Packing light is a challenge on every family vacation. Most airlines charge for checked bags, and overhead bins are stuffed. There is only so much cargo space in the family car. Cruise ship cabins are ridiculously small.
We typically pack one carry-on suitcase and one small backpack per person. Most kids and adults can manage a small rolling suitcase and a backpack without much trouble, and travel is so much easier when everyone carries their own stuff.
Occasionally, we squeeze everything we need into even less space. My family of four spent 10 days in Florida with three small suitcases and 11 days in New York with one large suitcase and two backpacks.
Where there's a will, there's a way! Here are my family's top tips for packing light.
Wear clothes twice
Clothes typically take up the most space, so that's the most obvious place to cut back. You probably don't need as much clothing as you think.
I've found that well-chosen clothes can usually be worn at least a couple of times without needing more than a spritz of Febreze or a spot scrub with a washcloth. That means you can pack just 2-3 outfits for a one-week trip.
One exception: I do not wear underwear twice. I hand wash delicates in the hotel sink when needed.
Plan to do laundry if your trip lasts longer than a week. It will ensure that those three outfits last as long as your vacation.
Book a hotel or vacation home with guest laundry facilities, or visit a laundromat. Laundromats often have efficient machines that wash and dry your clothes fast. Plus you can use more than one washer at once, so laundry doesn't have to take you away from your vacation for long.
Laundry supplies take up little space in a suitcase. You just need a roll of quarters and either detergent pods or a travel bottle of liquid detergent. The travel bottle is better than pods if you will hand wash items in your hotel sink.
Related: 3 Ways to Use Packing Cubes
Choose versatile pieces
Pack clothing that can work for both casual and dress-up activities. For example, I love easy dresses and skirts. They are comfortable enough for an airplane and dressy enough for a theater matinee or date night dinner. Sometimes a scarf or necklace can transform an outfit while taking up little space in a suitcase.
Shoes fill a lot of space in a suitcase, so it's especially important that they be versatile. I usually wear my bulkiest pair of shoes (i.e. good walking shoes) on the plane or in the car. Then I pack a second, smaller pair in the suitcase. The second pair is usually dress shoes or sandals, depending on our travel plans. If I pack a third pair, they need to be almost flat, like flip-flops.
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Pack around a common color theme
Choosing outfits that you can mix and match will help keep your travel wardrobe versatile and interesting. If one article of clothing gets dirty, you can still wear a piece from that outfit with something else.
It's easier to pack just a couple of pairs of shoes when they go with everything.
Denim is bulky. It takes more space in a suitcase than other fabrics and is not comfortable in warm weather.
That doesn't mean that I never pack denim. Jeans and tees are durable staples for my kids and a stylish pair of jeans can be versatile. Newer stretch denim is less bulky too. However, if you're trying to find more space in the suitcase, swapping out the denim for lighter fabrics may help.
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Buy travel sizes
Buy travel-sized toothpaste, shampoo, lotion, shaving cream, and other daily essentials instead of packing full sizes. Travel sizes typically last my family 1-2 weeks when we each have our own.
Another advantage of travel sizes is that you can carry them onto an airplane. Any liquids over 3 ounces must be checked or thrown away.
Unless you have a large family and you're all sharing, full-size items just take up too much space. Refill your travel bottles or buy new ones for every trip.
Related: Our Favorite Travel Toys for Kids
Buy or rent when you get there
I usually do my shopping before the trip because it saves time and money. However, I can almost always replenish supplies like diapers, wet wipes, sunscreen, and snacks after we arrive at our destination.
If you expect to buy souvenir t-shirts, consider those wardrobe additions when you pack.
Will you need special equipment like snorkels? Consider renting it when you get there. If you only need it for a few hours, it might be more convenient to rent it than to pack your own.
Related: Airport Security Tips for Families
Just say NO to “just in case”
Don't pack anything that isn't absolutely essential. I rarely use anything that I packed “just in case.” It only takes up space and makes my suitcase heavier.
You can usually buy that “just in case” item at your destination if you really do need it.
Exceptions to this rule might include Band-Aids and antibiotic ointment or a travel umbrella. Items like these take little space but can be lifesavers if you need them.
We've been traveling as a family for years, and I still have to resist the temptation to overpack. Every. Single. Time.
But… I rarely miss the stuff that I left home. An abundance of clothes, shoes, and toiletries doesn't improve the wonderful memories we make when we get there. I am always grateful to have just a few carefully-chosen items.
I hope that our experience helps your family to pack lighter and enjoy your travels more.
Do you have packing tips to add? If so, please share them in the comments!
We packed as light as we could on our recent trip to Maine. For my kids’ clothes, I like to create outfits and roll them up to pack them tightly in large ziplock bags. It keeps me organized as well as forces the clothes to be even smaller. And if my infant son had an explosion of any kind, I could easily identify his items in my carry-on and get him changed. And it’s nice to be able to lay everything out and see what’s been packed so I can eliminate any excess when it comes to finally putting everything in a suitcase.
Rolling and bagging is a great way to save space and organize! I used reusable packing cubes for the same purpose on our NYC trip. Thanks Liv!
I use all of these tips when I travel. Planning an upcoming vacation and since it is winter I want to pack an extra pair of shoes, hoping they will fit in the carry on this time. Love the tip of bringing laundry soap to spot clean as needed. Never thought of that one. Thanks.
Winter requires bulkier clothes and shoes, so it is a tricky time to pack light. Sounds like you’ve got it under control. Have a great trip!
This is a good article. Glad to learn some tips. Thanks for these.
You’re welcome. Thanks for your comment, Isaac!
Very good article! I also prefer to pack less and if it’s possible to buy some stuff from the place I am going to.
I appreciate your packing tips and will rethink my love of denim.