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How to Pack the Perfect Carry-On Bag

Open suitcase with casual female clothes on wooden table
Leszek Czerwonka/Shutterstock

What exactly should you pack in a carry-on bag versus a checked bag? Now that airlines are putting more restrictions on the size, weight, and contents of your luggage, it’s imperative to organize your belongings to avoid any issues at the airport.

The Perfect Bag

First and foremost, you should think of the ideal bag to bring as a carry-on. To understand what’s best suitable for your trip, consider your destination: are you going abroad or are you flying domestically?

If you’re going on a short getaway for a few days in the country, you can pack everything in your wheeled suitcase, just as long as it all follows the airline’s measurement requirements and restrictions. 

If you have a long trip ahead, then convenience is the top priority. Your best options are a backpack, under seat bag, or attaché, since they have enough room for your essentials and they can easily fit under the seat in front of you. This would prevent you from having to bother your neighbors (and your legs!) to get up and rummage around the overhead compartment at unfavorable times. 

Also, keep in mind that airlines now require you to pack any electronics with Lithium-Ion batteries in your carryon bags. Since you obviously can’t reach electronics that are in the overhead compartment, may want to keep useful electronics, like tablets and portable game consoles, in a smaller bag that can fit under your seat or in your lap. Using something like an electronics organizer should help for keeping everything organized.  

A tote bag is ideal if you’re not carrying large or heavy items as you wouldn’t be able to balance the weight on both your shoulders. Since pockets are not usually abundant with totes, you could purchase small pouches to compartmentalize your things. Think of see-through or colorful pouches to avoid having to guess their contents. 

The Ultimate Essentials

Travel insurance policy booklet with a boarding pass and a passport
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These are things you wouldn’t go very far without. Because they’re so important, you should always pack these first.

  • Passport/ID 
  • Credit cards and cash
  • Valuables you can’t or don’t want to carry in your checked bag: it could be expensive or breakable items or something special with sentimental meaning. 
  • Electronics that use Lithium-Ion batteries, like phones, tablets, and laptops.
  • Copies of your travel documents: electronics sometimes break and when that happens you want to be prepared. Bring a hard copy of your passport, your visa, insurance documents, accommodation information, and your travel itinerary in case you need to give out information at immigration agents or taxi drivers. 

Staple Products

When we think of traveling we seldom think of the impact it has on our bodies. Hygiene and health are not to be forgotten when we’re 35,000 feet up in the air. These are just a few of the main products you should consider taking with you on your next trip.

  • Moisturizer and lip balm: The air in planes is dry and although you might not feel it, your skin suffers the consequences. Aside from keeping hydrated by drinking plenty of water, use some moisturizer to keep your skin from getting flaky and irritated, and some lip balm to avoid getting cracked lips.
  • Antibacterial wipes: No matter how clean the inside of an aircraft might be, germs are everywhere. Pack your preferred antibacterial wipes and use them to clean the tray table before you’re served food after you use the toilet, or anytime you feel like you might need them.
  • Toothbrush: If you’re lucky the airline will provide you with a little toothbrush and a tiny tube of toothpaste to use during the flight. However, to make sure you don’t get to arrivals with coffee breath, pack your own and use it either before you disembark or at the first bathroom you encounter before or after customs.
  • Medication: If you take prescription medications or just want to carry extra for fear you might not find it easily at your destination, take it with you on your carry-on in a designated compartment so as not to get it lost or mixed with other products. If you have a prescription, bring a doctor’s note explaining your situation and if possible bring your medication boxes or containers as well in case you are questioned about them when you’re entering a new country.

Sleep Aids

Business woman asleep during night flight among other airplane cabin passengers
CandyBox Images/Shutterstock

Sleeping on an airplane isn’t an easy job, at least for most of us. If you’re taking a long flight and want to catch some shut-eye, these accessories might be able to help you out.

  • Eye mask: Some airlines provide you with an eye mask for long-haul flights, but they’re usually thin and uncomfortable and barely do the job. If you’re a light sleeper and sensitive to the light, make sure you pack your favorite eye mask. You won’t even notice the moment your neighbor decides to turn on the reading light and leave it on for hours. 
  • Earplugs: It can get very loud up in the air, especially during meal time or if there are children in your vicinity. To make sure you won’t be glaring and sighing out of frustration, find a pair of comfortable earplugs to bring with you. They barely even weigh anything! 
  • Travel pillow: If you need something to rest your head on when you sleep, you’ll be thankful you brought a travel pillow with you when you find yourself on an aisle seat. There are different models on the market, but a simple inflatable one will do just fine. It takes up little space and you can adjust the firmness of it to suit your preferences. 
  • Sleeping medication and supplements: Motion sickness isn’t something you just encounter on the road or on a boat. Turbulence can make you feel just as queasy at times and so having some motion sickness medication at hand can be helpful. Not only will it settle your stomach, if it contains dimenhydrinate as an active ingredient, it can also help you sleep. Antihistamines, used to treat allergies, are also an active ingredient that can cause you to feel tired, however long-term use is not recommended. Melatonin is another option to put you to sleep. If you want a more natural option, valerian root is your best bet. Though its smell is rather unpleasant, it can bring your body into a state of full relaxation and make you feel drowsy.

Comfortable Clothes 

Aside from packing multiple outfits in your checked baggage, you should consider exactly what clothes you’re going to bring with you in your carry-on. Even if you don’t use them, it’s a question of better safe than sorry. When packing, consider the following:

  • A change of clothes: The last thing anyone would want is for their luggage to get lost or delayed, yet it happens more often than we’d like. To avoid the inconvenience, pack a spare change of clothes, including your underwear and foldable shoes if you have enough space. It could save you the trouble of having to find clothes to change into at odd hours of the night in a foreign country. 
  • Sweater: It can get rather chilly up in the air and the thin blankets they hand out at the beginning of a flight sometimes are not enough to keep you warm and comfortable. Bring a sweater or cardigan and enjoy a warm and cozy trip above the clouds. 
  • Scarf: Handy for keeping warm, scarves are also useful in other ways. You can use it to cover up your shoulders, your legs or even your head if your country of destination follows a strict dress code. A scarf can save you from cold weather, strong AC, and even the sun. You just can’t go wrong with one of them.
  • Compression socks: Long-haul flights increase your risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) due to the lack of proper circulation on your legs. Blood clots form in the veins running through your leg muscles, causing swelling, pain, and sometimes more serious complications like pulmonary embolisms. To avoid that, wear compression socks to keep the blood circulating freely, and make sure to get up and stretch your legs every now and again during the flight. 

Entertainment 

When sleeping is out of the question the only other option to make time go by faster is keeping entertained. While the airplane might provide an in-flight entertainment system, it’s not always the case. Here are some items that could help you fast track your flight to your destination.

  • Something to read: Whether it’s a paperback or a Kindle, you should never board a plane without it. Though you might prefer to stick to the provided multi-media entertainment to make time pass, you never know when it might stop working or if there’s going to be anything at all that you might enjoy. Plus, reading while everyone around you is asleep can be rather relaxing sometimes.
  • Headphones and airline adapter: The quality of the headphones you’re given on economy class is usually less than desirable. More often than not, you’re able to use your own. However, sometimes the in-flight entertainment system calls for a dual output jack, rendering your own earphones useless unless you’re willing to watch movies and listen to them with one earphone only. The solution is simple: purchase an airline adapter and continue to enjoy the comfort of your own headphones during your flight.
  • Portable charger: Batteries are now required to be packed on your carry-on, which serves as a good reminder to always pack your portable charger bank with you to charge your electronics before you land. 
  • USB cable: If you don’t own a power bank, fear not. Most airlines these days have a USB port that allows you to charge the batteries of your phone, kindle, and tablet during the flight. However, it’s usually very slow so don’t trust it will get your empty battery to 100% if you connect it before landing.

Nutrition Basics

Most airlines let you choose from several meal options suitable for different dietary needs during online check-in. However, sometimes you have to pay for the meal and even for the water. So, you should also consider taking along some extras:

  • Snacks: If you’re one to skip airplane food or just tend to get hungry more often, pack a few snacks for you to enjoy whenever the cravings strike. Depending on where you’re traveling to, fruit might not be an option, so think of nuts, protein bars, or dried fruits. They’re nutritious and can satisfy your sweet tooth.
  • Water bottle: There are dozens of types of travel water bottles available nowadays, some more convenient than others. For traveling, your best choice would be a foldable water bottle you can pack away to pass security screenings and then fill up with water once you’re headed to your gate. 

So there you have it. Just like with everything else, the more times you pack your bags, the better at it you’ll become, and before you know it you will have mastered the art of packing the perfect carry-on. 

Carla Cometto Carla Cometto
Carla has been writing professionally for five years and blogging for many more. She's worked as a journalist, photographer, and translator. She's also an avid traveler who hopes to inspire a sense of curiosity and adventure in others through her writing. Read Full Bio »

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