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6 packing tips for family vacations

While waiting to board a plane, there's plenty going on to keep kids -- and adults -- occupied. Once on board, however, it's best to have a bag full of things to keep busy.
While waiting to board a plane, there's plenty going on to keep kids -- and adults -- occupied. Once on board, however, it's best to have a bag full of things to keep busy.Elena Elisseeva /

Staying organized and being prepared for the unexpected is key when traveling as a family, especially when small children are involved. Follow these smart packing tips, and you may actually enjoy the trip -- or at least maybe you won't feel like you need a vacation from your vacation once you've returned.

Slideshow: See the packing tips

1. Recruit your kids to help you pack

If they're old enough to do so, involve your kids in gathering their stuff for the trip. Not only will it shorten your to-do list, but it also will help to make sure their favorite snack or toy is not forgotten. 

"Kids do have things they definitely want to bring," says Elizabeth Thorp, founder of "I let my kids pack their own small bag to take with them on the plane or in the car." 

Just make it clear to them that they will also be responsible for handling their own bag throughout the entire trip. Kid-size wheelie bags and backpacks are easy for children to manage. Consider fun, brightly-colored bags from brands such as Trunki, Lands' End and Heys. Samsonite has a Sammies collection that is specifically for children.

Pack the rest of their gear, including clothes and toiletries, in a larger suitcase. Try to keep things organized by child or by type of item (tops, bottoms, onesies, socks, underwear, toiletries). Zip-close bags or packing cubes from brands like L.L. Bean, Eagle Creek and Travelon make this a cinch.

2. Have plenty of snacks on hand

"A hungry kid is a cranky kid, so snacks are key when you're traveling with kids," Poshbrood's Thorp says. "In addition to letting them pack their own toys, I also put my kids in charge of packing their own snacks. I take them into the kitchen and have everything laid out -- crackers, granola bars, peanuts, raisins. Then they pick what they want to put in their carry-on or bag for the car."

Whenever possible, go for items in individual packages. Wash fruits and vegetables ahead of time, and if it makes them easier to eat, cut them into bite-size pieces and store them in zip-close bags. Avoid foods that are sticky or create extra garbage (like peels and pits).

Whether you're traveling by car or plane, you'll also want to have plenty of drinks on hand. If you're going on a road trip, stock a cooler in the trunk with juice boxes and water bottles. When flying, once you've gone through security, buy enough drinks to at least tide you over until drinks are served on the plane. You may want to consider bringing along a few extra treats like M&Ms to give in a pinch as a reward for good behavior.

If you're traveling with infants, you should know that baby formula and food, and breast milk can be brought aboard in "reasonable quantities" beyond the TSA's3.4-oz regulations. 

3. Put extra clothes within reach

Keep a change of clothes for each kid in your carry-on. "Even if it's an older kid, someone inevitably spills something on themselves and then they're miserable," says Thorp. If you're traveling with babies or toddlers, you may want to pack an extra outfit for yourself as well.

For your second bag, choose a large tote with plenty of pockets inside and out so that everything has a place. Make sure that it will fit easily underneath your seat on the plane or on the floor in the car. Pack it with any items you will need access to throughout the trip, including snacks, extra toys and bandages.

As a general rule, if you're checking luggage, it's always a good idea to pack your carry-on bags with at least two days' worth of clothes for each family member. This way you're covered if your luggage is lost or delayed. 

You should also plan to carry on plenty of extra diapers and baby food or formula. These items are all tough to find in airport shops, so you'll be glad you have them if your plane is delayed.

4. Bring an arsenal of toys and games

The best strategy for traveling with kids is to distract, distract, distract! The more you can preoccupy them and make the time pass more quickly (especially on long-haul flights or car rides), the better.

"Bring small packages of crayons, fresh coloring books and pads of paper," says Thorp. Also pack their favorite toys, pillows and blankets, especially if you're traveling in the car where you have more room. 

"One trick is to wrap up old, forgotten toys and surprise your kids with them along the way," Thorp says. "I get small toys and books they haven't used in a long time from the bottom of the bins in the playroom -- or even old Happy Meal toys from the junk drawer -- and I wrap them in wrapping paper and keep them in my bag. It's the presentation, being able to unwrap something." Dollar stores are another great source for cheap surprise gifts.

Gadgets are also great distractions. An iPad, Nintendo DS and portable DVD player are all kid- and travel-friendly. Budget time to complete any downloads before you leave the house (the night before is best, especially if you're downloading movies).

5. Choose your airline wisely

Do your research and check what amenities and meals are provided or that can be purchased on your flight. It may affect which flight you decide to book as well as what items you decide to bring with you. 

For instance, if you don't have room in your bag for a portable DVD player (or you don't own one), you may want to consider booking an airline that has in-flight entertainment systems on their planes. JetBlue and Virgin America planes have seatbacks with individual TV screens. Just remember to bring a set of headphones for each of your kids. Most airlines with in-flight entertainment systems provide them, but they may not fit your child's head properly.

You can take your stroller with you to the gate, but it must be checked before you get on the plane. The stroller does not count as one of your carry-ons, and will be delivered to you plane-side when you arrive at your destination. 

6. Save some toys for the trip home

Not only is it important to have enough toys and games to last en route and while at your destination, but it's also imperative that you don't forget toys for the journey home.

Bring along a few extra items and hide them away until the car ride or plane trip back home. Inexpensive items like stickers and coloring books are great bets.

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