Pack Like a Pro—Even for a Big Trip

Learn how one family of seven packed for two weeks in Europe, with just one carry-on backpack each.

Photo of AAA Member Crissy Stewart and her family in front of wall with colorful graffiti Crissy Stewart

The Stewart-Capell family spent six months planning their European vacation. After whittling down the list of cities they most wanted to visit, they chose London, Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin. From there, they carefully organized the logistics of their transportation and mapped out the sights they each wanted to see. Then they talked about packing.

AAA Member Crissy Stewart says that while planning a previous trip to Italy with her partner, Michelle Capell, they learned that hard-wheeled suitcases can cause damage to the old streets of Venice. The family agreed not to contribute to that problem.

So the family of seven—parents and five kids ranging in age from 6 to 18—set out last summer to conquer four cities over two weeks.

And they did it all with just one backpack each.

Rear view photo of AAA Member Crissy Stewart's family members wearing backpacks and sightseeing at city intersection Crissy Stewart


The kids understood that days would begin early and end late, with little downtime. They knew that backpacks would allow for hands-free exploration and make them nimbler. And backpacks that fit in the airplane’s overhead compartment would enable them to hit the streets upon landing, without waiting for checked luggage.

But how do you get two weeks’ worth of clothing, toiletries and entertainment items into one carry-on? Each child packed:

  • 3-4 shorts/pants (mostly quick-dry)
  • 4-5 T-shirts
  • 6-8 pairs of socks and underwear
  • 1 bathing suit
  • 1 hoodie, which they wore
  • 1 pair of shoes, also worn
  • Toiletries (each child had a small toiletry bag, except for the youngest, who shared with his parents)
  • A book or sketchbook, if desired
  • Phone/device and accessories
  • Earbuds
  • Masks
  • Travel pillow for overnight sleeping on the airplane

Some had smaller carry-on bags. The parents also packed a few first-aid items, tissues, hand sanitizer, wipes and extra masks.

The crew then established ground rules. Everyone understood that they were responsible for their own backpacks at all times, even 6-year-old Luther. Each child also had their own spending money and had to figure out how to fit any souvenirs into their backpack.

Photo of AAA Member Crissy Stewart's family members wearing backpacks and carrying shopping bags Crissy Stewart

Packing tips

Stewart offers these pro packing tips:

  • Quick-dry clothes are ideal because while travelers often usually wash their clothing, they can’t always dry it.
  • Prepare to wear pants/shorts more than once. Darker colors are usually best.
  • For dressier occasions, pack black clothing and scarves.
  • Wear well-made walking shoes that are already broken in before you travel.
  • Share toiletries like toothpaste and lotion when possible

Travel backpacks for women and men

How do you select the perfect backpack? Personal preference and price are usually the deciding factors. Stewart says her family opted for lightweight, inexpensive options with good zippers and convenient pockets that met the carry-on size requirement.

While spontaneity can be difficult with seven people, Stewart said the family learned a lot on the trip—most importantly, the benefit of being flexible.

“Traveling with kids is harder than just traveling as an adult or with other adults,” Stewart says. “Making the kids carry their own bags and buy their own souvenirs was smart. We won’t change that when we travel again. Not taking drag-along luggage is the only way we will ever travel!”

Get our downloadable packing checklist here.

Packing tips from the pros

If anyone knows how to pack, it is a AAA Travel Editor. Here are some of our editors’ favorite packing hacks:

  • Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to pack. It's a great idea to start planning 2-3 weeks ahead of time. Whenever something comes to mind that you'll need, jot it down or make a list on an app. Even better, leave your suitcase in a visible spot and add things to it during the weeks before your trip.
  • Pack an extra phone charger and a portable power bank. Taking photos and videos can wear your battery down quicker than you realize. And you won't worry about trying to find an outlet in a public place to charge your phone.
  • Stash an empty water bottle in your carry-on that you can fill at water fountains. This way you won’t have to throw away unfinished bottled drinks as you go through the TSA security screening line or wait for the flight attendant to bring you a beverage.
  • Invest in a set of packing cubes. Not only do they make finding things in your luggage easier, but they also keep your neatly folded or rolled clothes from wrinkling. 
  • Tuck a fabric softener sheet into your suitcase to keep your clothes smelling fresh.

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