International Family Travel – Planning and Packing

Here’s a few international family travel tips for extended adventures on a budget:


Planning foreign travel is hard work – the wonder of anticipation is quickly overwhelmed with the daunt of details, disagreements and dollars.  We maintain our sanity and budget by filtering options and applying a few simple rules:  

  1. Pursue the Sun.  Less obvious benefits include fewer clothes and lighter packing, more pool time to burn boyish adrenaline, and more daylight for safe exploration.  
  2. Be a crowd contrarian.  Untethered by school holidays, retirees and gap year travelers encounter fewer cruise ship mobs, enjoy cheaper hotels and flights, and experience sincere local encounters.
  3. Rip off itineraries – guides from National Geographic Expeditions, Lonely Planet, Frommers and others have been there before – study their suggested itineraries and find patterns that lead to logical routes, destination durations and price hurdles for lodging and transport.
  4. Safety Vetting – Most scary places become less intimidating with a little homework. To inform our itinerary we check the State Department’s travel advisories, skim the guidebook overviews and CIA World Factbook.  Before we book lodging in a larger city, we google its neighborhoods to ensure pleasant stays and safe walking.


Develop a short list of available lodging options before booking flights, then book after we have flight commitments.  Hotels were cheap and clean in Asia’s service-minded cultures; we’re finding AirB&B to be a better option in Latin America, where apartment entrepreneurs outperform careless hoteliers.  While traveling we’re using HomeExchange to “lend” our house out and build up some lodging credits for future travels in more expensive Europe.


When it comes to packing for extended international family travel, less is more.  Don’t be

Go light: 8 months out of a backpack and carry-on.

a slave to possessions… pack light and learn how little you really need to live.  You can always buy what you forgot, and come home with a souvenir.  We each travel with only one carry-on bag and small backpack, weighing in total less than 15 kilos, including…


CLOTHING – Prefer light, breathable synthetic layers for easy washing and fast drying.  We do regular maintenance washes in the sink, rinse in the tub and dry clothes on a 20’ length of parachute cord.  Once a month we might use a proper laundry.  Using mesh packing cubes bring:

  • Shoes – Trail shoes, water shoes (Sue and the boys wear Crocs, I prefer Salomon shoe, optional loafer or Chukkar.  Wear the he Wear the heaviest shoe during flights.
  • Socks – 3 pair Smartwool thin hiking socks, 3 pair no-ankle socks, 2 pair dress socks, all synthetic.
  • Undies – 5-6 pairs silk boxers for me: comfy, lightweight, easy to wash and quick drying.
  • ShortsZoic Ether Mountain BIke shorts are durable, easy cleaning, fast-drying, good looking and have plenty of pocket options.  Bring Board shorts for swimming.
  • Pants – Most of the time I’m wearing olive REI climbing pants.  The stretchy, breathable material allows for a comfortable, skinny cut; they look good and clean up easily.  I do have a pair of convertible Columbia travel pants with zip off legs, but they’re just a backup as I prefer the pure-play Zloc shorts and REI pants.  Optional: a pair of black denim jeans for city-chic evenings.
  • Shirts – 3 T-shirts and 1 black LS thermal layer; 1 collared SS shirt, 2 light LS shirts (one treated with permethrin to repel and kill mozzies and tics).  I pack 2 brightly colored shirts so the boys can find me in crowds, and two black or earth tone shirts to blend in with locals.

    Max demonstrates essential cold weather gear
  • Outer Wear – Climate-appropriate layers are key.  Fleece is bulky but light and good in rain.  Better a down sweater in cold weather… under a shell for wind and rain.  Dads are the family pack mule – a cheap rain poncho will tarp you and your pack on from an afternoon squall.  Frogg Toggs hiking pants are dorky but cheap, light, breathable, waterproof and insulative… comfort wins.  We like neck gaitors (“buffs”) for warmth and impromptu facemasks for fumy cities.  Pack or buy a baseball caps and/or sunglasses, and fleece gloves/hats as required.

GEAR – Conscientious vagabonds shun “disposable” plastic bags and bottles.  We carry and refill aluminum water bottles wrapped in duct tape and rubber bands – they double as a handy fix-it kits.  Leave snatchable purses wallets and handbags at home; we use a simple money belt for passports, visas, credit cards and valuables; a simple clip or billfold works for on-hand cash.  For fun we’ve got playing cards, a small plastic football, swimsuits and goggles.  Jewelry is for victims – Max wears a cheap Timex timekeeper; I use my phone.

MEDS – Nurse Sue packed plenty of meds, including a wide-spectrum antibiotic like ciprofloxacin (cheaper and over-the-counter outside the US), preventative pepto-bismol, & ibuprofen.  Plan and budget for inoculations!  We took  Avtovaquone for malaria prevention, and we had inoculations for Japanese encephalitis, tetanus, polio and hepatitis before departing… you may need yellow fever too.  If you are checking bags put the meds in your carry-on.  

BATH – Load up on Purell (I keep one attached to the outside of my daypack for easy access) and handi-wipes; to repel mozzies we prefer deet wipes to sprays.  Ziplocks are effective bath kits and hold a travel-sized toothbrush, toothpaste, antiperspirant, shaving cream as well as a floss and nose bridges, a razor, hair gel, nail clippers and a tweezer.  Leave the fancy shampoos, soaps and creams at home.  Bandanas double as washcloths.  Douglas Adams never travelled to Indonesia: sarongs beat towels.

SLEEP AIDS: Earplugs and a sleeping mask are key… pick an easy to find brightly colored mask with an earplug pocket.  I take half an ambien on rough nights.  Pack a small headlamp with an unobtrusive red night vision option.   An anti-snoring mouthpiece saved my marriage… after trying a few I prefer the Sleep Tight model for its custom fit and comfort.  To avoid bedtime phone glow, I use earbuds with the iPhone’s “voiceover” feature to listen to content; I also use the Economist’s audio option, which reads me plenty of important but sleep-inducing articles.  Optional: pack a superlight backpacker’s sleeping pad when beds are too small.

COMMUNICATIONS & TECHResearch your international cellphone options.  Bring 2 walkie talkies… no SIM card hassles, no roaming charges, and they work everywhere.  We moved quickly through web-pervasive Asian countries so avoided SIM card purchases and went old-school with smartphones in airplane mode, cell data and roaming off; we used wireless for email, What’sApp and iMessage… and we still got hit with some international connection fees.  AT&T plans cover Mexico’s at US rates, so that’s easy.  We packed an old android phone and will slap a SIM card in when we travel more slowly through Colombia and Peru, and AT&T’s International Day Pass plan seems an acceptable option for emergency calling elsewhere.

To avoid device drama we got each boy a Kindle e-Reader, which is a great platform for reading but does not support gaming or web browsing (hooray!).  I’m writing on slim 13” Zenbook PC; Sue and the boys share an 11” Chromebook for home-schooling and writing.  Every traveler has their own USB charging block, cables and a small backup battery; for Eastern Hemisphere travel we carry one world-travel power plug adapter with surge protector and USB ports.  Bring or buy a portable battery bank.

DOCUMENTS – We have our contact info all over our luggage and travel itineraries easily found inside.  We each carry photocopies of all of our passports, driver’s licenses and credit cards; these are all scanned and in the Cloud (google drive) just in case.  

SECURITY – When checking bags we use small TSA-approved locks and/or zip-ties to deter theft.  We do use hotel safes but unscrupulous employees can get key access easy enough, so in dodgy places we’ll wear our money belts during the day, and put only the day’s cash in our pockets.

If you have international family travel planning or packing suggestions or questions feel free to post your comment below. 

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