Flying with toddlers: Five tips for free-hand travel

I am a reasonably savvy traveler. I pack essential travel documents in the same section of my bag for easy access. I don't hold up security lines with laced shoes or liquids over 3 ounces. I've memorized the instructions on the cards of various seat back pockets well enough to politely tune out safety demonstrations (unless it's Deltalina or her younger self -- they are awesome). 

But I'm always packing just slightly more than I can comfortably carry: that third pair of shoes, the second extra sweater for a trip to a warm region, the comprehensive first aid kit I never open. These extra items leave me with bulging carryons and two full hands.

After my toddler spilled his second drink while waiting for a recent flight, I decided it was time to try my husband's traveling approach: pack so little that you always have a free hand to grab your ID, hold a coffee, feed your toddler, or chase him down a jetway.

Here are free tips for free-hand travel:  

  1. Ship baby items to your hotel. Diapers and wipes take up a lot of suitcase space, so getting them out of your carry on is essential to free-hand travel. At $99, an Amazon Family membership may seem pricey. But if you travel by plane even twice per year, you'll make up that in checked baggage fees alone, not to mention the impressive year-round diaper savings. If your kid can't survive without a specific snack, or if you can't survive without your favorite shelf-stable caffeinated beverage, consider adding them to a Prime Pantry order and sending that along to your hotel as well. Just watch out for delivery charges your hotel might assess. Some will tack on a per-pound charge for deliveries. That's fine for diapers, but not so great for bottled water.
  2. Buy a tiny backpack. (I love this one from Pottery Barn Kids.) While packing for your trip, ask your child to select a stuffed animal, book, and snack to carry through the airport. You'll probably need to bring a few more toys along, but by having your child pack a little bit, you'll be teaching personal responsibility and making a little more room in your suitcase for a second pair of shoes.
  3. Use the stroller to carry luggage, not your child. If you're following the free-hand philosophy, put your carry on in the stroller and use the other hand to grab your kiddo if he's wandering into trouble. Letting your kid wear himself out in the airport means a quieter flight for you. 
  4. Relax your attitude about screen time. Whatever your attitude about screen time, be even more relaxed about it for the airport and flight. Your phone is much smaller and lighter than most of your kid's toys, and can keep your kid entertained for much longer. 
  5. Don't give candy to strangers. The candy and notes parents have sometimes handed out on flights as a pre-apology for a potentially screaming baby are a lovely sentiment, but all that space devoted to other people's snacks means less room for your own gear. It's not your job to apologize for the reasonable human behavior to cry when scared or in pain (as your child might be while experiencing flying for the first time). We were all babies once. Besides, adults often behave much more badly than kids on flights

What are your tricks for saving space when traveling with kids? Leave your excellent suggestions in the comments.