When we’re traveling by air, our carry-on bag is our lifeline – and this is never more true than on long flights.
Air travel can involve a lot of stress 😬, frustration 😡 about missed connections, and monotony 🥱. A carry-on bag is our opportunity to pack a few items to save the day and help us be more comfortable during our trip.
Packed well, your carry-on bag can be your ticket to a comfortable flight and smooth arrival. Pack it wrong, however, and you’ll be cursing your carry-on packing skills for hours in flight.
Here’s how I pack a carry-on
Packing a carry-on is always a little bit of a gamble. There’s no guarantee what amenities or in-flight entertainment will be available on a flight. It seems like as soon as I count on an outlet at my seat or an in-flight entertainment system, I’m greeted with the exact opposite! Because of that, I learned how to pack a carry-on for unexpected in-flight issues:
First, I pack rigid items like books, tablets, & laptops.
If your carry-on is a soft-sided bag (which your small personal item should be) your belongings are what will give it structure. Pack magazines, laptops, or a tablet along the side of the carry-on bag. If you do this, you will be able to structure the rest of your packed belongings more strategically. Also, if you’re packing a laptop or tablet in your backpack you’ll be able to pack later items to protect them.
💡 Hint: if you are traveling with a DSLR camera or a fragile souvenir, place it at the center of your carry-on with lots of protective padding around it.
Next, to pack a carry-on bag, sort your carry-on contents
Two types of items should go in your carry-on bag:
things you’ll need on the flight:
- 🎧 headphones,
- phone charger,
- water bottle,
- sanitizing wipes,
- a travel sleep kit if you’re on an overnight flight,
- any medication you need to take during the flight.
And things you won’t need during the flight but don’t want to check:
- 💻 most technology,
- prescription medication you don’t need in flight,
- 📘 your wallet and passport,
- and a single change of clothes.
For many travelers, this may also include personal care items like makeup for planes.
Once you have sorted the carry-on packing list into two categories, you can proceed with this guide on how to pack a carry-on.
Next, pack the items you won’t need In-flight
Packing things you don’t think you’ll need next is an efficient way to pack. By packing them early, they will be situated at the bottom of your carry-on bag. This means less digging in your bag in-flight and a more organized, comfortable journey.
Place these items along the bottom and back of the carry-on bag.
💡 Hint: For easier carrying, place your heaviest items low in the bag and closest to your body when carrying the bag.
Then, place in-flight items into a packing cube
Most people use packing cubes to organize their clothing in their checked bag. However, I think soft-sided packing cubes have a home in every traveler’s carry-on bag. See, if all of the items you want to have handy in-flight are packed in your carry-on bag inside of a packing cube, you don’t have to fumble around in your carry-on bag fishing individual items out after boarding a plane.
Instead, as soon as you board and find your seat, you can simply pull the packing cube out of your carry-on, place it in the seat pocket in front of you, and be ready for takeoff!
Hints for packing items you need to be accessible in your carry-on bag:
1. You don’t have to use a packing cube. You might find a zippered pouch or even a mesh laundry bag sufficient to corral your items and keep them from falling deeper into your carry-on bag.
2. If you are preparing for a long international flight (or even an overnight bus trip), you can get creative with this. While first-class seating has nightstand-like cubbies available on long flights, in economy class, you’ll need to make your own. Personally, I’ve had some luck with securing my packing cube to the seatback in front of me using a standard lanyard (an oddball item on my standard packing list that I take on every single trip)
Now, place your packing cube into your carry-on bag
With your most reached-for items in a handy pouch, they won’t fall deep into your bag.
Place this pouch on top of the items you previously identified as things you probably won’t need in flight.
By separating these categories of items by depth, your carry-on will be organized and easy to use and flight.
finally, add any additional essentials for your carry-on bag.
In the last step of packing a carry-on bag, you’ll need to attend to small details. Make sure there is enough padding between sensitive electronics and potentially sharp edges. If you pack a Turkish towel – like I do on every single trip – it can be perfect for adding an additional layer of padding to protect laptop monitors, tablet screens, or even expensive camera gear.
Now that your carry-on bag is packed, you’ll are prepared for any adventure in the air or beyond. Keeping the things you need most close at hand will make you comfortable and more relaxed during your flight.
Some tips on what to include in your carry-on bag
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Paper reading materials – On a long flight, your eyes need a break from screens. I recommend bringing a book or magazine so you’ll always have something to read even if tech fails or your eyes are weary of blue light. Magazines are best for flat packing and making more space in your luggage.
Extra socks and underwear – Airplane cabins are often chilly. It’s a good idea to bring an extra pair of socks and perhaps even a pair of shoes. Most travelers also include, at the minimum, one extra pair of underwear. This way, if your checked bag does not make it to your destination, one backup pair of socks and underwear is a lifesaver.
A blanket or scarf – Since buying one in 2017, I have not taken a single trip without a Turkish towel. Part blanket, part scarf, part super absorptive cloth, I love this travel essential. (While I recommend all travelers buy one, my advice is to be careful where you buy your Turkish towel. Some sellers unscrupulously sell polyester Turkish towels labeled as 100% cotton – but these towels won’t work nearly as well as the originals. Here’s a certified organic cotton Turkish towel)
Vitamins and prescription medication – Always keep health care items in your carry-on bag. Keeping an eye on these items is essential; keeping them close to you is the best way to do this. Store any medications in original packaging with the original label if possible. When this isn’t possible, you can use my method to package travel supplements. Be sure and carry a copy of your prescription (your pharmacist can provide one on request).
Over-the-counter medication – In-flight headaches are common due to dehydration, 1 and to purchase an over-the-counter painkiller from an airport newsstand will cost you an arm and a leg (or at the very least, a hand 😉). Instead of being held to the availability of over-the-counter items at an airport, bring them from home in small quantities.
In my carry-on, I always have this flip-fold pill container – it has ten compartments and a closure that folds in on itself, so spilling is next to impossible!
noise-canceling headphones with an analog connection – I know, I know, you wouldn’t dream of taking a flight without your earbuds, but you’ll need a better plan for packing a carry-on well for long flights.
There are two problems with using regular earbuds on a flight:
1. Modern Bluetooth earbuds are not adaptable to in-flight entertainment systems.
2. If you want to sleep on your flight, you may struggle to sleep with an earbud in or wake up with an earbud that’s fallen and rolled under someone else’s seat.
Solve both of these problems with an in-flight entertainment system Bluetooth adapter (I use and love this one from Amazon) and a soft fleece Bluetooth headband. This sleep-friendly headband has tiny speakers embedded in the fabric (like this one, also at Amazon). Both are essential for your carry-on if you plan to take long flights regularly.
Final thoughts on Packing a Carry On Bag for your Personal Item
This list of essentials for your carry-on is a good starting list for packing. While packing a checked bag is an entirely different challenge, this guide can help ensure that your carry-on is organized and contains everything you could potentially need during your flight.
For more pro tips on air travel, check out these related articles:
Lynli Roman’s unique approach to travel is informed by a Masters Degree In Counseling Psychology, previous work as a research assistant, and decades of experience growing up on the road with a traveling family. When she’s not writing Seattle-focused content from her Pike Place Market apartment, Lynli writes on-location while conducting hands-on research in each destination she covers. Lynli’s writing has been featured by MSN, ABC Money, Buzzfeed, and HuffingtonPost. She is passionate about sharing information that makes travel more accessible for all bodies.
- Uchiyama, E., Aronowicz, J. D., Butovich, I. A., & McCulley, J. P. (2007) Increased evaporative rates in laboratory testing conditions simulating airplane cabin relative humidity: an important factor for dry eye syndrome. Eye & contact lens, 33(4), 174-176. [↩]