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Tips & Advice

How to Pack for a Trip with Kids (Without Losing Your Mind)

by Hitha Palepu

Photo credit: Bernd Vogel, Corbis Collection/ Getty Images

Packing for a trip is hard enough. Packing for yourself AND your children seems impossible.

Would you believe me if I told you it could be fun?

I began traveling at 5 months old, when I flew to London with my mother to visit family. She juggled it all — my car seat, our luggage, and a diaper bag — by herself. And we never stopped traveling, with annual trips to India and frequent flights around the United States.

Today, I’m in the mother role, packing and preparing my toddler for various trips. And while the first few experiences were harrowing, they’re now quite fun.

All you need is a plan, a list, and to enlist your kid’s help in the process.

And maybe a few surprises for them.

Preparing Them for the Trip

A week before the trip, I’ll check out a few books that tie in with our upcoming journey. We curl up on the couch and read the stories, and I talk about the trip we’re about to take. We talk about what we’re going to do, who we’re going to see, and what we’re bringing along to make us feel at home.

One of my travel rituals is to write packing lists for myself and my son (even if we’re just going away for a weekend). By putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to note exactly what you need for the things you’re doing, you’re being mindful about what you need versus what you might frantically throw inside the suitcase at the last minute.

Packing Their Suitcase

My son is still under two, so he’s not exactly helpful with picking out what to wear or pack. But something my mother did with me was to ask what I wanted to wear during our trip, put in the context of our activities.

“What do you want to wear to the zoo in San Diego? It’s going to be warm and sunny!”

“What do you want to wear on Christmas morning? We’re dressing up to take family pictures.”

By providing a few details and giving me the choice to pick out my outfit, I was far more interested in both the trip and the process than if she had packed for me alone.

As they select their main clothing items, you can focus on the essentials — diapers or underwear, outerwear depending on the weather, comfort items, and their toiletries. As your child grows older, they can start helping you pack the actual luggage by playing the game of “packing Tetris.”

Packing Their Carry-On

My backpack was the first item I started packing as a child, and it’s a great way to have your kids start packing for themselves. Consider your transit time and plan for delays when talking about what to pack. Will you need extra snacks (or allergy medicine)? What activities does your kid enjoy? Talk about the actual journey ahead, let them pick out what they want to do, and then help them pack it. As they grow older and travel more, they’ll be able to pack this bag themselves — and even look forward to it!

Travel is always made easier with a surprise or two. If possible, purchase a few new items to sneak in their bag for an unexpected delight — new books, a fresh box of crayons, stickers, and blank sheets of paper.

Your kid will be so proud to wear their backpack and strut through the airport as they prepare for a new journey. And you can relax a bit and hopefully enjoy that new novel that you’ve been waiting to read.

Things to Remember

I subscribe to the “oxygen mask on an airplane” philosophy when it comes to packing for myself and my son. While I’ll write out both our packing lists a week before the trip, I’ll always set aside an hour to pack for myself, uninterrupted. I like to play music that sets the tone for the trip (Disney soundtracks before a Disney World trip, chill playlists for a beach vacation) and focus on myself and my suitcase. I’m much more patient when packing with my son, which I like to set aside 2-2.5 hours for the day before.

My son is still in diapers, so I will pack enough diapers/wipes/Aquaphor for the first two days and purchase more when we arrive. For sunny trips, purchase sunscreen and other bulk toiletries upon arrival (or order them on Amazon and have them delivered to your destination). If you know you’ll go through plenty of shampoo, lotion, and sunblock, it’s best to get them on arrival and use them up on your trip.

There are a few things I will overpack for my son — extra clothing (usually an extra outfit for every two days on top of his daily outfits) and snacks (there’s nothing worse than a hungry toddler or husband). I will also have a Mophie or two on hand, in case we have to charge devices on the go. As much as I prefer my son to read, sometimes you need an episode of “Sesame Street” to get you through a flight delay or slow service at a restaurant.

Happy packing, and safe travels!