How to Pack Your Carry On Bag Like a Boss
I always struggle with how to pack my carry on bag for a big trip. I don’t want it to be heavy, but there are a number of things I need for a long flight. There’s nothing worse on a six-hour flight than figuring out during takeoff that you didn’t bring anything to do. Or that you forgot your phone charger. Or for me, snacks.
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In my many years of traveling for business and pleasure, I’ve filled all kinds of different carry on bags with all kinds of different things in search of the best combination. Here is what I’ve learned:
General Rules For Carry On Bags
The rules may be slightly different if you’re traveling internationally. But generally, you cannot travel with any of these items in your carry on bag: firearms, explosives, any sporting equipment that could be used as a weapon (like a baseball bat), self-defense spray (like mace), or sharp objects like knives (yes, even Swiss Army knives) and safety razors.
Also, no snowglobes unless they can fit in the quart-sized plastic bag with your liquids and gels. I know – that one seems weird, but it’s the rule.
Small scissors (usually with blades shorter than 4 inches), nail clippers and disposable razors are most often okay.
A word of advice: don’t stash your bag of liquids and gels, or your laptop for that matter, deep in your carry on bag because you will likely need to remove them at the TSA checkpoint. Unless you have pre-check (which I highly recommend).
You can find a full list of what is and is not allowed in the U.S. here. If you’re traveling internationally, I would suggest doing a quick online search or calling your airline to find out each country’s requirements.
What To Pack
I have made it a habit to put eyes on my passport in my bag right after I’ve locked my front door, but before I get in the car. Forgetting your passport is the one thing that can cause huge issues if you are traveling internationally. For that matter, make sure you have your driver’s license if you’re traveling domestically.
Whether you keep your hotel, car, or tour reservations electronically or whether you organize the hard copies in a file folder, make sure you have the information with you and can get to it when you need it.
I wrote a post recently about putting together snack packs when you’re traveling with kids. What I may not have mentioned is that I always carry snacks whether I’m traveling solo, with kids, or with my husband, Craig. I have a long-held paranoia about getting stuck on a runway for hours and not having food if I’m hungry. Without psychoanalyzing this paranoia, I will tell you that even if I don’t eat any of the food I’ve brought I always feel better knowing that I’m prepared.
It only takes one time forgetting your charger on a long flight when all you have for entertainment is your phone and its already on low battery. The first time I did that was also the last.
And if there is a way to consolidate chargers to minimize what I’m packing, I try to do that, too. Speaking of, here is an option for international travel that will let you charge multiple devices at once:
These days, many airlines have plugs at each seat. But if you’re worried about keeping your charge on a long flight, I suggest bringing an external battery charger like this:
I tend to let my magazines pile up at home and then bring them when I have a long flight. Craig worries about how loaded down the magazines make my carry on bag, but I really enjoy reading them during flights.
Here’s a tip: When you’re finished reading them, give your magazines to the flight attendants. I started doing this a long time ago, figuring I would rather give them to someone to enjoy than just pitch them in the trash. It brightens their day, especially if the magazines are recent. And more than once, they’ve returned my easy gesture with a free drink.
There are now almost endless options for downloading movies or music to your phone or tablet. And many airlines are offering pretty decent content on their seatback television systems. It’s worth downloading several hours of binge-watching just in case.
I also love having my Kindle when I travel. I know – we’re talking about maximizing space so I should just use the Kindle app on my phone. But I really like having a device that is just for my books and has no other distractions. Kindles are so small and lightweight these days that I am willing to bring the extra item.
Whether you want to drown out the loud plane engine or your too-chatty seatmate, headphones are a must. The best $200 I have spent was years ago on a pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones. Craig has the newer wireless version, and they also make a smaller ear-bud style version.
Bose is certainly not the only option. There are a number of other brands out there, like Sony, Skullcandy, and Beats (I do not believe the Beats are noise-canceling – but they’re cute).
Eye Pillow/Eye Mask
Not everyone needs an eye mask to sleep on a flight – and some may not want to be seen wearing one. I like them, but I don’t always bring one if I’m trying to save space.
If you want to shut out all light to get some shut-eye, in my view the Bucky is the best thing going. It’s comfortable and really does block out all the light. And there are a ton of options for colors and patterns depending on your style.
There are also eye masks that house Bluetooth speakers so you can listen to your favorite relaxing music as you snooze. But they’re pretty bulky and wrap around your whole head. I’m not sure I’m ready to wear one of them in public, but if you are, go for it!
Clothes For Your Destination
This all depends on how long your flight is and where you’re going. On our recent overnight flight to Paris, I packed an outfit to change into when we landed because we were going straight from the airport to our friends’ home.
You may just want to change into a pair of fresh underwear and a different shirt. Or you may not need to change at all upon arrival. If you’re going to a tropical location, you might want to pack shorts and a swimsuit in your carry on so you can go straight to the pool or beach without having to sort through your checked bags.
Socks And/Or Shoes
I usually wear my bulkiest shoes on the plane because that means I don’t have to take up space for them in my checked luggage. But that most often means that at some point during the flight I want to take them off. If you’re going to do that, bring either some socks you can wear on the plane or some travel shoes, like flip-flops or slip-ons, so that you aren’t walking around in bare feet.
I feel like Captain Obvious pointing out that you shouldn’t head into the plane’s restroom with no shoes on, but I’m going to say it anyway. Really, people – just don’t.
I know many women don’t want to travel without some kind of makeup on. Not me. The dry air wreaks havoc with my skin. I almost never wear makeup on a flight because when I do my face breaks out into an oily mess reminiscent of my teenage years. You’re welcome for that image.
Whatever your preference, bring face wipes and some light lotion to clean and moisturize your face at some point during a long flight. Even if I feel totally gross from all-day travel, somehow it makes me feel fresh to just clean my face. The dry air on planes always chaps my lips, too, so I travel with lip balm.
You really shouldn’t need your entire toiletry bag on any flight. And of course remember the 3.4 oz rule, which means you need to check your full-size shampoo and suntan lotion. But you might want to bring a small brush and a few small toiletries like a toothbrush and toothpaste and some face toner or lotion.
If you have long hair like me, bring a hair tie or clip. I always end up in a ponytail when I fly; otherwise, my hair gets full of static and tangles.
Oily face and tangled hair – I’m a real gem when I travel. No wonder I’ve spent years figuring out all the things I need on flights!
Hand Sanitizer/Anti-bacterial Wipes
I am pretty much never without hand sanitizer in my purse, so bringing it on a flight is a no-brainer for me. Purell makes a small sized one with a ‘jelly wrap’ carrier that you can loop onto the handle of your purse or carry on bag.
Given what I’ve told you, it may not surprise you that I’m kind of a freak about hand sanitizer. Even though I wash my hands when I use the plane toilets (or any toilet, let’s just get that on record), I add in an extra dose of hand sanitizer back at my seat.
You may have already figured out I’m also that person on the flight that carries anti-bacterial cloths to wipe down the seatback tray. Maybe I’ve seen too many news pieces about how many germs there are on a plane. So. Many. Germs. I also use them to wipe down the surfaces of my hotel room that tend to be very germy (like remotes and phones) when I arrive at my destination.
Valuables And Medication/Vitamins
Don’t pack your expensive jewelry in your checked luggage. Just don’t. Bring it in your carry on bag. I tend to travel light when it comes to jewelry, so I usually use a small cloth pouch or rolled jewelry case like this.
And you should keep any medication you need in your carry on. If you have any delays or luggage catastrophes, you want to make sure you have access to any medications you might require.
I also like to travel with Emergen-C packets to mix with water. Maybe its just superstition, but I feel like loading up on the extra vitamins helps to avoid getting sick when I travel.
Reusable Water Bottle
Despite best intentions, this is one that I often forget to include in my carry on bag. Which means I’m stuck buying water in the airport for a ridiculous upcharge. If you’re looking to cut down on space, instead of bringing a bulky water bottle, you could opt for a collapsible bottle like this:
No matter where you’re headed, airplanes can get cold. I almost always tuck a light scarf or pashmina into my carry on. I use it to warm up, or fold it up and use it as a small pillow (thus eliminating the need to bring a bulky neck pillow).
Teabags Or Coffee
Airlines are not known for their stellar selection of tea and coffee. Just saying. If you enjoy either, you might consider bringing your own and just asking for hot water. I like the Starbucks VIA instant coffee and I always love to relax with some chamomile tea.
If you are picky about the sweetener you use (I am), you might stock up on that for travel, as well. I’m a Splenda girl, and they offer lots of options ranging from standard packets to small tablets that are super easy to travel with. Especially when abroad, I like to have the sweetener I prefer in my bag when I need it.
Best Carry On Bags
Craig is super low maintenance when he travels. And he usually uses a North Face backpack similar to that pictured below as a carry on bag. You won’t be surprised that he is a much lighter packer than I am. He tends to only bring his noise-canceling headphones and a book or magazine, and occasionally his laptop.
Amazon has a ton of options for backpacks. Whatever style you like, I recommend one with lots of pockets for stashing away small items.
But let’s be real – even the lightest packers among us probably need a bag that can accommodate more than what Craig stores in his backpack. While I occasionally use a backpack for shorter flights, for longer trips I tend to like totes that have enough room for my laptop (and magazines, of course).
This weekend duffel style bag is nice and roomy, with a couple of interior pockets, and can fit on top of your rolling bag easily.
This Herschel bag is a great overnighter and is the perfect size for a carry on bag.
If you want a bag with dedicated laptop space (and you’re looking for function over form), this backpack has it, along with a USB charging port and a huge number of pockets for stashing things.
I also love Longchamp for their travel bags. While they are unstructured and don’t have many pockets, they are virtually indestructible. And if you use pouches to keep yourself organized (see below), they have some perfectly sized options for travel.
How To Pack All The Things You Need
It seems like I’ve given you a huge list of stuff you should take with you on your flight. But when it comes to packing, most of the items are small enough that you’ll have no problem getting them into your carry on bag. But you’ll want to organize it so you’re not trying to find your lip balm among a million packets of Splenda swarming around your power bars and tampons.
As I’m packing my checked luggage, I’ll put aside a packing square if I decide to bring any clothes in my carry on bags. That way I can just pull out the square, change into the fresh clothes, and put my dirty garments back in it. Easy peasy.
There isn’t much difference among various brands of packing squares, but I always look for squares with soft sides. They’re just much easier to pack.
I also like to use little pouches for different items so that I’m not stuck rummaging through my carry on for things I need. For example, I might put toiletries, face wipes, and feminine items in one pouch. Then if I need to take any of that to the restroom with me, I can just take that pouch rather than having to bring a big bag. And I’ll use a separate pouch for chargers, and one for snacks – you get the gist.
You could get a variety of different pouches in fun patterns or get a few in different sizes that coordinate perfectly. Another option is to go with clear pouches so you know exactly what is in them at all times. Or cute bags with different sayings on them. It all depends on your style and there are a ton of choices out there. Whichever option you land on (pun totally intended), I think pouches are invaluable for staying organized in the air.
If you go with a less structured travel tote (like the Longchamp style mentioned above), an insert like this bag organizer helps deal with all the stuff that tends to float to the bottom of your bag and become un-findable. (For real, if I don’t keep it in a pouch or pocket, my lip balm will be lost to the depths of my bag. Or to a million packets of Splenda.)
I hope these tips have helped you feel ready and excited to pack up and get away!
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