Sunday, March 31, 2019

Packing for Europe with Kids

One of the most intimidating parts of our family trip to Europe this spring was packing for six people for two weeks!!

Here’s what we were working with:
  • 3 destinations 
  • 4 kids (ages 9, 7, 6, 3) 
  • 2 parents (one of whom needed work attire) 
  • Spring weather (the forecast when we were packing ranged from a low of 48 to a high of 72) 
  • A mix of city and country settings 
  • The option to do laundry at the midpoint of our trip 
  • A travel crib, diapers, and a stroller 
  • Three Bubble Bum inflatable car seats 
See why we were intimidated?! After much brainstorming and planning, our packing strategy ended up working out really well and has given us a good foundation for future trips!

Here are a few things that we found to be really helpful.

1. Start Early
  • I started an early draft of a packing list at least a month before our trip. It was helpful to start thinking it through and editing well in advance. 
  • Especially when you’re traveling into a different climate, make sure to inventory wardrobes and have everyone try everything on ahead of time. The weather in Europe isn’t drastically different than in Boston, but we were coming off of a long winter and needed to pull out and try on t-shirts and dresses from the prior season. Also, things like holes in the knees of kids’ jeans that don’t bother you for going to school every day may not be what you want to take on a trip. 
  • This planning gave us a good sense of where we had gaps to fill with a quick (online) shopping trip. My girls especially like to wear matching outfits (I promise, it’s all their idea!) and we've found it’s actually really helpful when traveling because you can find them more easily in a crowd and it reduces the decision making of packing and getting dressed - two of everything! 
  • As much as possible, put the vacation clothes aside ahead of time. We laid out almost everything we were going to pack - especially for the kids - a week or two before the trip. This really helped to minimize the last minute laundry scramble because we knew the favorite PJs or nice sweatshirts weren’t in the wash since we had set them out of the daily rotation in advance. 

2. Capsule Packing
  • I’ve read a lot about capsule wardrobes recently and while I love the idea, haven’t been able to pull them off in reality - I think especially when you have a lot of hand-me-downs in the mix for kids, and a diverse wardrobe of business formal, business casual, and mom life clothes, it’s really hard to slim down to an official capsule. But capsule packing, I am fully onboard with. 
  • The basic concept is that you have a limited number of versatile, quality pieces that can be mixed and matched to make a ton of different outfit combinations. For our trip, I really tried to make sure that almost all of the tops could be worn with almost all of the bottoms. That leggings could be worn on their own as activewear or under dresses as an additional layer. That instead of bringing a pair of black work pants for dinners, I went with a pair of dark black jeans that could be dressed up as such, but just as easily worn with sneakers on a travel day.  It also helps you feel like you're not repeating the same outfit over and over since you can mix and match in different ways.
  • The capsule packing also helped with layering, since most everything was interchangeable. We knew layers would be important given the wide range of forecasted temperatures we were packing for, as well as cold airplanes, air conditioned restaurants, hot trains, etc. 
  • Shoes are always the bulkiest thing to pack, and yet the hardest thing for me to pack light on. The boys brought two pairs - one pair of running sneakers and one pair of “fancy sneakers” - Henry has some chambray Toms shoes and Ryan brought a pair of Adidas Superstars. This was perfect - they mostly just wore their running shoes, but put their fancy sneakers on when we were touring around cities or going out to eat. The girls brought the same, plus a pair of Rothy’s. They only wore the Rothy’s a couple of times and could have gotten away without them, but they take up no space and were nice to have. 

3. Packing Cubes

  • I was always hesitant to embrace the packing cubes system because I am a die-hard “roll my clothes” packer. I have traveled for work a ton over the years and generally pride myself on taking the smallest bag I can. Always carry on, never check! Part of my rolling system involves stuffing everything I can into whatever shoes I’m bringing, and then organizing it all into the suitcase like a game of Tetris. 
  • But, for our longer trip, I figured out a great system for the packing cubes and it was a total game changer!! We used these - medium size for the boys and Nettie, and the large size for Erin, Zach, and me.
  • I dread packing and repacking multiple times on a trip, and I know that my kids love to totally “move in” whenever we go somewhere. When we go to Narragansett in the summer, we’ve barely finished unloading the car and Erin has unpacked her entire suitcase into the dressers! Our first stop on this trip was Paris, where we were staying for two nights before heading on to Italy for the longer portion of our trip. 
  • When I was packing, I laid out all the clothes we would need for Paris - including PJs, socks, underwear, shoes - and put together a packing cube for each person with just those clothes. I packed everything else for the rest of the trip in the bottom of the suitcase - rolling clothes and stuffing shoes as usual - and then laid the packing cube right on top. When we got to Paris, we were able to take the packing cube out, live out of that for the three days, and didn’t have to disturb anything else in the suitcase. When we left Paris, all of the dirty laundry from that part of the trip went back into the packing cubes and those went straight to the washing machine when we arrived in Florence. It worked so well! 
  • The other bonus is that it simplified the decision making around getting dressed when we got to Paris. We were jet lagged and a little (a lot?!) overwhelmed by the start of the trip, and we didn’t even have to think about what we should wear on day 1 because we had already made that decision at home. It also helps a ton if you have picky kids - we had talked with our boys before we left about how Paris is a city and we would be wearing more of our “handsome clothes” there, which is what we put in the packing cubes. It didn’t totally avert a meltdown on Ryan’s part, but made things a little easier that he wasn’t pulling out Nike gear that we had to say no to - that stuff was safely buried in the bottom of the suitcase for the latter part of the trip! 
  • On the back end of our trip, we had another three day stay in Tuscany and repeated the same strategy. The bottom of the suitcase was pretty much filled with dirty laundry at this point, and the packing cube held everything we needed for the Tuscany stay, which made packing up to go home that much easier.

4. Laundry 
  • Knowing we had the option to do laundry midway through the trip definitely simplified our packing and took the pressure off. However, we didn’t totally count on it when we were packing and I’m glad for that. Did you know they don’t have dryers in Italy? While I knew we would be able to do laundry, I didn’t anticipate that everything would have to air dry - it is no joke doing laundry for six people on a drying rack! The result of this was that doing a load of laundry was actually like a three day process - we couldn’t just throw the PJs in the washer and be able to wear them that night, so it was good that we had packed an extra pair. 
  • Other than PJs, do not plan on kids being able to rewear anything without it being washed. Especially if your trip involves gelato. I rewear my jeans several times at home before they need to get washed, but am really glad I didn’t count on the kids doing the same. Kids get dirty. They drip gelato, they drag their feet and kick up dust, they find a playground and grass stain their pants. 
  • Even for the adults, traveling is messy. I packed two pairs of jeans for myself, which seemed unnecessary as I tried to lighten my suitcase as much as possible, but I was so glad I did. After our first day in Paris, where we had walked all over the city and been off and on several buses and trains, I just felt kind of grimy and was glad I didn’t have to put those same pants on the next day. 

5. Take Pictures
  • While it was helpful to write down a draft list at the beginning of our packing process, the most useful thing I did was take photos of everyone’s clothes laid out before I put them into the suitcases. It was a great reference to have during the process, because I generally packed one kid per day in the week leading up to our trip. Once the clothes are in the suitcase, forget about it - it’s too hard to see or remember exactly what made the cut. But being able to look at the photos of Henry’s clothes a few days later when I was trying to do Ryan’s was really helpful. 
  • I also took a photo of everything we brought the morning before we left for the airport - all the suitcases, backpacks, coats, stroller, etc. I can’t tell you how many times I looked back at the photo to remember what our total count of items was - and how many times a day I counted to make sure we had all of them with us. 
  • Thank goodness we never needed this, but having photos of all the bags also gave me a little insurance policy in case we had lost one and had to show the airlines what it looked like.

6. More and Smaller
  • Since there are so many of us and the kids are small, it was actually helpful to have more smaller bags than a couple of huge ones. A lot of people have asked me if it was annoying to have the kids pulling their own suitcases, but we found it was actually better. It gave them something to do - we knew they couldn’t run off from us in the airport when they had suitcases in tow - and it (sort of) lightened the load that Zach and I had to be responsible for. He and I packed our large suitcases, mostly because he needed suits for meetings and I needed space for diapers for Henry, raincoats for everyone, and that extra pair of jeans I decided to bring! We debated at one point bringing one more huge bag for all of the kids’ stuff, but I’m so glad we decided to have each kid take their own rolling carryon suitcase. 
  • In addition to the suitcases, we each took a backpack.  We learned from our Disney trip that the backpacks were actually much harder for the kids to be responsible for because they got heavy after awhile, so we ended up carrying them in addition to our own.  We still brought them to Europe so everyone could contain their airplane activities, etc., but we tried to lighten them up as much as possible.
  • At the last minute, we also decided to bring an extra duffel bag (this one - it's the best!).  This was a lifesaver throughout the trip.  It was big enough that we could throw Henry's backpack in it so he didn't have to carry it, and it gave us extra easily accessible space for things like water bottles, the smaller tote I used every day for walking around (this one - it was perfect!), and for bringing home souvenirs.
  • The two things that almost put us over the edge when trying to navigate through airports and cities were the travel crib and the stroller.  They were two more heavy, bulky things that we had to worry about and Zach had to lug around.  But they were necessary for us at that point, and will make travel feel that much easier in the future when we no longer need to bring them along!  We were so glad to have that stroller too - everyone was fighting over whose turn it was to ride!   
  • These are the suitcases the kids have: 
  • Don't look too closely - this is a Christmas picture from NYC, but is a better view of the girls' suitcases.  The American Girl dolls did not have their passports for Europe!

7. Food
  • We figured out a great system for food during our Disney trip and replicated it for Europe. 
  • I used to pack a ton of snacks in my backpack, which made it really heavy and also made me feel like I was constantly doling out food or saying yes or no to snack requests. 
  • Now, we pack a gallon size Ziploc bag for each person and everyone is responsible for their own food. Depending on the travel timing, I usually pack each person a PB&J sandwich, two pieces of fruit (usually apple, banana, or clementine), a couple of granola bars, a bag of chips or crackers, a squeeze pouch of almond butter or bag of nuts, a bag of dried fruit, and some gum (or lollipops) for take off and landing. Each kid (and adult!) carries their Ziploc bag in their own backpack and decides what they want to eat and when. When we went to Disney, Henry had eaten 90% of his food before we left Logan Airport, and Erin brought about half of hers back home at the end of the trip. But they can see what they have, eat when they want to, and know that when it’s gone, it’s gone. It gives them freedom and independence, and lightens my load (physically and mentally!) significantly. 
What We Packed for 12 Days:


- 2 PJs (plus one worn on the plane)
- 1 sleep sack for Henry
- 6 underwear (diapers for Henry)
- 6 pairs of socks
- 2 pairs of jeans
- 2 pairs of sweatpants
- 2 pairs of chino/corduroy pants
- 4 short sleeve t-shirts
- 4 long sleeve t-shirts
- 1 button down shirt
- 2 collared Polo shirts (1 short sleeve, 1 long sleeve)
- 3 sweatshirts
- 1 pair running sneakers
- 1 pair "fashion sneakers"
- Patagonia down sweater jacket
- Raincoat

- 2 PJ's (plus one worn on the plane)
- 6 underwear
- 6 pairs of socks
- 2 t-shirt dresses (one long sleeve, one short sleeve)
- 1 chambray jumpsuit
- 4 short sleeve t-shirts
- 4 long sleeve t-shirts
- 1 sweatshirt
- 1 cardigan sweater
- 4 pants (1 jeans, 1 pink jeans, 2 pairs of "dressy leggings" - stretchy pants with buttons/pockets)
- 2 pairs of "exercise leggings"
- 1 exercise outfit (sporty tank top and long sleeve shirt to wear with leggings)
- 1 pair running sneakers
- 1 pair "fashion sneakers" (Adidas Superstar)
- 1 pair Rothy's
- Patagonia down sweater jacket
- Raincoat

- 2 PJs
- Underwear, socks
- 6 pants - 2 blue jeans, 1 white jeans, 1 gray jeans, 1 black jeans, 1 cropped green chinos
- 2 dresses
- 4 short sleeve t-shirts
- 3 long sleeve t-shirts
- 2 blouses (1 gingham button down, 1 eyelet pullover)
- 2 sweaters (1 lightweight cotton crewneck, 1 long cardigan)
- 1 lightweight blazer/jacket for dinner events
- 1 down vest for layering (worn on the plane with a t-shirt and joggers)
- 2 workout outfits
- 1 running sneakers
- 1 "fashion sneakers" (Adidas Superstar)
- 2 Rothy's (casual camo loafer, dressy leopard points for dinner events)
- Black waterproof ankle booties
- Patagonia knee length rain parka with down sweater liner (wore separately and together)

Dad: couldn’t tell you. Sorry! 😉

What I Would Do Differently 
  • Overall, our packing strategy worked out great and I am really proud of it! It was no easy feat going in. 
  • It’s hard to say that we would do anything differently, because hindsight is 20/20 but I think we did the best packing job we could have at the time. We packed raincoats for the kids, in addition to their Patagonia down sweater jackets. They wore the Patagonias every day, and only needed the raincoats once. In hindsight, we didn’t get our money’s worth out of carrying the raincoats around for two weeks, but we were sure glad we had them on that one rainy day - and sure glad we didn’t need them more than that. 
  • The kids wore PJs on the overnight flight, in addition to the two pairs that we had packed, so they ended up with three pairs of PJs and would have been totally fine with two. 
  • I wished I had thrown in a pair of shorts for the boys when the weather hit 78, which we didn’t think we needed based on the forecast. The girls were fine in dresses, but the boys were hot that day. We almost stopped to buy shorts at the H&M in Florence, but decided it wasn’t a big deal for one day. 
  • The girls and I each had probably one more dress than we needed, and the same for the boys with collared shirts. I had imagined that we might dress up for dinner, at least in Paris, but we ended up just really powering through each day and going straight out to eat from our walking around during the day. I also knew I would have at least one dinner event to attend with Zach's conference and packed for two, just in case. 
  • I overpacked on shoes (per usual!) but wore them all and was glad to have them. I brought my running sneakers, which I wore on the plane and once or twice when I got out for a run. I also brought a pair of Adidas sneakers, and they were probably my most worn pair of shoes - they are comfortable for lots of walking but still look nice - and we happened to read an article online the day we left about how they are very trendy in Europe! Who knew?! I brought two pairs of Rothy’s - one more casual and one dressier - this seemed totally unnecessary but I wore them each several times and they didn’t take up a lot of space. The dressier ones were perfect when we went to dinner with friends and when I went to one of Zach’s dinner meetings. The casual ones were perfect on days when we didn’t do a ton of walking and for putting on at the end of the day - while we didn’t change into dressier clothes for dinner, it was always nice to take off sneakers at the end of the day. The one pair of shoes that I could have done without was my black waterproof suede ankle booties. They took up a lot of room in the suitcase (although not too bad when stuffed with workout clothes!) and I only wore them two or three times. They were perfect on our rainy day in Tuscany and I was also glad to have them when it was 45 degrees on our first morning in Paris, but I could have roughed it with my Adidas sneakers if I hadn’t brought them. 
  • I think some of it depends on how much you are willing to “rough it” and how committed you are to taking the smallest bag possible. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t pull this off in my carryon suitcase (I’m telling you - I take a lot of pride in packing light!) but once I accepted that it made more sense to take my larger checked bag, it was really nice to have the extra pair of jeans and shoes. 

All in all, we were really happy with our packing strategy and everything that we brought. I’m not sure we would have been brave enough to undertake two weeks in Europe with four kids under 10 if we hadn’t had the excuse of Zach’s meetings in Florence. But now that we’ve done it and know it’s possible, I feel like we’ve opened up a whole world (literally!) of possibilities and can’t wait to travel more with the kids. I will definitely be using these notes and photos for future reference! Hope they are helpful to you too!