6 Packing Tips for Better Family Vacations

Pack like a pro and stay organized on the go.
couple packing for the family with clothing in a teal suitcase
(Photo: Envato)

Here’s the truth: Packing for a vacation with kids can be stressful. If you’re a parent or caregiver, you’re probably familiar with some version of this scenario: Parent, excited for long-anticipated beach vacation, lugs out suitcases to start packing. Things go well, until parent cannot find goggles. Goggles are found in a random drawer 30 minutes later. The next day, parent goes back to packing only to find one kid’s flip flops are too small, so parent must make time to buy new flip flops. It’s times like this you realize you need packing tips for family vacations that factor in strategies for preparing to pack, not just the packing itself.

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6 Packing Tips for Family Vacations

For families, the chaos of packing can get in the way of the excitement of travel with kids. Packing and unpacking is stressful, but it doesn’t have to be. These six steps to stress-free packing will help you pack and stay organized throughout your family travels.

1. Prepare to pack before you actually start packing.

Investing your time in a few pre-packing chores will make packing faster and less stressful.  

Two Weeks in Advance

Two weeks before the trip, create a packing list. This gets you thinking about what you’ll need and gives you a chance to take inventory of what you have and what you need to buy:

  • Create your own packing list or find a ready-made one online: Print a hardcopy so you can check things off as they are packed so you don’t have to rely on your memory. I highly recommend saving the list after you’re done. After each trip, you can revise the packing list, honing it to your family’s needs. After several trips, the list will be totally customized to your family. Make sure to check the weather forecast as you’re creating your packing list so you have the right clothing and gear for the climate.
  • Find and buy things you need: Packing turns stressful when you have to rush to find and buy last-minute items. Review the packing list and locate all the items you think you have, but are not sure where they are (like goggles for a beach vacation). Don’t forget to try on all clothes and shoes that children might have outgrown since they were last worn.   

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A Few Days Pre-Trip

A few days before the trip, get your laundry done, download movies, and charge electronics:

  • Make sure to have clean clothes: Have your laundry done a day or so before packing.  Avoid the frustration of realizing things are in the hamper. This will save you time, stress and reduce the chances of forgetting something.  
  • Prepare the screens: Don’t be stuck at the airport with nothing to do. Download movies onto your electronic devices and start charging extra battery packs. It’s always good to start your trip fully charged and with lots of downloads. 

2. Use packing cubes to help stay organized. 

Some experts suggest using lots of packing cubes, and using each cube for a specific category, such as tops or undergarments, to help you find what you need efficiently. While this is true, I find this method inefficient since it means I have to open multiple cubes just to get dressed in the morning.  Other experts suggest adults get two cubes and children get one cube. In this case, fewer cubes need to be opened, but with one large cube things often get disorganized quickly. Instead, I prefer to pack with unpacking in mind and stay organized throughout the trip.

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  • Pack cubes by function, not category: I give each family member two cubes. One for what they need in the morning and one for the evening. With this method, clothes and socks go in the same cube so you’re only opening one cube in the morning. If that sounds too chaotic, you can go the extra step and use a smaller cube within the morning cube to corral socks and such. The second cube is for night stuff: pajamas, underwear (we are night shower people), a small stuffed animal, and a reading light. When we get to our hotel or vacation rental, each family member gets a drawer and puts their cubes into the drawer. 

Pro-tip:  My kids have been packing their own clothes for trips since they were young. The kids roll their clothes by outfit (tops and bottoms are rolled together) and put it in their cube. In the morning, they just need to open one cube, pull an outfit and sock, and close the cube. It’s easy and will not get disorganized.

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  • Pack speciality items as a family: Let’s say you’re headed out on a beach vacation. If you’re sticking with the two-cube model, where do you put the swimsuits? Most people will put swimsuits in a packing cube, sunscreen in a toiletry bag, and other swim stuff somewhere else. But when it’s time to go to the beach, you have beach stuff everywhere. Instead, what I like to do is to put all swim gear—swimsuits, sunscreen (in a zip-top bag), goggles, towels, and whatever else you need—in one cube. When you unpack, designate an area for that cube. And when it’s time to hit the beach, everything you need is already together. At the end of the day you can put everything back in the cube so the next time you go to the beach you’re ready. This system also works for things like winter accessories and other specialty activities.  

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True Story: We spent a week in Barcelona in April. The days were nice but the morning and evenings were chilly. I put all our hats and scarfs in a medium packing cube and left the cube on a bench in the entryway. When we left in the morning, we wasted no time looking for hats because everything was already in the packing cube. I popped the mostly empty cube in my bag when we left each morning. As the day warmed up, I put hats and scarfs back in the packing cube, which kept my day bag organized as well.

3. Use shower caps to pack shoes. 

There are lots of ways to pack dirty shoes, but in my opinion, the best way is to use disposable shower caps. They are cheap and allow you to squeeze a pair of shoes into really small spaces. 

Tip:  Packing and unpacking shoes is a great job for little kids. Usually, my kids are underfoot as I try to unpack and pack. I put one kid in charge of going through all the suitcase and taking out the shoes and lining them up in the entryway, or with packing all the shoes up at the end of the trip.

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4. Deconstruct the toiletry bag.

Toiletry bags are bulky. One toiletry bag for each family member takes a lot of space in both your suitcases and in the bathroom. Instead of one per person, think of a toiletry bag as a packing cube.  Kids, or the entire family, can share one toiletry bag for all bathroom necessities. Pack other non-essential things like medicine separately in a ziplock bag and makeup in a makeup bag. Keep all these non-essentials in a small packing cube near the bathroom.

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If the bathroom lacks counter space (and usually it does), you can bring the non-essentials with you when you need it and save the counter top for essentials. 

5. Pack suitcases with each family member in mind. 

When packing a suitcase (especially if you’re trying to stick to carry-on only), try this: Recruit each family member to pack their stuff plus carry some communal stuff as well. Generally speaking, kids get the lighter-weight communal stuff while adults get the heavier items. For example, I carry the toiletries in my suitcase while my youngest gets the cube of winter accessories or shoes. This not only helps maximize packing space but prevents overpacking, since if my kids don’t fill their suitcases, they end up packing random stuff to fill the extra space.

6. More tips to make packing for the family easier.

  • Pack an extra pillow case as a laundry hamper. It stays in the bathroom and catches all dirty clothes. If you are tight on space, pack a compression bag for laundry—dirty clothes take up more space since they’re not carefully folded like clean clothes.
  • Have an earlier riser? Bring a reading light so he/she can read quietly instead of waking up the entire family in the morning.
  • Pack an extra duffle for the trip back. Even if you don’t buy souvenirs, packing dirty clothes takes up more space. It’s nice to have another bag handy and a thin, collapsible duffel bag doesn’t take up much space.
  • Pack a day’s worth of medicine as a small first aid kit. Unless you are traveling somewhere remote, having a day supply of essential medicines is enough. I like to pack fever reducer/pain medication, allergy pills/cream, Pepto Bismol (chewable so you don’t have to worry about liquid restrictions on planes), Neosporin, and a few bandages. If someone gets sick, you can always go to a pharmacy, but it’s nice to have a few things on hand in case it’s late night or early morning. Also, throw in any any destination-related medicines you might need, like Dramamine or bug bite cream.

A family vacation will never be stress-free, but you can take some of the hassle out of preparation with these six travel tips for stress-free and organized packing and unpacking.  

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Sarrita Min
Sarrita Min enjoys traveling, cooking, and gardening. Before kids, she was an educator in elementary and middle schools. Her work as an educator and traveling with her kids has made her an expert at planning family trips that cater to both parents and kids. Her travel advice has appeared in publications including USA Today and FamilyVacationist.