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Here's what to pack in a carry-on bag every time you travel

Sept. 05, 2022
9 min read
bags in overhead bin of plane
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Editor's note: This post has been updated.


By this point, I've mentioned several times that I am firmly team carry-on and will very rarely check a bag.

However, even if you're not like me and prefer to check a bag, certain items should always go in your carry-on, regardless of whether you are also checking a bag.

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Even though I travel with a backpack and carry-on bag exclusively, I still tend to overpack out of a desire to plan for every possible outfit scenario. Once I finish packing clothes I'm most certainly not ever going to wear, I mentally start running through my checklist of non-clothing items.

It's around this point that I usually call my mother and say I feel like I am forgetting something but I can't remember what. This is when she reminds me that you can always buy whatever you forgot, excluding those really important items unique to me as a traveler — contact lenses, passport, driver's license, eyeglasses etc.

Then, when I'm en route to the airport, I rummage through my backpack to ensure I have those hard-to-replace things.

To reduce the risk of not being able to see because you forgot them (or packed your contacts in your checked bag that got lost), here are seven items to never check.

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Identification documents

TANG MING/GETTY IMAGES

This goes without saying. However, your identifying documents, such as a passport or valid driver's license, are among the most important items for a traveler to have close at hand, especially if you're traveling abroad.

If you're traveling domestically and don't need a passport, all travelers age 18 and older still need a driver's license or other state photo identification card from their state's Department of Motor Vehicles (or equivalent) to pass through TSA security at U.S. airports. For a full list of acceptable forms of identification from TSA, see here.

Once you've reached your destination, you'll likely need to show some form of ID to check into a hotel or rent a car. If traveling abroad, I recommend carrying a picture of your passport with you while keeping your passport (and other valuables) securely locked in your room (in a hotel safe, if available).

Phone and charger

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A phone is among the most helpful tools when traveling, especially if you have a plan that allows you to use your data internationally.

I use my phone all the time on trips to navigate and figure out directions — even when visiting cities I've been to before, since I have a terrible sense of direction. This also means I have to frequently charge my phone, which is only possible if I've brought the right charger and any converters to be able to use the plugs (if applicable).

I keep all of my electronics and chargers in my backpack for easy access on the plane and so that I can use the in-seat charging portal. I like to ensure my phone is fully charged before exiting the plane so that I don't have to worry about running out of battery en route to my hotel or other accommodations, since my room may or may not be available for check-in when I arrive.

This is also helpful if you have a lengthy layover between flights since you can't guarantee you'll find access to a charging station at an airport.

It's important for me, as a female traveler who sometimes travels solo, to make sure I always have a working phone. Therefore, I suggest packing a portable charger in your carry-on and always bringing that with you when you go out and about.

Read more: More than just computers: I used my Amex Business Platinum Dell credit for a carry-on bag

Headphones and other electronics

JOSE LUIS PELAEZ INC/GETTY IMAGES

In addition to my phone, I always travel with my iPad and Apple Watch, both of which require separate chargers. I never ever leave the house, especially when I am traveling, without two sets of headphones, one wireless and one not, since my wireless ones tend to run out of battery.

I've encountered a few times when a fellow passenger attempted to listen to something on their phone without using headphones. Not only does this annoy the rest of us, but it's also extremely inconsiderate. Also, airline staff will likely ask you to refrain from listening to things out loud, while also potentially providing you with headphones, depending on the airline and route.

I like to keep headphones and AirPods in my backpack so they're easy to reach at all times.

A change of clothes

PABLO JEFFS MUNIZAGA-FOTOTREKKING/GETTY IMAGES

The last time I checked a bag it was a huge mistake. I missed my connecting flight due to inclement weather and my luggage was sent without me to my final destination. That left me having to spend the night in an airport hotel in Miami with just my backpack and the clothing I had been wearing for almost an entire day.

This scenario is exactly why it's important to pack at least one spare outfit in your carry-on item. Toss in an extra pair of socks if you tend to sweat like me.

Especially on long-haul flights and those flights with layovers, you'll appreciate having a fresh pair of clothes to change into along the way. You might even be able to access an airport lounge or an aircraft with showers, which is even better for freshening up.

Even if your flight is short and direct, it’s still helpful to pack a change of clothes in your carry-on in case your baggage gets delayed.

Reusable water bottle

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Another item I never travel without in my backpack is a reusable water bottle. Just make sure the bottle is empty before you pass through airport security. since most airports limit the number of liquids you can take through security.

Once you head to your gate in the post-security area, you'll likely find free water refill stations where you can fill up your reusable bottle, including some with filtered water.

When flying, I usually ask for water and then pour that water into my bottle, so that I have it full at all times. Just remember to take your water bottle (along with your other items) off the plane when you disembark, since I've lost two Hydro Flasks this way.

Also remember that flying can dehydrate you, especially if you’re drinking alcohol, so it's important to pay attention to your water consumption on travel days and make sure you are getting enough.

Considering how much airport stores charge for water and other items, bringing your own water bottle ensures you'll also save money — while avoiding single-use plastic.

Related: High and dry: The quest to stay hydrated in the airport and in the air

Prescriptions and other medications

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If you need to take medication daily, it's wise to pack any prescriptions into your carry-on luggage along with any over-the-counter medications you take frequently or might need, such as pain relievers or allergy medicine.

For example, I always bring several days' worths of Tylenol, Benadryl, vitamins, probiotics, etc., as well as a few extra supplements of my daily medicine in case I end up staying longer than anticipated.

Another item I pack a few extra pairs of is contact lenses. I wear dailies and prefer them to wearing my glasses, though I bring my glasses as a backup. I also bring adhesive bandages, just in case.

Hand sanitizer, wipes, paper towels, Kleenex

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Even before the pandemic, I traveled with hand sanitizer and sanitary wipes in my backpack, since the first thing I do when I get to my seat is wipe it off, along with the tray table and seat belt.

These items are small and can easily fit in your carry-on item. Just ensure your hand sanitizer does not exceed 12 ounces, which is an allowance specifically for hand sanitizer that TSA implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. All other liquids must still meet the 3.4 ounce or 100-milliliter size requirement.

Other items I like to have in my bag are paper towels and a washcloth (I tend to spill). Even if you make it through an entire day without spilling (in which case I am seriously impressed), paper towels are still helpful to have in case you run into a situation where you need to dry your hands.

Lastly, I always carry a little pack of tissues with me.

Bottom line

Once you've decided on the items most essential for your carry-on, be sure to decide what carry-on item it makes the most sense for them to go in.

For example, if you have two carry-on bags, one smaller one that fits underneath the seat in front of you or one suitable for the overhead bin, think about what items you might need most often throughout the flight and position those in your smaller bag. For everything else, you can always get up and retrieve items from your larger bag from the overhead bin.

Read more: Tips for traveling with prescription medication, according to a pharmacist

Additional reporting by Ben Smithson.

Featured image by Getty Images/EyeEm
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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