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No matter how many times I have flown with my children, the process of packing and getting to the airport is always stressful. I can never fully relax until we are actually on the plane and in our seats. Up until that moment, I am usually thinking of nothing but all of the things still left on my to-do lists and worrying about what was probably forgotten. But knowing what to carry-on when flying with small kids should not be difficult.
Packing for flying should not be distressing. After 2 boys and 18 years as a flight attendant, I have developed a system that I feel works great for flying with small kids. Follow these tips on what to pack in a carry-on for flying with small kids and you will have what you need to make it through your travel day.
Here is my list of must-haves for flying with children
- Disposable Changing Pads
- Extra Diapers
- Ipad With Kid-Friendly Cover
- Kid Headphones
- Crayons and Paper
- Boogie Board
- Disinfecting Wipes
- Water Bottle
- Lovie/ Blanket
- Change of Clothes
- Ziplock Baggies
- Car Seat
- Gate-Check Bag
We have a rule in my house– if you pack it, you carry it. It has saved us lots of fights regarding extra toys. Incorporate this rule. You will thank me!
Just grab a size appropriate backpack that your kiddo can comfortably carry through the airport themselves. We use this one from Pottery Barn. It comes in three sizes and has lots of pockets. When my boys were younger I didn’t make them carry their tablets in their bag since they were so heavy. However, now at 5 and almost 7, they have to carry everything they want to bring with them, including their tablets and water bottles. Be sure to choose a backpack with lots of pockets and a place to put water bottles. We actually use carabiners to hang our water bottles from our backpacks (a space-saving flight attendant trick).
Bring Lots of Snacks
And when I say lots, I mean more than enough for you and the kids. Nowadays airlines serve little to no food on the flights. So bringing snacks from home is expected. Just make sure it is not liquid or yogurt unless it’s in a food pouch. TSA is strict and they will throw away a Dasani yogurt cup in a heartbeat.
My favorite airplane snack food is quesadillas. They are quick to make at home and it doesn’t matter if they get smashed. Fruit bars and granola bars are my other go-tos. They are small and I can fit a whole lot in my bag without taking up a lot of room. And again, it’s ok if a bar is squished because they will still taste great.
If you have small children food pouches are the absolute best. Pouches tend to be bigger than the allotted TSA 3oz, but they are allowed if you are flying with small children. Just pack them in a separate gallon ziplock baggie in your carry-on or diaper bag (keep it close to the top) and place the bag separately on the x-ray belt.
Be prepared to wait for an agent to test any food pouches or medicine for chemicals. Yes, it makes security a longer process. But I promise it is worth it in the end when you have all of your snacks and meds on the plane.
Any Medication Your Kids Might Need for the Trip
Put all liquid medication in a separate gallon baggie as well. Keep it on top of your carry on and place it on the belt at security. TSA will have to check it for chemicals but they will allow it through. Just be sure to have enough time to wait longer for a security check.
Disposable Changing Pads for the Changing Tables
If your kiddo is still in diapers, it is always helpful to throw a few changing pads into your bag. They are great for airport and lavatory changing tables. In desperate times, they are also good for changing your baby in the seat if the seatbelt sign is on during a particularly bad diaper blow out. A good reason to pack a few extra ziplock baggies into your carry-on.
If your toddler is still wearing diapers put more in your carry on than you think you will need. I would always give my husband a handful of kid items to carry in his carry-on backpack just to be sure we had plenty. This backpack is my husband’s favorite to use for travel. If your flight is delayed, or heaven forbid they close the airport due to weather or a massive computer glitch, you won’t have to reuse an old diaper or take off your own shirt and to wrap around your toddler’s bottom. (You laugh, but I’ve seen it happen.)
Pro-Tip: Nighttime diapers are great to carry-on when flying with toddlers because they are designed to hold more liquid. If there is turbulence, or if the pilot leaves the seat belt sign on indefinitely, you are not stuck with a diaper leaking all over the place.
A Couple of Books
Children love to read the same book over and over again so you don’t need to pack too many, just one or two of their favorites.
Ipad With Kid-Friendly Cover
As a flight attendant, there are two mistakes I see parents make when it comes to tablets onboard the aircraft. The first is forgetting to fully charge the tablet. The second is ensuring the content (shows, games, movies, etc) can be played without wifi. I have personally made the second mistake and the consequences are not good, especially on those long flights. Do yourself a favor and check both.
Smaller kids have a tendency to want to play with the tablet controls. To prevent your kiddo from constantly turning off the show or minimizing their favorite movie, make sure to get a good tablet holder. The goal is to have it as hands-off as possible. We use this one. It is really sturdy and holds up under butterfingers.
Pro-Tip– For smaller toddlers get a tablet holder that will hang from the back of an airplane seat. On takeoff and landing, the tray table is required to be up and latched which can lead to an unhappy kiddo if their show has to be interrupted because of this FAA rule. We used this one for years and it worked great.
Bring headphones. It will save you grief from the people around you, as well as the flight attendants. We have tried lots of different ones and these have held up the best.
Crayons and Paper
Crayons and paper are great for when they get tired of watching their tablet or you feel they need a break from screen time.
Pro-Tip– Use a small pencil box to carry-on when flying with small kids. The pencil box will keep the crayons from getting lost in the bag or spilling all over the plane seat. Just throw the pencil box into your bag with a folder of paper. I like these no-mess twistable crayons.
Games – Uno / Deck of Cards
Bring a fun game to play as a family. Just choose one you like and it will make the flight and airport experience much more pleasant. This is a good magnetic bingo game for airplane play.
If the thought of crayons and paper seems like too much trouble try this boogie board instead. The “crayons” attach to the board and there is no mess or need for paper.
Clorox or Disinfecting Wipes
The airplane is dirty and kids and our kiddos do not pay any attention. Wipe down the seat, armrest, try table, and lavatory before you get comfortable in the seat. You don’t want to have to throw away a snack because your kiddo put their fruit bar on the tray table. Yuk!
Wet wipes or Boogie Wipes
You know why.
Individual Water Bottles
We have separate water bottles for everyone in the family. We bring the bottles empty through security and then fill them up as soon as we get settled at the gate. We use these water bottles everywhere.
Lovie / Blanket or Jacket
You don’t want to skip this. But make sure to take everything off the plane when you land. Trust me, I know from experience. If you skip the blanket then bring a sweater or small jacket for everyone. Flight crews tend to keep the aircraft cool and you don’t want to be freezing for an entire flight.
A Change of Clothes or Pajamas and Warm Socks
Bringing a change of clothes is good for early morning or late evening flights. Kiddos can change into and out of their PJs in the airport once they’re ready. Don’t forget extra underwear in case of an unexpected accident!
Ziplock Baggies for Dirty Diapers and Clothes
There aren’t many things worse than putting soiled clothes into a clean diaper bag. Save yourself. Bring a couple of extra bags for soiled diapers and clothes from unexpected blowouts or to wrap up dinner leftovers for snacks later on the plane.
Just like in the car, the safest place for your child to fly is in his or her own car seat. It’s true that flying is still the safest way to travel, but bringing the car seat on board is helpful for multiple reasons. The number one reason of course is safety. Turbulence is always a possibility, and what if your aircraft has to make an emergency landing? You will be glad your precious cargo is buckled in tight. This car seat transitions great from car to aircraft.
Personally, I use a car seat for purely selfish reasons. I don’t want my children fighting over sitting in my lap the entire flight. Also, as my boys have gotten older, I have trained them to stay buckled in their seats as long as the seatbelt sign is on. As the mommy, this has made traveling with two kiddos sooo much easier. If the seatbelt sign is on, my boys know they HAVE to stay buckled in. They are not allowed to crawl around under or on top of the seats or in the aisle. And the best part for me– it completely eliminates fighting about who gets to sit my lap.
If you are still traveling with youngish children, a stroller can be a life saver. Inevitably someone is going to get tired of walking or tired of carrying their own bag. Bringing a stroller into the airport allows a rest for tired legs and an extra spot to carry bags. Now that my boys are out of strollers, I miss being able to take my bag off my back and plop it into the seat to push instead of carrying it on my back all day long.
Invest in a Gate-Check Bag
A gate-check bag keeps your stroller and car seat together in one place and lessens the chance one of the pieces might be lost or broken. Most importantly, it keeps the fabric from getting dirty or wet in the elements. We use this bag. Gate-checked items are often last to be loaded into the cargo bin and/or brought up to the gate upon deplaning. I have seen too many car seats brought up to the jetway covered in snow or soaking wet from the rain.
Pro-Tip: Remove every attachment from the stroller, such as the cup holder tray. It is very easy for attachments to get broken or lost during the loading and unloading process. It happens quite a bit.
Should Your Child Have a Roller Bag Onboard?
The real answer is –it depends. If your child is over 4 then it will probably be ok. But it really depends on your kiddo. Five years old is actually a better age to incorporate rolling bags with a backpack, but we introduced rollers at three. Just be prepared to carry it yourself if they get tired of pulling their own bag. And remember all the bags have to be able to fit into the rental car at your destination. Too many carry-ons can lead to a lot of extra headache downline.
Our boys love to roll their bags through the airport. It makes them feel like the travel pros they are. It definitely takes a lot more patience on the parents’ part, but I think it teaches them responsibility and ownership. The same with their water bottles and lovies. My kids are responsible for remembering their own property when we fly (with some reminders from mom and dad of course).