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Downsizing for Family Travel: Why and How We Did It

Downsizing for Family Travel

The following guest post about downsizing for family travel was submitted by Rowena. See all of our downsizing stories in one place.

Everyone who hears that we travel carry-on only for our family trips overseas has the same reaction: shock and disbelief. And then, often, they start laughing in a hysterical manner. It is also not uncommon to hear a response in conspiratorial tones, “Don’t tell my husband!” – like it’s some dirty, contagious secret!

Here are the top questions I get asked after they finish laughing, and my answers.

Why do you travel carry-on only?

Well, back in 2014, we decided to take our family trip to the U.S. for Christmas. Yes, from Australian summer to U.S. winter. We were to visit both the East and West coasts, and changing location every couple of days. On a whim, I decided we should try and do carry-on only. Yes, it was purely on a whim!

But then as I started researching (and found this incredibly helpful site), the idea really took hold. As I read about the benefits of packing light, I was sold. Mostly though, for our family of four, the idea that the children would be responsible for their own bags and belongings appealed to me. Part of my role as a parent is to help my boys grow into responsible adults, and it felt like this was an ideal starting place: expose them to the joys and wonder of travel, and encourage responsibility all in the same trip. Two birds, one stone. Done!

We loved it so much, we did it again when we went to Europe for spring this year with a stopover in Singapore. All four of us traveled with less than a 25L bag each!

The family's small bags ready for departure.
The family’s small bags ready for departure.

Doesn’t it add extra stress and angst?

Not at all! There is a little more work to do in the planning stages, but as so much of a trip’s enjoyment is also in the anticipation, the planning is part of the fun! Once we are on the road so to speak, travelling light is a breeze. Minimal decisions are required as the choices are limited and all items coordinate anyway. Good planning results in a happy, easy and fun trip.

I would say, research is important here as part of your planning. For our flights to and within the States, we had a dimension limit (i.e. total bag size less than 53cm/21 inches). For Europe and Singapore, it was a weight limit (7kg /15 pounds). These restrictions very much influenced our decisions, from what luggage to use, to what clothes, shoes and technology to bring.

Rowena with a Vin Diesel (wax model!) at Singapore Universal Studios.
Rowena with a Vin Diesel (wax model!) at Singapore Universal Studios, wearing a cheap cotton dress she bought while there.

What DO you bring with you?

Well, for the US trip (our first carry-on only effort), we had a rough guide, which included the following:

  • 2 pairs of trousers
  • 4 long sleeve tops
  • 2 jumpers (preferable merino)
  • 5 pairs of underwear
  • 4 pairs of socks
  • 2 thermal tops
  • 2 pairs thermal leggings
  • singlet (non-thermal)
  • gloves
  • hat (beanie / sock hat)
  • scarf
  • 2 pairs of shoes
  • jacket

We each had a few “extras” as well. So I had a dress and tights, plus a couple of extra scarves as accessories for variety. My husband had his running shirt and shorts plus specific running socks.

The more recent trip to Europe was a little more streamlined as we learned what we loved and what was excess. We each left out the following: 1 jumper, 1 pair underwear, gloves, thermals, scarf (except me), hat (except kids), jeans (me only). The males added a pair of shorts and t-shirt for Singapore.

Rowena using her scarf as a shawl, drinks in Paris
Rowena using her scarf as a shawl, drinks in Paris.

Okay, so you bought low-cost airfares and that’s why you were doing carry-on only?

No, not at all. We only fly with airlines in the top 5 in the world. Safety and comfort on an airplane is not something we compromise on, especially when you are on the flight for a really long time. We had full luggage allowance (30kg each; total for four of us 120kg) but chose to have carry-on only.

>>See how much your flight really costs.

What about the kids?

Yes, this is question I got asked the most! But kids’ clothes are small and therefore reasonably light, and for the locations we were travelling to, pretty simple. Just as with adults, the trick is layering and coordinating. Each child and I worked together to select what items they would want to wear, and then coordinated accordingly.

Just like adults, mostly the items on the outside are worn repeatedly, and the other close-to-body items can air or get hand washed. Spot washing where food is spilt helps too (ah the joy of kids!). Plus, when you know the flight has entertainment (another benefit of a full service airline – see above), a lot of the “extra” play-based (heavy) stuff kids want to bring is unneeded.

Husband & boys, heading to the airplane with their small bags
Husband & boys, heading to the airplane with their small bags.

I’m still stumped on the clothes; you must have washed?

Yes, we washed. Every night my husband would hand wash the underwear for all four of us. It would mostly dry overnight, or at least by that afternoon. When available, we would use a washing machine in a hotel, or our apartment. The best thing we brought with us for each trip was a portable elastic clothes line. Stringing that up between youth hostel bunk beds, or across the bath in a hotel meant the clothes dried very quickly. Efficient and cost effective.

>>Check out our must-have items for hand-washing while traveling.

Okay, so WHY do you do this?

That’s simple! Partly, I love the challenge. But mostly because I am scarred from previous travel experiences. The top three most scarring experiences:

  1. Travelling as a single 18-year-old female and I couldn’t carry my own luggage so had to rely on others to help me (not safe, not cool).
  2. Missing out on something awesome because I had too much luggage. Case in point, on our honeymoon my husband and I had so much luggage that when we were offered a hire car upgrade to a convertible sports car, we couldn’t take it because our luggage wouldn’t fit. It was just the two of us, and three massive bags. Embarrassing.
  3. Travelling both to and from the UK (from Australia) with a small baby, and having ALL our luggage including the car seat and the stroller delayed for FIVE days. BOTH ways. Ridiculous and inordinately stressful.

So, having had these negative experiences, travelling light and carry-on only made sense. And, having travelled this way for recent overseas trips, we are now complete converts. Here’s why:

  1. Get moving – We walk straight off the plane and onto public transport, with no dramas – no delays, no queuing. When travelling with kids, delays and waiting are like kryptonite to Superman, so avoiding them at all costs is key.
  2. Time is precious – When you have a limited amount of time in any destination (as is the case when you are travelling during school holidays and/or have come from Australia to anywhere since you lose a day in the journey), you really don’t want to waste time hanging around waiting for luggage. Or have to arrive someplace earlier in order to check-in your luggage.
  3. No risk of lost luggage – Our trip to the US was tightly scheduled with only 2 nights in most locations, plus it was during peak travelling time over Christmas and New Year. We simply did not have time for our luggage to fail to appear.
  4. Changes are welcome – We are easily able to switch planes or transport type as we have everything with us. This happened on our flight from LA to Washington DC. We ended up on a different plane, heading towards a different Washington airport from that on our itinerary. But, upon arrival everything was rosy, as it was a short train trip to our hotel, versus the A$150 transfer that it would have cost from the other airport. Plus, we were 90 minutes earlier and had all our items with us. Win.
  5. Independence – Travelling in Europe means a lot of cobblestones and many flights of stairs. With smaller, lighter bags, even the kids can manage their own stuff up and down the flights of stairs. This is a major benefit, as it means we can stay in Youth hostels and apartments and not need to rely on a lift (which is often non-existent).

>>Get started with our first timer’s guide to traveling carry-on only.

You carry your winter coats, right?

Yes, they are with us, but they are packed. For flights, our down jackets squash small and are in the bag. For domestic travel (trains, buses, other flights) we mostly wear the jackets as they are needed either on board or as soon as we get off.

Husband & boys rugged up warm in London .
Husband & boys rugged up warm in London.

But what about souvenirs? On the way back do you check-in?

Yes, we buy souvenirs. But no, we do not check-in on the way back! We are selective about what we purchase, but do not miss out. The main lesson we are teaching our children is that life experiences are more important than stuff. They still buy things and we do too. We just ensure any items purchased can fit in our small bags. We have found that when we really ask ourselves “Will we still love this when we get home? Will we use it?”, often the answer is no, and so the item stays in the shop and does not join us. This is hard in museum shops (I love them!) but a realistic approach and it works.

I will say that on our trip to the U.S. the boys bought a LOT of Lego, as we’d been to LEGOLAND California, and Lego is their thing. But, they were able to carry on even very large boxes as their “personal item” because they had only one small bag, and their coats were packed (see above). Another win!

>>Read more about how to bring home souvenirs.

Homeward bound luggage, a little fuller but still carry-on.
Homeward bound luggage, a little fuller but still carry-on.

So there you have it. We are now a family who love to travel light. We have progressively been packing less on each trip. Fewer items mean less stress. Next trip, we are aiming for even lighter…!

As Antoine De St. Exupery said, “He who would travel happily must travel light”. And that is so true.

About the author: Rowena is a Life Coach and aspiring writer, and was bitten by the travel bug early with her first round-the-world trip at age eleven. Since then she has travelled to attend school in the US, lived and worked in the UK, travelled through Europe, and in Africa. Rowena is based in Sydney, Australia, where she lives with her husband and two boys. She loves planning family travel and is ensuring her boys are also bitten by the travel bug. You can read more about her on her website, or on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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Gear We Use

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Speakeasy Hidden Pocket Scarves


Splice Jaisalmer Reversible Tunic
Splice Reversible Jaisalmer Tunic


Eagle Creek Compression Packing Cubes
Eagle Creek Compression Packing Cubes


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Tom Bihn 3D Organizer Cube


Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Daypack - Fits in the palm of your hand!
Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Daypack


Turkish Travel Towels


Travel Resources

HPL Learnables

Handbag Packing Masterclass – Learn to pack your lightest bag ever in this revolutionary packing class run by HPL founder, Brooke.

Creative Ways to Minimize Your Toiletry & Beauty Kit – Practical tips alongside DIY recipes designed to help you pack lighter, smaller & with fewer liquids. (Also included as a bonus to Handbag Packing Masterclass.)

Book Your Trip

Viator – Enhance your trip experience by booking from thousands of tours across the globe. – Search for hotels, hostels, and apartments using this one resource. Use it for flights, car rentals, and airport taxis as well.

Trusted Housesitters – Save money on travel accommodation by becoming a housesitter. Housesitters often have extra duties, like caring for pets and gardens.

Reader Interactions


  1. Svenja says

    Wow, that’s so cool, carry-on only with the whole family! I’m struggling to convince my husband, he thinks I’m nuts when I stroll aboard with my little bag after he’s checked his. He recently bought me my dream carry-on bag for my birthday though, so he’s still the best 😉

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