The art of hand luggage

The reality of hand luggage – a guide to staying sane

Regular air travellers quite often manage to perfect the art of hand luggage and travelling light. I’m getting there after many, many years of practice! But it’s taken some trial and error.

The fantasist…

As an adult, I’d love nothing more than to travel effortlessly light. In my ideal (and slightly fantasist) world, my neat, bijou-sized carry-on contains a book, my purse, my passport and tickets, a cashmere wrap, my phone, earphones and charger, my sunglasses – to look glamorous, of course! –  and a selection of healthy snacks to combat the temptation of on board crisps and biscuits.

Hmmm OK, maybe 2 books and lots of chocolate… Bliss!

The realist…

However, the real-world beckons… enter,  children! Demons of boredom, rage, inappropriate needs and impeccably bad timing. Yes, travelling light is now officially a thing of the past. Now the sad reality is trying to find a bag that is small enough to pass as hand luggage, yet big enough to contain everything but the kitchen sink. Thankfully, now my daughter is a teenager, I don’t need to pack stuff to occupy her on the plane – she’s more than capable of sorting herself out now, thank goodness!

Back in the day, though, after countless frustrating attempts to close the zip, while sitting on the bag and trying to deter her from pulling things back out, I must concede that actual organisation – a list – is the only possible way forward (unless you count a nervous breakdown as progress?).

The resigned…

So, that’s exactly what I did. Although it took valuable packing time to put it together, the end result was a genuinely helpful tool and one that I hope that many other parents attempting a family flight might benefit from too. I’ve even extended it to cover the different age groups so that you don’t have to.

Please, don’t try to wing it… that way insanity lies!

The list…

To save you time and angst, I’ve created real checklists ready for you. Find a selection of packing lists here!

The baby (guideline: 0 – 18 months)

  1. A nappy bag with plenty of spare disposable nappies, wet-wipes, rash cream and disposal bags.
    Tip 1: even for those who use cloth nappies, disposables are so much more convenient on a plane.
    Tip 2: Pack a few wet wipes and disposal bags into separate plastic bags to save space on packaging.
  2. A complete change of clothes.
    Tip: consider a clean change for you too, just in case. I well remember a long-haul flight with my daughter when she spilled orange juice over me before we had even taken off. 
  3. A warm outer layer (a slightly too large fleecy onesie that you can pull on over clothes is a great space saving choice).
  4. Formula/baby food/finger food.
  5. Bottles, bibs, spoons and a little bowl.
  6. 2 spare sterilized dummies/pacifiers if used.
  7. Folded up carrier bags for rubbish, soiled clothes etc
  8. A small blanket or shawl for discreet breastfeeding if required.
  9. A few small baby toys and board books.
  10. A sling or some other means of securing baby to you.

Check with your airline what to expect on the plane when you fly with a baby as this may help clarify what you need to provide. And read these tips too about flying with a baby.

The toddler (guideline: 18 months – 3 or 4 years)

  1. A nappy bag with one complete change of clothes and a couple of spare nappies, wet-wipes and disposal bags.
  2. A complete change of clothes for you. See above.
  3. A warm outer layer – again I’d consider that oversized fleecy onesie for comfort and practicality.
  4. Entertainment. This is the age range where you’ll need the most in-flight entertainment options. Books, an iPad and a selection of favourite toys. At least. No, we’re not packing light now – sanity is more important!
  5. Snacks – toddlers can be creatures of habit and there may not be anything suitable on the plane.
  6. A sling to attach the little one to you or a booster seat if they’re old enough to need a seat of their own (usually 2 years+)
  7. Reins – airports are huge and busy; reins help to keep your little one close and safe.
  8. Feeding equipment – bowls for snacks, bottles and bibs.
  9. Folded up carrier bags for rubbish, soiled clothes etc.
  10. Two spare dummies/pacifiers if used.
  11. A favourite cuddly toy and a small blanket; you never know your luck; maybe they’ll sleep!
  12. A straightjacket… (I’m joking of course, get back to reality!)
  13. Take a look at our ‘Journey’ section for more ideas on how to keep your child happy on a plane journey.

Older kids (guideline: 5 -11 years)

Now they’re old enough to have their own small carry-on bag, you can let them take a few extra items themselves, so relieving you of some of the weight. Make sure you supervise what goes in there, though; you don’t want them sneaking in the contents of their toy boxes!

  1. A favourite selection of small toys – action figures are great for this; you can contain lots of them in a small space.
  2. Snacks and a small drink (check airport regulations on fluids)
  3. A warm cardigan or jumper.
  4. A favourite cuddly toy and a small blanket.
  5. An iPad or similar – loaded with new games and apps that you haven’t even allowed them to look at pre-flight!

Teenagers (guideline: 13-16 years – after that they might be able to pack sensibly on their own!)

Teenagers will generally sleep anywhere and watch movies when they’re awake. It’s worth casually supervising their carry on as they’re not known for their organisational skills. Or is that just mine?

  1. Warm hoodie.
  2. Blanket for hiding under when socialising gets too much.
  3. Selection of snacks deemed suitable.
  4. Phone and iPad – all fully charged and in aeroplane mode pre-flight.
  5. A book


So, with all that in mind let’s revisit what you get to take for yourself…

  1. Passports (for everyone)
  2. Tickets (for everyone)
  3. Your purse (so you can buy them things at the airport)
  4. Your sunglasses (so you can pretend you’re invisible when they misbehave)
  5. Your phone (loaded with additional kid friendly games in case the iPad dies)
  6. …seriously? There’s no 6. You’re all out of space!

When you have gathered together all the things you’ll need remember to pack smart. Get a big rucksack with lots of pockets and keep the essentials – dummies/pacifiers, cuddly toys, iPads and snacks – in places where they will be easy to find in a hurry! Lay it all out, be systematic and tick it off as it goes in. Then slip your completed list in your pocket so you can reassure yourself later that it’s all in there.

Enjoy your flight!

Don’t forget – you can download ready-made packing lists for all scenarios today



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