We Asked 3 Professional Organizers (and Parents) to Share Their Summer Vacation Packing Tips

published Jul 18, 2023
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Woman Packing a Shirt in a Suitcase for a Summer Vacation
Credit: miniseries / Getty Images

Before every vacation, there’s a lot of packing to be done to ensure the family survives the trip and lands at the destination with (mostly) everything they need. 

There are different approaches to packing, which can vary in some cases, whether you’re hopping a plane, or train, or braving a road trip. While some like to be over-prepared, others have developed a well-honed strategy for packing light. 

There’s zero shame in either approach. But acknowledging where you stand on the spectrum, or even what your goals may be, can be helpful. That’s why we tapped three travel and organizing experts for their tips (and confessions) when it comes to getting their families, and their suitcases, out the door this summer. 

Approach #1: The “Never Check a Bag” Packer

Shira Gill, best-selling author of “Minimalista: Your Step-by-Step Guide to a Better Home, Wardrobe, and Life,” says she won’t let a suitcase bring her down. “I’m carry-on or bust,” she says. “I’ve never checked a bag. We’ve been traveling with our kids since they were toddlers, and we’ve always minimized because we don’t want to be sherpas.” In fact, she adds, “I’m always surprised how little you can get away with.” 

Gill’s daughters are 11 and 14 now, but her strategy for empowering them to pack hasn’t altered much over the years. Before a trip, she sits on their respective beds and tells them what to grab. Like, get one pair of pajamas. “They are responsible for choosing which ones they want, but I tell them the quantity.” 

Here’s her approach to keeping the number to a minimum. For a typical seven-day trip, each girl needs seven outfits but not seven pairs of pants. So that can equate to three bottoms, seven tops, one pair of pajamas, and so on. The heaviest, bulkiest items such as jackets, hats and scarves are worn onto the plane to save on luggage space. “I just keep it really simple,” says Gill. 

Setting a physical boundary is helpful, too. She tells her daughters that they can pack until their carry-on is full, which includes personal items like stuffed animals. “They can pick one special object that will make them feel comforted while we’re traveling.”

And, of course, her tweens each get a tote bag for the plane too, in which they pack headphones, snacks, and books that they don’t mind donating once they’ve finished. At the end of the day, she says, you don’t want to feel weighed down while you’re traveling. “Carrying around a lot of stuff is stressful.”

Credit: 10'000 Hours / Getty Images

Approach #2: The “Live and Die by the Packing List” Packer

Others, like professional organizer Holly Blakey of Breathing Room Organization, live and die by their lists. 

“I’ve always used a list. I think it comforts me,” she laughs. My lists have changed so drastically — packing for myself is much different from packing for a family of five, especially when you have a baby. A list simply takes the stress off you to remember everything. And once you’ve used a list a few times, you can add to it or take away from it — you really hone your packing skills.” 

Intertwined with that Blakey’s list is a bit of research, including basic stuff, like, what’s the temperature of the place the family is traveling. That may include anything from extra sunscreen to scarves or swim goggles. She also checks to see what her hotel or Airbnb will have on hand, which will limit what she needs to pack. “Do you need to pack toiletries, or will some be there? Structuring your list by thinking ahead will really help prevent you from overpacking, but also ensure you pack what you’ll truly need.”

That comes down to the laundry, too. “I always check to make sure the place I’m traveling to has laundry available,” she says. “If it doesn’t, I make sure to pack an outfit for each day plus one extra because, you know, kids are messy. I also typically pack a travel-size detergent; if I need to, I’ll wash a few items in the bathtub or sink. This prevents me from feeling like I have to stuff their suitcases.”

For other essentials, like strollers and cribs, Blakey hits up rental companies like BabyQuip, which will deliver right to your hotel or rental. “You can find it in almost any city,” she says. “In Hawaii, we’ve rented beach toys and wagons. In Portland, we’ve rented strollers and pack-n-plays. It’s pretty affordable and so nice not to lug things everywhere, especially when I’m traveling by myself with kids.”

As parents well know, there’s a lot more strategy that goes into planning for a trip. It’s not simply the destination. “After nine years of traveling with little ones in planes and cars, I’ve honed the art of a good activity and snack bag,” says Blakey. 

“For each of my kids, I make sure to have a large zip bag of activities such as scratch art, Lego bracelets, putty, coloring books, and things that don’t easily get lost in the car or roll off the tray table.” Beads, she says from experience, are not a good idea. Then, in a smaller zip bag, she packs primarily healthy snacks, such as dried fruit, jerky, and sliced apples. “I also pack a special item like Pez or gummies that they can have halfway through the trip as a type of incentive for not tormenting the rest of the plane or me,” she says. “I love mesh zip bags because I can wipe them down and reuse them over and over. And really — for each trip, the kids get so excited about the zip bags that I put in their backpacks. It’s such a fun treat.”

But not everyone plans ahead or even has a plan to attempt the elusive carry-on. 

Approach #3: The “Proud Overpacker” Packer

“We check our bags; we’re proud over packers,” says Jacqueline Tatelman, CEO and Creative Director at STATE Bags. “I’m conditioned to think something is going to happen where my kids will need to change their clothes — every day.” 

Tatelman, whose kids are 8 and 11, also confesses that her household is brimming with last-minute packers. “My daughter would like to mention how chaotic I am when packing,” says Tatelman, noting her offspring compares this leg of vacation prep to a hurricane hitting their home. So, in the mad rush to get out the door on time, she tasks herself with filling her kids’ suitcases. While at it, she delegates other duties to the kids, including packing their backpacks and putting their toothbrushes in their toiletry bags.

But that’s where the collaboration ends. “My kids are not efficient packers, and I’m not a minimalist either. I count the number of days we’ll be traveling, and then I double all of the categories of clothing. For example, if we’re gone for five days, I’ll pack seven to 10 pairs of shorts.”

That commitment to squeezing in every last shoe, sweatshirt, and swim trunk translates to a skilled combination of rolling and folding clothing. “I also use compression packing cubes, put socks and underwear in shoes and put any shoes in shoe bags to prevent them from touching clothes,” she says.

While being overprepared may seem unnecessary at times, the one or two times it really pays off may make you reconsider. Take it from Tatelman. During a recent trip abroad, her son became sick between flights. “Thankfully, I had packed an outfit (in our carry-on) for him to change into, down to the socks.” Then, as they made their way to their next flight, it happened again. “I felt like Mary Poppins because I had another change of clothes, socks, and even a second jacket, all packed in our STATE Wellington XL Tote. The whole family ripped into applause.”

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