Long-distance travel with a toddler or small child can be stressful. Over the course of our long-haul travels with Miss M, we have developed a number of strategies to make such flights less stressful, at times even enjoyable. Once the paperwork is all in order, ensuring that you have packed a few essentials can make all the difference. Here are our top tips for carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child.
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Welcome to Part 2 of our series on long-distance travel with a small child! Today we’re focussing on what to pack in your hand luggage for a long-distance flight with a toddler.
Carry-on essentials TIP 1: Pack smartly
It probably goes without saying, but pack lightly and smartly. The more you pack, the more you will have to carry. Luckily, most things for small children do not weigh much – their clothes are so much smaller. Limiting your own carry-on will give you more to use for your child.
What do you really need for yourself?
The following things are my carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child.
- A change of clothes
- Spare underwear
- Toiletries: deodorant, perfume, moisturiser, toothbrush and toothpaste, nail file (not metal), hand disinfectant, hairbrush, eye drops, lip balm, nose spray, some wipes all in a ziplock bag
- any medications or vitamins
- A book or kindle
- Purse, phone, sunglasses, etc.
- Any cables needed to charge your electronics/ power packs
- Travel documents
I used to take a lot more with me on flights, particularly before I started flying with Miss M. These are the things I actually need now. Anything else can realistically go in my luggage.
Choose your luggage wisely
As soon as we could, we gave Miss M her own backpack full of things to amuse her. She can easily carry it on her back and proudly marches down the aisles and dances through the airport.
We added a small pull-along suitcase, with enough space for a change of clothes for each of us, essential toiletries, etc. The suitcase is big enough for the backpack or another bag to sit on top. When we lay it down on its side, Miss M can use it as a cushion or seat while we wait at a gate.
We considered purchasing a pull-along, rideable suitcase for Miss M. There are so many cute ones around! I know Miss M would love this unicorn one. There was one fact that meant such cases would never be considered carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child: I need to have a hand free at the airport.
So many things require a spare hand when flying. Showing travel documents and passports to airline or border control staff. Holding your toddler’s hand. Picking up a dropped lovey, blanket or cardigan. Holding a much needed cup of coffee. Naturally, pulling your own carry-on suitcase. If you are travelling ‘solo’ with a toddler you do not have a free hand to pull along your child’s suitcase as well.
Let your toddler help pack
I have found that Miss M is much calmer and looks forward to the trip more if she has helped pack her backpack. She decides where things go and knows what we have packed. This makes her more independent during flight and she feels good about helping Mummy. She can also say if there is something else she would like to include that I might have forgotten.
It will help settle your child on the flight and when you get to your location if you can maintain some familiarity. Bags and creams, etc., that you use regularly will help.
I had a small bag with a change table for nappies and creams that I used any time we went out. I used this bag again when travelling. As Miss M was familiar with it, she could help get it out of the baby bag and was happy to be an active participant in our trip.
Likewise, if your child enjoys being in a wrap, Ergobaby or similar carrier, use it on your flight. The familiarity will help settle your child. Such carriers are also perfect when disembarking and transferring as they allow you to keep your hands. Both hands.
In fact, if you are travelling solo, wraps or other carriers should be considered carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child.
Most large airports will have strollers available to for use when transferring within the airport. However, on more than one occasion, I have had difficulty locating one because numerous full flights arrived simultaneously. A carrier solves this problem. This is also another reason to keep at least one hand free.
Carry-on essentials TIP 2: Layers, baby
You have probably learned from your own travels that it is easier to wear light layers. This allows you to adjust to the temperature at the airport and in the plane, adding or taking off a layer as needed. Why should it be any different for your child?
Make sure the clothes you pick are comfortable and don’t have any tight elastic. Check, for example, that the band at the top of any socks is not too tight.
In many cases, long-distance travel with a toddler will also mean changing time zones and possibly seasons. At one end, you will probably need a coat or vest: use it as a blanket during your flight.
Pack at least one extra set of clothes in your carry-on for long-distance travel with a toddler. This is not just a suggestion; spare clothes are carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child.
This may sound disgusting (and indeed it is when it happens to you), but the pressure on aeroplanes tends to result in a greater number of nappy leakages. In addition, long periods of turbulence can leave you seat-bound and delay toilet or change table use. We recommend that you take at least one extra change of clothes for this eventuality.
You should also take at least one change of clothes for your toddler to put on when you get to your destination. Suitcases can and do go missing and flights get delayed. It is better to be prepared.
If you are travelling to somewhere warm, pack a swimsuit. It takes next to no space and you can take your child for a swim and wear them out if your suitcase is delayed or lost.
If you are on night flight, don’t forget to take your toddler’s pajamas. It gets quite cold on planes, so long-legged, cotton pyjamas are great, even in summer.
Finally, if your toddler is still using them, take more than double the number of nappies that you anticipate needing. Disposables are best as you really don’t want a soiled nappy in your hand luggage. As explained above, leakage can increase the need for nappies. It is also better to change the nappy more often than normal to avoid rashes. Nappies also weigh almost nothing and if you have extras you will easily use them at your destination, especially if your luggage is misplaced.
Extra tip: Nappies are also great for protecting any bottles of wine or scotch that you might want to pack to take home with you.
Carry-on essentials TIP 3: Take care with your care products
Any creams or care products that you pack in your carry-on should be products that you regularly use. A long-distance flight is not the time to change the brand of bottom cream you are using, just for the sake of having a smaller tube.
Consider moisturisers and creams, hairbrushes, toothbrush and toothpaste, etc. all as carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child. Though your airline may provide some of these, they will not normally be designed for small children. What small child likes using adult herbal toothpaste?
Some airlines will also provide you with a small care package for your infant with nappy rash cream, some wipes, and the like. Sometimes these are useful; for Miss M they were not. Miss M has sensitive skin and I found that she was allergic to the perfumes in the cream and wipes. I repeat: a long-distance flight is not the time to change your normal care products.
Even if you don’t need nappies
Take disposable nappy or cosmetic bags or even supermarket bags in your carry-on, too. Lots of them. Not only will you want these for your nappies, but they are also useful for dirty clothes – yours and your toddler’s. Seriously, take some, even if your child is no longer in nappies. Don’t forget your folding change mat, too.
Post-corona travel also means disinfectant or disinfectant wipes must be one of the carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child – indeed for any flight. These are great for surfaces and hands.
Carry-on essentials TIP 4: Include basic first aid supplies
Some first aid staples are carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child. I am not suggesting that you pack a whole arsenal, but a few select things can make a big difference and provide relief for your child and peace of mind for you.
Many airlines are not properly equipped to assist with the first aid needs of small children. For example, they do not often carry pain relief in the appropriate strength for children. Epi-pen shortages also mean that airlines do not have more than one on board and are not currently required to have any. Obviously, you should be equipped for both of these eventualities, if applicable.
For more details about what basic first aid supplies you should pack in your carry-on, check out our detailed post on the subject.
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Carry-on essentials TIP 5: Take snacks, lots of snacks
Snacks are definitely carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child. Don’t pack just one or two snacks, pack lots of snacks.
Stick to foods that your kids like. Finger food is best, or things that are in disposable packages that don’t need spoons or forks. Containers take up space (and weight) and it just means that you have to bring them home again. Containers can also quickly cause delays at your arrival airport, depending on what was in them. I have seen a quarantine dog go nuts about a plastic bag that had been used to carry salami (Australian quarantine laws do not allow passengers to bring meat products into Australia). We found ziplock bags easiest if the snack doesn’t already come in its own packet and they can be disposed of as needed.
Nothing you choose should be too juicy or runny or it will make a mess (especially with the changing air pressure). Trust me, strawberry juice is a pain to get out of a bag. Avoid fruit like bananas too, unless they are already cut up in a bag – they will get squashed and mushed in your carry on and may even split and make a bigger mess. If your child is picky like Miss M, they won’t eat a bruised banana either because it looks yucky.
- crumbly biscuits or popcorn that tend to make mess, even when you are not flying;
- anything with a powdered coating, e.g. powdered donuts, cheese flavored crisps with cheese powder
- cheese or yoghurt or anything that needs refrigerating; and
- anything pungent e.g. broccoli or jerky.
Our tried and true snack recommendations
- cracker and dip packs
- dried or sliced fruit (e.g. dried mango, dried strawberries, apple slices)
- fruit bars and pouches
- (sugar free) gummi bears (good for relieving ear pressure too)
- crisps, puffs or pretzels (avoiding any messy cheese powder or any with a high salt content)
- cooked pasta (without sauce)
- doughnuts or mini-muffins
- dry cereal in a bag e.g. fruit loops
- hard-boiled eggs (still in their shell)
- cubed roasted sweet potato or pumpkin
- snow peas, carrot sticks, or capsicum (pepper) sticks
We try and include a number of favourite staples, as well as somethings that Miss M does not have very often as a special treat.
I have seen mums wrap or tie nice ribbons around things to make them seem more special. While it is a lovely idea, I have too many other things to worry about when packing to take the time to do this. Ribbons and extra frou-frou are definitely not carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child.
Pack enough for your flight and the next day. That way, you are covered if you face a delay or unplanned stopover.
Carry-on essentials TIP 6: Drink your fill
Drinks are carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child and for alleviating the effects of jet lag. But drinks’ really depends on the age of the child.
If your child is still being breastfed, take a wrap to use as a cover. Depending on where you are going and the route you are flying, you and your baby might feel more comfortable with a cover. However, like everything: a long-haul flight is not the time to try something new. If you do not normally cover your child when breastfeeding, they are unlikely to appreciate it on a long-haul flight.
Interestingly, you do not need to travel with your child to bring breast milk.
If your child is still taking a bottle, check the security requirements at your airport. All
You may find it easier to take powdered formula is small containers and get the water on the plane or once you have gone through security. You still may have to remove the formula from your bag for screening.
While drink bottles are carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child, there are so things you should take into account when selecting your bottle.
Take a bottle or sippy cup that your child likes. Avoid any that sometimes leak because they will leak on a plane. Metal (aluminium) bottles can often mean that you have to open your hand luggage at security.
We would also recommend that you avoid anything with a straw. Learn from our mistake: they make lovely fountains!
We love our bottle with a pop-up straw, similar to this one. Normally. However, on one flight it fountained apple juice all over both Miss M and I. When we got to the airport for our transfer, we soaked the carpet in apple and blackcurrant juice. The air pressure turned the drink bottle into a fountain as soon as the straw was popped. Yuck!
Carry-on essentials TIP 7: Let me entertain you
We try and include something new in Miss M’s backpack each trip in order to entertain her. New toys tend to hold her interest longer, which is very welcome when you still have 4 or 12 hours to go on your flight. It is also a great help when your plane is delayed!
The following things, or an age-appropriate version of them, are the staples that we include in our travel backpack.
What to pack to entertain your toddler during your long-haul flight
Stacking cups are great. They can be stacked, put back inside one another and stacked again. The tower can be knocked over and they can be used to hide things. Look for some with an additional feature – these ones have animal images on the bottom – for additional options.
Take a small toy, such as a Lego or Playmobil person. We tend to get a person and animal set, e.g. dog, so the person can take the dog for a walk over the hill (seat back in front), down the hill (arm) and over various obstacles (armrests, cabin luggage, pocket in the back of the seat). The dog also hides under the cups.
Whether a boy or girl, a small car is useful. Originally we used a wooden one, and this wooden plane would be wonderful. On later trips, we used a Lego Duplo car instead – you could take the blocks for one or two cars out of this set. Construction added to playtime. If your child is into Matchbox cars, a new one would be perfect!
A sensory/interactive toy, such as this one, can be great for smaller kids and for delving fine motor skills. After Miss M turned 4, this no longer held her interest.
Two or three books, normally two favourites and a new one. Bonus points if the new one is about an airport or plane trip. I like to have them in paperback, but you could add them to your Kindle or tablet if you wish (which would save on space).
If your child has discovered drawing, try a pad of paper, a new colouring book and new pencils. Not felt-tipped markers.
A Magna Doodle. Some airlines, such as Emirates, hand these out to younger passengers. Miss M has 4 different animal-shaped ones.
Alternatively, pack a colour with water book, like this one. Just wait until you are on the plane to fill up the pen.
Miss M has gotten hours of fun out of her toy phone and camera on the plane, calling people and taking photos of everything. The camera was so useful and she loved taking photos so much that we got her a real one.
Stickers. They can be stuck on anything, probably you. Miss M even searches the plane for the “do not disturb” and “meal” stickers and collects them from passengers. She can spend almost an hour sticking and unsticking them on us, the seats, our bags and any fellow passengers, who are game. Post-its work well too – just use a pencil to draw a face or write something on each one. For older kids, try a sticker book. Of course, ours normally involves dinosaurs or unicorns.
A box of cards, for memory, snap, go fish or just sorting.
Why the headphones?
Why do we consider headphones carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child?
While you might normally limit any screen time for your toddler, on a plane, it can be your best friend. This special time can be just what you need to keep your child quiet and in their seat while you are eating, for example.
Download some of your favourite ‘special’ shows onto your tablet or phone before you fly, so that you can access them whenever needed. Most airlines will have in-seat entertainment with kids programs for long-haul flights, such as Paw Patrol. However, these might not be
Even very small children will benefit from your tablet or phone. We downloaded Miss M’s two favourite bedtime melodies onto our iPad to help her fall asleep for her first trip abroad. One just happened to be on a two-hour continuous loop on youtube…
Carry-on essentials TIP 8: Catch some Zzzzzs
If you are travelling overnight (which will inevitably be the case with a long-haul flight), your child will want to sleep. Again, this will come easier, if your toddler feels that there is still a routine and things are familiar.
Anything that will encourage your child to sleep must then be considered carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child, your child.
Pyjamas are essential. Other passengers will not be offended if you change your child into their pyjamas. You will even get some comments about your son or daughter being “ready for bed then.” Pyjamas help reinforce their normal routine.
Pack the creature comforts
Likewise, make sure you take your child’s favourite stuffed toy or lovey. Your child is much more likely to settle quickly if their favourite friend is with them.
We were lucky that Miss M chose an IKEA dog as her favourite toy. We actually have more than one and know that we do not have to worry if she loses one. The poor dog has been dropped numerous times during transfers at airports. We even managed to leave a dog behind somewhere on the Great Ocean Road.
If your child uses a dummy (pacifier), don’t forget to pack a spare or three.
Most airlines will hand out special blankets for children. These are often lightweight fleece and are designed for your child to take with them when they disembark. You might not want to count on getting one of these blankets, or you might prefer to take one that your child normally uses to increase familiarity and comfort.
If your child is under two years old, you may be offered a seat with a wall-mounted travel cot. Yes, its a bulkhead seat. While great in theory, travel cots have size and weight restrictions. Almost all two year olds and even most one year olds are too long or too heavy to sleep comfortably and safely in these travel cots. In any case, Miss M hated them and screamed whenever I tried to sit her in one, even if it was just to pack a bag.
Travel cots are further limited in that they cannot be used during take-off or landing or during turbulence. They also significantly restrict the amount of space that you have, especially if the seat next to you is taken. Basically, the cot will hang out over your knees, making it more difficult for you to stand up.
Some parents will swear by an inflatable pillow or suitcase designed to extend a child’s plane seat into a bed, such as the Jet Kids BedBox. We have never tried one of these solutions for two reasons. (1) Our main airlines are not on the list of officially approved airlines. (2) As I explain above, when you are travelling ‘solo’, you need to keep your hands free as much as possible. Toddlers cannot carry a suitcase and are unlikely to be able to pull one along either.
Consider your seat choice
Finally, bulkhead seats are not always the way to go. Yes, there is some extra leg room and you might be able to use the wall mounted travel cot. However, the arm rests are fixed in place and quite hard.
Most airlines like to give parents, who are travelling with a small child, an extra seat if there is space. Woohoo! Not so good if you are in a bulkhead seat and your child will not go to sleep unless they are lying on you. As you can’t put the armrest up in bulkhead seats, your toddler can’t simply use your lap as a pillow. If your child is like Miss M, he or she will lie on you to ensure close contact, rather than just use you as a pillow.
Are you planning a trip with your little one soon? Follow these tried and true tips and pack these carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a small child and your flight will be more enjoyable. You will be less stressed because you will know that these essentials have almost all eventualities covered and your child will also be more relaxed accordingly. In fact, with these carry-on essentials for a long-haul flight with a child, you will survive and might even enjoy your flight. Your child will