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10 Tips for Unpacking After a Vacation

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There are a million blog posts to help teach you how to pack for a vacation, but what happens after you get home from one? A lot of us become serious procrastinators when it comes to unpacking. I get it – no one wants to acknowledge that the trip is over. Getting back into the routine of laundry, school, work, and real life stinks. Unpacking just adds one more unpleasant task to the to do list. So many travelers (sometimes myself included) let the half-unpacked suitcase just sit.

If you are someone who still has that suitcase staring at your from the corner of your bedroom a week or more after a trip, you probably need help in the unpacking department. My family has has our moments of being the procrastinating type, but we have finally cracked the code to successful unpacking most of the time.

Suitcase in Hotel Room

Here are 10 tips that will help you get unpacked with a minimum of time and effort after your family vacations too.

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10 Tips to Make Unpacking from a Trip Easier and Less Stressful

1. Pack for Unpacking Success

Often the key to unpacking quickly and painlessly after a vacation is in taking the right items and tools along with you on your trip in the first place. I try not to overpack, thinking very carefully about what I need to wear and use daily. Unpacking is harder if you have more items to remove in the end! Of course, it’s never a bad idea to pack some extra clothes in case the weather changes dramatically or you spill something and ruin an item of clothing. But packing less means unpacking less.

There are also a few items that I’ve found help with unpacking if I bring them along on the trip. Tools that help me unpack more efficiently are:

  1. the right suitcase: one that expands and contracts is essential, or one that has multiple compartments to keep dirty and clean clothes separate
  2. a variety of sizes of Ziploc bags: great for packing up wet or dirty and dusty items of clothing
  3. packing cubes: these can help in segregating dirty from clean clothes for the trip home
  4. pop up laundry hamper or laundry bag: ideal for consolidating dirty clothes in your hotel room or vacation rental to pack up together for home

2. Don’t Bring Home Junk

Speaking of having less to unpack, one thing that can streamline the timeline for unpacking is not bringing a bunch of junk home with you that you have to sort later. It’s easy to accumulate a lot of little things on a trip. If you want to bring brochures home to read more about a place you visited or want to save a ticket for a scrapbook that’s certainly okay. But be intentional about what you shove into the nooks and crannies of your luggage to process later.

To help with this struggle, I usually empty out the pockets of my purse or day bag at the end of each day on a trip. I use this daily opportunity to throw away the day’s detritus – brochures, ticket stubs, empty drink bottles, etc. I consolidate receipts in a single pocket in my carryon bag to in case I need those when I get home.

Not bringing home too much also means (for our family at least) minimizing souvenirs. Like many American families, we have enough stuff at home. As a result, we try to only purchase truly meaningful and unique items in our travels so we don’t add to the clutter. We also don’t buy tchotchkes for family members back home either – they have enough stuff too!

3. Do Laundry on Vacation

Laundry after Vacation

The task that often takes the longest time after a vacation is sequencing, washing, and folding load after load of laundry. My family just came back from two weeks in Europe with nearly every item in all of our suitcases dirty, so I know first hand what a very long slog getting through it all can be.

If you have a chance to do laundry on vacation and can bring home a suitcase full of clean laundry instead, that can be game-changing for your unpacking timeline. My family often chooses to stay in vacation rentals with in-unit laundry already, so doing one extra load the last night of a trip usually isn’t hard. Having laundry in your travel accommodations also means you can pack less because you can easily wash and re-wear the same items of clothing several times on a trip. That means you can save time unpacking in two ways when laundry is available.

Related: Tips for doing laundry on vacation

4. Pack Everyone’s Dirty Clothes Together

There are plenty of other trips, however, when you won’t have access to laundry facilities. That means everyone in the family will probably be returning home with a mountain of dirty clothes. To facilitate tackling the laundry as soon as we get home, we consolidate dirty clothes into one or more “dirty clothes suitcases.” Everything from those suitcases goes straight into the laundry room at home.

This system means that two or more members of the family have to double up and share a suitcase of clean clothing and all other items that don’t need to be washed. But that’s easy enough for most families to manage. We often share suitcases already!

If there are family members who don’t want to consolidate clothing for whatever reason, I suggest having them pack up for home with clean clothes on the bottom of the bag and dirty items on top (or in a separate compartment if the suitcase has one) for easy dumping into the laundry when arriving home.

5. Power Through

We often arrive home from our trips late in the evening Pacific time (which means it’s even later if we are coming from a destination in the Eastern time zone). My husband and I are usually exhausted. But we’ve found that as long as I just don’t let ourselves sit down on the couch or go to bed right away, I can get a lot accomplished in the unpacking department with a short but intense burst of effort before crashing.

We usually pull all dirty clothes suitcase(s) into the laundry room where the first load of laundry gets started right away. I try also to take out items that won’t be washed like shoes and toiletry bags and put them right where they belong in our home – closets, bathrooms, etc. If I can then get a suitcase or two straight down to storage in the basement before I go to bed the first night, I know I’m well on my way!

6. Divide & Conquer

If you have two parents in your traveling family (or a parent and older responsible kid), often the best way to tackle this “power through” strategy is to divide and conquer. If we arrive home late enough that my younger child needs to go to bed right away, one of us puts him to bed while the other one handles that first load of laundry. Divide and conquer is a strategy we use all the time in our travels as a family of four to be more efficient. So use it if and when you can!

7. Build in a Buffer Day (or At Least a Few Hours)

When our family fails at unpacking for a given trip, the culprit almost always is our busy home schedule. Usually, the suitcases sit because we come home late on a Sunday night when we have to go to work and school the next morning and we don’t have the bandwidth to finish unpacking.

When we can return home a day – or even a few hours – earlier, that gives us a buffer and the time we need to make progress on unpacking and getting set for the return to real life. It’s always tempting to try to maximize every minute of vacation and make it as long as possible, but it’s also important to be realistic and not overload your family with too many tasks for the time you have. Consider some buffer time when you can, especially for longer trips or ones during school breaks when family members may have more time to spare.

8. Automate Other Tasks

Sometimes you don’t have time for that buffer day, especially if you are taking a quick weekend trip or if flight times are what they are. If you know that you need time to unpack after returning home, try to automate regular tasks or find shortcuts to help free up time in your ordinary schedule. Schedule grocery delivery to save a trip to the supermarket or order takeout to save time on cooking that first night or two home. Use the extra time to finish your unpacking.

Related: Tips for Taking Kids Out of School for Travel

On our recent trip to Europe, we had only two days after we returned home before the kids started the new school year. We received their school supply lists while on the trip so that left little time for school supply shopping. So, we ordered school supplies on Target’s website while on our travels so the items we needed were sitting in our mailbox when we returned. Saving a trip to the school supply aisle during back-to-school week saved us a lot of time.

9. Put the Kids to Work

Unpacking should not be just a job for parents (and especially not just for mom!). Your kids can and should be helping. At age 13, my daughter has been packing and unpacking her own suitcases for several years now. She’s responsible for making sure she hands off clothes to be washed to me in a timely fashion (she often does her own laundry too) and putting away everything else. Since she keeps a pretty tidy room, often she’s faster than I am.

But even kids too young to pack for themselves can assist in the unpacking process. My 8 year old son isn’t packing his own suitcase yet (in part because he usually shares with a parent to help save on bulk and checked bag fees), but he’s capable of helping with the unpacking. He can do tasks like take shoes upstairs to everyone’s closets and help me put away folded laundry.

10. If All Else Fails, Just Take out Wet Bathing Suits!

Unpacked suitcase in house

Sometimes despite your best efforts, unpacking in a timely fashion just isn’t possible. That’s ok! Life happens. Give yourself a break.

Instead of gazing at that suitcase in the corner telling yourself you’ll get to it in a few hours, be realistic and just immediately do the one thing you must do no matter what — unpack any wet items of clothing. We often have a wet bathing suit or two in a Ziploc bag in our suitcases after returning home from a vacation. Those cannot wait and can really get moldy and smelly fast if left in luggage, especially when they are not rinsed out after a dip in the ocean or lake. Get those out and get to the rest of it when you can.

Do you struggle with unpacking in a timely fashion after a trip? Share any tips have helped your family with this challenge.

Do you struggle with unpacking after a vacation? Check out these essential tips to help speed up the post-travel chore. No more half-unpacked suitcases sitting in the corner of your bedroom!

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