Essential family packing guide for summer travel

Summer Hull
Personal Finance Writer
Summer Hull writes the weekly "Get to the Points" column for

Get to the Points

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Summer travel is almost upon us and knowing where you want to go is only part of the battle. The other part is getting your must-haves to your destination of choice.

When packing just for yourself, this isn’t too tough of an assignment. When you have multiple people in your traveling party, however, a solid packing strategy becomes essential.

That said, don’t let packing stress you out, as we have you covered with the essential family packing guide for summer travel.

Check the sizes and get a good bag

It wasn’t until a past few years ago when I finally upgraded my old over-the-shoulder duffel bag for a truly good spinner bag. Once I made that investment, traveling became so much easier.

I highly recommend getting a high-quality spinner bag – a four-wheeled bag with a telescoping handle – so you can get through the airport with ease and without back pain.

You can spend as much or as little on a bag as you want, but here is a well-rated spinner in the $100 range. Of course, make sure your bag meets the airline sizing criteria for height and weight since the last thing you need is an unpleasant surprise at airport check-in.

For kids, packing for a shorter trip in warm weather might be possible in just a backpack. If you need a rolling bag for your kids, I’m partial to the adorable Travel Buddies line for preschool or elementary school kids.

If you are looking for a more grown-up bag for older kids, the popular Away luggage line has a kid’s edition that will even charge their devices, though this is a bit pricier than you probably need for just occasional travel.

Regardless of which bag they use, let your kids take an active role in deciding on the toys or “entertainment” items to pack.

Don’t feel like you need to be the family pack mule, as kids as young as 3 years old can be in charge of carrying their own bags much of the time.

See related: 6 hotels with water parks you can book with points

Pack everything you need, and nothing you don't

Lay out everything you want to bring and then think carefully about whether you need all of those shoe and outfit options for a beach or theme park trip. Oftentimes, you can pair down the items once you see them laid out together.

Ditch the things you don’t actually need and save the space for true essentials rather than just too many clothes. In the summer, think about bringing a hat, comfortable shoes, flip flops, sunglasses for each person in addition to regular outfits.

I highly recommend packing your own toiletries instead of relying on the hotel to provide them, and this is especially true if you or your children use special soaps, sunscreens or toothpastes.

For young kids, diapers are easy to stash in every extra square inch of already packed bags, so don’t feel like you have to have just one area devoted to diapers. We pack a few diapers in a dedicated spot and then stash more anywhere we find room.

For summer trips that involve water, make sure you bring swimsuits, goggles and if your kid is still learning to swim, maybe even their floaty vest.

This is the one piece of bulky gear that I simply won’t leave behind if swimming is on the agenda for my preschooler. An (un)inflated pool toy is another item to consider as they are usually cheaper to grab at home than buying one at a resort.

There’s an app for that

If you really aren’t sure what to pack, there’s even an app for that. Packing Pro ($2.99) will help you create packing lists for multiple people, so this can be a good option for families.

If you want a free packing app, you can check out the free version of Packr, which even fills in the weather forecast for your destinations to make packing choices that more efficient.

Use bags within bags to stay organized

A major key to packing success is to use a bag-within-a-bag strategy for staying organized. If you put all of your stuff loose into one big bag, you are asking for a packing disaster. Instead, put your toiletries together in one bag, snacks in their own bag, toys in another, cords in a big baggie, etc. That way, it is easy to find what you need.

As an added bonus, when repacking to head home, you are more likely to notice if you are about to leave something behind.

You can actually just use various sizes of Ziploc bags to accomplish this. If you want to invest a bit more, I’m a fan of the Makeup Junkie bags. Despite the name, these fun bags are useful for way more than just holding make-up as they are lined with a water-resistant interior and come in a variety of sizes.

See related: Hotels you can book for 5,000 points per night or less

Consider packing an empty bag

This may sound silly, but if you like to shop on your adventures, or you simply want an easy spot to stash your dirty clothes, consider packing an extra empty bag.

If you have to pay out of pocket for each checked bag, this strategy may not be worth it, but if you have the luxury of bringing an extra bag to store purchases or extra dirty items, you won’t regret it!

Have an ‘in case of emergency’ bag

Last but not least, somewhere in your carry-on, you should have an easily accessible ‘in case of emergency area.’ In this section, I recommend a full change of clothes for young kids and at least a fresh t-shirt for the adults.

You also can’t go wrong with bringing along an empty plastic grocery sack and a lightweight swaddling or receiving blanket. It is amazing how many messy disasters can be made much better with a light towel, plastic sack and a fresh t-shirt.

Of course, having a small bag with some Band-Aids and basic first-aid supplies is also wise. If traveling internationally, just make sure any medications you plan to bring along are permitted at your destination.

Follow this essential guide for summer packing and you should be on your way with all the stuff you need, and none of the stuff you don’t. 

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Updated: 12-12-2018