Packing Tips for Extended Family Travel

My young family is on the move - we are currently living in China on a 6 month work assignment. With the exorbitant cost to ship additional stuff to China we were incented to only bring what we could fit in the standard airplane luggage allowance - 2 checked in luggage per person. We had 4 seats for our family (2 adults, a 4yr old, and 6 month old) which meant a total of 8 checked luggage + what we could carry on the planes. We managed quite well to bring a lot of stuff with us; nearly 450+ lbs of gear and we learned quite a bit along the way.

Here are some tips and lessons we learned along the way:

Food made up a surprisingly large amount of our luggage. Not only food for the 24+ hr journey, but supplies to help us get through the first couple months of transition. My wife and I knew our food preferences and packed a few comfort foods that were extremely expensive or hard to get in China. I packed pepperoni, beef jerky, and powered drink mixes. For my wife it was cake mix and Peanut Butter M&Ms. However for our kids it was a bigger challenge - we were not familiar with what food options would be affordable (and enjoyable) for our kids in China so we packed more variety of snack foods -- cookies, crackers, candy, pudding, baby food, baby puffs, baby pouches, and formula. Packing food works well as once consumed, it creates space for what we selectively accumulate to bring back home on our return journey.
Carry Ons: We weren't limited by the airplane carry on limit since we could carry on 8 pcs between the 4 seats, but what we as a family with 2 young kids could actually carry-on ourselves. I found I could strap 2 carry-on roller suitcases together and stack a 3rd duffel bag on top to move them through the airport using a single hand.
Porters have been a lifesaver for us. With 8 pieces of checked luggage, 3 carry on suitcases, backpacks, stroller, car seat, and 2 young kids to herd there is no way we could manage all this ourselves in the airports. Well worth a $2/bag tip even to a cheapass like me to keep things manageable for us.
Weight was our primary packing constraint. Knowing weight is the primary constraint upfront is helpful for packing decisions as it was unclear to us until we got pretty far along in our packing. Use space bags & duffel bags (vs suitcases) to ensure weight is your primary constraint. Lighter weight items of equal value to you should be higher on your packing priority list.
Space Saver Bags: Very valuable for us particularly around packing clothes for the 4 of us. Reduces the size of clothes to the point that weight is likely your primary packing constraint.
Packing Cubes: overrated as space savers the real value of these bags is for organization. We used them a couple different ways: to keep our change of clothes for the first couple of days organized and separated from the rest of our gear and as general organizing bags -- I found shoe bags were particular helpful to group food items & baby items together.
Duffel Bags: Once we started planning for this trip we knew we needed more luggage and started buying some larger suitcases to add capacity. However later on we realized that duffel bags were a better option - we had too many suitcases to move ourselves so roller luggage was of little value to us. What we needed was larger, cheaper, and lighter. Duffel bags tended to be 6+ lbs lighter than large suitcases and could hold just as much giving us effectively a 10% boost in capacity for the 50lb checked luggage weight limit..

Please leave a comment if you have any other tips or suggestions to pass along.

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Comments (5)


Feels like going for war!!
I like to travel light.

How did you get through Customs with the food? I'm always afraid to get caught with even small things.

Jean, I've never had any trouble taking food. The only food that may be a problem would be fresh fruits/vegetables & meats. I packed our shelf stable Boars Head pepperoni & beef jerky in vacuum sealed bags and didn't have an concern at customs. If I did I would just play dumb and give up the food that is a concern w/ the custom folks ;-).

Bernard, your right I like to pack like and my wife likes to plan for almost every contingency. I'd love some tips on packing with young kids in tow if anyone has them.

We lived in Hong Kong and China for two years, and Saudi for two. Both places we found had most everything we needed at a cost. There are places to purchase American packaged foods. M&Ms are loved world round. Turkey Pepperoni- not as much :)
Saying that, we brought a number of packets of the Mac and cheese (not the noodles- just the icky packet) for our six year old. We bought US underwear for everyone (we found impossible to find). Softer clothing and nicer clothing for everyone (we could get knock offs of just about anything- but soft comfy clothes were tough to come by).
Our children got used to shelf milk and we got used to boiling water to rinse the veggies.
We traveled AloT! We hired a ahma to care for the kids and told her only to speak her language to them (she was Filipino) if your children are blonde, I might suggest some simple hair dye when you travel out to less populated areas. There is a Chinese myth about Blonde children being good luck and you may end up with lines of people wanting to take their picture with your kids.
Saying all of that, my children blossomed through their travel and experiences, so did we.
Enjoy!

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