As a very detailed planner who is responsible for ensuring 5 people have everything they need while traveling, packing used to be incredibly stressful. It felt like mental gymnastics trying to anticipate every possible scenario in an unknown setting with 5 different personalities.
I can neither confirm nor deny that my husband has come home from work to find me in tears surrounded by luggage on the eve of a trip.
But I have learned a lot over the years of adventures and now have a system that makes packing for travel easy. And because I’m not the Grinch (“cure world hunger, tell no one”), I’m going to share what works really well for us with you.
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1. Keep a fixed packing list.
Every time we were preparing for another trip, it felt like I was reinventing the wheel. I was trying to think of all the needs of each family member—over and over again. The basic needs were the same every time so why was I starting from scratch for every trip? Now I keep a Note on my iPhone that lists the general needs.
While the specifics will change depending upon a few variables (more on this to come), these are the general spots that usually need to be filled. We never pack more than a week’s worth of clothing, no matter how long the trip (which is consistent with our minimalist one-week wardrobes). Any longer than a week and we make arrangements to do laundry.
- Sweatshirt (1)
- Swimsuit (1)
- Pajamas (1)
- Shoes (1, worn on the plane)
- Socks (whenever possible, we wear Keens, rendering socks unnecessary)
- Hat (1)
The toiletry bag is always fully packed in our Eagle Creek Sac and ready to go as we have a travel set of everything listed here. Before this move, we had to wait until the morning of the trip to add the essential toiletries that we were still using, which was a recipe for stress and forgotten essentials. While I would like to eventually shift all of this to zero waste options, it was very inexpensive to stock.
- Face Soap
- Body Soap
- Hair Brush
- Hair Elastics
These are the things I add to my bag when we have special occasion plans on the trip like a wedding.
- Bobby Pins
- Flat Iron
- Curling Iron
- Make Up
The medical needs/first aid supplies are stored in another Eagle Creek Sac that we keep in the car but toss in the backpack for nature adventures and put in our luggage for travel.
- Ibuprofen (junior chewable for kids and adults)
- Pepto Bismal (children’s chewable and adult’s chewable)/Imodium
- Claritin (reditabs for adults and children)
- Band Aids
- Nail Clippers
- Throat/Cough Drops
- Menstrual Pad
- Epi Pen
- Ace Bandage
Of course, each person doesn’t have all of these things every time (I don’t carry toys and my kids don’t carry a laptop), but again, this is the general list—the things I ask myself if we need on each trip.
- iPad (each child has their own iPad with a durable case in their color, loaded with entertainment, educational apps, ebooks, and a camera for taking photos and videos)
- Kindle (that’s mine)
- Laptop (my husband and I would bring a laptop if it was a working trip for either of us)
- Ear Buds (each kid has a pair of ear buds in their color)
- Chargers (each person brings the chargers for their devices)
- Snacks (each child chooses, carries, and regulates their own snacks while traveling, fostering that brain-body connection, independence, and responsibility)
- Stuffed Guy (Panda for West and Peter Pan for Bay)
- Toy (usually Legos for West and Bay)
- Wallet (containing a small amount of their cash they can spend as they choose, fostering money management skills)
2. Give each person 1 carry-on suitcase and 1 backpack.
We began our traveling journey with the strategy of 1 or 2 large bags for the family as a whole. Less to manage, we thought.
This sucked. And I’ll tell you why.
- It meant that I had to be an anxious, perfectionist packer and do all of the packing myself.
- I was the only one who could take things out or put things in as it had to be meticulously organized. The 8 year old’s muddy jeans couldn’t be shoved on the 4 year old’s clean pajamas.
- The bag often exceeded the weight limit at the airport check in counter. Picture me grabbing handfuls of perfectly stored and sorted items and shoving them in other random places. If I didn’t have such a great sense of humor, this alone might trigger a nervous breakdown.
- Many airlines have a checked baggage fee. Not fun.
- It fostered zero personal independence and accountability, which meant a real missed learning opportunity for our children.
- You must use baggage claim and all that is involved in that, including possible lost luggage and frequent long waits.
The new strategy: everyone gets their own luggage.
You get a suitcase! And you get suitcase! And you get a suitcase! Suitcases for everyoooooooooone! (Oprah joke)
This is awesome. And I’ll tell you why.
- Each person is responsible for packing their own bag. I am available for guidance and of course the younger the child, the more hands on my involvement. But they really enjoy finding their way (packing list or laying out items, checking weather and considering destination specific needs) and rising to the occasion. It’s also self-limiting. The suitcase is this size (and we all have the same size). You can bring what fits in it (and if you want room for a souvenir, allow for that).
- Everyone manages their own bag throughout the trip. If you put your wet swimsuit on your dry clothes, you’re wearing damp clothes the next day. Through natural consequences, they learn important skills around being conscious over impulsive. In other words, each person is responsible for their own space and belongings.
- It’s a carry on, bitches! We get to skip the whole baggage claim obstacle altogether, we pay no additional fees, and we don’t have to worry about lost luggage.
- They are lightweight and easily maneuverable so each person can push their own luggage.
My youngest, at 4, was the most excited of everyone to push his own bag (and was perfectly capable of doing so). 3 or younger and you will need to include their belongings in your luggage. Now 7, his favorite part of traveling might still be riding his luggage down the airport corridors (he leans on his belly and pushes with his feet).
After exhaustive research, we found the perfect luggage for our use: the Swiss Gear Hardside Carry On 20″ Suitcase. The best part? We found it at Costco for $39 (this was a few years ago). The exterior is a great lightweight yet durable material and the wheels are bomb diggity with ridiculously easy maneuverability. The interior space is split down the middle with a strap on one side and a zippered net down the other. This setup keeps things very organized. It even has the ability to expand, which gives you a good deal more space if needed.
Having 5 identical suitcases really helps us visually track our luggage (and our people) and an individual luggage tag in a personalized color on the handle has been imperative, as it makes it easily identifiable to ourselves and others (god forbid a child pushes their sibling’s suitcase).
In addition to the suitcase, each person has a backpack. The backpack is important because while on the move, we require free hands (meaning you can’t be carrying anything in your hands). This helps to ensure that all of our belongs are safe and stowed (nothing is left behind), we are free to interact with fun in the environment, and most importantly, hands are available for safety (holding rails and hands).
3. Create a specific packing list.
The fixed packing list is a super helpful starting point but of course, each trip is going to have some different requirements. Winter in Alaska is going to require a different set of clothing than summer in Hawaii. So for each trip, I consider the climate, activities, and duration to create one packing list that every person will use to pack their bag.
This is the list I created for a recent trip to Austin, which got passed from person to person. They lay out their outfits (notice, they have the freedom to meet each need in whatever way they choose), place them in their bags, and after including everything on the list, the remaining space is theirs to use as they please (subject to TSA limitations, of course). When they’re ready, they ask me to come check it, which looks like me reading the list aloud one item at a time, while they respond “check!”
- 7 undies
- 7 socks
- 7 shirts
- 5 pants
- 2 shorts
- 1 pajama
- 1 swimsuit
- Ear Buds
- Stuffed Guy
Hey, it’s almost trip time! So I open my fixed packing list, consider climate, activities, and duration to create a specific packing list that I pass around, add the toiletry bag and med bag, and voila—packed!