When I was 15 years old, I packed everything I needed for a week in the desert of northern Mexico in a 1 sq. ft. cross-body satchel. It was one of the biggest triumphs of my life, packing so minimally for an entire week away from home. It was a mission trip with 13 other students from my school, and a group of us had a packing light contest. You may be interested to know that I actually did not win, and that someone packed everything they needed in a Nalgene water bottle.
Anyway, now that I’m a mom of 3, and can’t just crash on someone’s living room floor and have all my meals prepared for me, packing has become a little bit more of a process. Everyone needs an outfit for each day, and kids somehow manage to get messy enough for an outfit change multiple times a day. There are diapers and wipes, blankets and lovies, something to keep kids occupied, shoes for everyone, snacks for everyone, and water bottles for everyone.
It can be a logistical nightmare.
Over the years, though, I’ve refined my skills at staying organized while traveling with kids. Packing no longer takes a week, and we rarely feel like we forgot something major or way overpacked. We’ve hit the sweet spot of packing just the right amount and knowing exactly where everything goes.
Part of that comes with experience. The more you travel, the easier it is to figure out your own system. Related: Why You Should Travel with Your Kids Even Though It’s Kind of A Pain
However, sometimes you hear a tip that completely changes the game for you, and makes packing for travel with kids so much simpler. It is with that hope that I’m sharing everything I’ve learned about staying organized when packing for travel with kids.
ORGANIZED PACKING FOR TRAVEL WITH KIDS
PACKING CLOTHES FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
START WITH A LIST
I always fight myself on this one. I always think I can just remember what everyone needs off the top of my head. And I can, it just makes things a lot more difficult for everyone. When I started making very specific checklists on Google Keep and sharing them with my husband, we could each take a category and get the packing done a lot faster. This way you don’t have to think. You don’t have to make more decisions when the time comes to pack. You just grab what’s on the list and go.
I also find that I’m a lot stricter about packing light when I go off a list. When I throw things in a suitcase haphazardly, I tend to think of all the possible worst-case scenarios that might come up, and that’s when I pack those “what if” items that we never end up using.
KNOW YOUR ITINERARY AND THE WEATHER
You MUST go through your itinerary and the weather forecast ahead of time to maximize organization. Look at what you’ll do each day and what the weather will be like, then make your best decision about what each person will wear that day. Then go through your list and decided how many nice outfits, how many long-sleeved shirts, how many t-shirt/shorts combos, etc each person will need.
PACK WITH A COLOR SCHEME
Would it surprise you to learn that I am NOT a Type A personality? All of this organization isn’t because I love to control every detail. It’s because it makes our lives so much easier when we’re on the trip.
So packing everyone’s outfits with a color scheme may sound way too detailed, but you’ll be surprised about how much easier it makes decision-making when packing. If everyone is sticking to blues, grays, and khakis, you’ll only reach for the items that fit that color scheme. This way you can mix-and-match outfits, AND you’ll look coordinated for family photos.
TRY TO MINIMIZE SHOES
Everyone gets 2 pairs of shoes: a pair that’s comfortable for walking, and a nice pair. Or if we’re on a beach vacation it’s a pair that’s comfortable for walking and flip flops or crocs. That’s it. Suitcases are lighter and we don’t have to make decisions about what shoes to wear on-the-go. Naturally this is a bit more difficult if you’re going somewhere cold and snowy, so try to opt for cute neutral boots that are comfortable to walk in if you can.
USE PACKING CUBES
I don’t know how I ever packed without them! Packing cubes are MY SECRET WEAPON to staying organized when packing with kids. They are mesh cubes or bags that come in different sizes
Each person gets one or two packing cubes. If you want, you can even assign a packing cube color to each person to keep them straight.
You might also want to choose your suitcase wisely. I’ve got some great recommendations for carry-on sized suitcases that are perfect for families.
CONSIDER A DIFFERENT SYSTEM
If you’re making multiple stops along a road trip, you may want to consider packing different bags for each stop. Each bag contains everyone’s clothes for those days so you only have to bring one bag into each hotel or Airbnb instead of one for every member of your family.
ROLL ‘EM UP
If I do have specific outfits planned out for the kids, I will put everything for that outfit together, underwear included, and roll them up together. That way when we’re at our destination and I ask the bigger kids to grab an outfit or get themselves dressed, they can just grab a roll and go. This takes the pressure off me when we’re in a hotel room or Airbnb to micromanage everyone as they get dressed.
STAY ORGANIZED AT YOUR DESTINATION
The packing cubes help you stay organized when you’re at your destination, because you can just pull them out and put them right into drawers. Beyond that, we like to travel with a mesh laundry bag to keep dirty clothes separate, but only if we’re on a road trip or we have access to a washing machine. (Otherwise we would just have to take all the dirty clothes back out of the laundry bag and put them back in our suitcases to get on a flight).
It’s also a good idea to bring a wet bag. If you’ll be doing any swimming when you arrive, you’ll want a place to put wet swimsuits so they don’t make everything else in your bag smell. This could also come in handy if you’re going somewhere snowy, because you could put wet mittens, hats, or socks in the wet bag. Finally, if you have babies and toddlers a wet bag is a good thing to have with you at all times anyway because chances are likely someone will have a blowout or spill something all over themselves at the most inopportune time.
FOR THE KIDS
I use one very small packing cube for the kids’ toiletries. I put their toothbrushes in a little pouch, then add in toothpaste, a brush and comb, ponytail holders in a small container, and a mini all-purpose baby wash (that can be used for shampoo, too). If you don’t have a packing cube, a gallon-sized ziplock bag should work just fine.
FOR THE ADULTS
I’ve been traveling so much this year that I’ve just ended up buying toiletries specifically for travel so I don’t have to keep packing and unpacking my entire bathroom. The only thing I haven’t purchased doubles for is makeup, but everything else, from toothpaste to razors, has a double that stays in my travel bag. Don’t forget nail clippers and tweezers! When you do need them, it feels like an emergency.
FIRST AID KIT
I tend to not pack very much in the first aid department. Usually we’re going somewhere where a drugstore is readily available for emergencies. There are a few items I regularly pack because I’ve found we need them more often than not: ibuprofen (I never drink enough water when traveling and tend to get headaches), children’s Tylenol, a few bandaids, and Dramamine.
DIAPERS AND WIPES
I don’t know if these qualify as toiletries or clothes, but either way, you don’t want to be caught without them. Depending on the type and length of the trip, you can either pack just enough for your travel days and buy some when you arrive at your destination, or you can pack enough diapers for the whole trip.
When we’re road tripping, I always pack the bulk of the diapers in a suitcase, then put enough for the journey in a day pack or diaper bag. A few times we’ve even had a 3-drawer storage tower in the van and packed one of the drawers with diapers and wipes. If you have a seat open in your car, you can use this Beanko baby diaper changing system which prevents kids from rolling into the middle of the seat while you change them and has pockets for everything you might need.
You never know when or where you’ll have to change a diaper (I’ve done in my lap on an airplane and on a bench next to the Seine River in Paris to name a few), so make sure you have a lightweight changing pad handy at all times. I tend to keep a travel stash of diapers and wipes handy in a gallon-size ziplock back so I can transfer it from bag to purse to backpack to car with ease. It also helps me grab things easily with one hand which is a necessity when traveling with 3 small kids.
PACKING FOOD AND SNACKS
With three little kids, we like to avoid restaurants if at all possible, since our one-year-old makes it the least relaxing experience possible. Eating in your hotel room or Airbnb also helps you save a little bit of money on the road, so we’ve become experts at packing food and snacks.
I have an entire post about packing healthy road trip snacks for the whole family, so check that out if you want a more in-depth look at food specifically for in the car.
How you pack food will vary GREATLY depending on what kind of trip you’re taking. If you’re flying somewhere, you’ll probably just pack a few snacks for the flight then buy some food at a local supermarket when you arrive at your destination. We did this when we flew to California. Once we arrived we bought bread, a small jar of peanut butter, and a small jar or jelly, a bag of apples, a box of cereal, and some snack food like crackers. This held us over for the most part, and we also filled in the gaps with our Isagenix shakes and bars.
If you’re road tripping, I would highly recommend bringing a clear plastic storage container for food. It keeps all of your food items together, and prevents things like a loaf of bread from getting squished. I also keep a small soft-sided cooler up front for snacks and cold beverages during our drive.
DON’T FORGET THESE KITCHEN ITEMS IF YOU’RE ROAD TRIPPING
A few things we have learned to bring with us through trial and error:
a roll of paper towel - there’s always a mess with kids. Always.
baby wipes or hand wipes
sandwich bags for packing snacks while you’re exploring
a knife - plastic or otherwise
sippy cups for toddlers - and bring them everywhere. A surprising number of restaurants don’t have cups with lids for kids, and you’ll spend your whole meal worrying about them spilling.
take-n-toss cups for sippy cups, or for distributing snacks
paper plates/bowls/plastic cutlery if you’ll be eating in your hotel room a lot
gallon-size Ziplock bag. I keep a “snack bag” in our backpack for days out and about while we’re traveling with raisins, granola bars, individual cracker packs, and fruit. I let the kids pick something from the bag when they start complaining that they’re hungry but we’re not ready to stop and eat.
I am of the opinion that you don’t need to pack a lot of toys to entertain kids when you travel. I’ve done that in the past, and regretted it immensely because I spend precious time and used precious space packing toys or puzzles I thought they would love, and they ended up not looking at them once the entire trip.
So I changed my thinking. I put the responsibility on their shoulders - literally. Each kid gets a small backpack, and they can put whatever they want in the backpack as long as it fits. This includes books, a Kindle (don’t worry, they’re only allowed to use them for travel), headphones, toys, coloring books (always Color Wonder, by the way. It’s a game-changer for travel: NO MESS), and stuffed animals. If they can’t carry it or it doesn’t fit, it can’t come. By the time a kid is two or three, they can definitely carry a very small backpack and help you pack the bag with what they want.
This kind of falls on me as the travel writer in the family. I have to bring my laptop, DSLR camera, and GoPro + accessories whenever we travel to properly document our trip. I’ve been using the same North Face backpack for this since I was in college. It has a padded laptop sleeve, a zippered storage space at the bottom of the backpack where I put all my chargers, and plenty of pockets for odds & ends.
Whether I’m driving or flying everything goes in here. When flying, I always put electronics in my carry-on because I wouldn’t be able to get my work done if the bag containing them got lost.
I truly think it’s helpful to have one person in charge of carrying and packing all the electronic items so there are no mix-ups or forgotten chargers because “I thought you were going to grab it!”
DO IT FOR YOUR SANITY, MAMA
I used to get a little bit resentful that the bulk of the organization and packing seemed to fall on me. When I made the decision to lean into it, my attitude got a whole lot better because I knew all the extra work on the front end would make the entire trip or vacation more enjoyable for ME.
We have ALL been that mom on vacation who’s quietly seething inside because everyone seems to be relaxing and enjoying except us, and because a mom’s job is never done. Honestly, using packing cubes, working from a list, sharing that list electronically with my husband, and having a system in place has really helped me relax through the whole process. And when Mom is happy on vacation, everyone is happy on vacation.
I hope you found some helpful packing tips here! If I missed anything, be sure to share it below in the comments!