(Exactly) What to Pack in a Carry On: 12+ Carry-on Essentials for Smooth Travel

Figuring out what to pack in a carry-on can be the make or break between you having the best vacation ever and you losing all of your luggage somewhere over the Rocky Mountains.

When we talk about packing, whether that’s packing for a hiking trip, packing for a beach vacation, or packing for a ski vacation, it’s important to keep in mind that smart packing doesn’t just end with the main list.

carry on bag

Knowing what to bring in your carry-on and what to put in checked luggage is crucial, not just because of restrictions on what you can bring in your carry-on, but because it’s so easy to make the mistakes of not putting certain things in there that are going to save you when the airline loses your luggage or the shampoo bottle in your luggage spills all over your clothes, etc.

brown carry on bag

This is the ultimate carry-on packing list, no matter where you’re traveling.

For other packing lists, don’t forget to check out:

brown carry on bag with laptop

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1. Travel-sized Toiletries

Travel sized toiletries, are a must have, even if you’re traveling in the day and expect to be at your destination by the next time you need them.

Firstly, they’re small enough that it’s not going to harm too much by having a tiny shampoo, tiny face wash, and toothbrush in your bag, and secondly, if you get stuck in an airport overnight if your plane is diverted (stranger things have happened), you’ll want them.

2. Two Pairs of Clothes, if Possible

Here we are, the main “must-have” in your carry-on.

But why, why would I need pairs of clothes in my carry-on?

Because if the airplane loses your luggage, you’re going to be desperate for some clean underwear, that’s why!

Even if you’ve never had an airline lose your luggage before, it always pays to be prepared.

Roll up some underwear, at least, and fresh shirts in your carry-on, and that way if you get to your destination without your main clothes, you’ll have something to change into while you wait for the luggage to get to you.

This goes for everyone in the family, so make sure everyone either has their own clothes in their carry-ons or you pile them all into one-carry on if the kids aren’t bringing one or if you are only paying for a certain number of carry-ons (on airlines like Spirit, for example, where you need to pay extra for anything other than a bag under the seat).

3. Medication

pills spilling out of bottle

Never, ever, pack a carry-on without your medication in it.

Even if it is over the liquid amount that you’re allowed to bring, travel with a doctor’s note and prescription and you can go through with it.

Putting medication that you need in your checked luggage is a recipe for disaster if that luggage gets lost, delayed, or damaged and contents spill out.

You want to have the essential medication you need safe and sound in your hands.

4. Reusable Water Bottle (Empty)

You can’t bring a full water bottle through security, so a lot of people assume you can’t bring an empty one either – false!

Empty out your reusable water bottle and carry it through security, then refill it when you’re closer to the gate.

This will help keep you hydrated on the plane instead of just waiting for the flight attendants to come around with water and will save you money as you won’t have to buy disposable water bottles in the airport (can you say, expensive?)

5. Phone Charger and Charging Cord

Many phones have phone chargers in the seat backs, so you’ll want to bring your charging cord to keep your phone charged, if possible.

If that’s not possible, having your entire charger with you (ie, the part that plugs into the wall as well), will save you in airports as you keep your phone charged or allow you to plug it in straight away in your destination.

Again, lost luggage means that you won’t have a phone charger for awhile if you put all of your charging equipment in there and not in your carry-on.

6. Entertainment for Plane (iPad, books, games)

It might go without being said, but in all of the effort to pack a carry-on to prevent losing your mind if you lose your luggage, don’t forget to put all of your entertainment for the plane in it!

People have done the thing before where they just pack for their whole trip, not thinking, and only when little Timmy asks for his plane games do you realize that they are, in fact, under the plane and not able to be accessed.

7. Snacks

cookies in a box

So many flights are now making snacks and other food a paid-for experience, and even if they aren’t, you don’t want to be reliant on that to keep you full, especially if you get delayed, so pack some snacks in your carry-on (things like chips and cookies and non-messy fruit) in case you get hungry.

8. Headphones

Plane headphones are usually not worth the materials they’re made out of, even if you get them, and everybody should really have their own pair of headphones whether it lets you listen to the in-flight entertainment or your own entertainment like podcasts on your phone or the music from video games playing in your kid’s ears.

These noise-cancelling headphones are a great option if you want to take it up a notch, but regular earbuds like these also work fine at a cheaper price.

9. Copy of Passport or Driving License

If you’re traveling internationally (that includes to Canada or Mexico, Americans, you don’t have to cross the water!) you’ll want to make sure you have a full color copy of your passport in your carry-on, which can help you more easily get an emergency replacement one if you lose it in transit.

I also like having a copy of official things like my driving license, in case I were to lose my wallet or something and need ID at check-in at the hotel (it might not work, but takes just seconds to copy and stash in there, and many times people will take pity on you).

10. Written-Down Details of Where You’re Staying and Phone Numbers

hand writing notes in notebook

So many people store important information in their phones these days, including hotel information and phone numbers, taxi numbers, etc.

Or they don’t even write it in there and assume they’ll have service to look it up when they land.

Don’t do that!

You should always write down the important addresses and phone numbers you may need when you land.

If your phone dies, gets stolen, or doesn’t have service, you’ll still be able to borrow someone’s phone and make the call or direct a taxi where you’re headed.

11. Portable Phone Charger

I always get super worried about my phone dying on plane journeys, especially on longer ones.

In addition to hoping there is a charging port in the seat in front of me and bringing my charger to plug in at the airport, I use a portable phone charger like this one.

They’re so tiny, they won’t take up much room at all in your carry-on, and if you charge it before you leave for your trip, it will often have enough for a couple of full charges to your phone before it runs out.

This ability to have a charger anywhere you go (all you need is your phone and charging cord) is so fantastic and has saved many people when all of the charging ports at the airport are taken up during busy holiday travel or they find themselves stranded with battery fading quickly.

12. Anything Fragile

christmas ornament in a tree

Now that you’ve packed the essentials in your carry-on, if you still have room, consider putting anything fragile that you’re trying to transport in there.

Obviously you can’t take things like wine bottles because they are over the liquid limit, but things like Christmas ornaments or trinkets like that are great options for a carry-on.

This will let you be in charge of how rough you treat your luggage and you’ll know to be careful.

Pack it in your checked luggage and, well, it might not arrive to your destination in one piece after how many times it gets thrown around!

(Exactly) What to Pack in a Carry On: 12+ Carry-on Essentials for Smooth Travel via @allamericanatlas

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