Weekend Workshop: Packing for a Family Road Trip

May 7th, 2011 § 18 comments

I’ve been traveling a lot this semester, both alone and with my family. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on family packing, but I have picked up a few tips worth sharing with anyone who’s taking charge of packing for more than just yourself.


Ultimately, packing is a really personal process, and so much is dependent on how you rank your priorities. Is it more important to you to avoid baggage check fees or to be able to get on and off a plane with as little as possible? Would you prefer to bring everything with you or buy some things when you get there? I think that the key to successful packing is being as honest with yourself as possible over what you need, what you’d prefer, and what you’re willing to sacrifice.

My process tends to go something like this…

Plan Ahead:

I’m an obsessive list-maker, so for trips like this one I make a list of different events (meeting with former professors, commencement ceremony, family celebration dinner, mother’s day brunch, etc.) and then figure out what level of fanciness is appropriate. For example, the previous list of events meant that I was going to be needing casual and could-be-dressed-up dresses plus a separates option or two.

Then, I apply my very sophisticated “throw all the clothes I’m drawn to right now on the bed and see what happens” technique (illustrated above). As the name suggests, I start pulling out clothes that fit those general parameters and that I find appealing or inspiring at that moment. Then, I try to create outfits from the pile, removing or adding items in order to create an overall color palette to give me as many on-the-road options as possible.

Now, packing for N. and little e. in addition adds another layer of planning. I still make a list of needed items and throw their clothes into the pile on my bed, but for a weekend like this one — where I know there will be a lot of family photo opportunities — I also try to create some coherency (but not matchy-matchy-ness) between all our outfits.

For example, one event we’ll be attending is a mother’s day brunch and birthday party for N.’s grandmother. There will be lots of family there, and many photos will inevitably be taken. One option would be for N. to wear a white and olive striped button down and brown pants, while little e. rocks his navy polo and gray chinos. I could pull together the blue and green with my graphic floral pattern dress.

Mother's Day Brunch Option #2

Or…baby e. could wear his plaid button down and pattern mix with his dad’s blue and green patterned button down. Meanwhile, I could add some warmth with my salmon midi skirt and gray salmon top or with my bright red-orange dress.

Mother's Day Brunch Graduation

Any of these items could mix with any of the others, and all could be appropriate for several of our weekend events. Packing this way satisfies my inner planning-nerd without sacrificing that creative moment of coming up with an outfit “the day of.” Gotta keep the magic alive.


I’ve become a stronger believer in packing cubes recently. It helps to have all of little e.’s little clothes in one neat, zippered cube, otherwise they have a tendency to get lost in the maw of the bigger bag.

Packing Cubes

Meanwhile, keeping N.’s and my underwear, socks, and pajamas in another cube helps us find necessities and keep track of what’s clean and what’s dirty. Honestly, I don’t think that these packing cubes necessarily make for the most efficient use of space, but I appreciate them as sanity-savers.

Smart Supplies:

For this road trip I made little e. a “bucket of fun,” containing his mini magnetic doodle pad, some play planes and a helicopter, his baby owl puppet, and a few board books. I also packed a bag full of an array of healthy snacks for the road that could be easily accessible during the drive. Little e. did, indeed, appreciate these provisions.

Bag O' Fun

Although it’s more “stuff” to bring along — and I wouldn’t have packed this volume for an airline flight — the revolving set of options was worth it for a road trip.

What packing tips for family travel do you have?

Tagged ,

§ 18 Responses to Weekend Workshop: Packing for a Family Road Trip"

  1. MJ says:

    For little girls (I have a daughter) I like packing dresses or tunics with leggings. They take up less room than jeans & if space is really an issue she can wear a dress or tunic twice with different leggings. I also like to pack both kids a lightweight hoodie or jacket which means they can pack short sleeves as opposed to long sleeves.
    I like packing a base neutral (normally black) & then pulling a few colors that work both with the black & each other (usually orange & purple).
    A few months back we all packed for a 10-day trip to Turkey all in carry-ons except for one checked bag that held our heavy coats. The 4 of us packed less than many of the couples on the trip. Even with all the gifts we bought we had plenty of room. Even DH, who was skeptical, decided it was worth it to buy a tshirt along the way if it meant not having to haul huge bags up stairs.

  2. T. says:

    I’m a chronic overpacker, so no one wants my travel advice, but I am a bit curious–do you choose your husband’s clothes for trips? There is no way I could pack for my hubby! We’ve been married 19 years, and never once have I packed for him.

    • e. says:

      It’s a joint effort. I’ll usually be the one that outlines the basics of what we’ll need for a trip because I’m the scheduling nerd. He’ll pick his own clothes and shoes and pack his toiletries and other essentials. But, I’m the master of tight packing and organizing, so I do the physical folding, rolling, and stuffing.

  3. twiggers says:

    We’re just getting ready to pack for a 19 day trip to Europe. We’ll have a carry-on each, plus a backpack. Luckily, we can check bags for free; however, I hate schlepping big bags everywhere. I like to travel very casual, so it’s easy to mix and match. To be honest, I don’t put much effort into travel clothes….I go for neutrals and don’t really worry what I look like in pics (they’re just for us though).

  4. Jackie says:

    It always seems like you need way more outfits for a weekend trip than you do for a regular weekend you know? I am terrible about changing my mind on what to wear once I get there!

    • Agatha says:

      Areltics like this make life so much simpler.

    • Bob says:

      . I was aghast at Rubin’s biarrze logic and his whinging about the Tea Party. The final straw was his calling Ryan a liar as if that factory story is as important as the current Benghazi cover-up that the WH is engaging in. Good grief, what skewed priorities and twisted rationalizing. But the one takeaway, which is heartening, is that ObamaNation is scared. They realize that there’s a chance Romney will win in November. Not that he’ll be much, if any, better than the current WH resident, but I’m so rattled by Obama’s seeming endorsement of blasphemy laws that I’m finding myself inching towards a Romney vote.

    • Jake says:

      T/L, thanks for the share; on FB after the same, the usual O-bots meassd around me in cyberspace as they do in real life, reciting the same what if Romney wins? and again blaming me for Nader, Florida 2000, and all Tea Party evils my 3P voting engendered. No blame ever is assumed by those who praise O. They refuse to take the loss of civil liberties seriously, and the lesser of two evils pragmatism ensures they feel no guilt.

  5. Jen L says:

    Wow… I count it a success if I have clean laundry to pack, and remember to pack underwear. (I once managed not to pack any underwear.. but fortunately it turns out you can buy enough for a 10 day trip easily. Thanks goodness — it would not have been pretty otherwise!)

  6. Jen says:

    I tend to pack my kids up and leave my husband to his own doings. I would never pack his clothes. I don’t buy clothes for him, either. He has fine taste and will ask me to check on an outfit but I leave him to his own devices. Your mileage may vary, but there are plenty of men who prefer to pack themselves! I also don’t try to match my kids to my own clothes, but it is never really a problem since we all like similar colors or they all sort of go together and I wear a lot of black. I think the chief thing about traveling is to put all the clothes out before you pack. Then take one outfit out. I never wind up wearing all the clothes I bring. .

    • e. says:

      Husband N. does most of his own shopping and packing, but I’ve developed a male clothing aesthetic very similar to his when it comes to shopping for little e. That means that I actually have to self-consciously work to NOT pack outfits that inadvertently match father and son! Overall, though, I think our wardrobes do tend to just kind of “go together,” like you say.

  7. Kelly says:

    I think the most important thing I have learned how to do is pack lightly for myself (although I don’t always succeed). Kids always need more changes of clothes than I do. I still stress about it though, because I think “what if I don’t want to wear what I packed?” or “what if I need something warmer/cooler?” I am currently planning for a 10ish day trip very soon. I actually wouldn’t mind if I could pick out my husband’s clothes, but he doesn’t like to dress as nicely as I would like him to and would probably complain the whole time about not liking what he has to wear.

  8. Sarah says:

    From where did you purchase who mesh packing cubes? They seem really practical and efficient.

  9. Aleksandra says:

    That’s a great post, very helpful, thanks! I also do the physical part of packing for my husband, he never manages to pack all these things into his suitcase, but somehow I do ;)

    I usually take also with me a few empty bags to put the dirty clothes into, so they don’t get mixed up with the fresh ones, especially when I travel a lot (meaning that I don’t go to one place and stay there).

  10. Latha says:

    As you say, road trips are more forgiving about the load. However, for the plane trips, for the kiddie bag of fun, I found that putting away a few small toys a couple of weeks before the trip and then let them resurface during the trip makes them more attractive. As a single parent family who travels a lot (my 9 year old has a Premier frequent flyer card), when he was little, I loved the stroller on plane trips, but used it to dump my hand luggage.I carried him on a sling and used the stroller to carry all the stuff through all the transit airports.

  11. Libby says:

    When they were smaller, I used to pack outfits for my two girls into gallon-size ziploc bags. I even put their coordinating barrettes or bows in the bags. With two girls, close in age it seems like their clothes were easy for them (and me) to mix up, and this kept everyone’s gear sorted, even if they shared a suitcase.

  12. AY says:

    OOOh! I too love packing cubes. I have all different kids and try to keep each member of the family color coded. I have some old school ones (more than ten years old and still going strong) by Columbia. I have newer ones by Vera Bradley, ebags and LLBean. I have to say that the Vera ones are the least favorite as there are no see through sections and they are a bit bulky, but still helpful to keep things separate and organized.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>