We recently traveled by plane to Arizona with four kids ages 10 to 3. This is not my first rodeo and I’ve learned that packing the right go-to items to make all the difference.

Each kid gets their own backpack.

We usually pick smaller bags than what they are using for school. A variety of pockets and a drink pouch is helpful.

two boys with backpacks on while traveling in an airport
This photo is from vacation in Hawaii. Since this trip, we’ve started using backpacks that were a bit smaller. These seemed a bit too big.

Get everyone a pencil case.

Or, if you’re cheap like me, an old goggles case. We put skinny markers, magic ink pens, dry erase markers, a wiping cloth, lots of pencils (especially if we have homework) and sometimes a scrapping stick for those scratch off pages. We also make sure someone has a pencil sharpener. Our one son really likes colored pencils so he has those instead of markers.

Take a variety of simple art projects.

  • We take crayons and a coloring book with rip out pages. I like hard case crayon boxes as they close shut and don’t fall apart or let crayons “leak” out the bottom.
  • We also have taken these Melissa & Doug painting pages as the “paint” comes right at the top of the page. You need to remember a paint brush though.
  • I often save craft packs from happy meals and bring those. We’ve colored “stained glass,” built dioramas, and colored “choose your own adventure” stories.
  • A small whiteboard is a huge hit with our kids. We’ve found a few that are not very thick, that are more like thick cardboard that work really well. Of course, we have to pack a few whiteboard markers and a cloth, but it’s well worth it.Young boy coloring at a table

Activity books are a huge hit.

Include 2-3 fun activity books. These can be mazes, Sudoku, seek-and-find, word search, sticker books, scratch-off, or magic ink. We try new ones all the time. I look for something that isn’t just coloring and yet is fun vs just academic. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Magic Ink – these are great for kids as soon as they can hold a marker. We also use these a lot during really important events when our littlest kids have to stay quiet (weddings, funerals, etc).
  • Puzzle Buzz magazines. Our 5-year-old LOVES these. He will be entertained for at least 20 minutes.
  • There are tons of great options through Usborne books. Our older boys like General Knowledge Crosswords, Over 50 Secret Codes, and Minute Mysteries. Our younger kids like the 1001 Things to Spot Sticker Books.
  • Everyone (even the adults) loves Invisible Ink books. The sports one is by far the best. The only trick is you can’t lose the special marker or it doesn’t work.

    Two boys working on a tic tac toe page in an activity book
    Our boys were entertained for over an hour with activity books at their aunt’s rehearsal dinner. It was all grown-ups and them. Thankfully, we had planned ahead.

Select a book or two.

I know it seems obvious, but everyone is required to take at least one novel or for our younger kids a set of their favorite books. I really like when the younger ones have a set that comes in a carrying case. We like this Thomas and Friends: My Red Railway Book Box set. It’s literally gone all over the country with us.

*Vacation is also a great time for kids to see their parents reading. In a blog about Raising Kids that Love to Read, I explain how challenging this can be, but that trips provide a great opportunity to show kids I love reading.

Take cards and other small games.

We always pack a deck of playing cards, Monopoly Deal, and Go Fish. I also like to throw in a compact version of Pass the Pig. One son got a travel version of Farkle that we brought with to Arizona this time.

Snacks are a must have!

We have a ziplock bag of snacks for each kid and ourselves. We recommend snacks that do not get smashed. Our favorites: granola bars, fruit snacks, dum-dum suckers, chocolate graham cracker bears, and apples.

I also highly recommend each kid get their own bowl and lid. These are handy the duration of the trip. I like the toss and go ones. Ours usually start out with goldfish in them. We tend to color code our kids which you can read about in the blog: 4 tips for keeping track of 4 boys. So, each of our kids gets a different colored plastic bowl for snacks.

*One note: when flying out of the Moline International Airport, they ask for you to pull out all your snacks into the buckets for security. This is WAY easier if you have them all in one place. I have started keeping all the snacks with me in a big bag and then divying them up once we are through security.

Drink containers vary depending on whether we are driving or flying.

 If we are flying we bring the toss and go cups with lids for our younger kids (ages 3 and 5). There is nothing worse than spilling the airplane provided darn plastic cup with ice all down the front of a toddler and all over the stuff in your seat. Ask and they will put the drink right in your cup. We usually bring two empty water bottles to share between the rest of us.

If driving everyone gets their own water bottle.

Get a felt square.

Years ago our kids each received a felt square “blanket” at church during children’s time. It’s a 3×3 piece of felt and it’s perfect for this type of situation. It’s not our favorite blanket so if it gets lost, no big deal. It’s not very big. It folds up small. It mostly covers them. I keep these in the van when we are not traveling just in case someone needs a blanket.

Electronics, etc.

We do take electronics, but we monitor and limit screen time on trips as much as we do at home; though in full disclosure we are more generous with usage time. We encourage watching movies over playing too many games. We have a firm no screens unless it’s a movie or TV show at least an hour before bedtime no matter where we are.

Each kid is responsible for taking their tablet, headphones, and a charger.

three boys sitting on the floor surrounded by luggage watching an ipad while traveling
Sometimes, it’s screen time for the win!

Packing cubes help keep personal items organized.

These zippered bags come in various sizes. We like using the smaller ones to keep electrics like headphones and chargers in one place. Often the 14.5×10.5 bags are used to keep crafts and books together within a backpack. I use one for all the snacks until we get through security. We have an older version of these Eagle Creek packing cubes.

Final thoughts.

I once read this quote that said being a parent is 75% avoiding disaster. I’m not sure this is totally true, but I do feel like being well prepared with activities when traveling can help A LOT with melting down children.



pin it! Travel with kids, what to pack in their carry on

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A committed member of the boymom club, Meghan has five active, adventurous, crazy sweet men in her life she often calls her “favorite boys”. Charles is 10, Oliver is 8, Bennett is 5, Simon is 3 and her husband, Luke is a fun, patient, loving father to all these crazy characters. For 18 years, Meghan worked in higher education at a private college in recruitment, marketing, and social media. Now, working from home, she balances four boys, a great husband, freelance writing and social media consulting. Meghan grew up in St. Charles, IL (a western Chicago suburb), attended Augustana College, and is a true Quad City transplant - she loves living in this area! She likes to read, sing, plan adventures, travel and just be with her favorite boys.



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