Packing Hacks for Families: 5 Family Travel Pro Packing Tips

If your family is far-flung (as ours is), the upcoming holiday season means at least one trip away from home with your kiddo(s) in tow. But are you ready? Do you know how to pack like a pro?

If you’ve never done an extended trip by car or plane with your offspring, the thought of packing may be daunting. It sure was for me in my first year of parenthood.

I remember those early trips well: Even a weekend away felt (and looked) as if we were going for a month. Every road trip with Kimmie had the back of my Subaru Outback packed to the gills, between clothing and gear. And the first time we flew with both the girls, for a week-long extended-family reunion in Puerto Rico, I filled an extra-large suitcase to overflowing when we returned, of stuff I’d packed that we’d never even used.

I photographed it to remind myself that this was NOT a mistake I wanted to repeat!

Just think of how much luggage-schlepping (not to mention baggage fees!) we could have saved if I'd left all this stuff at home in the first place!
Just think of how much luggage-schlepping (not to mention baggage fees!) we could have saved if I’d left all this stuff at home in the first place!

Then there’s the sheer amount of time and effort needed to amass all that stuff, squeeze it all into bags, get it into the car or onto the plane, unpack it on your arrival, and then repack it all for the return trip home and put it all away once you get back.

Who has time for that???

With dozens more trips under our belt now, I’ve picked up some expert tips that have made packing for family getaways MUCH faster, easier, and more efficient. So if you’re trying to wrap your brain around your first big trip as a family – or your first big trip since COVID – these shortcuts will help you pack like a pro for your next family trip.

(Originally published Nov. 19, 2014; last updated March 2022.)

1. Keep a Go-To Stash Ready

There are some things you probably only use while away from home, like a complete duplicate set of toiletries for each family member, an emergency stash of common household medications, or your child’s favorite road-trip toy and air-travel carry-on.

Rather than having to search the house to locate all these things each time, or reassembling each journey’s toiletry kit from scratch, store these things together, in a designated place, between trips. Then you won’t need to hunt for them before each trip!

My kiddos have two travel toiletry kits: one for standard toiletries (toothbrushes, soaps, shampoos, etc.), and one for meds (ibuprofen, Essie's prescription eczema creams and diaper-rash creams, etc.).
My kiddos have two travel toiletry kits: one for standard toiletries (toothbrushes, soaps, shampoos, etc.), and one for meds (ibuprofen, Essie’s prescription eczema creams and diaper-rash creams, etc.).

Since Kimmie’s closet is huge, I have a plastic storage bin in her closet to store our travel things together. I keep packed toiletry kits, and their travel neck pillows there, along with a small bag of their travel first-aid items (travel acetaminophen drops, digital thermometer/probe covers, diphenhydramine, medicine cup/syringes, and sample-sized tubes of Essie’s prescription eczema and diaper-rash creams). Plus travel laundry bags and travel-sized stain removers.

Instead of having to pull all these things together for every trip, I just get the storage bin out. It’s SO much easier and faster to do a quick check of an already-stocked toiletry kit, than it is to start from scratch every single time – and risk forgetting at least half a dozen things in the process.

2. Use Packing Cubes

I used to use clear plastic bags (the kind that sheet sets and blankets come in) to contain clothes and gear inside luggage.

These clear bags were great at keeping clothes sorted and separated, so it’s easy to find the kids’ PJs when we reach our destination hours after bedtime. And containing your stuff means there’s less for TSA agents to mess up if you’re flying. Those clear bags also had the added benefit of making it easy to see what was in each bag.

That’s why I used to think I had this part of the packing system down, and initially thought all the travel experts who said packing cubes are a must were crazy.

Holy cow, was I wrong.

The biggest way packing cubes have revolutionized my packing is by challenging me to limit how much clothing I pack. (Find out ahead of time if your destination has easy access to laundry; then plan to use it. We’re not talking every day, like at home; but if the laundry is just down the hall, once or twice during a week-long trip will save you tons of space in your luggage. Or you can also DIY, which is easier than you’d think.)

Despite the recent arrival of frigid winter temps, I still managed to pack enough warm layers for a five-day trip to my mom's in three packing cubes: a large one for me, and medium ones for each of the girls. To save space, we're wearing the bulkiest item when we travel.
Five-day cold-weather trip, three packing cubes: a medium one for each girl plus a large one for me. (Wearing the bulkiest layers in transit helps.)

Instead of multiple clear bags for each family member, I now pack a single cube for myself, and one for each of the girls.

If I have a hard time zipping someone’s cube shut, I have two choices: use a bigger cube, or take out some of the stuff.

If you want to see them before you buy, take a trip to your local REI or AAA Travel Store, which often stock a limited selection of Eagle Creek packing cubes and Pack-It Travel System gear. But when it’s time to buy, I prefer the eBags brand. They’re sturdier than cheaper brands, cheaper than comparable brands like Eagle Creek, have more colors (consider a different color for each family member) and come in money-saving value packs. I originally tried a value pack of one each S/M/L, and have since bought additional value packs (three skinny half-cubes, three regular half-cubes, etc.), each in different colors. The smaller sizes are also good for organizing carry-on bags, containing cables and chargers, stashing toiletries, etc.

3. “Theme” Everyone’s Clothes

Besides packing cubes, another trick I use to limit how much we pack is to maximize coordinating outfit opportunities. Once I decide how many tops and bottoms my older daughter needs, for example, I try to pick items that are all in the same color family, so that every top coordinates with every bottom.

For my next trip with the girls, Kimmie will be wearing navy and brown, and Essie will be in hot pink and purple. The extra set of PJs I packed for each of them (something we still need to do in case of midnight accidents or upset tummies) will double as long underwear for outside play in below-freezing temps.
For my next trip with the girls, Kimmie will be wearing navy and brown, and Essie will be in hot pink and purple. The extra set of PJs I packed for each of them (something we still need to do in case of midnight accidents or upset tummies) will double as long underwear for outside play in below-freezing temps.
  • For Kimmie, this often means a lot of dark blues (her favorite color) and dark pinks (the only shade of pink that looks good on her).
  • For Essie, last summer’s trips featured a lot of lavender-purples and mint-greens, since she had several shirts and shorts that included one or both of these colors.
  • For my own wardrobe on our last trip, which encompassed ten days in two countries and ranged from a professional conference to visiting both my in-laws and my childhood best friend, I packed variations on black and tan with mulberry accents.

Once you’ve figured out a possible color palette for each individual, lay out the clothes on a flat surface and double-check that every piece goes with every other piece; then see if it will all fit into the packing cube you’ve designated for that person. If not, edit.

These two steps will make it easier to leave behind your favorite shirt that really only goes with about half the bottoms you want to bring, or realize that you can skip the cute toddler dress for dinner out because you’ve already put a skort and nice top in your kiddo’s pile.

After you've figured out which clothes to bring, don't forget to remove one outfit per person from your packing pile; these are the clothes you'll wear when you travel. If you can pick the bulkiest items, you'll save even more room in your luggage.
After you’ve decided which clothes to bring, don’t forget to remove one outfit per person from your packing pile; these are the clothes you’ll wear when you travel. If you can pick the bulkiest items, you’ll save even more room in your luggage.

This “theming” can go beyond packing for one trip. We love tent-camping, and have amassed a basic supply of insect-repelling, SPF50 clothing. Because my hubby and I wear similar sizes, and much of our gear is unisex, his items are primarily blue and mine are mostly green; this makes it easier to tell what belongs to whom. Likewise, Kimmie’s camping gear is mostly blue-green, and Essie’s is pink/red, so they each know which sleeping bag and mess kit is theirs.

4. Make Your Luggage Work For You

When it comes to luggage, form definitely follows function. When figuring out what I’m going to pack in, I start by thinking about what we’re doing and where we’re going on a trip. Luggage that transitions seamlessly from one part of your trip to the next is key, even if that’s not how we’d do things at home.

For example: Is an open-top overstuffed everyday diaper bag REALLY the best choice to fly with? I found a sturdy, roomy, closed-top diaper-bag substitute worked much better. (I like Samsonite’s boarding bags for this purpose.)

Or are you looking to minimize how many trips you have to make from the car to the house after a long road trip? Consider a large, open-top, sturdy canvas tote bag. I’ve tried several varieties from different manufacturers; they’re easy to fill with last-minute items and squeeze just about anywhere into your car, and they collapse flat when not needed.

There's nothing like a large open-top canvas tote bag for holding all those last-minute items (or items you'll be leaving at your destination, like holiday gifts) when you're taking a road trip.
There’s nothing like a large open-top canvas tote bag for holding all those last-minute items (or items you’ll be leaving at your destination, like holiday gifts) when you’re taking a road trip.

Since “diaper bags” don’t count against one’s carry-on allowance when flying, think outside the box when packing your “diaper bag” for a flight. Our Samsonite under-seat bag always held not only diapers plus a spare change of clothes for each kid (precaution against accidents, upset tummies, and missing luggage), but also enough snacks and toys to get us through our entire travel day, and then some.

I’ve fed kids entire meals more than once from the contents of this “diaper bag,” because there was no time between flights to stop and buy food, or because flight delays got us to our final destination too late to go out to eat. I’ve also dressed kids in PJs and tucked them in for “bed” from this bag, when a missed connection meant bedtime came hours before our travel for the day was done.

I was never a mama to use a backpack-style diaper bag day to day, but you better believe that’s what I used for sightseeing in another state or country! A sturdy hiking-quality day pack is automatically my personal carry-on for plane trips because it’s hands-free, can hold a ton without breaking my back, and makes a perfect diaper bag/purse combo for long days of sightseeing, whether we’re in a city or out camping.

5. Pack strategically

Finally, think about your itinerary while you’re packing. If you’re going to need one set of fancy clothes for a special event (e.g., a wedding), set those aside in a separate packing cube or folder. That will keep them neat, clean, and out of the way during the rest of your trip.

Here are a few other ways I make our luggage work more efficiently for us:

  • If we’re flying, or going someplace where we’ll all be in the same room, I try to pack one large bag with everyone’s gear as our checked bag (instead of individual bags for me/my husband/the girls). If it’s a road trip and my girls are sleeping somewhere other than my room, they get a bag and I get one.
  • For car trips where we’ll need specialized gear (beach, swimming, hiking, etc.) for only a few days, I’ll put all that gear in its own small bag that stays separate from our other luggage and out of the way.
  • If we know we’ll be arriving at our destination late, or there’s any chance we might (e.g., airport delays), I put a separate packing cube in the girls’ “diaper bag” with PJs, a stuffed animal and muslin blanket each, toothbrushes/paste, etc. This makes it easier to get them ready for bed at the usual time, and helps transition them to sleeping either on our last flight or when we arrive.

So there you have it! – five ideas to help streamline the packing process for your next family getaway! Thanks to these hacks, what used to take me days and weeks is now down to a matter of hours.

Now that you have some “pack like a pro” tips on how to make packing easier when traveling with kids, stay tuned for the next post on what to pack, for some of the things I’ve found that simplify our time away from home on family vacations.

P.S.  If you missed it, you might also want to check out my earlier post with basic travel tips (especially, but not only, for road tripping), for those of you who are still new to traveling with kids.

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9 thoughts on “Packing Hacks for Families: 5 Family Travel Pro Packing Tips”

  1. Greetings from Colorado! I’m bored to death at work so I decided to check out your site on my lunch break. I really like the information you provide here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home … great site!

    1. So glad you liked it, Ima! Traveling is one of the hardest things to do with kids, I think, til you get the hang of it – hope these ideas prove helpful for you!

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