Flying can be a quick way to get to your destination, but flying with kids can be challenging. Packing appropriately can also be difficult – especially with TSA rules, FAA restrictions, and various airline rules and charges for bags. Here’s our family guide to carry on bags, including how to pack, what to put in your carry on bag, and what carry on bags to purchase.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. A purchase/click through one of these links may result in a commission paid to us at no additional cost to you. All opinions are my own.
Family Guide to Carry On Bags
Understanding Airline Rules for Carry On Bags
Before you pack, and even before you purchase your airline tickets, it’s a good idea to check the various rules for carry on bags. The FAA currently allows travelers to bring one carry-on bag (that fits in the overhead compartment) as well as a personal item, which must be placed under the seat in front of you. A purse, a laptop bag, a diaper bag, and a small backpack would typically be considered personal items.
In addition to these FAA rules, your airline may have additional rules. Check their website to see the size restrictions and the weight limit for carry-ons.
International carry-on rules, weight limits, and size limits can be different, so you’ll want to check that as well. International airlines sometimes have smaller guidelines for overhead luggage.
All airlines have a carry on size checker at the check-in desk so you can check to make sure that your bag fits the carry on luggage size restrictions. But I prefer to have my luggage settled before I get to the airport so I’m not repacking things when I’m in a hurry, or incurring additional charges that I didn’t anticipate.
Some airlines (like JetBlue and Southwest) include these two carry on bags in the price of an airline ticket. (Jetblue has recently introduced a basic economy ticket that does not include overhead space).
However, others, like Frontier, charge an additional fee for any carry-on items that goes into the overhead bin space. JetBlue’s newest fare options also have an extra cost. You’ll want to know exactly what is included in your ticket and if you’ll have to pay an extra charge at the airport (including a checked bag fee).
There are also TSA and FAA rules about what can be included in your carry-on bag. Things are always subject to change, so you should check when you are ready to leave. But, right now, travelers are limited to bringing a one-quart, clear bag, filled with liquids/gels/creams/pastes/aerosols of 3.4 ozs or less.
This liquids rule does not apply to checked bags and doesn’t include medication or food/milk for babies. You can see other TSA rules here.
If your child is in a stroller, you are able to bring it to the plane, and leave it on the jetbridge. FAA-approved car seats can also be brought on the plane, although some guests choose to check them.
Wondering if you can take a backpack and a carry on? In general, you may be allowed to use a backpack if it is small and fits in the seat in front of you. Larger backpacks will count as your main carry-on.
Choosing a Carry On Bag
Once you understand the sizing rules for carry on bags, you can shop for bags. There are lots of different options from various luggage brands, depending on what you want.
When I travel with just carry on suitcases, I like to have a roller bag for the overheads, and either a backpack or a small duffle for under the seat in front of me. If I check bags, I usually will bring a larger duffle for the overheads (for important items), and put a purse under the seat in front of me.
I have a few different roller bags that I recommend as my top picks. Away luggage is an extremely popular and trendy brand. They offer hard-sided luggage that includes a small laundry bag for your dirty laundry, and a compression pad that lets you pack more things in the bag. They also make smart bags with an included charger that can be removed if you have to check the bag.
Away bags come in beautiful colors, with a hard shell and spinner wheels. (Use this link for a $20 discount Away code).
Another carry on bag that I love is the Hideo Wakamatsu Tarpaulin bag. We have both the carry on and the full-sized luggage. These soft-sided bags fit a ton of stuff and are also water-resistant. They are lightweight, so you can put even more things in them. I feel that these are some of the best carry-on luggage around, although they aren’t as popular.
There are a variety of different duffles that are popular for travel. Lo & Sons and Dagne Dover (in addition to Away) both make duffle bags and backpacks that are designed specifically for travel (use this code for 10% off your Dagne Dover purchase). Look for something that you can slide over the top of your suitcase’s handle so you don’t have to carry it or something with a shoulder strap.
I don’t always have pockets, but like to have my phone easily available. I use a Bandolier case with a crossbody strap to make things easier. I also use Makeup Junkie bags to store solid makeup and for small items. Front pockets on a roller suitcase can be helpful if you want to have easy access to things like your travel documents.
How to Pack Your Carry On Bag
How you pack your carry on bag(s) will depend on whether or not you also bring checked bags. You’ll need to be more thoughtful about how you pack your carry-ons if they are the only bags you’ll have.
If you are checking bags, you’ll want to put your valuables and things you need in the carry on bags. There are some things you can’t, or won’t want to check, including hazardous items and lithium batteries. You can see some specific guidelines and items here, but keep in mind this may not be a complete list.
Be sure to pack anything you’ll need on the flight, for you and your children. This includes diapers/supplies, changes of clothes, medications, entertainment, retainers, etc. I put anything I need on the flight in the personal item so that I don’t have to go into the overheads during the flight.
When packing for an entire trip in carry on bags, you’ll probably need to squeeze a lot of things in. I find that rolling my clothes definitely helps save space, and also keeps things from getting wrinkled. Packing cubes are also another way to save space – and you can roll the clothes you place in them.
For toiletries, I like to keep a packed bag filled with them available at all times. That way, I am always ready to go. You can purchase refillable containers and use your own larger sizes to fill them.
Even if you do this, you’ll still want to look through the bag and make sure that nothing is expired. You can also check to see if you are running low on anything before you go.
I also keep a bag packed with my power cords. Because many planes now have power outlets at the seats, it’s a good idea to keep these in your carry on bag. I also always have a fully charged portable charger with me (note: some Away bags come with a portable charger).
Tips for Bringing on Carry On Baggage
Here are some additional things to keep in mind when packing your carry-on baggage.
Even if your bags are within the specific size requirements, they still may not fit in the overhead bin on smaller, regional planes. In that case, your bags will be taken from you and will often be delivered to the jetbridge rather than the baggage claim.
In addition, carry-on bags are sometimes taken from you if there is no more space in the overheads. This is more likely to happen if you are boarding later in the process. If there is a chance of this happening, make sure that your travel documents and other essentials are packing in your free personal item.
If you are in one of the front rows with no seat under you, you’ll have to put all bags in the overhead bin. You’ll be able to have them in front of you during the flight, but not for take-off and landing.
Remember that you’ll need to carry your bags through the airport. Sometimes I like to check bags just because I don’t want to lug all of my belongings through a flight connection.
Carry-on bags can be lost too. I’ve had this happen twice when the overheads were full and my bags were taken. Because of this, I always make sure that all valuables including medications are in my personal item.
Once my kids were old enough, I started having them pack and bring their own carry on bags. We always checked them before we left, but they would pack them. They’d include things like books, headphones, stuffed animals, and electronic devices.
What is your favorite carry on bag?
More Packing Tips Resources: Looking for more packing tips and recommendations? Here are all of our posts including packing lists, product recommendations, and ideas for specific trips.