Pack Like A Pro: Four Tips to Make Packing Easier When Traveling With Kids

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.

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!

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 station wagon 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!)

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.

Fortunately, like any skill, I’ve found that repeated practice has made this job simpler (though getting both my girls past the one-year-old mark also helped a lot!). Here are some of the shortcuts I’ve discovered over time that will help you pack like a pro for your next family trip:

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, keep these things at the ready by storing them together.

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 (one for me, one for the girls), 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. As I’ve learned the hard way, it’s much easier and faster to do a quick check of an already-stocked toiletry kit, to make sure nothing needs refilling and to take out any items (like that teething gel or diaper cream) that your growing kiddos no longer need, than it is to start from scratch each 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, but large zip-top bags or space-saving compression travel bags are also an option) to contain clothes and gear inside luggage. These 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. Also, in this day of extra airline security, containing your stuff when you pack 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. Hence I thought I had this part of the packing system down, and initially pooh-pooh’d all the packing gurus who raved about the indispensability of those nylon boxes called packing cubes.

Despite the recent arrival of frigid winter temps, I still managed to pack enough warm layers for a five-day visit to my mother 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.

Holy cow, was I wrong. The biggest way packing cubes have revolutionized my packing is that they’ve challenged me to limit how much clothing I pack. (Find out ahead of time if your destination, whether a hotel or a relative’s home or friend’s apartment, 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.) 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, Eastern Mountain Sports, or AAA Travel Store, all of 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 favor 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 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

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.

Besides packing cubes, another way I try to limit the amount of clothing I pack for each family member 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 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.
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.

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 nicer top in your kiddo’s pile.

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 much easier to tell at a glance 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. The nature of your trip will help to determine what you need. Do you need a sturdy, roomy, closed-top diaper-bag substitute for a plane trip? (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 car journey? Consider a large, open-top, sturdy canvas tote bag. I’ve tried several varieties from different manufacturers; they’re easy to stuff 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.

I find it’s helpful to think through the different situations we’ll find ourselves in over the course of a trip, and then try to choose luggage that will transition from one part of the trip to the next – even if it means doing things differently than we would at home. For example, if we’re going someplace where we’ll all be in the same room (or if we’re flying, in these days of checked-baggage fees), I use a single larger bag whenever possible; if the girls will be in one bedroom while I’m in another, I’ll pack in two smaller bags instead. If we’re going someplace by car where we’ll need a special set of gear for only a few days, such as for swimming or hiking or the beach, I’ll put all that gear together in its own small bag, so it’s not cluttering up our luggage the rest of the trip. If I know we’ll be arriving late, I’ll put a separate packing cube or small tote bag together with the stuff the girls will need for bedtime – PJs, stuffed animals and blankets, toothbrushes and toothpaste – so it’s easier to get them off to dreamland ASAP.

Likewise, since “diaper bags” don’t count against one’s carry-on allowance when flying, it’s worth rethinking your usual diaper bag for a plane trip. Ours has always contained not just the diapers, plus a spare change of clothes for each kid (anyone who’s ever had their luggage go missing for a day or two knows what I’m talking about here), but also enough snacks and toys to get us through our entire day-as-planned, 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.

Similarly, though I don’t tote a backpack as my everyday diaper bag or purse, a sturdy hiking-quality day pack is automatically my carry-on for plane trips because it’s hands-free, can hold a ton without breaking my back, and makes a super choice for daylong sightseeing excursions away from home, whether in the woods or in a city. My current favorite is a Swiss Gear one very similar to this one, in part because I love the lime green color.

So there you have it! – four ideas to help streamline the process of packing for a trip when you’re traveling with kids. What used to take me days and weeks is now down to a matter of hours, thanks to these shortcuts I’ve found along the way. 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 “Pack Like A Pro: Four Tips to Make Packing Easier When Traveling With Kids”

  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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