Read all of my helpful articles on planning a family vacation to Washington, D.C.!
You've been planning a trip to Washington, D.C. (or somewhere else!) and want to pack as carefully and frugally as possible, but you need some helpful tips for your student or family?
Well, you've come to the right place! Keep on reading for some great packing and safety tips, as well as a FREE printable packing list.
I'm going to show you how to frugally pack your luggage so that you avoid baggage fees, bring the right items along with you (with my free printable DC packing list), and don't overpack.
Our family planned our trip so that we'd be in Washington, D.C. for 7 full days. We were told we could pack everything into carry-on luggage. My thoughts at first were, "Yeah, right!" But we did it, easily! I'll show you how.
Some of these tips aren't as frugal as they could be; for example, I didn't buy $12 el-cheapo shoes in which to walk. That's because I would have been in misery walking 5-10 miles per day in them! However, I wanted to show you some of the ways to help your trip be as comfortable as possible at the best price I could find for durable, long-lasting items.
The weather can vary greatly in the Washington, D.C. area. Read more about how to choose the right time of year to visit Washington, D.C. for your family.
You'll want to check with your airline to see what their exact requirements are regarding carry-on luggage. We chose to fly with Alaska Airlines, so we were each allowed one carry-on bag, which - including wheels and handles (very important to know this!) - could measure up to but not more than 10" H x 17" W x 24" L (25 x 43 x 61 cm), plus one personal item, such as a purse, briefcase, backpack, or laptop computer.
My smart husband found the carry-on luggage that most closely matched those size requirements so we would meet the limit but still be able to pack as much as possible. By the way, the Kirkland carry-on luggage from Costco is just a tad too large for many airlines' overhead storage. You'll want to avoid that brand for your carry-on bag.
We each were able to bring one carry-on piece of luggage plus a decent sized backpack...and we tied our lightweight hooded coats around our waists until we were allowed to move around in the plane after take-off.
Our family saved $200 just from not bringing any checked baggage with us. Woot!
You'll want to bring clothing that reflects the kinds of activities in which you plan to participate and the weather that you expect.
How in the world do I pack for a week or two in carry-on luggage?
But after I laid out all of my clothes in the same manner that he did, I found that my clothes, shoes, and more fit easily into my small carry-on luggage!
Wow. I was really surprised. My girls didn't think it could be done, so our whole family watched the video together. My husband packed his own carry-on, and I worked individually with each of the girls to help them pack theirs.
Bottom line? This totally worked! ☺ It's a free 8-minute video that saved us $200 in luggage fees.
What should I pack, besides clothing and shoes?
Baggage I.D. tag: a baggage I.D. tag should be inside every one of your bags. Here's a free printable baggage I.D. tag from Alaska Airlines to fill out and place inside the large zipped compartment of your carry-on bag. You may also write your own, using an index card or piece of paper.
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Use packing cubes, like these Small Packing Cubes by Dot&Dot. Read my review of these here.
Limit toiletries to necessary, travel-size items.
Pack items like shampoo in small containers. You're only allowed to carry 3.4 ounces (100ml) or less (by volume) bottles of gels, liquids (including liquid makeup), and aerosols, packed inside 1 quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag; 1 bag per passenger is placed in the screening bin. You can buy toiletry kits that are designed to match the liquid requirements of TSA for carry-on luggage, or you can pack your own using smaller travel sizes and containers. Just keep in mind that the tiny travel bottle of shampoo that you find in the stores isn't a frugal purchase at all; you'll save money after a couple of trips by buying a toiletry kit and filling the containers yourself.
Silicone Travel Bottles: Regular plastic bottles tend to waste moisturizer, sunscreen, and hair products that can't be squeezed out as easily. These new, squishy travel bottles made out of transparent, soft silicone are easy to clean, more flexible to pack, and best of all, you won't waste any product in them. You can also find these at Walmart, Marshall's, and other department stores from time to time.
Camera. I know, I know. Everyone is so excited to take photos and videos with their smart phones. Well, even though picture quality on smart phones has dramatically improved, it still won't capture memories quite the same as a high quality yet easily portable camera.
My parents let us borrow their Canon PowerShot G15, and it took fabulous photos! When we arrived home, I reluctantly gave it back to my parents. ☺ While we felt we couldn't afford to replace my old camera with a G15 or the newer G16, my husband did purchase a Canon PowerShot ELPH 330/340HS for me for our anniversary, and we got a great camera that takes excellent photos and videos for a little price. Nice!
(Hint: check the Canon.com website for "Promotions". We got our ELPH 330HS for under $150 in mid-December because of a short-term promotional price.)
Additional camera memory. You never know how much video you might want to take on your trip! We watched Amazon.com closely and found a Sony 64GB SDXC Class 10 Memory Card on a one-day deal in September before our trip, so we grabbed that for around $18 (usually closer to $35). Its high speed enabled us to take faster night shots without flash, which worked out really well when visiting the memorials at night. At 64 GB, it also held thousands of photos and tons of video!
If you can afford to bring a second memory card, in case your first one begins to fail, that's also a great idea.
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Batteries and chargers. The PowerShot ELPH 330 uses the NB-4L Battery Pack, so I purchased two additional batteries to accompany my camera. The Canon versions are $59.99 each, so instead I purchased two off-brand compatible batteries, rated highly by customers on Amazon.com, for $11.99 each. I've been using the off-brand batteries for six months now, and so far, they work just as well as the Canon battery. Every night, back at our motel, I charged my camera batteries to make sure they would be ready the next morning.
Power Strip. We didn't take our Belkin multi-socket power strip with us, since we left our laptop at home. However, it would have been nice to have, since we had a smart phone, a Kindle Fire, and two iPod Touches with us that needed charging each evening. Next time! It has two USB-2 ports, as well as three 3-prong plug ins.
If you're coming from outside of North America, you may need an electrical adapter and plug converter.
Guidebooks and maps. Joanne, my friend - and our tour guide - brought with her this amazing book. It's a tiny hardbound book, under $10, that easily fits into a purse, backpack, or even a pants pocket!
InsideOut Washington DC has two very detailed, fold-out maps with a 64-page, full-color illustrated guide. The guide opens with two itineraries. If you're short of time and want to see all the best that DC has to offer, these itineraries are sure to help you explore and savor the best that Washington DC has to offer. The guide is then divided in to 7 chapters:
Travel umbrella. Totes makes a micro-sized umbrella that folds up to six inches in length. It easily fits into a jacket pocket, or a small backpack or medium- to large-sized purse. As I mentioned earlier, we each took one with us, knowing we could easily use them in the future. Thankfully, we only had about 20 drops of rain hit us one morning.
Bring a backpack. You can use your large daypack/backpack as your "personal bag" on the airlines. If you normally carry a purse, just keep your small purse inside your backpack while flying. Place your umbrella, lightweight hooded coat, wallet, camera, maps, snacks, lunch, water bottles, and souvenirs inside! The Jansport backpacks are high quality - and large enough - and can often be purchased for around $25 if you watch the deals online year-round, or in the stores at the middle of September after school has started. If you decide to bring your backpack with you on daily trips, keep in mind that when entering some Smithsonian and governmental buildings, your backpack and/or purse will be searched.
Security is taken very seriously in D.C. I would recommend not taking big bags or backpacks while sightseeing. Leave them at the hotel and make certain smaller bags and pockets don't contain anything that can be considered dangerous, even nail clippers. If you go to the Capitol Building or the White House, they won't allow your backpack to enter the building - or water bottles or food - so leave them in the hotel that day.
Carry a purse. I carry a purse out of necessity, not because I enjoy carrying purses. I'd actually rather be without a purse! But for travel, "crossbody" purses work really well slung across your body so that your shoulder doesn't get so tired by the end of the day (or after an hour or two), and they are less prone to theft being carried across the body.
Baggallini Travel Purses are a very durable "crossbody" style, meaning that you can either wear them with a long strap (up to 50" in length) across your body, for better safekeeping, or you can shorten the strap to make it a shoulder bag...or remove the strap altogether. For travel, this is an excellent brand.
I've used two Baggallini travel bags: for our trip to Disneyland six years ago, I used a crossbody modified messenger bag style that would carry water bottles, maps, and everything else we would need. It was wonderful, and it's lasted for six years with no problems whatsoever.
Baggallini purses and bags aren't the cheapest, most frugal options available, but they are extremely sturdy. You'll use these bags for years. Trust me - I have!
For our trip to Washington, D.C., I knew that our bags would be searched in many locations, and I wanted everything to be easily accessible. I knew I wouldn't be carrying a water bottle around with me most days, so I selected a crossbody purse from Baggallini, the Paris version. Unfortunately, Paris is out of stock almost everywhere I've looked, even though I just bought it in October 2013, about 9 months ago.
I wanted something that was very durable, lightweight, weatherproof, and zipped/fastened well. I also wanted a long shoulder strap. In addition, I wanted to be able to carry my Kindle Fire with me, since I don't own a smart phone. With the Paris purse dimensions being 10 1/2" wide x 8" high x 4" deep, this met my needs! While I don't have much room left in the main interior pocket, I can still get my Kindle Fire (in a thicker zipped case) in the purse, and still carry my checkbook and several other things, plus a lot more in the outside zip pockets.
- Shoulder strap length: 50"
- Includes interior back wall zipper pocket and two interior multi-function pockets
- Small bag included
- Two small exterior pockets
If you're looking for a durable purse that will hold a Kindle Fire in its case, plus quite a few other things, yet still be lightweight and not a "huge" purse, these dimensions should work for you. The 4" depth is pretty important. If a purse only has 1" or 2" depth, it will be tricky to get a Kindle Fire in there along with anything else. You can try googling the Paris style of purse, or find something else on the Baggallini website that will meet your needs. Also, PackingLight.com has an excellent selection of Baggallini crossbody purses (not an affiliate link).
Whichever style of purse or crossbody bag you decide to purchase, I recommend that it's made out of lightweight heavy duty nylon instead of heavy leather or alternative leather options. Leave everything out of your purse that you truly won't need on your trip, to lighten the weight.
You want me to bring what?
I know, these are kind of oddball items to include for your trip, but they don't take up much room. They could be very helpful to you on your trip, depending on what you encounter:
Duct Tape has so many uses that I won't be able to list them all. What about taping up exploded luggage or removing lint from clothing? Carry a small roll (about $5) with you to patch tears in shoes, bags, or clothing. Needing to baby-proof your hotel room by covering outlets and securing drawers shut? Duct tape will work well for that! You can also hold together a well-worn guidebook when the spine gives out.
Moist Wipes are so useful when traveling! You'll be able to sanitize your hands and kill germs on tray tables, doorknobs, tabletops, and other public places, and you can also use them as a refreshing face cloth after a day spent traveling. The alcohol in many wet wipes helps remove ink stains in a pinch, too. (For guaranteed stain-protection, pack a few Shout Wipes.)
Safety Pins - Have you ever thought of clasping the zippers of your day pack together to keep thieves at bay? Or use a safety pin in place of a missing button or zipper pull? If you're walking through muddy areas, you can tack kids' pant legs up so they don't get as filthy. Safety pins also prevent static cling in a dress or skirt if you slip the safety pin into the seam of your slip (the metal has repelling properties).
Safety tips for traveling:
- Before you leave on your trip, digitally scan your passports, plane tickets, driver license, and other important papers and store them in an online email account (like Gmail or Google Docs, etc.). This allows you access to important information if it's lost or stolen.
- Also before you leave town, get travel insurance on your trip; this covers flights and lodging, among other pre-arranged expenses, in case you become ill. Make sure your medical insurance will cover you in another country, and consider purchasing emergency travel medical insurance as well.
- Spread out your cash, credit cards, and debit cards into different pockets and bags in order to limit your losses in case you're a victim of robbery or you lose something.
- Each day, take a picture of your traveling companions in the clothing they are wearing that day. This way, if someone is missing or lost, you will have a very current photo to show the police.
- Everyone in your group should carry emergency contact information on them, including I.D. and the name of the hotel where you will be staying, parents' names (for children), phone numbers to reach parents, etc.
- Don't keep your wallet in your back pocket!
- Leave your jewelry and expensive cameras at home. Don't say or do anything that would indicate you are wealthy or of affluence. And remember, if traveling to a poor area or a third-world country, even the poorest Americans are usually wealthier than many of the residents of that area or country.
- When sitting in a restaurant or cafe, don't leave your purse or bag dangling from the back of your chair, or set it at your feet. Instead, keep it on your lap or wrap the strap around your leg.
FREE printable packing list:
I found your site on the Inspired Bloggers Network and seriously, this is PERFECT for our family right now as we will be heading to D.C. soon! Thanks for sharing. I'll share for sure! :)
Great article! Concerning water bottles, I always bring a water bottle with my in my backpack through security - empty. After screening, I fill it at a water fountain and once again have portable water. That works when visiting secured buildings or events too. If I have to, I just pour out the water before security and refill it afterwards. Saves money on water or beverages!
You are a BLESSING! Thank you so
Much for taking the time to put this information together.
Thank you for this post. Very well done. We are planning a trip to DC and this information has been very helpful! Where would I find your other posts on DC?
You gave me incredible packing advices! I am from those people who could pack a whole house for a moving but cannot pack a single suitcase for a small vacation. Thank you again for sharing!
Great Post! So helpful, best one I've found to get ready for our DC trip.
This is great for any trip. We are going to Copenhagen and St Petersburg Russia and Berlin. This will adapt nicely. This is really a universal list. I usually scribble one off and go over it several times to improve on it and toss it when I am done. Will keep one in the suitcase as we pack and one in hand to pull items that we will take. Thank you so much
Hi Julieanne, thanks for the advice. Can I ask, what about prescription drugs? My husband and I are coming from the UK to NYC then on to Washington. I have CML (Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia), so take tablets for that (Dasatinib), also have to take 4 others for stable angina, so quite a few packets of tablets. Do I put them in my hand luggage or suitcase? We've been to NYC a couple of years ago and I was only taking tablets for the CML then and I think I just packed them in my suitcase. What would you recommend? Thanks.
Dear Julieanne, Many thanks for your reply and the link. However, I missed it as we had already left for the States. I did just pack the tablets in my case with my original prescription. The weather in NYC got to 105 degrees and it was rather uncomfortable, though we had stayed in a 5*hotel, with good air con thankfully. It was just as hot in Washington! (Though Washington is more open and less high-rise). We did have a great time though and want to go back asap. On the plane home, as we approached England at around 6.00am, we could see the grey skies and it was raining in Manchester as we stepped off the plane. Getting back to Liverpool, we heard on the car radio the weather was 10 degrees Celsius, so a big contrast! Only been back 2 days, so getting over the jet lag. God Bless. Clare.
Thank you for writing this and sharing! We are leaving for DC in 2 weeks and I am excited to try this.
Some good tips. Def forgot umbrella. Leaving for dc in 4 days for a 10 day trip. I packed everything in a carryon by rolling the clothes. 4 each, tshirts, long pants, biz casual tops. 10 ea underwear, sox, 2 knit hats, extra bra, 1 pr shoes, 1 nightgown, clothes brush, I will def switch to a bkpk instead of the other sm carryon i was going to use for apurse. A FABulous cross body bag is Ameribag. Lots of inside & outside pockets, roomy even in the x-small. I get one free checked bag, its that one.
Thanks so much for the advice! Comes in handy for both international and national trips
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Hi! I'm Julieanne!
You'll find me in the kitchen
trying new Trim Healthy Mama recipes, loving God, and carrying out that love as I bless my husband and teen daughters.
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