I can’t even begin to tell you how frustrated I was the first time an airline lost my checked luggage, and how much I regretted not defaulting to carry on only instead. After fumbling through a two day conference with only one change of clothes (thankfully, I’d stuffed them into my shoulder bag before leaving home), I vowed to only ever travel with items I could fit in the overhead bin from then on. Admittedly, it’s not always possible to do extended international travel or family trips with just carry-on items. But whenever possible, even last year when I did a winter Europe work trip for one week, I travel with carry on only.
Read on to learn about what I’ve found to be the 42 most essential carry on items, based on my extensive domestic and international travel experience.
42 most important carry on items that you must pack for long-haul international flights
1. A good backpack
I don’t usually put mine in the overhead bin, but rather under the seat in front of me. This is where I store my electronic devices, so it’s especially important to pick a bag that has laptop compartments. A backpack that has a strap to slide onto the telescopic handle of your roller suitcase is a good idea.
2. Roller bag
A lot of people prefer to travel with a duffel bag for carry on, I prefer a roller bag with spinner wheels and a telescopic handle. I’m currently using a Delsey soft-sided roller bag, one of the good things about this piece of luggage is that it has an easy access front pocket. My backup carry on suitcase has a polycarbonate shell.
3. Passport, ID, travel documents
It goes without saying that you need to pack your identification documents, as per FAA regulations. For international travel, make sure to bring your passport; you won’t get past the security screening process if you don’t! For easy access, I like to store mine in the front pocket of my roller bag.
4. Cash and bank cards
I’m not a fan of money belts, as they are awkward to access during international travel. I do, however, like to carry a small wallet in my front pocket. I use the SecrID wallet, as it’s minimalist, provides easy access, and protects my cards from being fraudulently scanned.
5. Travel insurance
Don’t forget to make sure you are carrying sufficient travel and medical insurance, whether travelling within the United States, or for international travel. A lot of people assume that their employer-provided travel insurance is sufficient, sometimes it’s worth double checking with your provider, just to be certain.
6. Travel documents and itineraries
It’s always wise to keep a printed copy of your travel itinerary (hotel reservations details, flights, etc.), just in case you should lose access upon arrival at your destination. This is especially true for international travel. Keep these important papers stored in one of your laptop compartments in your carry on backpack.
7. Collapsible water bottle
I always make sure to carry on a water bottle, you never know when you’ll have access to water during your travels. If you’re pressed for space, consider getting a collapsible water bottle. Just be sure to empty it out, as per FAA regulations, before going through security, to avoid unnecessary additional screening.
8. Hand lotion
A lot of people find that their skin gets dry while travelling. It’s always a good idea to carry some hand lotion. Remember that it must be under 100ml.
9. Tissues and hand sanitizer
These are good things to keep accessible in your carry-on luggage. For easy access, consider putting them in your shoulder bag, backpack, or in the front pocket of your roller bag.
10. Wet wipes
We all know that airplanes are not the cleanest places, it’s a good idea to travel with some wet wipes. Give your seat area a quick wipe down after you pack away your carry on items in the overhead bin, but before you settle into your seat.
Plan ahead to carry on some snacks, especially for longer international travel. Granola bars, nuts, and other small packaged snacks are good things to include amongst your carry-on items.
12. Phone and universal SIM card
Of course, mobile phones are one of the most essential carry-on items. If you’re going on an international trip, consider pre-purchasing a universal sim card. Toss it into your carry on, you’ll be happy you did, as you might save a bundle on international roaming fees.
13. Travel adapter
Even if you’re not going on an international trip (and all the more if you are), travel adapters are a must for charging your electronic devices. I was recently on a trip in the United States and left home with only my power bank. Unfortunately, this only kept my smaller electronic devices charged.
14. Power bank
A good quality power bank is a must if you’ll be travelling with your electronic devices. These compact devices are easy to store in your carry-on luggage and do a quick job of charging mobile phones.
If your next trip involves international travel, consider signing up for a VPN service. Sometimes, when you’re away from your home country, you won’t be able to access websites that you frequent at home. Signing onto a VPN will ensure easy access when you find yourself beyond the borders of the United States (or wherever you call home).
16. Travel pillow
This is truly a must-pack carry on item for long haul international, or red-eye flights. Airlines rarely provide pillows these days, unless you’re flying in business class. Consider packing your pillow inside compression cubes, this way you’ll have easy access, without taking up too much space in your carry on.
For those times when the flight attendant just isn’t able to locate an airplane blanket, you’ll be glad you packed a scarf. A lot of people use scarfs to reduce heat loss around their necks in cold weather, why not wrap it around your neck and face to help keep you warm as you sleep on the plane when your international travel requires overnight flying.
18. Headphones or earphones
Airlines don’t always provide the best ear phones, in fact, sometimes you even have to pay for them! Consider packing your own so that you can stay connected to your electronic devices, or watch movies on the plane.
Sometimes your carry-on luggage is just so full that you’re not able to put a computer into your backpack’s laptop compartments. Consider taking along a tablet, to preserve space in your carry on. You can also charge your tablet using your power bank, leaving your bulky charger at home.
20. Lip balm
Airplane cabins are notoriously dry, take care of your lips, put some lip balm in your shoulder bag or in one of your carry on front pockets.
It seems obvious that you would pack deodorant…but some people put it in whatever piece of luggage they check. What if your carry on is all that arrives with you at your final destination? You’ll be glad you put that deodorant in your carry on.
22. Toothbrush and toothpaste
Think of packing a quart-sized bag of liquids, and including toothpaste (and a toothbrush). It’s always nice to freshen up your breath during international travel.
23. Facial wipes
Facial wipes should always be included in amongst your carry-on items. Although they’re moist, they don’t count as a liquid, so you don’t have to worry about them during the security screening process.
I always say, pack your medications in your carry-on luggage! You don’t want to start out your international travel without essential medications, in the event that your checked luggage is lost.
25. Fanny pack
These are all the rage, it reminds me of the 1980s, but honestly, they’re so practical and give you easy access to your small electronic devices and other important items. When you’re not wearing your fanny pack, you can toss it into your carry-on baggage so that it doesn’t count as your personal item.
26. Packing cubes
I recently discovered these compression cubes, and I can’t imagine packing my carry-on luggage any other way! Packing cubes allow you to keep your carry on organized, and in case you need to open up your carry-on baggage during the screening process, nothing will fall out.
27. Reusable shopping bag
Last year, I started throwing a reusable shopping bag into my carry on. It can serve as a laundry bag, store dirty shoes, or any other number of things. You can even stuff it into the front pocket of your piece of luggage for easy access.
28. Zip up sweater
This is a clothing essential. You never know if you’ll be too hot or too cold on a long flight. Include a zip up sweater in your carry on, or wear it to the airport to save on space.
29. Comfortable shoes
I always pack two pairs of shoes. One pair is obviously on my feet when I’m flying (usually the bulkier ones) and the other goes in my carry on. If your shoes aren’t super clean, consider wrapping them in your laundry bag to keep your other carry-on items from getting dirty.
Sunglasses are a must, not only while you’re at your destination, but even while on the plane. A lot of people find them comforting when flying from Europe to the United States, which is usually done in full daylight.
31. Toiletry bag and resealable plastic bags
Make sure you have easy access to your quart-sized bag of liquids, so they can be pulled out during the screening process. It’s always a good idea to pack a few extra ziploc bags for wet swimsuits, dirty items, etc. Your toiletry bag can store all of your non-liquid carry on items.
32. Tech organizer
Rather than putting your power bank, small electronic devices, and charging cords in a random front pocket or laptop compartments, consolidate them into a tech organizer for easy access.
33. Change of clothing
No matter what, always pack a full change of clothing, you’ll be glad you did in the event that your checked piece of luggage doesn’t make it to your final destination.
34. Phone and computer charger
While a power bank and adapter are essential, so too are your mobile phone and laptop computer chargers. There’s nothing worse than losing your checked luggage, including chargers, and then running out of battery when you arrive at your final destination.
35. Eye mask
These are good things to throw into your toiletry bag. They’re especially useful for sleeping on long international trips.
36. Compression socks
Last year, for the first time, I started wearing compression socks on long international trips. I find that my feet get swollen after a whole night of international travel by plane, and these tight fitting socks seem to really help out.
If you’re going on a shorter flight, you might choose to omit this item from your carry on bag. However, if you’re spending a longer period of time on the plane, consider packing a blanket in your carry-on baggage. Read my post, “Can you bring a blanket on the plane?” for more about this.
38. First aid kit
All you need are a few basic items in your carry-on luggage: band aids (for cuts and blisters), some pain killers, sanitizing wipes. You never know when you might need a little bit of medical help.
39. Emergen C vitamin C
I swear by these little packets of vitamin C. I take one every morning with breakfast while I’m travelling to help keep my immune system strong. Consider tossing a few into your carry on next time to travel.
40. Ear plugs
I just hate it when I’m flying international, and my seat neighbour stays up talking all night. Ear plugs help to drown out the noise, they’re also useful at noisy hotels.
41. Pen, pencil, paper
Some countries still require that you fill in forms upon arrival, so it’s always helpful to have something to write with. Flight attendants don’t always have pens to lend out.
42. Light jacket or rain shell
A light waterproof shell is always packed in the top of my carry on! I fold it up so that it takes up very little room. You’ll be glad you packed it if you encounter rain.
Whether you’re travelling for work for the first time, gearing up for some international travel, or looking to streamline things for your next trip, a packing plan for your carry-on luggage is always a good idea. With airlines becoming increasingly strict about carry-on limits, it’s more important than even to pack your carry on wisely.