If you're an American traveling on an international flight, your ticket will likely cover both a full-size suitcase and a carry-on. That carry-on is the item of luggage that will be taken aboard the plane with you. Which means it should include everything that you'd like to have with you during the flight.
Many decisions must be made while you pack your carry-on bag, from how you will sleep to how to entertain yourself. When it comes to the carry-on, there's an additional consideration: This is the item that you're less likely to lose during the trip. Where it comes to checked-in baggage, some suitcases just don't make it to their final destination along with the passenger.
The figures presented by the US Department of Transportation claim that less than half a percent of the luggage is reported as mishandled but these are just the reported cases. Most of the times, the luggage is only delayed and you could get it several days after arriving at your destination (which would go unreported in the DOT stats).
Back to our carry-ons, the point here is that you should always pack in yours enough to keep you going happily for several days, just in case your suitcase is delayed. And of course, everything that you want to have with you during the flight itself.
With that in mind, let's move on.
The Carry-On Packing Checklist
- Important documents
- Noise-canceling headphones
- Travel pillow
- Sleep mask
- Proper clothing
- Reusable water bottle
Let's further break up these so you'll see what you need to cover with each item. Oh, and if you're also shopping for the actual luggage, make sure you check out my post about the best carry-on backpacks too!
Once you get on that long-haul flight, there is no turning back, and while you may be able to purchase other items that you may have forgotten once you get to your destination if you lose track of any necessary documents, you might be in big trouble.
The most essential documents that you must have on you include your passport, health insurance card, directions to important places, any additional plane or train tickets you may need, and necessary international credit cards.
You will also want to have documentation that lists the address of your hotel as many countries will ask you to fill out that information upon arrival.
So a recap of the important documents:
- Credit Card
- Health Insurance Card
- Additional tickets and vouchers.
- The address of your first hotel.
Don’t take the risk of being without them if your luggage is lost. It is highly advised that you have this paperwork in your carry-on and that you never lose sight of your bag. With super important items such as your passport and credit cards, you should have them on you at all times.
If you take any necessary medication, be sure that it is stored in your carry-on. If you don’t have proper prescription information, then getting refills at your destination can be nearly impossible.
Instead of taking numerous pill bottles, store your medication in a handy organizer. Such a product will keep the pills organized and handy but do keep the original leaflets with you somewhere. In addition to your prescription pills, remember to pack any over the counter medicine, like aspirin, that you feel you might need. You should be able to buy them at your destination but a. Why waste your precious travel time in a pharmacy and b. you might get a headache while on the plane.
Carry a form or letter from your health provider with a list of your prescription medication. This won't serve as a prescription in a pharmacy but it can help you in two ways:
- Should anyone at customs have an issue with your pills (that's where having the original packages and leaflets helps too).
- In case you need to get more medication, you can show the list to a local doctor and they can take it from there.
One of the most important items to have in your carry-on is a pair of high-quality, noise-canceling headphones, as they can have many uses.
Headphones allow you to play your favorite songs and provide hours of entertainment as you gaze out the window. If you are looking to sleep on the plane, you might also decide to play some soothing sounds or mellow music to put you in your happy place.
Don’t be cheap when it comes to purchasing headphones because you want the best sound possible without having them falling apart.
Even if you aren’t a music fan, noise-canceling headphones can be instrumental in keeping you sane during your long flight. Planes are loud and prolonged exposure to the engine noise can do a number on your ears, so even if you don’t listen to music, having them on can help to drown these noises out.
When it comes to noise-canceling headphones, you get what you pay for. Some headphones are set up to digitally eliminate outside noise, while models like this set from Bose also offer brilliant sound quality.
If you are taking a long flight to the other side of the world, then you are probably going to want to get some shut-eye so you can be well rested when you reach your destination. The more you spend on your tickets, the more comfortable your seats will be. But no matter your budget, you can’t go wrong by packing a travel pillow.
Choosing the right neck pillow is not a decision to take lightly. Think about how you sleep and what issues you may have and choose accordingly.
If you will be sleeping in an upright position, and you often move your head from side to side, then consider a traditional U-shaped neck pillow. They provide neck support, and since they keep you in place in your seat, they also give your full body the comfort it needs.
If you have frequent back pain or you want to combine pillows, then consider a lower wedge pillow. This pillow mimics the natural posture of your back and can also help with neck pain. There are many other flight pillows from which to choose. A ring-shaped pillow encompasses your entire neck for maximum support. Some may desire a pillow that attaches to the seat so you can lay your head to the side. If you usually sleep on your stomach, then a larger travel pillow can even give you the comfortable feeling that you are used to at home.
Now that you have your neck and body situated, it is time to get some shut eye. Even during night flights, it is difficult to find total darkness due to phone screens, overhead lights, and other distractions. A sleep mask can save you from that, providing dark cover so you can sleep soundly.
Choosing a sleep mask is another decision that should not be taken lightly. It seems like a simple enough tool, but there are actually many variations. When traveling, pick a sleep mask that blocks out the most amount of light.
If you are a side sleeper, then shop for a mask with that in mind. Try out different masks and see which best fit your face. Some have deeper eye cavities. Others are simple and lightweight.
Remember that unless you are an easy sleeper, you will probably be using the sleep mask when you stay in your hotel rooms, so take your time and try a few on so you can get the perfect fit.
Since it can be difficult to sleep with headphones on, also consider a pair of inexpensive earplugs for sleeping on the plane and at your hotel.
First, consider what you'll be wearing during the flight.
While you pack your carry-on, think about the duration of your flight and how long you will be sitting in the same place, and dress and pack accordingly. These long-haul flights are not fashion shows. If you are not comfortable wearing it at home, then don’t bring it to wear on a 14-hour trip.
Start from the bottom with comfortable slip-on shoes that are roomy enough to be worn for an extended period of time. Since it can be considered rude to be barefoot, wear wool socks that will keep your feet warm during cold flights. Avoid cotton socks as they can get soggy and lead to unwanted odors.
You never know just how hot or cold the interior of the plane will be, so pack both a pair of light shorts and comfortable long pants and change as necessary. Don’t bring anything too tight or constricting or you will be miserable the whole flight. It’s not considered clothing, but bringing a light blanket can’t hurt.
Wear a comfortable shirt and consider bringing a light jacket, sweater, or hoodie sweatshirt. A hoodie can keep you warm, and you can put the hood up over your head as a subtle “do not disturb” sign. When you are not using your covering, you can roll it up as a makeshift pillow.
What clothes should you pack in the carry-on?
As a rule of thumb, I always make sure we can "live off" the carry on for a few days. We've had checked-in suitcases delayed by up to three days at a time. Having everything you need for a few days means you can keep on sightseeing according to your plan rather than go shopping for essential clothing items.
So, at the very least, two changes of clothes.
Reusable Water Bottle
One of the biggest negative side effects of air travel is the chance of extensive dehydration.
If you don’t drink enough water, the dryness in the air can lead to the weakening of your immune system in addition to drying out your skin and making you much more susceptible to jet lag, a feeling that you don’t want once you arrive at your exciting destination.
Most airports will not allow you to bring a disposable water bottle through security and the cost of purchasing one in the airport can be downright criminal. To make life easier, pack a reusable water bottle.
You have many choices of water bottles, from your typical stainless steel option to those that promise to keep your water cool for longer. To save space, your best bet may be a collapsible water bottle that you can fit into your carry-on with ease.
Once you have your water bottle in your possession, you can fill it in the bathroom sink or ask the flight attendants for refills. Keep the bottle with you during your vacation, so hydration is never too far away.
Depending on your airline, you may be limited to what you get to eat during your adventure. Even if food is provided, it can be expensive, and they may not even have what you enjoy. To solve this predicament, bring some of your own snacks.
There are dos and do not's when it comes to what food to bring. Do not bring food that can create odors like tuna or messy food that will make you enemies with the flight attendants.
Instead, try snacks that will keep you feeling good with protein and healthy carbs. Perfect snacks that you can bag and snack on at your leisure include nuts, trail mix, fruit bars, and some dark chocolate as a treat. If you want to cheat a bit, pack a few travel-size bags of chips or healthy popcorn.
Chewing gum is an old standby that is still recommended. Not only can it give you some tasty flavor and relive bad breath, but gum helps to relieve ear pressure during landing and take off.
Oh, and if traveling with kids (ok, or even on your own), it's a good idea to pack some extra healthy snacks in the carry-on. Just in case no one is in the mood to get out and shop for food on arrival, it's good to have something to eat in your hotel room on that first night.
Tablet or Laptop
When you are not sleeping, you will need something to help to pass the time. You can bring a laptop but that can be bulky, and it is not something that you want to lose. Instead, a decent tablet will give you hours of entertainment.
A tablet can provide just about any type of amusement. Load it with your favorite ebooks, install Netflix or Amazon Prime so you can watch your favorite shows, or stream music directly to your noise-canceling headphones. If you are traveling with children, add a few games like Scrabble or Crazy 8s to the tablet so everyone can be entertained.
If you are going to download entertainment onto your tablet, get it done at home before you leave as internet availability and WI-FI is touch and go in airports and on the plane.
Charger(s) and adapters
Just imagine you are having a great time listing to your music and watching movies on your tablet when all of a sudden, the device goes dead. If you are on a long flight and were counting on your device for entertainment, you are going to wish you had brought your chargers.
Many planes have outlets installed in the seats so bring all necessary chargers and take advantage of this perk. If your device takes batteries then pack enough of those as well. If you are using your phone for entertainment, then don’t forget your phone charger plus any other applicable USB cables.
If the plane doesn’t have outlets, then a portable charger might save the day. Make sure that you also have all applicable plug adapters so you can continue using your devices when you land. For example, if you happen to be traveling to Israel from the US, you'll need both an adapter and a converter.
An important caveat
Before we wrap up the post, just one more thing.
This post assumes you have an international flight where your ticket covers both a suitcase and a carry-on, and that you'll be taking both. With that in mind, I focused on the things you need to have with you during the flight and during the first days of your trip (in case your checked-in bag is delayed).
Some airlines within Europe offer low-cost flights where you may only be allowed a carry-on. In our experience, these days they no longer guarantee you'll be able to have that carry-on with you. We've had ours taken away at the gate to be checked in by the crew. This is important because it means you need to be able to carry the mere essentials for the flight itself in your pockets.
Fortunately, these flights are usually relatively short, so you don't mean much other than your phone, passport and credit card but I thought I'd mention it here all the same.
Preparation is Key
There is no worse feeling than getting on the plane and realizing that you forgot one of these necessary items, so save yourself the trouble by creating a list before you go. If you try scrambling around, you are bound to forget something that you really need. Keep a list in your suitcase and refer to it when necessary.
International flights can be a hassle, but when you have the right items in your carry-on, the long plane ride can be an enjoyable one. Safe travels!