After almost 10 years of traveling around the country and to Europe with children, I have learned this: Less is more.
All that stuff you hear about packing little toys for kids to unwrap on the airplane or stocking up on travel games to play in the car is, in my experience, pretty much useless. Such things will distract the kids for about 10 seconds and leave parents with more stuff to clean up. Snacks are important, especially on planes where food is increasingly limited, but jamming a thousand toys into a backpack or buying every new travel gadget on the market is only going to ensure that you have more stuff to keep track of.
Which isn't to say I'm anti-stuff. I live and die by the portable DVD player, two if your kids are at an age, as mine are, when they will fight about the air molecules they breathe. Books are good, though remember it's always fun to buy new books on your travels, so you don't have to take a library. Ditto for crayons and a coloring book. If your child is consistently soothed by a stuffed animal or two, by all means take them. My kids tend while packing to develop sudden attachments to toys they then ignore or lose during the trip, so our stuffies stay home.
Still, the questions most parents ask of those who have traveled more or farther most often begin with "Should I bring ..." the stroller, the car seat, the portable crib. Here, based on this mom's experience, is a brief guide to good travel stuff.
For infants, I swear by the Baby Bjorn Infant Carrier ($79 to $99 at www.babiesrus.com), which keeps your hands free, the baby warm and takes up no room. When we went to Paris with our 2-month-old, we didn't bother with a stroller (which is a pain in any city with a subway or metro -- all those steps). Because it was winter, we also got a Baby Bjorn carrier cover ($39 at www.babierus.com), which kept little Darby warm and dry. (You know you have made a good purchase when a Parisian mother asks you where you got something.)
For older kids, if you are going to do a lot of hiking, a Kelty Child Carrier backpack ($119 to $240 at Sport Chalet, www.sportchalet.com) is a must. Yes, you tough dads can go miles with a kid on your shoulders, but when that kid falls asleep (and he or she will), you are balancing a sack of cement on your head.
When your baby is too heavy or squirmy for a Baby Bjorn, you need a stroller, and if you're going to travel a lot or go to places with cobblestones or off-road walking, you should invest in a really good umbrella stroller. I have a Chicco C6 ($59.99 at www.amazon.com) that works well, and Maclaren has great lightweight portable urban strollers ( www.amazon.com, $174.95).
The great debate -- take or rent. I say take. You can check them with your luggage or at the gate, and nothing's worse than renting an infant seat you don't like or trust. Also, the car seat guarantees you have somewhere safe to put an infant when you're in your hotel room or apartment, which is nice. For older kids, a very cool thing is a Gogo Kidz Travelmate ($89 at www.gogobabyz.com) -- a car seat that turns into a stroller by pulling out a handle and wheels. Although it's too low to the ground to act as a real stroller, it is great for airports. And if the airline allows it, putting a car seat in the plane seat makes things much easier. Your child is more secure, for one thing, and there is a soporific effect about a car seat that cannot be overlooked.
These British zippered blankets are like big sleep sacks, and they come in handy because they will keep a child as warm as any blanket and not fall off during the night or get lost during the flight. Get a size up from your child's regular size, and it will also work in a stroller. At $55 ( www.amazon.com or www.gro-group.co.uk), they aren't cheap, but they're worth it.
Leave it at home. Most hotels and rentals will provide a crib, and even the good portables are heavy and bulky. You can take a Travel Bed (Gentle Air Dr. Watters Portable Overnight Bed, from $60.75 at www.amazon.com, is popular) but frankly, if it's a question of a bed being too high, you can just pull the mattress onto the floor. Or with an older child, you can pack a collapsible bedrail.
In the end, it's best to remember two things about travel stuff: You should take only things you know are going to make your life easier, and if there is something you need but do not have, you can probably buy it wherever you are. You might even find products that are better than the ones at home. I still believe every parent with a newborn should travel to Paris or Italy to choose their stroller because the strollers are so much better there and -- even with the value of the dollar against the euro -- less expensive. And it's fun to have a sippy cup from Germany or a teething ring in the shape of a Maryland crab. Kids' products are everywhere, just like kids. That's why it's so great to travel with them.