I consider packing light be be a bit of an art form and I learn something new every time we go on a trip together. Packing light for a family trip can be challenging to say the least, but sticking to certain habits can help a tremendously. ** please see bottom of article for addendum** For our most recent trip to Cartagena, Colombia, we knew we could only bring carry-ons for the week because we booked two separate tickets to get there – tickets to Miami using miles and then tickets to Cartagena flying with Avianca. For the return leg of our trip, our plane lands in Miami from Cartagena at 3:30 and our plane from Miami back to Denver leaves at 4:45. Not enough time to comfortably go through customs, get our bags and re-check in. Carry on luggage only for this trip! Which I actually prefer. There is nothing worse than waiting for a bag. Or have a bag get lost.

Plan clothing meticulously

I lay out one outfit for each day and stick to it – no more, no less. This is particularly easy if you’re going someone warm, like Colombia. 7 days in Colombia translates to 2 sundresses, 3 pairs of shorts with corresponding tank tops or t-shirts, and two rompers. I also threw in a simple black skirt that can go with anything in case we eat at a nice restaurant. One pair of “pretty sandals” and one pair of casual flip flops, a bathing suit and underwear completed everything I have to wear. Same goes for the kids. One outfit for each day, bathing suits and two pair of sandals.

But what about rain? Simply put….who cares about rain. If it rains, you get wet. You go into a corner store and you buy a cheap rain poncho. Problem solved.

What about a coat of some sort? We each bring a lightweight sweater, suitable for over air conditioned places or inclement weather and tie it around our waist on the plane or tie it onto our roller board suitcases.

Roll those clothes

I have tried various ways of packing clothing efficiently and I have found the best way is rolling rolling rolling.

I start by spreading bathing suits and underwear along the bottom of the suitcase as evenly distributed as possible. Then I start with my biggest items, in this case my two dresses and two rompers.

Lay flat


Fold in half


Start rolling at the bottom and work your way up, rolling as tight as possible


Wedge all the clothes evenly through the suitcase, trying to leave a slight indentation in the middle for toiletries. Shoes and sandals can go around the edges of the suitcase and any bit of space between them can be filled with small hairbrushes, socks or undies, hair bands, sunglasses, etc.


What if everything doesn’t fit? Then you have too much. Take out the blazer that you aren’t going to wear anyway. Ditto for the high heeled wedges.

I want to bring work out clothes. Wow. Good for you, I applaud you. Roll up your shorts and job bra/t-shirt, shove each one into your running shoes and either wedge the shoes somewhere along the side of your roller board suitcase or, better yet, wear the running shoes on the plane. If neither works, put one of your shoes in one child’s suitcase and another in the other child’s suitcase. They always have room – they’re tiny people with tiny clothes.

Won’t everything get wrinkly? Yes. Bring this…


How to deal with all the toiletries

Packing light for a family trip doesn’t seen too hard when you’ve got all those clothes rolled and see you have plenty of room, but then you realize you are traveling with kids. And kids come with all sorts of medicines and cough syrups and toothbrushes and hairbands and….things. Not too mention, you, the parent, might have a few things you would like to bring.

I start with any medicines or emergency things I might need for the kids or Keith and I. That usually entails a small bottle of Advil, a small bottle of Children’s Advil, a thermometer, a handful of band aids, some spray Neosporin, some hydrocortisone spray and a sleeve of both Belendryl for adults and a sleeve of Benedryl Fastmelts for kids. I keep all medical necessities in this handy pouch, which is small and easily fits between some rolled up clothes and the side of the suitcase.


Sometimes I have to moved the liquid medicines into a separate zip lock back for security at the airport, but for the most part, they stay in this medical bag. I don’t even bother to unpack this medicine pouch when I get home and it just goes in our hall closet for our next trip.

For my toiletries, I keep it to a minimum. Ask yourself this…..do you really need all your make-up for a family vacation to the tropics? Probably not. I put an eyeliner, a mascara, a cream blush and loose powder into a ziplock bag and throw it into that little depression in my suitcase between all the rolled up clothes. Another zip lock bag holds small bottles of face wash, shampoo and conditioner and face moisturizer, which also gets thrown into the center of my suitcase. I can easily get it out for security and if I have extra liquids that won’t fit into that one bag, I get a separate bag, fill it with extras such as a small hairspray, a small hair gel, toothpaste, travel saline solution, three packets of Tide detergent and I put that bag in Zoe or Max’s little suitcase. Each traveler is allowed to have a zip lock bag with liquids under 4 oz. each. Packing light for a family vacation can demand a little sharing of space. And remember, if you forget something, you can usually find it where ever you are going, so stressing about toiletries, even contact lenses, is silly. Unless you are going to the Amazon jungle, you can find an eye doctor and buy a spare pair of contact lenses.

Make the most of your airplane personal item.

We each carry a small backpack in addition to our roller board. So small that we can generally fit everything (roller board and personal item) under the seat in front of us. Our personal items?


They fold down to nothing, making them easy to bring anywhere and they can double as a beach bag once you get to your beach. Yet they expand enough for me to stick my small purse, my Nook, my laptop and my camera inside. They’re lightweight and just perfect. The kids use their personal items to carry their stuffies, some colored pencils and a pad of paper, Uno and Crazy 8s. They also are each allowed one small toy – usually a Barbie for Zoe and a Nascar for Max. Also, they always bring goggles on a beach vacation. I try to stick a snack in there also since they seem to get hungry at the most inopportune time.

When packing light for a family trip, I consider some things essential and somethings not to much:


*At least 4 outfits. Bring a small travel Tide to wash some clothes, depending on the length of your trip.


*At least 4 pair of underwear   ^^see Tide^^

*A book or Nook

*A camera

*Children’s painkiller and a thermometer. Ditto for anti itch spray. If your child wakes up at 2 with a fever or complaining about mosquito bites, are you really going to run out of your resort/hotel to the local pharmacy to get some Children’s Advil? Mmmmmm probably not.

*Uno or some sort of card game the whole family can enjoy

*Contact lenses or glasses (if you wear them)

*A snack for the travel time

*A small backpack to carry stuff in when you’re on the trip

*A few random zip lock bags. You never know what you might need them for and they don’t take up any room.

*Softcover books for kids. Can really help pass time during delays.

*An extra pair of contacts if you wear extended wear.

Not essential:

*Any toiletries. It’s nice to try to bring them, but if you cant fit it all, buy some hairspray at your destination. And usually your hotel will provide, at the very least, some shampoo and body wash. They will also give you a razor upon request. I already discussed make-up above…..so not necessary ladies.

*Sunscreen. Yes we all need sunscreen, especially with kids, but the bottles are huge and you’ll never get them through security anyway. Don’t even bother. Stop at a pharmacy and stock up

*Hairdryer. As someone who has completely unruly hair in humidity, I understand. But just deal with it. You’re on a family vacation, no one cares what your hair looks like. Bring some clips and some hairbands and move on.

*Huge books, tons of magazines and newspapers. They just take up space and the reality is, you have kids. You’re not kicking back and reading the Wall Street Journal Weekend section. And anyway, your hotel can probably provide you with one if you must. (I’m talking to you Keith).

*Big fancy camera. Yes yes, I know I’m a photographer. But I have found some of my best work has been produced with a smaller scale camera. When I have my professional camera, which weighs a ton anyway, I’m much less apt to live in the moment and I’m too focused on getting that perfect shot. Unless I’m on a paid gig, I’ll opt for the smaller mirrorless camera, GoPro or iPhone. My iPhone produced one of my all time favorite pictures……

*Worry. Leave worries at the door for what you might have forgotten. You can buy almost anything you leave at home, with a few exceptions and, if you can’t, it makes for a good story.

Packing light for a family vacation seems scary until you put it in perspective. Ask yourself, what do you really need for a family vacation? The perfect high heels and swanky shawl? Or do you need your husband, your 6 year old, your 9 year old, a beach and a game of hangman? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

Want to plan a beach vacation? I can help you with more than just packing with my vacation planning services. Contact me here.

**Addendum** Packing light with babies is a whole other post so stay tuned

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