Traveling with children is a logistical nightmare. This advice will make it less so.
Picture it: Two parents, two kids, kajillion pieces of luggage. Sounds about right. Between all the diapers, extra outfits in case of blow-outs, sand pails, and stuffed animals, you feel like you’ve practically had to pack up the whole house just for a week-long vacation. But there are a few tricks you can try to streamline what you bring without feeling like you’re going full minimalist. Because, seriously, you don’t want to be lugging a bunch of baggage around an airport while still trying to hold your kid’s hand. And even if you’re road-tripping, you’ll need to conserve space in the trunk. So it’s wise to try and condense the whole family’s belongings into one or two suitcases at most (one per parent). It’s totally doable once you know the right tips.
And don’t be afraid to get a little creative if something goes awry and you don’t have what you need. That muslin baby blanket can also be a nursing cover, a sun shade, or an airplane blanket. You can scrunch it up and it becomes a pillow or use it to wipe up messes as a last resort. And hey, if the pattern is right, you can tie it on, sarong-style, as a pool cover-up or wear it like a scarf. It’s all good.
The younger the kids, the more equipment you’ll need. But, come on, are you really expected to bring a high chair, a crib, a carseat, a pack ‘n play, and a stroller? That’s madness. You may want to think hard about what items you can make do without. Maybe you could use a baby carrier instead of a stroller. Or if your kid is a little older, you might want to buy a lightweight umbrella stroller, which you can pick up for less than $50. Or instead of a high chair, consider springing for this Munchkin Brica GoBoost Travel Booster Seat that packs up into a shoulder bag so you can use it at restaurants, too.
If you plan on staying at an Airbnb, you can filter properties to those that have a crib within the amenities drop-down menu. Or call ahead to the hotel you’ll be staying at and ask if they have a crib you can reserve. Another genius idea? Rent the gear you’ll need while you are there. Check out BabyQuip, which loans out everything from strollers, cribs, and carseats to baby bathtubs and playpens in over 900 cities in the U.S. and beyond. No worries, all the gear is thoroughly cleaned and can be delivered right to the airport, hotel, or vacation rental.
To cut down on the amount of toys, give each kid their very own backpack (preferably a mini one) and tell them they can bring whatever toys, books, or wubby they want as long as it all fits in the backpack and — here’s the catch — they need to carry it themselves. If you have to pack beach towels (many hotels and resorts supply them), buy quick-dry towels, like those from Dock & Bay, which dry super-fast and can be folded-up to fit into a small pouch.
Does the place you’ll be visiting get chilly at night? If so, you may want to pack more than shorts and tees. Is rain expected during the week you’ll be there? Depending on your itinerary, you may want to pack a water-resistant windbreaker if you’ll be sightseeing. (It can also double as a jacket if it’s cold.) But otherwise, you might just want to wing it and take a chance, then buy an umbrella and souvenir sweatshirt when you’re there if necessary. It’ll be fine.
You’ll be less likely to overpack if you plan ahead of time what each kid will wear every day. Do your best to limit just-in-case outfits to two. But you know your kids best and if you’ve got an infant or a potty-training toddler, you know you’ll have to pack extra. Don’t expect your kid to be able to rewear clothes beyond pajamas, a sweatshirt, and a swimsuit — daily ice-cream drips are practically a guarantee. That said, you may want to lean into darks, brights, and prints that are better at disguising stains than that white linen romper — so at least you won’t feel like you need to change them asap if they spill. If you’re in an Airbnb, you can always do a load of laundry too.
We’re not going to tell you to pack neutrals, because that’s just not realistic in a kid wardrobe. If by some miracle there are some garments your kids can rewear, don’t sweat it if things don’t exactly match. Kids can get away with all sorts of crazy combinations and they’ll still look cute —camouflage with sharks, polka dots with florals, whatev!
Limit each person to two pairs of shoes, if possible. For a beach vacation, that could mean sandals and a pair of sneakers. The bulkiest shoes get worn on travel days so you don’t have to squeeze them into a suitcase.
Rolling clothes takes up less space than folding. Layer each day’s outfit, with the shirt and shorts or pants folded in half longways, and then the underwear and socks placed on top, then roll them up together. In the morning, you can just grab a roll to get kids dressed and their clothes will less likely be wrinkled too.
Place the outfit rolls in a packing cube to keep things contained and organized — and then you can easily move each person’s cube to a dresser when you arrive. Or you can place the outfit rolls in gallon-sized plastic zippered bags, making sure to compress as much air out as possible so that they’ll stack up somewhat flat. If you’ve got a curious toddler who loves to pull clothes out of laundry baskets and drawers, they’ll probably adore digging through your neatly packed luggage too. But if all the clothes are compartmentalized into outfits and by person in clear plastic bags, your little one can cause disarray to their heart’s content, and everything will still be relatively easy to clean up and organize.
Unless you’re going to a remote cabin in the woods, there will be a pharmacy wherever you go. Don’t bust your butt trying to squeeze a week’s worth of diapers and wipes into the trunk. Just pack plenty for the journey and pick up extra once you are there. You can do the same for all your toiletries if you’re low on space — though it’s a good idea to bring a small first-aid kit with children’s Tylenol, Neosporin, Band-Aids, and anything else so you can tend to a sick or injured kid asap. Don’t get caught up in all the “what if” scenarios and fall into the trap of feeling like you need to bring a bunch of random stuff. Chances are, anything you may need will be easy to find there. Relax, it’s vacation.
Yolanda Wikiel is a writer and editor based in New Jersey, where she lives with her son, husband, and cat. She has covered everything from home, food, and life skills to fashion, travel, and consumer goods for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Parents, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Oprah, and Woman’s Day.