Carry On Essentials for Your Cabin Luggage: Packing List for Women and Men

Travel Tips

Apr 28
Free carry on essentials checklist complete with hot and cold weather tips and lists for men and women

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Carry On Essentials: What to Pack, What to Bring, What to Do

What you pack in your carry on can make all the difference to how well your trip goes, even if you're not travelling hand luggage only. It influences not only your comfort on the flight itself but also the first few days on the ground should the airline lose your luggage.  Here's our inside guide to carry on essentials and what to bring in your hand luggage, based on decades of time spent on the road. 

Carry on essentials - scarf, notepad, sunglasses and small suitcase

What to pack in your carry on? Essentials for the flight and for the 24 hours after that.

What to Bring in a Carry On Bag

Two main thoughts should guide your packing. What will you need at the airport and during the flight? And what will you really need in the first 24 - 48 hours should your luggage not arrive with you. 

Airlines usually do manage to track down your luggage, in my experience, and reunite the two of you once more.

So, often, it's usually more about surviving those first few days - and for that, there's plenty you can do.

Let's go!

The Absolute Essentials

You probably don’t need to be told this, but it may be worth pausing to really think about it for a while.

Essentials are not a toothbrush and a clean pair of pants. These are easy to replace, should the worst happen.

Essentials are anything specific to you that would leave you feeling ill or supremely uncomfortable if you were without them for even twelve hours. They are also often difficult to replace


Some examples:

  • prescription medication including antimalarials
  • contact lenses & glasses
  • snacks if you have dietary restrictions
  • prescriptions or letters that explain why you have to have these things with you!

Food & Dietary Restrictions 

Airlines should be able to cater for you and so should your hotel. But let's face reality. Things go wrong. 

Handy snacks are those that don't make a mess and that won't breed bacteria while you wait. 

So: flapjacks, energy bars, apples, rice cakes = GOOD. Chocolate, bananas, mousse = ER, NOT SO GOOD. 

I always like to pack a few packs of dehydrated coucous meals that just need boiling water. 

Women: sanitary pads and tampons

A 20 hour flight is NOT the time to discover you need them and don't have them with you.

The Weather Essentials

If you’re heading to somewhere similar to where you came from, you can muddle on through in the same clothes you’re wearing for a day or two while you sort yourself out. You may feel icky beyond the threshold of ick but you can do it.

However, if you’re heading somewhere much hotter or colder then life can quickly become miserable and you can even cause some permanent damage.

Abigail King with Carry On Suitcase

Think about the weather. What carry on essentials will you need in your destination? Sunscreen? Sunglasses?

Hot Weather Essentials

So, for hot weather, in your carry-on make sure you have:

  • a mini tube of sunscreen
  • sunglasses
  • a hat
  • flip flops or other lightweight shoes that can help you cool down yet still squeeze in
  • bug spray if there’s any hint of insect-borne disease

Cold Weather Essentials

For cold weather:

  • carry your ski jacket onto the plane, with the pockets filled with the following
  • gloves, hat, scarf/snood, thermals
  • wear your heavy snow shoes
  • squeeze any salopettes into your cabin luggage
  • still remember the sunscreen and sunglasses

Those are really the only true essentials but here are a few more tips I’ve learned over the years that can make life more pleasant once you arrive without adding much bulk to your packing.

Travelling with Children

Ah, this really raises the game! Time spent here really does pay off.

For more detail, check out these articles:

The "Comfort" Essentials

OK, so you won't end up ill without these. But they do help make everything much, much easier.

Blister protection

Travel often brings about more walking than you are used to, in a different climate and often in different shoes. Blisters abound.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that discovering Compeed changed my life (alright, it is but it’s a nice phrase to get the point across.)

These second skin stickers cover the blister nicely and best of all, you can fit three easily into your passport holder so that you always have them ready on the road.

This is even more important if you’ve lost your luggage and have to tackle new/poorly-fitting shoes in a new climate. Sorted.

A scarf or pashmina

This one is a little more feminine, but if David Beckham can pull off a sarong, then so can you, guys.

A scarf not only keeps you warm on a breezy plane, but it covers hair on streets, shoulders in temples, and can double as a skirt for the day if your luggage disappears en route to somewhere bright and breezy.

You may need this more than you think: even in Rome, it’s necessary to cover up in order to enter the Vatican and Swiss Guards are on standby to check you have the right attire.

Something that smells nice

This might just be me. But, well, sometimes other people smell! A few drops of scented oil or a little spritz of something onto my scarf or tissue can make the whole thing a lot less unpleasant.


Just, because. Handy if you ever get stuck and they've run out of paper. Useful to mop up any spills as someone passes a drink across you to another passenger. Handy to have something that smells nice, as above!

Chewing Gum

Freshens the breath, helps with a dry mouth, can stop your ears from going pop on take off and landing. Just don't be obnoxious with it, on behalf of your fellow passengers. Please?!

A fold-flat bag

These are useful for so many reasons. They’re handy to carry about town, once you’re on the aircraft you can use them to separate the things you actually want on the flight from all the other equipment you needed in your carry on.

And if you lose your luggage and have to shop for more things, at least you already have a bag to put these things in to.

It takes up next to no space but leaves you with plenty of options.

Brilliant.A fold-flat bag is useful for so many reasons. They’re handy to carry about town, and if you lose your luggage and have to shop for more things, at least you already have a bag to put these things in to.

Tech Essentials

These days, who doesn't travel with tech? Whether it's iPads for the little ones, full video gear for the vloggers or "just" a smartphone for maps and the grandkids, we all have batteries with us. Which means...

Chargers & Adapters

Security rules change all the time but one of the latest updates is that you have to be able to turn any device ON when asked. So, if just carrying an expensive piece of kit around as a paperweight wasn't already reason enough for you to remember a charger - this should be! 

I have two tips for this: a worldwide multi-adapter if you travel frequently and a multi-plug piece of kit or plug to multi-USB kit. This helps charge many devices at once while travelling.  


Firstly, if you plan to watch something on your phone or tablet, make sure you have headphones that fit it. 

Second, many swear by noise-cancelling headphones on a flight. This is something that has never really bothered me but Mr Travel Lab loves them. You can also get headphones for children that come with a noise limit (for the programme, not the child, alas ;-) )

Protective Laptop and Tablet Cases

DO NOT put your laptop in the hold. Have it with you in your carry on, with an easy to access case as you'll have to remove the case at airport security. 


Obviously, if you're travelling hand luggage or carry on only, you'll need to give this a lot more thought. But even if you're not, it can be handy to have the following with you.

Lip Salve

Planes get dry and my lips tend to get sore. Plain vaseline tubs can also be useful for blisters.

Toothbrush and Toothpaste

For long, international flights, it's nice to be able to brush your teeth. Just remember to keep toiletry sizes SMALL because of the airport security checks.

Carry On Essentials for Long Flights

Sleep Mask

For some reason, I fought against these for years. Why?! They're brilliant! Lightweight, useful, only mess up your hair a little bit ;-)

Ear Plugs

Foam ones work fine. So do using headphones and a background sleep app.

Warm Clothes

Planes can get cold and if you're sitting still, so will you. Some airlines provide blankets but not all do. So, either enlist your scarf from earlier or make sure you have a jumper with you.

Inflatable pillow

Yes, you feel a little ridiculous but who really cares? Alternatively, you can buy pre-filled pillows that can clip onto your luggage but they're quite bulky. Only use if you have the luggage space. 

Foot rest

Use a toiletries bag and fill it with a blanket or jumper once you're on the plane. Use it as a foot rest to help take the weight off your back and wedge yourself into position for sleep. 

Read more about how to sleep on a plane here.


About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.

  • Really good tips – I always try to squish as many things into my hand luggage as possible just to make life easier (after one experience trying to track down contact lens solution in Madagascar…), either the basics to get me through the first days or the irreplaceable/hard and expensive to replace. I like the idea about staying in a nice hotel for day 1 too – clever!

    • Abi King says:

      I think it was a similar contact lens misadventure in Switzerland that made me realise that I could easily ditch the toothbrush – but not the lenses and their paraphernalia! And that was Switzerland and it was hard. Good to hear that great minds think alike on this ;-) Happy travels!

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