. We value the ability to commute on foot, so we travel with two backpacks — one 40-liter and another 50-liter option — for our family of three. These packs have comfortable straps so that we can wear them for longer stretches with decent support, as well as solid pockets to enable easy access to key items on the go. We’ve forgone a traditional diaper bag in lieu of a smaller backpack that we can sling over our travel stroller and also use for day trips and hikes. 

Skip the bulky items.

Bags being packed for Newman Family, year long trip without checked bags

Jocelyn Newman

Even with your luggage selected, you may be wondering about some of the classic bulky items like a portable crib, carseat, and stroller. In short, we cut back as much as we can and aim to deal with any critical needs upon arrival.

For sleep solutions, we rely heavily on Airbnb’s crib filter, which allows you to search for homes with a crib or Pack 'n Play available (found under the "amenities" menu). The accommodations Airbnb surfaces often also offer toys, high chairs, and other kid-friendly items. Hotels also typically carry cribs, and in a pinch, we’ve looked to social media platforms to borrow essentials. 

Mother making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with son in the trunk of a car on the road - Newman Family, year long trip

Jocelyn Newman

To avoid bringing a car seat, we’ve strategically prioritized destinations where we’ll be less dependent on a vehicle. We loved exploring the public transit across Europe, and navigated Melbourne, Australia, heavily on bike, for example. In cases where cars were necessary, we’ve rented a car seat, both from car rental agencies and baby-gear rental companies. And while I do see the perks of flying with a car seat — many babies sleep best in theirs, the seatbelts are far more functional than those on airlines — for us, the bulk upon arrival has always outweighed the benefits.

Finally, for strollers, we did extensive research to find a sturdy option that could fit in an overhead bin to allow us to avoid gate-checking entirely. We’ve used both a GB Pockit and a Babyzen Yoyo on our travels, ultimately preferring the latter because it has proven more durable.

Bring, borrow, and buy.

For all other items, we create a packing list — and yes, we've editing and adding to it since our son was born. With this list, we annotate each item as something to "bring," "borrow," or "buy." It can be tempting to pack it all and commit to the brands you know from home, but diligently moving items into the "borrow" and "buy" columns will significantly lighten your load. 

Diapers, wipes, and snacks are always on our "buy" list (aside from what’s necessary for travel day), and we’ve happily borrowed toys, books, and carriers as we’ve made our way around. In fact, we’ve found that having a few to-dos upon arrival, like grocery shopping and pickups, helps us settle in to a new city and get acquainted.

Find clothes that allow for multiple wears.

6 tops and onesies for child packing light - Newman Family, year long trip

Jocelyn Newman

And finally, the simple tip of "bring less." This is one of those secrets that hides in plain sight. I travel with four T-shirts and two tank tops. I rely heavily on brands and fabrics I know can handle a bit of sweat and grime and still be reworn. My husband and I are also true believers in hiking pants. Neither of us travels with jeans anymore, and we instead opt for Patagonia and Prana, respectively, to offer sufficiently stylish, sink-washable, pack-small pants. 

For babies, these solutions aren’t as prevalent. In the spring of 2022, I launched First Peak, a line of sustainable adventure clothes for babies and toddlers, in part because I couldn’t find any on the market that performed as well as my own travel gear. My son spit up, sweat, and sat in the sun alongside me on flights, hikes, and adventures, yet his 100 percent cotton left him moist, smelly, and sunburnt. First Peak products are all made in the U.S. using eco-friendly fabrics, plus they're odor-resistant, quick-drying, and sun-safe. My toddler is my top product tester, and he wears First Peak on all our travels. This allows us to pack far less, knowing that each item can be worn multiple times.

Consider exceptions and realities.

As ruthless as this all may sound, I’m not immune to the occasional inefficient add-on. I carried a floral sundress for our first three months in Europe, wearing it only twice, simply because it was pretty. When I ultimately donated it at a small shop in Rome, I did two laps around the block, debating if maybe, just maybe, I’d need it for our next stop. Giving up items has only gotten easier the more I’ve done it. I now feel a sense of pride assessing my unassuming backpack and devoting less energy to wardrobe decisions each day.

The other obvious soft spot comes from my son. In the months before our trip began, I vowed that stuffed animals weren’t going to make the cut. But then he started referring to three goofy plush toys as his "friends," and joyfully laying them in his crib each night. It was game over — those stuffed animals were coming along for the ride.

Family selfie before boarding a plane - Newman Family, year long trip

Jocelyn Newman

During a year on the road, what we bring in our bags can be critical to maintaining a sense of home and comfort. That favorite storybook or sippy cup takes some of the edge off of being thousands of miles from friends and family. That said, what we choose not to bring also shapes this experience: As much as possible, we aim to fill the gaps together, and to make our family bond the foundation of "home." And when that fails, there’s little that laughter can’t fix.

I don’t expect every family to commit to our carry-on-only style, but I hope these tips can inspire confidence that traveling with a young child is possible. We’ve visited 15 countries, road-tripped across the U.S., and still have nearly half a year ahead of us. And our 30-pound toddler is often the heftiest thing we’re carrying. 

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