Updated: Nov 17, 2021
Between yearly trips to the Hawaiian Islands, visiting family in Wisconsin and on the east coast, and turning work trips into family vacations, Itsy Bitsy has averaged two to three 4-hour (or longer) plane flights per year since she was 6 months old. That means that this Fat Mama has endured more than 100 hours of flying with a child under the age of 5. So when I say that I know how to fly with a kid and how to help you, dear reader, keep your sanity while flying cross country with your kid, I’ve definitely logged the hours to back up the methods to my madness.
First off, let me assure you, traveling with kids gets easier with age and practice … but mostly practice. I think the most stressful part of traveling, especially flying, with your child (or children) is simply the unknown. Therefore, the very first time you do it is going to be the hardest. Now, that doesn’t mean the first time is going to be the most challenging. Oh no!
In hindsight, Itsy Bitsy’s very first time flying at 6-months old was probably her easiest. It was the most stressful for Fat Papa and I because we were worried about what to pack, what not to pack, what to check, what to carry on … all that stuff that adds to anxiety and makes travel not fun. But, being only 6-months old, and overall a great baby, Itsy Bitsy was her normal well-behaved (slept most the time) self on the plane. The drama came on later flights when, due to our own poor planning, weather delays, missed connections, or bad packing choices, we had total meltdowns and horrible flying experiences … but that is for a different post.
Dr. Fabby Note: Most parents find this age to be great for travel. As a pediatrician, I frequently recommend to new parents who are interested on travel that they plan a trip between 4 and 6 months old. Most babies will sleep for most of the flight and it is one of the EASIEST ages for travel. All bets are off once they start learning to walk!
My point is, travel is like all things, practice makes perfect. The first time you travel with your kids, regardless of their age, is going to feel overwhelming and daunting. I can help set you up for success with my favorite on-plane packing list. The best part, it doesn’t matter how old your kids (or perhaps man-child) are, this list works for everyone!
The History of the Flight Essentials Travel Pack
When I was growing up, we spent a week or two every summer visiting my grandparents in Washington. Because this was a yearly activity, Gigi, who loves her routines and lists, started a family tradition that soon became part of all our trips … the travel backpack. I loved this tradition. The funny thing is, it’s only now that I am an adult with my own child that I realize how much this fun tradition was more about my mom’s own OCD and prepared-for-everything attitude then it was about creating a fun surprise for Jackalope and me.
Either way you look at it, go-bag or fun surprise, our travel backpacks were Gigi’s way of making sure Jackalope and I had everything we would need for 24-hours of travel. And let me tell you, ducky, those travel bags were quacking useful on more than one occasion. I’m looking at you canceled connection in Dallas.
So, it is from this family tradition that I have created my own family’s travel backpack tradition. I have combined Gigi’s practical prepared-for-everything readiness, with my own love of surprises, and Itsy Bitsy’s immense curiosity. I hope you find this Fat Mama 24-Hour Flight Essentials Travel Pack list helpful.
Fat Mama Tip: While I really enjoy using a backpack for my Fat Mama 24-Hour Flight Essentials Travel Packs (you can read all about how I choose my backpacks in my blog post Fat Mama’s Favorite TWF and Family Travel Backpacks), feel free to use whatever type of carry-on bag works best for your family. And find fun ways of adapting this tradition to match your family’s unique personality and sense of humor.
What Are Flight Essentials?
While each person’s specific flight essentials may be different, everyone has 4 main categories of essentials that should be packed in a carry-on for every flight lasting more than an hour. Just my humble opinion. When you fly, every person in your party should have items in their carry-on for:
It doesn’t matter what age you are, what your interests are, how you like to fly, how hassle-free you like to travel … EVERYONE should fly with items covering these 4 categories in their personal carry-on item. So what do I mean by entertainment, mastication, comfort, and must-haves?
On any flight over an hour (for me its really any flight … period … the end), you are going to want some form of entertainment with you. This is doubly true if you are traveling with children. Of course, since most of us these days are glued to our electronic devices, the likelihood is that your entertainment is going to be your phone, laptop, or tablet. Oh, by the way, get the internet. It’s totally worth it.
Motherly Advice: When it comes to doctor visits and travel, the rules go out the window. There is no time in her life when Itsy Bitsy gets more junk food, more screen time, more bribes, more whatever than when we travel (or when she needs a booster shot). Whatever your rules about screens and sugar at home, consider suspending or modifying them for travel. Your day will go so much smoother, especially if screen time is a treat for your child.
Before every flight, Fat Papa downloads Itsy Bitsy’s favorite movies to our iPad to have it ready to go on the plane for her. But, we also purchase the internet on every flight so that she has access to her favorite apps. What are those apps you ask, dear reader? Well, some of our favorite kid apps include:
Some of these apps are free, others cost money, while others require a subscription. I highly recommend all of them BUT I cannot say enough about Sago Mini World and School. I would seriously pay double for both of those apps. More than any other app, Itsy Bitsy loves those, and I love them too. It’s the absolute best of imaginative play but in a digital medium. She has gotten through entire flights just playing Sago.
Does entertainment have to be electronic? No, of course not! Itsy Bitsy looks forward to her Travel Pack so much because on each trip I surprise her with new entertainment. Every time we travel, she gets a new coloring or activity book, a small stuffed animal (she is obsessed with all things plush), and a small packaged toy like a My Little Pony or Gabby’s Dollhouse mini set.
Are the pieces going to get lost? Yes, absolutely. Did they cost me less than $20? Yes. Was $20 worth my sanity on the plane? 100%. Have I made a game out of finding the pieces on the ground, thus taking up 10 minutes of time and then having a very happy child who keeps playing with the toy? You know it!
Other than electronics, think of entertainment items as consumables that will reduce stress and increase harmony amongst you and your fellow travelers for the next 4+ hours of flying. What price tag would you put on a peaceful flight? Those are the thoughts that go through my head when I make my Travel Packs.
Here is a list of my favorite non-electronic entertainment items for all ages:
Books (tangible, digital, or audible)
Coloring books (adult coloring books are awesome and relaxing)
Activity books (from sudoku, word puzzles, mazes, connect the dots, or seek and finds, brains of all ages can use a good stretch from time to time)
Fidgets (whether it’s a spinner, magna tiles, or a Jacob’s ladder, sometimes you just need something to do with your hands)
Absolute worst-case scenario, if you get to the airport and realize you have no entertainment packed, hit up one of the news stands or electronic boutiques in the airport. Or check with your gate crew -- your plane might offer in-flight tablets for a nominal fee. Either way, entertainment is essential for a good flight and to help pass the time for any layovers.
No, no, no, get your fowl mind out of the gutter you clucking pervert. It’s not THAT, mastication means to chew. Plus, I just love that word and get to use it so rarely. Mastication. These days you never know if food is going to be available on your flight. Even when your flight is advertised as having food available for purchase, there is no guarantee food will actually be available for your flight.
No joke, red-eye from San Jose, CA, to JFK International, NY: one reason we chose the airline we did was because we KNEW, they advertised, they had good food options for purchase on all cross-country flights. We get on the plane. Cabin doors close. The crew announces they missed their delivery of food and had NO FOOD AT ALL on board the plane. So, you never know when food WON’T be available.
While Fat Papa and I might be big people, we don’t actually indulge in sweets that often and Itsy Bitsy eats sweets very rarely. So for flights, I like to surprise both Itsy Bitsy and Fat Papa with some of their favorite treats which include:
Some people also swear by gum on a plane to help clear your ears. Meh, I find a gulp of water works just as well. But that’s just me.
Motherly Advice: While travel is stressful enough, don’t fall into my trap of only packing snack food. I always think to myself “when I travel, I just want comfort food because I am going to be stressed and just want that sugary salty fatty rush.” WRONG, NO, DON’T! I mean, yes, sure pack a few sinfully delightful items (Oreos and Nutter Butters are my personal guilty pleasures). But also pack AT LEAST ONE healthy item too. Whether it’s a piece of fruit, trail mix, granola, or raisins, pack something with some good nutritional value. I cannot tell you how many times we have been 35,000 feet in the air, 3 hours away from our destination, 2 hours into the flight, after 2 hours on the tarmac and all I can think is “why in the hell did I only pack Pringles!”
Additionally, I try to have something a little healthy around as well (see advice above). Some of these items we have to pick up after we get past security. But before we get on the plane, I try to have available:
Apple sauce or fruit pouch
Now, if food is available on the plane, I always take advantage. I cannot tell you how many times the food I packed for the plane came in handy between deplaning, getting the rental car, and getting to our hotel. If you don’t have to rely on your packed food, wonderful, save it to masticate another day!
DR. FABBY TIP: You are the person who knows best how sugar affects your kid: some kids are fine, but for those who reliably start bouncing off the walls after eating sweets, take that into consideration when packing. 35,000 feet elevation is NOT a good place to be bouncing off the walls.
Now we get into Gigi’s practical packing essentials, plus some of my own. So let me take a moment to thank my mom for all of her great travel instincts that she instilled into me that I now am neurotically instilling into my child and am passing on to all of you. By the way, dear reader, Gigi is my editor, so this is doubly funny for me writing this and having her edit it. Love you mom!
If nothing else, your 24-hour Flight Essentials Travel Pack should be an emergency overnight bag. So, when I say “comfort” what I really mean is anything you would need to be comfortable for 24-hours. This should include:
Basic toiletries (hairbrush, toothbrush, toothpaste)
Baby wipes (even if you don’t travel with kids, frankly, I don’t know how I ever traveled without these)
Sanitizing surface wipes
Disposable and reusable face masks (especially in these days of COVID)
1 full change of clothes (socks, undergarments, shirt, pants)
1 sweatshirt or light weight jacket
These are really the bare minimum items you should bring with you in your carry-on for any flight. Not only will they ensure that you are prepared for any unexpected delays, but they will make basic airport travel more comfortable as well. Additionally, at least one person in your party should carry a small first-aid kit, and if you have room, an extra pair of shoes or sandals can come in handy.
When traveling with kids, an extra change of clothes for EVERYONE really is essential. I cannot tell you how many times Itsy Bitsy burped up, leaked through her diaper, or knocked drinks over onto us. Having an extra shirt and pair of pants to change into (oh and glorious dry underwear) was such a relief.
Also, if traveling with kids (especially with infants) I HIGHLY recommend honoring the age-old advice passed on to all galaxy hitchhikers … ALWAYS PACK A TOWEL. This towel … right here … just click any of this pink text. I really like these Dock and Bay towels because they are incredibly compact, fast drying, absorbent, and sand resistant. They come in 3 different sizes, but this Fat Mama can attest that the XL really is EXTRA LARGE and offers full coverage for those of us TWF.
You are never going to regret packing a towel. Whether you use it as a blanket on the plane. Turn it into a tent in the airport. Sit on it to absorb the drink your kid spilled in your lap. Or let it sit in the bottom or your bag unused. A towel is always a good, comfy essential to pack on a plane.
Also, if you happen to have room for a neck pillow, those are always nice. Or, you can use your rolled up towel for that too!
Fat Mama Tip: Wow, there are a TON of tips in this post! If you know your kid is going to be staying with a babysitter at least one night during your trip, the 24-hour Essentials Pack can be great for this. When we visited a cousin of mine in New York he stayed in with Itsy Bitsy so Fat Papa and I could go out to a show. I gave him her Travel Pack (see photo below) and they were set for the night!
This is all the obvious stuff that we have all DEFINITELY left behind before. So I am just going to make a super-easy bullet point list. Here it goes:
Glasses or contacts (prescription or otherwise)
Boarding pass (digital or physical)
Travel Confirmations (hotel, rental car, activities … digital or physical)
Medication (prescription and over-the-counter, like Tylenol/Advil)
Portable charger power bank
Towel (can’t forget)
Poodle and Blanky (that’s Itsy Bitsy’s lovey that goes everywhere with her)
There you have it folks! Everything you need to pack in your 24-hour Flight Essentials Travel Backpack to be ready for anything when flying. Okay, maybe not quite anything, but this pack will get you through most things pretty darn well.
Fat Mama Tip: If you are like me and have a high-strung little traveler who isn’t a morning person, loves airports, and gets into ABSOLUTELY everything … then the Travel Pack can be a great motivator. By always keeping the Travel Pack contents a secret and changing up the entertainment and mastication items every trip, Itsy Bitsy is always excited to see what new surprises await her.
It is her curiosity that motivates her into good behavior. “Itsy Bitsy, if we can’t get through security, well, then we won’t be able to open our Travel Pack.” Of course, then you need to make sure you can find behavior to praise and reward, otherwise it's an empty threat, or you have to follow through, and ducky help you if you have to go through a flight without a kid's travel pack. So, take this advice with a grain of salt.