Carry-on Packing Essentials

Carry-on Packing Essentials by Her Packing List

Check out all of our packing list posts in one place.

Whether I’m preparing for a long-term international trip or short-term domestic one, I often put just as much thought into what I pack in my carry-on items as I do my checked luggage.

What do I carry on when I’ve already checked a bag?

For the last couple of years, I’ve brought a digital SLR camera bag that doubles as a purse and a small, school-sized backpack that has a special section to store a laptop.

If you’re planning for a trip, you’ve probably researched dozens of packing lists to make sure you bring everything you need (and leave behind the things you don’t). At Her Packing List, our aim is to help make your job a little easier!

>>Be sure to read the first timer’s guide to traveling carry-on only.

Check out my “essential items to pack in the carry-on bags” list below. With the exception of one or two things, which are noted, I have packed every single one of these on a previous trip.

Documents

  • Boarding pass
  • Passport
  • Copy of complete flight itinerary
  • Copy of any transportation or accommodation plans I have made for arrival
  • Physical address of where I am staying: You will need this to complete immigration forms and it may be helpful to share with cab drivers as well so they can easily look up directions.
  • Printout confirming I paid for an electronic visa: When my sister and I paid for our electronic tourist visas to Australia, we printed a copy to bring with us just in case.

Being the organizer that I am, I usually place the documents in the order in which I (may) need them and put them in a sturdy folder.

>>Check out our tips for staying organized on the road.

heather's carryon backpack
Heather’s Carry-on Backpack

Bath & Body

I want to feel as fresh as possible at the end of the flight, so I love touching up deodorant and brushing my teeth and washing my face. Airplanes dry us out, so lotion and chapstick help keep me moisturized.

Food & Drink

  • Meal and/or snacks: Including the items below. As a special-needs eater who also likes to eat healthfully, I tend to pack food in case the food on the plane just doesn’t cut it. Natural peanut butter on gluten free bread is my go-to. Fellow travelers love granola/muesli bars or protein bars.
  • Fruit: Usually an apple as they travel well.
  • Water bottle: Buy one after passing through security, or if you can wait, bring an empty bottle from home (you can bring this through security) and fill up on the plane.
  • Vitamin + electrolytes packet: I don’t go anywhere without Emergen-C packets.

Sleepy time

  • Ear plugs
  • Eye mask
  • Long haul: oral sleep aid, your own pillow and blanket (I’ve brought my own pillow but never a blanket, though a friend gave me a small travel blanket just for carry-on purposes!)

Instead of a travel blanket, invest in a Turkish towel, which can be used as a towel, blanket, scarf, etc. Click here to browse Turkish towels on Amazon.

turkish towels
A Turkish Towel can take the place of a travel blanket for long-haul flights.

Entertainment

  • Laptop
  • iPod (or your music player of choice)
  • Kindle (or similar) to read books without weighing down your bag: I don’t own one, but I may add it to my next wish list. I tend to leave books at home as I don’t have room to pack them!
  • Music, books, movies

Clothing

Ever since an airline lost my bag in 2008, I’ve been mindful of the clothing I pack in my checked bag. It’s all replaceable, of course, but I now pack with the thought that I may not see my bag again. At the very least, I pack an extra pair of underwear and one shirt. If I am packing a new or favorite article of clothing, I roll them as small as possible and make room in the bag.

Valuables

Always pack valuables in your carry-on bags. If you plan to sleep or find that your bag is stowed far away from your seat (due to a full flight), you may wish to bring your valuable items closer to you.

Best of the rest

  • Guidebook to destination: Haven’t planned what you’ll do the first day or two yet? There’s plenty of time to do so on the plane.
  • Paper and pen: Creative brainstorming sessions often happen in transit. And, you’ll probably want a pen to fill out immigration papers on board.
  • Medication or supplements

Everyone has different needs and travel styles, and your list may vary based on your destination, length of trip, and if you’re traveling with only carry-on bags (kudos to you!).

What’s an essential item on YOUR carry-on packing list?

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Written by Heather

Heather Rudd Palmer is a 30-something with a love for travel, food, and healthy living. After short trips to Europe in her 20s, Heather left her job at 30 to live, work, and travel in Australia for a year. She visited every state and territory, embarked on two road trips, worked at an organic food store, and ate her way through Sydney. She's now a career counselor for university students. You can find Heather at There's No Place Like Oz and Healthy Life Heather.

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Gear We Use

Organization

Packing Cubes – Organize your luggage with the lightweight, durable and compressible Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Cubes.


Backpacks + Daypacks

Pacsafe – Since they come with extra theft-resisting features, Pacsafe bags make you a more confident traveler. We especially love this bag.

Sea to Summit – Of all the Sea to Summit products, our most recommended is the fits-in-your-palm, super packable Ultra-Sil Daypack.


Personal Care

Nalgene Toiletry Bottles – These leak-free toiletry bottles and tubs come in all sizes – even super tiny, helping minimalists pack it all without bulk.

Turkish Towels – They’re thinner than most travel towels, and they actually cover your body! We can’t get enough of Turkish towels for travel.


Clothing

Speakeasy Supply Co. – They make the awesome hidden pocket infinity scarves that are perfect for stashing secret cash, lip balms, and passports.

Anatomie – Anatomie travel pants come with luxury prices, but they offer many benefits for travelers. See our review of the famous Skyler pants.

Travel Resources

Booking Airfare

Dollar Flight Club – Get flight deal alerts for your preferred departure airport. There is both a free and premium version (recommended for more sweet deals). Members save on average $500 USD per flight!

Skyscanner – Skyscanner is our preferred site for searching flights. They offer unbiased search results and are free from hidden fees. You can also book your hotels and rental cars.


Accommodation

Airbnb – Airbnb is the best place to book out apartments around the world. Sign up using this link to get $37 USD off your first stay booking + $14 USD towards an experience booking!

Booking.com – Search for hotels, hostels, and apartments using this one resource. Use it for flights, car rentals, and airport taxis as well.

Hostelworld – For hostels, Hostelworld remains our number one source for booking stays. Choose from straight up hostels, budget hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Trusted Housesitters – Save money on travel accommodation by becoming a housesitter. Housesitters often have extra duties, like caring for pets and gardens.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Rebecca says

    I do the same thing with my travel documents, place them in the order I am going to need them and toss out as needed, so the most current one is always on top and easy to access. To funny!

    I ALWAYS bring an empty water bottle and fill it up in the terminal, where the water is probably fresher then on the airplane. That is my must have and I can’t believe more people don’t do this.

  2. Mikah says

    I always make a copy off all the important documents that go into each of my bags (suitcase, carry-on, and personal item). That way if I lose one item, I will at least have a copy to be a back up.

  3. Allison says

    Chargers! I know for some people its an automatic thing but sometimes in the stress of travel you back it in your checked bag and you’re stuck without chargers.

    I have a “go-bag” that I basically take everywhere it has my essentials or in case of little emergencies:
    -hand sanitizer
    -lotion
    -chapstick
    -baby sunscreen(hypo allergenic)
    -travel deoderant
    -mascara
    -mini lint roller
    -small bottle of perfume
    -coverup with mirror
    -packets of ibuprophen, asprin, and tyelonal
    -5-10 one dollar bills, 5 quarters, ( you never know when you’ll need it, it usually goes to tolls and parking)
    -mini utinsils
    -alcohol wipes
    -antibiotic ointment
    -bandaids
    -safety pins, bobby pins and hair ties
    -small hair comb
    -a small usb drive, (if traveling copy’s of documents on there)
    -2 tampons and panti-liners
    -wisk toothbrush
    -mini sewing kit
    -tissues
    -spare id

    cant be taken on airplane but for non-air travel
    -mini lighter or matches.
    -swiss army knife, something similar

    This is my overly prepared kit, i think i have everything for little emergencies. I put it all in a (cute) 4 by 6 inch makeup bag that because its cute can double as a clutch purse, i think it weights 1-2 lbs. I take it with me if im going to be gone for more than 5 hours, its worth the bit of extra weight in my bag, cause i’ve used everything at onetime or another, either for myself or someone esle. I just ordered a portable usb charging stick which will go in there once i get it.

  4. Michele Mathiesen says

    I always have footies, and a pashmina scarf to travel with as I am always cold in air travel. I also carry peppermint oil (helps nausea, digestion issues, etc) can go in tea, freshen breath, and lavender oil (anti fungal, antibacterial, bug repellant, perfume, good on burns, etc). I also carry a golf, tennis or lacrosse ball to roll the tight cranky areas that happen as a result of travel and overdoing!

  5. Sarah says

    Make sure you follow this advice – especially the clothing bit – on smaller flights too. I got on my flight from Brazil to Lima with absolutely nothing in my carry on [I’m from Australia – for me this is like travelling interstate].. Guess who had no luggage for 9 days? Fortunately, it’s a lesson I’ll never forget!

  6. Dianne says

    Something travelers seldom think about is what if there’s an emergency evacuation on your flight? I always carry my cash, credit cards, passport, and IDs either in a neck wallet under clothing or a small cross body wallet. The important thing is to have these items strapped to your body or in pockets. In case of emergency you aren’t allowed to grab anything and take it with you. If your absolute necessities are in a pocket or strapped to you, they escape with you.

    Be sure your carry-on bag(s) have locks on each zipper. Theft does happen during flight, make it harder for that to happen. I use combination locks for carry-ons, easier to deal with if you need to get something out inflight.

  7. Maria says

    Great list!! I’m going to Australia and New Zealand soon and reading this list has been very helpful thx
    Don’t forget headphones and magazines for the long flights
    If you wear contacts bring your glasses for relief.

    • elayne says

      Headed to Austrailia and New Zealand myself in Jan 2015. Any tips or must see places you would suggest.

      • kiri spain says

        Hi, I’m from NZ. Top spots in the south island (mainly if you are mainly coming here for outdoors and scenery, have included a couple of other interests) are
        – Nelson – beautiful national parks and beaches, cool hippy vibe to the town
        -Marlborough- vineyards
        -Kaikoura – whale watching
        -Hamner Springs- spa, hot pools
        -Akaroa- beautiful romantic french settlement
        -Christchurch- Interesting developments post earthquake if you think you’d be interested
        -Mt Cook- iconic mountain in southern alps, surrounded by blue lakes
        – Queenstown- centre of adventure sports (pretty much anything you can think of!) and nightlife, you will find more tourists than kiwis here so avoid if thats not your scene. Vineyards. Skiing.
        -Wanaka- a bit more chilled out version of queenstown boardering mt aspiring national park.
        -Glenorchy- Town of 400 with the best scenery in south island full stop (I take horse treks out there so I am a bit biased ha ha) you can do the routeburn track from glenorchy over to te anau and go to the sounds from there.
        -Fox Glacier (nicer than franz josef)- the drive up the west coast itself id stunning. very sparely populated. Watch out for sandflies!
        – Doubtful sound (less touristy than milford. Would advise doing a kayak trip)
        -Dunedin- university town with entire suburbs of students. Good nightlife. Large albatross colony on the peninsula and penguin landing.
        -Kaka point/catlins coast- walks, beaches, penguins, seals etc.
        AVOID INVERCARGILL- it’s bland and a bit white trashy…
        But Stewart island is beautiful. Can walk the island in 3 days. Untouched bush. Ulver island is the best place to see a large variety of native birds (we pretty much just have birds!)

        Crazy as it seems I haven’t done heaps of exploring up the north island. You will find a lot more of maori culture up here (the native people of NZ). Wellington is a cool artsy hipster city, rotorua has amazing geothermal activity which is really cool even if the entire town smells like sulfur because of it. Taupo is the quieter queenstown of the north island. Gisbourne and the bay of plenty are really nice beachy areas.

        Hope that is of some help! 🙂

  8. Stephanie says

    This is exactly the kind of list I’ve been needing. I’m going on a trip to South Africa to work in Kruger National Park for a month. I am an obsessive list maker and planner, but I have absolutely no idea what to really expect. This is my first time out of the country. I would love a packing list for the nature friendly girl! Or I’d gladly take any recommendations for carry on or checked luggage. I’m planning on bringing these things on my carry on for sure:

    -Laptop
    -Pillow
    -Shirt
    -Shorts
    -Pants
    -Panties
    -Medications
    -Brush
    -Tooth brush
    -Tooth paste
    -Hair bands
    -Chargers
    -Adapters
    -Wallet
    -All documents
    -Lotion
    -Deodorant
    -Personal and face wipes
    -Ear plugs
    -Eye mask

    Anything that you think I’ve missed?

  9. Carly h says

    Its like reading a post ive written! Even down to the documents in the right order! People think im mad to carry what i couldnt live without….untill their luggage went missing for 2 days with turkish airlines! Now they are firm believers! Love it!

  10. kiana says

    okay im not familiar with plane trips but what types of snacks would i be able to take with me (specific) like goldfish,potato chips, trailmix ect. ?

  11. Jodie says

    My essential carry-on items are my laptop, iPhone, books, blanket/pillow (especially for long flights like Hawaii), paper, pens, and snacks. I like opening a pack of Starbursts or M&Ms with my dad, as he is usually my seating companion, as we take off. I will also have to add some kind of gum or chewy candy like Jolly Ranchers to my list, because since my ear repair surgery my ears have started popping a lot more, and my parents and brother both say that planes taking off makes your ears pop. They say chewing something helps, so I will have to add that.

  12. Cloe says

    This is my first time traveling on an airplane since before 2000. The rules for bringing food on really only are strict for anything considered a liquid? You mentioned GF bread….would that be okay to bring on as a carry on? Any other restrictions as far as food? I have an intolerance so I am planning a head as far as food so I don’t want anything confiscated. I am going to Hawaii in February.

    • Brooke says

      As long as your GF bread is sealed, it should be OK, but it’s best to check with the airline/airports you’ll be flying into. Some countries/islands/destinations don’t allow people to bring in fruit or nuts/seeds due to ecological concerns. It is often OK if the nuts are packaged- but again, you’ll need to check with the airport you’ll be flying into to confirm. In terms of liquids, you would not be able to bring anything that doesn’t fit in your 1-quart liquids bag. You can put it in a checked bag. Or, do some research in advance for health food stores that you can visit on arrival to stock up on necessary items.

  13. Skyler says

    I always like to bring some sort of 2 in 1 neck pillow, that way I can nap on it by folding it into a regular shaped pillow! I also love sitting on them, in which they are so comfy! I always like to pack light, and I highly recommend bringing a small carry on bag; leaving more leg room. I also like to bring one electronic (my phone and charger) along with a few snacks, beauty care, and a journal. Keep in mind that by packing light you will feel so much less overwhelmed, and you can fit extra gadgets you collect along your trip. Have a safe, relaxing flight!

  14. Emma says

    Something I always bring in my carry-on (If you’re actually swimming) is your bathing suit! If your luggage gets lost, or even if your room is getting cleaned and you have some time to spare you can still go swimming.

  15. GiBee says

    I know this comment comes 5 years later, but I would suggest that instead of taking a Kindle, just download the Kindle App onto your phone. Purchase your books from Amazon.com as usual and have them downloaded onto your device.

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