three children watching airplanes from inside an airport

We did a thing this year we never anticipated. We spent three weeks in Europe in four locations and three countries with our two kids ages 3 and 4 years old. International travel with kids is not for the faint of heart. Many dollars were spent. Little sleep was had. Memories were definitely made.

We had the opportunity to go to Portugal for my husband’s sister’s (stunningly beautiful) wedding and decided we might as well make the most of the flight across the pond and see some sights! And we had the pleasure of bouncing around these places with other family members — five adults and five kids under 6 jaunting around Portugal, Spain, and France during the hottest and most popular times to travel? Utter chaos!

I am by no means a “super chill, light packing, laissez faire traveling mom.” But we tried to be as reasonable as possible with what we were bringing based on the places we were going and the amount of time we’d use the things we were packing. Here are a few of the items I purchased and used that actually made my life easier during the trip.

1. Over-the-door shoe organizer

Credit to my husband for finding this hack. I will be doing this method of packing for my kids for as long as their clothes fit in here! We bought each kid a cheap over-the-door shoe organizer. I put full outfits (including undies and socks) in each pocket. I was able to fit eight casual outfits, four nicer outfits, four sets of pajamas, four bathing suits, three pairs of shoes, and one jacket. We then folded each organizer into one side of a carry-on-size rolling suitcase. When we got to each location, we simply hung up the organizer, and boom. Amazing.

Not fancy, but the real version of how I used this.

2. Inflatable swimmies

I am not a lifeguard or safety expert. I would certainly not leave my kids in a body of water unattended with any water safety device, regardless of quality. But we could not fit their regular swim vests in our luggage, so these were clutch for just having them feel more willing and confident in going in pools and oceans on the trip with us. And they packed super flat.

3. Halfday 2-in-1 garment duffel

We were going to Europe for a black-tie wedding — that both of my kids were in. For our trip, we checked one suitcase for each adult, one for the kids, and one for snacks. But we wanted to make sure we absolutely had all of our necessary wedding items with no risk of a missing luggage situation. So we got this duffel bag, and it was awesome. It fit a suit and tux for my husband, my rehearsal and wedding dresses (both long), our shoes, and the kids’ outfits for both wedding events. It was cozy, but everything fit — and within carry-on limits. And we had everything we needed with us on the plane — no stress!

4. Portable fans

It was hot in most of our locations. We stayed in Airbnbs that did not always have air conditioning. Ya girl runs hot, and so do my kids. I ordered a few different USB-charging portable fans, and they kept me alive, whether wrapped around a stroller handle or positioned right next to my head to sleep. This was the best one I got!

5. Thermos

If you have an annoyingly picky eater like I do, try this hack. We packed a suitcase full of my toddler’s favorite foods, knowing we’d have kitchens and could cook. We encouraged him to try new foods as much as possible, but also, you have to survive. So, we would often make pasta or other things he likes and bring it in one of these on our sightseeing or restaurant visits so he could not be hangry and we could potentially enjoy ourselves.

6. Card games

These games were a random, last-minute purchase, and they were great during airport delays and even at the houses we rented to keep the kids busy and get a break from screen time.

7. “Mess-free” coloring

If your kids like art, these things are so great. I remember using these as a kid, and the quality has improved significantly since the ’80s! We gave the kids each a book with these mess-free markers, and my 4-year-old used this WAY more than the iPad.

8. Toiletry bag

I’m usually a “grab a random toiletry bag from TJ Maxx” type of gal, but having recently explored and leaned into my ADHD diagnosis, I realized I could use some more structure in organizing and protecting my toiletry items. So I did a little research and found this dupe of one of Oprah’s “Favorite Things.” It has four inside pockets and also folds, zips, and hangs.  The exterior jewelry organizer was the selling point for me! Instead of having a toiletry bag, a makeup bag, and a random sack of loose jewelry, I had one bag! Big fan.

The jewelry section locked me in!

9. Belt bag (Lululemon dupe)

Again, not a “hot take,” but I wanted a small bag that was easy to carry outside of a diaper bag — and I didn’t want to spend the name brand prices. This was just big enough to fit the essentials and is very similar to the more expensive options.

10. Shorts

As I mentioned, it was hot at our destination, and I am a proud member of the “thick thighs save lives” club. These are soft and comfortable — and are not shapewear. They held me in enough to feel secure but not squeezed. They were great for wearing with sundresses and sneakers for sightseeing.

11. Kizik sneakers

Speaking of sneakers, I had been looking for a comfortable pair of white sneakers that I could use for allllll the walking we were going to be doing but not look like a total zhlub.  Ones I could dress up with a sundress for the Louvre or dress down with bike shorts for Park Güell. These are an amazingly comfortable, truly step-in, hands-free shoe. I will warn that they are cleanable, not washable like some other brands, so keeping them clean is a challenge.

This is my short list of purchases that were actually worth it for our international travels with kids. Hope it helps anyone else venturing out into the world with littles for the first — maybe last — time!

Colleen Lubin
Colleen Lubin grew up in Arlington, MA and dragged her Yankees-loving New Yorker husband back to the Boston area after years of splitting the difference in Connecticut. After getting her master's degree at UMASS Amherst, she worked for 15 years in higher education across New England. Recently, she made a career change into the Learning & Engagement world within Human Resources. Colleen is most passionate about supporting women and families navigating infertility, pregnancy loss and the postpartum experience. Colleen's most used coping mechanism is laughter, so she utilizes honesty, authenticity, and humor to talk about tough subjects including grief, loss and mental health. Colleen is a mom of two miracles, Liam and Logan, born in 2018 and 2020, and is therefore very tired all the time. When not "momming so hard" you can find her at the beach in York, ME, riding her Peloton, taking a dance class or sleeping whenever humanly possible.