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How to travel with a carry on only; tips for packing light with kids

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The idea of traveling with kids without packing everything but the kitchen sink can seem all but impossible, but we’ve discovered over the last year that actually not only can it be done, but it actually makes travel with kids so much easier. I’m here to share all of tried and tested recommendations for how to travel with kids with a carry on only, as well as plenty more tips for packing light with kids.

Disclaimer: this post contains affiliate links, which means that if you purchase an item after clicking on the link, I will receive a small commission from the sale. This is at no extra cost to you, and as always, all opinions and recommendations are my own.

Why travel with a carry on only

There are so many reasons to travel with a carry on only!

The first is that, in my opinion, it is much more convenient. Having less baggage when traveling with kids is a great thing; it means you’ll have your hands free to hold the kids hands, push strollers, or – more likely – to carry the things the kids promised they’d carry themselves but lost interest in quickly.

I often travel alone with kids so having hands free is especially important, and traveling with carry on bags only really does force you to travel with less.

Chances are that when you reach your destination, you’re going to have to do some travel to get to your hotel and you really don’t want to be lugging a suitcase through city streets (take it from someone who once walked 20 blocks in New York with a very heavy case – it’s not fun and those around you will not thank you for it!)

You also don’t have to wait around at the other end of the flight for your bags to show up – you can just get off the plane and be on your way!

It can also be significantly cheaper to travel with carry on only. Airlines are very keen on basic economy tickets these days, which essentially leave you with carry on bags and absolutely nothing else. This has forced many travelers to try to be more economical with what they bring to avoid excess baggage fees, so learning to travel with a carry on only is really valuable at the moment.

Even if your ticket does allow you to purchase a checked bag, wouldn’t you rather spend that money on your vacation?

Lastly – and this has been a recent realization of mine – packing light with kids forces you to really consider how much you bring with you and what you’ll really need when you travel. I know I am so guilty of bringing way more than I need on vacation – even if I live in the same five outfits at home, I suddenly think I need a ton of different clothes and shoes for vacation, which of course never end up being worn!

The same goes for the kids; if it were up to them and they had all the space in the world, they’d probably bring every toy they ever owned! But giving them a small backpack forces them to choose toys carefully (sometimes with a little guidance from me!) and not bring their whole playroom, which will of course never be used once the flight is over.

My number one tip for a carry on only

What’s my number one tip for traveling with a carry on only? Packing cubes! It sounds so simple but these have literally changed the way we pack for travel with kids, and have made our lives so much easier.

The best thing about packing cubes is that each individual person can have their own cube, meaning everyone has their things separated and there’s no rummaging around in the case to find what you need. When I pack the kids cubes, I roll up complete outfits together – underwear, shorts, t-shirts, socks – so that they can pull out a whole outfit in one go and get dressed quickly.

I also roll my own clothes up and it takes up so much less space. This is also another way I force myself to bring less on the trip; if it doesn’t fit into my packing cube, then it can’t come (and I guarantee I wouldn’t have needed it anyway!)

We also have a separate packing cube that we keep shoes in so they don’t get the rest of the clothes dirty, and a laundry bag that folds up very small so we can keep dirty laundry separate.

This makes it super easy when we use a washer on vacation or at the end of the trip – just tip everything out of the laundry bag into the washer and you’re good to go!

A fellow family travel blogger also recommended compression packing cubes that I’m excited to try out on a future trip. These have all of the same benefits of regular packing cubes, but can be squished down to fit even more in!

My only warning with these would be to make sure you’re not packing so much in that your bag ends up being overweight, and clothing might look a bit more wrinkled when you arrive at your location so be sure to hang everything up when you arrive so the creases can fall out.

Honestly, if you only make one purchase in order to be able to travel with a carry on only then this should be it! It has completely changed the way we travel.

What we pack in each individual bag

Our main carry on bag

Our main carry on bag is usually the largest backpack that we own that is also small enough to fit the carry on dimensions for whatever airline we are flying with at the time (always check these dimensions before you leave to make sure your bag can be taken as carry on!)

We usually go with a backpack just because it’s easier than a rolling carry on case and can generally be squished down a little more easily to make it fit comfortably in the overhead bin. I try not to pack anything in this bag that I might need for the flight itself, so it can stay in the overhead bin for the duration and I won’t need to be getting up and down.

This is the bag we put the packing cubes in; one for my clothes, one for each of the boys clothes, one for all of our shoes, and one for toiletries (for bulkier items like coats or boots, I almost always try to wear those for the flight since they take up so much space and add considerably to the weight).

Our toiletry bag is just for solid toiletries since I keep any liquids in a separate bag so they can be easily taken out when going through security, and these days we generally travel with things like zero waste shampoo to keep packaging to a minimum (and reduce plastic waste). 

Remember that liquids need to be less than 100ml each, and they must fit in a quart sized clear bag (you can have one of these per person).

The Osprey Duplex backpack below is fantastic because it’s actually two backpacks in one that can be attached or separated, eliminating the need for another everyday backpack. I would probably separate them when checking in for a flight so that they fit the carry on dimensions, then put them back together to carry through the airport.

The Dinictis backpack is the one we have, and it has compartments for absolutely everything you can think of, which is perfect when trying to organize a family. The backpack straps can also be tucked away to make it more of a traditional carry on bag.


My everyday backpack is something I use when we go to the Disney and Universal parks in every day life; generally it’s something super lightweight and ideally waterproof since this is what we’ll be using as a main everyday bag once we’re at our destination.

This bag carries things we will need for the flight; activities for me like an iPad, a book, snacks and a sweater, as well as camera and video equipment and all of my chargers (I keep my laptop in the main carry on bag since I don’t use it on the plane and since we have TSA pre-check, I don’t need to take it out when we go through security).

I also keep blankets for the kids in this bag, as well as change of clothes for both of the boys (several clothes for my toddler since he’s recently potty trained – read more on traveling with a potty training child here) I put things like my wallet, phone, and passports in a front pocket so I can grab them quickly when going through security, and I carry empty reusable water bottles in side pockets so we can fill them up once through security or on the plane to keep us well hydrated.

I try not to make this bag too bulky because ideally, I want it to fit under the seat in front of me for easy access. The lightweight backpacks linked below are perfect as carry on only bags since they’re so compact and easy to carry.

Kids backpacks

My kids are now at the age where they can carry their own backpacks instead of me having to pack a diaper bag for plane travel, which makes such a difference in how we pack for travel. They now carry their own activities for the plane as well as snacks, headphones, and iPads.

I try not to make these bags too heavy because inevitably then I’ll end up carrying them, so they’re both pretty small and lightweight.

At this age, the kids don’t always travel with a carry on bag since they’re still a little too young to pull them but we do have a few we recommend when looking for a carry on for kids for plane travel.

You can find plenty of ideas for toddler plane activities here.

We have had the Wildkin airplane backpack below for Harrison since he was a toddler and it’s still in great shape, despite flying all over the world with us! The dinosaur backpack is the ones Grayson has, and it’s great since it’s soft-sided and super lightweight (and everyone comments on how cute it is!)

Other things we travel with when traveling with kids

Grayson doesn’t typically use a stroller these days, but we still travel with one just in case his legs get tired and because it is easier to get him through the airport this way, especially when he’s sleepy after a long flight. We use an inexpensive lightweight stroller that we gate check using a gate check bag to keep it safe.

The Pockit stroller is famous with families who travel since it folds up small enough to be places inside a carry on bag so it can be taken on the plane with you! This is a pretty amazing price tag and – in my opinion – makes it worth the steeper price tag.

For something lightweight that’s a bit more affordable, we have the Baby Trend lightweight travel stroller and it’s super easy to handle. We always use a stroller bag to help protect our stroller when we fly.

Grayson is still small enough that he needs a car seat on the plane as well, so we have to travel with a car seat. This is something I’m very keen for him to grow out of since it’s such a pain to carry through the airport, so I’d definitely recommend getting a lightweight one!

If we’re going to be renting a car at our destination, we also bring a portable booster seat for Harrison since I don’t really like renting car seats from a car rental company, and they really don’t take up much space in the luggage.

The Cosco Apt 50 is the most lightweight car seat on the market which makes a big difference when you’re trying to carry it through an airport! The Mifold is a great portable booster seat for older kids.

Packing light tips

1. Use a practical carry on bag. Don’t get a heavy bag that already eats into your weight allowance, and skip the hard sided bags that don’t have any give when it comes to fitting within the dimensions for carry on bags.

2. Make a packing list and aim for a capsule wardrobe. Pack a few clothes that can be paired together to make some different outfits and layered in case of chilly weather. If you usually only wear the same few outfits in day to day life, then you absolutely don’t need to pack half of your wardrobe – you’re not going to wear half of that stuff! Sticking to a packing list means you won’t be tempted to go into your closet and grab everything, plus you’re less likely to forget something important.

3. Use those packing cubes! They are great for organization and maximizing space.

4. Organize those bags so you know where everything is. Make sure anything you need easy access to is in a convenient place, especially things you’ll need to take out going through security. If you have more than one backpack, try to make sure the items you need during the flight are in one bag and all of the other items for your trip in a bag you can put in an overhead bin out of the way.

5. Wear your heaviest clothes and shoes. You might feel ridiculous walking through the airport in a winter coat and boots, especially if it’s 80 degrees at your point of origin, but once you’re on the plane you can take the coat off and store it, and not packing bulky items frees up so much space in your bags.

6. Bring as many solid toiletries as you can to avoid having too many things to put in your liquids bag. I use a shampoo and conditioner bar, solid deodorant, powder foundation, etc that can all be packed away and won’t need to be taken out for security.

7. Make the most of you luggage allowance. Don’t try to cram everything into one bag and risk it being overweight, use another bag if you have to and give everyone something to carry. Traveling light doesn’t just mean traveling with as few bags as possible, it means traveling smarter and only bringing what you will need.

Check out these other family travel hacks to make your trip as easy as possible. 

Do you travel with a carry on only? What tips do you have for packing light with kids?