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How to Pack Effectively (Without Losing Your Mind)


Packing can be fun. Don't forget the kids!

Just like glitter, cicadas, and "look what I found," it's a word that can carry a sense of dread. Especially if you're like me and want to travel for cheap. Some people may seem to enjoy packing (namely, my four little ones), but I find packing a necessary evil to an amazing trip with my kids. I try to focus on the part I do relish—checking it off the list. After all, once we finish packing, it's time for go!

With proper planning, it doesn't have to be overly stressful. It doesn't have to be an argument with your spouse the night before you leave. (Guilty.) You shouldn't have to worry if you need that high chair or if you remembered to pack the sound machine or the pacifiers. Or if things are clean or if you need to do one more quick load of laundry. There is one magic trick to ease your mind.

Make a list.

Make a list and stick to it. This isn't a grocery list where you can throw in some Oreos (okay, maybe you can throw in Oreos since they're delicious). When you travel internationally, you want to ensure you're not bringing too much. Airlines charge you by the bag, and your quads charge you by the pound to tromp them around Rome.

When you create a list:

  • You know what you need.

  • You have structure.

  • You get a full inventory of what you want to take so you can better avoid overpacking.

  • You can use it next time.

To get started, I focus on three questions:

1. How long is the trip and will we plan to do laundry?

2. What's the weather?

3. Are we flying or driving (or both!)?

With those answers, we can get started.


Understanding the weather of your destination goes a long way in packing for kids. Hot days, cool nights? Freezing cold? Always warm? Anybody's guess Michigan? Generally, I pack about five or six sets of clothes for most trips. Depending on the answer to the questions above, it impacts whether it's short or long sleeves, shorts or long pants. And, of course, whether you bring a coat. We use one giant suitcase since you pay by the bag for air travel and sort by kid.

Then, no matter where we go, I bring a few essentials:

  1. At least one pair of pants and a sweatshirt

  2. Two pairs of shoes

  3. Always pack a swimsuit

Why #2 and #3? My kids always find a way to get wet. Whether that's crossing a creek or swimming at the hotel pool, bring supplies to accommodate any unexpected water adventures..

We aim to do laundry at least once for every trip over five days. (Bring a small detergent to avoid paying.) We bring a laundry or wet-bag to easily load the dirties. You can use a plastic bag instead—but if you do, bring multiples since you won't want to reuse it.

Transport Specific Items

Whether you're driving in the family minivan or flying across the ocean impacts packing as well. Car and airplane travel have different lists.

Air travel Especially when flying, I cannot emphasize this enough: Minimize luggage. Pack what you need but not more than you can carry. Airlines charge by the bag so we try to check one bag and each bring a free carry on.

Bring your own carseats if you're renting a car when you land.

You rarely need a crib. Hotels generally have a pack n play so call ahead to reserve it. Many AirBnBs can offer one as well. Cities also rent them or you can pick one up secondhand at a thrift shop.

We only bring car seats only if we are renting a car for multiple days. They are free to fly with, but may get dirty if you check them. (We use an old extra large volleyball bag to pack ours. Go Cats!)

We only bring a stroller if there are multiple kids. Otherwise, the baby is fine in just a carrier. (We like Ergo for toddlers and Moby for babies.)

Car Tips

It's easy to overpack when you're in the car. What's the harm in bringing one more bag? For me, the harm is that I'll always be the one packing the car since my husband can't decipher my Tetris-inspired trunk full of stuff. But, since you inevitably may bring more than you need since it fits, here are a couple tips to keep yourself sane when you stop for the night:

  • Pack one bag when flying/staying just one night at a hotel. This makes getting dressed in the morning a snap (well, as much as it can be with little kids) and if you're parked in a safe spot, you don't have to unload the entire house, I mean car, if you're doing a stop just for sleep.

  • Make a bag with easy-to-reach snacks. To save money, I buy a large box of Goldfish/cereal/pick your snack and give each kid a cup to hold. I also strategically place the kids in the car so I've got a bigger kid handing items back to a smaller kid. (Your hips will thank you when you're not overly reaching behind you.)

  • Baby toilet for when they gotta go. I wish I knew this one with my first two. COVID-19 taught me a lot...

Some other key items for us:

  • Electronics/DVDs. Since we minimize screen time at home (one parenting win), this is huge. As a hilarious podcast host quipped in a recent interview, "Yeah, and if you don't let them eat beforehand, for like a few weeks, they'll be really excited about the Goldfish. They're in an empty room with no food the week before a trip with no food and no screens and then they're begging like 16 more hours on the flight. Please?" Create the carrot so you have a reward. (But don't actually starve them.)

  • Carsick medicine. The unfortunate side effect of previous bullet. Also needed if you have an Easy Queasy like us.

  • Bring towels / napkins / easy access to a change of clothes (item listed above doesn't always work.


Bring snacks. Bring lots of snacks.

We actually use up precious suitcase space to bring favorites from home. This includes peanut butter (not generally sold abroad and counts as a liquid so check it), a box of cereal or crackers, and granola bars. This may seem like a waste of space, but you will eat it and that gives you space for the flight home to stash souvenirs.

We also bring small items via carry on to entertain them on the flight at a much cheaper price than the boxes they sell. This is things like Goldfish, M&Ms, or lollipops. I want things that take a while to eat or can be doled out in intervals.

When traveling in a car, don't forget a cooler for string cheeses, special milk, yogurt, or leftovers. (Pizza for dinner, pizza for lunch the next day!)

Don't forget—whatever you bring, you must be able to carry. (Or drag it the quarter-mile to the train station.)

Other Gear

Just remember, you do not need to bring every baby item. Something to transport them, some snacks, and (too many) changes of clothes. And if you need something, there will be stores where you're going. There will not be butlers to carry your least not on my budget.

Additionally, we let each kid bring a backpack with their books/toys/animal/blanket. There's a line in my book, “Pacifiers aren’t just the physical object a baby puts in her mouth to suckle. They are those things that soothe us, our comforts of home.” Giving kids the ability to pack their favorites (but not absolute favorite) items will give them comfort—plus more teaching of responsibility.

So, when should you start?

Today. Well, maybe not today, but early. I start at least a week in advance. For our extended summer trip, I started a month out. In order to travel for cheap, we need to bring a LOT of items, some we don't own, and it has to fit in our car. That means I need time to order extra sunscreen, a new bathing suit, and a bigger cooler.

I give the kids each their list and ask them to pack their own clothes. This gets checked before putting in the suitcase, but it teaches responsibility within the confines of still making sure you don't forget anything.

Packing may seem overwhelming, but just like the trip planning, a little preparation goes a long way.

Make a list. Stick to it. Have the kids help. And have fun.

Bon Voyage!

Don't forget the swimsuit! Even if you think it's too cold for the beach.

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