Our Best Planning and Packing Tips for a Smooth Journey

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Planning and Packing Tips for a Smooth Journey

Planning Tips

Planning for a trip can feel overwhelming and the questions is often asked – where do we begin?  There are a few questions to ask yourself when deciding on where to go:   What is your why?  Why do you want to go to said destination?  Is it because it’s a place that you’ve always been interested in or you’ve heard fabulous things from a friend?  The most important thing when choosing a destination is that it needs to be because YOU want to go there, not because it’s become a place that is a “must see”, especially thanks to social media as of late.

For me, I love Europe and the US national parks.  I tend to find these the most fulfilling trips.  There is no better feeling that exploring a new place that excites you.

We have a travel bucket list we reference when planning future trips.  For now, our focus is on Europe, the US national parks, and hopefully soon visiting the continents of Australia, Africa, and South America.  We cannot wait to check more countries and national parks off our list! 

Now for the planning tips!

How to begin planning

Here is how we generally plan for a trip:

1.) Decide on the destination.  This sounds simple, but with long bucket lists and places that all seem so appealing, you need to pick your place.  Budget comes into play as does the weather at the time of the trip.  Generally, shoulder seasons are a great time to travel, this often being the months of May and September.  Crowds are lower as schools get back in session and temperatures are generally pleasant.  However, this isn’t always feasible if you have school calendars you need to go by or if you have other commitments.  Spring break, summer, and winter break are peak travel times.  Expect the biggest crowds as well as those times being the most expensive times to travel. 

Traveling during peak times yields big crowds | New York City

One way to lower the cost of flights during peak times is to leave the day before or come home the day after a break period.  For example, our spring break always begins on a Saturday and ends the following Sunday.  We have booked flights leaving the Friday before and have come home the Monday after in the past.  The kids just miss a day or two of school on either end and booking flights this way can save a lot of money.  

For us, we really like to mix up our travels.  Seeing new places and experiencing these places together as a family makes some of our greatest family memories!

Seeing new places is mesmerizing! | Napa Valley, CA

If you don’t know where to start, think of experiences you want to have over a specific destination.  Are you interested in history or castles or new cities?  Europe might be a great place.  Do beaches and tropical islands fill your dreams?  Maybe a Caribbean or Hawaiian island are what you desire.  How about hiking or the great outdoors?  The US has many incredible destinations for this, including 63 national parks.  Think about what gets you the most excited and narrow down the specific destination from there, with weather and cost coming in to play.  Try watching some travel shows to see if anything piques your interest.  I personally love Rick Steve’s episodes on Europe! 

2.) Book the flights.  Trying to get a good deal, or nowadays a decent deal (!), is usually top of the list.  I research flight options using Google Flights.  This gives me an idea of what flight costs will generally be and what the route might look like as well.  I try to find the least amount of connections and pay attention to connection times.  I personally like a bit of a buffer in between connections.  This accounts for potential delays and also gives us a chance to grab some food and stretch our legs, especially important if we have a long-haul flight ahead.

It also pays to be loyal to an airline.  We are loyal to Delta, with Mike being their highest tier and the kids and I making our way up.  We get free upgrades, club access perks, free alcoholic beverages on the flight, and more.  Occasionally we will take another airline if the route option or time or even price is better.  My tip with this is know what airlines fly out your hub airport and explore a credit card option with that airline.  Getting miles just from spending will quickly fund a future trip!

3.) Book the lodging.  Next up is where to stay.  I research this while researching flights to see if places we want to stay match up, time wise.  We use a mix of hotels and Airbnbs and will settle on either depending on the destination.  If we find ourselves in an area for a longer than a few days, an Airbnb is appealing.  With a kitchen and laundry facilities, it makes the most sense, especially for a family.  We all appreciate the space to spread out as well.  If staying somewhere for a day or two, we usually stay in a hotel.  We are brand loyal to Marriott so frequently stay with them, although we will research what is the best option for us on said destination.  Reading reviews are especially important when deciding on a destination.  

4.) Build the itinerary.  Now it’s time to plan your days.  You can see if activities you want to do need advance reservations.  You may also want to look into tours or figure out if you need a rental car.  If so, this is the time to book all of this as well.

Now, you should have the majority if your trip planned!  I love using the TripIt app to keep my itinerary on hand as I’m booking things.  

Packing Tips

Trying not to overpack yet making sure you have everything you need makes it feel like a bit of a circus!  We have learned a lot along the way and want to pass our packing tips along to you to make sure you can pack seamlessly for your next trip.

Make a List

This seems pretty straight-forward however jotting down what you need to bring in the days leading up to a trip will ensure you don’t forget anything of importance.  I don’t know how many times I’ve packed off the top of my head and then went back to reference a list I had previously made to discover I had forgotten things!  Usually, I start jotting things down a few weeks before in my notes app on my phone and add as things come to me.  

I also reference this list when packing up to come back home that way I don’t inadvertently leave anything behind.

Doubles & Minis

If you travel frequently, it might be worth it to double up on your toiletry products or most used items.  I have either doubles or mini versions of all my usual products and it makes packing so much easier.  I always start packing toiletries first for a trip, usually several days out, and it’s nice to know that that part is done as we get closer.  While there is an initial investment, it’s worth it to not have to get into my “regular stash” to pack for a trip.  And I continue to use all my regular products up until departure with the travel toiletries packed and ready to go.

My big product and mini version, perfect for traveling

Packing Cubes

Packing cubes have become popular among travelers and they are something I use frequently as well.  Staying organized from beginning to end is a game changer.  Depending on the trip, I’ll use them differently.  For example, if we are going on a beach trip, then all swim attire goes in one large packing cube.  Or all socks in a small packing cube or a packing cube full of pajamas.  When we get to our destination, I just pull the cube out and place it right in the dresser drawer of the hotel or Airbnb.  It says neat and organized from beginning to end.

Lastly, I always use a packing cube for the clothes to wear for the trip home.  This way, these clothes won’t be touched during the trip and we always have a fresh clothes for traveling home.  This is especially important if we don’t have laundry facilities.  

Favorite Travel Products

Here are some of my favorite products to take along:

  1. Cord organizer –  I use this one from Away Travel, but there are many options out there.  Even a small bag works great.  In it I keep all my chargers.  This is always packed and ready to go as well.
  2. AirFly – I love using this on the plane with my Airpods.  Simply plug the AirFly in to the jack of the screen and connect to your Airpods – wirefree listening!  Now I do keep my backup earbuds if I plan to sleep while listening to a show or music on the tv on the plane.  This way I don’t have to worry about losing my Airpods while sleeping, especially when traveling on red eye flights, where sleep is imperative. 
  3. Bottle Brush kit – I purchased a kit similar to this one on Amazon for us to take along when we bring our reusable water bottles, also bringing along a mini bottle of dish soap.
  4. Laundry kit and bag – I often take a little “laundry kit” along as well with a few dryer sheets and detergent pods in it.  Each of us also has one of these laundry bags in a different color.  We can then all haul our dirty clothes home in our own suitcase.  Not only does using a laundry bag keep things neat in your suitcase when traveling home, but you just drop that bag off in the laundry room when unpacking back at home.  And then wait for the laundry fairy to do her magic 😉
  5. AirTags  – We all love to track our luggage nowadays that technology allows us to do so.  Slip an Apple AirTag into each suitcase and you’ll be able to track it all along its journey!  We also all have a slim tile or an AirTag for our wallets, which gives us peace of mind when traveling.  I sure love today’s tracking technology!

Meds

As a family traveling with severe food allergies, we always carry EpiPens and oral allergy medication with us in our carry on bags.  I also always carry Tylenol, Aleve, Imodium, and chewable Pepto Bismol tablets, as well as a mini first aid kit.  If you suffer from motion sickness, I’d consider adding this to your stash as well.  And of course always have a few extra days worth of prescription meds on hand.

I bring along this organizer for our vitamins for longer trips and this one for shorter durations for kids vitamins.  Staying healthy while traveling is of the utmost importance!

Food

Again, when traveling with dietary restrictions food is an important part of the planning process.  We do travel with food differently if a domestic vs. international trip because the regulations differ as to what you can bring in and out of the country.

Typical food products we travel with

DOMESTIC

Some of our favorite products:

  1. Meat sticks – we really like the Vermont or Chomp brand mini meat sticks – a great little push of protein when needed.  Mike and Braden also really like jerky, especially with all the great flavors available.
  2. Granola bars – we definitely prefer granola bars to soft cereal bars as we can take them out of the box and stick them where they fit in the suitcase.  Cereal bars would become a crumbs if we tried that!
  3. Rolls – traveling with rolls, especially one of our favorite brands, Pretzilla, works a lot better than soft bread.
  4. Prepackaged snacks – our kids like MadeGood cookie bites, Annies mini chocolate chip cookies, and mini Oreo packs.  We also often add Enjoy Life chocolate bars to our treat stash.  Individual bags of Skinny Pop and Goldfish are often packed as well.  These items are all safe for their egg and peanut allergies.

INTERNATIONAL

We pack the same snack packs, rolls, and granola bars as stated above, although we cannot pack the meat sticks, cheese, or fresh fruit and veggies.  One can bring these items on the plane to consume in flight, but they need to be either eaten or discarded of before landing.  Each country has specific rules on what you can and cannot bring into the country and these almost always include meat, cheese, and fresh produce.  You can be fined if any of these items are not declared and discovered as you go through customs.  

On arrival, we always visit local grocery stores at our new destination and have always been able to find foods that they can eat, even if it means a bit of prep work back in our kitchen at our AirBnB.  Plus grocery shopping in a new locale can be a fun adventure!

A Few More Tips

We have a few more tips to share for a smooth packing journey. 

  1. Carry on some essentials in your carry on bag such as a full change of clothes or at the very least underwear and a pair of socks.  You never know if that luggage in fact does go missing and you need some essentials. 
  2. Have everyone put a full outfit in one other family member’s suitcase.  So, I could put a full outfit in Mike’s, Mike could put one in mine, Ava could put one in Braden’s, and so on.  This also helps if luggage goes missing.  In fact, this actually was useful when our luggage was delayed when we were in Spain!
  3. Take a quick photo of your contents once your suitcase is packed.  This helps in case you need to report its contents (let’s hope not!)
  4. Put a tracker in each suitcase.  As mentioned above, this is one of our favorite travel tips.  We use Apple AirTags and they have been wonderful.  When we lost our luggage on our trip to Spain, we were able to pinpoint their exact location all along the way.  The website we were given by the lost luggage services never updated the luggage location.  It would have been very frustrating to not be able to see where the luggage was for 2.5 days!
  5. Lastly, think ahead in case you need something right when you get to your destination.  If there is something you may want from your checked luggage, put it in your carry on for quick access.  For example, if we are traveling to the beach, we keep a swimsuit in our carry on.  This is very handy if our room isn’t ready when we arrive.  The hotel can just hold our luggage and we won’t need to rifle through suitcases in the lobby.  Everything you need to start your vacation is with you in your carry on.

Final Tip:  Expect the Unexpected

Even with the best planning, things can go awry.  Lines can be long, staff can be short, so plan to get to the airport earlier than you think you need to.  Planes may have a mechanical issue, resulting in a delay.  I always try to have a good buffer if we have a connection flight to hopefully cover this if it were to happen.  And lastly, the one uncontrollable factor in all of this is the weather.  We cannot control the weather and weather accounts for the majority of flight delays.  Consider a buffer day if possible.  For example, we had a cruise scheduled on a Thursday so we flew down to Florida on a Tuesday afternoon.  We had a day and a half built in to help minimize the chances of delays eating up precious time getting to our destination.  

Expect the unexpected & be prepared | Windsor, England

Do you have more packing and planning tips to share?  If so, please do so in the comments section!

Happy travels!

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