Pack like a pro: 10 days, 2 kids and 4 carry-ons

by Courtney Woodruff
Stripes Europe

I dumped the contents of my purse onto the bed. Although I should have been, I wasn’t surprised to see what tumbled out: two Skittles; an empty package of baby wipes; a deflated balloon; a set of matchbox cars; a solitary plastic dinosaur; a package of crumbled peanut butter crackers with a smeared expiration date; a diaper three sizes too small for my youngest child (who is now in underwear); and a wallet swollen with receipts, coupons and library cards from two duty stations ago I no longer needed. I sighed to myself while thinking: I can do this!

Flying budget airlines is an affordable way for overseas military families to experience all that Europe has to offer. Last year, we purchased round-trip airfare to Rome for our family for $22 a person. This year, we flew to Barcelona and back for just a few pennies more. But there is always a catch, isn’t there?

With RyanAir, one of those catches just happens to be a “free baggage” allowance, which equates to a bag no bigger than a large backpack plus a small purse. For me, it was less of a let down and more of a challenge. How do I manage to fit 10-days worth of clothing, swimwear, toiletries and necessities for a family of four into as many backpacks? I …

1. Only bring what I can’t live without.

Before I start packing, I lay everything out on our bed to access the situation. For each item, I ask myself, “Will we really need this on our trip?” If I decide we won’t, I set it aside in a new pile. This process helps me weed out the extra items, such as multiple swimsuits, a pair of shoes for each outfit and excessive amounts of jewelry. Once I’ve made the necessities fit neatly into our bags, I can add a few of the belongings that didn’t make the first cut.

2. Lighten my make-up bag — significantly.

Instead of trying to cram my entire cosmetic collection into my carry-on, I stick to the basics: mascara, concealer and lip-gloss. If I have a little bit of room leftover, I include an eye shadow pallet with multiple shades and a tube of lipstick. I try to keep this frame of mind when I pack my hair accessories, as well. I figure if I find myself feeling self-conscious about the situation, I can channel my inner Audrey Hepburn with a hat and a pair of large sunglasses (which I do often on our vacations).

3. Rent an apartment with a washing machine.

When reserving accommodations through Airbnb, I always look for a place with a washing machine. Never mind the dryer; we can always hang wet clothes on a line. This year, we have a potty training toddler along for the ride. It is quite a risk, but knowing we have a place to clean my children’s laundry if needed takes a lot of stress off my shoulders — plus, it helps us pare down our luggage significantly. We only bring along half as many clothes as we would otherwise, planning to get two day’s wear out of each outfit. We make sure our boys bathe daily and bring along a pack of baby wipes to remove any small stains they acquire throughout the day.

4. Find accommodations within walking distance of a market or grocery store.

I also try to look for an apartment that is close to a store in case of minor emergencies. If we run out of snacks, need medicine for a sick child or forget to bring a certain toiletry, we can simply walk down the street to get what we need.  

5. Limit our family members to two pairs of jammies apiece.

If this sounds a little crazy, revisit number three. I figure the likelihood of us working up a sweat in our PJ’s between our showers and breakfast the next morning is slim, so there is no need to pack a set for each night of our trip. We don’t end up missing the extras I usually consider adding to the pile at the last minute. 

6. Pack like a servicemember.

My husband knows how to make an entire living’s room worth of gear fit neatly into a single rucksack. This skill comes in handy when it’s time to fill the backpacks. So, I do as the soldiers do: I roll and tuck our socks, t-shirts and pants into compact balls before placing them in our bags.

7. Dress in layers for our flight.

To save even more room, I wear the bulky items of clothing I want to bring to the airport, including my sweater, jacket and scarf. I also make sure to put on my heaviest pair of shoes. It is uncomfortable for a while, but I can lighten the load by removing what I don’t need and slipping into my sneakers once we get to the boarding area.

Has your family taken any seemingly drastic measures to save money while travel? Share your secrets by emailing contentteam[at]stripes[dot]com.

For more tips about living and traveling in Europe, check out our digital edition of Welcome to Europe on

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