Inexpert Guide to Packing for Family of 4 in One Suitcase

Enjoy family travel more by packing light.  Use these tips to make the most of your suitcase.

packing light tips for family travel

If you haven't already noticed, we really enjoy traveling and think the rewards are well worth the hassle. Of course traveling with little kids make the whole experience a much different proposition but there are certain things we do to make it easier on ourselves.  One of those things is traveling as light as reasonably possible.  Before kids, that meant one small carry on suitcase each no matter where we were going or for how long.  With 2 kids in tow, carrying 2 suitcases is a very NOT fun juggling exercise (free hands for child wrangling is preferred) so we decided early on to cut way back and stick with one (albeit larger than carry on size) suitcase for all of us. Here are my inexpert tips on how to not only survive but thrive on a family vacation with just what fits inside one bag.

I will say upfront I am by no means a hard core light packer. There are people who have traveled for a year on what fits in a backpack. I'm not one of those people.  I like to wear clean clothes, I like to have a few options in wardrobe and I like to be comfortable, I like my kids to look cute.  So I do take a good bit of stuff with me - we just use a few guiding principles to keep it manageable.

The one suitcase motto has 3 important parts:
1. Bring what you need
2. Don't bring what you won't use/can find there
3. Make it Fit

Bring What You Need
The very best way to reduce what you absolutely need to pack in terms of clothing is to plan to laundry while on your trip. You can make this easy or hard but either way it's not as inconvenient as it sounds.  The easy way is booking an apartment hotel, time share or airbnb that has laundry facilities.  The slightly harder way is staying in a hotel and finding a laundromat nearby.  Thanks to the internet this is only a click away.  Added bonus is that doing laundry like a local is the ultimate authentic experience and you meet people you would never meet otherwise. Since I like wearing clean clothes everyday AND my kids seem to need multiple outfits per day to stay clean, we tend to do laundry once every 3-4 days on a vacation.

Laundry or not, you still need something to wear on your back.  Layers are definitely your friend both because they pack light but also because you can mix and match to make several different outfits from the same pieces. Pick a color scheme to make mixing and matching a lot easier. There are also a few key wardrobe pieces that take up almost no room and prove to be invaluable while away.  The list is short but key
- comfortable, versatile shoes like these Lucky Ballet Flats
- a lightweight open cardigan in a color that goes with everything
- a fun scarf to keep you warm on the plane and to punch up a plain outfit
- great statement earrings
- a versatile maxi dress that can be worn anywhere

Don't Bring What You Don't Need
I pack outfits, not individual pieces.  Of course you can mix it up when you arrive but planning in outfits makes sure you aren't bring more of any one thing than you really need.

This is where you have to be a bit brutal.  Be realistic about what you will do when you get to your destination. For example, we don't go out to fancy meals or events because it isn't practical with littles.  So that's an entire category of clothing I can leave home.  If Im going to a warm weather destination and plan on wearing flip flops most of the time, I don't need to pack 7 pairs of socks.  You get the picture. You have to be honest about yourself about what you really need.

Where possible bring clothing that can be worn more than once without washing like your favorite jeans. Not as common for adults but reversible clothing is also lovely when you can find it.

Avoid bringing anything that has to be dry cleaned or need special washing (like white clothing that needs to be laundered separately).

Do not bring what they have there**  If you are going to a hotel that has a hair dryer, don't pack your own. I know, i know - their blow dryer isn't as good as yours.  Let it go!   Don't bring baby food for the entire trip if you know you are staying across the street from a supermarket. You get the idea.  No only does this save you room but it also scores you other authentic local experiences by shopping for your consumables.

Pack essentials first.  Once you have put the absolute must have, do or die items in yours suitcase, you will see just how much extra room you have.  It will help you be much more selective in what you bring.

**There are always exceptions. I'm brutal about what not to bring in every way except when it comes to diapers.  We generally bring those with us not because they can't be purchased but because as they get used, it leaves room in our suitcase for souvenirs. 

Leave the Toy Store at Home You will be surprised what your kids find entertaining when they don't have a million toys.  I generally bring one or two small, soft toys that I can stuff into my purse - more as a comfort than a real playset.  Everything becomes a toy when there are none to be had.  Save the space in your bag for things you can't live without.

Make it Fit
Technically if you have followed the tenets of bringing just what you need, you really don't need this section but lets face it - there is always the temptation of bringing just a little bit more. In those situations you might need to employ some make it fit tips.

Use a soft sided expandable suitcase (we use this one). Yes, the hard sided ones look cooler but are much more restrictive. You will be able to jam much more in a soft sided model.

I don't understand the science behind this AT ALL but somehow rolled clothing takes up less room than folded one. Don't ask me to explain it. It just works.

Organize inside. With 4 people sharing one suitcase, it can get kind of messy so I've recently started using packing cubes and I'm such a convert! Not only can you squeeze more clothing in the bag but you can also put the cubes in your hotel's dresser drawers as opposed to living out a messy suitcase.

Wow.  I thought that I had nothing to say on this topic but I guess I did.  If you are still reading, thanks for sticking around.  I hope you found some of my advice helpful.  At the very least your back will thank me.


  1. Ahh I've been waiting for this post. I have been really trying the whole 3 outfits per person thing, and while I usually go over that with the kids, it's definitely working for the adults. As we pack for a few days upstate this weekend I've gotta try the rolling thing - I do not understand why it works!?! Even when we have the luxury of filling up the car vs flying, I am amazed at HOW MUCH WE FILL UP THE CAR for just a few days away. I'm curious about the cubes too - they don't take up too much room in the suitcase themselves?? Thanks for sharing these ideas

  2. I can live out of a carry-on for three weeks because I always do laundry. Sometimes it's in the hotel room's sink, but I have to wear clean clothes. That will be a challenge for me in August because we are bicycling from Moscow to St. Petersburg and then road tripping for a week. Since I need bike gear for all types of weather, deciding how to pack the most efficient day to day clothes will take some thought.


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