Sure, packing gets easier when you can give each kid a small carry-on bag to lug themselves and pay no checked bag fees. But there are times—like heading to Paris with three kids in winter—when checking a bag costs nothing extra and will greatly simplify matters.
Other times, such as a road trip with many different overnight stops (7 hotels/motels in 10 nights with 3 kids?), the 1 big bag approach can be quite helpful, too: fewer items to schlep in and out of motels and keep track in transit.
Of course, 3 kids sharing a suitcase for long could be a disaster. Enlisting the help of our trusty gear bag and these simple packing techniques have helped us a lot when packing for 3 kids.
1. Get the right suitcase.
It’s got to be big enough to fit the load, but not too big—or else you’ll get zinged with pesky oversize baggage fees. For most U.S. carriers (Delta, United, American, Alaska…), checked bags cannot exceed 62 inches (157 cm) when combining the length + width + height of the bag.
Likewise, you want a bag that is sturdy enough, but is lightweight enough that it won’t add unnecessary lbs. that could easily put you over the maximum weight limit. For most carriers, checked bags for coach class passengers should not exceed 50 lbs. total. If they do—zing! Extra fee. For us, the High Sierra Sierra-Lite 32” drop-bottom duffle has served well on many trips—to the tropics, to Europe, and on numerous road trips.
Just don’t unzip the expansion panel when flying and make sure you can cinch the support straps a little when packed for air travel (if maxed out, it is technically 1.25” over checked dimensions—but we’ve never had a problem). It also weighs only 11 lbs., and the division of space is helpful.
2. Use separate clear vinyl “packing cubes” for each kid.
Confession: Mine are what bedspreads or blankets came packed in—perfect (and free)! There are many official packing cubes on the market, but I’ve found that being able to see what is where inside of them saves a lot of frustration and mess overall, especially when the kids are yanking out their own clothing.
Though if the bag gets too big, you’ll want to conquer with dedicated “outfit” or “clothing type” packing cubes within this to keep the pants together, shirts, etc.
3. Use a separate slide-lock freezer bag to store underwear and socks.
Underwear and socks get easily lost in the shuffle, but a dedicated slide-lock freezer bag makes it easy to find that fresh pair when needed without major excavation. Note: as feet grow, you’ll need a separate bag or cube for the socks. 😉
4. Pack those bulky sneakers.
No more wondering if they made it in or not. Once the kids’ cubes are in place, line up their sneakers right alongside each kids’ packing cube so you can see at a glance that each child’s pair is present and accounted for (as shown in first photo).
5. Pack those toiletries, jackets, and extras.
This is where the magic of the drop-bottom duffel really shines through. Now that the bottom is loaded, use the top compartment to add extra toiletries, games, stuffies, and books that are joining you on the journey—with jackets on the top.
You can adjust how much “fun stuff” you include according to how much space is needed for destination-appropriate gear (snow boots, snorkeling gear, etc.). And if you’ll need jackets or sweaters on arrival, you can easily access them from the top/AKA outermost compartment.
Tip: If you’re packing for fewer than 3 kids or for a shorter trip, you might prefer the next size down of Sierra-Lite drop-bottom duffel (the 26″).