With so many size restrictions and federal regulations, what we can bring on a plane gets confusing enough without worrying about the right gear to bring with us for the kids. Here's a guide to help you make air travel with the family a piece of cake. (OK, so that was a stretch, since we all know flying with kids is never really a piece of cake, but we're here to make it easier!)
For more ideas on what to pack, be sure to check out our interactive packing list, where you can check off all the items you need to bring. Print and/or e-mail yourself the list so you can work with it.
What You Are Allowed to Bring
First, let's begin with what you can even consider bringing on a plane with you. Every ticketed passenger is allowed to bring one carry-on bag. Different airlines have different size standards for what they permit as carry-ons, and more and more airlines are grabbing passengers' carry-ons at the gate for being too large or when the overhead bulkhead is full (a common occurrence in winter, when everyone has coats and extra gear).
Some airlines are beginning to charge an extra fee if your carry-on gets checked at the gate. A good rule of thumb: keep the carry-on size small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. As long as it's that small, and you do not mind losing the legroom (my kids' feet cannot even touch the floor, so I don't mind using this space for their gear), you will always be able to bring the carry-on on the plane with you.
The 3-1-1 rule still applies for all carry-on baggage. This TSA regulation states that you cannot bring any liquid or gel that's more than three ounces, and you are permitted one quart-sized clear, zip-lock baggie per person in which to store them. Parents traveling with infants are permitted to break the three-ounce rule when packing breast milk, formula and baby food, but remove them from your carry-on before going through security and alert security personnel.
Because of the 3-1-1 rule, it's best not to bring any juice, water or other items you may typically have on hand for the tots. Instead, buy the items once you are through security, and store them in your carry-on to have them handy for thirsty kids who are impatient for beverage service.
Infant carriers, car seats and strollers can be brought through security to make traveling with small children less taxing at the airport. Although infants and children under 2 can be held in the lap of a parent, it's recommended that a separate seat be purchased for the child, and the infant carrier or a car seat be installed in the seat to keep the child secure during the flight. Strollers will have to be gate-checked, but if you have a family of four traveling through the airport, it may make it easier to maneuver through an airport if holding a young child and a few carry-on pieces.
That said, I actually find it more cumbersome to travel with bulky gear and prefer to check strollers and car seats. Better yet: rent these items at your final destination. Rental car companies provide car seats with advance reservations, and some companies partner with hotels to provide stroller and car seat rentals. Ask ahead and avoid the extra trouble when you can. My rule of thumb: My kids, now 4 and 6, have to be able to carry their own carry-ons. Tough love? Perhaps. But it's never too early to turn them into experienced travelers.
What to Pack