what to pack in your carry-on bag

What to Pack in Your Carry-On Bag

I am a big believer in carry-on only travel. It makes your travel experience easier in so many ways. There’s no way the airline can lose your luggage if you haven’t checked anything. You won’t get weighed down by heavy bags if you limit yourself to carry-on only. And you won’t have to deal with expensive checked bag fees. But what if you just can’t go carry-on only? Maybe you’ll be flying on a much smaller plane that has stricter carry-on rules, or maybe you’re just not quite ready to travel with less stuff. What should you always pack in your carry-on bag?

Keep ID and money in your carry-on bag

This might be obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. Always keep all of your identification in your carry-on. Even if you’re flying internationally so you have your passport with you, don’t pack your driver’s license in your checked bag. Losing any kind of ID is not fun, and if the airline misplaces your luggage, you might never see it again.

Money, credit cards, jewelry, or anything else of monetary value should never be packed in your checked bag. Again, if your luggage gets lost, so will your money. Not only that, but unfortunately there are a few dishonest people out there, and you don’t want to take even a tiny chance that someone will go through your bag and steal something.

what to pack in your carry-on bag

Take medications in your carry-on bag

Do you have any essential medications that you take on a regular basis? Don’t just pack what you need for your flight in your carry-on, put it all in there. If you only have a day’s worth of medicine, and your luggage gets lost for three days, you could be in big trouble for a couple days.

If your medication is liquid or you need to carry needles, get a letter from your doctor. This should help you avoid problems taking restricted items on the plane in your carry-on bag.

Bring electronics and fragile items in your carry-on bag

Baggage handlers are not known for being gentle with luggage. Even aside from that, an airplane is a moving vehicle and there’s always the possibility of turbulence. Electronics and other fragile items could easily break during any part of the travel process, from the moment you hand over your bag until it finally arrives on the luggage carousel.

Electronics have the added risk of being stolen. Just like your money or jewelry, you don’t want to take the chance that someone will go through your bag and steal your iPod, laptop or camera.

If you have anything sentimental, this should also be packed in your carry-on. Fragile or not, you wouldn’t want it to get lost because chances are no amount of money can replace something that has sentimental value.

what to pack in your carry-on bag

Pack toiletries and a change of clothes in your carry-on bag

Even if you’ve decided to bring larger bottles of toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, etc., it’s still a good idea to pack an approved bag of liquids for your carry-on, along with your toothbrush. One change of clothes could come in handy as well.

If your checked luggage gets lost, at least you’ll something to change into when you arrive, and you’ll be able to brush your teeth and take a shower. You might still have to go buy a few things if your luggage doesn’t turn up within a day, but at least you won’t need to rush to find a store right away.

Bring things to make yourself feel comfortable

Flights can be really boring, even if you have someone to talk to. Having some music to listen to and a book (or an ebook) to read will help the time pass. If you travel with a laptop or an iPad, make sure you have some movies loaded up to watch on the plane.

Take some snacks with you, whether it’s something from home or you pick up something at the airport. Many airlines don’t give you food on domestic flights anymore (in the US anyway) and even on flights where they do feed you, it’s never really good food. Having something to snack on that you know you like will help get you through the flight. And buy a bottle of water once you get through security.

I always bring some tissues with me. The air on airplanes is incredibly dry and can irritate your nose. Plus bathroom travel hassles can start with your flight if they run out of toilet paper. I try not to bring too many “just in case” things when I travel, but tissues are always a good idea.

what to pack in your carry-on bag

As much as I love traveling carry-on only, I understand that it’s not always practical, and it might not be comfortable for everyone. But there are some essential items you should always pack in your carry-on bag. Unfortunately your checked luggage could get lost or mishandled, and your things could break or never be seen again. You also want to make sure your flight experience is as enjoyable as possible, and having things like snacks and entertainment in your carry-on bag will help. Before you get on that flight, check the airline’s carry-on size restrictions and then use this list to pack your carry-on bag.

Looking for more info on flight travel? Check out How to Fight Jet Lag and Simple Preparations for Your Flight. Also, don’t forget to check out what NOT to pack in your carry-on bag as well as the Packing Made Simple e-book.

Check out these carry-on luggage suggestions:

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  1. Sofie

    Great tips, Ali!
    I try to do as much carry-on as possible, but I must admit that when I know I’ll be staying in the same place for a week or so, I still tend to overpack…

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      But when you stay in the same place for a week, it’s easier to do laundry! Which means you can pack less, and then find somewhere to wash your clothes.

  2. Matthew Cheyne

    For Australian outbound international travelers there may be additional benefits in going the carry on only route. For instance according to the following government website which is for the Australian Customs Service http://www.customs.gov.au/site/page4646.asp , there is something called the Tourist Refund Scheme which will refund you the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on all goods that you buy and carry on or wear aboard the plane when you leave. You need to register for this scheme and there are links on the customs website you can go to in order to find out where in the airport you are leaving from you need to go to in order to register.

    Also for Australians who are taking medicines with them out of the country that were bought under the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme (PBS listed medicines that is,) you will need to fill out certain documentation and you are restricted in the amount of medication you can take out of the country. For example if you’ve got 90 days worth of medication with you and you’re only going to be out of the country for 60 days, you can only take 60 days worth of medication with you. This guide in PDF format http://www.customs.gov.au/webdata/resources/files/GuideforTravellers-WEB2.pdf details the requirements for travelers needing to declare goods in regards to medicines, the Tourist Refund Scheme I talked about earlier and also any duty-free concessions you may be entitled to.

    Further information can be found by contacting Customs directly through this webpage http://www.customs.gov.au/site/page5439.asp or in regards to medicines through the Department of Human Services website at http://www.humanservices.gov.au/customer/services/medicare/travelling-overseas-with-pbs-medicine?utm_id=9 .

    I hope this information is helpful to someone.

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Wow, thanks for all the great links Matthew! I never knew that about the refund scheme, sounds like a bit of work, but worth it if you buy expensive things that you can wear on the plane. The medicine stuff is always stressful for me because I have medicine I have to take every day, so I have to travel with it. I’m always afraid some customs agent is going to tell me I can’t have it in their country. And I can understand having limitations, but I always bring extra medicine. Not an extra 30 days, but maybe a few days or a week, because what if I lose some? Ugh, customs stuff is stressful. Thanks for all the great info though!

  3. Jennifer

    Good tips! I travel mostly carry-on but winter destinations are harder since winter clothes just tend to be larger. When I do check a bag, I always pack a change of clothes and underwear in my carry-on just in case.

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Thanks Jennifer! Winter travel definitely makes carry-on harder, but that’s when I usually end up carrying my coat instead of packing it, and I just know I’ll wear the same shirts even more often because I have room for fewer. But I also try to avoid traveling to cold places unless there’s a special reason!

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Thanks! Exactly, you don’t need more stuff for a longer trip, you just need to find somewhere to do laundry!

  4. Andrea

    All things I carry – except the change of clothes…a good idea! (though I always figure it’s a good excuse to go shopping if the luggage gets lost 😉

  5. RoamRight

    Great tips, Ali! If you’re going to a warm weather destination (beach, lake, etc.) or your hotel has a pool, I always like to pack a swimsuit in my carry-on. Somehow lost or delayed luggage doesn’t seem quite so bad when you’re swimming or lounging in the water. Safe travels!

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Thanks! I hadn’t thought about the bathing suit, but being able to go to the pool or beach sounds like a good idea if you’re waiting on lost luggage!

  6. Caanan @ No Vacation Required

    > Pack toiletries and a change of clothes in your carry-on bag

    Good advice. This can be a real life saver when your checked bags don’t show up. It is also really nice to have some toiletries for longer flights. I like being able to freshen up so we look bright and rested when we get our pictures taken at immigration. :)

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Thanks Caanan! Probably a good idea about freshening up before any potential immigration pictures :-)

  7. Nathan Nehmer

    You actually end up needing less for a longer trip than you do for a shorter one. one thing that does throw a curveball is when you travel with small children. Then your carry-on space is taken up with toys, games, snacks(please NO sugary snacks), and stuffed animals. All the stuff to keep them busy so you don’t get “the stare” form the grumpy, impatient, and just plain rude traveler.

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Thanks Nathan! I can’t imagine all the extra stuff you need to bring when you have kids! As for the shorter trip, I tend to fill my bag no matter what, so I do often end up with more stuff than I need for a short trip. If I have room for “just in case” items, I cave and pack them.

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      I guess I just figure there are so many other things I have to pull out of my carry-on bag to get through security, it doesn’t make a difference if I also pull out a liquids bag.

  8. Pingback: What Did I Pack for the Beyond Vacation Kick-Off Trip? | Ali's Adventures

  9. Jag

    Excellent tips, Ali!

    I always add a few Tylenol, Ibuprofen and tums just in case or to help a fellow traveler out. Saline nasal spray/gel, antibacterial wet wipes and noise cancelling headphones are making transatlantic flights much more enjoyable.

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Those are great too, Jag! I haven’t sprung for noise cancelling headphones yet, but maybe I will one of these days, they sound nice. Thanks!

  10. Neil Staten

    When packing I will generally take older clothes or items I don’t find myself wearing all that much. No matter what country you visit there are always locals that would appreciate anything you might want to give them. This way you are helping them and it will leave you some room if you want to buy any additional items before returning home.

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      So true Neil! There is always someone who could use some clothes, and it lightens your luggage. Thanks!

  11. CrifJohnson

    Absolutely correct points mentioned. Money and ID Card are the most valuable things one must carry when traveling.


  13. Pranjali

    Thanks a lot,
    I am travelling for the 1st time for a long stay of an year in Germany (From India)
    These tips are really helpful for me to reduce some tension and fear about packing. :)

    Thanks again ….

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Glad to help! Enjoy your time in Germany (my adopted home) and happy travels!

  14. Mike

    I always pack an extra pair of socks in my carry-on, for use upon arrival. Travel is stressful, and your feet actually do swell up a bit in a pressurized cabin, and they sweat. Changing socks at the end of the flight (in the lav, of course) or upon arrival at the airport is a real pick-me-up and puts a fresh spring in your step as you complete your travel day.

    This, of course, is in addition to the emergency change of clothes in case your luggage is delayed.

  15. Tasha McCumber

    I have a question…I will be going on my first vacation in a couple months and so far this list has helped a lot. My question is with the liquid bag…can I have one in carry on and one in the checked bag? Can the ones in checked luggage be regular size bottles or does everything need to be travel size? I’m only going for a week so shampoo, conditioner and soap aren’t an issue so much as sunscreen would be. Going from Wisconsin to Jamaica I just want to make sure I have enough so I don’t have to spend triple to buy it there….

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Hi Tasha! Yes, you can have liquids in your checked luggage, and they can be bigger than 100ml/3.4 ounces. So feel free to pack your larger bottle of sunscreen in your checked bag. Have a great time in Jamaica!

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