Packing, part 1: Carry-on luggage

Right now I travel with a 3-year old, but we've taken her on a 10-hour each-way airplane trip about once every 6 months of her life. So I have opinions on packing for any age up to 3. These are aimed at long trips, with some notes about shorter ones.

For information about carseats on airplanes, see Babies, Carseats, and Airplanes.

For carry-ons, we break all sorts of rules. Disposable? Fine by me. Then, when we're done with it, I don't have to carry it any more. Overpackaged? Bring it on! That one-serving container is just the right size and I get to throw it away when it's empty. If we eat more than one, the time spent opening each one is its own reward. Candy? Which would you rather have, screaming child during descent, or jelly beans?

Mesh bags are really useful for grouping things together to make them easier to find without taking up extra space. Beware the moment when your kid catches on to this though, and wants ALL the food items at once. Wrapping things up amuses the child but may make airport security unhappy; instead we use ziplock bags (with zippers if the kid is going to open them), or other bags, or envelopes. Envelopes are opaque, so she can't see everything and get demanding, but easy to open, so that security isn't unhappy. If you want, you can always seal them after you go through security but before you hand them to the child.

This can all go into 1 carryon (a tote bag) and 1 personal item (a largish purse), which I carry. Usually Opal carries a small backpack with some of it (not the food!) and as many stuffed dogs as she can fit. Paul carries a large backpack with all of the laptops and his books.

The much shorter list of special stuff we pack in the checked luggage is here.

For the child: health and hygiene

We bring all of these, all the time. They don't take up as much space as you'd think. Actually, the diapers do. I'm so glad Opal's potty-trained now.

  1. Diapers. I don't pack them any more, but airplane trips were the last holdout. My mostly potty-trained daughter just couldn't face either pooping in an airport bathroom or possibly pooping in her pants. So we took a few diapers. When I did pack them, I always packed extras. Small babies poop extra on airplanes. Something about the pressure changes makes for LOTS and LOTS of extra diaper changes. Big, messy ones. This gets better as they get older, but traveling is still full of surprises. Spare diapers are a good thing. Airport stores don't always sell them, and when they do they are unbelievably expensive. (This also means that your spare diapers may save some other desperate parent, earning you lots of good karma.)
  2. Spare clothes. I currently travel with one entire outfit, a spare shirt, and a spare pair of underpants, each sealed in a ziplock bag. The bag serves two purposes. First, it ensures that the spare outfit remains a clean spare while it bangs around. Second, it ensures that you have someplace to put the dirty clothes you just took off, which may be incredibly important to you. It's only recently that we've gone down to this number of spare outfits; previously, we carried a minimum of 1 outfit, plus 1 for each airport where we changed flights, plus 1 for each 3 hours of travel. Does this seem like an obscene number of clothes? At just over a year, she went with us from Brisbane to San Francisco (changing planes in Sydney and Los Angeles). We had 5 changes of clothes with us. We had used 4 before we were out of sight of Australia. On our next trip, by the time we got to Australia, we were down to putting the least dirty clothes on her ("This one only has food on it, and not much food.")
  3. Medicine. Benadryl and ibuprofen in appropriate forms for her, with dosing syringes if needed, and a thermometer. Also topical hydrocortisone. Flight crew usually have benadryl and ibuprofen in adult sizes, but not for kids. Benadryl is good for allergic reactions and motion sickness and is a sedative for most kids. If your kid has an allergic reaction of any kind, this will definitely save everybody's sanity. We have fortunately never needed the drugs, but on one flight an 8-year old across the aisle suddenly came up with a penicillin allergy. There was a doctor available to diagnose, but the only benadryl the airplane had was adult tablets -- too big a dose. Our children's benadryl syrup made all the difference to him. In order to help comply with liquids regulations, we currently bring chewable kinds, but as long as you put them in a quart ziploc you should be able to bring syrups if you have a baby.
  4. Plastic bags. Ziplocks (the normal kind and the kind with a zipper, which the toddler can work) and a roll of the kind they sell for picking up after your dog. There's a lot of mess involved in traveling with a kid, plus you never know when there's going to be a food item or something with small pieces or a leaking bottle of something. And plastic bags take up very little space.
  5. Baby wipes. Even when traveling with a toddler. Did I mention the amazing amounts of mess? Baby wipes will clean all sorts of stuff off all sorts of places, including usually the pen mark your kid made when you weren't looking.
  6. Disposable changing pads. (Even when traveling with a potty-trained toddler.) These are what hospitals call chucks -- paper on one side, plastic on the other. They fold up neatly. We don't use them for changing pads normally, but if you need to transport a small child who otherwise would be dripping noxious substances, wrap them up with the paper side towards the noxious substances. (A small one can also go over soiled clothes you are taking off to involve getting more bits of the kid dirty.) Honestly, this is a life saver for blow-out diapers and vomiting incidents. Plus, you may even want to use them for changing pads if the other option is carrying a soiled changing pad 5,000 miles.
  7. Alcohol gel hand-cleaner. Normally I don't believe in the stuff, but it's easy to transport and a significant reassurance in many difficult and disgusting situations. Note that this and any liquid medications will need to go in a quart-size ziplock to be handed to security.
  8. A blanket. Yes, airplanes provide these, if you are lucky, but airports don't. Plus, her very own blanket is more reassuring and softer. We usually bring a polarfleece one, which is just a piece of polarfleece I bought at a fabric store and trimmed the unsightly edges off. These obviously come in whatever size you like.

For the child: food and feeding

We bring some subset of these, depending on what we have on hand and how far we're going. Also where we're going. The more "real" a food item is, the more likely you can't bring it in to your destination if you're traveling between countries. Don't bring extra meat, cheese, honey or fruit (even dried) when you're traveling internationally. You'll almost certainly have to discard the leftovers on arrival.

Here is where overpackaged, overprocessed food items really shine. They stand up to the rigors of traveling, are easily doled out, and the packaging is often its own amusement. And so many things are weird about traveling that handing things out then does not generally lead kids to believe that they are available at other times. And you can usually legally import something that no longer bears any resemblance to a growing, living thing.

Oh, and playing with your food? That's a positive thing while traveling. It doubles the amusement value.

  1. A sippy cup or equivalent (anything so we can keep some water around for her on the airplane without being covered in it). These days it generally has to be emptied before going through security, but we just carry water anyway.
  2. A mesh baby feeder. Well, not any more, but when she was little, you could get a very long time out of an ice cube in one of these.
  3. A bib. (Again, not any more. But until very recently.) We used the ones that snap into a pocket; they fold nice and flat and don't trap stuff.
  4. A snack trap. These will not keep a determined child from flinging snacks, but if your kid accidentally drops food, they greatly simplify life.
  5. Lollipops. Especially if they are rare, they have high amusement value and can be stopped and started easily. These tend to be best a high-boredom low-movement times; waiting in lines, waiting for the airplane to actually take off.
  6. Jelly beans. Good for getting small children to chew to help clear their ears on descent. Large gummy animals also work well for this in older children.
  7. Pringles individual snack packs. These take up a lot of space when full, but the containers are a marvelous toy themselves for young toddlers (1s and early 2s). And the novelty value of Pringles is high.
  8. Trader Joe's toucan snack packs. Somewhat crushable, but they survive pretty well. Small crackers like this mean that 100 calories is good for 5-10 minutes.
  9. Animal crackers. The Japanese ones are the best, but good old American ones are still a good toy/food combination.
  10. Pretzels. While you're shopping for animal crackers in asian grocery stores, pick up some little boxes of pretzel sticks. (And some Pocky, which are chocolate-covered cookie sticks.) These are very crush resistant and lend themselves well to playing with. Pretty much any pretzel makes a good traveling snack, though.
  11. Salami. Yes, it's full of preservatives, which is why it stands up well to travel, but it's got protein in it.
  12. Cheese sticks. See above. They don't live forever unrefrigerated, but they'll probably get to your destination.
  13. Dried or better yet, freeze-dried fruit. Freeze dried fruit is crunchy so not as bad for teeth as dried fruit, and comes in neato kinds like strawberry.
  14. Fruit leathers.

For the child: amusements

Here we prioritize lightweight, not too precious (things get lost a lot), minimization of retrieval (if you're going to want it back, make it unlikely to fall) and no noisier than necessary. Note that almost any noise is better than screaming, so when Opal was younger, we merrily traveled with noisy toys as long as they weren't totally ear-shattering and just took them away while people were asleep unless of course she was making more noise than the toy. Since play is highly supervised on an airplane (I can't get more than a few inches away from her), we are willing to use smaller toys than we might otherwise.

We bring some selection of these things.

  1. Books, of course. Paperbacks, somewhat longer than we might read at home, as many as we can bear to carry, new and selected for adult tolerability. Richard Scarry tends to be particularly good. My kid is not particularly into the books where you look for things, but those are a great choice if your kid will go for them (I Spy, for instance.)
  2. Sticker books. Some kids (and some parents) do better with ones that are backgrounds where you can put the stickers any which way; others want ones that are basically puzzles, where each sticker has a right place. Figure out which works for you before investing heavily. Book Closeouts is particularly good for this; check both Kids', Children Fiction, Format = Sticker Books and Kids, Children Nonfiction, Format = Sticker Books because their categorization can be a bit random. It's never a bad idea to check out "By Subject, Activity Books" while you're in the vicinity.
  3. A toy cell-phone. We used the Parent's magazine one when Opal was little (note there was a recall on some of these recently, although not the one I linked to). It made cell-phone noises. Other passengers complained that somebody was using a cellphone in flight! Sorry. She wasn't screaming. Now we use a calculator. It's the right shape and it has numbers, it doesn't make noise, all is good. Any calculator would do (bonus points for one with a flip-up cover) but we find that American Science and Surplus tends to have a good selection of cheap flashy ones.
  4. A little LCD flashlight; something meant to attach to a keychain. We get ours free from computer vendors for the most part, but American Science and Surplus also has a great variety of those.
  5. A wallet. Something really cheap with a strap. We put various stuff in it; used up gift cards (Target makes really fine gift cards), those sample credit cards they send you in the mail, trading cards (American Science and Surplus to the rescue again).
  6. Stickers not in a sticker book. Oriental Trading Company is a good source for these. Especially for smaller kids, a spiral bound deck of index cards is a great place for sticking them (these are available at any office supply store).
  7. Crayons or other drawing implements and paper. I like to bring an assortment of paper for an assortment of purposes. Some assorted cardstock scraps (sold in packages at Michael's and other crafts/scrapbook places) are good for cutting into "tickets" and such. A notebook has all sorts of applications (and Opal loved full-sized spiral notebooks for scribbling on by about 18 months). Old printouts are good for coloring or folding into books. Opal isn't terribly into coloring books, so I usually just print out some pages I have saved from Dover's free samples and assuage my guilt by buying some of their other little activity books. I bring a clipboard because she rides in a car seat and the tray table doesn't come down, and besides, we also end up killing time in airports.
  8. Scissors. Yes, on an airplane. Some drugstore once sold me the world's tiniest scissors, mostly plastic with metal blades, and the FAA is fine with them. They cut surprisingly well, considering the entire thing is only about 2 inches long. It turns out that Daiso usually has these, as well as good stickers and various other toys.
  9. BrainQuest cards. These make you look like an obnoxious driven parent, but they amuse our kid for a long time, and they're nice and firmly attached to each other. A lot of kids do well with the set intended for a year older than they are, so you might want their own age and one up. Costco is usually the cheapest source if you have a membership. These are quite US-centric (they talk about US currency and US customary measures instead of metric measures, for instance) so we like to get other versions as well.
  10. A tube or toob of small plastic animals. We have a toob of glitter zoo animals which are somewhat soft and don't stand up well, but hey, there's a purple glitter moose. They came from a remaindered-stuff store, a great source for traveling toys. Here's an online source for genuine Toobs. These can easily get lost, but so far we've had good luck.
  11. DVDs. A portable DVD player can also be a good thing, but we don't have one. We play DVDs on a laptop, when there's power to do so. We also like to fly airlines with in-flight video. If you get a portable DVD player, the common advice is to prioritize battery life and cheapness over all other features.
  12. Headphones. You can buy ones meant for children, but we just bought a cheap pair that weren't in-ear.

For the grownups

  1. A change of clothes. At the very least, clean underwear (in case your luggage gets lost) and a clean shirt, because if the child manages to get vile substances on you, the fact that you have clean clothes for the child is not going to help anywhere near enough. Actually, having a clean shirt isn't going to help enough, unless you're very lucky, but it will get the smell away from your face, which goes a long way towards making you feel human and socially acceptable.
  2. Chocolate. Yes, Opal makes us share, but a nice bar of dark chocolate is very soothing.
  3. A puzzle magazine, which we can share.
  4. An MP3 player a piece, plus a pair of noise-cancelling headphones a piece, plus a splitter in case we want to listen to the same thing (unlikely since usually at least one of us is dealing with the small child.) A splitter simply turns one headphone jack into multiple headphone jacks. Mine is 1 to 3, and I got it at Radio Shack.
  5. A fold-up tote bag. Usually I use this to shove coats and other things unwanted on the airplane into after we get to the gate, but it also comes in extremely handy if you find yourself suddenly facing unexpectedly minimalist carry-on regulations (a particular airport, airline, or airplane has different requirements, or you just suddenly hit somebody who is making up regulations out of thin air). You can transfer things into the new bag. If you are lucky, they will all then be acceptable; if you are unlucky, at least you can salvage some things for the flight. I actually have a couple of these and this isn't any of them. But it's the right kind of thing. Check out MoMa -- they often have backpacks or totes that fold up and are beautiful. I splurged on a matching backpack and umbrella in iridescent purple from them years ago and am still in love. (It's the perfect travel umbrella, too.)
  6. The smallest available folding umbrella if there is any chance of rain at our destination.