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Family Travel Packing and Prepping Tips
This section provides baggage, packing and organizing tips for family travel. When you are traveling with a infant, baby, or toddler, a few extra steps can go a long way towards a great holiday.
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Airlines have become increasingly strict with regards to how much luggage you can bring with you. To save yourself a big headache and an expensive surcharge, use the following link to familiarize yourself with your airline’s baggage policy.
Many airlines allow you to check a stroller, playpen or car seat for free.
If you are traveling with a large stroller, you will likely be asked to check it. It is strongly recommended that you bring with you a small compact stroller for travel instead. The advantages of this are numerous, including the fact that you can take it right to the entrance of the plane and it will easily fit through the security x-ray machine.
If you plan to bring a car seat with you that you are not using during the flight, it is highly recommended that you check it at the gate, instead of with your regular luggage. Airlines rarely take responsibility for car seats that are damaged in transit, and this reduces the probability of rough handling.
One final note on baggage. Keep in mind how you will be getting around at your destination. If you are being picked up by a shuttle bus, a large amount of luggage will not be a problem. If, however, you have rented a car in Paris, you might find that you do not have a hope of getting all your bags in the car.
Gear to Get You Through the Airport
It is worth taking some time to consider how you will get through the airport with a baby or toddler in tow. It’s not just the sheer distance you often have to walk, or on occasion run, but it’s also the hassle of dealing with lineups and security checks. Here are some suggestions to make it easier:
With a Baby:
- Carry your baby through the airport in an infant carrier or sling. This allows you to keep your arms free. Be advised that you will be asked to take the baby out of the carrier at security and for takeoff and landing.
- Push your baby to the gate in a small travel stroller. Roll it right to the entrance of the plane and pass it on to the ground crew to be returned to you at the end of the flight. Although the ground crew are usually pretty good with them, if you are worried about your stroller getting damaged (or pieces going missing), consider purchasing a stroller travel bag.
- Use a travel system combination with an infant car seat that clips into a travel stroller. (The author used an inexpensive travel system along with an infant carrier tucked in the basket below for long hauls). If you don’t have a travel system, a bucket car seat cart can also be a good option.
See also this post on the best travel strollers for airplanes.
With a Toddler or Small Child:
- Put your child in a small travel stroller and gate check it at the entrance to the plane, to be returned to you at the end of the flight.
- If your child likes to walk, get them a backpack with a tether strap such as this cute Munchkin Backpack Harness so they can be independent, but remain close to you. Keep in mind, however, that you may have to travel a fair distance through an airport, so a backup plan may be necessary.
- Invest in a piece of ride on, carry-on luggage for your toddler such as the Trunki Ride-On Suitcase. Not only does this give kids a great place to put all of their stuff, but it is also an awful lot of fun. While the Trunki is my favorite piece of ride on luggage for kids, see also these other ride on luggage options.
- If you will be bringing a toddler car seat on the plane for your child, there are a couple of options to get it more easily through the airport. If you are bringing a rolling carry on bag, then your cheapest option is a car seat travel strap that allows you to roll the bag and the seat together. Alternatively, there are a number of light car seat travel cart options like the following one from Brica.
The Personal Entertainment System
Oh we know, you rarely let your child have screen time – but quite honestly an iPad or kids tablet, can be a huge help on a plane. If you feel a bit funny about it, use it as a last resort, or only let your child play educational games. You are going on holiday! You can still run for parent of the year when you get home (nobody needs to know!)
Don’t forget kids headphones, as the ear buds that typically come with these devices are not great for little ones (they are too big and fall out). Headphones designed specifically for kids usually have a volume limiting feature and a headband that is the appropriate size for little noggins.
Kids headphones come at all different price points, but personally, I prefer models from the brands I know and trust. Use the following links to learn about the best kids headphones (wired) and kids wireless headphones.
Note: Yes, it is true that most airplanes these days have personal entertainment systems, but unfortunately they don’t always work. Take things into your own hands and bring your own. They are also handy to have while waiting for airplanes, meals and shuttles.
Packing for Success
As a busy parent, you are sure to know the value of a good list. Make your own packing list, or take a look at our kids packing list at least two week before your trip so you don’t have any surprises. Keep this list on your computer, and update it when you get home for future reference. It is true that you may not need to bring everything with you since you could purchase some items at your destination, but if you are traveling internationally you may find that your particular brand may not be available.
In recent years baggage fees have become a huge (and potentially expensive) issue. To keep your luggage weight down, it may be cheaper to use a service such as Babies Travel Lite (will ship items such as baby food, diapers etc. right to your hotel). Renting baby gear at your destination is also an option (see our baby equipment rental directory).
Help to keep your family’s gear organized with mesh packing cubes. They are relatively inexpensive and come in a variety of colors, allowing you to easily find each family member’s belongings. Although I have owned all kinds of packing cubes over the years (I especially love them for our ski gear), my current favorites are the ones that are expandable (have compression).
There is almost no way to avoid bringing a carry-on or diaper bag when traveling with a baby or toddler. This is the one time that having more stuff, and preparing for the worst, is a very good plan.
When selecting activities to pack for your child, try to choose things that will hold their attention for the longest period of time (ideally things they haven’t seen before). Try to avoid toys with many parts that you will spend a lot of time picking up from the floor. Plan to present them to your child on the plane as slowly as possible to make sure you don’t run out of entertainment (and saving stuff for the trip home).
Include in your carry on more spare clothes (for you and your child), diapers, wipes, formula, snacks, pacifiers and medication than you actually think you could possibly need.
Ziploc bags are also very helpful for wet clothes, dirty diapers, leaky bottles or sippy cups. Preparing for the worst will either have you patting yourself on the back for being so tremendously organized, or put you in a complete state of relaxation knowing that you are ready for anything.
Note: After more than 60 flights with my kids, always toting extra clothes in my bag, my daughter spilled her juice and threw up twice on a long haul flight to Paris. It made all those years of carrying around extra stuff completely worth it.
One of the most challenging parts of air travel, is making sense of the restrictions on liquids in carry-on bags. In a nutshell, the rules for bringing liquids are as follows:
When traveling with a baby or toddler under 2 years:
For this age group you are allowed to transport enough liquids (breast milk, regular milk, formula*, water, juice etc.) for the flight. Put these bottles and sippy cups in a clear resealable bag to be presented at airport security (this is allowed in addition to your 1 bag full of liquids per person).
Keep your liquids cool with ice/gel packs that are 100ml each or less (these are available for use with medication), or use a bag of ice that you can toss out before security screening.
*If your baby is formula fed, you may want to either buy tins of pre-made formula for the flight or use pre-portioned formula so you can easily make up bottles in flight. As the airline will not guarantee that their water is 100% sterile, you can bring with you a thermos full of sterilized water.
On most flights the method of warming a bottle is for the flight attendant to bring you an air sickness bag full of hot water. I know, it sounds gross, but it’s just a bag. It’s not like it’s been recycled or something.
Other alternatives include a Travel Bottle Warmer or getting a large take out cup full of warm water from a cafe, once you pass through security.
When traveling with a child two years and older:
Any liquid item that you would like to bring on board the plane (make up, medication etc.), must be presented at security in a clear bag that is no larger than 1 litre/1 quart in size (this is not the big freezer size), and individual containers must not exceed 100ml/3.4oz. To save any additional hassle, put all non essential liquids in your checked baggage in a sealed bag.
This can obviously make it difficult if your child has a specific thing that they like to drink, such as milk, which is often not provided on a plane. The best thing to do in this situation is to bring an empty sippy cup and purchase the beverages you need from the airport stores on the other side of the security check.
For more information: See the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority or US Transportation Security Administration websites.
Also helpful is the following my TSA app which gives you answers to frequently asked questions (free on Itunes)
Get to Know Your Airport
Take some time to study the layout of your departing or stopover airport. It is helpful to know where the playgrounds can be found, and the closest cappuccino bar. You will also find information on parking and any traveler updates (such as airport delays due to construction) that will help you plan better.
For your convenience we have provided a link to popular airports.
Practice Makes Perfect
A good piece of advice regarding traveling with kids is that your kids will behave on a trip as they behave at home. If they regularly kick the front seat when in the car and do not sit during meals, it is very likely they will do the same on a trip. It worth taking note of these things before a trip and either making some small adjustments to get them ready, or getting your expectations in check.
Some things that can help include:
- Positively reinforcing good behavior in the car.
- Going out to restaurants or staying overnight at someones house with your child to get a feel for what is going to work and what isn’t.
- Making observations on what kind of activities your child enjoys doing for extended periods of time. An “extended period of time” may make you laugh, but this is a relative statement. Plan to pack these, or similar items in an activity pack for the plane.
- If they are old enough, read books to them on going on an airplane to familiarize them with how things are going to work on travel day. One very popular one is My First Airplane Ride, but there are a number of others.
Time Zone Adjustment
If you will be traveling to a different time zone and you think that it may be difficult for your child, you may want to adjust their schedule by a few hours beforehand.
Domestic Flights in Economy
Unfortunately the food offerings are pretty dismal and limited when it comes to flying domestically in North America. Although many flights offer a children’s option on their Food For Purchase menus, quite frequently they run out. Either see if you can order this ahead of time, or pack with you enough food to easily get you through your travel day, even if there is a delay of some kind.
Keep in mind the fact that toddler snacks, such as Gold Fish crackers, can be a great time consuming activity if you feed them to your child one-by-one.
For formula fed babies, make sure you pack extra in case you get stuck somewhere in transit or you luggage is delayed.
International Flights or Business/First Class Domestic Flights
If meal service is offered you may also be able to pre-order a baby or child meal. Check on your airline’s website to see what their offering are and how you go about ordering a special meal.
Mother’s Little Helper
Wouldn’t it be amazing if your child would magically fall asleep within minutes of takeoff, and wake up upon landing? When discussing traveling with a child with other parents, inevitably the question of sedation comes up.
Although some parents swear by products such Benadryl for Kids or Kids Gravol. Others who have used such products have seen their kids experience the opposite effect and bounce off the walls for hours.
Important: It should be noted that neither product is approved for use in children under 2 years.
This is a hotly debated topic. We suggest you discuss it with your family doctor and give the following article on parents.com a read.
Keep Your Routine
Most children respond well to routine. Try to keep things as normal as possible in the days leading up to the trip. You may not even want to mention to your child that they are “leaving in the morning for Disneyland” or anything like that.
Take a look at what can go wrong when kids get surprised with vacation news in the cute YouTube clip.
The days of “winging it” are over. Babies and toddlers have an incredible way of throwing the unexpected at you, so don’t leave anything until the last minute.
Go over your packing list to make sure nothing is missing. Have all your documents and itineraries in order and ready to go. Check online to make sure that your plane is on schedule and make arrangements to get to the airport with plenty of time to spare.
After a flight with four young children, a friend of mine had this sage advice to offer: “You can have all the gear and toys in the world, but if are not in a positive frame of mind, you will find yourself swimming upstream”. I am paraphrasing a little because I believe that “swimming upstream” was actually a more colorful phrase.
I agree with her 100%. A good night’s sleep the night before travel, a calm demeanor, and the ability to let the little things roll off you like water off a duck’s back, is essential. Also important if traveling with a partner, is to remember that you are working towards a common goal, in order to avoid turning on each other if things get momentarily a little hairy.
Dress for Success
When selecting travel day outfits, choose dark colors as they will hide a lot more than lights, and consider dressing in layers (cardigan sweater over a t-shirt) to allow for a quick change. Don’t forget to pack extra clothes in your carry-on for everybody.
A tip for those parents traveling with multiple children is to dress your children in the same color of shirt (preferably something bright). During your travels you will spend of lot of time doing head counts and this strategy helps to locate your kids fast.
Any larger metal items (belts etc.) will need to be taken off when you go through security, and for adults shoes will need to be taken off, so choose a slip on and keep metal accessories to a minimum. Children under the age of 12 do not need to remove their shoes during screening.
Online Check In
This is a very attractive option, available on many airlines 24 hours before flight time, allowing you to gain peace of mind with regards to your airplane seats, as well as the ability to arrive at the airport later than you would otherwise. Unfortunately, this is only an option if you have purchased a seat for all family members.
If you are traveling with a child on your lap (under 2 years of age), regulation requires that their birth date be verified by an agent before a boarding pass can be issued, requiring you to check in at the airport.
You also need to check in at the airport if you have requested bulkhead seating and a baby bassinet.
Next up: Taking Flight