How to Pack for a Year Abroad with a Baby
I used to travel with only a carry on. It didn’t matter the length of the trip. I could pack for 5-7 days in a rolling suitcase, and any longer than that I’d do laundry. Occasional exceptions were required for extra-long trips (two months in South America, six weeks in southern Africa) but those trips came along every few years at most. And in those cases the cause for a larger suitcase was usually gear related (hiking boots take up a lot of space).
Since having a child, I have checked bags every time we have traveled. My personal packing habits have not changed. The person with the most stuff is WP. The worst part is, she can’t even carry it. No, actually the worst part is that we have to carry her stuff AND we have to carry HER.
Schlepping more than you can handle is frustrating, anxiety-producing, and injury-inducing, so when we decided to travel for a year, we knew we would have to pack very, very carefully. I made a spreadsheet (obvs) with a bare bones list of what we could bring. We went out and bought two lightweight, hard shelled, durable 28in suitcases. We packed them off the spreadsheet. They were impossibly heavy. We sat on the floor amidst a pile of clothes and cut the bare bones packing list by a third.
When those two suitcases were packed, we felt a sense of accomplishment. Our spirits lifted – we can do this! Then we realized that those were bags one and two of seven. There was the travel crib. The travel car seat. The travel stroller. And the two “personal items” filled with diapers, bottles, food pouches, and toys. Since WP is basically a backpack herself on travel days, that makes eight items. Eight items to schlep, and eight items to keep track of in train stations, airports, and getting in and out of cabs.
After much reflection, I do not think it is possible to do a long trip like ours comfortably with fewer items, but at the same time I certainly do not recommend taking more. Here’s how we packed generally:
Big suitcase 1 (green): This is Mike’s. Half of the suitcase is his clothing and shoes. The other half is WP’s clothes, shoes, toys, and travel high chair.
Big suitcase 2 (purple): This is mine. Half the suitcase is my clothing and shoes. The other half has things we need overall but don’t need at every stop (hiking boots, various medicines, rain jackets, etc).
Car seat: This hooks onto one of the big suitcases with a strap for train/car/airports, and we have a stuff sack for when we check it in the airport.
Travel crib: There’s a little bit of extra space in the bag, so we include WP’s nighttime stuff (travel speaker for white noise, sleep sack, pacifiers, Cat, Froggy, and Barry, etc).
Stroller: This has its own bag. It can be slung over a shoulder, but sometimes it’s easier to unfold it and push it with one of the personal items on top.
Personal item 1 (backpack): This is Mike’s. It has his electronics and several of the things we need in transit for WP. There’s a little extra space to stuff sandwiches.
Personal item 2 (giant tote): This is mine. It has my electronics and most of what we need in transit for WP including her changing pad, bottles/cups, snacks, and toys.
WP (in carrier): We always have WP in the carrier for travel days. She is calmest there and it avoids having to pass her around while folding/unfolding the stroller. I always wear her on travel days so Mike can handle the heavy lifting when we need to get suitcases into and out of cabs and on and off trains.
I will point out that when flying this means that after we leave the check in counter, we are traveling light: a stroller (we usually keep it with us to avoid damage), a backpack, a tote, and a baby. This is not bad. But trains and cabs, those relaxing conveniences of yore, straight up suck. In fact, depending on the default taxi model in a given country, we may not even all fit in one standard cab.
One other key is that we have two additional overnight bags that pack down in their own pouch (these live in the second half of my suitcase typically). This means that when we are staying in one place for awhile, we can do an overnight without needing to pull out the giant suitcases. When we do an overnight, we usually have 1) overnight bag, 2) overnight bag, 3) personal item, 4) personal item, 5) WP and, depending on the mode of transit, 6) car seat. It’s still a lot, but bags 1 and 2 are way smaller in this scenario.
If you are traveling for a shorter amount of time, particularly in summer when clothes are flimsy, you have a chance to travel lighter. One large suitcase should be fine. You may not need the car seat if you’re going from one city to another (see my post on whether to bring a car seat when you travel). Perhaps you don’t even need the stroller depending on where you’re going (it was great in London, useless in Marrakech). And it’s not hard to find a hotel or Airbnb that will provide a crib (or cot, as it’s called in Europe) and a highchair.
My best advice is – pack as little as possible, with a focus on things you can’t get at your destination or might need in the middle of the night. Some things are hard to find when you need them (swim diapers) or perhaps you need them urgently (bum thermometer, baby acetaminophen). Some things are kind of expensive to rent or buy if you don’t bring them but it turns out you need them (mostly the gear: strollers, etc). But mostly if you book a place with a washing machine, you can make do with minimal clothes, and if you err on the side of under-packing leave a little room in your luggage it’s always fun to buy a few new things wherever you are.