Note: All travel is subject to frequently-changing governmental restrictions—please check federal, state, and local advisories before scheduling trips.
Organizing a family trip can feel like a military operation. There’s a plan, a backup plan and a backup-backup plan. There’s a staging area, where you lay out suitcases and hope no one plucks clean clothes from the to-be-packed pile. And of course, there are the provisions—the stash of special snacks you pray the kids don’t pillage before the trip begins. But we’re here to help you this summer, whether your brood will be road-tripping or boarding an airplane for the first time in a while. We queried moms Facebook groups to see what parents deemed the most essential items to pack for children of every age, plus what to pack for the entire family.
Color-coded or labeled packing cubes. These will help you save space and stay organized, especially if family members are sharing a suitcase.
Reusable water bottles. Save money, be healthy and prevent needless spills.
Neck pillows. Because an uncomfortable child is a complaining child.
Snacks! Keep them as mess-free as possible (think carrot sticks and dried fruit, versus bananas and juicy watermelon). Also keep some candy or another special treat as your ace in the hole.
Cooler backpack. It’s a hands-free way to keep cheese sticks, squeeze yogurt and other perishable snacks cold during the trip. When you reach your destination and need to reload, find a supermarket—or better yet, use an app to pre-order groceries and have them delivered to wherever you’re staying.
Accessible change of clothes. Tiny humans are messy, so keep a change of clothes within arm’s reach for both baby and yourself. Because spit happens.
So many diapers. Along those lines, bring more diapers than you think you’ll need, plus disposable changing pads because public restrooms are gross. (Pro tip: If you’ll be traveling for a while and don’t want to fill your luggage with baby stuff, place an online order for diapers, wipes, formula and such, and have these items sent directly to your destination.)
Entertainment for you. On the upside, there’s a good chance your baby will nap for at least part of the journey. Load up on audiobooks or podcasts for yourself, or if you’re flying, download a movie or series you’ve been wanting to binge. You only have about a year left before Junior demands to watch YouTube Kids on your smartphone for the entire journey.
Small, new toys. The dollar store is your friend. Stock up on small toys that your kid can play with in her seat. Bonus points for wrapping them, because this extends the fun and makes each gift seem like a bigger deal. Most of the items should be seat-friendly (think books, crayons, action figures, and window clings), but also toss in a few items for when the kids get a chance to stretch their legs, like a space-saving beach ball that you can blow up and bat around at a highway rest stop. For pre-flight fun, pack bubbles or balloons and watch the airport terminal transform into a kiddie Coachella. The other parents will worship you—or at least let you call dibs on the overhead bin.
Favorite stuffed animal or blanket. Up the odds on getting your little one to nap en route by packing their favorite blanket or stuffed animal. Just be sure to keep a close eye on that stuffy: We’re all familiar with the heartbreak of one getting left behind.
Wipes. Once your tot is potty trained, you may think you don’t need these anymore. But believe us, you do. From cleaning up sticky fingers to spilled food or drinks, to wiping down sketchy surfaces, a pack of wipes are still going to come in handy for a few years to come.
Nightlight. This will keep the kids from freaking out when they wake up in an unfamiliar room.
A preloaded device. From this age on up, electronics are the travel entertainment of choice. Pre-load each child’s device with movies or a season of their favorite show. In addition, find or let them pick out a few game apps, including some that can operate without WiFi, just in case.
Headphones. If you’re flying, headphones are a must—because your fellow passengers don’t want to hear the PJ Masks theme song on repeat. Consider getting headphones made especially for kids, so they can’t be turned up to damaging levels.
Charger. Obvious, but also crucial. Along these lines, consider bringing a portable power bank for extra juice. But don’t bring actual juice. Too messy.
Games and crafts. Pack a few items like Uno cards, magnetic games, drawing paper, and simple craft projects should keep them busy. An address book and sheet of postcard stamps can help kids feel connected to their friends while they’re traveling. If you’re driving, pack a Frisbee or jump rope to unleash their energy at rest stops.
Kids’ backpack. Little kids also love carrying their own stuff, so let them lug their own full-sized or mini backpack with snacks, coloring books, and Play-Doh. This will keep them occupied when WiFi’s not available.
Electronics again, duh. At this stage, they likely know what they want to watch, or which games they want to play, so your job is just to make sure the device stays charged and doesn’t get left behind.
Capsule wardrobe. Help your adolescent fashionista look stylish without packing a million outfits. They can select a capsule wardrobe of mix-and-match neutrals, then switch up their accessories so they still have drip for the ‘gram. For young men, bring double the underwear, undershirts and socks you think they’ll need. Teenage boys sweat a lot, especially when they’re hiking through the Grand Canyon in the dead of summer.
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