Packing for any trip is a challenge. I find myself asking the same questions every time I prepare to travel: What do we need to bring vs. what can we buy at our destination? Do we have the right clothes for the weather? Are these the right shoes for what we’ll be doing? Is this bag too heavy or too big to carry on?
And the constant refrain: What am I forgetting?
I’m the kind of person who makes a list (and checks it twice). I pack in advance as much as possible, especially since we can send our bags to the airport a few days early by takkyubin (courier) here in Japan. This was my habit long before we had kids, but once we started traveling with babies I realized just how essential it is to plan ahead and pack strategically.
It’s easy to go overboard when it comes to packing for young children because you want to be prepared for every possible scenario. Since we fly up to 14 hours a few times a year, we’ve gotten a decent amount of experience and realized that we use a lot less than we originally thought.
Everyone’s list of essentials will be different, particularly when you consider the child’s age and interests, but here are some tips and packing ideas for your carry-on bags when flying with a toddler:
Put them in charge of their own backpack
Our son is approaching 4-years old and still loves having his own backpack. He’s graduating to a bigger bag this year, but for the past few years we’ve used this little backpack from SkipHop:
If you have an independent kiddo who wants to walk free, the option to clip the safety strap to their bag and slip it over your wrist is a nice option in crowds. The bag is sturdy and appropriately sized, which will help prevent it from getting too heavy.
Have a mix of familiar toys and a few surprises
I’m a big fan of wrapping a few new toys or activities like gifts to open on the plane. Kids love opening presents! It almost doesn’t matter what’s inside.
Keep the items small and avoid anything you’d be devastated to lose or would be impossible to play with if a piece gets dropped under a seat. We often go to the 100 yen shop (dollar store) for little toys, coloring pads, stickers and even little snacks.
Break out a new surprise when your toddler is getting restless or use them to help them measure time – “let’s watch one more episode, then I have a surprise for you!”
We also bring a small stuffed animal for snuggles, a mini book, and usually one or two little toys that he plays with imaginatively. These are a few favorites:
Bring snacks that are special, but not too messy or sugary
Our favorite treats for the carry-on bags are fruit pouches, nuts and raisins, fruit snacks and little packages of snack crackers. Some of these can be tough to buy in Japan, so we usually do an order from iHerb and try to pick up some applesauce pouches at Costco before a trip.
We also bring fresh foods like onigiri (rice balls), bread or sandwiches, and veggie sticks for light meals. When our son was mostly eating finger foods, I also brought a small container of pasta very lightly tossed with olive oil and some peas – since he had to concentrate to eat, it doubled as an activity to pass the time!
Try to avoid anything that will melt, make a lot of crumbs or become sticky because whatever your toddler is eating will inevitably end up on their clothes or the seat. You also don’t want them to become hyper or have a sugar crash (meltdown) with several hours of traveling still ahead of you.
Practice using headphones at home so they can use a familiar pair
Wearing headphones can be a weird sensation and your toddler may need some time to get used to them. I’d recommend getting a set in advance and letting them practice watching some favorite shows on your phone or an iPad in the days/weeks before your flight.
We use a pair that has a lower maximum volume than adult headphones. Since airplanes are so noisy it’s easy to continually increase the volume without realizing that it’s much louder than you would normally use, which is especially dangerous for little ears. I’m glad our son can’t blast the volume, but he does get frustrated that the audio is much lower than he’s used to and usually abandons his headphones at some point to watch the movies without sound.
This is the pair we have, but there are a lot of options available:
A small blanket and cleansing wipes
Everyone has a different threshold for airline sanitation, but I like to have a small blanket for the kiddo and use some alcohol gel/wipes throughout the trip. We usually bring something like a muslin or bamboo swaddle, since they’re small and lightweight – sometimes I even wrap it around my neck like a scarf so I don’t have to dig through our bags to find it.
We have this set and I like that the patterns aren’t childish, so if I am wearing it like a scarf it blends right in:
Spare clothes for everyone
I think many people keep a change of clothes for the toddler in their diaper bag or carry-on, but we’ve found it helpful to have a fresh shirt for the parents available as well. Whether it’s a spilled cup of water or (dare I say it) a diaper blow-out, I’m sure you can imagine a scenario where you wouldn’t want to sit for several hours in a messy shirt.
We fold a fresh tshirt for each adult, put them into a ziplock and squeeze the air out – this keeps the shirt compact and clean in the bottom of your bag, but also guarantees you have a place to stash whatever wet and messy shirt you change out of mid-flight.
What are your favorite packing tips and tricks for traveling with little kids?