Here’s Everything I Pack for a Family of 4 in a Single Carry-On & Backpack (Without Losing My Mind)

Compression bags are key

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family vacation packing using a carry-on and personal item only

After having two kids, heading to a play date requires more gear than what I took with me when I moved from Florida to New York at 21. There’s the diapering gear, the drinks and snacks (for me and them) and the endless “in case this happens” items (like spare clothes or pacifier wipes). But, in 2024, I’ve vowed to streamline my life. And after multiple flights for long weekends to see family, I’ve finally come up with a way to cram exactly what I need for a family of four into a standard-size carry-on bag and diaper backpack.

I thought I might break my carry-on at first, but it turned out, all I needed was a checklist, a packing strategy and some compression cubes. (OK, and a couple cheat codes, which I share in the shortcuts section below.) This basic setup has worked beautifully for us for a four-day, three-night trip, though if you don’t mind a little extra baggage, it may be worth adding a second backpack just for your kids’ “fun” stuff—and potential souvenirs, depending on your destination.

Here's how I’m packing these days.

The Gear I Use:

The Packing Method:

Making a checklist is crucial to ensure that what I pack goes home with me too (otherwise we leave a trail of bottles and socks in our wake). It all gets sorted into a few categories:

what i pack for a family vacation in a carry-on using compression bags
candace davison

1. The Clothes

For a long weekend, I like to riff on the New York Times’s 5-4-3-2-1 Clothing Countdown. For each person, we’ll pack:

  • 4 pairs of socks and underwear
  • 4 tops
  • 3 bottoms*
  • 2 pairs of shoes
  • 1 pair of pajamas
  • 1 wildcard item, like a packable sun hat or small purse

I’ll set aside one complete outfit for each kid to stuff into a gallon-size resealable bag, which I keep in the diaper bag as an emergency change of clothes. Because you never know when turbulence will cause a drink to spill or a blowout will happen mid-flight, and nobody wants to be rummaging through a carry-on while dripping in…who knows what?

From there, each person’s set of clothes gets dutifully rolled—to save space—and tucked into a compression bag (a medium-sized one for each kid, a large one for each adult). Vacuum bags tend to work even better, but they get so stiff that it can be hard to pack around them. Plus, I like the organization of handing each person their bag to pull clothes from each day.

*I’ll often swap a top/bottom for a jersey or polyester-blend dress (which is less likely to wrinkle when rolled/compressed).

2. The Basic Hygiene Stuff

In a standard makeup bag, I fit travel-size toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, detangler (a must for my daughter), baby shampoo, toothbrushes, a mini hairbrush and hair ties, moisturizer and some basic, minimal makeup. (I’m talking undereye concealer, mascara, a bronzer stick, an SPF stick and tinted lip balm.)

I’ll stick gummy vitamins for everyone in individual Ziploc bags, rolling them tightly to remove excess air, and tuck them in too.

Then, everything gets packed like Tetris into the carry-on. We’ll wear our bulkiest clothes and sneakers on the plane to save space, and I like to tuck a book and an adjustable neck reading light—or my curling iron (if I plan on getting a little fancy)—in the space between the luggage bars inside the carry-on, just to maximize that awkward space.

what i pack in a baby bag for vacation, including diapers, bottles, formula and wipes
candace davison

3. The Baby Gear

Anyone with a baby knows packing for the under-1 set is its own thing, which is why my 8-month-old gets the Swiss Army Knife of baby bags largely to himself. I’ve traveled with a few bags, but I swear by Huhu because its compartments keep everything tidy, even when TSA has to tear apart your bag to ensure your formula and baby bottles aren’t a threat to national security. Here’s everything baby related that I bring:

  • 1 stroller with infant car seat (which I gate check)
  • 1 cotton cashmere shawl that doubles as a baby blanket (which I can wear onto the plane)

In the baby bag, I put…

  • 6-8 diapers (just enough to get me through the flight and any airport delays/blowout mishaps)
  • 1 full pack of wipes
  • Changing pad
  • 1 divided Munchkin container with three servings of formula (so it’s easy to make takeoff/landing bottles and keep my son scream-free as his ears adjust)
  • 3 bottles, pre-filled with water (TSA is OK with this; they’ll just need to check them as you go through security)
  • 1 baby food bag with three servings of baby food, two spoons and a Frida Baby Push Pop Feeder (my son can be entertained for 15 minutes just gumming a banana through that thing)
  • 2 bibs
  • 2 burp cloths
  • 1-2 small toy per kid
  • 1 kids’ activity book (for my 5-year-old)
  • Kids’ headphones
  • Spare clothes
  • Snack bag: a gallon-size resealable with an array of snacks (apples, bananas, Puffs, Cheez-Its, Chomps beef jerky)
  • Spare clothes bag
  • 1 trash bag (more on this in the Shortcuts section)

Most hotels have cribs or pack and plays available, so I don’t bother bringing my own, though I have found that an inflatable baby bath can come in handy, especially when paired with a dollar store balloon pump.

The Shortcuts:

standing at tampa airport, ready to travel
candace davison
  • Pack a foldable tote bag (ideally one that’s zippered) in your carry-on, in case you come home with more than you left with—extra diapers, gifts from the grandparents, that matching set of mouse ears everyone needed when you stepped foot onto the Happiest Place on Earth and have no idea what you’ll do with later
  • Place a curbside pickup order at the Target (or Walmart) nearest your destination just before takeoff. I like Target because it’s ready in two hours—basically before I land—and you’re not beholden to a specific hour to pick things up. I’ll put a small pack of diapers, extra formula and baby food in the order, so I’m all set for the long weekend without having to haul it all from home.
  • Use the trash bag to cover your car seat. If it’s raining, your car seat will return from the gate check soaked; something I’ve learned the hard way. You could buy a custom cover, but I’ve found a trash bag works just as well. Just keep the gate check tag visible.

It’s not a perfect system—rather, an evolving one—but so far, it’s working for me.

candace davison bio

VP of editorial, recipe developer, kitsch-lover

Candace Davison oversees PureWow's food and home content, as well as its franchises, like the PureWow100 review series and the Happy Kid Awards. She’s covered all things lifestyle...