April 13, 2024

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The Best Family Travel Gear, Tested by Parents and Kids

12 min read

Experienced travelers know that when it comes to baggage, more isn’t necessarily better—and that holds true for trips with kids, too. Bringing along the full equipage of booster seats, strollers, and bedtime gear is a surefire way to make any parent resolve to stay at home.

Thankfully, manufacturers are increasingly developing baby and child essentials that appeal to more nomadic lifestyles. Common go-tos, such as strollers, boosters, and even toys, are becoming lighter, more packable, and better designed for children’s (and parents’) needs.

Together, the parents on AFAR’s staff—plus our contributors—delved into the world of next-gen family travel gear to find the best options for infants, toddlers, school-age children—and ourselves. We tested gear on road trips, overnight flights, and campouts in the United States and abroad. Here, 13 AFAR-approved favorites that are worth adding to your family travel gear collection.

Child in red dress riding small blue suitcase

This ride-on suitcase from Stokke is practical—and fun for kids.

JetKids by Stokke ride-on suitcase

  • Buy now: $229, stokke.com
  • Best for: Kids two to seven years of age

On a recent trip to Poland and Romania, my two kids, ages four and seven, tested the JetKids by Stokke ride-on suitcases. I thought I was going to love these most for their ability to convert an economy airplane seat into a lie-flat bed (the top props up and you unfold an included mat onto it). And while that aspect certainly got the kids excited to get cozy and helped promote going to sleep, the covers ended up just getting pushed down and eventually off the seat while the kids tossed and turned as they slept on the flight. (If you’ve figured out a way to get these not to slip off the seat, message me!)

Watch our review of the Jetkids by Stokke Suitcase

The winning aspect of this kids suitcase was the ride-on one, since it allowed them to move faster through the airport and also doubled as a way for them to play before and after flights. Both kids loved riding these so much we ended up checking our stroller to our final destination. While I was worried my tall seven-year-old son would be a bit big for it, both of them were able to easily scoot along, so we didn’t need to carry either them or their carry-ons. When they got tired, we could just pull them with the included strap. Did they almost run into several airport travelers? Yes, yes they did. But only one stranger’s ankle was softly tapped throughout the entire trip, and we got so many smiles from amused passengers and crew throughout the journey.

The interior space is a bit tight when the sleeping pad is tucked into it (and given the above you could maybe even ditch the pad). But even with it, there was enough room for an iPad and headphones, some paper, coloring books, pens, a small stuffie, and a blanket. You can opt for the additional attachable backpack for some added room, which we used for sweatshirts and small toys. These also, somewhat shockingly, actually fit under the seat on most aircraft. —Michelle Baran, senior travel news editor

Black Babyzen Yoyo2 stroller folded and unfolded

The Babyzen Yoyo2 stroller folds up and can be carried by a shoulder strap.

Babyzen Yoyo2 stroller

  • Buy now: $449, babyzen.com
  • Best for: Kids up to 48.5 pounds

The Babyzen Yoyo2 stroller is considered one of the best travel strollers currently on the market, and after testing it out for a couple weeks in airports, on cobblestone streets, and walk-up apartments in Europe, I can now see why. It is the most portable and convenient stroller we’ve ever used. It unfolds with the snap of one wrist like magic, and while folding it back up is a bit more tricky (there are buttons to push with both hands, and a lever to pull underneath the seat), once folded—wow. It’s super compact and there’s a convenient shoulder strap that allows you to carry it as easily as you would a tote bag. At a lightweight 13 pounds, it feels like nothing compared with suitcases or carrying the actual kids.

The one big disappointment was the Yoyo board attachment that we hoped our seven-year-old son could use when he needed a break from all the walking in Europe. Unfortunately, it extends so far back it forces whoever is pushing the stroller to walk to the side. We made it work because at times our son was desperate for the break, but other times we bribed his younger sister to let him ride in the stroller and one of us would just carry her (Haribo gummies and ice cream for the win).

Board bummer aside, the stroller itself is a huge win for traveling families. Though it’s pricey and all the attachments add even more to the total, this is a great stroller to invest in early on in the family travel journey. —M.B.

Black backpack diaper bag from No Reception Club opened on the side to show contents

Compartmentalization is a good thing when it comes to diaper bags.

Courtesy of No Reception Club

No Reception Club “The Getaway Bag”

I’ve always hated the notion of a traditional diaper bag, since I’ve never wanted my gear to scream, “Check me out, I have kids.” (Not to mention so many of them are shoulder-strap bags. Ugh.) Our go-to “diaper bag” when we’re at home is a cool unisex Herschel backpack that we throw diapers, changes of clothes, wipes, sunscreen, water bottles, and everything else into. But when we’re traveling and need to stuff our Herschel with more than what we use day-to-day, we have to barf up the bag’s entire contents onto the airplane seat, park bench, or wherever to find something specific.

Enter the Getaway Bag by No Reception Club: We tested this sleek black travel backpack on a recent trip to Mexico with our two small kids. But it’s not just about looks. The true genius of this bag is its individual compartments that allow you to search for individual items without disrupting everything else. Need some wipes? They’re in their own little side pouch. Snacks? All tucked into the top pocket on their own, bothering no one. Someone had an accident? No problem. Change of clothes are in their own little bottom cupboard. There’s even a pouch for a laptop, and a separate fold-up changing pad. At 19.7 x 10.2 x 6.5 inches and 24-liter capacity, it’s a little big for daily use at home, but it’s a dream come true for flying with kids since it still meets international carry-on size limit requirements. —M.B.

No Reception Club Sidekick black fanny pack with changing pad, diapers, and other items that fit inside

Diaper bags don’t have to be big and bulky.

Courtesy of No Reception Club

No Reception Club “The Sidekick” fanny pack

“There are definitely times you need the diaper bag, when you need all of the things,” Grace Swansinger, who has two kids under the age of two and owns boutique and sundries supply store Scout’s General in Crested Butte, Colorado with her husband Dan. “But then there are times when you want to go a little bit lighter and you just want to bring the basics like a diaper, some wipes, and a couple snacks. That’s the benefit of a fanny pack.”

No Reception Club’s three-liter Sidekick fanny pack is the perfect companion to the larger Getaway Bag. Minimalist in its size, aesthetic, and environmental impact, the recycled polyester Sidekick is thoughtfully designed to hold everything a baby needs to stay fresh and dry. The changing pad is included, and it has enough space to stuff up to a half-dozen diapers, along with some ointment and hand sanitizer. Stick the wipes in the back exterior pocket—I love its magnetic flap closure—and it’s a breeze to swipe and wipe. Don’t stress if a little mess ends up on the fanny pack. Just toss it into the washing machine. —Courtney Holden, AFAR contributor

Floral print mini fanny pack for kids

This mini hip pack for kids comes in new patterns and colors released seasonally.

Herschel Twelve hip pack

  • Buy now: $17 (was $25), herschel.com
  • Best for: Kid 3 to 12 years of age

For kids old enough to carry their own belongings, Herschel’s Twelve hip pack is a 6.75-inch by 4-inch carrier that’s just right for pint-sized travelers. Its simple, one-pocket design makes it perfect for pinecones, rhinestones, and any other treasures your little traveler comes across. Plus, it comes in several kid-approved designs like this graphic floral print and pink tie-dye. —C.H.

>> Find more stylish fanny packs for all types of travelers

Tiger-shaped backpack for kids

The whimsical design makes this backpack fun for kids.

Deuter Kikki backpack

  • Buy now: $55, deuter.com
  • Best for: Kids three to five years of age

The Deuter Kikki Backpack will delight younger children with its cartoonish animal designs. (Right now Deuter offers bags that resemble a tiger, dinosaur, or bunny.) The pack’s appeal is handy come travel time, because our three-year old tester relished every opportunity to wear it. Any piece of gear that staves off a toddler’s tantrum is a win in my book.

Four and five year olds also enjoyed wearing the Kikki, which is impressively practical for a kids pack. As with many adult packs, the Kikki features a padded, mesh-covered back panel that prevents the wearer’s back from becoming hot and clammy. Two elastic-topped exterior pouches are ideal for holding a water bottle and a favorite stuffie. The sternum strap keeps the pack secure, even when tykes break into a run. And the eight-liter interior offers enough space for an iPad, headphones, coloring books, and snacks.

Kids older than six may deem the pack too babyish (and the capacity may be too small for a school-age travel kit). But durable fabrics and quality construction make the Kikki tough enough for hand-me-down longevity. —Kelly Bastone, AFAR contributor

JLab JBuddies Pro wired over-ear kids headphones

  • Buy now: $20 (was $25), jlab.com
  • Best for: Designed for kids eight years of age and older, but fit our reviewer’s four- and seven-year-old children

Wireless headphones may be great for adults, but we ran into so many issues making sure the Bluetooth headphones we bought for our kids were charged and pairing properly while traveling. We finally found these wired JLab headphones that always work—since they don’t need to be charged—and fit snugly over our kids’ ears. They can watch for, er, hours (only on long car rides or flights do we allow such marathons) without complaining about the fit or sound. We use them with these versatile kids iPad cases that we slip onto our two family iPads when we’re traveling (we tell our kids the iPads are only “theirs” when we are on the road). —M.B.

Black and gray KidCo PeaPod travel tent folded and unfolded

This mini-crib/play yard packs down to fit into carry-on luggage.

KidCo PeaPod travel tent

  • Buy now: $80, kidco.com
  • Best for: Children six months to three years of age

Even when packed, most play yards are inconveniently bulky. They hog any car’s trunk space and are too big to qualify as practical luggage when traveling by air. KidCo solves that problem by turning a pop-up tent into the perfect nighttime and daytime nest for babies.

The PeaPod is the size of a grocery bag when packed, and the flat, four-inch-high parcel fits easily into a rolling duffel or suitcase. And it couldn’t be easier to set up: Once it’s removed from the carrying bag, the PeaPod springs into shape, becoming a mesh-topped tent with a zippered door and a cushiony, quilted floor. That superfast bedtime setup can be a blessing when a late-night arrival has everyone feeling sleepy and cranky.

I also loved the PeaPod’s convenience as an insect-thwarting play yard. Pitching it during picnics eliminates the need to slather mosquito repellent on an infant’s sensitive skin. When tested, babies immediately took to the space and enjoyed extended play sessions inside. The fabric only offers partial shade, so for nap times, a baby blanket draped over the top helps to darken the interior. But the PeaPod packs away in a snap, making it ideal for quick midday breaks as well as overnight use. —K.B.

Magformers educational magnetic tiles

  • Buy now: $80 (was $100), amazon.com
  • Best for: Kids three years of age and older

You may be familiar with Magna-Tiles, the ingenious magnetic tiles that kids can assemble in myriad shapes and structures. While the thicker Magna-Tiles work well for home or school, when we’re on the road, the lighter Magformers tiles can easily pack into a tie-bag (we just stack as many as we can into a bag). We will throw these into the car or into the bottom of the kids’ backpacks for a flight and it offers something they can play with in the destination that isn’t too heavy or bulky to bring along. (Our other go-to for kids’ entertainment on the road? In addition to books, we’re big on good old-fashioned clipboards that double as a little notebook stocked with blank paper, and a pencil case full of drawing and coloring accouterments.) —M.B.

The Bombol Pop-Up Booster seat and seat belts in gray

Make meals enjoyable with this folding high chair.

Bombol Pop-Up booster

  • Buy now: $130, bombol.com
  • Best for: Babies approximately six months or older

Mealtime with a baby or toddler can be frenetic no matter where you are. But when you’re traveling without a proper high chair, eating peaceably together often seems like an unachievable ideal. The Bombol Pop-Up Booster makes that a greater possibility—and it packs flat to the size of a vinyl LP.
In its sleeve, the two-pound seat slides easily into a diaper bag or daypack, so traveling parents need not balk at bringing it on urban walkabouts. The Bombol expands, origami-style, to become a truly sturdy booster seat complete with a five-point harness and chair latch that straps securely to almost all adult chairs. The car seat–style child restraint prevents wriggly toddlers from bolting through restaurants. And because it allows youngsters to sit in their own seat instead of on their parents’ laps, adults can actually enjoy their food and drink.

There’s no tray, but tabletops keep food and toys within easy reach. The padded thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU)-coated polyester easily wipes clean, and the bag it comes in converts to a chair cover that protects your host’s upholstery—handy when you’re visiting families that aren’t used to messy children. —K.B.

Black WAYB Pico portable car seat

The WAYB Pico portabel car seat weighs just eight pounds.

WAYB Pico portable car seat

  • Buy now: $380, wayb.com
  • Best for: Kids age two and older who are 22–50 lbs. and 30–45 inches tall

For parents of younger children who can’t get away with using just a booster seat, there’s a better way to travel than strapping a behemoth car seat to your back through the airport. The WAYB Pico portable car seat weighs only eight pounds and folds into a compact 11.6 x 14.5 x 18.9-inch unit. It’s basically the size of a medium camping backpack—that’s easy enough to lift on its own—and better still when stowed in a backpack carrier you can buy for an additional $60.

It’s easy to install, once you get the hang of it, with click-in/click-out anchors on each side, as well as a hook that you attach to the anchor on the back of the seat. What the WAYB gains in compact size and ease of transportation, it loses a bit in comfort. The seat base (where kids put their rump) is minimal and almost flat—a unique combination of a mesh fabric and aluminum frame makes it soft and springy without the bulk—so that means your kids will be very low. Our daughter was totally cool with her new low-riding position and actually thought it was kind of funny, but I could see how some kids might get frustrated when they lose their vantage point out the window. —M.B.

>> Read the full review of the WAYB Pico portable car seat

Cosco Scenera Next convertible car seat

  • Buy now: $49, coscokids.com
  • Best for: Children who are at least one year old (rear-facing 5–40 pounds and 19–40 inches tall/forward-facing 22–40 pounds and 29–43 inches tall)

Though it’s a bit bulkier, the Cosco Scenera Next convertible car seat is a fraction of the price of the WAYB Pico Portable. However, at 10.4 pounds, I could still pick it up with one hand and not be strained when I used this for my two daughters when they were between the ages of one and three years old. It’s also helpful to bring along a gate check bag for a car seat like this inexpensive option. —Anni Cuccinello, audience development director

Diono Solana 2 backless booster car seat

  • Buy now: $40, bloomingdales.com
  • Best for: Kids who are 40 to 120 pounds and up to 63 inches tall

For older kids who are in the clear to travel in cars with just a booster seat, there are several options. Baran says she usually just detaches the backless booster from her older son’s Graco TurboBooster highback booster car seat, “but even these can be kind of a pain to bring along, but when compared to an entire car seat it is hard to complain.” For something that’s super lightweight and narrow, try the Diono Solana backless booster car seat. At just over six pounds, it’s light enough that most kids can carry it themselves, although latching it to their backpack might be the best bet. —A.C.


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