Over time, I’ve culled my carry-on packing list down to the bare minimum, including only things that add comfort and convenience.
The items mentioned below work so well that I never unpack my mini Dopp kit I keep within arm’s reach on the plane or in the car.
And it takes only minutes for me to pack a carry-on because I’m in the habit of packing the same travel accessories trip after trip. Without further ado, here’s my list for what to pack in a carry-on for use on the plane whether it’s a long haul flight or a short trip.
(Destination-appropriate clothing isn’t mentioned on the list as we assume you have it all under control. For your main luggage see my suitcase packing hacks.)
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1. Portable Charger
I’ve used a myriad of portable chargers to keep my iPhone and headphones powered. The Anker PowerCore1000 is a current favorite for its reliability and lightweight size. I also chose the red color to make it easier to find in my purse.
However, your ability to charge is also only as good as your phone cord. After years of testing many generics, I recommend using the cord that’s meant to be paired with your phone to avoid connection issues while on the road.
Have an iPhone? Use an authentic Apple cord. Or, carry two generic cables in the event one can’t properly connect. Been there, done that.
Pro Tip: What to pack in a carry-on should ALWAYS include external batteries and all batteries. They are not permitted in checked luggage. I had an older external battery thrown in the garbage by security at the Shanghai Pudong Airport because the brand label had worn off. So, perhaps also make sure that the external battery you’re packing is clearly an external battery.
2. Surge Protector with USB and Extra Plugs
Even some luxury hotels lack sufficient electrical outlets in convenient places. They’re also scarce in many airport lounges. I often also have camera batteries and my daughter’s electronics to charge, too. So, if you need multiple outlets, create your own with the
Pack a solution such as the Belkin SurgePlus USB Swivel Surge Protector and Charger in your carry-on to convert one plug into multiple plugs.
3. Noise Cancelling Headphones
The Bose QuietComfort 20 Noise Cancelling Headphones have been my go-to for years. My daughter has a pair as well.
Even in the age of Air Pods (Apple’s beloved cordless earbuds – which I love), these are still necessary because the sound quality is better, and they will plug into most airplane entertainment systems — something that Air Pods can’t do.
I do also consider Air Pods as carry-on essentials now as a more convenient way to listen to music or take phone calls. But if you are looking for wireless earbuds, Bose makes QuietComfort Noise Cancelling Ear Buds.
4. Roll-Up Reusable Bags
I can’t tell you how handy reusable bags come in, especially when you’re shopping in Hong Kong markets where market vendors now charge you for bags, and there is sensitivity to waste.
I’m a huge fan of using Envirosax bags. They easily roll up into about the size of my fist. I toss one or two in my purse when traveling to avoid plastic bags or carry the unexpected. And I use them at Farmers Markets around San Diego.
They’re stronger than other reusable bags I’ve tried, which explains why they may cost a little more than others. I’ve had the same ones, though, for 15 years. Buy them in a variety of prints and colors.
5. Small Cosmetic Pouch Full of These Items
What to pack in a carry-on ALWAYS includes a small, easy to clean travel pouch. I slip it into my purse and keep it accessible in the car or on the plane.
I never unpack it because these aids (a mini Dopp kit of sorts) always come in handy.
- Ginger Dramamine for motion sickness
- Travel-sized Tums (eating while traveling can be challenging)
- Ginger Drops (for motion sickness)
- Gum or mints
- Eye rewetting drops (for dry eyes on the plane)
- Extra contact lenses
- Hand sanitizer
- A granola bar of some sort, just in case
- Blister bandages (learn more below)
- Colgate Wisp (learn more below)
Sure, a designer travel pouch would be incredible, but mine gets wedged between airplane seats, in small crevices, sits on airplane bathroom counters… you need to be able to clean it. Lululemon, Herschel, and other brands make perfect pouches for this purpose.
Two items in this bag deserve special mention because I find that people don’t think of them.
6. Colgate Wisp
No water, rinsing, or toothpaste is required to use a Colgate Wisp toothbrush. Sure, they give out toothbrushes in business and first class on the airplane, but I still pack these travel essentials carry-on because you can very easily brush discreetly at your seat.
These are more effective than chewing gum because it brushes gunk off of your teeth. And, what if the seatbelt sign is on or the bathroom is busy, and you can’t get in there to use a toothbrush and toothpaste. It’s not a replacement for proper brushing but indeed comes in handy during travel.
7. Blister Bandages
The most used items in my mini first-aid travel kit are blister bandages. They come in handy in all sorts of situations that involve heavy walking.
Maybe that new pair of shoes you thought were comfortable suddenly weren’t, or a child’s foot grew a half-size, but there’s nothing you can do about it in the middle of Disneyland (been there).
9. Travel Wallet
My regular wallet fits airplane tickets and up to two passports. I did that on purpose as my husband’s passport became unusable after being flung in a bag. A travel wallet also helps keep currency organized.
I like this travel wallet/wristlet because it has blocking technology and a strap that allows you to use it as a clutch. I also like that your plane tickets are secure but easily accessible for boarding and filling out customs forms.
Tip: Bring your regular credit cards and ID to your destination but don’t carry them all around with you, just in case you lose them or they’re stolen. I learned this the hard way after being pickpocketed in Venice.
10. Luggage Scale
It’s much cheaper to spend a little on a luggage scale than to pay an overweight bag fee. Weigh your bag with this highly-rated gem, and the nightmare of shuffling clothes around various suitcases at the check-in desk will never occur.
11. Ziploc Bags
An extra gallon-sized Ziploc Bag or two, especially when traveling with kids, can do everything from compress extra clothing (after the air has been forced out) to double as a disposable trash bag. Avoid the bags with the slider as a zipper as these can leak.
12. Eye Mask
If you’re sensitive to light, an eye mask is definitely a carry-on essential. Sleeping on the plane is tough in the best of circumstances. Many airlines give out eye masks, but you’ll want to pack the one that fits you best.
Not seeing flecks of light around black-out shades in a hotel room helps mitigate jet lag. Or heaven forbid, your hotel completely lacks black-out shades altogether.
I’ve learned that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all eye mask solution for everyone. Silk masks are a travel cult favorite for being soft and also helping to prevent wrinkles.
Some people like the contoured sleep masks that don’t crush eyelashes should you blink while wearing the masks. Others prefer scented masks. Shop all travel masks on Amazon.
The rest of my must-have carry-on essentials list includes sunglasses, of course, and good lipstick. What do you pack?
See also: What to Pack for San Diego