Packing for a flight is exciting – but it can also be overwhelming. With a little planning and a concise list of what to pack in a carry-on, you can maximize space in your duffel bag, weekender bag or backpack while staying within airlines’ carry-on size requirements. Determining travel essentials and must-haves for your trip will maximize your carry-on bag and personal item capacity – and may even help reduce baggage fees and decrease lost baggage incidents.
To help you decide what to pack in your carry-on for a flight, U.S. News editors and industry experts compiled this list of travel necessities to simplify the packing process. Click on the packing list here to download it and use it while you prep for your next trip, then read on to find out more about the important items to pack.
Carry-on packing list
- Travel wallet
- Passport holder
- Toiletry bag
- TSA-approved liquids bag and compliant containers
- Prescription medications
- Luggage tag
- Travel pillow
- Packing cubes
- Tech organizer
- Zippered pouches and reusable silicone bags
- Hand sanitizer
- Lip balm
- Wired earbuds or headphones
- E-reader or a great book
- Eye mask
- Power bank
- Travel adapter/converter
- Travel blanket
- Travel first-aid kit
- Reusable water bottle
- Activities or games
- Foldable tote
- Seat cover
- Light jacket
- Extra shoes
- Change of clothing
Travel wallet (with travel documents and credit cards)
For safety and security reasons, you’ll want to make sure you have credit cards, identification and any travel documents close to you at all times. If you’re planning to keep your bag under the seat in front of you, the Travelon RFID Blocking Single Zip Wallet on Amazon keeps cards and documents organized and safe. If you tend to put your bag in one of the overhead bins, consider a travel neck wallet, such as the Lewis N. Clark RFID Blocking Stash Neck Wallet on Amazon to keep your cards and documents on your body. Whatever option you choose, you want a wallet that is easy to find during check-in, security screenings, boarding and customs, along with RFID security to avoid having your personal information stolen while traveling.
Travel tip: If you’re traveling internationally, a passport wallet can secure your passport and make it easy to find in your carry-on bag. You’ll need access to your passport when you board your flight and when you’re filling out entry forms, so keep the passport holder and a pen within reach. Many styles include room for credit cards, customs documents and boarding passes and are able to keep all the necessary items organized for customs and boarding your flight. Once you arrive at your destination, put the passport wallet in your crossbody or travel belt to ensure the essentials are safe while you explore.
For your carry-on bag, consider a travel toiletry bag so your toiletries are organized and easy to find. If you’ll have limited counter space at your destination, a hanging style such as the L.L. Bean Personal Organizer Toiletry Bag might help. If you’d like one with separate compartments for makeup, first-aid essentials, personal hygiene items, shaving supplies, brushes and hair accessories, the Lug Mini Trolley on Amazon offers compact organization with multiple zippered compartments and a wipeable lining and exterior. See the U.S. News picks for top travel toiletry bags.
U.S. News senior travel editor Marisa Méndez recommends including a facial moisturizer and a lotion in your toiletry bag. “My skin always dries out on flights and it’s nice to have something to soothe my skin,” she says.
“I always love having facial spray to freshen up after the flight,” says Elizabeth Von Tersch, also a senior travel editor at U.S. News. She always keeps one in her purse. “Mario Badescu and Evian are great.” These facial sprays help to moisturize your skin after the drying environment on a plane or give you a little midday pick-me-up.
TSA-approved liquids bag and compliant containers
When packing your carry-on bag for a flight, you’ll want to have a clear quart-sized bag that meets Transportation Security Administration guidelines for liquids and gels. Some dopp kits or toiletry bags include a removable bag for travel-size liquids, or you can find a reusable TSA-approved clear bag on Amazon. Put any liquids or gels you’re traveling with in this bag, including shampoo, lotion, liquid makeup items and hand sanitizer.
Keep in mind that all liquids and gels must be in travel-size bottles or containers measuring 3.4 ounces or less. If your liquids are in larger containers, you can purchase reusable bottles such as humangear Go Toob+ bottles on Amazon. Remember: You’ll need to remove this clear quart-sized bag from your carry-on bag at security, so consider packing it in an external pocket or an easy-to-find spot in your carry-on suitcase. To learn more about TSA regulations, consult our article about what is allowed in a carry-on.
Whether you need prescription medications during transit or once you arrive at your destination, you should keep all of these medications in your carry-on bag. Doing so will make these essential items easy to access regardless of any delays or time changes. If you take multiple medications, consider a pill organizer from Amazon. Never stow prescription medications in checked baggage: If luggage is lost or delayed, replacing these medications while traveling can be extremely challenging or even impossible.
Some carry-on bags have built-in luggage tags. If your personal item doesn’t have this feature, you can purchase luggage tags on Amazon. This item is essential because, in the event that you get separated from your bag for whatever reason, the contact information on a luggage tag can help you reunite with and claim your bag. What’s more, choosing a bright color, pattern or favorite character is ideal for expressing your personality and picking your bag out should it need to be stowed among other luggage on a bus or train, or in a hotel. See the U.S. News picks for the best luggage tags.
Resting throughout your journey can help you feel refreshed when you reach your destination and make the time pass a little quicker. But nothing can (literally) cramp your style like a stiff neck from sleeping wrong. Having a comfortable pillow in your carry-on allows you to settle in, get comfortable and catch some z’s when time permits. Check out the U.S. News recommendations for the top travel neck pillows.
Maximize space and keep your bag’s contents organized with packing cubes. These handy travel bags are made from a variety of soft-sided materials, some with see-through windows, labeling options or compression technology. What’s more, using a variety of sizes and colors can help you quickly locate your shoes or change of clothes amid your other belongings.
Phones and tablets are essential for today’s traveler, as they may be your boarding pass, notification center and entertainment source. However, it’s easy to have your charging cords at the bottom of your bag or your headphones tangled somewhere in your tote. A handy tech organizer with zippered compartments and sections for specific cords, such as the CALPAK Tech Organizer, can help reduce tangled messes.
Zippered pouches and reusable silicone bags
Perfect for storing snacks, earbuds, extra socks, scrunchies, coloring supplies, receipts or random finds, zippered pouches and Stasher Silicone Reusable Storage Bags from Amazon will help you curb clutter in your carry-on bag or personal item. For a family tote, consider different colored pouches for each traveler’s items, or maybe varied prints for your necessities so you can easily tell them apart without removing everything from the bag. CALPAK sells a variety of zippered pouch sets.
During a flight, the low humidity and high altitude can have a drying effect on your skin and lips. To combat the dry air, consider packing a hydrating lip balm with soothing natural oils and antioxidants. What’s more, if you choose a lip balm over liquid moisturizer, you won’t need to store this product in your clear TSA-approved liquids bag.
Wired earbuds or headphones
Bluetooth and wireless options are great, but when you’re flying they aren’t always compatible with airplane entertainment systems. If you’re planning to watch a movie (or maybe just tune out your seatmates), Amazon sells inexpensive wired earbuds to toss into your carry-on.
E-reader or a great book
Having a book or two in your carry-on is always a good idea. Whether you encounter a delayed flight, a long layover or a plane with less than stellar in-flight entertainment, an e-reader or a new book will help pass the time.
On everything from red-eyes to international flights, a good eye mask can block out lights from the seatback screens or plane windows to help you catch a bit of sleep while traveling. Some eye masks from brands like Nodpod are weighted for relaxation benefits, while other eye mask options on Amazon are compact and light blocking.
“Even if you plan to dine at the airport or on the plane (if that’s an option), pack some snacks,” says Amanda Norcross, content and SEO strategist for travel at U.S. News. “Flying is unpredictable and stressful for many travelers, and ‘hanger’ only makes things worse.”
It’s not always easy to find a charging station at the airport, and there are a lot of restrictions when it comes to packing batteries in your carry-on baggage for any flight. One option that meets Federal Aviation Administration guidelines is this Anker 537 Power Bank (PowerCore 26K for Laptop) on Amazon. This device can charge a laptop, smartphone or tablet quickly, to keep your devices running even on a long flight.
For international travel – since different countries use different plug shapes – packing a universal adapter or converter will enable you to charge your devices and other electronics. Before purchasing, consider what your needs will be, especially regarding the shape of the wall outlet plugs and the voltage of the countries you’ll be visiting.
Whether you’re traveling to different climates or looking to stay cozy on a chilly flight, a comfy blanket can make all the difference. The Travel Blanket from Away has thermoregulating technology, snaps to connect a travel pillow and pouches to tuck your feet. What’s more, it folds up into a handy carrying pouch when not in use. Amazon also sells a variety of travel blankets.
Travel first-aid kit
For minor injuries like blisters, unexpected cuts and scrapes, a travel first-aid kit such as the Welly Quick Fix Kit with ointments and bandages is helpful to have along. Or, get a variety pack of Band-Aids from Amazon to pack into your cosmetic bag or tuck in a pocket on your soft-sided suitcase.
Reusable water bottle
Activities or games
For daytrips, picnics, carrying an extra pair of shoes or anything in between, a lightweight reusable bag like the Lug Packable Tote Bag is a helpful addition to your carry-on. It’ll save on single-use plastic bags and provide extra space for unexpected purchases. Amazon sells a variety of packable totes that are useful for carrying travel essentials without having to fully unpack your carry-on bag.
For added comfort and cleanliness, consider a reusable airplane seat cover, such as those available on Amazon from NiceSeats. Constructed from breathable materials, these seat covers are machine-washable, have a universal fit and come with a storage pouch.
“I typically wear my L.L.Bean PrimaLoft Packaway Hooded Jacket on the plane to free up space in my carry-on,” says Norcross, adding that it’s small enough to fit in her carry-on if needed. “If the plane is too warm, I can easily stuff it under the seat in front of me with my backpack.” For additional options, read the U.S. News article highlighting the best packable jackets.
Flying and walking can cause feet to swell, while some travels may take you to a completely different climate. Packing an extra pair of shoes in a water-resistant packing cube such as the CALPAK Compakt Shoe Bag, or within a designated shoe compartment in a weekender bag, keeps other carry-on contents clean and gives you footwear options.
Change of clothing
Let’s face it: A lot can happen while traveling. Whether your beverage spills off your tray table or you lose your checked baggage, it’s good to plan for the unexpected. Pack a versatile outfit into your carry-on bag so you have a backup option, or perhaps have your swimwear and flip-flops ready to head directly to the beach.
Whether you want to change into a comfy pair of ankle socks to nap, or you got caught in the rain on the way to the airport and now have wet socks, having a change of socks can be useful. For maximum comfort, compression socks can stimulate circulation to help reduce leg swelling caused by flying or sitting for extended periods of time. View the U.S. News picks for top compression socks for travel.
What not to pack in a carry-on bag
When packing a carry-on bag or suitcase, it’s important to note that some items are prohibited on all flights, due to Federal Aviation Administration regulations. The prohibited list includes aerosol products (such as anti-static spray or pepper spray), lithium or lithium-ion batteries, firearms and ammunition, flammables and explosives. For more details on what you can and can’t pack in your carry-on, visit the TSA’s What Can I Bring? and the FAA’s Pack Safe websites.
Why Trust U.S. News Travel
Rachael Hood loves to see how much she can fit in her carry-on bag. She always brings a few snacks, a good read and little luxuries to make the journey comfortable. Hood used her personal travel experience, along with her retail background and research expertise, to write this list.