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How to Pack for Vacation: Six Tips from a Big Family

Sept. 22, 2018
7 min read
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As many of you already know, my family is what some people might consider... large. I don't often meet anyone that has more kids than I do! With myself, my wife and six kids, our family of eight travels a bit differently than others.

We've already covered how we usually have to rent TWO cars (instead of one) and how we often book two hotel rooms in order to fit our family. Today, I want to talk about our strategy for packing, with a few large family packing tips that we've learned in order to minimize stress on our trips. While these tips are tried and tested for a big family, even if you don't have a large family, these six tips for how to pack for a family vacation should help keep families of all sizes organized and prepared.

Bags: To check, or not to check?

In the family travel space, there is healthy debate about whether or not you should check bags when flying. If you've never lived a #CarryOnOnly lifestyle, it's something to think about. You'd be surprised how much you can bring on a trip with eight carry-ons and eight personal items!

If you do decide to check bags, make sure to include the cost of (ever increasing) baggage fees with your ticket cost. Or, you fly an airline like Southwest, which doesn't charge for baggage or lean on your elite perks or cobranded credit card benefits that may waived checked bag fees. A few years ago when our family went to Lake Tahoe, we took 17 pieces of luggage through the airport — all for free on Southwest.

When it comes to driving, our family of eight ends up taking more road trips perhaps than the average family. The economies of driving vs. flying skews much more towards driving when you can fit eight people in one vehicle. On a recent family vacation to Nauvoo, IL, we ended up spending about $50 in gas to drive ~1,000 miles. It would have cost more in fees alone to fly us there, to say nothing of the miles cost.

With driving, of course, you don't have as many space concerns. Plus, depending on where you're going and your lodging, you might also be packing food. Packing food can help with vacation costs, which can be some of the highest expenses on a trip.

Photo by Mumemories/Getty Images
Photo by Mumemories/Getty Images

Start with a packing list

Once you know if you'll be flying or driving, and if you're going to be checking any bags (as well as how many!), my top tip is to start with a packing list.

Even better, use an online tool to keep your packing list so you can refine and modify each time you take a trip, like Google Docs. Google Docs has two benefits: my wife and I can share a list (letting both of us review and contribute) and then after the trip, once we realize all the things we forgot, we can add it to the list for next time! Over the course of several years, we've gotten the packing list down!

I highly recommend printing out a hard copy of your packing list that you can physically check off. We keep ours with the suitcases and then check things off as they go into the bags. We circle the things that are still missing — usually things like kids' stuffed animals or other items that can't be packed until the last minute.

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Pack your clothes by day instead of by person

Another good tip when packing for a family vacation that we learned a few years ago was to pack by day instead of by person. Prior to this, we would usually pack one suitcase for the boys, one for the girls, one for the parents and then one or two with random accessories.

Now, we pack by day instead. In a plastic grocery bag (or two), we pack everyone's clothes for each particular day. That way, it's easy to get everyone's clothes out in the morning (no digging through suitcases). Plus, it gives you an easy container for everyone's DIRTY clothes in the evening.

We have never personally used packing cubes, but this strategy seems like it would fit well for those who have some. I know people swear by space saver bags (aka vacuum packing) but we have never been in a situation where space has been SO tight that we've had to resort to that, so plastic grocery sacks work well for us.

Depending on where you're staying, you may have access to laundry facilities, which can help limit the number of outfits that you have to pack for each person.

There's more to pack than just clothes and toiletries

One common rookie family vacation packing mistake is focusing only on clothes and toiletries. Depending on how long you're going to be gone, you'll want to make sure not to forget all the OTHER things that you typically use and depend on in your daily life.

For example: medications! Not only prescription medications, but over the counter meds as well, depending on where you go. We usually take a couple aspirin, Tylenol, melatonin, antacids and other medications with us. If you're traveling internationally, though, check the immigration/customs policy of the country you're traveling to as you don't want to go to jail for taking your meds abroad!

Also, don't forget cash. While credit cards are more and more prevalent, there may be places that only take cash. Depending on where you're traveling, it may be inconvenient (or more costly) to take out cash from an ATM.

Photo by Kenstocker/Getty Images
Photo by Kenstocker/Getty Images

Find the balance (especially with baby and kid stuff)

Another family vacation packing tip is finding the right balance of all the baby and kid stuff that many families travel with. You don't want to forget the necessities, but you also don't want to go overboard!

The "right" amount will vary by family and destination, but unless you're going somewhere VERY remote, it's likely that you don't have to account for EVERY possible contingency. Diapers can take up a lot of room in a suitcase, so decide how many it makes sense to pack vs. buy when you get there. The same goes for baby and toddler food and snacks. Bring enough to make the journey pleasant, but then (depending on destination) plan to get most goods while you're at your destination.

We've had good luck having each of our children pack a few books/toys to entertain themselves, a blanket and their favorite stuffed animal in their own backpack. Which brings me to my next point...

Let everyone carry their own backpack

Like I mentioned earlier, one major space hog seems to be all of the random items that kids absolutely MUST take with them. We're talking stuffed animals, blankets, night lights, books, knick knacks and other things to do.

If kids have to CARRY their own backpack, it helps them limit how much of that junk, err, important items they want to take with them. Of course, if your kids are little, you can augment the space in their backpack with space in larger suitcases. Still, even a little kid can carry some of his or her own personal items. My youngest daughter is six and she carries all of her own blankets, snugglies, books and other items. Kids as young as two or three years old can start to carry their own backpack through the airport and beyond.

Photo by Bonfanti Diego/Getty Images
Photo by Bonfanti Diego/Getty Images

What are your best family packing tips? Leave them in the comments below.

Featured image by Photo by @marn123424 via Twenty20