The Ultimate Carry-On Packing List for Flying with Kids

What is the longest plane ride you’ve ever been on?

I rode on a plane for the first time when I was 12 years old. I went on a mission trip to inner city Florida with my youth group, and I remember having such a terrible headache from the altitude change. The next time I flew was after I got married at 19 and I was so worried about the headache, but it didn’t even end up bothering me. Little did I know that I would one day be moving to a place that’s a 24 hour plane ride away, and we would be making the trip back annually.

The first time we came to Japan was when Arrow was around six months old. Since then, we’ve traveled back and forth from Japan and the U.S. every year. So we’ve made this plane trip four times. Each time it gets a little easier because the kids get a little older and we get a little more experienced, but now we’re going to make the trip with a baby again. As I’m racking my mind to remember all the things that helped with bringing a baby, I thought I’d share my tips for what to bring with your toddlers and kids!

First, let me mention two very important things that I’ve learned make a huge difference in how effective your carry-on items are.

1. Prepare your kids ahead of time. Going on a plane is a big deal for kids! Especially if it’s the first time, it can be very scary and overwhelming. We made sure to talk with our kids about the upcoming plane ride from the time that we booked it. We talked about what would happen, what it would sound like, and what it would feel like. We even watched a few different videos and children’s shows that showed riding on a plane. We discussed how long we would be on the plane and that we would ride it past bedtime and need to sleep while we were on it. We also discussed voice level expectations – we need to make sure we’re not yelling or talking loudly when other people are trying to sleep.

2. Make sure your kids are well rested. One year, we had the great idea that we would take the kids out sightseeing at our layover in Tokyo. We figured it would wear them out and they would just sleep for the whole plane ride. What actually happened was that they were over-tired, so there were so many tears and even a bathroom accident that would have never normally happened. We learned such an important lesson from this and now make sure our kids get a good night’s sleep and have a laid-back day before we take off.

Okay, now it’s really time for me to share the list with you! These are the things I’ve learned are absolutely necessary from spending over four days on airplanes with my kids.

1. Bring a carry-on your kid can actually carry. 

I know, these things are numbered and it’s really tempting to bring a bigger bag and carry it yourself. Trust me, we’ve tried it both ways and this way is much more effective. With their own bags, your kids take ownership over their things and feel proud to walk through the airport carrying it. Yes, the amount of things that you can fit in there are limited, but that just simplifies the clean-up process in the end. I don’t include everything on this list in their personal bags. Snacks for example, stay in a separate carry-on because I get to decide when they get snacks. Most airplanes give each ticketed passenger a carry-on and a personal item, so we have had no trouble with the kids bringing backpacks as their personal items. 

2. Bring surprises and build the anticipation. 

As I mentioned before, it’s really important that your kids are excited about the trip. You can build that excitement up through discussion beforehand, but what I’ve found is most effective is surprises. They don’t have to be expensive – I usually buy most of the things at the dollar store. They just love having something new and unknown to look forward to opening on the plane. I zip up their bags and make them leave them closed until we’re on the plane. 

3. Bring snacks and drinks. 

This is especially important if you’re taking a long flight. There are extremely long intervals between the little airline pretzels and the meals. Plus, let’s be honest, those meals are pretty gross sometimes and your kids might refuse to eat them. Believe me, you do not want to end up stuck on an airplane with a hungry kid. The same goes for drinks – they are few and far between. Also, they just have paper cups, so make sure you bring a kid friendly cup to pour it into. We usually bring two cups – one full of water and an empty one for when they do bring drinks around. The one with water is also good to have them sip during take-off because swallowing the water reduces the chance of them getting pressure headaches. 

4. Bring kid-sized headphones. 

On a long flight, there will always be a tv. These are full of kid-friendly shows and games, but the earbuds they offer are not very useful. They’re too big to fit into your kids ears and, besides that, just plain uncomfortable. You can get a fairly cheap pair of these online and they’re worth every penny. The tvs are one of the things my kids will always mention about flying. They love it because it’s the one time that we don’t limit screen time and they don’t have to decide on a show together because they both have their own screen. 

5. Bring a change of clothes. 

Make sure these are easily accessible! The first time we flew, we had them in one of the bigger carry-ons. The airline offered to check our carry-ons for free, and we gladly sent that one away without thinking twice. Then our son spilled my drink all over his pants and we didn’t have a change of clothes. Also, bring them for all your kids! You never know what will happen. We made the mistake of only bringing them for our son one time and our daughter ended up needing them. She was not happy to wear her brothers’ sweats that didn’t fit right. 

6. Bring quiet toys. 

This seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised what things turn out being loud. We’ve had a lot of luck with coloring and sticker books, magnet activities (like dress up dolls and board games,) play mats, toy cars, and stuffed animals. We’ve also brought legos, foam blocks, and puzzles. I would caution you, though, with those because the pieces can end up on the floor or used as projectiles with younger kids. 

7. Bring a familiar pillow and blanket. 

Yes, the airplane will give you one of each but they are often scratchy and/or to small. My kids have their own special blankets that they sleep with each night, so we always make sure to bring those. I also bring them a small pillow that I can put under their heads when they inevitably fall asleep on the arm rest or my shoulder. 

8. Bring a car seat. 

This is especially important with younger kids. I will caution you ahead of time – it is going to be a pain to carry around. It’s heavy and awkwardly shaped and there’s no way it’s going to fit on that cart they give you for your luggage. But it goes such a long way in making your little feel comfortable! The car seat can make them feel safe and secure in something that is familiar. It also gives them somewhere to sit while you’re waiting in the airport and you can even use it as a way to strap them down if they’re having trouble staying with you (we definitely had to do this with our son.)

That’s all for me! What else would you add to this list?

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