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Before I had kids, I got pretty good at minimalist packing.  I generally never used a suitcase and could basically go anywhere, any length of time with just a backpack. It was WONDERFUL! I never had to worry about uneven ground, or stairs, or where to store my suitcase.  I had tons of freedom, and while I always struggled during the packing process, I never missed any of it while traveling.  

But then I had twins and everything changed.  

The whole minimalist packing thing fell apart before they were even born, as I was getting ready to head to the hospital to give birth, and the bags just started piling up and they NEVER stopped!  And it’s true, going anywhere with kids, especially tiny ones, feels overwhelming because it feels like you need SO much stuff.  

But after some practice, and some soul searching because we hate lugging around a bunch of stuff, we’ve cut back the luggage substantially. These are our favorite, tried and true packing tips for families with young children.

Packing for a family
That car seat bag is still massive… but our packing situation is tolerable

Motivation

Minimalist packing isn’t for everyone.  It can be tough, that’s for sure. I’ve been doing this for quite a while now, but every time I pack, I pack once, look at how MUCH it is, then go through and start cutting out things I don’t absolutely need.  But, cutting back on the luggage is so freeing, and to me, it’s totally a vacation stress reliever. 

When you need some motivation to not pack something you want to pack, consider your priorities. As someone who loves to travel, or someone who at least IS traveling, you probably value experiences over stuff.  Perhaps, for you, how you spend your day is much more important than how you look while doing it.  And honestly, if you are a parent of young children, you probably don’t have perfect hair or fancy clothes.  That’s not to say that you can’t look nice. Absolutely you can be stylish and put-together while working the minimalist look. 

So is your luggage holding you back? Stressing you out? Keeping you from enjoying your travels, or from traveling at all? Remember those things as you start packing.  Keep in mind how frustrating it is to be so encumbered by luggage, and how much you’d like the freedom of a lighter load.  Lighten up, literally and figuratively, and start planning your PERFECT family vacation!

Get Packing

First Step: Where are you staying?

As you look at options for lodging while traveling, consider what each place provides.  One non-negotiable item for us when my twins were very small was pack ‘n plays. Traveling with pack ‘n plays, or really any kind of infant travel bed (times two!) winds up being a LOT of luggage.  However, nearly all hotels, and many VRBO rentals have pack n plays available to borrow. We found many hotels would even give us two! Now that our kids are older, we make sure we have a bed for them, and either bring inflatable bed rails, or borrow bed rails from the hotel.  

If we are staying at a friend or family member’s house, or don’t have a bed for them for some other reason, we bring these air mattresses and LOVE them.  They are colorful, and kid-sized to save precious suitcase space 

Hotels typically provide a blow dryer, shampoo, conditioner, soap, lotion, potentially even baby shampoo and lotion, pack n play, bed rails. You’ll want to carefully check the amenities available wherever you are staying and make sure you don’t bring anything you don’t need to.  

VRBO or Homeaway rentals typically supply less, but they certainly vary- read reviews and descriptions, or just ask your host.  Many VRBOs even have toys, paper to color, and books! 

Check the weather

Then recheck it. Maybe even one more time.  I also love checking out average monthly weather reports just to give you a bit more information on what to expect, weather-wise.  Bringing clothes just in case, for every possible scenario is a sure way to end up with way too much stuff.  BUT, on the flip side, you don’t want to end up on a 7-day vacation in the rain without even a rain jacket.  

Packing List

Once you have a pretty good idea what you’ll need to bring, start making a list. I start a list at least a week in advance, just whenever I have a moment to think. I create a list on Google Keep on my phone and share it with my husband/co-packer. You can add checkboxes in Google Keep, which is nice when it comes to actually doing the packing

Packing list
Here’s an example of my packing list craziness. I LOVE these lists!

I start my list as just a brainstorming list- perhaps it’ll have a note on whether we want to bring a stroller or a travel baby monitor. As we get closer, and decisions get made, I refine my list to a very specific, comprehensive list of every little thing we need so that I check off each item as it gets packed and know I didn’t forget anything. This works well for me because I can make all of these decisions during my downtime (waiting at the dentist or the preschool parking lot). Because I’m doing this in advance, I can think through what I really need, and give myself time to reduce the list.

The night before travel, I only need to mindlessly collect all the items on my list and put them in a suitcase. In the past, I’d ended up nervously packing until 2 or 3 am before a big travel day. When I’m in charge of packing for my young children, I just can’t do that. This packing tip SAVES me!

Packing for yourself

I don’t know why this is, but there are some strange psychological things we go through when packing for a vacation.  We imagine ourselves as a completely different person on vacation. Jeans and t-shirt people feel like they need 9 dress-up outfits for a weekend trip.  Maybe you wear the bra for two weeks in a row at home (no judgment here) but feel you need to bring every bra you own just in case.  In your mind, your entire clothing style changes on vacation.  

So be honest with yourself.  Bring clothing that you are comfortable and confident in.  Vacation is not the time to test out a new look. If you don’t love an item, don’t bring it.  No sense bringing anything you WANT to love, but just don’t love, and won’t end up wearing or using. If you want to try out something new, spend some time in it at home to make sure you really love it.  

Choosing Clothing

Choose neutral colors and patterns, and clothing that can be re-worn.  Make sure every item goes with every other item, if possible. For example, black leggings go with ALMOST anything, and can be dressed up or down.  A black or cream-colored open cardigan works with tons of outfits and can easily be re-worn. 

You’ll also want to master the art of layering.  Once you have, the same 3 or 4 items can work for temperature in the 50s (°F) up to the 80s.  So you’ll save the space you WOULD have needed for the bulky cool-weather outfit. A wool or synthetic top, cardigans or open sweaters, and t-shirts work great as layering pieces.  

Shoes are huge!  Just a few pairs of shoes can completely take over your suitcase.  So choose carefully- VERY carefully. Choose only one, or if they are small, two pairs of shoes. If you need boots, stick with just ONE, tops, if at ALL possible (of course a winter ski vacation might be a notable exception).  Bring a casual pair of sneakers that can work at the gym or strolling around town. Or find a great pair of flats that go with everything. Just make sure whatever you bring is comfortable and TESTED so you know it won’t give you blisters! Nothing like realizing your ONLY shoes are giving you blisters (yup- I’ve done that.  Definitely don’t recommend bringing one pair of flip flops that you’ve never even tried on for your Hawaiian beach vacation). 

Before I had kids, I’d pack only a couple of tops and a couple of bottoms, all easy to hand wash, and quick-drying.  I could easily hand wash items in the sink and re-wear. It was totally doable, but also QUITE a commitment to going ultra-lightweight.  Now that I’m packing for the four of us, ultra-light just isn’t going to happen. And I don’t hold myself to the ultralight standard. But, as I pack, I like to at least keep in mind that it’s POSSIBLE.  I can get by with just a few items, and it doesn’t take away from vacation at all- I’m perfectly happy.

So test yourself. Cut back a little at a time and see how it goes. You might be surprised how much you like it.  

Kids

Packing light for kids, especially younger kids with absolutely ZERO incentive to pack light, can be quite a bit trickier.  The biggest thing is that infants and toddlers are messy and can go through about a thousand outfits a day.  Even those tiny baby outfits turn into a lot of luggage if you let it. 

So here’s my packing tip: While on vacation, let your kids get a little bit dirty.  Maybe at home, you’d change every time your child gets a little yogurt smudge, or a tiny bit of dirt on his/her butt.  While on vacation, just let it go! It’ll make you and your child’s lives a little bit easier, and really it won’t do any harm, even if it feels a little bit strange.  Let them re-wear pajamas. Maybe even let them re-wear clothing, if it’s not TOO dirty. Give them a bath sometimes, and they’ll be ok, I promise!

Very dirty baby on vacation
SO messy but he’s super happy, and totally fine (though I had to use a few laundry tricks to get the stains out once we got home).

If you have easy access to laundry facilities, definitely do it.  Of course, washing clothing in the sink is always an option. But, for me, unless it’s absolutely necessary, washing kids clothing in the sink is not worth the trouble. Buying special quick-drying options simply isn’t worth it for kids that outgrow clothing every week and a half.  

There is a temptation to want to look extra cute/perfect/whatever while on vacation.  But don’t bring that outfit that your kid hates JUST because it’s cute.  Snap the photo of the adorable sweater your child will ONLY wear for 2 minutes at home.  Save the suitcase space and remember, let your kids live in clothes they love, even if it’s not YOUR favorite (at least when you are on vacation).

Toiletries

The whole bathroom bag situation has been a struggle for me.  I’ve been working really hard on cutting back and I’m finally too a point where my former-minimalist packing self is not embarrassed about the size of our family toiletry bag. 

I’m a BIT of a lotion addict and perhaps a little fanatical about my hair health and texture, so I WANT to bring 23 bottles of lotion for every situation, conditioning masks, leave-in conditioners, etc. just in case my hair and skin don’t handle the change in temperature or humidity very well.  But the fact is my skin and hair are well in the ‘normal’ range, and I can easily get away with hotel shampoo and lotions (MOSTLY. I do always pack my hand lotion). If you are anywhere in the ‘normal’ range for hair and skin, give it a try. You can probably survive on hotel toiletries. 

Another option is to try shampoo (and even conditioner) bars.  They take up way less space than the liquid kind, plus you don’t have to follow the liquid rules if you are carrying on.  AND no single-use plastics! These ones on Amazon are really great and keep my hair healthy and looking at least decent (which is really as good as it gets for me).  

Another potentially huge space saver is simplifying your look. Maybe makeup is your thing, and you love having a new, glamorous look every day.  If so, do you! But I’m gonna guess MOST of us with small children keep our looks pretty simple.

 I used to have these big aspirations to actually do a whole makeup look on every vacation.  But honestly, I have two kids. I’m definitely not going to spend more than 5 minutes on makeup, and I’m definitely not going anywhere where it will really matter if my makeup is done. 

So I stick with the very basics. Something to cover up the dark circles under my eyes, and basic eye make up because I like it.  It doesn’t take up much space at all, and I can still feel like I’m a bit more put-together.  Give it a try! Stick with the simple look on vacation. Maybe even go makeup-free!

Toiletries for a semi-minimalist family

This is what works for me:

  • Face moisturizer which doubles as eye makeup remover
  • Tiny bottle of trusted baby soap because my kids have sensitive skin
  • Baby lotion, again because of sensitive skin.  I can share with them as well
  • Comb
  • Mascara
  • Concealer
  • Basic eye shadow with a brush
  • Eyelash curler– I ADORE mine!
  • Tweezer
  • Deodorant 
  • Razor
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Contacts/glasses
  • Q-tips – multipurpose!
  • Medicine
    • Just a couple of adult ibuprofen
    • Children’s Motrin if I have any reason to be concerned
    • A couple of Pepto Bismol for my and my husband’s slightly sensitive tummies

PLUS: If shampoo/conditioner/soap is not provided, I add a bar (or a half bar) or Dove soap (doubles as body and face wash), and small shampoo and conditioner bars.  If I REALLY REALLY want to bring a blowdryer, I have this great little mini one I absolutely love.  

Extras

Toys

Some kids are just not toy kids.  If yours are like this, great! You can just totally skip toys, and let your child play with whatever you come across on your travels.  Do a happy dance knowing you have saved precious suitcase space!

My kids are HUGE on toys.  At the first mention of going somewhere, often the first question they ask me is ‘are there gonna be toys there?’. I’m pretty sure they love their toys more than they love me.  

As much as we’d love to skip bringing toys, it’s just not worth the headache.  Even if we stay super busy, we’ll have downtime as we wind down for bed at the hotel, moments when we are waiting for a meal, or when we are trying to get everyone packed up and out the door in the morning.  Toys keep them happy and occupied and are a total lifesaver for us. 

It’s easy to get carried away though.  So many toys are huge and require lots of space and setup time and wind up just not being functional on vacation.  If you bring toys, keep it simple. Pick just a few toys that can be played within a few ways, don’t require a ton of space or set up, and things you know they love.  Our go-to are small cars and trucks. We also love tiny Play-doh tubs, Squigz, Plus-Plus blocks, and finger puppets or small animals.

Comfort items

Kids love routine and familiarity, even on a family vacation.  Many kids love bringing their own special lovey, pillow, blanket, sleeping bag, extra pillow….. And on and on until you have a suitcase full of items that are nice to have but absolutely not necessary.  Pack a comfort item, but just ONE. They will still get to bring a special something from home without the situation getting out of hand.  My kids each get to bring one stuffed animal from home on vacation

Electronics

The great thing about electronics is that they are multi-use.  A tablet can be a white noise machine, a book, a tv ready to go with your favorite shows, even one side of a baby monitor in a bind.  And tablets with headphones are a lifesaver for us! We try to minimize screen time in general, but we don’t feel bad at all about the screen time they get on vacation.

Diapers

If your traveling with a child (or a couple of children) still in diapers, making space can be tough!  Do a little research on what is available at your destination. If you are traveling within the US, you can certainly pick up disposable diapers at your destination.  Or, you can often order on Amazon and get it delivered to your hotel. Buying diapers at your destination won’t ALWAYS be the best option, but whenever you can do it easy, DO! It saves a ton of precious suitcase space.

Putting it all together

YOU NEED PACKING CUBES

Yes yes, I know. Packing cubes are on every travel tip post ever written, but for good reason. When it comes to actually, physically packing, packing cubes are a MUST! Packing cubes keep you organized no matter if you are a unpack-as-soon-as-you-get-there type, or a live-out-of-the-suitcase type. When packing for a family, I love to choose one color for each person (my twins don’t really have their own clothes, they share everything, so they get one color), so I know what everything is at a glance.

When it comes to packing with packing cubes, there are lots of advantages. First, you can really easily visualize how much you are packing for each person in your family. I pack everything into the packing cubes, then stack them up and my husband does the tetris-fitting them into the suitcase game. So once they are filled, I take a look, one last time, and see if the volume is reasonable, or if I can cut a couple of things out.

Secondly, when using packing cubes, I sort clothing by type. For example, all the tops go in one, bottoms in other, pjs, underwear and socks in a 3rd. So it’s easy for me to hold the cube of tops next to the cube of bottoms and make sure everything, or MOST everything goes together, so I can easily mix and match.

And thirdly, when packing with packing cubes, it’s easy to pack whatever you CAN pack in advance. For example, where we live in the rainy PNW, we don’t often need beachwear or swimsuits. I can easily pack those up in advance, zip up the packing cube, and check it off my list.

Need a Recommendation?

If you’ve never used packing cubes before and aren’t sure what to buy, don’t worry! I’d go out on a limb and say all packing cubes are great. Pick small and medium-sized cubes, at least to start (the large ones are just TOO big and kinda defeat the purpose, to me), and cubes that come in a variety of colors so that each family member can have their own. I love these Amazon Basics cubes. Or, if you wanted an upgrade cube, these Eagle Creek compression cubes are GOLDEN and so magical for saving space!

Carry-on

If you’ve ever traveled before with your kids, you know how important your carry-on is. Little kids are SO hard on the plane, and whatever you pack in your carry-on is the key to keeping them happy and QUIET – no pressure!

What to pack in your carry-on when flying with babies or toddlers is WHOLE topic in itself. Chances are you have a couple of toys, and some kind of electronic device. Great, so those few toys you bring for the plane right MIGHT just be enough for your trip. Try it at least. For very young toddlers, maybe try keeping one little item as a surprise for the ride home. And a tablet– that is a TV for parents and a great source of entertainment for downtown for kids. It’s a GREAT use of space in my mine.

When you get home

Take notes on what you used and did not use.  Note if you ran out of certain toiletries, or ended up with way more than you needed.  Which clothing items did you love wearing, and which could have been skipped. Write it down even. Keep improving every time, and before you know it, you’ll be a true minimalist! Packing light takes work and practice, so keep at it!

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