How to Pack for Travel (including tips for the family)
Updated: Jul 12
I've always loved to travel. Starting in high school, I would save up all my babysitting money, and the moment I had enough, I was on a plane to Italy to see family and friends. I continued to worked to fund my travel bug in college and graduate school, which included a year in China and months traveling throughout Asia and Europe.
When I got out of college, I worked as a research assistant at a DC-based think tank. My bosses were hardly in the office, always out of the country for work. So I thought, how do I get a job like that? The answer for me was to get a Ph.D. and do research that allows me to continue seeing and learning about the world.
Pre-COVID, I was lucky to travel a lot. I made it around the world almost twice during my first pregnancy; I was on a plane coming back from weeks in Australia and Singapore at 36 weeks pregnant for my second. My firstborn had been to Australia, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy (twice), and all over the US, before he had even turned one.
So, while COVID has sucked for so, so many reasons (my parents still have never met my second born), the inability to travel is at the top of my list. It may be wishful thinking, but we have our first trip planned for September to New Zealand. And I'm beyond excited. It all seems so fun, even the travel admin!
But this will be the first time traveling with the two boys. I’ve got many other trips planned throughout the year COVID-permitting – to Hawaii for work for a few weeks, some months in Taiwan and Japan. So I know I've got to get this packing thing right. And by right, I mean I need to have exactly what everyone needs without bringing so much that my husband decides it's too much of a hassle to run around the world with a one-year-old and three-year-old.
Enter Hitha Palepu’s How to Pack. I highly recommend it especially for business travel (and if you are a woman). I like her methodical approach to packing (included a super useful list of what you can use from your hotel room to clean different types of clothing to extend their use).
Hitha has a great packing checklist she uses (for example, she encourages you to think about outfits instead of clothing items, which helps reduce what you bring). But everyone's needs are different. So this post is about making your packing list and rules of thumb to reduce the amount of time it takes each time you travel.
Pay the set-up costs. You need to brainstorm what you need when you travel. My main challenges were figuring out how much of each toiletry I would use and what I wear given the weather (I never bring a jacket when I should). So take a week and pay attention to what you use and how many times/how much you use it. I discovered, for example, that I need 6oz of shampoo and conditioner each week I’m traveling. And keep updating and adjusting your lists. For example, I know that even though I never use chapstick at home, the dryness of airplanes makes me want it ALWAYS when I’m traveling.
Put it all together. This step involves making a packing list and pre-packing some stuff you know you always (and only need) when you travel. Here’s my template I just put partly on Hitha’s approach that you can use as a launching point:
Produce Reminders. Create a reminder to restock any used-up travel toiletries and update your packing list given any lessons learned.
Performance Notes. Take with you a small notebook to make notes about what you needed, what you didn’t on the trip. Always input received business cards right away, so you don't have to carry them back. Contact friends in-country to ask for help with kids' items (for long stays, ask for toy/book hand-me-downs), or for access to laundry. Make sure the place you are staying has an ironing board (or bring your own steamer) and an umbrella. Include a list of what you can buy upon arrival, and make sure you know exactly where you will go to get that stuff and check opening hours (we once arrived in France during a long holiday weekend to find there was nowhere to get diapers for four days…)
A tip from Hitha, when you buy nice toiletries, ask for samples. These, plus Sephora samples, make up all my travel toiletries. I can just leave them in the bag pre-packed since I don’t use them when I’m not traveling, which saves packing time.
Additionally, here are my current packing rules of thumb, though I plan to consistently update them.
Rules of thumb for me:
t-shirts (2 wears)
blouses (2-3 wears)
sweaters (2-3 wears)
blazer (4-5 wears)
dress (2-3 wears)rs)
dress (2-3 years)
1 set of sleepwear for every three days
1 full loungewear outfit
Underwear: number of days + half of the number of days you are there
3 workout outfits per week
Rules of thumb for the kids:
PJs and sleep sacks (2-3 wears)
pants, shirts, onesies (1 per day)
sweaters (2 wears)
underwear (1 wear)
socks (2 wears)
toys (1 per day, max 8 total)
books (paperback, no more than 9)