Wondering what to pack in your kids' carry-ons or what are the best soft-side or hard-side luggage carry-ons for planes? Let me tell you how I came to find the very best kids' carry-ons and what you can't leave home without when traveling with kids, especially on longer journeys!
The 8 Best Products For Kids' Carry-ons
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 kids' carry-on to travel with a child became quite an ordeal. Lugging around your kids' luggage is not for the faint of heart!
As our family grew to ultimately include three children, whenever we traveled on planes, I became the family porter for my kids' luggage (carry-ons) – 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, especially with your must-haves when traveling with a baby, 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.
Kids' Carry-On Independence: For The Kids and Me
Then, one day, when my youngest was about 4 years old, I had an epiphany. My kids were old enough to manage and carry their own carry-ons on a plane! That just left the additional kids' luggage for my husband and I to deal with.
I could supply them with everything they would need for air travel – be it 1 hour or 10 hours – and they could independently manage their own luggage, 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. And family travel can be just that instead of me being their “porter”.
What to Include in Kids' Carry-Ons (and which one is the best)
Three Stages of Travel
During the course of a flight or train ride even, you are going to have a few stages. You have the getting through the security stage, the waiting to board stage, and then the time on the flight stage.
What you pack in your kids' luggage should carry (no pun intended) them through these stages with ease and be light enough for them to carry and possibly put in the overhead bin.
If you debate whether or not something should be in the kids' bags for travel, think about these three stages.
Think of Their Needs For Kids' Luggage Carry-ons
Kids' luggage or 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 luggage restrictions and requirements of the airline and airline security. The items should not be not too difficult to manage, messy, or disruptive to others around them.
Kids' Carry-ons Should Be Practical And The Perfect Size
You also have to think about weight. If a kid's backpack is too heavy, guess who gets to carry it? You! You'll be adding a dinosaur backpack to your collection of carry-on luggage!
I say backpack because I find that backpacks are the best kids' soft-side carry-on luggage. They are much easier for kids to manage than a shoulder bag, hard-side carry-on luggage, upright luggage, hard-shelled spinner luggage, or even a duffel bag. Usually, there are compartments that also make them easy to organize for both older kids and young kids.
Why Kids Should Have A Carry-on
Why? Because they are contributing to the family.
In our family, we have family contributions. We teach our kids (both the little ones and older children) that, like any neighborhood in a city or county, our family is a little community, and we all have to contribute to help things run smoothly.
Your children are just doing their part with the whole parent and kids' luggage deal.
When we travel, it is no different.
Everyone pitches in. Everyone helps pack, carry their carry-on luggage or push their rolling suitcase.
Would my kids love to hand me their bags and strut their free selves through an airport? Yes, but our rule is everyone carries their own travel bags.
Yes, even kids can carry their very own luggage.
This teaches kids several things:
They are responsible to look after all of their belongings. If they leave a book on the plane instead of putting it back in their carry-on luggage, 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. Having the kids manage their carry-on luggage is a huge help.
While we have guidelines for what they need, our kids help assemble their bags, including their carry-on luggage. They can decide which book or movie to bring.
They can decide which snack they want to have and when. This gives them the power of choice and ownership, which my kids love.
Our kids love the independence they get from having their own travel bags. They can set up their own little space on the plane. They access anything in their carry-on luggage 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. We know many adults that have problems managing their carry-on luggage, so our kids will be able to do it with ease.
8 Best Products for Kids' Carry-ons Packing List
Now that you know WHY kids need carry-on luggage let's talk about what (the kids) can pack inside! These are my recommendations for the absolutely, positively 8 very best products for kids' carry-ons you can't leave home without.
This post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase using this link. Please see my disclaimer.
1. Backpack for Kids' Carry-on Luggage
Any bag will work (be it kids' rolling luggage with spinner wheels, duffel bags, rolling luggage, ride-on suitcase, or even the hard-side carry-on luggage or suitcase from American Tourister), but we prefer backpacks because they make the best luggage for kids' carry-ons. Kids' carry-on luggage with spinner wheels is the next best thing as they can roll it easily compared to a duffel bag.
Their compartments, zippered pockets, mesh pockets (plus one large mesh pocket inside), front pocket, and internal pockets help make it easier for finding items quickly, especially in small spaces (like on a plane with a person’s seat reclined in your face). They also have fully lined adjustable straps, which makes them easier for the kids to carry. Even younger children can carry them due to their comfort and easy access.
I am a huge fan of Pottery Barn Kids backpacks when it comes to buying a toddler backpack and kids' carryons. They are large and durable, water resistant, have cushioned shoulder straps, and come in a variety of themes and colorful designs kids love!
My son loves his dinosaur backpack carry-on luggage because of its fun designs, (though they do have other animal designs), and my daughter is a fan of their Disney princess backpacks because of their bright colors and prints! They're just the right size for them.
If your little kids prefer Disney-themed bags, they have mickey mouse and star wars backpacks to choose from and use as carry-on luggage.
These backpacks have enough luggage space to store things, and they also come in different sizes to suit any child's age. Whether you're looking for a small bag or a big one, they have them all. In my opinion, they offer the best kids' luggage backpacks.
Other great carry-on ideas for kids include:
- Ride-on suitcase
- Hard-side luggage
- Soft-side carry-on luggage
- Hard-side carry=on luggage
- Rolling luggage
Some bags even convert into a leg rest for kids. There are plenty of carry-on luggage and rolling suitcase options. The key is finding the best luggage for kids for your family needs.
2. Snacks for Kids' Carry-ons
Truthfully, travel often happens at meal times. Assuming you will be able to grab something in the airport to appease the kid's palate is a gamble at best. That's why we love packing snacks in the kids' suitcase carry-on or rolling luggage to help offset irregular meal times.
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. This is especially true for toddlers!
These are some of our favorite snack ideas we like to pack in our kids' luggage, so it's readily accessible any time they get hungry.
Best snacks to include in kids' carry-ons:
- granola bars
- fruit squeezer
- easy to eat fruits or vegetables
- dried fruits.
Check out this variety snack box you can purchase in advance to pack your kids' carry-ons with! To store all of those snacks, you can pack them in these extra-large IKEA freezer bags to keep everything tidy, and they are easy to find when it's time to pack your child's carry-on luggage.
Heading on a road trip? Check out over 101+ Best Road Trip Food Ideas (includes vegan, gluten-free, and toddler food ideas for road trips too!) plus the best tips for road tripping with kids.
3. Water bottle for Kids' Traveling Carry-On
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.
4. Freezer bags for extra clothes for Kids' Soft-side Carry-ons
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 the kids' luggage carry-ons 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 own suitcase or the kids suitcase to find them.
5. Headphones and Electronics for Kids' Luggage Carry-ons
For tablets, our kids use our iPads. But if you are in the market for a kid friendly tablet or a small travel gift for your kids, 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.
6. Sketch Pad and Colored Pencils for Kids' Carry-ons
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 at 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.
Drawing For Younger Kids' Luggage Carry-Ons
Younger children may have trouble with dropping or breaking crayons or losing marker caps with their little hands. For the toddler/preschool age, these Imagine Ink pads are much easier and the perfect choice.
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.
7. Travel Blanket for Kids' Carry-ons
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 little 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. Thre are other types but I prefer this one as it comes with a pillow you can put over an armrest, making it more comfortable for kids to nap.
8. Books, small toys, and movies for Kids' Luggage Carry-Ons
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.
I highly recommend double-checking that the lovey (and other smaller items) are safely back in the bag/ hand luggage before disembarking the plane. Speaking from experience here. Losing their beloved comfort item can be devastating for a child and impact your trip.
FAQs About Kids' Carry-Ons
What is NOT allowed in carry-on luggage?
- Liquids more than 3.4 oz/100 ml cannot be brought in your carry-on. Travel-size toiletries must all fit into a quart-sized bag.
- Sharp objects are not allowed, so don't bring a craft kit that includes scissors.
- Sports equipment that could cause harm or won't fit in the overhead (like baseball or cricket bats, golf clubs, nerf blasters, bows and arrows, etc.)These must all be in packed suitcases.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables when traveling to and from Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and internationally are mostly not allowed.
- For a more comprehensive list or to search for a specific item, visit the TSA website.
My child is getting bored with what is in his bag. Now what?
You could have a few “extra” entertainment items hidden in your travel 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!
What should I bring in my bag?
- Single-serving cereal and spoons: Bringing your own breakfast and some plastic spoons save you from having to search for breakfast in the airport if you have an early flight. All you have to find is milk – and coffee.
- Kids' over the counter and prescription medicines: These are usually allowed in reasonable quantities if declared to the TSA agent. I usually travel with a thermometer and an assortment of liquid kids acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and allergy medicine, just in case they get sick on the trip. If you travel with liquid antibiotics that need refrigeration, you can usually bring a freezer pack as long as it is frozen solid.
- Your necessities: Pack all of YOUR medicines, contact lenses, eyeglasses, passports/documentation, and special jewelry in your carry on. Anything you can't live without if your luggage gets lost should be in your carry-on.
- Your comfort items: Pack grown-up snacks and a water bottle, a great book, headphones, chargers, and a blanket.
What should I know about traveling during the Pandemic?
Check out my post on Travel In 2021: What To Know and Questions To Ask.
The Last Thing You Need to Know About Kids' Carry-On Luggage
Kids' carrying their very own luggage or carry-ons fosters independence and responsibility and helps parents out by lightening their 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.