Make Your Vacation Easier: Pack Less Than You Think You Need

This post is part of our Summer Shortcuts series. Sarah and I are taking turns all summer long sharing little “cheats” and ways we give ourselves a break during the summer months. Enjoy! -Meagan

simplify packing.jpg

Yes, you read that right. Another clothing-based Summer Shortcuts post. It makes sense, though, doesn’t it? No matter how much more relaxed your summer schedule might be, there are two constants that never really change in a household that includes kids: they need to be fed, and they need to wear something on their bodies. 

And never does it become more apparent just how many changes of clothes a typical kid goes through in a week than when you’re traveling.

You know the feeling: you’re staring at an empty suitcase (or three or four) wondering just how few shirts, shorts/pants, hoodies/sweaters, underwear and socks you can get away with packing so you can fit everything in the car and still find some clean clothes in the drawers when you return home. (Because really, what’s worse than having to immediately do four loads of laundry when you return home from vacation just so you have something not-gross to wear?)

After spending the last sixteen-plus years packing for multiple kid-toting road trips and vacations of all sorts, I’m here to tell you: pack a lot less than you think you have to, and you’ll be just fine.

Case in point: we recently went on a five-day trip to visit relatives in Buffalo, and brought just two medium-sized suitcases and a carry-on sized bag that held electronics and other miscellaneous “stuff.” Yes, that’s seven people, for five days, in two suitcases.  

In fact, up until a few years ago, we could usually fit enough clothes for all seven of us into just one suitcase, at least for short trips. (Two of the boys growing into teenagers changed that – their clothes just take up a lot more space now.)

I’m not one of those ninja packing “experts” you may have seen on YouTube or the morning show; the people for whom a suitcase is a mysterious puzzle waiting to be solved with clever folding and rolling and ultra-organization.

Nope, my packing style is really rather sloppy and uninspired. It’s just that, when I’m traveling with kids, I pack way less than I think we’ll need, and it always still works out in the end.

summer short cuts

Here are the minimalist packing strategies that work for me: 

1. Plan to do laundry while on vacation. 

I know, I know. Who wants to think about household chores during a vacation? But here’s the thing: one way or another, those clothes are going to have to get washed. The way I see it, I’d much rather take a little time out of my relaxed vacation schedule to toss a load or two in the wash than come home with suitcases completely stuffed with a week’s worth of dirty clothes that I have to attend to right away.

Knowing I’m going to do laundry at some point – whether it’s in the on-site laundry room at the hotel or a nearby laundromat – helps me feel less stressed about having “enough” clothes while we’re gone.

Plus, here’s a little secret: having to do the laundry gives you the perfect excuse to escape a cramped hotel room or noisy relative’s house for a while and head out to the coin-op, where you can read your Kindle or flip through a magazine while you wait. It’s like a vacation from your vacation, mid-vacation.

As for timing? I like to do the laundry the morning of the day before we go home. Then the last few pieces of dirty clothes go into a couple of shopping bags, which you can either put on top of the least-full suitcase, or carry separately to avoid accidental clean-dirty mingling. 

2. Do a preliminary pre-pack, then edit. 

For me, packing starts on my bed, where I create leaning towers of all the clothes I think we’ll need. Then I reevaluate. For four nights, do I really need four pants and four shirts per kid, particularly if I’ll be doing laundry? (See above.) “Pre-packing” everything on my bed makes it easy to see if I’m getting a little out of control and allows me to quickly and easily scale back. 

3. Don’t waste room on pajamas.

“Real” PJ’s can take up a lot of suitcase space. Do you really need them? My kids are happy to sleep in t-shirts and/or shorts, and you can make them do double duty if you put the kids to bed in the next day’s clean clothes. I usually do pack at least one pair of “real” PJ pants per kid in case it’s chilly, and they can pair it with any old t-shirt and re-wear for a couple of nights.

One trick is to pack athletic pants rather than pajama pants. That way if there’s cooler-than-expected weather they can also double as daywear.

4. Let the kids keep track of a few things.

Our boys are always in charge of carrying their own hoodies/jackets, electronics, and chargers. 2-3 items per kid are enough for them to keep track of without necessarily needing a separate bag or receptacle, and it saves room in the suitcase and eliminates identity confusion with faced with a tangled jumble of chargers. 

5. Use the dressers.

If you have more than a couple of kids, a shared suitcase can turn into a nightmare by day 2 of vacation. What’s dirty? What’s clean? Why is the 14-year-old wearing a size-8 shirt?

I used to resist the dressers in a hotel or vacation home, but now, unless we are looking at a really quick trip, I always use them. Each kid gets his own drawer, and when clothes get dirty, they get tossed into the empty suitcase. When it’s time to do the laundry, the suitcase turns into my laundry basket on wheels!

6. Don’t worry too much about how everyone looks.

If a kid ends up wearing a dirty shirt or the same thing two days in a row, it’s not the end of the world. I usually pack one “presentable” outfit per kid, just in case we wind up going to a nicer restaurant or event. Otherwise, I don’t really care how ragamuffin-y they look. It’s vacation, after all, and we’ll be back to “real life” soon enough. 

I’d love to hear your packing strategy for family vacations! How many suitcases do you fill for a typical trip? And I’m dying to know…do you do laundry while you’re gone, or wait until you get home?

Don’t miss any of the Summer Shortcuts posts! Here they are:

Photo Credit: Lasse Christensen on Flickr

About The Author


  1. rebekah
    • Meagan Francis
  2. Shannon
    • Meagan Francis
  3. Meg
    • Meagan Francis
  4. Jeanne