Here’s How to Pack for Your Next Family Trip

PHOTO: Shutterstock/Nattakorn_Maneerat

Cross one more thing off of your worry list.

There are two types of packers in the world of travel: those that make a list, check it twice, and carefully arrange the prepared items in the suitcase; and those that tend to fling whatever they think they need into their bag, sit on top of it to make everything fit, and hope they didn’t forget anything.

Unfortunately, when you’re traveling with children, this fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants (literally) approach is not recommended. Not only do children need more clothes and gear than adults, but as you may know, they are unpredictable. So, when you’re far away from the comfort of your home, you’ll want to be prepared for whatever baggage-related mini-crisis comes up. Odds are there will be at least one.

When you’re far away from the comfort of your home, you’ll want to be prepared for whatever baggage-related mini-crisis comes up. Odds are there will be at least one.

However, this doesn’t mean you should pack everything. There are lots of cutesy printable packing lists found on the web that will tell you what to bring for children of different ages, but those can be overwhelmingly long and include everything but the kitchen sink. Don’t do it. Pack only what you need and maybe a couple of “worst-case scenario” items.

To get started, take a moment to write out (or type into the Notes app on your phone) what you are going to be doing each day and what items the kids will realistically need. For instance, if “Day One” is just going to the museum, they only need one outfit. If “Day Two” is hiking and swimming followed by a beach bonfire, that’s going to require at least two changes of clothes and possibly a sweatshirt.

Prepping a list that corresponds to what you will be doing each day during your trip also saves you much stress before, during, and even after your trip, leaving you to (gasp!) actually enjoy your family vacation.

If you’re wondering whether you’ve packed too much or too little, we have a few helpful suggestions.

Clothes

I have three children—two daughters, 8 and 6, and a 20-month-old son. For the girls, I tend to pack one outfit per day (including swimsuits), plus extra underwear, two sets of pajamas, two pairs of shoes, and maybe one nice set of clothes if we are doing a “fancy” night out (“Fancy” is subjective when you have three kids.). If we’re staying in an Airbnb or a house where there is a washer and dryer, we pack a little less. For my son, he’s still in that messy stage so I add in a couple extra outfits and a pair of shoes, along with diapers and wipes.

The kids usually wear their sweatshirts or jackets on the plane or in the car which saves some room in the suitcase. For what it’s worth, I pack all three kids in one big suitcase and yes, I check it on the plane (#worthit).

INSIDER TIPOne way to keep your suitcases organized is to use packing cubes. Jordan Moore, a professional organizer and founder of The Happy Space company, said these structured storage bags can fit more clothing than you’d think and are helpful when packing for multiple people.

Gear

This is where you really must tap into your inner minimalist. It is so tempting to bring all the gear you can think of that will keep your kids happy. Please don’t. Aside from giving you more bags to lug around or check on the airplane, you’ll also be giving yourself more stuff to stress about. Bring only what you need.

For my situation, the larger gear I have to bring are a booster seat, a car seat and a stroller, all of which I can check onto the plane, free of cost. I recommend checking them in a travel bag of your own as airlines are notorious for breaking stuff. If you need a stroller in the airport, Matt Villano, a travel reporter and father of three, recommends the Quinny Zapp which folds up small and fits into a shoulder bag. Additionally, I need to pack bottles for the baby and refillable water bottles for the girls and with those, I include my nifty travel bottle-cleaning kit and a travel-sized bottle of dish soap.

INSIDER TIPAll other gear can be rented or borrowed during your trip. This requires some advance planning but, again, it’s worth it. I used a service called BabyQuip when we went to Maui last year. The company delivered a pack n’ play, a little swing-chair, diapers, wipes, and lots of little toys to our house rental. There was a daily fee for each item ranging from $5 to $20. If you’re staying in a hotel, call in advance to make sure they have a crib or pack n’ play. I also suggest you bring your own crib sheets.

Entertainment

For long car rides or flights, packing entertainment for the kids is crucial. Luckily, we live in an age where you can store a ton of games and books on tablets. Villano has a kindle for each kid and loads them up with lots of books. He also recommends some old-school entertainment, such as construction paper and tape to craft novelties like paper chains.

“We always bring Rory’s Story Cubes as fodder for storytelling games,” Villano says. “Each of the nine dice has different pictures on the faces. You roll the dice and then you tell a story that incorporates all nine images.”

Another good investment is quality headphones. Not only will the kids use them for their tablets, but odds are they will be compatible with seatback in-flight entertainment.

Even if you restrict tablet usage, we’d still recommend bringing them on longer trips. So, load ‘em up and, of course, don’t forget to charge them.

INSIDER TIPStock up on your offline activities and games before your trip. Airports do sell little books and coloring sets for kids but at a marked-up airport price.

Toiletries

This is an area of packing where children travel lighter than adults, especially me since sometimes I pack both a flat iron and curling iron (not to mention an embarrassing amount of skin products). Children, however, only need a few essentials, such as toothbrush and toothpaste, body wash, and sunscreen. Babies may require some other toiletries like diaper rash cream, and everyone can benefit from a travel-sized tube of Aquaphor. I also pack a little first aid kit with a thermometer, Motrin, Benadryl, hydrocortisone, and Band-Aids.

INSIDER TIPThe only thing worse than getting sick on vacation is having a sick child on vacation. To stay healthy while traveling, make sure your kids are washing their hands with soap and water before they eat and after they’ve hit the playground or public park. If you can’t get soap and water, Dr. Noel Salyer of Pacific Ocean Pediatrics in Santa Monica, California,  recommends using a baby wipe on the hands, followed by hand sanitizer. A mom of three, Salyer also recommends wiping down the seat tray on the airplane before setting up the toys or snacks.