Whenever you take a trip, your carry-on luggage is an integral part of your journey. If you’ll be away for a while and taking more than one suitcase, you’ll have to check the larger piece(s). For shorter getaways, your carry-on can hold all that you need. The permitted size of your carry-on depends on the regulations and space limitations of the carrier. For example, most domestic U.S. airlines limit the size of carry-on bags to 22 x 14 x 9 inches. Train and bus carriers may also have size limitations for carry-ons.
Carry-ons also serve a crucial travel function: Almost every traveler has experienced the frustration of waiting at baggage arrival for a suitcase that never appears. While airlines are pretty good at tracking down missing luggage, never check anything you can’t afford to lose. Whether it ends up under the seat in front of you or in an overhead bin, your carry-on should, therefore, always contain these essential items.
Your laptop (or other electronic items) should always be in your carry-on (or personal item). Aside from the fact that you don’t want to risk their getting lost or stolen because they were checked in a suitcase that ends up going missing, you never know when a flight will be delayed. During long delays, especially, having access to your laptop or tablet can be a godsend—you can use the downtime to catch up on emails, download an extra e-book to read, or start the movie you intended to watch during your flight.
Keep in mind that you may end up having to gate-check your carry-on at the last minute because of space limitations on the plane. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to keep your laptop and charger together in an easily accessible laptop sleeve you can quickly pull out. Another option is to simply use a laptop backpack as your carry-on. This way, you never need to worry about gate-checking—plus, it’s a lot easier to dash through an airport to make a connecting flight wearing a backpack as opposed to dragging a wheeled carry-on.
For now and the foreseeable future, the Transportation Security Administration requires that face masks be worn on all forms of public transportation; this includes in airports as well as on planes. Therefore, be sure to include men’s or women’s face masks in your carry-on. (We’re not counting it as an item, but we also suggest you bring along a package of breath mints.) If you wear eyeglasses, you may also want to include a bottle of defogging spray so that you don’t spend your flight constantly trying to keep your glasses clear.
Although hand sanitizer is pretty much a staple these days, when it comes to traveling, sanitizing wipes are more useful. Planes are cleaned and turned in between flights, but there’s nothing wrong with taking some extra caution. Here’s where the sanitizing wipes come in handy. Most travelers know to wipe down the seat tray, but other important spots to clean include the armrests, the seatbelt buckle, the viewing touch screen or remote if there is one, the light and attendant call buttons, and the airflow control knob. Of course, you can also use the wipes to clean your hands as well.
Planes are sometimes cooler than you expect. Be sure to pack a lightweight cardigan sweater in your carry-on, so you don’t freeze if the in-flight temperature is too cold. If you’re that person who becomes instantly clumsy the minute they board a plane, consider shawls or large fashion scarves in place of cardigans. It’s a lot easier to drape a shawl around yourself or remove it than to wiggle in or out of a cardigan’s sleeves. If you’re stuck in a middle seat, you’re also less likely to elbow your row companions in the process.
Unless you’re on a super short flight, the attendants will likely offer beverage service. However, drinks may not be served right away, so pack a reusable, empty water bottle. You can’t take liquids—not even water—through security. (You can, however, bring ice, so if you like your water cold, fill the bottle with ice before you leave home.) Once you’re cleared, find the nearest water cooler or bottle filling station; most restaurants will also fill your bottle for you.
Although your flight will have beverage service, some airlines have minimal meal service, if any. If you know you get hungry on flights, pack a snack or two. Choose items that don’t require eating utensils, and avoid snacks that can get crushed in your carry-on, unless you don’t mind eating crumbs. We suggest travel-easy foods such as beef jerky sticks, string cheese, baby carrots, apples, or easy-to-peel clementines. Be considerate of your fellow passengers and avoid foods with strong odors, such as tuna fish or ripe bananas. Keep your snacks together in a lunch box.
If you take any prescription medications, be sure they go in your carry-on. Like your laptop, medication should never go in a checked bag. In addition, you should carry copies of your prescription with you. In the event you run out unexpectedly, you’ll find it easier to for another doctor to write you a new prescription or for a pharmacy to call your physician. Also, carry a dose or two of basic over-the-counter medications: ibuprofen or acetaminophen, diarrhea medicine, antibiotic ointment, and bandages. Even if you’re someplace where these items are easily attainable, you won’t have to take the time to go purchase them.
The air that circulates in airplanes is dry, which wreaks havoc on the skin. Throw a small tube of moisturizer in your carry-on. To avoid having to take two separate tubes, choose a moisturizer that can be applied to the face as well as the body. Consider your row mates and avoid heavily scented concoctions.
It’s always a good idea to have a change of clothing in your carry-on. First, in-flight mishaps happen. Anyone who has ever traveled with an infant or toddler knows the odds of being spit up on or having a spilled drink end up in your lap are inversely proportional to the likelihood of your having extra clothes handy. So, be prepared. Second, once you arrive at your destination—especially if, say, it’s winter, and you’re headed to a warm-weather resort—the last thing you want to have to do is try to remember into which side and corner of your suitcase you shoved your bathing suit. Instead, pack it in your carry-on.
With some forethought and practical thinking, it’s easy to determine what items are essential in your carry-on—and which are not.