family world travel

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

A “Travel Light” Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads

So you wanna see the inside of our bags? That’s what this post is all about – a light backpacking checklist to show you exactly what a mom and dad (as opposed to just a single couple) bring while traveling with kids.

This is our third time backpacking for an extended period of time and so we’re getting a little better, but I think we’ve also gotten less strict.

On our first Big Trip we were newbie backpackers and keen to follow all the exact recommended guidelines we’d read about – bring only one pair of shoes, no jeans (or one at very most), 2-3 bottoms maximum (and definitely zip-off pants), etc.

Though we still do our best to travel light these days, we’ve not quite so militant and we’ve discovered it’s nice to allow ourselves little indulgences, even if it means a slightly fuller pack. For example:

  • Ryan wants two pairs of jeans. I tried to talk him down to one and his bottom line was since they’re his only pants (and he really doesn’t like travel pants), he’d like two to switch between, even if they’re bulky. End of story. Edited: Once he did a final pack of his bag, he decided to ditch the extra pair. 
  • I allowed myself three pairs of shoes. On our first trip, I had my Keens and thin flip flops only. This time I added a pair of cute sandals, because I got tired of feeling a little on the frumpy/sporty side when we weren’t doing something active.
  • I could probably ditch my black skort and be fine, but I really like the idea of using it as board shorts or something waterproof I can wear at the beach when I don’t want to wear swim bottoms. Same with two pairs of shorts – I could live with just one.
  • I’m ridiculous when it comes to a travel medicine kit. I’m very naturally-minded and knowledgable about home remedies, and bringing a good variety of them with me makes me feel better about 3 months in developing countries with kids, where we’ll be doing a whole lot of outdoor activities. I packed it as carefully and compactly as I could but still… it’s large.
  • We’re bringing our favorite new coffee (mushroom coffee – have you heard of it? We love it!). We decided to splurge and get a really large supply to last us most of the trip. Overkill? Totally. And we’re not 100% sure if we can fit it all (of course, we’ll use it up as we go along, so our loads will lighten). But sometimes you just want to bring things you enjoy.

Aside from those examples, we DO like to keep it light. When you’re trying to keep track of five children and their packs (including a baby in a stroller) packing light really is the only way to go.

Our goal is that when its required of us to haul all our stuff from Point A to Point B, we can literally thrown on one backpack per person, hold some little people’s hands and push a stroller, and voila. We’re portable.

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

The backpacks we use

You’ve already seen what we pack for our kids and the backpacks we’ve chosen for them here:

A “Travel Light” Backpacking Checklist for Children 

A “Travel Light” Backpacking Checklist for Babies & Toddlers

As for us, I carry the Osprey Meridian 22″ 60 L pack with a detachable daypack. Ryan carries the same thing, but his is the 28″ 75 L version (the daypacks are the same). Mine is technically carry on size (with the daypack off), although Ryan’s is large enough to need to be checked.

Both are wheeled convertible backpacks, meaning they have a retractable handle and wheels and can be pulled like a suitcase, but they also have backpack straps that you can unzip and pull out when you need to wear it instead of pull it. The daypacks snap right onto the front of the pack, so the whole thing becomes a single unit. It’s a clever bag!

So let me walk you through exactly what’s in each of our bags for our upcoming 3 month backpacking trip in Central America.

A travel light backpacking checklist for moms & dads:

What’s in Stephanie’s pack… 

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

Starting at the top left and working my way clockwise:

  1. Our travel medicine kit (it’s just a waterproof packing bag filled up with stuff I chose)
  2. Black packing cube – my tops and bathing suit
  3. 3 pairs of shoes
  4. Money “belt” (goes around my neck – I rarely use it but I’ll wear it for things like long bus rides)
  5. Undergarments
  6. Jacket and sweater (note: I’ve since figured out how to compress my sweater more and fit it into the packing cube with my tops – hurray!)
  7. Turquoise packing cube – my bottoms
  8. Purple travel towels
  9. Scrubba
  10. Baby blanket
  11. Pink wet bag
  12. Red make-up bag

*Don’t worry, there are more details about all these items below. I just wanted to give you an overview. 

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

Dress:

  • Dark gray knee-length dress (MEC) – It’s worth noting that I can’t nurse in this dress, and if I wasn’t down to nursing only in the morning and at night, I’d have chosen something I could nurse in. This is a travel dress, in a quick-dry fabric, and I love that it’s casual enough to wear for everything (including hiking or the beach) but the color makes it classy enough for dressing up if needed.

Bottoms:

  • Black maxi skirt (Reitmans) – I opted for a maxi skirt instead of a shorter one because my dress is already knee-length, and women dress quite conservatively in certain parts of Central America, so I thought I’d be more comfortable with this and it’s pretty cool and airy in hot weather.
  • Linen shorts (Athleta)
  • Black sport capris  (Athleta) – these are a perfect everyday bottom for almost any activity.
  • Blue/white batik ankle pants (Athleta) – These were a surprising purchase for me and together with the linen shorts, they’re replacing my convertible travel pants (pants that turn into shorts). We’ll see if I’m glad I went this route or not, but these are made with very light, strong, moisture-wicking fabric, and yet they look cute and classy. These pants plus the shorts fold up to about the same size as my convertible pants, so I felt like it was a fair switch.
  • Dark blue skinny jeans – my most lightweight pair for faster drying (Reitmans, again – clearly, I’ve officially become a middle-aged mom)). Edit: Since writing this (literally, before I even published it) I started questioning this decision and I’m currently leaning towards bringing modest jean shorts instead – I have enough longer items for when I need to be modest in more traditional towns/cities so again, the modesty issue. But we’re hitting mostly hot weather and I think I’ll genuinely wear my shorts more than my jeans. EDIT AGAIN: I ditched both the jeans AND the jean shorts. Instead, I’ll save the space for buying a modest sun dress on the road and I’ll take my chances on being chilly a few times, and will have to just wear my one pair of ankle-length pants whenever the bugs get bad. This had been bugging me for weeks, but I actually feel great about this new decision. See a longer explanation below in the comments. 
  • Black sports skort (I got this on clearance somewhere last summer) – I’ll use these like board shorts for the beach and for exercising. Edit: I found a pair of black sport shorts that pack up a bit smaller and that I prefer to the skort, because they’re comfier to use as sleeping shorts as well. Yay!

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

Tops:

  • 1 long-sleeve button up shirt (Eddie Bauer – mine looks similar to this but in more of a light-blue, almost-chambray sort of color) – this is light enough to use for mosquito protection in hot weather, or I can roll up the sleeves and wear it unbuttoned, like a cardigan or beach cover.
  • 3 short sleeved shirts (this, this and this)
  • 2 sleeveless tops (one black – Eddie Bauer clearance from last summer, one purple – sold out)

  A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

Outerwear:

  • Dark purple yoga jacket (Lulu Lemon four years ago) – I bought this for our original round-the-world trip and it still looks amazing! It’s discontinued but somewhat similar to this. It’s warm and classier than most yoga jackets. EDIT: I found a new yoga jacket on clearance that folds up smaller (the main downfall of this purple one) but still feels warm and cozy, so I’ve swapped it. Same basic function, but less packing space = awesome. 
  • Black rain jacket (MEC) – Lightweight and folds up small. I chose black because it looks classy enough for Europe or any big city, but it’s rugged enough for hiking in the jungle.

Footwear:

  • Keen’s Newport H2 sandals (Amazon) – I wore these on our big world trip and they’re still going strong (although this may be their last trip). I use them for all athletic activities – hiking, running, ruin climbing, etc.
  • Chambray & leather sandals (TOMS – discontinued) – I bought these last summer for a trip to Italy and I adore them. They’re so comfortable and just dressy enough for when I don’t want to wear Keen’s or flip flops.
  • Flip flops – I bought these four years ago while traveling in Israel, at a night market. They’re Havaianas and still holding up. I like that they’re thin, so they pack well.

Other:

  • 2 layering tanks – one white (fitted, thin straps), one coral (less fitted, thick straps)
  • 1 dorky summer hat – I bought this somewhere on our world trip when I was desperate and have kept it because I don’t have any other foldable summer hats. If I find something more stylish, I’ll replace it. If not, at least I’ll be cool in one way, if not the other.
  • 6 underwear – mostly ExOfficio and two pairs from MEC 
  • 2 socks – one SmartWool (REI – but mine are gray), one cheap cotton
  • 2 regular bras (nude & black), 1 sports bra (white)
  • Tankini swimsuit (Costco)
  • A thin scarf – for shoulder coverage in churches, to dress up an outfit, as a light shawl in the evenings, etc.

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

And because I know women care about this sort of thing, here’s a look at the clothes and some of the outfits they make.

Most tops can go with most bottoms, so I really do have a lot of options! (On a side note, I joked with Ryan that I was going to make him try on all his travel clothes so I could take photos of his outfits and he’s such a good sport that he was like “Well, ok” until he realized I was kidding. Do most men actually care about their “outfits”? I’m voting no.)

Other items in my big bag:

  • Baby blanket – Just a large, light blanket, like a swaddling blanket but big enough for a toddler
  • Our medicine kit
  • Wet bag with drawstring – for dirty laundry or wet bathing suits
  • Two small travel towels (Amazon)
  • Scrubba (Amazon) – super amazing, foldable bag for washing clothes on the road. This seriously saves my hands when I have to do a lot of hand washing. Plus it does a better job.
  • Eyeglasses
  • Make-up bag (also has hair elastics, extra contact lenses, small bag of earrings and a couple necklaces, a couple supplements I take daily, etc. Basically just my personal stuff.)
  • Coffee and tea. I like my beverages.

What’s in my daypack:

  • Kindle (Amazon)
  • Pencil case for homeschool (pencils, erasers, pens, a sharpener)
  • Homeschool books/blank paper – The blank paper is because we’ve found the kids often want plain paper for drawing and creating. We buy a large package of paper when we stop somewhere for a few weeks, then I carry a small amount in my daypack once we’re more actively on the road again. This time I’m trying to keep all our our schooling supplies to my Kindle, a pencil case, the iPad/laptops, as well as four duotang folders. I made one per big kid by ripping out the relevant pages of their math, language arts, spelling, etc. The three oldest will carry their own as well as a trip journal (where they’ll do daily journaling and writing/drawing assignments), and I’ll carry the 5 year old’s since his backpack isn’t large enough to fit it along with his clothes.
  • MacBook Pro 13 inch laptop
  • Diapers and wipes for Oliver (he’s 20 months old)
  • Trip details mini Moleskine notebook – this is where I write all our important details for flights, accomodations, addresses & phone numbers, important phrases in another language, etc. I learned to do this after having a hotel’s name and address stored on my email… and my laptop had died during our flight… and I couldn’t get WiFi anyways to retrieve it from my email… and it was 11:30pm in Buenos Aires and we were driving around lost in a taxi. Now I write it all down and keep it with me at all times.
  • Travel purse – I’ll pull this out when I just need a small bag for going out. It’s a Pacsafe CitySafe 50 Shoulder Bag. The idea is that it’s slash-proof, lockable, and RFIDsafe (to prevent card scanning through your purse). I like it in theory, but the strap is uncomfortable. For now, I’m using it until I eventually get something better. Within this purse I keep:
    • sunglasses
    • wallet/cash/cards/passport (when it’s not locked in a safe somewhere)
    • lip balm and eye drops
    • mini first-aid kit (a couple essential oils, band-aids, herbal salve, motion sickness meds, electrolyte powder, etc.)
    • iPhone 
  • Photocopies of important documents (passports, birth certificates, marriage certificate, travel insurance info – Ryan will also keep a copy of all these)
  • Foldable plastic baby bib 
  • Reusable shopping bag 
  • Bose earphones (Amazon)

What’s in Ryan’s pack…

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

Top left, going clockwise:

  1. Family toiletry kit (the entire family shares this bag) – Ryan carries this since it has a couple containers larger than the 3 oz. carry on size and his bag is too large for carry on.
  2. Shirts
  3. Supplements (B vitamins and magnesium spray in an old CleanWell bottle)
  4. Contact lenses
  5. Shoes
  6. Jackets
  7. Socks/underwear
  8. Pants and shorts
  9. KidCo Peapod Plus portable baby bed
  10. Missing from photo… more of that mushroom coffee, LOL!
  11. Also missing: Boba Air Baby Carrier (it came in the mail the day after we took photos)

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

Bottoms:

  • 2 pairs dark blue jeans – Edit: he took one pair out, so now it’s just one pair of jeans. 
  • 1 swim shorts 
  • 2 casual shorts (MEC) – one cotton, one quick-dry
  • 1 jean man-pri’s (I lovingly bug him by calling these his version of capris, but they’re basically extra long jean shorts)

Tops:

  • 6 tee shirts -most are some sort of athletic or moisture-wicking fabric – Ryan loves him some LuluLemon tees and he’s got at least one from MEC as well. Edit: when doing a final pack, he removed one, so he’s down to 5. 
  • 1 short-sleeved polo shirt – I wanted him to bring one shirt with a collar in case we run into a situation where we’re invited somewhere that a tee shirt just wouldn’t be appropriate
  • 1 sleeveless shirt (LuLuLemon, I think) – moisture-wicking, good for running or exercising
  • 1 long sleeve layering shirt (LuluLemon – moisture-wicking)
  • 1 long sleeve lightweight pull-over sweater (LuluLemon – are you seeing a trend? This is Ryan’s favorite brand for everyday. He hardly bought any of this specifically for traveling. I think it’s discontinued but it’s this style.)

A "Travel Light" Backpacking Checklist for Moms & Dads: In this post we show and tell our very detailed "travel light" backpacking checklist for moms and dads (because it's different than with kids in the mix).

Outerwear:

  • Casual zip-up windbreaker (H&M) – This is more stylish and comfy than it is travel-savvy. He just likes wearing it.
  • Black shell jacket (REI – Arcteryx – similar to this but I think his is discontinued) – Lightweight and folds up small. It’s more of a shell than a rain jacket, but it technically serves both purposes. Edit: When doing a final pack, he removed this to save space and kept only the windbreaker. Personally, I’d have done it the other way around, and kept the coat with the hood. But he cares less about getting his head wet, so he’s happy with his decision. 

Footwear:

  • Merrell Moab Waterproof Hiking Shoe (Amazon) Note: He’s decided not to bring these and just bring his Skechers. He really doesn’t love these shoes (he has finicky arches and doesn’t like many shoes) and these are clunky and he figures realistically, he’ll hardly use them. If he truly needs another pair, he’ll buy some while we’re there. And he hates sandals, so there’s that.
  • Skechers Go Walk 3 Charge Walking Shoe (Amazon) – Ryan wears these shoes day in and day out, including indoors while walking on his treadmill desk. He wears them so much I think he’s on pair number four. He just keeps buying them again, so I guess that he means he likes them.

Other:

  • 5 underwear (Ex Officio)
  • 10 socks (cotton ankle socks, H&M) – the man likes his socks. At one point during our year of traveling, we were going through our bag and he counted (and I kid you not) almost 20 pairs he had accumulated!

Other items in Ryan’s big bag:

  • PeaPod Plus portable baby bed (Amazon) – This is going on the bottom of Ryan’s bag. It’s a little bulkier than we were hoping but can be squished down a bit and only adds 3.5 lbs.
  • Our family toiletry bag
  • Boba Air Baby Carrier (Amazon)
  • Supplements – B vitamins, magnesium, etc.
  • Extra boxes of contact lenses 

What’s in Ryan’s daypack:

  • Kindle (Amazon)
  • MacBook Pro 13 inch laptop (but lucky Ryan has a new one that’s way thinner than my old one)
  • iPad Pro and pencil – he uses the app Duet and connects it with a cord to his laptop as a portable second monitor
  • Packing cube with cords, international plug adapters, etc. Basically everything for charging our various gadgets other than our large laptop charging cord.
  • Diapers for Oliver
  • Sunglasses
  • wallet/cash/cards/passport (when it’s not locked in a safe somewhere)
  • iPhone 
  • Photocopies of important documents (passports, birth certificates, marriage certificate, travel insurance info – Ryan will also keep a copy of all these)
  • Laptop charging cord 
  • Bose noise reduction earphones (Amazon)
  • Eyeglasses
  • Productivity journal (Intelligent Design)

One item that’s missing from these photos are travel locks. We always lock our bags with these TSA-approved travel locks.

It’s funny how this list actually feels long to me when I write it out, even though it’s really a small amount of stuff. One of our favorite things about traveling is how light we feel living out of just backpacks, and how each time we return we wonder why we need so much stuff.

Got questions about backpacking with kids, or capsules wardrobes, or choosing what to bring? Leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!

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Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying our flights): In this second trip planning update, I share my process for buying flights for our family and the other details I'm focusing on as we get ready to go!

Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying flights)

I realized this weekend that we’re down to just over 6 weeks until we fly to Guatemala!! (Cue mild panic.)

This is a busy time right now, trying to do everything that needs to be done further in advance and giving myself enough of a window to not have any last minute panic.

Reality check: There will still be last minute panic. But I’d like to avoid it as much as is humanely possible.

Right now, some of the things that are on my list include:

  • Renewing passports for our two youngest boys. They’re technically still valid for our entire trip, but I’m feeling like it might be worth renewing them before we go since some countries prefer you to have a full 6 months left on your passport and they’ll only have about 3 months left.
  • Ordering the gear we still need. I’ve been shopping around online for about a month, comparing brands and prices, as well as checking out local thrift and consignment stores to see if I could save any money on pricey items before buying them new. I’ve also dug through all the bins in our storage room and through the kid’s current clothes and shoes so I know exactly what we have and need. But at this point, I’m feeling like it’s time to start placing orders for everything I haven’t found yet to allow for shipping (and potentially, return shipping) and just to know that we’ve got all our gear (bags, clothes, medicine supplies, etc.) at least a couple weeks in advance. We’re lucky in that we already own a good deal of what we need because of our previous travels, which is why I can leave this as long as I’ve left it. Back when I planned our first big trip, I started this gear shopping more like 3-4 months in advance.
  • Booking our first accomodations. We don’t book many of our accomodations before we leave. In fact, I book a whole lot of them at the last minute, a couple days before we show up somewhere. But for that first week or two on the road, I love having details tied up with a bow so there are less decisions to make while we’re adjusting to jet lag and life on the road.

What’s not on my list anymore? Buying flights.

Because we purchased them about two weeks ago. And that’s when it gets real, people. We’re really going!!!

It was a little later than usual for us. I prefer to buy more like 10-14 weeks in advance, and this time we were just around 8 weeks out of our first flight. Such is life.

In update #1, I walked through how I begin planning and developing an over-arching vision of what our trip will include. So let me catch you up on what we’ve done since that last update:

Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying our flights): In this second trip planning update, I share my process for buying flights for our family and the other details I'm focusing on as we get ready to go!

How we bought our flights

Since flights are probably your single biggest line in your travel budget (as they are in ours), let’s park here for a while.

We knew the most costly flights would be going down from Canada to get to Central America, and then the flight back home at the end. In between, we’ve got a few short hops between countries to cut down on travel time or to cover areas that might be particularly tiring or even unsafe to travel by land.

Our order of flights/countries is a bit odd this time around, because we had two very specific places we had to be at the beginning and then the end of April, right smack in the middle of our travels.

As a result, instead of doing a more logical loop or traveling in a linear fashion, we ended up deciding on this:

  1. Fly from Ottawa to Guatemala City
  2. Fly from Guatemala City to Merida, Mexico
  3. Travel overland to Belize
  4. Fly from Belize City to San Jose, Costa Rica
  5. Travel overland through Costa Rica and up into Nicaragua
  6. Fly home out of Managua, Nicaragua

 

We looked at all sorts of variations on this plan, going in and out of different countries or cities, comparing flying or going overland, etc. In the end, this was the plan that a) made the most sense for our goals and what we wanted to do in each country, and b) saved us the most money.

Some of the possibilities we considered that we didn’t choose in the end:

  1. Booking a return (rather than a one-way) between Ottawa and Guatemala City. This would have required us to travel overland from Nicaragua through El Salvador, to get back to Guatemala to fly home at the very end. It would have saved us about $100-$150 per person, BUT we would have spent some money on bus tickets (cheaper, but still) and it would have possibly been an exhausting way to finish up our time there. Ultimately, it didn’t feel worth the small savings.
  2. I spent a lot of time looking into the possibility of renting vehicles to do the driving ourselves but it’s complicated to bring a vehicle across international borders and most rental companies won’t allow for that, not to mention that many Central American roads are truly not safe to travel on as a non-local and not safe for anybody to travel on at night. It was just too complex, so we flushed that idea down the toilet.
  3. We considered more overland travel by bus between countries to avoid one or two of these flights, but the comfort, cleanliness and safety of the bus options seemed potentially sketchy and some of the distances would have been quite long. Not to mention it would eat up valuable days we’d rather spend enjoying a country, not trying to pass the time on a smelly bus with bored, restless kids (been there, done that). That said, we did keep two overland portions in our trip, when the distances were significantly shorter.
  4. We explored other possible cities to go in and out of – Cancun instead of Merida, Dangriga instead of Belize City, Liberia instead of San Jose. Ultimately, sticking with the main airport hubs in this region saved us a lot of money and since local transportation is cheap (buses or shuttle vans), it made sense to fly in or out of the larger airports. This isn’t always the case in every region, but in these countries, it seemed to be true pretty consistently.

How did I research flights? These are my favorite tools for comparing options and prices:

Google Flights

I’m quite partial to how they display all the prices for every possible date. You can clearly see which days are cheaper and more expensive, and if you’ve got flexibility in your dates, this makes it easy to maximize your flight money.

Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying our flights): In this second trip planning update, I share my process for buying flights for our family and the other details I'm focusing on as we get ready to go!

Kayak

Although they don’t show the incredible date/price spread that Google Flights offers, Kayak does still offer a better look at flexible dates and prices than most other sites. They also show a lot of “hacker fares” and sometimes include flights that other websites don’t include in their database.

Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying our flights): In this second trip planning update, I share my process for buying flights for our family and the other details I'm focusing on as we get ready to go!

Airtreks

Out of all these options, Airtreks is the only one that isn’t DIY. They actually provide a service for travelers like us, piecing together one-way, budget, international flights. More on this below.

Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying our flights): In this second trip planning update, I share my process for buying flights for our family and the other details I'm focusing on as we get ready to go!

Expedia

Though it’s not my favorite, I still usually run a comparison search on Expedia because every once in a while, it finds a flight that I didn’t see anywhere else. Out of all the bigger travel sites, this is the one I like best (though I couldn’t give you a particularly substantial reason why).

Central America Trip Planning Update #2 (and a detailed look at buying our flights): In this second trip planning update, I share my process for buying flights for our family and the other details I'm focusing on as we get ready to go!

It may seem strange to use multiple tools that seem similar, because sometimes the prices and flights are nearly identical.

But other times, I’ll find vastly different options and then I’m always glad I took the time to compare.

Ultimately, we bought our flights through Airtreks…

BUT I’m still glad I spent so much time previously researching it, pricing it out, comparing the options.

Because I was so well informed about which dates, airports, airlines, etc. were cheaper and better for us, by the time I presented the itinerary to Airtreks and had them run it through their system, I could make some really educated suggestions and have them use their more high-powered tools to search for exactly what I wanted.

In the end, their prices were pretty comparable to the prices I had found in my searches, but they do all of the actual booking work for me (which gets tedious for 7 people!), they include a great travel insurance package (which ultimately saves us money from having to buy insurance separately), and if anything changes with one of our flights or we run into any troubles, they’ve got our back and will help us sort out the issue.

In my next trip planning update…

I’ll share the gear, clothing and footwear I’ve been purchasing and why I chose it. I’ll talk more about securing those early accomodations.

I’ll also share an update on all the other things we’re working hard to take care of before leaving – what to do with our current house, what we’ll bring with us for work and homeschool, how we’re preparing to stay healthy on the road, and more.

Any questions for me? How do you like to source out your flights when you travel?

Miss our first trip planning update? Read it here.

Are hostels good for families? Not really, in our opinion. Here are some pros, cons, positive experiences, and the reasons we don't use them very often.

Family World Travel: Are hostels good for families? Pros, cons & why we rarely use them

It might seem odd that in a discussion on affordable travel accomodations for families, I would talk about hostels last.

So, are hostels good for families? Well, I won’t say that they aren’t worth looking into at all. There are times and situations that call for short term solutions, and in those instances, we’re happy to use both hostels, as well as the occasional hotel.

But on the whole, we found that neither hostels nor hotels were a feasible solution for our family. Why? Well, there are a slew of reasons, but these are the primary ones:

  1. Despite their reputation as a cheap place to stay, hostels rarely work out cheaper for families (more on this below).
  2. As a married couple with, err, needs, we can’t stay in one-room dwellings with our crew indefinitely.
  3. Hostels in particular can be noisy late into the night, since they cater to the young, single, and often bar-hopping crowd. This doesn’t fare well for babies or young children who go to bed as early as 7 or 8pm, or a mom who sleeps lightly and ends up grumpy and groggy the next day.
  4. Hostels didn’t always feel like a safe option for a family with young children.
  5. Hotels were usually far too expensive to stay in for more than a night or two.
  6. We’d rather not split up our family into two hostel or hotel rooms, but the larger our family gets, the trickier it is to find rooms, beds and policies that will allow us to cram into just one.
  7. Our kids go buggy in hotels after not too long, and some hostels, too (although hostels are preferable because some have excellent public spaces which goes a long way towards helping manage kid energy levels).
  8. Hostel beds are very thin and uncomfortable for the most part, and we’ve frequently been expected to make our own beds as well. This isn’t the end of the world, but when you’re travel-weary and arriving with a handful of really tired kids, having to still get all the sheets and blankets and pillow cases set up is just another hassle.

Are hostels good for families? Not really, in our opinion. Here are some pros, cons, positive experiences, and the reasons we don't use them very often.

*Making the best of a very crowded 6-bunk room in England. Ryan’s expression is for purely for the camera and kids, but a room like this for too many nights is enough to cause this reaction for real.*

Our thoughts on hostels for families

I had initially anticipated we would make frequent use of hostels on our year-long trip. But we didn’t (and still don’t), and one of the main reasons was the challenge of finding private family rooms.

It’s thankfully a growing trend for hostels to offer more private rooms or smaller dorm-style rooms. This means you can sometimes get rooms with 4, 6 or 8 beds, or even family-style rooms that include one larger bed and several small beds, and book the rooms so you have them all to yourself.

Why do we need a private room instead of using the dorms? To be frank, we have zero comfort in going to sleep with all of our young children in a room with strangers. The scary scenarios that could take place in that situation just make it an absolute no-go for us.

One tip in this regard: If you’re booking a hostel accomodation online, you can rarely specify that you want all 6 beds (or however many you need) in ONE room, all for yourself. If you want to have a private space and the entire family together, you usually need to call or email the hostel and specifically request they adapt your reservation to reflect this. Otherwise you may arrive to find out that you indeed have 6 beds… in different rooms, that do not belong to only your family.

The times when staying in a hostel worked out for us:

In England, Ireland and Switzerland, we found hostels where we were able to rent entire 6-bed “dorm” rooms and have them to ourselves. While this isn’t exactly ideal (because it means each parent has to sleep on their own twin bunk bed) it works well enough for a night or two.

In Norway, we used a hostel in downtown Oslo and were able to get two rooms – one with a double bed and one with two sets of bunk beds – right beside each other, and they gave us extra keys so both parents and kids could easily get in and out of each other’s rooms, and this was a satisfactory short-term solution as well.

Are hostels good for families? Not really, in our opinion. Here are some pros, cons, positive experiences, and the reasons we don't use them very often.

*Enjoying the peaceful Li River in Yangshuo, China* 

In China, we also found a couple hostels in Xian and Yangshuo that catered more to families and offered larger rooms with double or queen size beds, more like a hotel room, but often a little cheaper. These were positive experiences, although neither of those hostels included a self-catering kitchen but only a restaurant, so at that point a lot of the savings go out the window since you can’t easily prepare your own meals.

Once, we even lucked out in a Ceksy Krumlov, Czech Republic hostel, to be able to book an affordable apartment that was connected to a hostel, but included a private bathroom and small kitchenette. It was perfect.

The other primary reason we avoided hostels in favor of apartment or house rentals was because of the cost.

I know, that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true and here’s why: It was our experience that hostels wanted to charge us per person, not per family.

As a result, particularly since we’re a large family of seven (or six if they let us bring the baby for free), we could actually do better in one or two cheap hotel rooms or most certainly in a house rental.

All of that said, we’re not completely opposed to using hostels. We’ve had quite a few positive experiences and consider them a potential place to stay depending on the location, purpose of our visit, and length of our stay.

Are hostels good for families? Not really, in our opinion. Here are some pros, cons, positive experiences, and the reasons we don't use them very often.

*A tour at the Guiness factory while staying in a hostel in Dublin, Ireland*

Are hostels good for families? These are the reasons I think they can be:

  • Hands down, the best part of hostels is meeting other travelers. Meeting interesting people is one of our favorite parts of traveling in general, but hostels are special in that they bring together a unique group of indie, budget travelers. They’re our kind of people.
  • We’ve found that hostel staff and owners are (usually) particularly interested in helping travelers have an amazing time exploring the area. Whether it’s their home and they’re proud to share it, or they’re ex-pats who fell in love with a place and decided to stay and open up or work at a hostel, they usually have a passion for a place that’s hard to find elsewhere.
  • Much more so than in a hotel, many hostels have comfortable public living spaces. This can look like a large living room, games room, or dining room, or it can be a lovely garden or courtyard outside with tables and chairs, and sometimes even free bikes to borrow or toys for the kids.
  • Depending where you are, it could save you money. Compared to staying in European hotels, hostels are often a lot cheaper (you’ll notice most of the hostels we’ve stayed in are in expensive European countries). They’re certainly worth researching for this reason. (Whereas in China we opted for hostels because of our negative experiences in the budget hotels we tried – in comparison, hostels were so much more pleasant.)
  • They frequently come with a shared self-catering kitchen where you can go in and make your own meals, store food in the fridge, etc. Just note this isn’t a given, so definitely confirm whether each individual hostel does indeed have a kitchen you can use. They also sometimes have a laundry room where you can pay a small fee to do a load.

In the next post, I’ll dive more into hotels – the good, the bad and the ugly, and our best strategies for making them work for our family.

Have you stayed in hostels as a family? What was your experience like?

  Are hostels good for families? Not really, in our opinion. Here are some pros, cons, positive experiences, and the reasons we don't use them very often.

This post is part of a series on Family World Travel… for Less:

Family World Travel: How to Find the Best Long-Term Accomodations. Let's go deeper into the specifics of how to find the best long-term accomodations. Take it from us - a few key tips make ALL the difference.

Family World Travel: How to Find the Best Long-Term Accomodations

In the last post, I shared some initial ideas for saving on accomodations for a family. Now let’s go a little deeper into the specifics of how to find the best long-term accomodations. 

Take it from us. These five tips can make all the difference when choosing long-term rentals.

1) You need a hub

Choose a location that serves as a great hub for sight seeing and activities you might like to do. Particularly for stays of two weeks or longer, we look for towns or cities that are well connected so that we have plenty of day trip options.

Family World Travel: How to Find the Best Long-Term Accomodations. Let's go deeper into the specifics of how to find the best long-term accomodations. Take it from us - a few key tips make ALL the difference.

This map shows examples of how we used hubs during our time in Europe. A few notable examples of using carefully-chosen hubs during our travels have been: 

  • In addition to being a fabulous city in its own right, Munich was a perfect hub for visiting Salzburg, Austria, to Dachau concentration camp, and Neuschwanstein Castle in Fussen.
  • We used a small town called Sanlucar de Barrameda in southern Spain as a 5-week base for exploring the Andalusia region — Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz, swimming at the beach, Seville, small hill towns like Arcos and Zahara, Cordoba, Gibraltar and even taking a ferry to Morocco for a couple days.
  • Being a relatively small country, living in Nazareth, Israel for a month allowed us to day trip several times to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Old Jaffa, Haifa, Bethlehem, the Sea of Galilee region, and even take part in an archaeological dig at Beit Guvrin.

You cannot underestimate the beauty of being able to unpack and settle in to a location for weeks at a time, and the freedom of taking day trips without lugging around your packs or having to find new digs every few days. 

2) Figure out what your priorities are and search for those first.

For us, this means:

  • minimum 2 bedroom spaces (one for us, one for the kids, and both with closing doors if it’s longer than 2-3 nights)
  • a decent working kitchen 
  • a washing machine
  • some sort of deck or yard space or close proximity to a park
  • a table that fits our family for meals
  • WiFi – we actually read the reviews carefully for mentions of how reliable the WiFi is, since our work heavily depends upon in. 
  • and of course, relatively clean and in a safe-enough part of town are definite considerations.

Family World Travel: How to Find the Best Long-Term Accomodations. Let's go deeper into the specifics of how to find the best long-term accomodations. Take it from us - a few key tips make ALL the difference.

When you’re searching in Airbnb, after putting in your location, dates, whether you want the entire house, etc. you can then get more specific about what you’re looking for. Note that these are just minimums (bedrooms, bathroom, beds) so you’ll still see all the options that have more space than this.

3) Be a smart shopper

Always look at the weekly and monthly rates to see what might give you the best discount. It’s worth noting that not all rentals offer discounts, and discount can vary widely. 

Family World Travel: How to Find the Best Long-Term Accomodations. Let's go deeper into the specifics of how to find the best long-term accomodations. Take it from us - a few key tips make ALL the difference.

See these four screen shots? These are taking from the pricing sections of four different rentals on Airbnb (referral link). Weekly discounts range from zero to 23%. Monthly from 20-47%. Some ask for an extra cleaning fee. And I didn’t catch it in these examples, but some places also charge more for the  number of people above a certain occupancy, so take all of these things into account.

And don’t worry, no fancy math required. Their system calculates it all for you as you adjust number of people, number of nights, etc.

4) Don’t be afraid to ask questions

If you’ve read through the reviews and you’re just not quite sure about something, take the time to go back and forth with the owner to ask questions and make sure you’re satisfied it’s a good place for you.

Sometimes I’ve thought I found the perfect place only to dig in a little and realize something wouldn’t work for us. If there’s a question niggling in the back of your mind, it’s better to ask and take a day longer to make a decision than book something impulsively and regret it. 

5) Book long-term stays as early as possible

For rentals of longer than one or two weeks, try to book as far in advance as you’re able to. I totally understand the desire for flexibility and making last minute decisions. We’re pretty famous for booking hotels literally while we’re driving into town, or finding a place to stay the day before we board a plane.

But I can tell you from experience that if you need something for several weeks or a couple months, your options seriously dwindle if you wait too long.

At that point, any place with even one day booked out of the period you’re looking for becomes a non-option and you might end up choosing out of the leftover rental dregs. They’re not so pretty.

For anything longer than a couple weeks, I try to start looking a minimum of one month in advance, but more like 2-3 months (if I already know our dates, of course).

When you book that far ahead, you’ll often still have a window of time where you can cancel or you can at least shift your dates a little, so don’t let that stress you out. Just make sure you read the fine print in detail so you don’t commit to something you’re not 100% sure about. 

Curious what our one-year travel schedule looked like and how long we stayed in each location? You can see a detailed run-down of our year, including where we moved quickly and where we hunkered down longer. And if I could go back and change one big thing about that travel year? I would add more long-term stays to the last 4 months of our trip (look at the link above and you’ll see how we moved faster during that time). While we don’t regret anything, we learned a good lesson. Everyone needs to slow down sometimes… both kids and parents alike. 🙂 

  Family World Travel: How to Find the Best Long-Term Accomodations. Let's go deeper into the specifics of how to find the best long-term accomodations. Take it from us - a few key tips make ALL the difference.

This post is part of a series on Family World Travel… for Less:

Family World Travel: Finding affordable family accomodations does not mean nasty hotels or hostel bunkbeds. Long-term rentals can save money and create a true cultural experience

Family World Travel: Affordable Family Accomodations

Figuring out affordable family accomodations isn’t as hard as it seems. Nor do you have to succumb to nasty hotels or hostel bunkbeds in rooms next to partying 20-somethings. 

In fact, we’re pretty fond of the types of places we stay in. Many of the homes and locations themselves are special memories for our family and became an important part of our cultural experience in that place. 

But I do know how daunting the costs can feel when you start looking at places to stay that suit a family. With a few tricks up your sleeve, you can absolutely find a comfortable place to sleep, cook, and even do your laundry for much less than you might think.

I’ll talk through our preferred type of longer accommodations in this first post, share more specific tips for scoring just the right place in the next one, and then lastly I’ll share tips for those times when you really do just need to stay in a hotel or something similar for a night or two. 

When traveling around the world, our main priorities for finding decent, affordable accommodations are: 

  • big enough (read: manageable for our family, even if not perfectly ideal)
  • reasonably clean
  • with WiFi (and a bonus is a quiet place for grown-ups to work)
  • in a safe-enough part of town (and preferably away from the tourist center)
  • walkable to shops or close to public transportation (if we aren’t planning to rent a vehicle) 
  • and a kitchen for cooking our own food (a washing machine is a big plus)

If those sound like pretty low standards, I suppose they are. That’s our bare minimum. Typically we find something far better than that, but we start simply and then see what’s available. 

Much of the time, we have the pleasant surprise of finding places with something truly special or unique about them, whether it’s a fun loft bedroom for the kids, or a really beautiful location, or a big backyard, or the perfect, well-stocked kitchen, or even being hundreds of years old and full of history and charm. 

Some people are lucky enough to have connections with family or friends in other places, to be able to stay in someone’s home or be a house sitter, which is amazing and so good for your budget.

We simply didn’t have those kind of connections at the time, although travel has helped us make new friends in so many places that we have more options now than we ever used to.

Family World Travel: Finding affordable family accomodations does not mean nasty hotels or hostel bunkbeds. Long-term rentals can save money and create a true cultural experience.

Two of our kids eat breakfast with a friend in a house we rented for a month in a small town in Provence, France

Instead, our modus operandi is to seek out vacation rental homes (apartments, townhomes or actual houses) that are cheaper when rented long-term, and that allow us to feel like we’ve got a home away from home. 

I don’t know about you, but hotels aren’t our favorite. Sure, they’re fun for a few nights. Who doesn’t like having a maid clean up their room? 

But when traveling with children, hotels rooms get old, and fast. There’s nowhere for active, energetic kids to go, the noise level becomes deafening, and cooking and laundry are much more difficult. 

With this in mind, we turned to house rentals right from the start of our Big Trip and have continued to do so ever since. 

How we find places 

We *heart* Airbnb (this is my referral link, because we love it that much) and have used it more than 25 times, for stays of anywhere from 2-3 days up to 2 months.  

We have also used VRBO and HomeAway a little bit, although I prefer Airbnb for ease of use. The rating system for both hosts and guests is so valuable, I find their search method user-friendly, and by far the most compelling reason for us to stick with Airbnb is ease of payment (more on this below). 

It also has an incredible range of properties available, literally all over the world. We’ve used it in Paris, Oslo, Nashville, Ljubljana, Venice, Kunming, and Buenos Aires, to name a few. There are some destinations that it doesn’t work for well, but not many. 

Family World Travel: Finding affordable family accomodations does not mean nasty hotels or hostel bunkbeds. Long-term rentals can save money and create a true cultural experience.

One of my fondest rental memories, the little orange house in Salta, Argentina

That said, we have still occasionally used VRBO or HomeAway, found guest houses though friends or church organizations, or used rental websites that are very location-specific (like a particular city in Argentina, for example). Sometimes it’s necessary to branch out and get creative when you’re looking for a rental that’s just right for your family. 

One important thing to mention is that with other rental companies or situations, you typically have to arrange payment directly with the home owner or management company in charge of that property. You wind up sending your credit card number to someone you don’t know, or worse yet a bank or money transfer to make a deposit or even pay in full before you arrive. Most of the time this is fine, but what if it’s not? That’s where we get uncomfortable. 

With Airbnb, on the other hand, it’s all done through their secure payment processing system. There’s a customer service team you can speak to if you need to. There’s recourse for when something goes wrong. It just feels a whole lot safer to us. 

How much these rentals typically cost

When staying somewhere for one to eight weeks (our longest stay), we search for a more spacious apartment or home that offers us a discount for a long term stay. It’s amazing how affordable this can become. 

For example, when we stayed in southern Spain several summers ago (and summer is peak season in southern Europe), we rented a 3 bedroom home only 15 minutes drive to the beach, with a small backyard, for just 1500 Euros for 5 weeks. This actually worked out to basically what we had been paying for our rental house back in a suburb of Vancouver, Canada.

Family World Travel: Finding affordable family accomodations does not mean nasty hotels or hostel bunkbeds. Long-term rentals can save money and create a true cultural experience.

Backyard of our guest home in Nazareth

We paid a similar rate for a guest house on a lovely church property in Rwanda for three weeks, about $1200 for a small but sweet home in northern Argentina for 4 weeks (the orange house above), and a mere $500 to rent a large 2 BR apartment with a massive yard on a Child Evangelism Fellowship campus for one month in Nazareth, Israel.

More recently, we spent just $2000 CAD for a one-month rental of a two hundred year old stone house in a small French village in the Vaucluse region (Provence), and $145 CAD per night to stay in a suburb of Oslo, Norway in a cute apartment (much cheaper than a hotel – Norway is extremely expensive!).

In other words, our experience with long-term rentals has been fabulous, and in my next post, I’ll share some important things I’ve learned about finding just the right place for your family!

Do you have tips for finding affordable family accomodations? I’d love to know how you make it work!

Family World Travel: Finding affordable family accomodations does not mean nasty hotels or hostel bunkbeds. Long-term rentals can save money and create a true cultural experience.

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