Tips for Trips: 7 Ways to Make Family Packing Easy and Organized

updated Jul 5, 2023
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

It’s a correlation I didn’t quite see coming: The older the kids get, the more we find ourselves on the road. From weekend-long soccer tournaments and camping trips to road trips to visit family and explore our state, we’ve logged many, many hours in the car. In addition, since my extended family lives thousands of miles away in California, long flights with kids for treasured family time are also a regular occurrence. All this to say, I’ve packed for our family of seven many, many times. Sometimes, I feel like I’m packing and unpacking every other week! 

While packing is in no way my favorite part of traveling (I’m sure it isn’t anyone’s!), an organized suitcase definitely impacts how smoothly a trip unfolds. When traveling with kids, we can use all the efficiency and simplicity we can get!  Here are a few packing tricks I’ve picked up that make our trips just a little bit easier: 

1. Catch up on laundry beforehand. 

My first tip might be my biggest one. Too, too many times I’ve been tossing loads into the washer or ruffling through clothes in the dryer while I’m trying to pack or wondering if I can dry that favorite sweatshirt by hanging it out of the car window while we drive. (I’m not kidding.) Do yourself a huge favor and make it a point to catch up on the family’s laundry a few days before you need to begin packing — and consider packing as soon as the drawers are full, before needed items get worn and thrown in the hamper again. This is the number one thing that makes packing easier for me, and it’s taken me a long time to get into this must-do pre-trip habit. 

2. Create a master packing checklist. 

Once you’ve gone on a few similar trips, you realize you need the same things every time. Eliminate overthinking and decision fatigue by creating a packing list template for a great start to any marathon packing session. I have a few different lists, including a camping list and a summer beach trip list. I tweak these as necessary for the specific trip and trip length I’m packing for, as well as for each child. 

I use the Notes app on my iPhone to make packing lists and I copy them when I want to use and/or tweak them. I can also share a list with my husband, which is convenient. If you’re having trouble coming up with an initial list, there are tons of resources to get you started.

Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez-Hart

3. Have older kids pack from the checklist. 

Allowing kids who are old enough to pack for themselves is a dance between letting go and maintaining control. These days, I’m straddling the line by having the kids pack from my list and then having them place everything on my bed so I can make sure they have each item and that it’s “acceptable.” (Nothing stained or too small and that their definition of a “nice shirt” and mine line up.) I print a copy for each child straight from my phone. 

4. Use a separate bag for each member of the family. 

If possible, packing each family member’s items in their own carry-on, duffel bag, or backpack goes a long way in simplifying family travel. This way, everyone has their clothes, activities, etc. in their own possession. They can get what they need and put it back with their own stuff. Not getting clothing mixed up and being able to find what everyone wants and needs at any given moment means you aren’t aren’t digging through things or running late. This helps keep the whole atmosphere peaceful. 

5. Get color-coded packing cubes. 

Packing cubes are a total game-changer for any kind of packing, and packing for kids is no exception. I’ve used packing cubes for years, but I only had two colors, and while they were useful for organizing clothes and keeping things neat and contained, it got old needing  to unzip every single packing cube when searching for a certain item of clothing. 

So one year, I bought each family member their own set of compression packing cubes. It was an investment, but we use them every single time we travel and there’s no more guessing about whose items are where, even if we have to pack multiple family members’ items in the same suitcase. The compression component means we can pack more into a smaller space, a huge plus when you’re traveling as a group. 

I usually combine similar  items in our packing cubes. For instance, I’ll put all the pants in one, underwear and socks in a smaller cube, and tops in another. 

Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez-Hart

6. Or use ziplock bags. 

Another strategy, which is particularly useful with younger children, is to pack a whole day’s worth of clothes, from undies to hair accessories, all in one ziplock bag. This keeps you from having to wrangle each item of clothing from different packing cubes and (hopefully) saves you from any meltdowns about what to wear every day. You can also keep outfits in a set by folding tops and bottoms together, with underwear sandwiched inside. These “outfit packs” could be put in packing cubes or straight in a suitcase if you’re not using cubes. 

7. Have a separate bag for outerwear (and PJs). 

If you’re traveling somewhere colder than the climate you’re leaving, you’ll want to have jackets and possibly hats and gloves at the ready. If everyone’s outerwear is packed in a suitcase, getting it out to bundle up the kids is a logistical nightmare. We like to stuff all of our puffy coats into a large drawstring mesh bag. This way, when it’s time to get out of the car for a potty break, we can easily grab coats. Bonus tip: If you’re going to be driving at night and you have little ones, pack a small bag with their pajamas so you can change them along the way. They’ll be more comfortable and you can put them straight in bed when you get to your destination. 

8. Invest in travel-size toiletry bottles and toiletries. 

It’s tempting to leave packing items like toothbrushes, toothpaste, and even a hairbrush until the morning you depart, after you use them. But don’t underestimate how hectic it can get in the hours before you leave for a trip. To make sure you don’t forget hygiene essentials, curate a travel-size toiletry kit with everything from deodorant to floss. You’ll be glad you did when you get to your destination and don’t need to find the nearest store selling tubes of toothpaste.       

9. Keep all your chargers together.

To avoid dead batteries on phones and tablets, put all your device chargers together in a small bag or a designated compartment of a backpack. If you plan to use the chargers while traveling, make sure the bag is easily accessible. When you get to your destination, it might also be helpful to designate a charging station where all the cords will stay for the duration of the trip, so you don’t run the risk of losing any chargers before you return home.

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