How to Pack a Carry On With Kids

Do you want to fly carry-on only when traveling with kids, but you’re not sure how to make it happen? In this article I’m going to reveal the common packing mistakes families make, and show you step-by-step what to do instead.

pack a carry on with kids

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The Benefits of Flying Carry On Only

So why should you travel carry on only, even when you’re flying with kids? Here are the three biggest reasons.

1. Save time
Since you don’t have to line up to talk to a ticket agent or line up to drop your bag, you save so much time at the airport. And because we always use electronic boarding passes on our phones, we never even have to bother with the kiosk. So we get to the airport, and go straight to security. From the time we get to the airport to the time we’re done with security, it’s on average only 8 minutes because we use both CLEAR and TSA Pre. And when you land, you don’t have to wait at the baggage carousel. You can head straight to ground transportation. You can easily save 3 to 4 hours per trip by doing this.

2. Save money
It costs $30 to $40 these days to check a single bag, so you can save quite a few bucks by avoiding it. And yes, there are a few budget airlines that charge a fee even for carry-on bags, but it will still be lower than the fee for a checked bag. We mostly fly Delta, where there is never a carry-on baggage fee.

3. No lost luggage
One of the biggest headaches for travelers is showing up at their destination only to find their luggage didn’t make it. We have never had to deal with this issue…ever! Because we almost never check our bags.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Packing Carry On Only

So hopefully I’ve convinced you that your family should fly carry on only. Here are some do’s and don’t that will help you achieve carry-on only bliss!

Don’t just pack “options”
The number one reason people over pack is because they don’t pack what they actually need. They just guess at what they *might* need and pack lots of options. Think back to a time when you did this and remember how much of what you packed actually never made its way out of your suitcase.

Do plan your outfits
Figure out exactly what your itinerary is for the trip and base your outfits on that. So for example, if you’re going for a hike in the morning on day 1, pack outfits for the family for that excursion. Then, if you’ll hit the beach in the afternoon, pack swimsuits and cover-ups for that activity. If, after that, you’re going out for dinner, pack a dressier outfit for everyone in the family. Repeat this process for each day of the itinerary until you’ve thought through the whole trip.

The only thing I’m OK with “over packing” is underwear and socks, since they’re so small and don’t take up much room. Tip: save even more space by rolling them up and placing them inside your shoes.

Remember: worst case scenario, you can always do laundry there, whether it’s finding a local Laundromat or simply hand-washing a couple things in the hotel bathroom sink. Most hotels sell laundry detergent in their gift shop, and many even provide professional laundry services, if you don’t mind paying those rates.

Don’t use a suitcase that’s too large or too small
It’s obvious why you shouldn’t use a suitcase that’s too large: because it won’t fit into the overhead compartment and you’ll be forced to gate-check it and pay the baggage fee. But another mistake I often see with families is they use a suitcase that’s too small.

In particular, no family should travel with a “kids-size” suitcase. Every person with their own plane ticket is allowed a full-size carry-on suitcase, so take advantage and maximize the space! By using a kids’ size suitcase for one of the bags, you’re wasting potential packing space. If your kid is too little to pull their own suitcase, one of the parents can easily push two at a time if the suitcases are 4-wheeled spinners.

Do use one that has the right dimensions
I’m a fan of Tumi’s international carry-on suitcases, most of which are 22 x 14 x 9 inches. Those dimensions will allow you to use overhead bins on pretty much all US domestic airlines.

If you want to play it SUPER safe, get a suitcase that’s 21 x 14 x 9 inches, since some international airlines have a maximum length of 21.5 inches, so technically a 22-inch would be off by a half inch. Most of the time you can get by with 22 inches, though.

Don’t use a soft-side suitcase
It’s too easy to over pack when you use a soft side suitcase because it’s so expandable. You may find that your suitcase doesn’t fit in the overhead bin, even if the measurements on its tags are within the allowed limits.

Do use a hard shell carry-on
You’re more likely to avoid over packing if you use a hard shell suitcase, because its dimensions stay the same no matter what’s inside. Just make sure you don’t unzip the part that extends your hard shell suitcase, because that will definitely push it over the size limits.

Don’t just put your clothes directly in a suitcase
Even if you think you’re putting everything into your suitcase neatly, you’re actually leaving lots of wasted space, not to mention making it difficult to keep everyone’s stuff organized throughout the trip.

Do use packing cubes instead
These little organized compartments are a family travel game changer! There are lots of brands on the market, but we like Shacke Pak, which we bought on Amazon. You get 4 different size packing cubes, plus a laundry bag, which comes in really handy.

To use them, designate each member of the family a different color so everyone knows where their stuff is throughout the trip.

They come in a variety of sizes, so instead of reaching for the biggest cube right away, see which size best fits the width or length of your carry-on suitcase. This lets you maximize the number of cubes you can fit into one bag. I mostly use the small and medium size ones.

When it comes to actually packing them, I roll almost everything. The only items I fold are bulkier things, like jeans or thick sweatshirts. To maximize space, you want your rolls to be about half the width of the cube, so you can fit two rows of clothes.

Don’t use a small bag as a personal item
It kills me when I see women carrying on a little purse as their personal item. It’s such a waste of space! You’re allowed to bring a much larger bag, as long as it can easily fit under the seat in front of you, so maximize that capacity. You can put your purse inside a larger bag and still have plenty of room for other things.

Do give everyone a roomy backpack
The best personal item is a roomy backpack. Think of the type of backpack you would use to go to school. Everyone in the family should carry as large of a school-type backpack as they can manage.

Backpacks are especially important if you’re flying international. Many non-US airlines have weight restrictions for carry-on suitcases, but they usually don’t weigh your personal item.

When we flew to Copenhagen on SAS for example, I put a few packing cubes in our personal item backpacks, so that our carry-on suitcases would be under the weight limit.

Don’t forget to use your kids’ allotment for toiletries
Young kids don’t have a lot of toiletries, but if they have a plane ticket, they’re allowed the same allotment of toiletries as grown-ups, which comes in handy.

Do make the most of your capacity
The TSA allows each person one quart-sized bag of liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes. All the toiletries must be in travel-sized containers that are 3.4 ounces or less.
This means a family of 4 like us gets 4 quart-sized bags full of toiletries, which is actually plenty of stuff for a week-long trip. If your trip is much longer than a week or you need more of a certain product than the guidelines allow, you can always buy the item at your destination, or order it on Amazon and have it shipped to the hotel, so it’s waiting there when you arrive.

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About Carmen Sognonvi

Carmen Sognonvi is a luxury family travel and lifestyle digital influencer at Top Flight Family. Her insights on travel have been featured in Wanderlust Travel Magazine, TravelPulse, HOTELS Magazine, Seatrade Cruise News and more. Carmen firmly believes that you can (and should) travel with your kids from a young age. She offers families practical solutions for travel, as well as tips on how to travel in luxury for less. She lives in New York City with her multiracial and multicultural family of four. Follow her on Instagram, FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

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