We just returned from a four week road trip. I love going on these trips with the kids. It’s a time when we all take a step away from our everyday lives, disconnect a bit, and really enjoy our time together.
Let’s be honest though…Vacations as a parent are a LOT different than the restful trips I remember having in our pre-parenthood days. With the addition of each child comes more clothes, toys, electronics, and the need for new packing strategies. As a parent you’ve got to have a plan in place. There are things you will need to do before you go, things you will have to pack in your suitcase, and things you will need on the plane or on the road to make your trip as stress free as can be.
I’ve picked up quite a lot of useful tricks over the years and gone through a lot of trial and error till we reached a fantastic flow to our travels. I’ve created this thorough guide to help you avoid common planning pitfalls and pack like a pro. These tips and tricks will help you methodically manage the mounds of clothes, eliminate the extras, and save space in your suitcase…along with your sanity!
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First Things First, Make a List
Before heading anywhere, do yourself a favor and take the time to actually sit down and think about your trip. Start by checking the weather. This will largely dictate what items you should pack and prevent you from packing non-essentials. Just remember that blazing hot destinations can get chilly at night.
Make note of how many days you’ll be traveling and nights you’ll be sleeping away from home. Consider how you will be spending your vacation and what activities you will be doing. How often will you change locations? Visualize the different scenarios you’ll be dressing for. Planes rides, hikes, theme parks, days at the beach, to get an idea of what you realistically need.
You want to take as little as you can get by with but also enough to have the comforts and conveniences that are unique to your family culture.
Once you’ve thought about what you will be doing and for how long it’s time to make an actual list. Write out every item you want to include in your suitcase from clothes to toiletry items, accessories to electronics. I like to keep a running list on my phone. I start with a basic template as a starting point and then add items particular to our travel destination. Then, I make a second copy that I call the “elimination” list and erase items as I pack them. I use the original at the end of our trip to make sure I’ve re-packed everything.
The earlier you can start making your list the better! That way, if you need to purchase something in preparation, you’ll have enough time to do so! As I begin to gather items I like to lay everything out on a cleared floor space or on my dining room table. Its nice to use it for something other than Thanksgiving!
Roll Clothes Instead of Folding Them
Now it’s time to rock and roll with your packing. Literally! Fold your clothes long-ways, then starting at one edge, tightly roll the item like a burrito. Pants, shirts, dresses, skirts, even underwear! You will be amazed how much this step will maximize space and minimize wrinkling.
Use Packing Cubes!
Next up is the pièce de ré·sis·tance in the pro packer’s arsenal…Packing Cubes!
What is a packing cube you ask? Why only the most magical invention for family packing ever!
You know that struggle you have to get your over stuffed suitcase to close? How about when your sweet daughter messes up all your neat piles rummaging through the suitcase to find her nightgown? Packing cubes solve both these problems and more!
These soft, rectangular, zippered bags essentially turn your suitcase into a dresser with little removable “drawers” of clothes arranged by outfit or type. The cubes are thin enough that they don’t take up any room, but still allow you to contain each set of “rolled” clothes in an ideal fashion.
Their modular make up optimizes space and makes them easy to stack and arrange in your suitcase. You will be AMAZED at how much each packing cube can hold and keep together especially when you use the clothes rolling method.
Packing cubes also easy to unpack as they’re easily transferred from suitcase to dresser – ideal for multi-destination trips. You simply pull out your “drawer” when you need it at your destination and your items are all still organized into a consolidated space. They are also great to throw in actual drawers in a hotel room or ship cabin but more on that later.
Packing cubes come in a variety of sizes and colors. My favorites come with a mesh or clear side allowing you to have a peek inside without having to open it.
I am telling you, these things are life-changing. They completely revolutionized the way we pack. If you take one thing away from this post let it be USE PACKING CUBES!
Now, not all packing cubes are created equal so here are a few of my favorites…
Let’s talk more about exactly how to pack these cubes…
Rather than putting all the same types of garments in the same cube put together an outfit for each person in your family and then place your rolled outfit sets into the cubes.
It may sound a little counter-intuitive at first and even a bit over the top. But this tactic is particularly perfect when it comes to getting great coordinated photos on your family vacation. You can read more about this and all my tips for better vacation photos HERE. This method also makes it super easy to get your family ready and out the door adventuring and even switching gears to another activity later in the day.
For example, if you are headed out on a cruise and will need two sets of clothes for one day pack all your casual outfits for your shore excursion together in one cube and your dressier clothes for dinner that night in another. Think about how easy it will be when you return from your day of adventuring to get ready for a nice dinner when everything is already together and ready for you.
It’s tempting to overpack as you envision spills and no access to a washing machine. However, I find that we are so busy when traveling that we rarely have a chance to change out of our pre-planned outfits unless there is a major mess. I pack one outfit per person for each day or activity and a couple spare sets for spills or unexpected weather changes.
Another tip if you have older kids like me is to let them have input on the outfits BEFORE you pack the cube. That way what they pre-picked and want to wear is already ready to go.
Putting it all in the suitcase
I like to pack the medium sized cubes vertically with each cube standing on its side with the handle on the top. This allows you to maximize space even further without things spilling out the sides. With the largest size cubes, I like to lay them horizontally and stack them.
It’s kind of like putting together a puzzle. Try not to leave too much extra space as you don’t want your perfectly packed cubes to move around and get wrinkled or even damaged. If you have a lot of spare space, place your packing cubes at the bottom near the wheels, and make use of a built-in elastic suitcase strap, to minimize movement. The flipside of this advice is that if you’re planning a shopping spree or bringing home a few souvenirs, leave enough room for those.
While I highly recommend packing your tops and bottoms by day I pack our undergarments and pajamas separated by person. This makes it easy for my kids to grab what they need at the end of the day as they shower and get ready for bed. This is the perfect use for smaller sized packing cubes.
Also note that while it’s important to pack enough underwear for each day plus extra you don’t need a lot of pajamas. I only pack one pair for every 3 nights.
For swim suits I use yet another packing method. I again group by family sets with coordinated colors in mind and then put the sets in vacuum seal plastic bags. The spandex material in swim suits means they don’t wrinkle at all and the plastic bags are great to use for wet bathing suits and towels especially if you go swimming on the last day of your vacation and your items don’t have time to dry. These plastic bags prevent wet items, possibly doused in chlorine from mixing with your other laundry.
Socks and Shoes
Shoes touch the ground and can just be messy, so I like to keep them in their own section or even their own suitcase entirely. Plastic shower caps are a great way to keep your shoes from touching other items in your suitcase. I even use them when packing all our shoes in their own bag as they do such a good job of keeping shoes together and organized. I find the more I stay ahead of my kids in the chaos the better.
Try to limit your shoes to your favorite well-broken in pairs. There’s nothing that will ruin a vacation day like having to listen to your kids whine about blisters. Pick shoes that are versatile, comfortable and can be dressed up or down. That way, you will be prepared for anything your vacation can throw at you, including a night on the town or a morning on the treadmill. Teva sandals are some of my favorites for travel! You can fill shoe cavities with socks to save space and to help the shoes keep their shape.
Choose the Right Luggage
Don’t waste your weight limits on a heavy suitcase. Check the weight before you buy and try to select something that is lightweight. I avoid extra bells and whistles that weigh down the bag like a fancy built in power bank and focus instead on something that rolls easily.
The easier a suitcase is to roll the easier it is to be maneuvered by your young travelers. Our kids have a much easier time managing suitcases that have four rolling wheels than the kind that tilt and only have two. Our American Tourister by Samsonite suitcases we gifted our kids for Christmas have been amazing for travel and the bright fun colors make them a cinch to spot on the baggage carousel.
Bottom line to remember when it comes to luggage is that a better-quality suitcase will work out cheaper in the long run.
Road Trip Tips
If you will be renting a vehicle carefully check the size of your car before booking. If you’ve planned well, you should know how many suitcases and bags you’ll have. Good car rental sites will tell you how many suitcases will fit in the trunk. Saving a few dollars with the smallest possible car, might become problematic when all five of your suitcases don’t fit. If it’s only a few dollars extra to upgrade to a larger size vehicle, your peace of mind is worth it.
When traveling on multi stop road trips pack all the clothes you need for one destination in the same suitcase together. Again, this is where packing by day instead of clothing type with your cubes comes in handy. This allows you to leave the unused bags in your vehicle making it easier to get in and out of hotels. I keep in mind which suitcases I need as I load our vehicle placing the suitcases I won’t need in first toward the back. I swap them around as we move from one location to another.
You’ll also want to put together a kit of things to keep your kids entertained on the road such as travel games, mad libs and workbooks. I like to use collapsible car storage organizers to keep everything organized and easily accessible.
For many more in-depth ideas for road trips check out this post by my friend Jen from Travel with a Plan. She will fill you in on all the tips and tricks you need to know for mastering a family road trip –and enjoying it too!
If you will be traveling by plane split your clothing packed cubes up between checked suitcases. This works as a sort of insurance in case one suitcase gets lost by the airline.
Speaking of airlines…Make sure to check airline weight limits before you pack your suitcase. Some discount airlines have very strict carry-on weight and size limits (these vary by airline). Often a personal item (like purse or small laptop bag) is acceptable in addition to your regular carry-on luggage. But be careful to check if the carry-on weight limits cover individual items or combined.
Make sure to weigh your suitcase BEFORE heading to the airport. We use a portable luggage scale so there are no surprises at the airport. They are small and easy to store in your suitcase or carry-on. Make sure to aim for a few pounds lighter than your baggage allowance as most scales at airports are skewed around 3-5% heavier than hand-held luggage scales.
If you do run into an issue with an overweight bag your packing cubes can save the day here again as all you have to do is remove one (hopefully only one) from the overweight suitcase and place it in another. You can even just use the packing cube handle to carry it on as a “personal” item and even make it do double duty as a pillow –might as well!
Make use of the built-in lock if your suitcase features one, otherwise buy a travel-friendly padlock that is TSA approved. If you use a non-TSA compliant lock, you might find it cut or broken when you pick up your suitcase from the carousel.
Once you arrive at your destination remove the packing cubes from your luggage and place them in your hotel room or cabin’s dresser drawers. That’s yet another nice aspect of the packing cubes….no refolding or resorting. It’s all done.
Your suitcase will then be empty and ready for dirty laundry. Don’t just dump all your dirty laundry back into the suitcase though. We use a portable pop up hamper to contain the clothes. Just as they would at home I have my kids sort their clothes by color. Once the hamper gets full transfer the clothes to plastic space bags and suck it all down to save space that can be used for souvenirs. Now when you get home all you have to do is unseal the bag and dump the contents directly into your washing machine.
While I recommend communal packing for most items, everyone in our family also gets a personal bag that they keep with them on road trips and plane rides.
For us adults, we use this bag for valuables and essentials such as medications and important documents and electronics like our laptop, cameras and chargers. We use a lap top bag that has multiple compartments for keeping everything organized and tidy and a camera and drone back pack especially designed to keep all my equipment safe. I like to keep important documents easily accessible, so we don’t hold up lines while digging in our bag. It’s also a good idea to keep a copy of passport and travel insurance documents in your checked-in luggage. You should also email a copy to yourself so you will have copies in case the originals are stolen or lost.
Our kids use their back packs to store things they need to keep them entertained while traveling. This includes books, magazines, their tablets, travel games and playing cards. These book bags also double as our day bags when we reach our destination.
I also make sure to always pack spare underwear and a toothbrush in our carry-ons.
I like to pack toiletries in their own small suitcase along with other personal care items. I use a hanging shoe organizer to hold all of our toiletries. Once it is ready to pack I fold it accordion style and drop it into the suitcase. When we arrive at our destination all I have to do is hang it from the hooks on a door. Everything is easy to access and stays super organized!
To keep items from leaking in transit add a layer of plastic wrap over the opening before replacing the lid. This reduces the chance of leaks and explosions caused by air pressure changes in an airplane cargo hold or from being smooshed and jostled in your trunk on road trips. In order to save plastic and time, just wrap the neck of the bottle underneath the screw top. If you are using your own travel-sized bottles only fill them three quarters full. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
I keep a bag of medications in our toiletry suitcase. This bag has Benadryl, Tylenol, anti-diarrhea meds, anti-itch cream, Band-Aids, Neosporin, Lysol wipes and antacids. Basically a mini-CVS in our suitcase. Life happens, and you don’t want to be making a run to the drug store at 2 AM when your kid can’t sleep due to bug bites.
To cut down on space remove medications from their box and cut the part of the packaging out that shows the active ingredients and dosing information and put it into a snack size Ziploc bag. This makes it easily identifiable, reduces bulk and lightens your load at the same time.
There’s nothing like accessories to take an outfit from good to great, so don’t leave them behind when you go away. But remember, you don’t need your whole jewelry box. Choose a few fun pieces that make a splash but that you wouldn’t be broken up over losing. To keep your jewelry from getting tangled place it between two sheets of Glad Press’n Seal wrap or use a roll up organizer. I love these inexpensive bags that I can hang in our hotel bathroom or closet. Hanging organizers are also perfect for my girl’s hair accessories.
Another tip is to nest hats and purses inside of one another to save space and help them keep their shape. I put my smallest bag, usually a fanny pack, inside a versatile purse and then put that inside of a bigger pool/beach bag.
For some reason, kids get ten times hungrier while traveling than when they are at home. You are going to want to pack snacks. Then when you think you have enough, PACK MORE SNACKS. You can’t really over-do it when it comes to munchies. Especially since it’s loads cheaper to stock up at a your local supermarket than it is to have to buy snacks with inflated prices at gas stations or in a vacation town. Stock up before the trip and you’ll be extremely thankful you did!
If you are road tripping pack snacks in a plastic container and place it somewhere easily accessible in your vehicle. Brining your own dry snacks on the plane will also save you money on over-priced airline food and give you the flexibility to choose healthier options like protein bars and dried fruit.
If You Can Buy It, Don’t Pack It
Obviously, I’m talking within reason. I’m not suggesting you buy a whole new wardrobe at your destination. However if you can buy a huge pack of diapers and baby formula when you land, take as much as you’ll need for your travel day (plus a little extra) and pick-up the rest when you arrive at the local market.
Ask yourself if the hassle of bringing an item with you is worth the savings. Case and point here for me is our beach chairs and umbrella. I used to load them up for our beach vacations and we would lug them down to the beach and rinse them off after. The we would have to carry them back to our hotel room where they would need to dry before reloading. Then we just started paying the $25 to rent two beach chairs and an umbrella at our hotel. Totally worth it! Think about what makes sense for you to leave behind and just rent or purchase at your destination.
Pack an Extra Suitcase
If you know you’ll be bringing home a lot of souvenirs, pack an extra suitcase. Simply pack your clothes in a smaller suitcase then put that smaller suitcase inside of a bigger suitcase. When you arrive, you’ll have a whole empty suitcase to fill with your purchases. Alternatively you can pack a collapsible duffle bag.
Now you should be ready to pack like a pro for your next family adventure.
Let me know below if you’ve got any awesome tips that I’ve missed! I’m always down to learn new tips and tricks for travel!
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