travel 101

Winter Break Bound? Here's What To Pack In A Carry On

The definitive list of what to pack in a carry-on for that next long haul (or short haul) flight, shared.

After the novelty of one’s first few flights wears off, the whole airport experience loses its charm. There is nothing glamorous about lining up repeatedly, removing footwear, passing through security, walking, waiting, scanning various documents, and feeling more and more like human cattle. Attention shifts from your upcoming trip to the reality that you are one of thousands of bodies being herded through the bureaucracy of travel.  

And, after all those rounds of waiting, when you finally board the airplane, you run into Mr. 17B. He is taking his sweet time (in a single-file common space) to rearrange, cram, and systematically stuff unnecessary carry on baggage into precious overhead real-estate. We have all been there, itching to get to our seat, put on our music and zone out. After the excitement of takeoff, maintaining one’s sanity can be a challenge. You are sedentary, in a flying hunk of steel, operating in reduced oxygen, slowly dehydrating, and sharing a bathroom with 100+ strangers.

Your trip doesn’t start when you arrive at the destination, but rather the minute you have the idea to go somewhere. How you handle each piece of the travel process, most especially the hours spent in transit, contributes greatly to your perception of the destination. Do you arrive stressed or relaxed? Was the process of arriving a nightmare or smooth? Did you label the on-board crying babies as the devil’s spawn or could you empathize with the anguish of their stressed-out parents? Will you lose the first day of your trip to recovery or will you hit the ground running?

In all my travels — 24 countries and dozens of domestic flights — I can attest to the importance of making peace with the bureaucracy of travel. While I may not be able to control airport formalities, flight-delays, crying babies, or Mr. 17B, I am in control of my carry on bag. And I can pack a lot of sanity into a few cubic inches.

This is my recipe for the perfect, under-the-seat hand baggage. Combined with an optimistic attitude, you can make it from point A to point B feeling human. Don’t be alarmed by the amount of items, as each one is compact and light. All will fit easily inside a large purse or backpack. Here, what to pack in a carry on.



1. Wallet credit card(s), photo identification, currency of destination country, and health card. Leave out all unnecessary items. Your Costco membership, gift cards, and spare change are not worth the space. Additionally, if your wallet is stolen, you will have less cards to replace.

2. Document pouch Inside you have a passport, printed reservations, insurance, and two paper copies of all your important documents scanned onto a single sheet. In the scenario that your wallet is stolen, you can use the sheet to call and cancel your credit card, go to the hospital, pay with your insurance, etc. Give your second copy to your travel buddy or someone trustworthy.

3. Phone Pre-download offline Google maps, e-copies of tickets, screenshots of addresses, etc. Record your phone’s serial number somewhere in the event you have to report a theft. Preload your device with music and podcasts. Include a few spa-music tracks to help you meditate and/or sleep.

4. A pen Don’t be that person who asks for their neighbor’s pen when it’s time to sign the ‘Declaration of Goods’ form. Agricultural items? Firearms? Ebola virus? No. No. No. Sign and date.

5. An electronic case Dedicate a soft zip-case to hold all of your wires, chargers, earbuds, and power adapter. Wires are notorious for getting tangled at the bottom of a bag, so keeping them in one place instantly organizes the whole carry on bag! Additionally, whenever you find an outlet in transit, charge your phone. A charged phone = a relaxed millennial.

6. Pashmina It can be a scarf, a blanket, a pillow, or a lower-back roll to improve posture and relieve sciatica.

7. Essential oil One thumb-sized bottle of peppermint oil (or your favorite scent). When you’re feeling cranky and stale, dab a little into your nostrils for an instant refresh. On-the-go aromatherapy is a godsend in the stinky confines of an airplane cabin.

8. A beanie long enough to roll down over your eyes Keep your head warm and block out  the world with this double-duty item.

9. Reading material Hardcover, softcover, or kindle.

10. Lip balm More important than hand lotion, in my opinion. Chapped lips are a bigger problem than cracking skin, anyways.

11. Mini toothpaste and brush The next best thing to showering on an airplane.

12. Chewing gum The next best thing to brushing your teeth on an airplane.

13. A change of underwear and top Both should be thin and rollable into a mini-bundle. Secure with an elastic and pack at the bottom of your bag. This is the least likely of all items you will need to use onboard. However, in the event that your checked luggage is delayed, you can swap out these essential pieces and feel refreshed.

14. One liter water bottle Down it before you go through security and fill it up again on the other side. Onboard the plane, when the stewards are passing out little plastic cups of water, hand over your bottle instead. Almost always, they will fill it to the brim with no hassle. Drink as much water as possible, during the flight. If you get the choice, choose an aisle seat. Easy access to a bathroom (in my opinion) is worth more than a window seat. Save window seats for flights under three hours.

15. Food Certain countries are more flexible than others, so don’t get too attached to what you pack. Be ready to see any or all of it confiscated during security. Generally, safe choices are rice crackers, non-messy fruits, cut vegetables, trail mix, granola bars, sandwiches, and small packages of dips like hummus, nut butter or salad dressing. In more flexible situations, you can pack an entire meal in Tupperware, wipe clean (as best you can) the container, then use during the remainder of your trip for picnics. Re-pack a meal for your return journey home.  

16. Medications Absolutely / as needed.

17. Laptop & case For long trips and business.

18. Contact lens, case and solution Been there. I understand.

19. Mini deodorant You make the call…

20. An ‘‘arrival snack’’ For flights arriving at a strange time of day or night, it could be 6+ hours until the time you have your next meal. Consider packing something small to tide yourself over.


An extra pair of shoes Just wear comfy footwear in the first place. Slip off your shoes when it’s time to sleep and rock a pair of warm socks.

Hand sanitizer The airplane’s bathroom has soap and water. Save the extra weight in your bag and travel lighter. Include a mini-bottle of sanitizer in your checked-luggage, instead.

Hairbrush You can survive the journey without it. It takes up too much space and you’ll probably only use it once. Instead, include it in an easily accessible part of your checked luggage to comb your hair after arriving at the new airport.

Makeup kit Go as minimal as possible if you feel comfortable. The less makeup you wear, the less materials you have to bring for touch-ups and removal.  It is likely that no one you meet in transit will ever see you again, so who cares what they think of your face?

Eye mask See #8 above.

Hand lotion See #10 above. Not worth the weight, in my opinion. You can moisturize when you arrive and receive your checked baggage. Drink lots of water instead.

A pillow No. No. No.


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