How to Organize your Family Packing and Checklists
If you aren’t familiar with us and our family, Jude and I have been married for more than 15 years and have a 10-year-old daughter nicknamed Bunny, and a 6-year-old son nicknamed Popcorn (Bunny picked that as the actual name she wanted us to name him while I was pregnant and the nickname stuck!) Jude packs his clothes for himself, along with most of the food for us, but I pack everything else the family needs including clothing, toiletries, and “extras” like sunblock, binoculars, extra blankets, laundry supplies, etc.
How I pack all the “extras” may change trip to depending on where we are going and how long we’ll be gone, but clothing follows the same pattern and is scaled to the size of the trip.
What clothes do you need?
A few days before the trip, I will set aside clothing for my kids and myself separately. I like packing clothes that are both comfortable but also cute because let’s face it, vacation is where you (or at least we) take the most pictures of ourselves. My parents always packed our oldest clothes on trips and they’d discard them after wearing them on the trip so it was less to pack back which works as a space-saving strategy but isn’t as much fun when looking back at those photos. I pull out all the clothes I might want to bring for each of us, and then I put them together in outfits depending on if we have any days where we:
Event: are doing something where we need to dress nicer. For example, if you are headed on a more relaxing vacation with a great scenic view, you may want to plan for posed pictures, especially if your kids are still young enough to let you dress them in matching outfits! One of our favorite spots to splurge (though we usually use our Marriott Bonvoy Rewards points to cut the cost) is at The Grand Hotel in Point Clear, AL. We try to get there at least once a year and I love dressing the kids up and getting a picture with the beautiful sunset over Mobile Bay. Matching blue and white seersucker was my favorite of the matching outfits and an opportunity to put a toddler in a bow tie: who could resist?! It’s really great to see these similar pictures year after year to really watch how the kids are growing too.
Athletic: Are we doing a bigger hike and need to be more rugged? Will we have an opportunity to get out and play some tennis? Will we set aside time for yoga or a run? Swimsuits are pretty much a must on any trip with kids, even if just in case!
Holiday or Special Occasion: If you’ll be traveling over a holiday or some other similar special day, you may want to have certain colors or outfits to wear specifically on that day alone.
Weather: I factor in temperature and weather too, and unless we are going somewhere that will for sure be hot the whole time, I pack at least one outfit for cooler weather and more if it makes sense. We also always keep some easily packable rain jackets in the car as rainy days are inevitable if you travel enough. We’ve had these jackets for at least 6 years and they are still in great shape and we love them. You can get them for the kids too, and everyone can have their own color so they are quick and easy to grab. Our four fit, albeit tightly, in a medium eBags packing cube.
Once I have the kids’ multiple outfits laid out in stacks, I’ll start pairing them together for both kids day by day (at least for the first 5 or 6 days on longer trips). They each have one outfit in a shared cube.
Here I paired up 6 days of clothes for the kids, including a spare warmer change of clothes off to the side. I’ll leave one of the stacks out to put on at home the morning we leave, then put the other 5 in small cubes, and the spare/warmer clothes together in a medium packing cube.
There isn’t much to the pairing up, it mostly helps me keep their similar days (active, holiday, etc.) together. If I pulled out more clothes than we needed (as I usually do) I set those aside to put back in their dressers.
For a longer trip, I try to have about 6 outfits the kids can wear a few times for each kid. I will pack up to 5 more for colder weather or other situations as necessary. Once I have outfits paired up, I add the clean socks and underwear and put both kids’ clothes for the day in a packing cube. I religiously use eBags packing cubes, and for the two kids’ outfits, I can still fit both in a small cube unless it’s for winter weather and they are bulkier. I even color-code and plan out the first few days of the trip in rainbow order (first day red, second-day orange, third-day yellow, etc.)
This was our suitcase on a recent trip (with the stacks I showed in the previous picture). On the right, I have two medium cubes stacked one on top of the other. One has all of the family’s swimsuits/covers, and the one below it has their warmer spare clothes. I pack similar stuff for our whole family together in one cube because these are things we all need at the same time, so it’s great to just do one quick grab at bedtime or going down to the pool/beach. On the left are 4 small cubes with the kids’ clothes. I just pull one out each night to leave out for the next morning and the kids can get up and get themselves dressed quickly and easily. This suitcase is packed pretty loosely for this picture, but after the picture, I added in the 5th small cube and medium cube with all of our pajamas together right on top before zipping up the suitcase. It fit easily and didn’t even need to be expanded. This is our average 21” carry-on size suitcase.
What else do we need?
Everything else can vary from trip to trip and by your own personal needs. I keep quite a number of detailed packing lists, but I go through and collect things from multiple categories as well as keeping lists for additional needs we may have depending on where we are going. I also do reminders of things to get done before we leave (what do we need out of the laundry, are all prescriptions refilled, etc.) and even the final things to do before the trip (take out the garbage, make sure everyone has gone to the bathroom, etc.) I hope to share the details of my lists on here eventually, but here are the names of my lists in case you want to start brainstorming your own specific needs from there.
My Packing Lists:
Need to do/buy before the trip
Reminders to do right before we leave
Clothing packing (one list for each of us to make sure you don’t forget anyone’s underwear or something)
Toiletry Packing (with a subcategory specifically focused on the kids)
Food Packing (food)
Picnic Packing (supplies for cooking the food and things like plates and utensils and such)
Additional Travel Needs – This has multiple sub-categories:
Sleep (kids’ blankies, nightlight, etc.)
Electronics & related (laptop, camera, charging cables, etc.)
Car (things you may want on the road like hand wipes, individual bathroom wipes just in case, toll pass, etc.)
Swim (dive toys, goggles, etc)
Important Documents / Tickets (passports, plane tickets, national park pass, etc.)
Outdoor (sunblock, outerwear for cold weather, flashlights, etc.)
Gifts (if we are heading up to see family or celebrating someone’s birthday, etc.)
Counties (we use this because we track all the counties the kids go to in binders for each of them, but this is also where I track maps or anything else like that we might need)
Trip-specific needs – this also has a few sub-categories:
Beach trips (sand toys, towels, etc.)
Mountains (preparing for occasional motion or altitude sickness)
Disney (autograph books, trading pins, princess dresses, etc.)
Hurricane Evacuation (the least fun of all, but still helpful to have the list)
Every trip I find myself tweaking or adding to these lists whether I find a new neat gadget or something we need, as the kids get older and their needs change, or if I can find ways to streamline. I recently added a few “keep packed bags”. For instance, the majority of our toiletries we now have multiples of so I can keep this packed and grab it for a trip. I’ll keep a list so I can dump out the bag and make sure everything is still there or check if anything has run out or otherwise needs replacing.
This all may be overwhelming for some people, I know I go overboard, but I rest so much easier knowing I’m not going to forget anything and I can quickly add to the list if I think of something new. This is especially easy because I keep these lists in my “Reminders” on my iPhone. I use the checklist format so I can check things off as I go and it will “Hide Completed” the things I’ve already completed. Then, for the next trip, I go into each list and in the top right corner where you see the three dots, you can change it back to “Show Completed” and it will show your first list. I go back in and uncheck everything, or leave it checked if it’s something we don’t need to remember for that particular trip. That way my lists are always with me wherever I go and whenever I think of something. I don’t need every single list for every trip, and I don’t need everything on the list for each trip either. I do LOVE the security of knowing I’ve considered everything I might need and I can check it off if I don’t need it, and check off the things we do need as I pack.
Which suitcases to use and how?
As for suitcases, I think 21” are most versatile as they are approved for carry-on for flights and can hold quite a bit without getting too heavy. Everyone has their own preferences but we’ve been very happy with Travelpro luggage and have used ours quite a lot (around 8 times a year on average between weekend getaways and longer road trips) and they are just starting to show a bit of wear. We’ve had them for 6 or 8 years already and certainly can use them for a couple more. The kids and I prefer the ones with spinner wheels as they are so much easier for pulling. Jude doesn’t love the spinners as much since, when packed full, they will sometimes tip forward if you try to just stand them up on their own. He prefers the two-wheel version with stoppers in the front. This looks like the updated version of the one he still uses.
Whatever you choose for your family, I suggest getting the same size for everyone for easy closet storage. We do have one of those crazy 29” suitcases as well that we use occasionally that someone got us for a gift. We use it if we’ll be gone for quite a while and need lots of extra stuff, but it’s starting to fall apart a bit (I don’t remember the brand but it was definitely not a high-quality brand). It also gets REALLY heavy, so despite having wheels that help for pulling, lifting it in and out of the van (and of course it’s always the one furthest back) is awkward. We’re just starting to discuss replacing it but would more likely buy two more carry-ons instead of another huge suitcase. The benefit of the big suitcase would be if you are flying somewhere and only want to check one additional bag instead of two, but you’ll still have to watch the weight limits. We also prefer all different color luggage. Again, if you fly more it might be helpful to have suitcases that all match and look the same, but I can color-code to remember which one bag we need to bring in for the night, or which bag has our cold-weather clothes, etc.
If we are staying somewhere for a few days I can “unpack” our packing cubes right into dresser drawers quickly and easily and then tuck our luggage out of the way for the duration of the trip.
Our same-size carry-on bags fit well in most hotel closets.
So again, our suggestions would be:
Carry-on size (21” – occasionally you’ll see others between 18-22” that may work too)
Same size for everyone in the family for uniform storage in closet or packing in your trunk
Same suitcase in multiple different colors for coding by family member or other coordinated packing needs
In the pictures posted above, I show an example of my packing organization for a 5-night trip, but most of our trips are much longer and will often take a few days to get to our first destination. I have just one main suitcase for our overnights to bring into the hotel.:
I have all of our pajamas in a medium packing cube,
our collapsible dirty laundry bag (only in the suitcase for the first night as it becomes a bag on its own once you start putting laundry in it,)
maybe a medium packing cube of our swimsuits and goggles or other workout wear,
my outfit(s) for the next day or two,
the packing cubes of the kids’ outfits for the next day or two.
This way, where some people may bring a suitcase for each member of the family every night, we now only need to bring one or maybe two in at a time for just a night or two even though we will still bring the same amount of suitcases overall.
We now have a separate post just on How to Get Laundry Done While Traveling, check it out!
We usually tuck the laundry bag in the bathroom under the sink area or behind the door and everyone just uses it as a hamper. When we leave, we just zip it up and then can use it as a laundry basket when it’s full and time to wash.
My second suitcase will have the next few days of outfits in their daily packing cubes so that when we bring our overnight suitcase back out to the car the next day, I can quickly unzip the next suitcase, and grab the next cube or two and slide them right into our overnight suitcase, which now has more room since we’ve worn the other clothes and put them into the laundry bag. Additional suitcases hold backup clothes or items you won’t need for a while, such as colder weather or for activities later in the trip. Once we are at a location where we will stay for a couple of days and/or have laundry done, I bring in all or most of the suitcases and reset things.
All this extra planning and work do add more difficulties and time to packing upfront (though my highly detailed packing lists help me tremendously,) but it makes such a difference in ease on the trip, which is where you don’t want to have to worry or plan as much anyway. As much as I love traveling, and even with constantly improving my packing techniques, I still dread the whole packing process. At the end of a few long days of driving though, and only having to bring in and deal with one suitcase at a time, it’s all worth it. It’s also a lot quicker and easier in the morning to just put the kids’ cube out the night before and they can get themselves dressed in the morning and don’t need to pick out what to wear or have to search for socks or anything else. It’s a big comfort and makes the trip itself so much easier and more enjoyable. What are your favorite packing tips and tricks? And yes, I do plan to share my packing lists on the site later too and I’ll add a link once I do!
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