Flying with kids: How to pack a foolproof carry-on bag

toddler with suitcase

Remember when travelling overseas was fun? There was the thrilling possibility of an upgrade, a massage in the lounge before a flight and free wine and movies en route.

Then you become a parent, and once you get over the fury at having to pay $500 in tax to share your seat with a wiggly nine-month-old you’ll be overwhelmed with anxiety. He won’t sit still for one minute. How will he make it 14 hours?

Every seasoned parent-traveller has their essential kit for flying with young kids. Here’s mine.

Bring many, many changes of clothes

Long haul flights are a magnet for the perfect storm of accidents: vomiting, wee leaks, poo-splosions. It must have something to do with the high altitude; that and the fact that kids are mastermind saboteurs.

You know your child’s propensity for clothes-destroying better than anyone, so use your judgement, but for a baby, a general rule is one set of clothes per three hours of flying, plus two nappies per hour. Don’t forget a huge container of wipes.

For older kids, two changes plus a set of pyjamas is safe. Don’t forget yourself. I bring spare jeans, two shirts and trackies. Sadly I’m speaking from experience when I say that kids don’t just vomit and wee on themselves, they also vomit and wee on everyone around them.

Changes of clothing for each person should go in clear ziplock bags so it’s quickly accessible. For a pre-schooler that means two bags each containing pants, a t-shirt, socks and undies.

Read more on flying with kids

Choose strategic toys

The aeroplane is not the place for special toys with lots of parts. Try to bring things you won’t care about if they disappear in the chasm between the wall and your seat.

Stickers, textas, playdough, wind-up toys are all good options, but surprisingly the most engaging toy is a roll of masking tape. The stickiness fascinates babies and older kids can make webs at their seat area or use a texta and label everything in their vicinity. Bonus: it’s quick and easy to pull it all down before landing.

The other genius item is a DIY. Take a tall plastic cup with a lid and cut a hole in the top. Get a handful of pompoms and popsicle sticks and have your child push them through the hole. If you’re lucky, this toy will buy you a half hour to stare into the distance.

No matter what toy you choose, novelty is key. If your child has seen a toy a million times before, it’s not going to snap them out of a tantrum. But if it’s new, they might be distracted enough to quit screaming. Pro tip: wrap each toy in wrapping paper like a present.

If you’ve got one, load an iPad up with favourite shows and games, but remember, it should be the last resort. Technology is the biggest gun in your arsenal and if you pull it out too early, you’ll be kicking yourself when you’re still 10 hours from Vancouver and she’s sick of Peppa Pig.

Take only favourite foods

It is a universal truth that plane food is disgusting. And if that’s how adults feel, kids will feel it tenfold.

Tried and true foods are what you want. A 24-hour journey to London is not the place to convince a child to overcome their aversion to avocado. If your kid’s favourite is red grapes and crackers, bring red grapes and crackers. Portion them in snack-sized containers or ziplock bags so they’re easy to pull out.

Grape tomatoes, mandarins, sultanas, dried apricots, popcorn, pretzels, cheese sticks and yoghurt pouches also make good plane food. Pre-portion them into containers.

Controversial as they may be, lollies and chips are excellent emergency foods when you need your kid to stop running away at the airport while you hunt for your passport. Use sparingly because a sugar high on a plane is hard to contain.

Don’t forget first aid 

Air travel with children attracts chaotic things like mysterious fevers on a trans-Pacific flights. Bring Panadol, an antihistamine, plasters and a thermometer.

For blocked ears, older kids can have chewing gum. For younger kids, buy juice after you’ve passed through security and decant it into a sippy cup. Lollipops work well too, and trust me, when they’re screaming the plane down because their tiny ears won’t pop, you’ll happily rot their teeth in exchange for some quiet. With babies, try to time feeds so that the baby will suckle happily during take-off and landing.

A long-haul flight with kids is never going to be awesome. We’re aiming for survival here, so lower your expectations. Ten or even 24 hours sounds like an endless amount of time, but it’s actually not. Like labour, eventually it’ll be over and become a distant enough memory that you’d consider doing it again.

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