How to pack for a long journey with children

Our trip lasted for 71 days, across 5 countries with a wide range of climates : chilly summits, heavy rains, dry deserts, rainy cities and sunny beaches. We planned on living in hotels, houses and a motor-home. I needed to pack for two adults and two children, aged 2 and 6, keeping in mind that we would only have four arms and two backs to carry everything !

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LUGGAGE

– bags :

Our choice was to travel as light as possible. We decided to take 2 Eastpack bags with 2 wheels and telescopic handles (80 litres) and a small buggy. Also, two back-packs, one medium and one small.

For the buggy, I had a choice between the Volo (approx. 5kg) or the Triumph from Mac Laren (approx 6.5kg). I took the Triumph because it was lighter and more practical. It reclines for nap time and offers a better protection against rain and sun.

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The bags were big containers with no compartments which gives more flexibility. I divided our clothes and belongings into Muji garment cases of various sizes. One for each traveler + one for the toys + one for the camping gear + one for the electronic devices. For toiletries, we used one big pouch from Eagle Creek and one small case for the children. It allowed us to pack and unpack quickly without creating too much of a mess. It was also really helpful when we were in separate rooms, as we each had our own gear easy to carry from one place to another. Having two toiletry kits is also very convenient if you are not in the same room for a couple of nights or if you only need a quick wash and don’t want to take everything out of your bag.

And last, but not the least, the Ergo baby carrier . Light and adjustable to carry our baby on our backs, hip or front. Very useful for the treks, but also to rock our daughter to sleep in planes. I did not take the rain cover as our daughter had an overall suit that would protect her from the wind and rain.

Usually, my husband would pull both wheeled bags and carry a back-pack while I would push the buggy, carry the bag-pack and give a hand to our son.

– clothes and other belongings :

I thought we packed light. We only had a large Muji filet per person which I thought was quite an achievement for such a long journey. Now I know that we had twice the quantity of clothes we needed !
I planned for extreme weather as we were traveling in different season, from early spring to late autumn depending on the hemisphere. We were lucky and never had pouring rain nor bitter cold. In the end, the temperatures were always between 10 and 35 degrees Celsius, meaning T-shirts and light trousers were ok for every occasion.

If I were to do it again, I would pack lighter and leave some space to add souvenirs or appropriate gear we could have found during the trip : a new bathing suit in Australia, a nice wool jumper in New-Zealand, new toys in Japan, a shirt in Hawaii etc…

As we stayed in very safe and Occidental type countries, we could find anything anytime : tooth brush, baby-formula, nappies, etc. Other needs were easily met, except for some baby food in Japan and in some very remote places in Australia and New-Zealand.

– Toys :

I think it was really important to take as many toys as possible (two Medium compartments from Muji) as the children were sometimes a bit disoriented and home sick. But remember toys can be fragile and heavy. In the end, we lost many toys along the way and we were glad that none of them were irreplaceable.

For our son :
I asked him to choose 5 cars and planes (not his favourite ones though!), a couple of books, (I recommend you select one story about an adventure around the world. We read Robinson Crusoe and it was a total success), some cards, a diary and crayons. He also took his own camera, a small brain game and a ball to play outside.

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For our daughter :
I took some “little people” from her collection and a couple of accessories to go with. A pouch with plastic animals, one cuddly toy, her tiny baby and her blanket from home. For the bath and the beach, some nesting cups, a couple of small shovels and rake, some bubbles to blow.

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Her three favourite books, in pocket edition, would gave us the opportunity to maintain a routine around bed time, wherever we were.

On the way, in airports, museums souvenirs shops or market places, we regularly let them choose some small toys to take along and some new books. This would keep them busy and happy, reward their patience, and give them a way to remember specific places.

In Hawaii, we met parents that gave us the beach and pool stuff they had bought for their children because they were living the next day. We did the same when we left.

CHECKING-IN

In terms of weight, the allowance varies depending on the company you are flying with (and your airline frequent flyer status). We took 15 flights, with many different companies, national or low cost, all with different rules. We also experienced how the rules evolve depending on who you are dealing with at the check-in desk. Some people were very comprehensive and helpful, some were just applying the rules with no empathy whatsoever.

As we had 4 tickets every time we were flying, the total weight allowed was around 80 kilos, but each bag had to be less than 23 to 20 kilos depending on the carrier.

Ours were a little overweight (around 24 kg each). As a result, we had to negotiate every time we checked-in. If we were do to it again, we would make sure our bags are never heavier than 22 kg.

Some members of the staff did not even mention the overweight as we had only two bags for 4 seats, some asked for money or gave us the possibility to unload and check-in a third bag. This is why I strongly recommend you also take a medium size back-pack (50 litres). In several occasions, we took 4 or 5 kilos out of our main bags and stuffed it in the back-pack at checked-in. Another useful trick is to keep in one of the back-pack pockets another tiny bag (ultra light, folded in its own pocket). In the situation where you need to check-in the big 50 litres backpack, you can load your tiny light one with the stuff you need for your flight : food, toys, nappies, ipad…

Regarding the buggy : most of the airline companies allowed us to keep the buggy until we boarded the planes. It can be helpful but it means that you might have to wait at destination without knowing when (or where) the buggy will be handed back to you. It sometimes is taken back to the airplane door, sometimes placed on the baggage carrier belt with all the other luggage, some other times it is placed at the “over-sized” item counter. Finding out where and when can be a waste of time. So make sure you ask a member of the staff instead of waiting at the wrong place and if your child is not too tired already, you might check the buggy in and let the child walk or use the baby carrier instead.

ON BOARD

Children food :

I don’t like traveling without any food for the children as I don’t want to rely on the meals served on board : there might be nothing available (some low cost carriers don’t serve anything, some other companies serve only what was pre-ordered), the timing might be wrong or the children might just not like the menu. As a hungry child can become really miserable and cause a lot of stress, I tend to always pack a fresh snack and some puree in pouches (Ella’s kitchen type). But in some countries, like New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii, the quarantine is very strongly enforced, which means you will have to throw away any fresh food before you go through customs. I asked several times what “fresh food” meant to them as I wasn’t sure my purees and organic meals would be a problem. The short answer is: any manufactured food which is properly sealed can go through customs. Any opened pouch or fresh fruit is to be disposed of.

Another problem might occur with security services. First, they will ask you to put the baby food in a tray which means that you will have to open your bags, load and unload, again and again. In some places (London for instance), they will even ask you to open the pouches and bottles and take a sip in front of them, in order to prove that you are carrying proper baby food and no other illegal substances. The result is that your pouch is wasted if your child does not eat it soon after it has been opened.

With that in mind, I usually put these “goodies” in my small back-pack :

– a couple of pouches of fruit purees;
– two meals in a pouch;
– two apples;
– some pretzels or light snack;
– some water (each child has her/his own water bottle);
– the right quantity of formula milk for 3 bottles + a bottle filled with the right amount of water;
– some sweets as a reward for good behaviour.

I would fit all of this in an insulated lunch-box, to be able to take everything out at once, for security checks.

Entertainment :

We had two ipads, one “big” and one “mini”, and our two iPhones, each loaded with our children’s favourite TV programs and documentaries about the places we were going to visit. Many downloaded apps (scrabble, puzzles, flash cards, flight simulators, etc) so the children could vary the activities and keep entertained during long flights. Before the longest flights or commutes, we would load new movies or apps. To go with those “virtual” activities, I had a small pouch with tiny plastic animals for our daughter and we would play for hours, just taking them all out and then back in the pouch, naming them or inventing stories.

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For our 6 year old son, die cast cars and planes would do the trick. Of course, crayons and paper were very handy too and books helped us keeping the bedtime routine.

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A piece of advice : don’t give the children any electronic device before the plane is up in the sky. As the staff will ask you to shut it down a couple of minutes before take off, your children may get upset to be interrupted and start screaming to get the screen back. Instead, keep them busy with reading the safety instruction or with some of the tiny toys I mentioned earlier.

Baby Carrier :

I always had the baby-carrier in my cabin back-pack.

We created a specific routine for our baby to fall asleep on a plane. I would wait for the meal to be served and taken away and when all the passenger would start watching a movie or prepare for sleep, I would put the baby on my back, in her ergo baby carrier and start rocking her, standing up in the aisle. I would also sing “Old mac Donald” as many times as needed, in a very soft voice. It would put her to sleep in minutes and she would usually not wake up before the plane landed.

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Some passengers traveling with babies use a car seat. I never tried it, even though we added a car seat to our luggage along the trip. We checked it in, and chose to have a regular seat on the plane for our daughter. She never complained, appreciated the freedom of movement she would not have had with a car seat, slept easily every time and we did not have to struggle to adjust a car seat onto the plane seat. I think it also give a little more space to whoever is sitting next to the baby. I would probably have considered a car seat for a younger baby, that would have not been able to sit on her/his own.

If you have any question, leave us a message and I will be happy to help.

Tips for parents travelling with kids in Japan

After two weeks in Japan, I thought I would share some tips for parents planning a stay in either Tokyo or Kyoto with young children.

First, let me reassure you : this is totally doable. It is not always easy, but with a little preparation before your trip and each morning once in destination, you can ensure a smooth and enjoyable stay despite this relative child unfriendly environment.

Our children are aged 6 and 2. They have different needs and interests, but both enjoyed exploring the two cities.

Packing and Travelling
You must travel light, as there is little to no room for luggage in trains, subway or JR trains. Having said that, we’ve always managed to find some room for a small buggy (MacLaren Quest – folded when necessary), and two duffle bags (90 litres each).

We also felt like the only Europeans in Japan, as high season does not start for another week. Things may get even trickier when thousands of people gather to witness the cherry trees blossom. In any case, you can’t hide from labelled a tourist and as long as you don’t mind the occasional stare, you’ll be fine. But don’t count too much on external help. Even taxi drivers tend to stay comfortably seated in their car, letting you load and unload the trunk on your own.

Most of the train stations in Tokyo have escalators and/or elevators. In Kyoto, we used taxis a lot. They are really easy to find, relatively inexpensive (more or less 600 Y for a 10 minutes ride for 4 people), and it helped keep everyone’s energy levels high. Not doing so and you run the risk of the children being tired before you reach your destination and start your visits of the day.

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We also brought along a baby carrier (ergo baby type – fits in a backpack) which was really helpful on many occasions, especially in Kyoto where the streets are narrow and the temples have never ending flights of steps. In many temples, you will be asked to leave the buggy at the entrance, so I would say the carrier is your best bet for this type of visit.

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Hotel

In Tokyo, we made a mistake and rented two rooms in a hotel located in the Shiodome business area. The location was really convenient for transportation, but barely suitable for children. I would recommend you double check the surface of the room prior to making any booking and get in touch directly with the hotel to ensure you get communicating rooms. Ours were not, and 22 sq.meters for 4 gets every cranky in no time.

House Rental

We rented a traditional house in Kyoto. It was great to feel at home and to have access to a full kitchen. Traditional houses are exactly what you want to experiment when you come to Japan, but sliding doors, low tables and paper thin walls can sometimes be a challenge with a 2 years old. Apart from these minors inconveniences, we all enjoyed our little place in the Gion area and the children loved their room with moving walls as well as their futon bed.

Things to do

Temples are ideal visits for children. They have bright colours, nice gardens, strange amusing statues (dragons, foxes, tigers etc) and there are a lot of rituals they can experiment by themselves which makes the visit more interactive and helps them better discover what traditional Japan is all about.

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It is however sometimes challenging to help them understand what is ok and what is not ok to do in such sacred places that sometimes, to them, come across as elaborated playgrounds. Our son loved purifying fountains and burning incense, but didn’t quite grasp the religious dimension and kept asking for more incense sticks, sometimes a bit too noisily.

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I must also admit our little one did some running around in cemeteries, without much consideration for those resting in peace.

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Same for all the “offrande” shops you find everywhere around the temples, most notably in Kyoto. You’d better set a limit or you’ll end up buying more souvenirs than you can carry.

Our daughter had a passion for throwing pebbles in each and every pond of those perfectly well kept gardens. It was sometimes exhausting to run after her and the occasional tantrum not always easy to manage in places devoted to worship. For some reason we can’t yet explain, it appears the Japanese child does not know the tantrum… But apart from a few moments of great solitude, both our children very much liked visiting the temples and we had a great time learning about ancient Japan.When we previously travelled as a couple, we often found ourselves running from one site to another, trying to see and do as much as possible. Museums were our primary targets. Not any more. This time, we limited ourselves to one: the Edo museum. At the beginning of our stay, this visit served as an introduction to our future walks and explorations in modern Tokyo. The museum was interesting enough for our 6 year old to enjoy, mostly because it is full of models and scenes of the past (and for those wondering, yes, our 2 year old slept through the visit).

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Food

Wow… that was a shock. For those who don’t know me, I don’t eat fish or seafood and I suffer from a slight food paranoia, both for myself and my children. Needless to say this has been an adventure. Our son is very curious and enjoyed discovering new flavours as he bravely tasted most of the local delicacies. But in the end, he was not found of Japanese gastronomy and it soon became a challenge to keep him from starving. His gargantuan appetite made this feat even more sizeable. 

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In Tokyo, we decided we would eat as much as we could during breakfast. The hotel offered a buffet, with continental, american and japanese breakfasts. I took a thermos box and filled it with pasta every morning, in case we were not able to find the children something they would like at lunch time.

For lunch, we ate in japanese restaurants or take away. But if the tastes were not what they expected (which was often the case), I knew they could fill up on pasta so we could keep them up and running in the afternoon.

For dinner, we opted for italian style restaurants or room service. We deeply missed variety and green vegetables, but survived.

In Kyoto, we used the kitchen to prepare our own dinners and breakfasts. Mini-supermarkets allowed us to buy a mix of local and european style foods, vegetables, dairy and fruit – which was quite a relief after 8 days of rice and noodles.

For our toddler, baby milk has been an issue as soon as we arrived. I only had baby formula (growing-up milk) for a day or two when we landed in Tokyo. It had been very easy to find formula in Hong-Kong so I thought it would be as easy in Tokyo. I was wrong. I still don’t know what Japanese mothers feed their toddlers, but there is no baby food or formula in supermarkets, apart from a small and weird range for very young babies in highly specialised stores. Fruit purees are not common either. Instead, they  have a type of jelly in a pouch. Tasteful but with strange consistency. Our daughter tried it a couple of times, but did not find it that appealing in the end.

As we could not find any milk, I tried to give our toddler some fresh cow milk. She never took it. And as she had nothing else she was used to, the only thing she ate for the first two days was pasta, pasta and …pasta. We had to go across Tokyo to finally get some milk, diapers and wipes. I found them in what they call a western style department store, this one was called “peacock store”. The baby nappies were found next to the nappies for old people (!). The wipes are tiny (same size as a face wipe in Europe or North America). And the milk comes in solid portions. Great for travel, but not so great when you don’t warm up the bottle as it takes them a while to dissolve in water. Also, keep in mind that all the instructions are written in Japanese and finding an english speaking japanese is almost as hard as finding the baby formula. In the end, our daughter enjoyed her japanese milk as much as she did the French and English milk.

If were to do it again, I would travel with the food she is used to and save us all time.

Change / toilets

Changing tables are widely available in Tokyo. I haven’t seen any in Kyoto.

In Tokyo, plan on carrying your dirty nappies and snack left overs with you as oddly, bins are not that easy to find.

Tickets for trains / visits / museums

Children pay no entry fees or pay half price. It depends on their age. You will be asked if your child is going to primary school rather than asking for the child’s age.

Playgrounds

We found a few playgrounds whilst we were exploring Tokyo and many were quite dusty. Gardens are a serious matter in this country, and it can sometimes be frustrating for children as they only have acces to the gravelled paths and not to the lawn, ponds or trees. We found a great park near Shiodome and the children were free to run everywhere with few restrictions. You have to pay a small fee to enter, but it is a very nice garden to spend several hours. I would recommend you bring a picnic.

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Kyoto is full of gardens, but swings and slides are not easy to find. We ended up walking in Maruyama Park and along the river where they could see ducks and enjoy nice views of the mountains.

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Kawai

Both our children are blond and our daughter has big bright blue eyes. The Japanese were quite fond of her and would  stop and take pictures of her quite regularly. Women were usually staring at her with big smiles, saying ” Kawaiiiii”. Luckily, our daughter is very sociable and she was not too worried about being the center of all this attention. But often, it felt weird. And it did not seem fair to our son, who did not complain, but whom was abviously not getting what was so special about his sister.In conclusion, I would say that I am glad we did it. We learned a lot and the children enjoyed their time in Japan, despite the physical challenges they took on by walking long distances, under or over ground. But I would probably have a very different experience and opinion about Japan if I were to go back without the kids. So, if this is one of several trips to Japan, taking the children with you is a good idea. But if this is a once in a lifetime trip, maybe you should wait until they are a little older.