Updated: Sep 1, 2019
Whether you're flying across the country or across the pond, this is everything you need in your carry-on bag!
A good carry-on bag will easily fit under the seat in front of you, and will have enough room for everything you need on your flight. A medium or large size rucksack or day pack should be just the right size. One option is the Northface Women's Recon Laptop Backpack. The laptop pocket has good padding and will allow you to travel safely with your laptop if you choose to. Any good quality hiking or sports pack will work. This one is great because it has lots of pockets and sections for organizing everything. The trick is not to overpack! Basically, your backpack should have anything you need access to on the flight, and can double as a day pack for sightseeing excursions if needed. Ideally, these are the items you want to have in your carry-on bag to set yourself up for success!
1. Personal documents
This should go without saying, but be sure you have your driver's license and/or passport. You should also have your health insurance card, and a pen or two for filling out paperwork or jotting down notes. If traveling abroad, you should have a copy of your passport in a separate location from the original (along with contact information for the local embassy). If you will be renting a car in a foreign country, you need to have an International Driver's License. You can get these at AAA for $20. Check with your car insurance company, as well as your credit card company, to see if your rental car is covered under those policies or accounts.
Additionally, you may want paper copies of any reservations or itineraries that are part of your trip. It can be helpful to have copies of flight, hotel, and car rental confirmations just in case your phone battery dies or you don't have access to email confirmations. There are a few European airlines and car rental agencies that require you to have a paper boarding pass or printed voucher. Read the fine print on all of your reservations carefully ahead of time! Paper documentation can be put in a thin folder, which will fit easily in the main pocket of your backpack.
You definitely want to have ways to entertain yourself when you travel. Whether you have a long layover, international flight, or unexpected delay, use the Boy Scout motto and be prepared! Reading materials like a magazine, book or Kindle are a must. You may want a travel journal as well. Take either your iPad or laptop...NOT both. This takes up too much space. A good idea is to use an app that allows you to download your favorite shows or movies ahead of time, as opposed to ones that require an active internet connection. It's also smart to create playlists before your trip, so you're not spending time and battery life searching for music. Spotify is nice because you can download a particular playlist to your phone for the trip, and then "undownload" it when you get back home if you need the space!
Don't forget your headphones! Figuring out the best headphones to take is actually more complicated than you might think. Large, noise canceling headphones are nice, but take up a lot of space. What about wireless headphones? The problem with these is that you have to keep them charged. If you choose this option you should have a standard pair as a backup. Also, while wireless headphones are nice for your personal devices, they will not connect to most in-flight entertainment systems. Another issue is that your iPhone may need the new special "apple" plug in, but your laptop or the in-flight system uses the "old school" regular plug. Ugh! How many pairs of headphones does one girl need?? My solution is to take a small pair of wireless headphones with a long battery life such as the Amorno Bluetooth Earbuds with charging case, a standard pair of old school earbuds, and the short apple adapter cord. This gives you a backup pair, and will allow you to use the standard headphones on your personal devices and the airplane system.
Additional items such as playing cards or a small travel game is a nice alternative that will give you some personal interaction with your travel partner, and are helpful if all of your devices run out of juice.
Now that you have all of your electronic entertainment devices chosen, make sure you don't forget to pack all of the charging cords that go along with them. This includes any special adapter or power converters you might need for international travel. My favorite Christmas present last year was the All in One World Travel Adpater on Amazon. I love it because it has 4 USB ports for charging your devices at night, as well as retractable parts that allow it to be used in over 100 countries! Also, it's an adapter AND converter all in one. Thus the name! This means it will convert the electricity to the proper voltage so you don't burn up your devices. The most important thing here is that it is lightweight and compact...space is EVERYTHING. One last thing you may need is a portable phone charger. Or maybe even two! These come in SO handy if you're out sightseeing and need to recharge, at the airport and all the plugs are taken, or when your flight doesn't have an electrical or USB outlet. They even have wallets, purses, and suitcases with built-in chargers. I would be lost without mine!
4. Snacks and hydration
This one is pretty self-explanatory. The snacks you get on planes are very small and you may not have time to eat between flights, even if your scheduled layover is long. Take a few light snacks that will hold up in the heat or cold, and won't be smashed into pieces when you push your backpack under the seat in front of you. Trail mix or home-made party mixes are a good choice, as well as granola bars or small bags of popcorn or other munchies. Don't forget the gum to un-pop your ears during the flight and help with the not-so-fresh breath after a 12 hour plane ride. A recent discovery I've made is a collapsible water bottle! The one I use is made by Hydaway, and it's perfect! These little babies will fit perfectly in a side pocket of your suitcase so you have easy access after you go through security. They are great for sightseeing as well, just slide one into your purse or day pack when you head out for the day. Not to mention being good for the environment...every time you use it, that's one less plastic bottle being thrown away!
5. Personal Hygiene and First Aid
I highly recommend putting together a toiletry bag that will fit in your carry-on sized suitcase or backpack. Even if you check a suitcase that has a toiletry bag with larger bottles, I recommend having a smaller bag with personal hygiene and make-up essentials. For more details, see my article "The Art of Packing Light". This will be a life saver in the event that you become separated from your checked bag. Keep this bag in the top or outside pocket of your carry-on or in your backpack, so you can easily get to it at the security checkpoint, as well as to freshen up on the plane or in the airport bathroom when you reach your final destination! Another helpful item is a small first aid kit or bag, with items such as antibacterial wipes, bandaids, alcohol wipes, and prescription or over the counter medicine. As opposed to taking multiple bottles of every type of medicine you may (or may not) need, take one bottle or ziplock bag with a variety of pills. Just be sure you can remember what each pill is, or make yourself a list to reference. Also, load up on Airborne or Vitamin C before and during your trip to build up your immunity so you can stay healthy and enjoy your adventures!
If you have room, put your travel pillow in your backpack. If not, hang it from the outside or put it in a stuff sack and attach it with a carabiner. Using this option on your trip home will leave space inside your backpack for souvenirs or other treasures you are bringing home. If you have room for a lightweight blanket, put this in your backpack as well. If space is tight, a scarf is a good alternative. Airplanes are known for being notoriously hot OR cold, and you never know which one you're going to get. International flights still give you a small blanket and pillow, but they are not the most comfortable. Speaking of trying to sleep on an airplane full of people, you may want to pack a pair of ear plugs and/or an eye mask for sleeping. On that note, some Melatonin (or other sleep aid of your choice) may be helpful as well. Just don't take anything that's going to make you too drowsy or unable to function when your flight arrives!
7. Extra clothes
It is very smart to always have an extra set of clothes in your carry-on bag. The first time you arrive at your destination and your suitcase does not, you will thank yourself for doing this! At the very least, put an extra pair of underwear and socks in there. If you feel the need to freshen up after a long over-seas flight, it is so much easier to just take your backpack into the bathroom, as opposed to opening up a huge suitcase in a tiny bathroom stall. Although I do discourage taking a huge suitcase on any trip (again, see my article "The Art of Packing Light"). Try to put your lightweight coat and/or raincoat in your backpack as well, so you have easy access to your coat should you need it when you arrive at your destination.
8. Additional Bags
Managing multiple bags at the airport can be challenging, especially when you're trying to remember where you put what items. While you don't want to end up with a "bag full of bags", you should keep your wallet or a small purse easily accessible in your backpack. Having your i.d., credit cards, and money loose in your backpack can be a disaster. You also may want to pack a lightweight fanny pack or cross body purse that can be folded or rolled up inside the backpack, and used for shorter sightseeing trips. Guys, you can wear cross body day packs or fanny packs and still be cool! Just wear it with confidence and everything will be ok.
Now you know the secret to packing the perfect carry-on.
I hope these tips will make your travels more comfortable and stress-free. Have other great ideas for what makes the perfect carry-on? I'd love to hear them!