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Parents: Resist the desire to try to control everything, and your travels will be lighter—and happier. (Photograph by Nico Nermann, Corbis)

Family Travel Don’t: Fear-Packing

In my travel dreams, my family strides confidently through the airport, wheeling our carry-ons—the only bags we have with us—with expert precision while onlookers marvel at our packing efficiency. The home we left behind is meticulous, of course, as we lift off for our next destination.

In my travel reality, things aren’t quite that well-oiled.

We’re running through the airport in an every-man-for-himself dash for the gate and our house could easily be mistaken for the site of a hurried burglary. Clothes are strewn everywhere, emptied drawers are overturned on the bed, and closet doors stand ajar. I blame fear-packing.

Fear-packing is what happens in that last 24 hours before departure. It’s in those moments when, after having taken the time to think out the itinerary and whittle down your packing list to things you’ll actually need, your mind starts to play tricks on you.

In my case, the fears usually surround what the kids might need. I must pack, I tell myself, to account for every possible mishap.

What if it rains? What if it’s really sunny? What if the kids get their only pair of jeans dirty? Did we pack enough socks? Should they bring another book just in case they finish the first one? What if, on a drive through D.C., President Obama spots our family and invites the boys over to meet Malia and Sasha? Better pack them a dress shirt and shoes just in case.

I’m exaggerating, but only slightly.

In the year we traveled around the world I was proud that we had pared down our everyday wardrobes to two weeks’ worth of clothing. With only one small bag each it seemed like we were living on nothing, but the truth is that even that was too much. And if it was too much for a year, it’s definitely too much for a week away. But how do you stop? How do you move from “What if…” to “Oh, well”?

I’ve been training myself to think about packing in a different way, and here’s what I’m learning: 

1. There’s a fine line between “totally prepared” and “no room for surprise.” If we didn’t have everything we need, would it really result in catastrophe? So far, the answer has always been “no.” Part of the joy of travel is in the discovery of new things. Finishing a book might mean the chance to stumble upon a local author you would never have known about otherwise. A dinner invitation from the Obamas would be a good reason to invest in a new pair of pants.  And the giggles that would ensue if we got caught in the rain without an umbrella would surely be worth a few moments of shivering. It’s good to remind yourself that so often it’s the unplanned-for moments that net the best memories.

2. You’re never going to remember everything. There have been trips where I’ve packed the kitchen sink and still ended up forgetting the one thing we’d really need. In Cambodia, my youngest stepped off a tuk-tuk and burned his leg. I had a million bandages in the first aid kit, but we had to head out into the dark to find gauze and ointment. The fact is, emergencies are emergencies precisely because you can’t prepare for them. Have faith that you’ll be able to find what you need when you need it, instead of trying to carry it all in your suitcase.

3. Step away from the bigger bag. Often in the throes of fear-packing panic, I’ll ditch the carry-on and haul out the heavy-duty luggage. It’s easier, I’ll tell myself, to just bring it all. It isn’t. Not only will those checked bags prevent you from beginning your travel adventure immediately upon touching down, they’ll allow you to bring things that you now need to worry will be stolen or lost. Reaching for a bigger bag should be your first clue that the fear-packing has begun. Put it down, and back away.

4. Have the basics down pat. When you’re a frequent traveler, why start from scratch each time? At this point, I make a habit of refilling the supplies we routinely need and keep them packed in our bags for the next trip. You’re going to always need that travel-size tube of toothpaste and that first aid kit, so why not keep your airplane-friendly amenities packed and ready to go? Knowing that you have the basics packed already will ease your stress and give you more room to get excited about the adventure ahead.

5. Remember to pack an attitude adjustment. The downside to not packing everything is that there will be times when you don’t have the things that would’ve made your trip easier. When these rare occurrences happen, don’t use them as an excuse to revert to your old ways. Instead, use them as an opportunity to stretch yourself in a new destination. You will get wet in the rainstorm, but you can choose to sulk or to dance. Choose to dance.

Heather Greenwood Davis, husband Ish, and sons Ethan and Cameron were recognized as Travelers of the Year by Traveler magazine in 2012. Catch up with their family adventures on Follow Heather on Twitter @GreenwoodDavis

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