You’ll hear me say it often on this site: Be prepared. I truly believe you can never be too prepared, or plan too much. And while it’s been a personal resolution (since, about, oh... 2002) to try and be spontaneous, I have a lot of evidence to support planning ahead of a trip.
I’ve written about how to pack the car, but if you’ll allow me to micromanage you just a little bit more, I’ve got a few suggestions on how – and what – to pack in a suitcase when traveling with the kids.
Pack a whole outfit for each whole day
For each member of my family, I pack underwear, socks, tops and bottoms in one set. I used to try and coordinate my children’s clothes so they matched, but they stopped letting me do that years ago. I stack the items flat, with either the bottom or top item on the bottom, and then roll everything. This prevents the clothes from wrinkling, and I can easily see the colors and patterns.
Night time stuff
We shower at night, and recycle pajamas throughout the trip. I keep the pajamas in a separate compartment, so they're easy to find after a long day, and will let them air-out on the desk or sofa to keep them fresh. Then I pull out a “roll-up” for the next day, so the kids can get dressed quickly in the morning. This prevents them from rummaging through the suitcase and making a mess.
Toiletries and cosmetics
We have two cosmetic bags we use: one to hold stuff we use on a daily basis – hygiene items like shampoo, deodorant, toothbrushes, etc, and one exclusively for my husband I that holds razors, lotions, and makeup. Hotels provide most of the necessities, but one of my nonprofit's most popular community service projects involves making hygiene kits for homeless shelters using hotel toiletries... So, I often save the hotel toiletries for that, and bring along the products that fit our needs.
How many suitcases
I carry the “togetherness” philosophy right down to the suitcases. We don’t pack suitcases for each member of the family, but instead pack a few suitcases to share, that way we only have to lug around one suitcase at a time (as long as I can convince my husband he doesn’t need 2 shirts each day and multiple sweatshirts when traveling down South). I can usually fit 4-5 days of clothing for two adults and two small children in one suitcase. At the end of a hotel stay, we put the dirty clothes in a plastic bag in the trunk. When we’ve emptied a suitcase, we fill it back up with the bags of dirty clothes, leave it in the trunk, and move on to the next suitcase. Each suitcase has one set of pajamas and one bathing suit, so we don’t have to worry about switching things from one place to another. It's important to have a spare blanket or retractable cargo shield that blocks the view of your belongings in the trunk, to help prevent a break-in.
What the kids are allowed to bring
Each child gets their own travel bag, which they're responsible for carrying. The rule is: you bring it, you tote it. For night time, we only allow one small stuffed animal, and keep any special blankets in the suitcase with their pajamas, to keep everything clean. Our children are voracious readers. It’s a good problem to have, but the hardest part of packing is limiting the huge load of books our children want to bring with them. So we use a cloth basket in-between their car seats as a library and just leave it in the car. They can choose what books fill the library before each trip, and then select one book for nighttime reading, while the others stay in the car.