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How to Pack a Perfect Carry-On

Photograph by Twenty20

Traveling with kids isn't as simple as buying another plane ticket (if only!). You have pack for them too. Crucial to long-haul flyers is the carry-on, which provides crucial lifeline to comforts, distractions and emergency back-up not just for babies, but toddler, preschoolers and school-age kids into their tweens.

There's an art to packing carry-ons, especially if you have more than one child (and also if you're stubbornly attached to providing for your own needs on a flight, too.) Some things you may think you need, you don't. Other things, you shouldn't consider flying without.

Here's a packing list of do's and don'ts of things you'll need stowed under the seat in front of your or in an overhead bin three aisles up. This applies to all flights, regardless of length.

What you need

1. A change of clothes for every kid

Everyone should be wearing comfortable clothes that can be easily layered (yourself included), but make sure you have a change of clothes for every child with whom you are traveling. You never know when there might be a spill, moment of sickness or other accident. It's best to be prepared. Plus, after a long flight, it can feel good to put on a new change of clothes. Don't forget to pack a plastic bag so you have somewhere to tuck soiled clothing.

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As for the adults, make sure you each also have a sweatshirt, sweater or jacket. If you tuck a sarong into your bag, you can use it as a shawl or blanket if someone gets cold.

2. Necessary documents

Keep your family's passports, IDs, insurance information and in-transit documentation organized and available. Though there are handy apps that allow travelers to organize all this information, there's something to be said for printing out and/or writing down all necessary confirmation numbers, directions and other pertinent information. Trying to get hold of this information when you can't get any signal on your smartphone, or when your battery is totally out of juice, will absolutely elevate your stress level.

We know you want to catch up on reading during your trip, but is that really going to happen?

3. Medication and personal care items

Always keep basic toiletries and prescription medication with you when you travel, even if you have only a short flight. Ditto for anything you carry in your standard diaper bag, though you may want to tuck in a few extra wet wipes and diapers, because you never know if you'll be delayed along the way. It's also a good idea to pack a small first-aid kit with hand sanitizer, bandages, pain relievers and motion sickness pills.

Don't forget to tuck in toothbrushes and toothpaste for the whole family, and an extra pair of glasses or contacts, if necessary. Make sure everything is TSA-approved.

4. Snacks

Pack a variety of non-perishable snacks that will tide your family over for several hours to save money and hold off tantrums. Your little ones might not eat whatever is served on the plane, so these snacks have to also work as an entire meal. Keep the sugar at bay, if possible, so your kids will fall asleep during their appropriate nap or bed times. Good options include dehydrated fruit, dried cereals, string cheese and granola bars. Avoid peanut butter since you'll be in close proximity to others who may have allergies.

Also, make sure you pack a sippy cup and special utensils like a baby spoon, if your kids require them. Pack an empty water bottle and fill it with water once you get past airport security.

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What you don't need

1. Too many toys

You do not need to take half your playroom on the plane. Stick to a toy quota: if toys are too big or heavy, they need to stay home. (Added bonus: When you pack to come home, you can count toys and know immediately if something is missing.) A book or quiet video game, and coloring book and markers go a long way in entertaining kids. If they get tired of coloring, let them make puppets out of the barf bags.

Allow kids to bring a comfort item along, but be very wary of packing anything collectible, expensive or particularly special. If it can't be replaced, don't bring it. Also, leave any toys that make noise at home.

2. Books, books and more books

We know you want to catch up on reading during your trip, but is that really going to happen? One book or magazine for yourself is fine, but consider using an e-reader (or tablet) on your vacation instead. You'll appreciated the lighter bag.

Ditto for your kids' textbooks. If they need to do homework while you're away, that's fine. But consider whether all the textbooks need to be in the carry-on bag. Can you photocopy specific pages instead. Be very honest with yourself about how much textbook-driven homework will really get done on your flight.

Come on, this is vacation! You shouldn't be working.

3. Unapproved liquids

Despite the fact there has been a limit on liquids to 3.4 ounces per item for many years, people go through airport security with unapproved items all the time. When they do, these items have to be thrown away—what a waste. Do your due diligence and methodically ensure that any liquid, aerosol, gel, cream or paste meets the proper size requirements for carry-on luggage.

That said, there are exceptions for medications, formula, breast milk and juice. Check the TSA website before you travel for details on how to properly transport these items.

4. Baby equipment

In addition to a carry-on bag, many parents try to carry on baby gear such as portable cribs, strollers and seats. (Many destinations aren't even stroller-friendly!) If it isn't necessary on the airplane, don't take it. Whether your final destination is a hotel resort or relative's home, with few exceptions, you can rent this gear when you arrive—and you should. There are several companies that allow parents to reserve equipment online ahead of time, so you can rest easy knowing it will be waiting for you in your final destination.

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5. Laptops

Come on, this is vacation! You shouldn't be working. However, it is a worthy investment to pack a tablet with games, movies, music and books (again, note point No. 2 above) to help pass the time for everyone in the family. Just make sure you remember the charging cords and headphones.

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