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Flying with Children- Packing Carry-On Luggage

I’m currently packing for flying alone with my girls and figured it was a perfect time to share what we’ve packed as carry-ons and the basics of how I’ve packed it. The things I’ve packed are specific to my girls interests, but the general idea can get you started.

The Basics

I only use a backpack as my carry on luggage.  This keeps my hands free for holding little hands, accessing passports and tickets easily, helping the girls with their things as needed and being able to carrying them if someone needs some extra attention or trips and hurts themselves. I don’t like pulling extra luggage around, especially when I’m travelling alone with them- I want to be able to ready for anything and a hands free back pack is perfect for that. I do prefer a large one with lots of pockets, but I’m not picky on style otherwise.  Both girls also carry back packs. We LOVE our Skip Hop Little Kid Backpacks for several reasons- they are small and light weight, they have a water bottle pouch for easy access (and that frees up room inside the bag) there’s a front pocket for the things we need quickly, and the size and style our perfect for little kiddos. They also stand out in a crowded place with their bright colours. Both girls also have a rolling bag. Our HEYS Kid Luggage is significantly lighter and easier for them to roll around,  while our other one is a cheaper style and it continually falls over. They were both hand-me downs for us so I’m not complaining, but if you are purchasing new, go for the hard-shell Heys. However, they are both light weight enough that each girl can pull her own, and I can easily take over the duty if I need too.  They love feeling “grown up” and doing it themselves so that works for me.  A key for me is to not take any other bags- I don’t even travel with a purse- just to keep things simple and easy. Keeping it simple is key when travelling with kids, especially when you are doing it alone.

Here’s the breakdown of exactly what each bag carries and exactly how we packed for our last trip of 3 flights over 24 hours.

My Carry-On Backpack 


Laptop- I unfortunately need to carry my laptop while travelling so that goes in first and against the back.

The Essentials- Passports, tickets, money, CC, all in my LUG passport holder. We’ve had this holder for 10 years now- we bought it for our honeymoon and its a fabulous piece to travel with. I love the hidden zipper compartment for hiding the cash and it keeps everything accessible and at my finger tips. It’s also a bright colour so it’s easy to spot in my backpack.  I will pack an (near) empty purse in my suitcase if I need one once I reach my destination.

First Aid Kit-  I carry an emergency kit  of Children’s Tylenol, bandaids, baby wipes or wet ones (so great to have even as the children get older- we use them constantly- they caught vomit, cleaned up spills, wiped sticky hands, snot….it’s messy being a parent on a plane), Gravol, and Tums. This kit is based off where we are going and if they have anything I am worried about at the time. I also have hand sanitizer in this kit and try to use it frequently. I put anything that is a liquid or lotion (under 100mls)  into a ziploc bag ahead of time so I don’t have to sort out everything when going through security. The liquids are all on top in a baggie ready to be pulled out for inspection.

Snacks- On travel days I like to feed my girls good healthy foods as schedules can be really off and meals seem to get replaced with snacks. Airplane food is rarely appealing to my kids and can be so expensive. Don’t count on it as option.  Keep in mind that some foods can’t cross borders ( and ANY food you have on you must be claimed in US customs if you are travelling to the states), but otherwise I’ll bring things like cheese strings, Annie’s bunnies, cucumber coins, carrots, raw almonds and organic granola bars. It’s easiest if you can organize them all into single serving bags to pass out if you have multiple kids.  Snacks all go in the front compartment of my backpack so I can grab them as needed. I like to organize using ziploc bags for space reasons, but if we are headed to an all inclusive I’ll bring a few ziploc plastic containers that double as beach toys or as a take away container to carry snacks back to the room from the buffet. Snacks that take a long time to eat (like air popped popcorn with no salt) are really good to bring cause it keeps them occupied for a long time and are fun if they are going to be watching a movie onboard.

Lollipops- Maeve doesn’t like chewing gum so we use suckers on take off and landing while on the plane. It helps her sensitive ears to pop and the sucking can ease the pressure. The suckers also work as a “pacifier” if things are going rough.  I can whip out a sucker and it quiets everything down quickly. I’m not a perfect mom and a lollipop gives me 10 minutes of quiet if I need to talk to a booking agent or just need a break from talking (or let’s be honest, crying) on the plane. We bring Organic lollypops from YummyEarth, because there’s no food dyes, they are totally natural and have yummy flavours like mango or pomegranate. If there’s anything I don’t want on a plane, it is kids who are out of control from red food dye and preservatives. I really find Violet in particular has a hard time controlling her emotions when she’s eating junk all day, so these suckers are a perfect treat without an epic melt-down at the end.

Surprises- I like to wrap little gifts from the dollarstore. Usually a simple craft set, a little toy or one of the “magic” marker activity books. I wrap them in gift paper and give them periodically on the trip. This works on several levels- it’s something new and exciting and  it’s always fun to unwrap a gift.  It’s usually something that we can leave on the plane when we are done with it so it’s less to haul around. I also use the gifts as fun rewards for playing quietly for an extended period of time, or use them to distract and stop a sticky situation from escalating. Kids love unwrapping gifts and it often ends up being a highlight of the flight for them. Who doesn’t like unwrapping a surprise gift? ( In full disclosure I packed Violet’s gift which seemed like a fun “fashion design” craft kit  by Melissa & Doug on this past trip only to have her open it excitedly and find out she needed scissors. What a let down! The kit said it “included everything” but I should have opened it to make sure it was something more airplane appropriate. Lesson learned).

Mom Treats– I pack gum for my own ears….and there might also be a fancy non-kid-friendly chocolate bar in my bag for when we are on hour 4 when I deserve my own treat.

Water bottle- I feel like I’m not capable of waiting for little wasteful cups of water on the plane so I need a water bottle (filled up at at the water fountian past security).  I’m definitely more thirsty while airborne. Anything spill proof is a bonus.

Technology- I also carry two iPads, my phone, headphones, and my camera all in the main compartment.  Somedays when we’re travelling I say a prayer of gratitude of Steve Jobs for the miraculous invention of the iPad.  There are so many fabulous educational apps to install and it can keep them busy for extended periods of time. However, like many kids,  iPads make my girls a little obsessive and crazy. It’s like an addiction.  So I don’t want them just sitting there for 8 hours playing games- I break up the time spent on the iPads with our other activities.   They are a great asset to travelling with kids and make life easier, especially with lack of entertain options for younger kids on planes. But I don’t like to use them the whole time or bring them as the only option.  However, I would say if you have an iPad or can borrow one for a long flight definitely make room for it in your bag.

Chargers- A Plastic Ziploc Bag of all our chargers. There’s nothing I hate more then them all getting tangled in my stuff or not being able to charge my phone upon arrival to let my family know we’ve arrived safely.

Books-  (Not pictured as I had to pop out and buy a couple new ones on our way to the airport) I carry the children’s books that can be heavy or too big for their little backpacks. Search and Find books (with pictures of what to find for kiddos who can’t read) are hits on our travel days. Highlights Magazine is an ever better choice since they’re light weight.  We like to aloud read  from easy chapter books when flying- usually we will read three chapters, one in the beginning, middle and near the end of the flight. They love it and it really breaks up the flight for us all.  I find that flights are a time I can spoil my kids with 100% of my attention. Something that I wish I could do all the time.



The Kid’s Carry-On Backpacks-

The girls bags are mostly self packed. I do help and supervise this, but I really want them to feel involved with planning for the trip. I also feel like they know the kind of things they want to play with on the plane, and can use the line “well, did you pack it?” if they start whining for a different toy. This year Maeve originally packed a single barbie shoe, a flashlight with no batteries and a giant beaded bracelet in her bag, so there was a bit of tweaking to be done before we left. But I gently encouraged her to bring a few different things I know she loves and she ended up with a good little selection. I really like them to bring toys that can double for bath toys or beach toys and are small enough to fit in a pocket for entertainment when going out to dinner. So small plastic figures are the way usually we go. I also want them to pack a few accessories for the toys to build “set-ups” and encourage play. This year that meant a small helicopter, a plastic bed and other small toys that can help “set the scene” while playing on the tray on a plane.

Both girls have their water bottle in the side pocket. Don’t fill it up until you’ve gone through security (or just a tiny bit in the bottom they can finish by the time they get to security). You are allowed 100mls of liquid buuuut then you’d need to put the bottles in plastic security  bags and that just ends up being something else to think about … I just find it’s easier to have them empty prior to boarding.

Both girls have their own personal snacks. I give them a couple snacks they can access on their own whenever they’d like. This helps with building their independence and gives them something to be in charge of. Maeve generally eats hers before check in and Violet generally tries to save hers as long as possible. But once it’s gone they have to wait till “snack times” which are broken up through the flight.


Violet’s Carry-On Bag at age 6-


Dolly Dress-Up Sticker Book and Spanish Sticker Book- Usborne Books makes wonderful sticker books for boys and girls. These can be found at Mastermind Toys and occasionally at Costco. Well worth the price and each book provides literal hours of entertainment. I feel like the cost is well worth it compared to buying several dollar store sticker books with much less play value.  There’s multiple versions of the doll books and there’s sports themed books geared more towards boys as well.

Sparkle Mosaic – This box makes this craft kit look huge. But in reality it’s just sheets of paper and little foam stickers that you arrange colour-by-number. It’s intricate and perfect for flying. No mess. It took Violet over an hour of (silent!) work to get her first artwork done.  Great option for the 5+ crowd.

Lalaloopsy Minis (and a few accessories). Really small toys that can be used throughout the trip is perfect. These tiny dolls are great for plane rides.

Brand new notepad and Pipsqeaks Crayola markers. There’s something fun about a fresh new notebook, just ready for all your drawings, ideas. It can also be a journal of the trip. Violet never liked colouring books (she said quite early in life “I don’t like having to stay inside lines!!”) but a brand new colouring book holds the same appeal to many kids.  We only travel with Crayola products cause I’m scared about having to clean up after any other marker- they are easily washable on the tray or on clothing. The pipsqueaks are perfect for their tiny size that takes up less space in their bags. I put them in their own pencil case (or ziploc bag) to keep everything organized.



Maeve’s Carry-On Bag at 3 years old-


2 tubs of Halloween Size Play Dough. Kids love sensory activities while travelling. I find play dough doesn’t make a big mess and keeps her occupied for quite a long time. The flight attendants have also brought cutlery for her to play along with as well. She builds things for her small toys and I often just toss it at the end of flight.

Dolly Dress-Up Sticker Book. Sticker books are great for that 3+ crowd. Maeve started doing this style around two and a half but could do it independently by three. We’ve purchased dollar store sticker books previously but this style is much easier for little hands.

Small puppy toys and accessories of her choice.

Dry Erase Board with crayon “markers”. No smell, no mess. Perfect for my preschooler learning to write her letters. Small enough so it fits in her bag and a good activity for us to do together.


In our Carry-On Rolling suitcases-

I have a full extra outfit for each of us. This is important for several reasons. For starters, if our bags don’t make it I like to have an extra set of clothes to buy us time. Secondly, if someone throws up or spills an entire bottle of juice on me I’d like to not be sticky all day.  But mostly I like to have a full outfit that we can change into on the plane that suits the weather of the our destination. So if we are leaving Edmonton in the dead of winter, I’ll keep sundresses in our carry-on and we will change into them half-way or so through our flight. That way no one is super hot and uncomfortable once we arrive at our destination and they we can also stay comfortable on the plane and at the Edmonton airport. Dressing in layers is also key since planes can be stuffy and warm, or really chilly.  Maybe my kids are super whiny but I definitely feel the need to keep them comfortable.

Our suitcases also have our special blankets and stuffies that we couldn’t bear to lose if our luggage got lost. They also might come out if someone is over-tired and needs a little quiet time.

The rest of the space is just normal trip items (no liquids or gels).  But if we have a overnight layover I’ll pack everything we need in a carry-on rolling suitcase just to keep it simple.  We also only like to pack one checked suitcase for our trips for all four of us, so I really try to maximize the space we have.


Going Home

So after your fun trip abroad you also have to think abut the trip home. PRO TIP- pack a large ziploc freezer bag with NEW things for the ride home- new colouring books, new little wrapped gifts/crafts, a few of their  little toys you snuck out of the house on your trip down. Whatever you do, do not let them see this bag or play with anything in this bag till the flight home. Hide it well. You’ll need new things to keep them busy and your future self will thank you for thinking ahead.  Also passing over your phone or camera and letting them scroll through all the photos of the trip also kills like 20 minutes  and you can talk about each thing you saw and did and be grateful for the experience 😉

What activities do you like to do on a plane ride with your children?

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  • February 22, 2016 - 7:08 am

    Chantel - This is such a great list! We’ve traveled to Africa twice with children (to Uganda when our daughter was 16 months and then to South Africa when she was 4 to adopt her (then) 18 month old brother), and have done some shorter international flights with kids and pack very similarly. Sticker books are amazing, and I totally agree about the quality of the Usborne ones, our daughter brought one to SA and used it on the plane as well as a fair amount in the 6 weeks we were there. This year we will just be road tripping and camping with the kids but I still like to pack a few new things for the drive and I’m definitely going to check out that foam sticker craft kit! I love that you shared that you don’t travel with a purse, I need to learn that trick for next time, too many bags can get overwhelming, and I’ve got to look into that Lug passport holder.
    Thanks so much for sharing!ReplyCancel

    • February 22, 2016 - 1:35 pm

      Kelsy - Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment. The foam kit will definitely work for a road trip. No mess and time consuming is the way to go!ReplyCancel

  • March 28, 2017 - 6:30 am

    Francis - Thank you! I’m leaving for Cuba on Friday by myself with our 6 years old daughter and these are the best tips I could find! It will definitely make our trip smoother.ReplyCancel

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