Does the thought of a long haul flight with your little ones leave you in a cold sweat? Do you have nightmares of your kids running up and down the aisles misbehaving and driving the flight attendants and other passengers crazy? Are you worried that you’ll never keep them occupied and in line for an upcoming long haul flight? We were once in the same boat but have since learned it’s not impossible.
We’ve taken flights from Canada to Hong Kong and Asia, flights to Cuba and the Caribbean, hopped between islands in the Philippines, flown from Cancun to Costa Rica, and all over North America with two little kids in tow. The kids are now seven and three, but we’ve flown with them from the time they were still breastfeeding and in diapers.
While flying does present some challenges, a great packing list and a good attitude can go a long way.
Here are our top things to pack in your carry-on luggage for a long haul flight with children.
- Your children’s legal documents. Passports are required for all children, including babies and toddlers, almost anywhere in the world. If you are divorced or separated from your child’s other parent, or your child is adopted, take a copy of the papers. If you’re traveling without the other parent, bring a legal document, signed by the other parent, that states you’ve been given permission to travel with your child. Requirements differ depending on your country of origin and destination.
- Healthy snacks and small containers (plastic sandwich bags work well). Raisins, cheerios and goldfish crackers are all good candidates. Bring snacks that aren’t easily squashed in a bag. Don’t bring fruit or drinks, as both will probably get taken at customs. While not very healthy, we also like mini tins of Pringles chips because they’re easy to transport, hard to squish and time consuming for the kids to eat. Bring more than you think you’ll need. Airline food has a bad reputation for a reason, and delays are common.
- Sweet, sweet bribes. Whether this falls into the realm of organic fruit gummies or M&Ms, jelly beans and mini marshmallows, we always bring something that can be used as a reward for good behavior, a distraction or to soothe a crying child. Sweet treats that can be handed out a few at a time are perfect. Our seven year old loves popping rocks candies that pop in his mouth. We stay away from anything that might be a choking hazard, even with older kids.
- Sippy cup or cup with lid that seals securely. These have two advantages: 1) no spills, and 2) they can fit much more than the little plastic cups provided by airlines. Slightly loosen before takeoff and landing to prevent air pressure changes from shooting liquid out the top.
- At least one change of clothes. Carry a complete change of clothes, and two pairs of underwear, for the kids (our kids need their change of clothes one flight out of every two). A change of clothes for the adults (or at least a shirt) is a great idea if your kids are very young, or you or they are prone to spills. If it’s a night flight, pack a pair of pajamas for the kids since they are a great way to keep part of their bedtime routine intact. If they are sleeping when you get to your destination you can just put them to bed without any extra fuss..
- Socks and a light jacket. Even if the weather is sweltering outside, airplanes can be cool.
- A small, squishy microbead pillow. We don’t pack neck pillows for the kids. Instead, we prefer a small, squishy pillow that’s filled with little microbeads. The kids love to play with it, it’s easy to squish into your carry-on, and it doubles as a pillow for sleeping. You can get them in adorable versions, like Raspberry Jolly Rancher and Nerds candies.
- Something to help your child’s ears equalize when landing. Because of their little ear canals, kids are especially vulnerable to severe ear pain (and possible burst ear drums) from changes in pressure as the plane lands. Gum and lolipops work for older kids. For babies, make sure you save a baby bottle with milk or formula, or give breast milk, or offer a soother, or all of these. Give your tiny ones the bottle or breast as the plane is coming in for a landing to equalize changes in air pressure. Don’t use tap water from the airplane bathroom to wash bottles or make formula, as it may not be safe.
- A stuffed animal. Aside from providing familiarity and comfort, a stuffed animal is a great toy and can double as a pillow.
- Mini board games. These are a great time killer if your child is old enough, though you’ll probably have to play with them.
- An iPhone, iPad, Nintendo DS, laptop or other electronic device. Don’t count on in flight entertainment; we’ve had broken monitors more than once. Use playing games or watching a movie as a reward for behaving well on the flight. Make sure your electronics are fully charged and bring extra batteries. Tip: We find that if we introduce electronic entertainment too early, our kids aren’t happy with other entertainment, and are always asking to play on the iPhone or iPad. We wait until the final hours of the flight, when we’re worn out from entertaining the kids, to bring out the electronics.
- Earphones for electronics. We bring the over the ear earphones (as opposed to ear buds) because they’re so much more comfortable for the kids. Bring a splitter so you can use one earphone plug for multiple people.
- Baby wipes. Kids are messy. Wipe your face and neck for a quick pick me up at the end of the flight.
- A small first aid kit. We carry band aids and antibacterial cream (accidents happen everywhere) and children’s Tylenol. We often carry lip balm, as air in the plane is dry, and some people bring a saline nasal spray.
- Barf bag. Accidents happen. Don’t count on the airline supplying one, as the little baggies were missing in about half of the planes we’ve flown on. This brings us to our next suggestion:
- Plastic bags. They may not be environmentally friendly, but plastic bags are a necessity for holding wet clothes, garbage or odds and ends, used diapers and any other liquid spills. Just make sure they don’t have any holes in the bottom (see barf bags, above).
- Umbrella stroller. Almost all airplanes will let you check strollers at the gate. A stroller with hooks to let you hang small bags is especially helpful.
- Hand sanitizer. Great for little ones who like to touch everything and then put their fingers in their mouths.
- Pull ups for newly potty trained kids. The stress of travel and inaccessibility of washrooms on a plane can make for accidents. Wearing pullups or training pants can prevent accidents and reduce your stress.
- Small toys. A great place to pick these up is a dollar store or discount bin at a toy store. Anything sticky, like sticky spiders or snakes is a great hit with our kids. Take out only one toy at a time to make them last. Wrap one or two of the best toys to save as a special treat. Kids love surprises! Keep an emergency toy in your bag, inaccessible to the kids, in case of a major meltdown.
- A thin, lightweight beach sarong or beach wrap. This doubles as a tent, blanket or invisibility cloak (for Harry Potter fans).
- Washable crayons, paper and coloring books. You’ll need to supervise to keep kids from drawing all over the seatbacks. The good news is if they accidentally draw on the tray table, it wipes right off with a wet wipe. Crayola Color Wonder paints are great because colors only appear on the special Crayola paper.
- Thin books. Read the books to your kids and ask questions about the content to keep them interested and engaged. Bring a brochure or book about your destination, and talk with them about all the fun stuff you’ll do together. If it’s a return flight you can talk about what you did on your trip and what parts they enjoyed the most. The plane is a great time to share and connect with your children.
- String for games like Cat’s Cradle. Our kids like to use the string to make zip lines for their toys and they can easily be made into cheap marionettes for an impromptu play.
- Baby carrier. A baby carrier can be a great help to keep your hands free for holding your carry-ons. We used Ergo and Baby Bjorn carriers, and loved both.
- Diapers, wipes, diaper cream and a small changing pad. Take double the amount of diapers in your carry-on that you think you’ll need. Delays and layovers happen. Our red-eye from Cuba’s Varadero airport to Calgary was delayed for nine hours when our little man was still in diapers. We couldn’t buy any diapers in the airport, they wouldn’t let us access our checked luggage and we couldn’t leave to buy some because we weren’t allowed to leave that zone. Let’s just say the poor little guy was pretty soggy by the time we got home. Another hour or two and we’d have resorted to using his absorbent stuffed rabbit.
- Car seat. Some children are soothed by the comfort of their familiar car seat. That said, we never brought our kids car seats on a plane, as we thought the seats would be too large and awkward. You can buy special car seats or a CARES Child Aviation Restraint System, but check with your airline to make sure they’re allowed. Be cautious about using car seats supplied by an airline, as little kids can reject an unfamiliar seat, and they’ll end up sitting on your lap.
What you don’t pack is almost as important as what you bring. Here are some things that have caused us huge headaches on the road:
- Anything messy. Chocolate is a disaster waiting to happen.
- Loud toys like whistles or loud electronics. Your cabin mates will be ready to throw you out the emergency exit and your nerves will be frazzled to the limit.
- Cheap stickers, unless your child is old enough to be trusted not to plaster them all over the tray table and seat backs when you’re not looking. Some stickers are impossible to remove (trust me on this one. I once spent half an hour scraping dollar store stickers off the bottom off the tray table on a flight to the Philippines). Some stickers are fine and easily removable. You may want to do a quick test at home to see if the stickers you’re bringing adhere like crazy glue or if they can be peeled off.
- Play-doh, unless your little ones are old enough to keep it contained, or you’re watching like a hawk. Play-doh makes a terrible mess when ground into the carpets under your feet.
- Silly putty. Ever tried to get this out of someone’s hair? Enough said.
- Lego or any other toys so small that they’re easily lost between seats.
- Balls or anything that rolls. Trust me, you’ll end up constantly looking under the seats to determine where it rolled.
This may be easier said than done, but try to relax and have fun. Kids are sponges that pick up on your anxieties and fears and mirror them back to you twofold. The more peaceful and happy you are, the better they’ll behave. Double this advice for spouses.
Although flying with little ones is a challenge, traveling with kids has perks as well. It’s a chance to sit uninterrupted, with no work or household chores, and just hang out with your kids and enjoy their company.
Do you have any tips for long haul flights with little ones?