The most advanced of travelers and certain kinds of wizards can manage to pack for a baby into a carry on. I am neither, and to this day, we check bags. Plural. The first trip, though, is a particular spectacle. I won’t spend any time here telling you what not to bring, because as responsible, caring parents, you’re going to blow off that advice and pack according to your concerns. You’re right to do that. However, you will be packing up about half the house in order to feel prepared. That’s ok! By all means, do it. You need to reduce uncertainty walking out the door in order to get good at this, and at first, having every little thing you might possibly ever need over the next 72 hours addresses that concern.
The carry on strategy
First, don’t forget The Bag. I’m not setting that out first because it’s the most important – your food and basic necessities are certainly higher on the list – but it is the item most likely to be forgotten or left behind during the rush to get out of the house. Don’t forget The Bag, whether your child is 6 months or 6 years old.
My suggested carry on strategy is generally going to involve two bags. The Bag mentioned above, plus the main carry on with the necessities in it. This is my quick list, and I’ll elaborate below:
- Changing pad, fully stocked
- Food, including liquid nutrition if yours is an infant
- An extra outfit. Maybe two
- A blanket
- Something that can act as a pillow
- Any medicine that you need with you
At a minimum, you will want a changing pad stocked with enough diapers to go door to door. Given that airplane lavatories come in varying degrees of squalor, my wife has sold me on the need for a changing pad that has a carrying case. Something like this one (Note: I don’t earn a commission, but I own this product and like it). The product pictured, at least when we bought it, came in a clear zipper case – maybe it was intended to just be the retail package, but it works! The idea is that the back of the changing pad is free to bask in the glory of the airplane lav, but it goes into a plastic case that can be stuffed back into the carry on without worrying about what you’re bringing back with you.
For children using bottles, I have a post on how to best pack formula and get it through security with minimal hassle. Please read that if you are bringing formula or milk (either kind) with you. As far as quantity goes, I suggest the normal amount to cover the total hours door to door, plus an extra couple of servings to account for potential delays or an unexpected bottle at takeoff or landing to soothe ears.
Our daughter was a bit of a spitter until 9 months or so. Extra clothing was key, since each meal could bring about the need for a wardrobe swap. In addition, having a warmer or lighter outfit opposite the “season” that your child is dressed for can be helpful. Sometimes it’s hot on the plane. Sometimes it’s hot when you land. Or vice-versa. Keeping the right temperature always helped us have a happy baby on board.
A regular blanket, possibly a receiving blanket, and a third that can be rolled up to make a pillow are helpful for a few reasons. The most obvious is to warm up a cold baby. Otherwise, your goal is probably to have your child sleep off most of the flight, so being able to provide some head support whether you’re using the plane seat or the car seat is helpful. During a daytime flight, a blanket can also block out direct sunlight coming from a window outside of your control.
As far as medication goes, that is obviously based on your own needs. We carry a small freedom baggie containing liquid Tylenol and Benadryl. Neither one has ever been opened, but we have them in case of illness on the road or the need to respond to an allergic reaction. Before anyone thinks less of me, the Benadryl is not to make my child sleepy – developing good travel habits obviates the need for Benadryl in that regard!
One last item not on the list: If your child is a bit older and not using a car seat, I do suggest the CARES harness for some added safety. Plus, if you roll up a blanket on the inside of the shoulder straps, you can sort of integrate a neck pillow, which helps the nap situation.
I mentioned at the outset that your inclination will be to pack up everything. You probably will and I won’t talk you out of it, nor do I really want to. This section is really more about making you feel better. Below is a packing list written after our first trip, saved in Evernote and pasted for your ridicule, intended to make sure that we didn’t “forget” anything the next time around –
- Baby Food
- Baby Bowls and Spoons
- Nose Bulb
- Nail File
- Nail Clippers
- Teething Toys
- Floor Blankets
- Changing Pad
- Disposable Changing Pads
- Car Seat
- Wash Clothes / Burp Clothes
- Sleep Sack
- Bottle Brush
- Dish soap
Believe it or not, we brought all of that stuff. We still bring some of that. You might even notice that many of the items are also on the carry on list, because like your local Target store, we need to keep some additional stock on hand. If you are headed to a hotel, just assume nothing is getting washed, including cups, even though you are bringing the means to do so – and probably can pull out the blast furnace you packed up and make new cups if needed. Take and Toss are great, as are bottles with drop-in liners.
The reality is, even today, that we still usually pack an additional large suitcase for our daughter above and beyond what we use to pack the adult luggage. While we do bring a lot less “extra” we have found it convenient to bring a large brick of diapers and wipes so that we don’t need to shop for it at our destination. A good compromise is to bring a couple of days worth of supplies so that you don’t have to stop at the drug store as soon as you land or things are going to be awful. Hypothetically, of course.
The car seat
In general, you are best off bringing the seat on the plane, especially for a child under 2. It gives them a secure place for takeoff, landing and sleeping. One of the best tips I can give is to practice at home, install the car seat using the seat belt instead of the base. Just install, uninstall, and repeat. The idea is to at least know how to do it when you walk on the plane, since there’s a good chance you’ve never done it thanks to wonderful inventions like the snap-in car seat base.
If you did not book a seat for your child, odds are these days that there won’t be an open one next to you. It may be worth asking at the gate, but be prepared to gate-check your car seat if there won’t be an open seat available for you to use. I would advise gate checking the car seat even if you have no intention of installing on the plane, rather than checking it at the ticketing counter, to reduce the amount of handling and risk of damage. There are many brand-specific bags that you can use to check a seat, but look for one that has thick fabric, sturdy zippers and some way to carry it – either backpack loops or handles. Avoid the bright red “GATE CHECK” style bags, as they are just thin nylon and will likely have holes in them after just one use. At the moment, I don’t have a product to recommend as every one that I’ve tried has been damaged beyond practical use by the 3rd trip. I will say that Amazon reviews are a good source of information as I shop for the next bag to try out. I will, of course, write about it if I have a positive review.
If your child is still small enough to use something like a Snap-N-Go, great! You have a car seat and stroller in one. That setup is nice because you can bring it all to the gate and check the frame there, so that it’s on the jet bridge to pick up on arrival or on a layover.
For the rest of us, a separate stroller is a must for getting through the airport. As a bonus, if your kid wants to walk, it can double as a luggage cart! We’ve tried a lot of things, and at home we’re really happy with our City Mini, but on the road please do yourself a favor and bring a cheap umbrella stroller. Yeah, you won’t impress the other parents, but your kid will be happy to sit in it. It folds up easily, weighs nothing, and if it gets bent in half after you gate check it, you can just get another. You can probably get 10 more for the price of whatever you thought you needed but is still sitting at home. The weight and maneuverability just can’t be beat. It took us way too long to figure this out, so take my word for it.
That’s it! Hopefully you rented a U-Haul to bring this to the airport. Do you have any tips or tricks to share? Do you think I’m crazy and am not to be trusted? Comment below!