I am a big believer in traveling with only carry-on luggage. 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?
Note: This post is written referencing TSA rules for travel from airports in the USA. Some countries may have different rules, so if you’re flying from an airport in another country, please look up the rules for the authority in that country.
FAQs about what you can bring on a plane
Before we get started on what things are important to pack in your carry-on bag, here are a few frequently asked questions about what things are allowed on an airplane.
How much liquid can you take on a plane?
The liquids restrictions have been in place for many years now, but there’s still some confusion about what those restrictions are. The basic carry-on liquids allowances are:
You are permitted to bring liquids in containers of 3.4 ounces (100ml) or less, and all containers must fit in a one quart (about one liter) clear zip-top bag. A 5 ounce container will not be allowed, even if it only has 1 ounce of liquid in it.
There are several items that you might not think about that are considered liquids, like peanut butter, liquid makeup, snow globes, etc. You ARE allowed to bring an empty water bottle through security and fill it up on the other side.
Can you take a razor through security?
Since razors are sharp objects, they can cause confusion about whether or not you can pack them in your carry-on. Straight razors and blades for safety razors are not allowed in carry-on luggage, but disposable razors and electric razors are permitted. Read more about bringing a razor on a plane.
Can you take food on an airplane?
In general, food is allowed in your carry-on. However, it must meet the liquids restrictions. Foods that spread, like peanut butter, are considered liquid, so you would only be allowed to have 3.4 ounces (100ml) of peanut butter, and the container must fit in your liquids bag. Food or beverages in frozen form are allowed, but only if they are completely frozen when you go through the TSA security check. This may vary in other countries.
Can you bring a lighter on a plane?
You can take a lighter on an airplane in your carry-on, but usually only one is permitted. It’s also worth noting that lighters can only be in your checked luggage if they have no fuel in them. Find out more about taking matches or a lighter on a plane.
Can you bring e-cigarettes or vaping devices on a plane?
Yes, you can take e-cigarettes or a vaping device on a plane. In fact, TSA requires you to pack your e-cigarette/vaping device in carry-on, not checked luggage. The liquid you need for it must also fit within the liquid allowances. Find out more about bringing a vape on a plane.
Can you pack hair straighteners/flat irons, curling iron, or hair dryers in your carry-on?
If you want to travel with a hair dryer, curling iron, or hair straightener/flat iron, you can pack that in your carry-on luggage. I recommend not packing the hair straightener while it’s still hot, but if you must because of timing, wrap it in a small towel so the hot plates don’t burn anything in your 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.
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.
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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.
Laptops also have lithium batteries, which are generally not allowed in checked luggage due to fire risk. Another good reason to keep laptops in your carry on baggage.
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.
Note: Recently the US and UK have put into place restrictions on electronics in carry-on luggage for flights from certain countries and on certain airlines. Check with your airline ahead of time about whether you can pack tablets, cameras, or laptops in your carry-on luggage.
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.
>>Read more about bringing makeup in your carry on.
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 Kindle) 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.
Buy a bottle of water once you get through security. Or better yet, bring an empty reuseable water bottle to fill up after you’re done at the security checkpoint.
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.
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 luggage size restrictions and then use this list to pack your carry-on bag.
Carry-on luggage other Travel Made Simple readers have purchased:
22 x 14 x9 in
22 x 14 x9 in
21.5 x 13.5 x 8.5 in
silicon toiletry bottles
You might also enjoy:
- Carry-on Luggage Size Chart with 170+ Airlines
- Non-Liquid Options for Carry-On Travel
- How to Choose the Best Carry-On Luggage
- Clothing Packing Tips for Carry-On Only
- Or view the full packing section here