Carry On Essentials: What You REALLY Need On a Flight

Best 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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The 15 Carry On Essentials You Need to Pack in Your Hand Luggage

Get your carry on essentials right and a comfortable flight awaits! Even if the airline loses your luggage, you can glide through your first few days with ease. Maybe even look smug. But it all starts with getting it right before you fly. 

Here's our tried and tested list of carry on essentials for business travel, baby travel, solo travel and beyond. 

What to Bring in Your Carry On Bag

Three main thoughts should guide your packing:

1) What do YOU need during the flight and at the airport?

2) What will the airline FORCE you to pack in your carry on rather than in the hold.

3) What do you need (that you can't easily replace) if the airline loses your main luggage en route.

The Absolute Carry On Essentials

You probably don’t need to be told this, but let's spell it out, just in case.

Essentials do not include 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 make you feel ill or supremely uncomfortable without it. Carry on essentials are also difficult to replace.

Health: The Ultimate Carry On Essential

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 it. Things go wrong. 

Handy carry on snacks don't make a mess nor grow fungus mid flight. 

Flapjacks, energy bars, apples, rice cakes = GOOD. 

Chocolate, bananas, mousse = ER, NOT SO GOOD. 

Inside tip: pack some packets of dehydrated couscous meals that just require boiling water. A real carry on essential for those with dairy allergies, lactose intolerance, vegetarian or vegan diets. Try rice cakes for a gluten-free option. 

Carry on Essentials for 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.

Abigail King with Carry On Suitcase

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

Weather-Related Carry On 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.

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


Carry On Essentials For Children

Travelling with children really raises the stakes!

For more detail, check out these articles:

Carry On Essentials That Feel Good

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

Blister protection

 Blisters abound in different climates when you're often walking more often than usual and wearing different shoes.

Compeed changed my life (alright, it's a slight exaggeration but it's not too far from the truth!)

These second skin stickers cover the blister and cushion the surrounding skin from further damage. Best of all, you can easily fit three into your passport holder or travel wallet 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 or poorly-fitting shoes in a new climate. Sorted.

A Scarf or Pashmina

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, you need 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.

Tissues

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 or Roomy Tote 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, remember your charger!

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.  Portable chargers and power banks also become essential for long flights with connections. 

Headphones

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. 

Carry On Toiletries

Lip Salve

Planes get dry and lips get sore. Either pack a dedicated lip balm, otherwise plain vaseline tubs can also treat 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

Also, don't forget to check out these 23 long haul flight tips that most passengers don't know.

Sleep Mask

For some reason, I fought against eye masks 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 travel 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.

Water Bottle

You can just about get away without a water bottle but life is easier if you have one. Many airports and airport lounges offer refills and it's easy to ask the cabin crew to refill your own bottle than to keep asking for separate glasses of water.

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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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