Tips For Packing Light On A Plane (Especially If You Have Kids)

Recently we went on a vacation which required a somewhat lengthy plane ride to get there – about 7.5 hours. Now this is not the longest flight I’ve ever taken by a long shot, however it was the first one with a 2 year old kid and a 2 month old infant.

Typically my wife and I are not “light” packers since we’ve only traveled in the car after starting our family. Our “car packing” method involves packing as much stuff as we can fit in the car. 🙂

Read 8 tips to avoid problems at the airport.

For the plane ride and subsequent trip we decided to “pack light” which is a theme we kept referring to as we packed to keep us in line. Our plan was to limit our luggage to one large suitcase, two carry-on bags and two car seats.

Here are some of the strategies and thoughts we went through when packing. Obviously your situation might be quite different especially if you have more or less kids but hopefully this will help if you are thinking of a similar trip.

Carry-on luggage

My attitude with carry-on luggage is that you should have as little as possible, unless that is your only luggage. It should only contain items you need for the plane ride itself and anything that you absolutely cannot lose. Things like passports, tickets, camera, cell phone (if applicable) would be in this category. Since we had the two small kids, most of our carry-on luggage was basically 2 diaper bags which contained the following:

  • Diapers – we estimated that our son uses a diaper every 2 hours, so we ended up packing enough for the 7 hour flight plus a couple hours in the airport. Our daughter can go through 1 per hour so we packed more for her. We also needed a package of wipes as well. Make sure you have the right diapers – I had a bit of a scare at the airport because I thought my wife had only packed diapers for our daughter. I asked around, but there was no place to buy diapers at the airport, so it was fortunate that I had made a mistake when going through the diaper bags, otherwise I’m not sure what we would have done. 🙂
  • Clothes – our newborn daughter is a rather prolific puker, so we packed an extra set of clothes for her along with an extra shirt for my wife. On the way back my wife got showered pretty good and unfortunately we forgot to pack any extra clothes for her so she had to endure an uncomfortable couple of hours in the plane.
  • Food – without kids you really don’t need any extra food, although a sandwich can be nice. In our case using food as a distraction for our 2 year old son really helped get through the flight. Grapes, strawberries, sandwich meat, crackers all came in handy. Normally we try to give him healthy foods but if you are desperate, junk food is ok too.
  • Toys, books – if you are traveling with young kids then don’t even bother bringing a book for yourself since it will never get opened. We brought a couple small stuffed toys for our son and two of his bedtime books with the misguided notion that we could get him to sleep on the plane. The stuffed toys came in handy, but the books were a waste of time.

Stowaway luggage

For the regular luggage we brought one big suitcase which had to contain most of the clothes, toiletries etc that we needed for the trip. We were planning to be staying in hotels for part of the trip and with relatives for the remainder. Since we could easily do laundry at the relatives, we only had to pack clothes for the longest length of time we would be staying in hotels which was three days. At first I assumed that I could use each change of clothes for 2 days (which is not my normal state of affairs) but when we were finished packing and had loads of extra room then I changed my assumption to 1 day per change of clothes.

Things to think about

  • How long can you wear each item of clothing?
  • How many pairs of shoes do you need?
  • How often will you be able to do laundry on the trip?
  • What will you wear on the plane?
  • Can you buy items there?

You can buy items there

Unless you are traveling to the Antarctica, you should be able to purchase any items you need when you are traveling. Of course if you are going canoe tripping then this article is probably not for you.

Here are some things that we bought at our destination – some of them planned – some of them not.

  • Shampoo – I’ve had nothing but bad experiences flying with shampoo so I never bring it.
  • Shaving cream – see above statement about shampoo.
  • Razors – if you have to buy shaving cream, you might as well buy razors too.
  • Toothpaste – in the interest of saving space we brought a small tube along and purchased a larger one on arrival.
  • T-shirts – I’m not sure what happened with my t-shirts, but I ended up with very few of them after a couple of days so I went and bought 3 cheap ones for about $10 each.
  • Pack’n’play – we didn’t bring one of these because we knew our son could climb out of it. Our first night in a hotel was a nightmare because my son couldn’t get to sleep with other people in the room so he basically ran around until about midnight. The first relative we stayed at had a pack’n’play and he was ok sleeping in it (even though he could climb out). Once we left that relative’s house we immediately bought one for about $75. We ended up giving it to an owner of one of the last hotels we stayed at.
  • Toys – we bought a toy truck for $10 which our son liked so much we ended up taking it home with us.
  • Hairdryer – the one we brought cost $10 at Zellers and lasted about 5 minutes, so we went and bought one. We left it at the last hotel.
  • Booster seat for eating at a table – this is one item we never bought only because we couldn’t find one, but we really needed it!!!


Well, there you have it – start with a desired amount of luggage, plan as best you can, bring money to make up for your mistakes/omissions and enjoy your trip! 🙂


13 replies on “Tips For Packing Light On A Plane (Especially If You Have Kids)”

Don’t forget Children’s Advil or Tylenol in your carry-on luggage. We forgot to pack them for one long flight with our little ones and sure enough, one developed a very high fever on the plane.

Good suggestions! One time my mother was visiting my brother and she was leaving all sorts of things with him in order to travel home lighter. After she left her toothpaste with him, he suggested she might also want to go get a haircut ;-).

I think I’d rather keep the little one in a sling on the plane and pack an umbrella stroller.

I always carry knickers and a pair of socks in my hand luggage so that if my checked bags go astray I have something clean to put on the next day. My friend learnt this lesson the hard way.
I carry my prescription meds in hand luggage for the same reason.
I’ve never taken a hairdryer though, most hotels have that wall mounted style or keep a few at reception that they will bring to you, if you ask. I’ve never come across a hotel that had no access to a hairdryer.
I’m impressed with your packing, I can’t imagine trying to pack light with two kids.

Looby, my wife does that too – for the same reason.

Now that I think about it – most of the places we stayed had a hairdryer. Not all though – some of the smaller “guest houses” didn’t.

This is good advice considering that I hear some airlines are charging for EVERY piece of luggage now (whereas you could get, I think, 1 per person free of charge). When we went to Hawaii for 9 days we had 2 suitcases, plus a carry on lol. I overpacked tremendously, considering I pretty much lived in my bathing suit with tank tops and terry cloth shorts or sundresses over it the entire time. The shampoo thing? Yeah. Ended up with Herbal Essence scented luggage on our way back from Hawaii. Won’t do THAT again.

Thanks for the tips!

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