Persuade your family to travel light

It’s easy to pack light if you’re traveling alone. You whittle your deodorant into a chapstick tube, buy shoes that you can wear to an important business meeting and also in the shower, and get used to using your scarf as a towel. But if you’re traveling with a family, you probably end up with a mountain of suitcases despite all your individual endeavors, resourcefulness and creativity.

To pack light as a family, you can command your family members to bring one bag only or insist on doing all the packing yourself. These two approaches will lead to conflict and resentment. What’s more, they won’t solve your problems. Your family will never learn to pack light and you will have to fight the same battle year after year, vacation after vacation. 

Instead, you should apply the following time-tested persuasion techniques. Over time, your family will grow into light packers and all n the meantime you will avoid resentment and conflict.

1. Understand your family’s travel goals

Everybody reading this article knows what the greatest joy and ultimate goal of all travel is: washing your underpants with bar soap in the hotel sink at the end of the day. But, believe it or not, your family members will have other goals in mind for your family trip – visiting the Taj Mahal, playing on the beach, dining elegantly in San Juan, meeting new people, etc. To persuade your family to pack light, you must first understand their unique holiday visions and dreams, even if those visions and dreams seem outrageous, impossible and wrong to you. Ask them what their holiday hopes and fears are and listen closely to their responses. Ask follow-up questions.

Similarly, each of your family members – even small children – will have established an elaborate packing strategy, just as you have. It’s not necessarily a strategy that you agree with and maybe it’s not overly viable or realistic. Nevertheless, you won’t get anywhere until you understand this strategy and can discuss it respectfully. 

2. Get the timing right

If you wait until the last minute to pack, you will have a huge family fight and will still end up bringing ten suitcases. Seek out a calm hour or two in the days leading up to the trip. 

If you have a spare room or a bed, leave the contents out in the open for a few hours or days so that everybody can reflect on the things they’re bringing. This might backfire in the short term as your family member thinks of more and more things that she wants to pack. Use the other techniques to make steady progress in diminishing the pile.

3. Lavish each and every packing improvement with praise

Rome was not built in a day and nobody transforms into Jeremy Maluf overnight. Make sure to praise your family member whenever she removes any item from her bag or makes any good packing decision. In this way, step by step, she will grow into an excellent packer. By praising her consistently and sincerely, you will reinforce her progress and she won’t slide back into bad habits. 

4. Respond minimally to bad packing decisions

For bad packing decisions, on the other hand, respond as minimally as possible. Just nod or say “hmm” and continue what you were doing. If you criticize or challenge or complain, you won’t make any progress. Worse, you will cement the bad practice as your family member learns to identify with that bad packing technique. 

In the wise words of Mike Birbiglia: “What I should have said … was nothing.”

5. Introduce incompatibilities

Your family member doesn’t care about packing light. They are thinking about the San Juan dinner, not about overhead compartments. Perhaps you end up doing all the bag-carrying anyways. Why then should they care how heavy the bags are? 

Try to find reasons to pack light that will resonate with your family member and make sense to her. One easy incompatibility is that the airline won’t let you bring a bag that is too big or too heavy. You can also point out that heavy bags will mean that they can’t achieve some holiday ambition, like sightseeing or hiking.

You could also make a rule that each person carries her own luggage but be careful with this. If you are serious about this rule, then you will need to be prepared for embarrassing showdowns at the hotel and train station. To prevail in the showdowns, you must truly be willing to leave the luggage behind, which is wasteful, expensive and embarrassing. It will require a lot of nerve on your part. 

In reality, you will likely abandon the rule mid-vacation. This is the same as not making the rule in the first place. The only difference is that you have additionally demonstrated to your family member that your rules don’t mean anything.

All in all, it’s best to avoid the you-pack-it, you-carry-it ultimatums. You should definitely encourage your kids to carry their own bags and praise them when they do. But don’t be an ogre about it or lock yourself into an untenable position. 

6. Carpet trade

If all else fails, you may be able to buy, trade, wheedle and bribe your way to a lighter bag.

For younger kids, set the parameters by agreeing up front on the bag they will bring. You can then negotiate about the contents but they can’t bring anything that doesn’t fit in the bag. 

For the contents, don’t start with your final position. First, propose just the barest of bare necessities and gradually let yourself be talked into a compromise position. 

You might also focus on one single activity that is important to them – the swimming or the horse-riding or the San Juan dinner. Organize the packing around that one activity and don’t overwhelm them with dozens of different possibilities and scenarios.

In any case, don’t force it. It took you decades to hone your packing skills and, for a few years when your kids are young, you will probably have to travel like a three-ring circus. Try to be content with incremental progress and with what you learn about your family along the way.