Get your feet wet

My own private Guadalcanal

This Friday, we leave for the annual Ortlieb family reunion, scheduled this year for the North Carolina coast. The extended Ortliebs are smart, funny, easy-going and damned good looking, and I expect nothing less than an amazing, relaxing week.

Because after the past two weeks, I damn well deserve it. By default, I’m in charge of packing for the girls. In theory, this would entail tossing a couple swimsuits and sundresses in a diaper bag and heading to Sea-Tac. But the reality is a mite more involved. It began two weeks ago with the lists, then the purchases, shifting into Phase Three, the population of itemized piles throughout the house, and there are a hundred more items on my multiple checklists and WE LEAVE IN TWO DAYS.

As it turns out, ensuring this well-oiled machine makes it across the continent and back is a mammoth undertaking: rigorously detailed, painstakingly researched and vetted, anticipatory of any potential surprise or snag, and executed with precision. In short, major military campaigns have been launched with less effort.

Since I’ve already done the work — and a friend traveling cross-country soon with two wee ones asked for some tips — I’ll share the strategies of Vacation Air Travel With Niblets after the jump.

Step One: Buy vodka. You’ll be needing lots of it in the coming weeks.

As early as possible, create three checklists. On the first, write everything you’ll need to pack for the kids. EVERY LAST ITEM. Weather-appropriate clothing and shoes, medications you might need, snacks, hair bows, wipes, hats, swim diapers, kids’ sunscreen, binkies, favorite toys, anything your kid(s) need or may need, ALL OF IT. Decide if you can pick up diapers/formula/clothes/toys at your destination, or you’d rather pack you own, and then put diapers and formula on the list anyway. Additionally, add a box of gallon-size Ziplocs: they’re perfect for holding formula, toiletries that risk leaks or explosion, and wet/dirty clothes for the flight home.

Next, review this list and determine any purchases need to be made in order to satisfy it for the length of your trip. Got enough formula? Is their sunscreen past its expiration date? Are the climate-appropriate clothes outgrown? Is your snack stock enough to get you through two roundtrip flights? Write these items on a second checklist. As you pick them up, check the items off.

Now, consider your bulkier gear: stroller and car seats. Will you need your stroller, or can you pick a cheap umbrella model when you arrive? Will you add a car seat to your rental car charge, or do you need to bring your own? Can your children manage the airport on foot, or will they need to be strolled or carried? Depending on your circumstances and preference, you have several choices:

  • Check everything, picking up car seats and/or stroller at baggage claim. The pro: no schlepping unneeded gear through security and to your gate. The con: it will soon cost to check every item, and any checked item risks being lost.
  • Gate-check some or all. The pro: it’s free, and anything you don’t need in-flight will be stowed. The con: goods can be damaged when gate-checked, and there may be a delay while you wait for your things to make it back to the jetway, a major dice-roll if you’ve got a short layover.
  • Check nothing. The pro: if you’re within your carry-on limit, it’s free, and the kids can sit in their car seat — the safest recommendation. The con: schlepping kids, luggage and car seats through narrow jet aisles is a pain in the ass.

(We planned a mix of these. Since Nola will be “infant in arms,” we’ll check her car-seat and transport her in a Baby Bjorn, which stands in for a stroller at our destination. As Eliot will have her own seat and our layover is terrifyingly short, we’ll bring her car-seat on board, with the assistance of this brilliant, inexpensive strap which allows any roll-aboard to become an impromptu convertible-seat caddy/stroller.)

A week pre-flight, determine what you’d like to check versus what you might be able to ship. If you’re visiting family, mailing a box of clothes/toys/et al to their home may be more affordable than the cost of checking it both ways. If so, box these items and post them straight away. Con: the box could be lost in transit. Pro: The USPS has a much better track record for getting your stuff to its destinations than the airlines.

In the days approaching your flight, create a third list for the kids: every must-have in a carry-on tote. Everything you pack will be YOUR ONLY ARSENAL from the moment you leave your house until you arrive at your accommodations: diapers, wipes, snacks, bottles/sippy cups, formula, binkies, bibs, a change of clothes; these are the bare minimums. Now add, if needed, a baby blanket (good luck finding a blanket on the aircraft) and an assortment of toys (including some new coloring books or small play sets to surprise them and keep them engaged.) In our own bag, I add my iPod uploaded with a selection of kids’ shows and Michael packs his Nintendo DS in the event we reach Tantrum Level Orange.

The night before or morning of your flight, you’ve got your list ready for the carry-on tote, and everything else goes into their checked luggage. Dress ’em in layers for an airline flight that could be freezing or boiling, and you’re ready to go.

Then pour yourself a mimosa, light on the orange. You may be prepared, but today, and trust me on this, you’re STILL gonna need it. Repeat as needed.


  • Em.

    July 16, 2008 at 8:13 am

    You have now added to the list of reason I don’t think I will be procreating.
    I’m just not ever that organized!
    I leave tomorrow for a trip and I haven’t even thought about packing!

  • Tracy

    July 16, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Ah, those were the days… One of my other super-secret tips is to keep a full toiletries bag in your suitcase: toothbrush and travel paste, small versions of your hair and skin products, Advil, tweezers, nail file, comb, contacts case and little saline — everything you use daily and want on your trip. That way, the morning you leave, all you toss in is whatever medications and makeup and you’re good to go. (I learned that before I HAD to be organized; it just helped me be lazy…) 😉


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