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In this article, our panel of family travel experts share their strategies and tips in packing your luggage.
Make a List
“I’ve used the same checklist for nearly 15 years and it has never failed me (or the rest of the family),” says Shannan of Captivating Compass. “It’s simple and easy enough for most 7-year-olds to do practically by themselves. The key is to give the kids the list and let them create their ‘outfit piles’ according to the list.”
When the kids are done with their piles, Shannan suggests, “Before it all goes in the carry-on, it is checked by an adult.” Eventually, Shannan would put outfits into a zipper-lock bag and it’s done. “This method has worked so well for our family that we were able to pack for 3 weeks in Switzerland (in the winter) using just a carry-on and backpack,” she adds.
Shannan, who blogs about learning on location and using the world as your textbook, takes this opportunity to teach her kids life skills that will last a lifetime. “Teach them to pack when they are young for camping trips or overnight sleep-overs. Teaching kids to pack for an entire trip, regardless of length or destination in just a carry on is doable!”
Tiffany of Mommy And Me Travels shares her quick-hitting packing list for each person: 2 (maybe 3) pairs of pants, 4 shirts, 7 pairs of underwear, 1 swimsuit, 7 pairs of socks. “Some might think, no way can we pack so little. Remember most of the time you will be doing different activities so you can wear those pair of jeans more than once,” she reminds people that it’s okay to reuse certain clothes.
“Packing is definitely something that I start thinking about a week or two before each trip jotting down items on a handwritten list,” Kirsty of World for a Girl adds. “We travel a lot and the longest that we’ve spent continuously on the road with the kids is 14 weeks. I’d like to think that we’ve got our packing strategy down to a tee.”
Annette of Tips From A Typical Mom lets her kids pack but checks everything to not miss anything. “One thing I would say though is, make sure you check your kids’ bags if you let them pack themselves. You don’t want to arrive in Hawaii and have a bunch of winter clothes and no swimming suits packed! I usually make a checklist of things they need to pack so they can feel like they are independent, but I have them lay everything out on their beds and go and make sure they made good choices before they pack their bags. It’s a time-saver for us to do it this way.” Annette also shares a tricky way to pack your jewelry so it doesn’t get all tangled.
“As our children are still young, most of the packing still falls to me,” cites Kirsty of World for a Girl, a British family travel blogger currently living in sunny Malaysia. She has traveled to over 100 countries including 25 with her young children.
According to her, one item that has made their packing and re-packing easier are packing cubes. “These simple fabric/mesh zip bags come in lots of sizes. We use them to keep everyone’s clothes separate. Even the kids know exactly which cube all the socks live in,” she explains.
When asked what she likes most about using packing cubes, Kirsty responded, “Perhaps my favourite thing about using packing cubes is that we don’t need to unpack all the time. For example, right now in our closet, there are lots of packing cubes already filled.” Kirsty elaborates, “One contains the children’s travel toys (toys they don’t play with at home). Another contains travel size washing up liquid, an elastic washing line and all the other laundry items we need only when we’re on the road. Another is a travel First Aid Kit, and so on.”
She shares how much this system saves their family so much time. “I know that when we go on holiday next that all I need to do is fish out the already packed cubes and add some clean clothes. Try it, it’ll save you hours,” she suggested.
Tiffany of Mommy And Me Travels suggests color coding. “Buy different color packing cubes. I usually can get the above clothing list into one cube per person. The larger cubes are great for the adults and then as you move on to the kids you can use the small and medium ones. I love packing cubes because I quickly can locate each person’s clothes and not have to pull everything out of the bag to locate that one item that is hiding at the bottom.”
Another fan of packing cubes, Regina of Full Time Field Trip shares her reasons for loving them. “How much do I love packing cubes? Oh, let me count the ways.”
“Packing cubes come in a variety of sizes. We have little use for the large. We rarely use the mediums. But we’re crazy for all the options offered by the small and slim (long and skinny) sizes.
Regina uses the same color coding method as Tiffany of Mommy and Me Travels. “Because there are so many colors choices, you can color code in numerous ways. Color code each member of the family. Color code like items as in all kids shirts go in blue and all kid shorts go in red, etc. Or you might assign colored packing cubes to each day of your vacation ROY-G-BIV style. Everyone’s Monday clothes in red, Tuesday in orange, etc.”
You should make your clothes fit the cube. This may mean laying all items flat, folding them in unusual ways, or rolling them. Experiment with the cube size and the folding until you get it just right.
Make the packing cubes fit the luggage. Experiment with various configurations until you get the most out of it. This might mean one bag uses one medium, one small, and three size slim packing cubes. While another piece of luggage uses two smalls and four slims.
Also, packing cubes can serve as drawers whenever you go. Or you can actually unpack, then use them in reverse for dirty clothes.
Anyway you use them, packing cubes make the job of packing quick and easy.”
“We also travel as a family and when you have kids you have to take Ziplock bags with you!” suggests Melissa, lead writer for Disabled Disney. “They are great for half-eaten snacks or if your kids are prone to motion sickness can be used in a pinch for those moments. We also go to Disneyland quite a bit. If you go on the water rides having a plastic baggy can protect anything you don’t want to get wet!”
Carry On is Free Luggage
For Tiffany of Mommy And Me Travels, the question of checking a bag or not is a continual battle. “As airlines continue to add fees for everything, the largest cost is still a checked bag.” But that does not worry her at all, “You normally can get away with just a carryon for everyone.”
“The flight ticket allows one carry on each and any extra bags need to be paid for,” shares Nikki of Yorkshire Wonders, who travels frequently to Greece on a low cost airline. “We usually just pay for one bag and then each take a good sized carry on. Usually, we can check in the carry on at the travel desk for no extra cost which saves a great deal of money.”
Nikki recommends travelers to “divide the families clothes between the bags and then, if one is lost, at least, you all still have some clothes!”
Sarah of Dandelion Seeds shares her experience with lost luggage. “I’m an optimist, but with airlines having lost my checked luggage more than once (my bags went to Paris and Hawaii without me!), I try to pack light and use only carry-on bags.”
“If I do need to check a suitcase, I use it to pack things I could replace if I had to,” says Sarah.
According to Sarah, what stays with her includes “everything my family will need within our first 24 hours at our destination”:
- My child’s lovey (can’t sleep without it!)
- Our toiletry bag
- Debit or credit cards, passports (for international travel), IDs, and insurance cards
- One day’s worth of clothes if they fit in the bag, or at least new underwear and socks
- My itinerary and confirmation numbers
- Phone charger
- I also pack my packing checklist so that if I lose everything, I know exactly what I need to replace.
“In a nutshell, if it’s critical travel gear, it stays within reach,” Sarah explains. “Everything else can go in the checked bag just in case it decides to take its own adventure!”
“The best tip for packing, whether it’s for a family vacation or living in an RV full-time, is to pack light,” says Sarah, a full-time RV traveling wife and mother of three that loves adventure and sharing off-the-beaten-path travel destinations in her blog State by State. “This can be a challenge when you have kids. They just seem to need a lot of stuff. Diaper bags, toys, books, extra clothes, it all adds to the space and weight when packing.”
“When we decided to move into our RV we had to do some major downsizing. It was difficult to decide what would come with us. The decision ultimately came down to how useful an item was. If something has multiple uses it makes it that much more appealing. Consider how you will use the item you are packing, if it is absolutely necessary, bring it,” Sarah continues.
Sarah shares how it could be difficult deciding which one to bring or leave. “Often we think we will need something, then end up never using it. It is amazing what we really can live without. The less you bring with you means the less you have to keep track of and the less you have to bring back with you. Try to stick with the necessities and not over plan for every possible disaster.”
“When travelling for a long time, less is more,” Kris at Gadsventure recommends having as few bags as humanly possible. “There is nothing worse than getting off a plane with a bunch of kids, all refusing to carry their own backpacks, so Dad ends up being a pack horse while Mum headcounts the kids and the bags!”
Kris and her family recently left their home in Australia with all of their belongings packed into a couple of small suitcases for their year of travel. “With 4 kids, this was no easy feat!” She shares a detailed list of what went into their bags.
Examples of Gear for Easy and Lightweight Travel
“One of the greatest parts of traveling is minimizing,” shares Deborah of World Wise Kid. “Knowing you can survive for weeks on just the basics on your back is empowering. Packing light does involve conscious planning and investing in high-quality gear.”
- Backpack. Unless we are travel camping, we carry on our luggage. We know our personal items are safe and will arrive with us. We love Osprey packs with their synching straps, padded electronics sleeves, and thick hip belts. These packs give us maximum flexibility when finding our lodging down a cobblestone street, across a rice field or over muddy dirt roads.
- Ultra-light. All items must be as light as possible – no big jackets, no heavy shoes. Down jackets are perfect (and currently conveniently fashionable!) A lightweight waterproof shell is an insulation layer and a must for day packs. We carry thin sarongs instead of bulky towels.
- Educational tools. It’s hard to leave the paper travel guides and books behind but for minimalist travel, we have converted to ebooks on the Kindle and tablets. A library subscription gives us access to print resources. We use downloadable audio guides to destinations, and supplement studies with podcasts and YouTube videos. Each of the kids carry only an academics notebook and a journal/sketchpad for studies.
“Traveling light means it’s fast and easy to pack up and go to a new destination,” Deborah adds. “It’s easy to find what you need quickly. We off-load clothes, pamphlets and maps as we travel. We take lots of photoa s and few souvenirs.”
You can wash clothes
You also have to consider that there are available laundry facilities.
“When we are choosing lodging, we make sure that they have a laundry facility available to its guests,” explains Annette of Tips From A Typical Mom. “That way we can pack a few outfits and do our wash on a night while the kids are swimming in the pool.” Annette further shares that this allows their family to pack one carry on per person. “This way we avoid any fees that are associated with airline baggage. It’s also very nice if we are driving because our luggage takes up so little space and leaves extra room for all 7 of us.”
“If they do get dirty, just wash them in the sink or the bathtub. You can easily hand wash the clothes and hang them to dry. Viola, clean clothes,” remarks Tiffany of Mommy And Me Travels.
Knowing that you can recycle clothes by washing them, helps with offloading the amount of apparel you have to bring.
Shipping Items to Your Destination
“Even as a seasoned traveler, I’m still guilty of overpacking,” admits Shannon of Grab My Passport.
“We love packing cubes and zip-tight storage bags to keep things organized, but one of my latest discoveries is grocery delivery services,” she continues to share.
On their recent week-long trip to Orlando, a first trip with their newborn, she discovered Instacart. “It was the greatest! I packed enough snacks and baby formula to get us through two days. Then, our first night in the hotel we signed up for Instacart’s free trial and placed our first order. We bought snacks, milk, bananas, yogurt, and baby formula. It arrived at our hotel lobby so quickly and everything was fresh! There are a lot of these types of services in the US, so check out what’s available in your travel area before you head out to help save some room in your suitcase.”
Car Seats, Strollers and Medical Devices are checked for free
“Another quick tip we learned on our Orlando trip was all about taking advantage of checked car seats,” according to Shannon of Grab My Passport. “Most airlines let you check a car seat for free, but they don’t specify that if you place your car seat in a protective carrier, that you can only put a car seat in it. We were able to toss a week’s worth of diapers in there with plenty of room to spare! Just tuck the diapers (or whatever) in the seat, buckle them in so they don’t get tossed around, and voilà, more space saved in your suitcase!”
Medical devices, no matter how bulky they are, are also exempt per law. There is a disability hotline that you can contact with your preferred airline to help you bring what you need to clear the airport checkpoints. You can read about our preparations when we had to bring our dialysis machine to Walt Disney World.
Pack a Medical Kit
Aside from our set of clothes and toiletries, our luggage always has a medicine kit for the most common health issues you can encounter while traveling. One issue that I don’t want to deal with is figuring out where the pharmacy is in an unfamiliar place. Not to mention, if they even carry the medicine that I am used to. It even gets more complicated when you are traveling abroad, where the medicine might be prohibited or carried in a different formulation.
Set aside at least one packing cube for this. Make sure that if you are bringing a prescription-strength medication to bring a copy of the prescription with you. This is necessary during inspections in airport checkpoints, for example.
As a family who travels with an elderly with several health issues, we also make sure to bring a medical history packet with us. This packet includes her medical and surgical history, list of medications with dosages and frequencies, and a contact list for her medical team. That way, if something should happen while you’re on a vacation, the new healthcare team will have more time to address the health issue than doing guesswork.
You might want to read our guide to the must-have items if you are traveling with dialysis.
“As a person with a lot of medical problems and disabled, my packing is a little different then a normal healthy person” says Melissa of Disabled Disney. “I have to make sure I have my medications and in an adequate amount for my trip and whatever equipment I need.”
Melissa also recommends putting the medications in the carry-on. “Make sure your medications are in your carry on because if your luggage could get lost or held up you may not have your medications when you need them.”
Melissa shares other medical gear that she brings with her. “I travel with a shower stool and a wheelchair. I also bought a foldable cane for travel so if I don’t have a lot of room to store it, it folds up!”