Preparation for Air Travel with Children

Flying with children, especially those under 5, can be a truly trying experience. In fact, I get tired and stressed even thinking about it. But it is a necessity for most families, and a bit of organization can minimize the chaos, rendering the experience more enjoyable for everyone.

The most important preparation for flying with children is PACKING. Organized carry-on luggage, with the right items in the right places and minimal extras, can make almost any flight manageable.
First, be sure your carry-on luggage is comfortable, and meets the airline’s size requirements. Generally, carry-on bags need to fit under an airline seat or in the overhead bin. According to Travel Insider, a website specializing in travel planning and assistance (,

“The safe maximum size is 45,” in the form of a 22″ x 14″ x 9″ bag.  Some airlines allow up to as much as 55,” but most do not.”

Suitcases with wheels, messenger bags, and other shoulder bags with dividers and pockets are preferable to backpacks for travel with children, since the various compartments can be used to organize items and decrease time spent searching for specifics, such as diapers or wipes. Be sure the carry-on bag has a padded strap or wheels for easy navigation through airports.

When packing the carry-on, consider every leg of your upcoming journey. Airport layovers, possible delays on the runway, and flight rerouting can extend the time spent traveling and contribute to child (and parent!) meltdown. Plan for these by adding an extra snack or activity.

Some important items for your carry-on:

SMALL TOYS – (Matchbox cars, Legos, soldiers or other figurines), several favorite books, crayons, paper/coloring book, stickers, Doodle Pro or Etch-a-Sketch (travel size)
It is important to note here that the single best defense we have found against airline meltdown is the portable DVD player. With prices ranging from $70 to $230 and a wide array of features available, this simple gadget promises hours of quiet child entertainment. We don’t leave home without it!

NOTE: My mother-in-law advised me to put aside toys and DVDs solely for travel. In case of boredom escalating into chaos, a NEW toy, book, or DVD is often enough to distract the child from his restlessness, buying you and your fellow travelers a few more minutes of peace.

SNACKS – Most airlines no longer offer free meals. The snack boxes that are available are often expensive and of questionable nutritional value to children. Bring your own snacks, and you’ll save money and avoid the hungry, cranky child syndrome.

GOOD CHOICES: Snack-sized raisin boxes, popcorn, sandwiches, animal cookies, graham crackers, string cheese – reveal snacks one at a time, saving the most desirable for the most critical moments.

NOTE: I usually bring an empty sippy cup or thermos and ask the flight attendant to fill it with water or juice. This avoids any potential hassle at the gate with the 3 oz. rule, which seems to change every time we fly. Also, this enables the children to choose their own drink, which leaves them feeling empowered and independent.

COMFORT ITEMS – A favorite blanket, pillow, or stuffed animal can be very comforting for children while traveling.

CLOTHING – Be sure the children are dressed in comfortable clothes – sweatpants, a T-shirt, a sweatshirt, and socks will keep children warm, especially while sleeping, and can be removed in layers as needed. Also be sure to pack a change of clothing for unanticipated events, like an extended layover or diaper leak. Include more diapers than you think you’ll need, and even consider bringing pull-ups for potty-trained children who may fall asleep and miss a bathroom trip. Don’t forget lots of wipes – they can be useful for the whole family!

TRANSPORTATION –How you plan to travel through the airports, as well as what means of child transportation you need at the other end of your trip, are both crucial decisions to make while packing.
Small children are often much more comfortable in their own car seat on the plane. The car seat also provides extra safety while flying, and may be needed on the other end of your journey. However, running through airports with a bulky car seat is far from ideal. One solution is the portable travel system for car seats from Gogo Kidz ( This product provides wheels for your car seat, enabling parents to simply wheel the car seat, even with the child in it, through the airport.

The CARES harness is an excellent choice, as well. Designed for children between 22 and 44 lbs, this belt and buckle device is the only harness-type child safety restraint to be approved by the FAA. Lightweight, easy to pack, and accommodating almost any airplane seat, the CARES system makes air travel safe and easy.
Another option, if you don’t require a car seat on the plane or at the other end of your flight, is a baby carrier. We never travel without our ERGObaby Carrier, and, even though our youngest is now 2 and a half, he still enjoys riding on our backs. This carrier also leaves our hands totally free to carry our luggage, hold the hand of the 6 year old, and present our tickets and IDs without shuffling around. Many airlines allow parents to keep their baby in the carrier while passing through security check, so if your little one falls asleep, you may not have to disturb him. The baby carrier also eliminates the need for a bulky stroller that has to be gate-checked.

Finally, runners and other exercisers may choose to travel with a jogging stroller. While a bit cumbersome to navigate, the stroller is a necessity if you plan to run while on your vacation and want (or need) to include your baby. You can use it to carry other items while traveling through the airport, hanging your carry-on over the handles, storing baggage underneath, or even balancing a car seat on the canopy. You will most likely want to check your stroller at the gate, since your baby will probably be in it until the last minute, and then you will have to wait for it as you de-plane at the other end.

Traveling with your children is certainly stressful. But with some careful planning and organizing, you can have a safe, relatively peaceful journey with the family. As a final note, one resource that may be of considerable value to parents planning to fly with their children is Jet With Kids by experienced traveler, mom, and RN Anya Clowers. Her book contains fabulous traveling tips, useful products, and important information in a logical and user-friendly format. For more information, visit her website at:

Good luck!

Avatar photo

Hannah Sullivan was a contributor and co-editor for ERGOparent. She is a devoted mother of three, an avid enthusiast of babywearing, running, and vegetarian cooking. She is a working mom and lives on Maui with her husband and her children; ages 8, 5, and 2. Hannah looks forward to sharing her insights with other busy Moms.

May 2, 2011