Long before my husband and I had children, we were avid travelers. We both traveled quite a bit for work, and as much as possible, for leisure. We had packing down to a science and were able to maneuver airports and planes like ninjas in the night. Then, we started to travel with babies. Packing a carry-on to travel with a kid became quite an ordeal.
As our family grew to ultimately include three children, whenever we traveled on planes, I became the family porter for my kids' carryons – carrying everyone’s everything in my two allotted bags (or carry-on and personal item.) You all know what I am talking about. Your “mom bag” is so stuffed, items spring out like a jack-in-the-box when you open it. If you get stopped by security for your family medicine bag – which happens nearly every time – it is quite a sight to watch them try to reassemble your bag like a game of Tetris.
Then, one day, when my youngest were about 4 years old, I had an epiphany. My kids were old enough to manage and carry their own carry-ons on a plane! I could supply them with everything they would need for a flight – be it 1 hour or 10 hours – and they could independently manage their snacks, temperature, entertainment, hydration, and boredom! All without me having to reach three people deep across the aisle or over the seat in front of me to fulfill their request. What a liberating moment!
Now, two years later, my kids' “carry-ons” have become a standard packing list that they can help pack, carry, and manage. And my bags can go back to being – mostly – all mine.
During the course of a flight or train ride even, you are going to have a few stages. You have the getting through security stage, the waiting to board stage, and then the time on the flight stage. What you pack should carry (no pun intended) them through these stages with ease. If you debate whether or not something should be in the carry-on, think about these three stages.
The carry-on should be packed to meet their needs for food, warmth, entertainment, emergency spills, comfort, etc. But, it has to be compact enough to quickly access and pack up again. You don't want to be cleaning up a major craft experiment when your flight is being called to board. It must also meet the requirements of the airline and airline security. The items should not be not too difficult to manage, messy, or disruptive to others around them.
You also have to think about weight. If a kid's backpack is too heavy, guess who gets to carry it? I say backpack because it is much easier for kids to manage than a shoulder bag. Usually, there are compartments that also make them easy to organize.
Aside from the fact that kids' carry-ons save you – the parent – from having to carry extras in your bag, kids who are old enough should carry their own travel bag. Why? Because they are contributing to the family.
In our family, we have family contributions. We teach our kids that like any community, our family is a community and we all have to contribute to help things run smoothly. When we travel, it is no different. Everyone pitches in. Everyone helps pack, push suitcases, and carry their own carry-ons. Would my kids love to hand me their bags and strut their free selves through an airport? Yes! But, our rule is that everyone carries their own.
This teaches several things:
They are responsible to look after all of their belongings. If they leave a book on the plane? They have to decide if they want to spend their allowance money to replace it. They have learned to check all the pockets before leaving the plane. This helps them take care of their things, which teaches responsibility. It also helps mom and dad out when we are trying to manage all the other parts of the trip.
While we have guidelines for what they need, our kids help assemble their bags. They can decide which book or lovie to bring. They can decide which snack they want to have and when. This gives them the power of choice and ownership.
Our kids love the independence they get with having their own carry-on. They can set up their own little space on the plane. They access anything in their bag on their own when they need it.
Kids who know what they need to travel on a plane will be well-prepared adults who know how to travel.
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Any bag will work, but we prefer backpacks. Their compartments help make it easier for finding items quickly and in small spaces (like on a plane with a person’s seat is reclined in your face.) They are also easier for the kids to carry.
I am a big fan of large freezer bags. Speaking of freezer bags, these extra large ones from IKEA are great for travel. Inside, I pack enough single-serving snacks to survive a week.
Truthfully, travel often happens at meal times. Assuming you will be able to grab something in the airport to appease the kid palate is a gamble at best. Factor in delays – while in the airport or sometimes on the plane – and my ever-persistent fear of being stuck on the tarmac without food or water. There could be turbulence preventing flight attendants from being able to serve food during the fight. More commonly, they run out of whatever snack for purchase or meal choice you had your heart set on by the time they reach your seat. For these reasons, an abundance of snacks saves the day.
Best snacks to include: sandwich, granola bars, pretzels, goldfish, cereal, crackers, fruit squeezers, easy to eat fruits or vegetables, dried fruits.
For reasons already mentioned, I make sure my kids each have their own water bottle. Wait until you pass through security before filling it up, as it can't go through with water in it. Often, airports have water filling stations or water fountains. This cuts down on purchasing expensive water in the airport and avoids wasting plastic bottles.
I am a firm believer in taking no risks when it comes to travel. Even though my oldest child is 10 years old, you never know when that stomach virus going around the school or a bad case of air sickness or even a major milk spill in the airport will render your child's clothes unwearable. For this reason, I always put a complete set of clothes (top, bottom, undergarments, and socks) in a plastic freezer bag in my kids’ backpacks.
If we are traveling to a warm destination where we may not have access to the room for a bit, we will also add a swimsuit, sunglasses and a hat to this bag so at least the kids can enjoy the hotel pool while we wait. By putting these items in the carry-on, you don't have to dig in your suitcase to find them. The extra-large IKEA freezer bags can fit older children's clothes and swimming items. If you don't want to use plastic freezer bags, here is a great eco-friendly alternative.
If your kids use personal electronics or in-flight entertainment, bring their headphones. It is respectful to the other passengers so everyone can enjoy the flight. For tablets, our kids use our iPads. But if you are in the market for a kid-friendly tablet, check out these Amazon tablets for younger kids, which we have used in the past.
Some airlines do not have TVs on the backs of seats or movie screens, but instead, you have to download an app before take-off to access their in-flight entertainment. Be sure to download the airline entertainment app in advance or as soon as you board the flight if this is the case. These apps can't be downloaded once you are in the air. If you have a newer personal electronic that requires a different plug for headphones, such as the newer iPads or iPhones, be sure you have packed that extension piece for your kids’ headphones.
On a recent trip to France, I purchased for each of my children their own mini sketch pad, pencil case, colored pencil set, and pencil sharpener. I wanted them to capture some of the images and landscapes they would see as we traveled to the Provencal countryside. This turned out to be one of the most valuable additions to their carry-ons for several trips since. When bored on the plane or in the airport, they take out their book and pencils and draw (my son recently made a thank you picture for the pilots on our plane.) They also serve as a great way to entertain the kids when you go out to dinner while on vacation.
Younger children may have trouble with dropping or breaking crayons or losing marker caps. For the toddler/preschool age, Magic Ink pads are much easier. They only have to worry about one marker and cap, and the pages color easily. Get them in advance and save them for the trip, as they will keep their attention-span longer if it is a novelty.
Because planes are always chilly, I pack a small blanket that I have gotten from other planes in each of my kids’ backpacks or you can try this travel blanket. This way if kids want to nap or are cold, they can make themselves comfortable. Most airlines do not provide blankets in coach unless it is an overnight flight, so bringing your own is a good idea. You could also add a mini pillow or travel pillow for mid-flight naps. This one comes with a pillow you can put over an armrest, making it more comfortable for kids to nap.
Our kids pack one book, one small toy if requested (such as a small car or small doll) and of course their lovies. All of these will serve to alleviate boredom while waiting in the airport and are an antidote to non-stop electronic use during the flight.
PARENT TO PARENT TIP: I highly recommend double-checking that the lovey is safely back in the bag before disembarking the plane. Speaking from experience here. Losing their beloved comfort item can be devastating for a child and impact your trip.
You could have a few “extra” entertainment items hidden in your bag. Each time you reach a milestone, like after each hour or two, you could pull out a new item. This could be a new activity sheet, a set of stickers, a mini travel game, a new small car, or a new book. You could keep these in your carry-on and just surprise them as you go. It would work well with the younger kids.
For toddler age travelers, check out this great list of travel toys for toddlers!
Kids' carrying their own carry-ons fosters independence and responsibility and helps parents out by lightening your load. With the right products, your kids will have their needs met and be happily entertained, and you will enjoy more space in your carry-on for your things. The family will enjoy a more peaceful journey to wherever you are headed.
For more tips on flying with kids, check out my post The Best Tips For Flying With Kids By Age Group. If it is your first time traveling with kids or you haven't done it in a while, check out my post Traveling With Kids: Guide For Beginners.
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