I know I have everything my family needs in our home, but once we're getting ready for vacation, I suddenly find myself thinking that everything needs to be new: New shoes, new clothes, new toys to occupy my girl, new packages of her favorite foods, maybe some new noise-canceling headphones. It happens almost as soon as we book a trip; I decide that I need a plethora of new things for my little girl, myself, and my husband. Before I know it, I've spent more than our budget for the trip before we've even left. Then, I cram it all into our suitcases . . . and end up paying a baggage fee. Ugh. While some things are unavoidable, like buying sunblock for a beach vacation, a favorite snack for my toddler, or even a new destination-appropriate dress that I've been eyeing for myself, the one thing that has helped us save money on travel with kids is to minimize the pre-trip spending and only pack what we really need.
At first, when traveling with a baby, it was easy. I breastfed my daughter, so that alleviated the need for extra food or formula. I felt confident that if I had myself, diapers, wipes, my carrier, and a change of clothes, we could take on the world. But that all changed when I stopped nursing, and she got more active and needed to be entertained. Our first trip with her as a toddler was overseas to Europe. So I packed lots of food, diapers, wipes, toys, a stroller, a carrier, her favorite blanket, a jacket, and on and on. The list was endless. But guess what? She didn't play with those toys and the stroller got left behind on the train platform. (I know.) I ended up carrying her the entire time. I learned, maybe not quickly, but after several more long-distance trips to Amsterdam, Mexico, California, and West Africa, that less is best.
First, we stopped packing the excess toys. When we travel nowadays, I always get one new toy for my daughter to use in transit. When she was a year to a year and a half, I would check out a consignment shop for a toy computer, phone, or remote — anything with buttons, lights, and some noise. We managed to get a small toy computer for $2.50 that was a hit on a six-hour plane ride. Now that my daughter is 3, I usually buy tiny dolls, small cars, or toy animals for her to play make-believe with. I also bring her a new notepad (I get them from the dollar store) and a pen. We write notes, learn letters, draw pictures, and play make-believe. It works. And when traveling, I'm OK with giving her some screen time; most flights have great kids' shows, movies, and games for when the going gets tough. Once we land, there are so many things we do with random stuff we find in our Airbnb or hotel. Often, I grab a few cups, throw down a towel in the bathroom, and let her mix up some soap suds and water. Besides, we're spending a lot of the time exploring, creating memories, and dancing in the streets of our awesome destination — no toys necessary for that!
Another thing that can take up the most space and money for us is food. This always makes me a bit anxious, so it's where I generally overpack the most. I would go through all of the "what ifs," giving myself reasons for bringing an extra two bags of crackers. And like the extra toys, they always end up uneaten — taking up valuable space and money. To combat it, I first check if our flight offers meal service (I'm lucky that my little girl isn't a picky eater, so she is happy to eat the on-board food). However, I rarely will purchase on-board snacks. I've found that they're not very filling or worth the price for me. If I need to bring food, my priority is to make something that is packed with energy, nutritious, and is also yummy. My go to is energy bites, but I also love baking muffins with coconut flour (I also like to hide a little spinach in there). And I always pack a bribery snack, like Annie's Cheddar Bunnies or organic lollipops. And I always make sure to dump my liquids before security (I've been stopped one too many times). As soon as we pass security, I grab a coconut water or fill my daughter's sippy cup with water from a nearby water fountain.
So the moral of this travel story, minimize and prioritize what you pack. I've found that if I think I might not need it, I likely won't. It took me a few trips to get this down pat, but now that I've got the hang of minimalist travel I find that I'm saving money on checked luggage fees, space in my bag, and my back from having to lug that unnecessary stuff all around.