As a travel writer, I've raised my kids on the road. After dozens of family trips by planes, trains and automobiles, months spent living out of a duffel with newborns and teenagers, and plenty of mistakes and mishaps, I've learned a thing or two about packing for a family. Here’s everything you need to know to pack like a pro for your next family trip.
Know your baggage limits
If you're flying, don't start packing until you know the luggage weight and dimensions you can take on the plane. Check in advance about carry-on regulations for your departure airports as well as your airlines' baggage and weight limits. Baby formula, baby food and breast milk are usually allowed in reasonable quantities beyond the regulation carry-on liquid size, and most airlines do not charge for checked car seats, cribs and strollers.
Store essentials in a single day-pack
Consolidate everything that truly matters into one small, light backpack (and don’t let it out of your sight). That means paperwork (passports, tickets and a printed itinerary with hotel and transport details and reservation numbers), stuffed animals the kids can't sleep without, and anything difficult or expensive to replace. Start with your wallet, a cell phone and charger, prescription sunglasses, prescription medication, painkillers (for children and adults), plasters, an iPod (loaded with family favourites) and charger, a headlamp, an international adapter.
Make a list of stuff you absolutely can’t forget (like prescription medication) and tape it to your front door for final checks before you leave.
Use packing cubes to organise your stuff
Sorting items into sturdy, lightweight, canvas zipper bags eliminates the stress of digging through suitcases - try Eagle Creek (shop.eaglecreek.com) or eBags (ebags.com). Label your packing cubes so each child has one for 'bottoms', 'tops', and so on. Once on the road, dirty clothes go into a designated laundry cube.
Decide what you need to access on the road
In addition to a day-pack full of essentials, we carry an ‘Easy Access Bag’, a canvas tote or backpack (with convenient zipped pockets) that holds everything we might need to reach quickly on the road:
- Infant supplies
- Water bottle, snacks and gum (if flying, to ease ear pain)
- Entertainment, like paperback books, coloured pencils and a sharpener, colouring and sticker books, drawing paper, card games and other travel-sized activities
- Pyjamas, toothbrushes and toothpaste
- An extra pair of clothes and a compact fleece for each child
- An address book with stamps (for the kids' postcards)
- A portable DVD player, headphones and splitter, the charger and a handful of favourite DVDs and new ones purchased just for the trip.
Complete the arsenal in your checked luggage
If you don’t need it until your final destination, stow it away in your checked luggage. This is the stage where you risk over-packing, so lay out everything you think you'll need and then go through with a critical eye, taking out items you can leave behind.
- Medicine and first-aid essentials. Include medication for allergic reactions, upset stomachs, ibuprofen, anti-itch cream, Vaseline, a thermometer, bandages and plasters, antiseptic cream, tweezers and a pin protected by a wine-cork (for splinters), nail clippers and a hot water bottle.
- Clothing: think small, versatile, and layers. Pack comfortable favourites, but leave behind jewellery and clothes with sentimental value. Balance what they'd love to have against what they'd hate to lose. Don't skimp on underwear and socks, bathing suits, and add a second pair of PJs if there’s room.
- Waterproofs. Pack rain coats and (for younger kids) rain pants. Galoshes are a must if you're going to a rainy destination. Save room by packing your shampoo, soap and sunscreen, stored in a resealable bag (bring some spares), into the empty galoshes.
- Empty duffel. Try the super light North Face Flyweight (thenorthface.co.uk). If you acquire a lot of souvenirs along the way, it might even be easier to mail them home.
Bulky baby gear: rent or carry?
Several services offer baby-gear rental and infant supplies. Depending on the service, they can be waiting for you at your hotel or delivered to the airport. Try Jet Set Babies (jetsetbabies.com), Babies Travel Lite (babiestravellite.com), and (USA only) Baby’s Away (babysaway.com).
Personally I bring my own gear. All I really need is a baby carrier like a Baby Bjorn (babybjorn.co.uk); car seats; an umbrella stroller that is light, comfortable, and easy to fold (I like Maclaren - shopmaclarenbaby.com); and a portable crib. When choosing a portable crib, consider size, ease of assembly, and comfort – check out the Baby Bjorn Travel Crib (babybjorn.com), Phil and Ted’s Traveler Crib (philandteds.com), or the Koo-Di Bubble for Babies (koo-di.co.uk).
And finally… teach your kids to pack
I involve my kids in the packing process not because it's easier on me (it isn't), but because it builds their excitement for the trip. It also eases the anxiety that comes with leaving home. We discuss what to expect and what we might need, and pick out a few new toys, books and activities to enjoy on the road.
About a week before the trip, each child packs her own carry-on bag. When my youngest was a toddler, she squeezed as many stuffed puppies as she could into her pull-along blue elephant bag. She packed what she knew she needed (and took her job very seriously) but I packed what I knew she needed.
Now aged 14 and 11, our girls love thinking about the trip, planning for the trip, anticipating the trip. And as a mother and a traveller, I love that they love that. But I still make sure that we all have what we need, and that I know exactly where to find it.
Still not sure what to pack? Read out ultimate guide to packing like a pro before you go as well!
Need a few ideas on how to keep your young explorers entertained at home or on the road? Check out our Lonely Planet Kids books and apps. Kickstart the travel bug by showing them just how amazing our planet can be.