By Kara Williams, on May 13, 2014

What to pack for a family trip

Bathing suits and sunscreen? Check. The beloved can’t-sleep-without-it stuffed animal? Check. Audio books for the long car ride? Check.

While I’m sure there are key items you wouldn’t dream of forgetting to pack for your vacation this summer—namely toiletries and clothing for all family members, as well as snacks, books, and activities to keep kids occupied while en route—here are a few more things you might want to toss in the back of your car or in your carry-on to keep toddlers to teens (and Mom and Dad) happy on your next trip.

Wipes and more wipes. Use them for diaper changes, to clean ketchup-covered faces after meals, to whisk away boogers…and that’s just for your child under age 2. My children are 12 and 14, and I still have a jumbo pack of wet wipes stashed in my minivan at all times for big-kid sticky messes. For more industrial jobs, such as wiping down plane armrests and hotel doorknobs, I bring a travel pack of Clorox wipes. I am convinced this is what has kept me stay healthy—not one cold or virus!—despite monthly plane trips every year.

Plastic bags of all sizes. I never feel guilty when I forget my reusable cloth grocery bags at the local supermarket, because I can always bring plastic grocery bags on my next trip. I’ve used plastic bags—everything from quart-sized Ziplocs to full-on green garbage bags—to keep separate dirty clothes, wet bathing suits, and mud-covered shoes from clean items while traveling. These bags double as barf bags, and can be wrapped around leftovers for storage in a hotel mini-fridge. We’ve even used bags to keep bicycle-seats dry in the rain, and we’ve sat on them when we’ve encountered less-than-clean picnic benches. Smaller snack-size and sandwich-size Ziplocs have been great for storing a broken bead necklace until we get home to re-string it, seashells picked up on the beach, and game pieces we don’t want to lose while playing in the car or on an airplane.

Laundry soap. See above regarding sticky spills and barf. Being able to rinse clothing items out in a hotel-room sink has meant I haven’t needed to throw out clothing items after minor messy disasters.

Blue painter’s tape. My pal, Debbie Dubrow, a mom of three school-aged children and founder of, gave me this tip several years ago. When her children were babies and toddlers, she traveled with a roll of removable, blue painter’s tape to cover up electrical outlets when baby-proofing a hotel room. If you put strips of it down on the floor, you can make “roads” for little toy cars to keep kids occupied just about anywhere. Love this tip!

Viewfinder Tip: Especially if you have teens, pack a black Sharpie pen to mark whose hotel key card belongs to whom.

Flashlight or head lamp. My “safety first” husband always travels with a flashlight. He’s used it when we’ve had car trouble at night. It’s come in handy when we’ve stayed in dimly lit campgrounds and needed to make our way back to a cabin after dark. Flashlights double as reading lights, and they can be used to entertain kids with shadow puppets when insomnia hits.

Quality clothespins or big binder clips. I wish I’d discovered this travel hack when my kids were younger; it would have saved us from some cranky early mornings. For the past couple years, I have traveled with something to secure hotel-room curtains together so that the family doesn’t wake when that first sliver of sunlight shines through a crack in the drapes. Clothespins or binder clips can double as “chip clips” for bags of snacks in the car, and I have used them to hang clothing to dry, as well.

Multiple pairs of headphones. It’s a bummer when the teen’s earbuds break and she’s forced to listen to dad’s country station instead of her own music on long car trips. I now bring along at least two extra sets of cheap earphones to use in a pinch. Another tech-y item to pack: A headphone splitter, so two children can watch the same movie on Dad’s laptop on the plane. You might also bring along backup phone chargers, if you’re prone to leaving those behind at hotel rooms (I’ve lost two that way).

Reusable coffee mugs. Okay, I admit it—this one is for Mom and Dad. When my family has stayed in budget motels through the years, I typically go nuts when I see there are only tiny Styrofoam cups provided for coffee in the room or at the included breakfast buffet. First, I hate drinking out of Styrofoam. Second, it’s bad for the environment! Now I always bring my aluminum coffee mug. The familiar “face” makes me happier in the morning. And you know what they say: “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

What are your must-pack items for family vacations?