Airline prices may appear to be at a historic low, but that's just a flight of fancy. In fact, the major carriers have just shifted their costs to extra fees, and the ugliest one of all is the one you pay to check luggage. At $20 a bag, a family of four will pay $80 each way, or $160 round-trip. You can save $40 if you reserve space ahead of time, but don't even think about adding a second checked bag, which adds another $60 round-trip, per bag.
There are a few ways to get around the airlines' high cargo rates. Let's say you're going to Orlando. You could start by taking JetBlue Airways or Southwest Airlines, neither of which charge for the first checked bag (yet).
Some people claim the solution is sending your luggage ahead. It's not. Let's assume your bag is 30 pounds. That's reasonable, considering even empty luggage weighs 12 to 15 pounds. FedEx overnight from New York to Florida will charge you from $150. Two-day delivery: $116. Three business days is a lot cheaper: $25, but that's still more than the airline will charge you. (UPS is pretty much the same, within a few bucks.)
How about the U.S. Postal Service, then? Sorry, might as well use FedEx. Express Mail is $110 if bought online. Priority Mail is about $40. The best price, $26, is for Parcel Post. But that could take as long as two weeks -- a parenting nightmare. "Don't cry, Timmy. You'll see Mr. Teddy again -- in 10 to 12 business days."
And then you have to arrange to have your stuff sent, figure out who's going to receive your boxes for you at the other end, and somehow arrange to send them back during your vacation -- and on top of all that, you have to do without your things while they're in transit. So sending your bags isn't more convenient (unless you have a butler at your service to do all this for you), and certainly not cheaper than just biting the bullet and checking bags.
There are simple tricks you can use to consolidate your stuff. The key is packing things that are versatile:
You can get your younger kids' stuff into your luggage. Give them a small carry-on of their own if they insist.
Bring fleeces instead of sweaters (too bulky)
Choose one pair of shoes that can be either for dinner or for casual stuff, and shirts that can do the same.
If you think the weather will be changeable, bring clothes that can be layered rather than bringing two wardrobes.
Flip-flops can substitute for sandals (same reason)
Buy swim trunks that look like shorts (they can double)
Jeans are durable, hide dirt, and are increasingly appropriate for many occasions, especially on vacation
For beach locations, sarongs double as beach towels and take nearly no space. They don't have to be absorbent if it's warm there. (And they'll dry faster.)
Pack black: dark clothes hide dirt, while white shows it faster.
If you're really feeling clever, pack clothes you want to get rid of. Then, as you wear each outfit, discard or donate it. Your suitcase will empty and make room for souvenirs.
Portable luggage scales cost less than $15 and can save you from going over weight and paying way more. This is important, because if you buy stuff when you're traveling, you've got no way to know if you're over or not. It's not like hotels weigh stuff for you -- it's super easy to get screwed.
Reduce your packing. Aside from I.D., tickets, your device chargers, and money, you don't need much. Most places you'll travel to will have whatever you need there.
Don't forget that you can also rent the big stuff while you're there. Leave your baby and toddler gear at home and rent it at your destination instead. Most hotels furnish cribs and playpens, but call ahead and double-check.
Also, use my secret: Lay your clothes flat like a stacked sandwich and then roll them together. It's a more economical way to use your limited space than simply folding and stacking, and it keeps things from wrinkling.
You could bring everything you want and suck your wallet dry. Or you can bring just what you need -- and save.