Our family loves to travel. We’ve been seeing the world together for decades. But it didn’t take long for us to learn the secrets to stress-free travel: streamlined organization and loads of prayer!
Think traveling with twelve kids in tow would be a logistical nightmare? More work than it’s worth? Think again! We learned long ago that by planning ahead and packing smart, we could travel without losing our minds and return home feeling refreshed and recharged. Try some of the following tips to see if they don’t make your next trip more organized, more relaxed, and more pleasant for everyone involved.
Many of these travel tips will be helpful to families of any size for trips of any length. But if you are taking an especially long trip or traveling with an especially large family, several of these suggestions can be life-savers.
Cutting Stress by Planning Ahead
Choose a destination
When Doug was in school, we never had more than a long weekend to spend vacationing. That means that for the first ten years of our marriage, about the only pleasure trips we took were to Hot Springs, Arkansas (a short, four-hour drive from home). During his Army Reserve years, his military commitment often determined when and where we traveled. Long before we were able to plan trips purely for the sake of vacationing, we were making great memories by maximizing the job-related travel. When Doug had to attend medical conferences, he’d bring the family along, as well. He’d attend workshops in the mornings, then spends afternoons and evenings with me and the kids.
Chart a course
How will you get to your destination? Will you fly, drive, ride a bus, or take a train? Most of our vacations are road trips, since all 14 of us can travel on the same tank of gas. Therefore, as soon as I know where we’re going, I pull out the road maps and break longer trips up into manageable chunks. We take our time driving, usually logging no more than 350 miles per day, and try to make getting there and back half the fun.
Consider joining AAA
The benefits come in handy if you travel much. The American Automobile Association offers members free state travel guides. These books are an invaluable planning tools: they list attractions and points of interest for any area you might visit, as well as nearby hotels and restaurants, many of which give discounts to AAA members. Plus, AAA will rescue you if you get a flat tire, run out of gas, lock your keys in the car, or get stuck in the mud, like we did just outside of Mt. Vernon on one of our east coast trips.
Leverage reciprocal benefits
Check to see if your local museums, zoos, or arboretums offer reciprocal benefits. If so, join in advance and carry your membership card along on your trip. Most children’s museums, history museum, zoos, and aquariums offer family memberships for anywhere from $50 to $150. This will grant your entire family free admission for a year, not only to the parent museum, but also to any partner museums that offer reciprocal benefits (you can ask to view a list before joining). This tip alone has saved our family bundles of money when traveling — especially in the days before they limited the number of children who could get in free with parents.
Make hotel reservations
We usually look for hotels that offer free breakfast, which counts for a lot with a crew our size. Reservations can be made quickly and easily online. When making reservations by phone, you must ask three times to get their best rate (How much for the room? Do you have a AAA rate? Are you running any specials that would give me a better rate?). Be sure to join the rewards program (it’s free) for every hotel you use, especially if you travel much. The points really add up; we recently got four free nights in New Orleans with points we’d earned in earlier travels. Some rewards programs will even convert points to cash or to airline miles (we’ve done both).
Create an itinerary for your trip
Once I know where we’re going and how we will get there, I print up a day-by-day itinerary for our trip. First, I list on my computer all the days we will be gone. To this I add:
- Starting and ending points of travel for each day on the road. I intentionally leave a little margin by allowing extra drive time to accommodate unscheduled stops.
- Reservation information, including hotel name, address, phone number, rate, and confirmation number.
- Attractions we plan to visit along the way or once we arrive at our destination, including address, phone number, hours of operation, admission fees, and special notes (eg, “bring zoo membership card to get in free” or “no admittance an hour before closing”).
- Reminders to set our clocks forward or back as we cross into different time zones.
- Notes about different tapes, books, activities, or snacks I plan to pack for the trip (eg, if I want us to listen to a biography of Thomas Jefferson on our way to Monticello, I will add it to our packing list, but also note it on our itinerary for the day we plan to visit).
- The color shirt we will wear for each day of travel: Our whole family wears coordinating colors each day we’re on vacation. This streamlines packing, enables us to count heads faster, and makes for beautifully coordinated souvenir snapshots to glue in our scrapbooks!
- At the beginning of the itinerary for the day we leave, I keep a running list of reminders of things I must do before leaving town: make arrangements for mail pick-up, empty trash, turn off lights, lock doors, etc.
- At the end of the itinerary, I type up a packing list, including any miscellaneous items we may need to bring, such as camera and tripod, life-jackets (if we’re going to the coast), heavy coats (if we’re headed to the mountains), tennis rackets, antibiotics for a child who has an ear infection, bicycles, etc.
Cutting Stress by Packing Smart
We’ve got packing down to a science, perfected by years of experience. Can you imagine what chaos would rein every time we unloaded the van at a new hotel if we hadn’t learned to travel light and pack smart? As it is, I’ve learned to fit enough clothes to outfit 13 people for three days into a single suitcase, which we can wheel to the room ourselves before the bellman even notices our arrival. Our method? Here it is, step by step:
Make a packing list
Counting up the days we’ll be gone, I compile a master packing list and make a copy for every member of the family. On this, I list shirt colors to be packed (in the order they will be worn), as well as other essential items. By way of example, here’s my list from one of our extended road trips:
- Old Navy T-shirt
- red USA shirt
- kelly green T-shirt
- royal blue polo
- red polo
- white polo (to be worn with khakis for Christmas photo)
- hunter green polo
- tie-dyed Jamaica shirt
- lime green T-shirt
- orange T-shirt
- khaki pants or capris
- 4 pair of shorts
- 10 pair of socks (unless you plan to wear sandals only)
- 10 pair of underwear
- swimsuit and cover-up
- 3 pair of pajamas
Do the Laundry
About two days before an upcoming trip, we make sure all the dirty laundry in the house has been washed and dried, so that we can begin collecting the clothes we’ll need to pack. If we will have easy access to washers and dryers on the road, I cut our packing list in half and wash everything again midway through the trip.
Sort the Clothes
I line up a row of laundry baskets on our dining table — one for each member of the family with a copy of the packing list in front of it, also marked with his/her name. As we gather the clothes to be packed and as stuff comes through the laundry, we put each person’s belongings into their own bucket and mark those items off their list.
Incorporate the Kids
Older children are responsible for gathering their own clothes, as well as those of a younger sibling. Since we usually only bring one pair of shoes per person, these do not have to be packed, as they will be on our feet when we leave home.
Bundle the Outfits
When all the clothes we need are thus collected, we bundle individual outfits together: shirt folded neatly around socks, underwear (or diaper), and shorts for the day. Younger kids get fresh shorts every day, but the older ones (including Mom and Dad) can usually wear the same pair for two or three days, which saves packing space. Therefore, their shorts (or pants or skirt) are bundled with whichever top they’ll be wearing the first day those particular bottoms are to be worn.
Put Bundles in Order
As these individual outfits are bundled, they are stacked neatly in order in that person’s laundry basket. I’ve heard some people advocate rolling clothes to fit more in a suitcase, but for our large family, it really works best to just fold our clothes as flat as possible (although we did roll things for our tour of Europe, since each of us carried our own backpack). Neither do I use zip-lock bags, as others have suggested, because they are so slippery that my stacks won’t stay put.
Transfer to Suitcases
At this point, I have a long line of buckets filled with a tall stack of clothes for each person in our family. Now it is just a simple matter of taking the top outfit off each stack, thus making new stack for each day of our trip.
Think Outside the Box
Before we had real luggage (we only owned a small black duffle bag my husband used in college), I’d put each of these new stacks in a paper bag labeled Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc., and line those up in the back of our Suburban. We’d use that lone duffle bag to carry the contents of one sack (the clean clothes we’d need for the morrow) into the hotel each evening. The next morning, we’d pack our dirty things into the same bag and carry it back out to the car, where we’d exchange the dirty contents for the clean clothes in the next day’s paper sack.
Pack by Day (not by person)
Once we could afford it, my husband invested in a nice set of luggage. He bought three extra-large suitcases with three matching carry-on bags, all made of canvas (which gives a little when you over-stuff it). So now I pack our daily stacks in the large bags, which are labeled #1, #2, #3 to allow me to keep track of what’s in which. If we will be three of four nights in one place, I make sure all the clothes we need for those days are in the same bag, so we can minimize the amount of luggage we must unload at any given stop. We leave all the other bags, with clothes for other days, in the van.
Don’t Forget Pajamas
Additionally, I make use of two zipper pockets on the font of each suitcase. Into the long narrow pouch, I pack a few extra diapers for the baby (no longer an issue unless we have the grandkids with us) plus a travel pack of wet wipes. This allows me to leave the diaper bag in the car. Into the large square pouch on each bag, I pack a fresh gown for myself and clean pajamas for our children who still wear them.
By packing in this manner, we only have to get out two bags at any stop: one large suitcase, plus one overnight bag containing our swimsuits, a large zip-lock bag for packing them in when they’re damp, a collapsible change tray (for keeping up with wallet, keys, room cards, and phones in the hotel room), and a toiletry bag.
The toiletry bag is kept ready-to-go at all times, so I never have to worry about forgetting to pack a toothbrush or a razor. This little leather case is stocked with the following essentials:
- folding toothbrushes for everyone in the family, labeled by name
- a travel sized tube of toothpaste
- a tube of Blistex for chapped lips
- a small black comb
- a folding hairbrush
- a travel sized hairspray
- a razor
- a travel sized shaving cream
- a full-sized antiperspirant
- a neutral shade of nail polish
- a small bottle of eye drops
- ear drops (alcohol and vinegar, to use after swimming)
- first aid supplies, including band-aids, alcohol wipes, Triaminic cough & cold strips, a small tube of Neosporin, a sample of diaper rash ointment, Children’s Tylenol, a tube of Orajel, and a few capsules of Tummy Tuneup — all of which fit into small, flat, 4×5 inch pouch
Cribs and Strollers
When our kids were younger, we’d bring a couple of umbrella strollers and two portable cribs on our trips, as well. Fitting all this into that narrow space in back of our van is quite a challenge, but it can be done. We used to remove the back bench to accommodate our luggage on long trips, but our family is too big to give it up anymore, so now whenever we bring all three suitcases, two of them have to squeeze into an empty belt beside the kids in the backseat.
Depending on the trip, I usually carry a large tote with my notebook, laptop computer, any books I plan to read while we’re gone, and at least one needlework project for working on in the car. We kept our camera in the diaper bag until my older kids took it over. Now one of them carries a “real” camera in a small padded case to shoot vacation photos, and the rest of us just use our phones.
Cutting Stress on the Road
After answering the same question five times in fifteen minutes, Doug once promised our children a quarter apiece if they could refrain from asking “Are we almost there yet?” for the rest of the trip. We enjoyed a 30-minute respite before one of them rephrased the inquiry: “Have we almost earned our quarters yet?”
Thus we learned that bribery cannot buy tranquility. We eventually discovered other strategies, however, that do help the hours on the road pass more peaceably — simple strategies we gladly share with you:
Pray Before Setting Out
First of all, as soon as we buckle our seatbelts and before we ever pull out of our driveway, we pray. We pray for God to keep us safe and healthy on our trip. We pray for Him to help us all be patient and kind to one another and, when we have little ones with us, that He’ll help them sleep and be content in their car sets. And we pray He will enable us to make lots of great memories and to be a good testimony to people we meet along the way.
Break Up Travel Time
We try to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. By breaking long driving distances into smaller chunks, we can travel a few hours in the morning, stop to visit a museum or eat some lunch, travel a few more hours in the afternoon, stop for dinner and more sightseeing, then travel another hour or two before arriving at our hotel, where we enjoy a nice refreshing swim and a good night’s rest.
Take Along the Travel Books
Especially before the advent of smart phones, we’d bring along our AAA State Travel Guides for all the states we’ll be passing through on our trip. When the children grow restless or need a bathroom break, I consult the appropriate guide to see what the next town has to offer by way of museums, parks, or other points of interest. (These make for more interesting stops — and often cleaner restrooms — than most gas stations). Some of our most memorable and enjoyable wayside stops are spur-of-the-moment visits to obscure little historical markers we’d never have stumbled upon had someone not needed to use the restroom at a particular moment in time.
Pack Plenty of Snacks
On longer trips, we bring snacks for the road — beef jerky, trail mix, granola bars, crackers, candy, chips — plus an ice chest full of bottled water and Gatorade (and a few sippie cups for the little ones). These items are kept within easy reach of the front seat, so that they can be parceled out as needed to quiet rumbling tummies or slake persistent thirsts.
We stuff a tall narrow pocket on our passenger side door full of plastic grocery bags which we distribute, one per row, whenever we hand out snacks and drinks. The oldest child on each row is responsible for making sure all trash generated by their seat partners gets collected into their bag.
Whenever we stop — for gas, food, or to let somebody use the restroom — we make sure everyone goes to the restroom, whether they think they need to or not. When we had littles, we also took advantage of such stops to check and change diapers, to nurse hungry babies, and to empty all the trash out of the van. By maximizing every stop we choose to make, we minimize the number of stops we have to make.
Sometimes the kids pack a deck of cards for passing travel time, or perhaps a pack of crayons and a coloring book. The big kids usually bring books to read on the road; little ones may bring a doll or stuffed animal. On long, multi-state road trips, I make notebooks for the kids with maps, state information, road trip games, and worksheets to go along with history tapes we listen to between stops.
Even when I don’t have time to make a whole activity folder, I will often photocopy a US map for each child. This helps them track our progress along every leg of the journey (no need to ask “Are we there yet?”). And they also use it for “collecting” license plates (whenever they see a car on the road with an out-of-state license plate, they highlight that state on their map. It’s fun to race and see who can collect the most in an hour, a day, or the entire trip).
We download audiobooks (or bring books on CD) to listen to and discuss in the car. These are sometimes coordinated with stops we plan to make along the way, like listening to a tape about George Washington on our way to Mount Vernon. Doug bought a several sets of history and biography CDs several years ago that I glean from for this purpose. Other times, we will check out books-on-tape from the library and listen purely for pleasure. Regardless, we take time to discuss with the kids what we are hearing.
Staying Organized at the Hotel
Don’t you hate it when you walk into a pristine hotel room with tidy beds and polished furniture, and within two minutes, it looks like a tornado struck it, with socks, shoes, wet swimsuits, and overflowing suitcases scattered all about the room? Such messes can really interfere with the peace and calm we want to enjoy on vacation! So we trained our kids early to follow a few simple rules. With the exception of a few hostels and guesthouses in Europe, these rules have readily adapted to every hotel chain we’ve tried:
Shoes go in the bottom drawer
Everyone everybody from 2 to 20 knows this rule, so we seldom even have to remind them anymore. It’s the first thing they do when we get to our room. We use a drawer for our shoes to keep crawling babies from chewing on them, but your family might prefer to line shoes up under the sink or put them in the floor of the closet. The important thing is just to have a clearly defined destination for everything, so that it becomes second nature to put them where they go.
Dirty clothes go in the drawers above the shoes
When three drawers are available, we put whites in the top, darks in the middle, and shoes in the bottom.
Kids keep out of the suitcases
Whenever it is time to get dressed, Mom distributes fresh clothes to everyone (which is fast and easy after using our packing principles). This way, the stacks of clean clothes in the suitcase stay neatly organized.
Keep toiletries in bag when not in use
We keep our toiletry bag on the bathroom counter next to the sink, but the contents remain zipped inside when we aren’t using them. This keeps the counter top tidy while we are there and prevents our leaving toothbrushes, combs, and razors behind when we check out.
Babies sleep in the travel cribs
When we still had little ones, we’d bring our own porta-cribs from home and set them up away from the air conditioner. Sometimes, I’d set the travel cribs up at home a week or two before we left to let the babies get used to sleeping in it beforehand. I also made custom, padded sheets for both our cribs out of pre-schooler pleasing prints (Spiderman), which always went a long way toward making our little ones happy to bed down in a different place.
No swimsuits on the bed
It takes a while for everyone to get changed in and out of their swimsuits, and the suits are invariably damp when we have them on, if not dripping wet. So this rule ensures the bed linens stay clean and dry. After a swim, we work fast to get everyone back into dry clothes, so the kids just throw their wet suits in the tub until everyone has a chance to change. Then the older ones help Mom wring them out and hang them up to dry. If it bothers you to see wet suits draped over shower rods and towel racks, try laying a dry towel on the floor of the closet and hanging them neatly on hangers. They stay out of sight that way and dry better, as well, and the towel catches the drips.
Keys go in the change dish
My husband uses this collapsable leather tray to keep room keys, car keys, reading glasses, wallet, and watch safely in one place, usually on top of the TV where little ones can’t reach it.
Dad double checks the room
When it’s time to check out, Mom packs everything back up, piling the dirty clothes into the empty spaces left by the clean clothes in our suitcase. If the dirty stuff must share a bag with the clean stuff, I separate anything damp or stinky into one of those plastic laundry bags the hotel provides. Once everything is repacked and the luggage is moved into the hall, Doug searches the closets, drawers, and bedclothes for anything I missed — and sometimes he actually finds something.
So there’s how we do it in a nutshell. For more fun ideas for traveling with kids, check out our other travel posts or get a copy of my book, Pack Up & Leave.