An essential guide to packing for family air travel
Simplify what you need to bring on board for a long-haul family flight
Let’s face it, your days of throwing a few items in an overnight bag the night before really are numbered. Its time to accept that you’ve entered the world of packing lists, checked luggage and days – if not weeks – of advance preparation. This is an area of family travel where you can only continue to learn from your own experiences, and your requirements will rapidly change from one journey to the next as your children grow older (and you grow wearier!)
Accept it, no matter how light you try to pack you are going to look like a travelling side-show wherever you go (our packing for two nights looks about the same as two weeks).
There is no denying that there is an awful lot that needs to be packed if you want to prepare for every contingency but don’t be fooled into overpacking.
There’s a big wide world out there full of babies just like yours so chances are if you have forgotten something, you will not have to survive completely without it – think practical and irreplaceable items when it comes to the packing stage.
Please note that packing for a family has nothing to do with looking suave and stylish; leave your matching luggage sets at home and think practical, what can I realistically carry and how do I fit these items in, including airline luggage allowances. Forget that capsule wardrobe, for now
In this section we will cover:
- What to pack in your carry on bag for the plane
- What your children should pack
- Checked luggage essentials
- Larger equipment needs
This post is part of our travel advice series – everything from baby and toddler travel advice to how to save on your family travel costs
Packing the carry-on when travelling with small children
In my experience, travelling with a backpack is far more helpful than a nappy/diaper bag, for weight distribution and to keep your hands free, particularly if you are travelling solo. Another alternative great with small children is a wheeled backpack. This is not a definitive packing list but will hopefully jog your mind on some of the practicalities to consider (you can also check out our baby travel essentials);
- Wet wipes. You can never have enough!
- Antiseptic hand gel, and depending on your degree of germ-phobia (or in times like the bird flu outbreak) antibacterial wipes
- If bottle-feeding, expressed milk or instant formula. (Check current rules for liquids – the resources page has links to rules for major travel destinations). During the flight, you can normally get hot water and cow’s milk from the stewards, but think about how you will clean bottles. Will your child take instant formula from a straw instead?
- A complete change of clothes for everyone when they’re very small (things can and do go everywhere in a confined space). Even if toilet trained, bring a ‘travel nappy’ and extra change. This includes if you can afford the space a change for the adults to, and even older kids are very susceptible to drink spillages
- Something to suck on during takeoff and landing (pacifier/bottles for infants, sweets perhaps for older children)
- Twice as many nappies as you would normally go through for length of flight (cabin pressure can do funny things for tummies)
- Breast pads if nursing (more than usual)
- Pajamas and any night comforters if you expect a full overnight sleep (see Jet Lag advice page)
- Empty bottle/sippy cup (even if they would normally use a grown-up cup you can serve water/juice this way to reduce spillages)
- A snack bag. Try your best to avoid highly sugared treats, try cheese, crackers, Cheerios. (I always keep an extra stash away from the main box too for emergencies, delays etc). Note if you haven’t booked a full price seat you will not be able to get a toddler the child’s meal, most airlines will only offer infant food; Also note that you should separately book a child’s meal with the airline even if you have booked a child’s seat.
- A bib
- Kids favorite lovie or blanket
- A light sweater or shawl, even if going somewhere warm the plane can be freezing, doubles up as extra pillow/blanket or for covering stains!
- You always need a spare plastic bag or a ziplock bag for something
- Electronics and valuables (including charges) that you don’t want in your main luggage
- A magazine/book/tablet for yourself – if a miracle does occur and you find yourself with a spare 20 minutes you deserve a break from the in-flight magazine
- Don’t forget the obvious like passports, travel documents, valid visas (and pack these in easy to reach pockets)
For a complete list of what to pack sign up to our newsletter and instantly receive a downloadable checklist for your family – plus baby checklist, first aid & camping checklists – you can access the lot joining our family travel community.
If your child is old enough to carry their own bag, keep it very small with only as many toys allowed as they can fit into it. Remember you may well be given a kids activity bag on the plane as well, and in all likelihood, you will end up at some point carrying both, as well as your own bags.
(Don’t let those cute Trunki suitcases fool you. After three minutes of sliding it along, the novelty wears off, you will end up carrying it; they are hard, heavy and clunky and carry far more toys than are necessary for even the longest flight which leads to overpacking. Hats off to the inventor but purchase one at your own peril – learn more on what NOT to pack here! ).
As for what to pack specifically for children’s entertainment, the absolute overwhelming answer I am always given these days is an iPad! (or cheaper tablet equivalents that can play games and videos with headphones on -we love the Kindle Fire for Kids). We cover entertaining children during the flight in more detail on the surviving flights with children page, but here are a few handy hints in selecting what types of toys to pack;
- Pack a mixture of old and new toys, take a few surprise items in your carry on as well as what goes in the child’s bag.
- Some suggest wrapping toys individually to make it more exciting and time-consuming for them (I struggle to even find time to wrap birthday presents – but if this idea floats your boat and you have the planning time, go for it)
- Remember they are likely to get more toys at your destination as gifts from family, souvenirs, so don’t over pack on the outward bound journey
- For your fellow passengers, and your own sanity, avoid anything noisy
- Avoid anything with too many parts that can get easily lost, roll under chairs (coloring can be a great quiet activity, but remember you will be the one picking up all the stray pencils/crayons off the floor! Try a multi-colour pen – bigger and not as easy to lose, or triangle-shaped crayons)
- As a rule of thumb, aim for one toy per hour of flight that you expect they’ll be awake.
Further Reading: What’s in my Toddler’s Plane Bag?
Checked luggage essentials for families
It pays to do some research as to what facilities and products are available at your destination to avoid dragging a lot of unnecessary items halfway around the world with you.
Again, I will not provide you with a definite list of what to pack in your suitcases and to go in the hold (Have you signed up for our free packing list though?), but suggest you actually write it out before you start and think practically about the number of days you are away for and what laundry options are at your destination.
You can always buy most baby products such as nappies and formula at your destination, but do think about particular brands or products that might be irreplaceable – I know things like pacifiers and bottle teats are very personal to the child’s taste, or a particular packet of baby food. If your child has allergies or specific medical needs you should definitely research their availability beforehand.
How much clothing will I need?
Kids seem to go through clothing faster on holidays, and you may be undertaking more than one activity per day (e.g. beach, then out for dinner) so always pack a few more items than you might go through in an ordinary week.
How many nappies/diapers will I go through?
Depends if you are brand specific or happy to experiment. Nappies are light but take up a lot of packing space – we actually deliberately pack all the nappies we think we will need as a space saver; for all the room that the nappies take up on the way out, we make room on the return journey for new purchases/souvenirs etc.
Many prefer though to simply take the first few days worth then stock up at their destination. Remember a new environment can change bowel movements so it’s worth packing one or two extra than normal per day.
Can you order in advance?
Some destinations, particularly well established in Europe offer baby hamper services where they can deliver your baby essentials to your accommodation in advance of your arrival. See more under Destinations. A few other essential items that I would also consider bringing:
- A portable blackout blind and Gro Clock (check wattage at the destination – you may need to add a converter plug too!)
- A few days of snacks from home, especially if your kids are fussy and may not like the local food offering
- Bring a small bottle brush and detergent with you (or event the toothbrush from the plane pack will work). Long-stay serviced accommodation you may well provide you with these items but these will be vital if only staying a few nights at a hotel
- Likewise, a small bag of laundry powder or a laundry power ball/sachet may come in handy; even if your accommodation doesn’t have a washer dryer and you’ve packed enough clothing to last you can guarantee your only pair of jeans / favourite dress / favourite teddy will get spoiled before the first flight is over
- Be prepared to buy and donate some items. It might seem wasteful but things like plastic bucket beach sets take up space, are they really worth lugging home? Leave a note for housekeeping to take any unwanted items for their families perhaps if you are worried they’ll go completely to waste.
Check luggage allowances
Always double-check your luggage allowance with airlines before flying, particularly if you are transferring from international to domestic as limits may drastically reduce on smaller aircraft. Most airlines will give you a reduced allowance of packed luggage on infant tickets (under 2 years old) but you will be given an increase in allowance for bulky items such as prams and car seats.
FURTHER READING: The Our Globetrotters International Airlines Review
Larger equipment needs when travelling with kids
As a brief guide to what you may need (we have a load of more detailed travel product reviews you can check out here)
- Travel cot
- Stroller or pram
- Sling or carrier
- Booster seat
- Car seat
- Kids sleep device for the plane
All of these range in size and weight which may be a key determining factor in whether they get packed, along with your airline allowances.
You will also want a way to protect this gear when you travel. Don’t forget to check out:
It pays to do your research on what might be available at your destination to save you over packing on these items. Plenty of ‘travel size’ versions do exist which may be a handy compromise if you travel frequently, or if you travel back home to your parents for example on a regular basis it can be worth investing in a second set of just about everything!
Still not sure what to pack? Download our free printable family travel checklist – it includes steps to think of before you go and what to pack for all the family
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