After 15 years of traveling the world with two kids, including many multi-stop trips where we had to pack and unpack multiple times, I think I've finally figured out the best way to pack, and I want to share my packing tips with you. I wish I had figured this out years ago on our five-stop Utah/Arizona national park vacation!
Packing Tip #1: No Checked Luggage
The most important packing tip is NO CHECKED LUGGAGE. Your goal is carry-on bags only, especially if you’re traveling internationally, because checked luggage can determine whether you make your connection or at least determine how frazzled you are traveling through customs. Here’s why:
When you arrive in a new country, you have to clear customs and wait at baggage claim to claim your bag. If you have a connecting flight, then you have to recheck your bag and go back through security. If there are any travel delays or if the airport is large and confusing (which most international airports are), that extra step of baggage claim and recheck can make or break your trip. Here's two personal examples:
On our flight home from Turks & Caicos, we were connecting in Charlotte before heading home to Indianapolis. Our first flight was delayed, so we had limited time to make the connection. We had to wait at baggage claim for our luggage, because I hadn’t yet learned how important it is to NOT check a bag. Another local family was waiting with us for their bags. We got lucky and ours came out first, so we RAN to recheck, RAN through security, and then RAN to the gate. As you know, running through the airport with kids is NOT fun. We were the last ones on the plane. That other family didn’t make it on the flight and ended up having to rent a car and drive nine hours to get home. Ugh. If we didn’t have checked bags to wait on, we all would have made the connection.
On our recent trip to London and Paris, we bought roundtrip London air because one-way tickets to Europe are significantly more expensive. This meant that on our last day, we had to fly from Paris to London before flying home. I did not follow my own advice and I had checked a bag to accommodate our Paris photo shoot outfits. Our Paris to London flight was separate from our roundtrip ticket, so we had to clear customs in London, claim my bag, and then check in for our flight home in a completely different terminal that was miles away. This process was harrowing to begin with because Heathrow is a nightmare, but having to wait on my bag and recheck it added more steps to an already difficult layover. We had four hours to make this connection, and we needed every single minute!
This learning leads to an additional travel tip that saving money on air isn’t necessarily worth complicating your travel itinerary!
So this is why I recommend no checked luggage. Here are specific packing tips on how to fit everything in your carry-ons so you don’t have to check luggage.
Packing Tip #2: Each traveler has a sturdy wheeled suitcase + personal carry-on
Monos Carry-on Plus is my favorite wheeled suitcase - it holds a ton and fits nicely in the overhead bin.
I've tried a number of personal carry-ons and Calpak Luka Duffel is my favorite by far. I can fit all my extras in here (toiletries, shoes, my laptop) and its sleeve slides easily onto my suitcase handle so it's stable on top of my suitcase while I'm walking through the airport. On the airplane, I squeeze it under the seat in front of me unless there's extra room in the overhead bins. My kids use their backpacks for their personal carry-on, which they can wear or strap to the suitcase handle. Look for a backpack that has a strap that connects to the suitcase handle so it doesn’t fall off. My daughter has one and it’s a game-changer. After this last trip where Brady's backpack kept falling off his suitcase, the Calpak Luka Backpack is going on his Christmas list!
Look for a sturdy wheeled suitcase and an expandable personal carry-on that slides easily onto your suitcase handle.
Packing Tip #3: Invest in packing cubes
You can fit so much more using cubes, and it helps keep clothes organized and keeps the hotel room tidy while in destination. I suggest a different color for each traveler. My kids have inexpensive colored cubes from Amazon, while I love my Monos multi-size cubes.
Packing cubes will change your life!
Packing Tip #4: Plan out your travel wardrobe before packing
Lay out an outfit per day per person - a top, a bottom, underwear, and socks. I don't care that my kids are old enough to pack their own bag. This is serious business, so I pack for them to ensure they have what they need and ensure everything is packed efficiently. I use this as an opportunity to make them wear the nicer clothes they refuse to wear to school. :)
PJs, jackets/sweatshirts and evening wear go in the Extras pile as they will wear these more than once.
No more than 1 or 2 extra pair of shoes per person (other than what they’re wearing on the plane). And that extra pair of shoes has to fit in their personal carry-on bag.
Packing Tip #5: Roll your clothes (not fold and stack) in the packing cubes
You'll be amazed how much more you can fit! Rolling means you're filling every nook and cranny and maximizing your space. Fill those cubes to the absolute max if you need to!
Packing Tip #6: Each traveler gets one packing cube for every few days
Pack your clothes for your first stop or your first few days in a cube, not all your shirts in a cube. This is why it's important to plan ahead and lay out an outfit for each day before you pack.
For our London and Paris trip, my kids each had a London cube, a Paris cube, and an extras cube while I had London 1, London 2, Paris 1 and Paris 2. Mama gets more! You can be a dork like me and label the cubes, too!
Packing Tip #7: Change the way you pack your suitcases
Instead of a suitcase per person, pack a suitcase for every few days or every stop. For example, between my kids and me, we had a London suitcase, a Paris suitcase, and an extras suitcase. At our first stop, we opened the London and the extras suitcase. Then when we moved to Paris, all the dirty clothes went in the London suitcase, and we opened the Paris and the extras suitcases.
This way of packing is especially crucial for cramped hotel rooms or cruise cabins when you don’t have room to have four or more suitcases open.
Packing Tip #8: Don’t forget other bags or essentials you’ll need for your destination
Fanny packs, cross-body bags, and lightweight backpacks are crucial for sightseeing and hiking. And don't forget a beach bag if you're going somewhere tropical as well as quick-dry towels and water shoes. Last, but not least, be sure to strap a neck pillow to your personal carry-on as those are invaluable on long plane and train rides.
When you use a professional Travel Advisor like me, I remind you about all the essentials for your destination!
I bought this cross-body bag because I knew I'd need something I could wear in the front to guard against pickpockets. And I know my neck pillow looks weird, but it's sturdy enough to support my head without leaning!
If you’re ready to get outbound and put these packing tips to good use, book a call and let’s start planning!
Heather Vergara is a former PepsiCo marketing executive who left the corporate world to be a Mom and never found her way back. Instead, she focused on her passion for travel and adventure and created Show Them the World, a travel concierge service for busy families longing to reconnect and see the world together. In less than three years, she's helped more than 200 families experience Hawaii, Alaska, Costa Rica, France, England, Greece, the Caribbean, National Parks, and more to come!
Heather has an MBA in marketing from Indiana University, a Digital Marketing Executive Education certificate from Columbia University, and a BA in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lives with her husband, two kids, and two furry dogs in Zionsville, Indiana.