When traveling with kids, I’d argue that the single most important key to success is a great carry-on bag. Your carry-on bag has everything you need to keep your kids content. And it can take some advanced planning to get it packed JUST right. But don’t worry- we’ve got you covered. We can tell you exactly what you need to bring, and what you can leave behind when traveling with babies and kids.
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Should my child carry his/her own bag?
While traveling with your kids, getting a special backpack or roller bag for them to take on the plane with them sounds super fun, right? The reality might not be quite as fun as you are imagining. For toddlers and even younger kids, the airport means a LOT of walking. Even if your child is very active, it can be pretty exhausting, and boring, to walk through the airport. Plus, you might end up having unexpected delays, gate switches, later nights than you’d planned, or where brisk walking or even running is required.
Strapping a backpack to them might mean that 1. you’re going to be carrying a kid-sized backpack or even 2. you are carrying a kid AND a kid-sized backpack or 3. end up with a child lying on the ground unwilling to walk another step. We know from experience that this is not ideal!
So for toddlers, preschoolers, and probably even early elementary kids, skip the kid-sized backpack and let the parents carry the necessities. It might be a little counter-intuitive but it really does make things easier for YOU!.
As your child gets a little older, more independent and just more tolerant of discomfort (because no one LOVES carrying a bag through the airport), it might finally be time to have them share the load, and finally carry their own things. But we say err on the side of caution, and wait a little longer to have your kids carry a carry-on bag.
The best bag?
Before you get to packing your perfect carry-on, you gotta pick a bag to pack IN. So which bag should you pick? Of course a lot comes down to personal preference and comfort for you. However, there are a lot of reasons we’ve picked the bag that we’ve picked.
Accessibility on the flight
Babies, toddlers, and kids need stuff all the time during the flight. If you have to put your bag up in the overhead compartment, that means you cannot access it during take off, landing, or rough air. It also means you’ve got to get up and make your way to the aisle to access everything.
Also, when flights are full, there sometimes just isn’t enough overhead space for all the bags. You might have to put your bag in the overhead far away from your seat, or you could even end up needing to check it because it simply doesn’t fit.
We MUCH prefer bags that can fit right under the seat. I can grab it anytime and get whatever I need without getting up. I can change out toys, grab a snack, a pacifier, or whatever super easily. For us, a bag small enough to fit under the seat is a necessity.
So how big is small enough to fit under the seat? It depends, but this guide will give you a pretty good idea. A bag that squishes down (no hard shell) works pretty well, if you want to maximize the space. As long as you’ve got space around your feet, and the bag isn’t going into the aisle, you’ll probably be fine.
Backpack vs roller bag?
Roller bags might SEEM like the best choice, but we don’t like them as carry-on bags and here’s why:
- When you are traveling with kids, especially younger kids, your hands are usually full. You’re likely either holding the hand of a young child, or pushing a stroller. You simply might not have hands available to pull a roller bag.
- Roller bags typically won’t fit under the seat. Yes, there are plenty that qualify as carry-on size, but you’ll have to put them in the overhead bin.
- For toddlers and younger children, roller bags are interesting- perhaps a bit TOO interesting, so they may end up climbing on them or constantly wanting to play with them even when you are walking.
A big disadvantage of backpacks is, of course, that you have to carry them on your back. But, if you pick a comfortable backpack that fits you well, carrying it isn’t so bad. Plus, there are tons of different backpack designs so you can find one that works perfectly for your packing style and body type. They can even be worn with a baby carrier, if you need to.
What to look for
When picking that perfect carry-on bag, there are a few things we look for:
- Larger size, but not SO large that it won’t fit under the seat. A larger ‘daypack’ works well.
- Lots of pockets to keep things organized. I love when I can quickly grab something without digging around, so I love lots of small exterior pockets to store all the little necessities
- A laptop sleeve works great for tablets and activity books
- A larger main compartment for odd shaped items. Pockets are great, but there are always things that won’t fit. make sure there is enough space for headphones, a diaper changing pod, or whatever larger items you need.
We love this backpack for travel because it has a bunch of pockets for storing everything so we can easily access it, it is comfortable to carry, it’s big enough for everything we need (plus some!), and it easily fits under the seat. It might not be the cutest backpack out there, but it’s the one I reach for every time because it is by far the most functional.
What to bring for babies
Babies need a lot of stuff, which makes airplane travel with babies a little bit intimidating. But the good news is you need MOSTLY the same stuff as you’d need for any outing. However, there are a few tips and tricks for packing for a baby on the plane that you’ll want to keep in mind. The biggest thing is you can’t just head home if something goes wrong. So we like to bring a little bit extra of all the necessities JUST in case. Things can, and usually do, go wrong so make sure you are covered!
Here’s what you’ll want to bring in your carry-on for a baby
If you are formula feeding, bring more formula than you think you’ll need. Be prepared for delays, flight cancellations, extra hungry babies. Also, remember that feeding your baby at take-off and landing can help their ears pop so they won’t have as much pain, so keep that in mind as you pack.
If you are breastfeeding, make sure you have enough for YOU. Nursing moms need some serious calories and liquids to keep going. Pack some filling, high-calorie snacks for you, and lots of them to make sure you have enough. Also pack a refillable water bottle for you and fill it whenever you get a chance. Flight attendants are usually pretty good about making sure everyone gets water BUT it’s great to be as prepared as you can.
If your baby has started eating solids, be sure to bring plenty of snacks. Snacks will not only keep baby’s tummy full, but they can also keep baby entertained. For babies and toddlers (well and many adults), snacking is fun!
Stick with foods they’ve tried before. You don’t want to risk having a reaction to a new food, or an upset tummy while on a plane. Baby food is allowed in ‘reasonable quantities’, rather than strictly needing to follow the TSA liquid rules. However, TSA will likely question you about it so be prepared or opt to skip liquids or purees on the flight.
Diapers and baby wipes are a given. But make sure you pack more than you think you’ll need. Pack at least a couple extras, and plenty of wipes. We’ve been asked for a diaper a couple of times in the airport because so many parents underestimate how many diapers they’ll need while traveling.
We love diaper changing pods for traveling with a baby. The bathroom on the plane is so tiny, and the changing table is really only sized for a doll- a small one at that. So you do not want to haul a whole diaper bag or backpack into the bathroom for a diaper change. A diaper pod has everything you need in a smaller package and is much more convenient.
Extra clothes, etc.
Spit up, spills, leaks, and blowouts happen with babies. Make sure you are prepared for all of it on your flight. Make sure you have at least one full outfit for your baby for shorter flights or travel days, and at least 2 for longer ones. If your baby is prone to blowouts, you’ll definitely want to increase the number of spare outfits.
Pack baby’s spare outfit in a Ziplock or a reusable wet bag, one complete outfit per bag. That way, you can take out the clean outfit and put the soiled outfit back in the bag and avoid the smell, or messes getting inside of your bag or anywhere else.
Also, make sure you pack plenty of burp cloths. They are handy for a million different reasons, so you’ll want plenty of them. If your baby is a drooler, make sure you have enough to keep him or her dry.
And don’t forget about yourself! Parents don’t always escape blowouts or spit ups unscathed. You may want some spare clothing for you as well to make sure can get yourself cleaned up.
Don’t forget the things your baby needs to fall asleep. Perhaps a pacifier, stuffed animal, or a favorite blanket.
If you do use pacifiers, we recommend bringing several, plus pacifier clips to reduce the number that are dropped on the floor or lost. But, know that pacifiers ARE going to get dropped, so try these pacifier wipes to easily keep them clean (plus they work great for bottles).
A lightweight blanket is also great for a number of reasons. It can help you keep your baby warm, works as a nursing cover, or it can shield the light to help your baby sleep.
Don’t forget any medicine you use regularly or even periodically. You may want baby Tylenol or Motrin for teething, gas drops, gripe water for upset tummy. Baby medicine typically comes in volumes much lower than the 3.4 oz TSA limit. However, you’ll want to put it in a Ziploc and remove it from your carry-on as you go through security.
Toys and entertainment
For many babies, toys aren’t a huge necessity. BUT you probably won’t want them chewing on the seat, the tray, or any random thing on the plane. And you might get a few minutes of entertainment out of a toy. Trust me- on the plane, every minute counts! We’d recommend a teether or two, and a couple of rattle or crinkle toys. For babies, old favorites seem to go over better than something new.
Check out some of our favorite travel toys here.
If you follow the doctor’s order on screen time to the T, this advice isn’t for you. But if you are a bit more relaxed, you might download a few videos with songs, like Dave and Ava or Blue on Disney+. Most babies won’t watch/listen for more than a few minutes but it can still be a big help. We don’t use headphones for small children and just try to keep the volume reasonably low (but perhaps that was annoying our neighbors?).
What to bring for Toddlers
Traveling with toddlers is tough. But, for this age maybe more than any, a great carry-on bag makes a HUGE difference. We figured out what worked great when traveling with our toddlers, and what didn’t and we’d love to set you up so you won’t make the mistakes we made!
For many toddlers, snacking is fun! Eating is still a big sensory experience for toddlers. So take advantage and use snacking as a form of entertainment on the plane. We love bringing TONS of snacks for flying with toddlers. We prefer mostly nonperishable snacks that aren’t SUPER messy but are lots of fun. Here are some of our favorites:
- Z bars
- Dried mango
- Dried pineapple
- Raisins – my kids love the little boxes
- Nuts – any type your toddler likes
- Dried edamame
- cereal – bring a string to make a cereal necklace for an extra activity
- jerky– look for brands that aren’t too chewy, and give your toddler small pieces
- frozen ahead of time Gogurt
- Treats like lollipops, M&Ms, gummy worms to help ears pop and to distract an unhappy toddler
Also, don’t forget no-spill refillable water bottle.
Diapering/Using the potty
If your toddler is in diapers or Pull-ups, make sure you bring extra, along with baby wipes. This is something you just don’t want to run out of if there are delays or tummy trouble.
Just like for babies, toddlers are going to need extra clothing. Spills and potty accidents happen. And just like for babies, we pack at least one full outfit for shorter travel days, and 2 for longer days in a reusable wetbag or Ziploc. Then we can put a dirty or wet outfit back in the bag.
You know your toddler, so if you feel REALLY confident that they’ll be potty-accident or diaper-leak-free, and that spills will be minimal, you might be able to skip the full outfit. But we like to err on the side of caution because being stuck in dirty clothing isn’t fun for anyone.
Another thing to keep in mind; if you are traveling between dramatically different climates (taking a winter vacation to a tropical destination, for example), bring clothing for climate at your destination to change into so they’ll be comfortable when you land.
If your toddler needs a pacifier, a lovey, or a favorite blanket to sleep or calm down, make sure you bring it along with you. And if you can bring a spare, bring that as well. Travel means a lot of new environments for your toddler, and comfort items really ease the stress for your toddler.
Medicine, ear protection
Make sure you bring any medications your toddler takes on a regular basis. You’ll want to keep in mind that you may be delayed.
Ear pain is a real concern for toddlers who might not be able to pop their ears yet. Consider bringing along something to help them, like Earplanes for kids or even just a treat or lollipop that takes them a few minutes to eat to be given at takeoff and landing.
Toys and entertainment
Toys toys toys
For toddlers, keep them entertained on the plane is a top priority. It is a LOT to ask someone who has recently learned to walk and climb to sit STILL in a tiny space for hours. But toys really help.
For toddlers, we recommend bringing new toys, or toys your toddler hasn’t seen in awhile. One new toy for every 1 hour of flight time works well. And while that SEEMS like a ton, let me assure you that on the plane, it doesn’t FEEL like a lot. We pick small things- nothing too fancy or expensive. But new and fun!
Check out our favorite travel toys here.
A tablet is also a great tool, if you allow your kids to use it. It can definitely help fill the time. And if it’s not something your child normally gets, it’s an extra treat for them (and for you when you get a break on the plane!).
What to bring for Kids
As your kids get a little bit older and a little bit more independent, travel needs change quite a bit. But you’ll still want to pack an amazing carry-on bag to make your flight a success! Here’s what we pack in a carry-on for kids.
Unless you are flying internationally, it’s unlikely you’ll get more than a few pretzels from the airline. And sometimes you just won’t have time to pick up a meal in between flights or before you board. Delays and schedule changes happen and it’s best to be prepared.
Pack plenty of healthy meals, and snacks and meals for travel days to make sure your child doesn’t get too hungry. Some kids just eat because they have to but some can still find some entertainment in snacking. If your child enjoys snacking, use that to your advantage and bring some fun snacks to help the travel day go a little quicker.
Pack a meal
Depending on your travel schedule, you may want to pack a nice meal in a lunch box with an ice pack (ideally frozen solid at security). Pack something that doesn’t need to be heated up, and is something your child will eat. I know for me, I really don’t feel well if I don’t eat a real meal, and travel days sometimes make it difficult. So we do our best to have at least one good, healthy meal. I typically bring sandwiches, apple slices, carrots, crackers, and almonds, packed in a cooler lunch box with a little ice pack.
And lots of snacks
Additionally, bring a variety of snacks. You’ll want some that are fun for bored snacking, and some that fill up tummies in case you need it. Here are a few ideas:
Also, make sure to bring a refillable water bottle, and help your child remember to drink enough water on the flight! Airplanes have low humidity and can be dehydrating.
Children over the age of 2 need to wear a mask on the airplane. Bring plenty of spares so you can keep the mask dry and clean. My kids usually need a new one every hour or two.
For many kids, extra clothing isn’t REALLY necessary. But if your child is prone to lots of spills and messes, it might still be a good idea. We usually dress in layers and maybe pack a pair of shorts or something to change into at the destination (assuming we are going somewhere warmer, which is usually the case!), and can get by with that.
Medicine and clean up
Make sure you bring any medicine your child takes on a regular basis. If it’s something they need to take, we definitely recommend carrying it on JUST IN CASE your luggage gets lost.
If your child has allergies, or tends to get nose-bleeds in dry air (like on the plane), make sure to pack plenty of tissues.
A few paper towels or napkins often come in handy as well for wiping dirty faces or cleaning up a spilled drink.
Toys and Entertainment
As your child gets a little bit older and can understand WHY you are on that long and boring flight, they’ll tolerate the boredom a LITTLE bit more. But the fact is, it’s still boring! Keep them happy with some great in-flight entertainment.
The airplane is a great time to really get into a sitting-down-friendly toy or activity. It’s a great opportunity for your child to relax and take time to enjoy a toy or an activity, and it can actually be a lot of fun! It’s also a great time for some quality parent/child time as well, so bring something you’d enjoy doing with them as well! Here are some of our favorite airplane toys and activities:
Check out our favorite travel toys here.
- Play-doh: I just bring one or two tubs, and a cookie cutter or two. The fun comes in using your imagination to sculpt
- Lost Kitties: I didn’t love these at first (WAY too much packaging), but the kids love them, and they are actually pretty fun.
- Wikki Stix
- Paper and crayons
- Little figurines
- Activity books (mazes, find the differences, seek and find, etc)
A tablet is gold on the airplane. Make sure it’s got some great games and movies preloaded and ready to go, and that nothing requires wifi. We love the PBS kids app (download games the day before on wifi), Sago Mini games, shows like Octonauts, Wild Kratts, and How it’s Made episodes.