We just finished up an awesome 10 night, 3 country spring break trip to Scandinavia. 3 flights, 1 overnight boat, 1 train ride, and 4 lodgings (2 hotel and 2 AirBnBs). Lots of packing and repacking and being organized. Our middle flight was supposed to be the easy one–a 1 hour hopper between Oslo and Stockholm. I almost deviated from my usual carry-on luggage items, but a little voice whispered, “Things can still go wrong.”
And boy was I glad when our first flight was cancelled (not only that, but we were in the air when Sweden’s radar went down and we had to return to Oslo), our 2nd flight delayed, and then, after landing in Stockholm 5.5 hrs later than expected at 9:30 pm, we learned our checked baggage didn’t make it (and wouldn’t for 24 hours). We arrive at our AirBnB late at night with 2 little kids ready for bed and only what I had in my carry-on. And luckily, I had everything they needed for 24 hours without our checked bags and almost everything I needed! (DH wasn’t quite as lucky as his carry-on wasn’t quite as comprehensive as ours).
So, here is what I always pack carry-on (or really wished I had and will from now on!) and how I organize it.
This all assumes you are checking a bag (or 2 or 3!). Obviously if you’re doing only carry-on, you have everything you need.
Carry-On Luggage Categories
Most carry-on luggage falls into 2 main categories for the majority of flights with a minor 3rd category:
Category 1: Things you need on the plane itself for the flight
Category 2: Things you need within 24 hours of landing at your destination
Category 3: If applicable, things you don’t really need right away but are too valuable or fragile to send as checked baggage. I normally only have this category when we move.
Category 1-Things You Need on the Plane
Items are the ones most people think about when traveling. These are your headphones, iPad, tablet, Nook, Kindle, travel pillow, diapers, wipes, kid snacks, books, toys, etc. This does vary by length of flight and age of travelers.
I find we actually use very few things on the plane now. My kids are 3 and almost 6 and are experienced fliers. The 3 year old recently potty trained, so my diapers and wipes have greatly reduced. We do stick him in a pull up for flying just in case as holding power isn’t long yet and there is always the chance of a need to pee when landing or taking off or major turbulence. I bring a spare and a small thing of wipes and that’s it.
I bring empty water bottles for all of us and fill up once through security. On the plane, I use those water bottles for holding juice during drink service to lessen odds of spills.
I bring some snacks depending on length of flight and whether the airline’s food is typically kid friendly and whether it is over meal time.
Then I bring my iPad loaded with shows, the kids’ headphones, and a splitter so they can both watch it. Of course, if there are screens then they might watch that too (but our recent 5 hour flight had no personal in flight entertainment-just the old school over-your-head-every-few-rows screens). For flights under about 5 hours they mostly just sleep, eat, and watch TV/movies.
Flights over 5 hours I bring a few more entertainment options.
For me, I have my phone loaded with books through the Kindle app and headphones. I also bring a power bank for charging if necessary.
Everyone has a sweatshirt on board to use as a pillow or blanket if needed.
So I skipped a category, but we’ll get to that. For valuables, these are the items you can’t risk being stolen or broken. They might be electronics or jewelry or sensitive paperwork.
Category 2–Need Within 24 Hours
This takes up the bulk of my carry-on and is designed to let us carry-on with our vacation and trip for 24 hours while waiting for our checked luggage to arrive. If we are going somewhere with few flights, I try to make it work for 48 hours.
What do we need for night/sleep? My kids still need a lot–special blanket, night light, noise machine, baby monitor (if sleeping in a different room), stuffed animals, flashlight, pajamas. For me, I pack my nighttime mouth guard and, if space, my pajamas.
What do we need for hygiene? We pack toothbrushes and toothpaste (travel size). I didn’t pack a brush this last time and regretted it. Definitely packing a travel sized hair brush next time! For us, that’s all that we HAVE to have. You might need contact lens case and solution, make up remover, make up, deodorant, lotion, etc. What do you need to get yourself put together enough to leave the house the next day or go to bed comfortably?
What do you need for clothing? I pack 1 complete outfit per person. This doubles as emergency clothing for the flight if a kid spills or has an accident or something. When my kids were in diapers, I packed 2 extra outfits in case of blow outs. If minimal flights, I pack additional socks and underwear so we can at least be partially fresh.
What special clothing do you need? Going to the beach? Throw in your suit and sunblock travel size). Headed to cold or snow? Make sure you have a coat, gloves, hat, etc. Compression bags can suck all the air out of winter coats making them much smaller for packing. We did a trip in January to a snowy place and I packed my kids’ snow boots carry on just in case.
What food would help? Depending on your destination and your lodging, would some food be useful? On our delayed luggage trip, we were at an AirBnB and I had brought instant coffee packs and tea bags in my checked luggage. We wished we had a few in our carry-on for late night and early morning beverages before having to find a bakery or grocery store! I did, however, have some snacks for the kids.
What medicine needs do you have? My checked luggage always has a bag with various medicines. For carry-on, however, I carry our most common needs–kid acetaminophen and doser, adult ibuprophen, adult Excedrin Migraine, a couple cough drops, bandaids, Neosporin, and anti-itch cream.
How to Pack and Organize Carry-On
Type of Bags
Except in certain situations (moving or a carry-on only trip), we like to use back packs as our carry-on. My husband’s and mine are traditional backpacks and the kids are wheelie backpacks. They like to wheel their bags themselves, but having the backpack straps are handy for us when we need to carry them in addition to our own. I recently got this Columbia backpack and used it for carry-on and then my sightseeing bag on our recent 10 day trip. It was great for both. If I need a larger carry-on, I use this e-Bag which is much larger but fits a lot.
How to Organize
First, combine like items in bags. I use mesh packing cubes for clothing and either more cubes or Ziploc bags for other things. Amazon sells a ton of different brands. For carry-on I use medium and small ones. In a medium cube goes a change of clothes for both kids and me, rolled tight. Depending on clothing size, this might take 2 mediums or 1 small and 1 medium. We can still fit in 1 medium.
Night time electronics (noise machine, night light, flashlight, baby monitor) go into a Ziploc gallon bag (or another mesh packing cube).
Electronic charging cords and other related items go into a small packing cube.
Head phones and splitter go in a bag.
For kids in diapers, I put a couple diapers, small wipes, small roll of diaper bags, and a change of clothes into a gallon Ziploc for quick grabbing for diaper changes and blow outs.
Any additional non-electronic in flight entertainment goes in a bag. We got some cool zipper bags on Ethiopian Airlines in October that I use for holding kid travel toys.
Non-liquid food goes into a gallon Ziploc bag.
Liquids go into a quart liquid bag. You can have 1 per person, but I try to keep it down to 1 or possibly 2 for all of us.
All small or loose items get combined into small Ziplocs or mesh packing cubes for easy grabbing.
Second, organize by need not person
My husband packs and keeps his carry-on separate. So I have 3 carry-on bags I pack. Rather than packing by person, I pack by need.
Kid Backpack 1–Things we’ll need on the plane. We’ll keep this one under the seat with in-flight items–food, headphones, water bottles, bag of entertainment. Includes the bag with diaper/changing supplies when it was applicable and the change of clothes bag if space.
Kid Backpack 2--Things we need at bedtime and, if space, additional items for the first 24 hours. It seems that we always arrive at our destination in the evening and this means everything we need for nighttime is all in one place and can be quickly pulled out and set up. Stored in overhead bin. If the airline doesn’t offer blankets, then I’ll pull out my daughter’s lovey blanket before putting it in the overhead bin if she’ll be sleeping at all.
My Backpack–Liquid bag, iPad, DSLR camera, other items needed for first 24 hours. Often kept under seat or it might go overhead depending on what is in it. I put anything that needs to come out for security in one bag. This is liquids, my iPad and (depending on the airport), my camera. Then at security there is only 1 bag to open. I keep the liquid bag in an outermost small pouch easily accessible.
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