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How to Pack for Any Family Vacation

The thought of getting the whole crew ready may make you break out in hives, but everything will be better when you adopt these basic principles.

Packing for kids. When my children were young, the thought of it made me break out in hives. Things got better when I stifled my intuitive side -- 6 pairs of shoes, matching outfits for everyone -- and learned to pare down and make lists.

You'll still find in my dresser, next to my candy-bar stash, a list. Modifying it for different age groups is a piece of chocolate layer cake.

When considering what to pack for them, remember that you're going away for a finite time. Leave space in your baggage for souvenirs and items you may forget (even with a list).

On family trips I always tuck a small duffel or backpack in my suitcase. Push comes to shove, you can stuff it with dirties for the trip home. Who's going to steal a bag reeking of sour milk? As long as you haven't exceeded the airlines' baggage allowance, you can pop it on the conveyor belt along with your luggage.

Take These Along

If you travel by car, train, plane or dogsled, stow must-haves in a bag you can get to in a jiffy. If you fly and your luggage is delayed, you'll breathe a sigh of relief with emergency supplies close at hand.

Everyone: Change of underwear and clothing, lightweight jacket/sweater; snacks (crackers, dried fruits, PB&J, juice boxes are easy); wet wipes and tissues for quick clean-ups. To avoid sibling rivalry, my daughter packs the same snacks in her kids' backpacks. Take, prescriptions, extra eyeglasses, analgesic, gum (kids 3 and older, for takeoffs and landings), and earplugs for the ultra-sensitive.

Babies (and elderly grandparents): Bottles, formula, baby food and small spoon; pacifiers, bibs, diapers (3 more than you think you'll need) and wipes; plastic bag for dirties; magnetic blocks, plastic-framed mirror, plush toys. Be considerate and stow rattles in checked baggage.

Toddlers: Small wind-up toys, favorite blankie and/or stuffed animal, cardboard books, finger puppets. Ix-nay on toys with lots of pieces.

Pre-Schoolers: Picture and activity books, Go Fish or Old Maid cards, large square crayons and unlined paper, magnetic letters and board. Moms of 4- to 8-year-olds praise the virtues of Leapster -- a hand-held interactive system that is, gulp, educational -- for keeping this age group entertained.

Ages 6 to 10: Etch-a-Sketch, deck of cards, activity books, Game Boy, portable DVD player.

10 and older: DVD player, iPod, notebook and pens (encourage them to journal).

Note: Playing "I Spy" or telling a story about the "good old days" will amuse most kids 3 and older.

Packing Smart

Somewhere in my family album is a picture taken in Ireland of unidentifiable creatures wearing every stick of clothing that crossed the pond with them. Think outside the box, er, suitcase. I can tell you, a sweatshirt tied around the neck and shoulders makes an effective wind shield.

Forget brand-new togs -- unless you're attending a wedding or visiting royalty. Think comfort first. Nobody will notice if the children are wearing a late-model t-shirt bearing a small but distinct ketchup stain. Lighten up.

Make Like a Boy Scout: Be Prepared

Consider that even subtropical climes have the occasional cold snap. I wish I had a dime for every shivering Florida vacation our family has taken. Layered up, we can still search for seashells, visit local museums, shop for non-necessities, and even eat outdoors without getting blue lips. A pair of long pants or jeans, sweatshirt and windbreaker take up little space.

Of course, the opposite holds true too. In the D.C. area, where I've lived for many years, we have occasional summer-like temperatures in winter. Go figure. Toss in something lightweight, just in case.

Togs to Tote

Whether you're traveling with toddlers, tweeners or teens, think small, think smart, and take stuff you can layer.

  • Jeans, t-shirts/tops (1 quick-dry you can wash in the sink)
  • Sweats or athletic wear
  • Slacks/khakis/skirt, shirt/blouse (if you plan to eat "fancy")
  • Overcoat and/or raincoat; gloves, hat, boots for cold climes
  • Underwear (enough for daily change plus 2); socks; PJ's
  • Extra shoes (broken in); sandals*
  • Shorts*
  • 2 bathing suits and cover-up*
  • Toiletries, medications, small first-aid kid
  • Contact info for local pediatrician and/or emergency clinic (Yes, before you leave home!)
  • Powdered soap in plastic jar or Ziplock bag for emergency laundry
  • Snacks (cheaper from home than hotel lobby shop)

* For warm-weather destinations or hotels with indoor pools

Beth Rubin is the author of Frommer's Washington, D.C. With Kids. Over the years she has learned that less is more. She enjoys traveling with her children, grandchildren, and sometimes her mother.

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