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11 Things to Always Pack in Your Carry-On

Updated: Dec. 11, 2023

Pack these easy, budget-friendly travel essentials in your carry-on, and you'll be flying like a pro in no time

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Here’s what to pack in a carry-on for smooth (and sane) travels

Sometimes, it’s tough to determine which packing tips to follow, especially when figuring out what to pack in a carry-on. You want to be prepared, since extended delays from weather or maintenance can drain patience, not to mention your cell phone, before you even take your seat. But you also don’t want to throw your entire packing list into your carry-on (that’s why we have luggage sets, after all). So, how do you pack a carry-on wisely and use family-sized suitcases to cut baggage fees?

The biggest tip to keep in mind: Pack some essentials that will make your life easier while on-the-go. Take the items below, for instance. They’ll help you stay entertained, charged up and fresh as a daisy during your flight. Just be sure to read up on TSA carry-on rules (like what the liquid limit is) before you throw these things in your bag.

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Portable power pack

Traveling with a phone, laptop or tablet? If it needs power and you’ll be using it during your travels, be sure to keep your power cords in your carry-on, not in checked bags. Also take along a small portable power pack, so if your phone is on 2% and there’s not a plug in sight, you can still listen to your tunes in-flight or use a taxi app when you land.

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Hand sanitizer

Planes can get dirty, which is why travel-size hand sanitizer and/or disinfectant wipes are a must for not only cleaning your hands, but wiping your tray too. While you’re at it, wipe down your armrest and the spot where you’re about to rest your head, if you snagged a prime seat next to a window.

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Noise-canceling headphones

To create your own stress-free island in the back of the plane, be sure to pack headphones, as you shouldn’t count on airlines to provide auditory accessories. And if you pack noise-canceling headphones, you can check out without having to listen to music that might otherwise keep you awake. Make sure you know these rules to follow next time you fly.

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Although we applaud Delta for handing out Biscoff cookies (they’re delish), a cookie does not a dinner make. Pack a substantial snack such as protein bars (like these Gatorade whey protein bars), dried fruit (only if triggering asthma from sulfites isn’t a concern), trail mix, a sandwich or salad for a healthy boost until you get to your destination. And if you’re looking to upgrade your suitcase game, check out the best luggage brands for every type of travel and budget.

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Reusable water bottle

While you’re packing your snacks, add a reusable water bottle to your must-haves. After you go through security, fill it at a fountain or restaurant before you board (but not on the plane, where water isn’t potable in bathrooms and is questionable at best in galleys). Staying hydrated on a flight is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick on a plane—add a vitamin packet for a real pick-me-up.

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Sleep mask

You don’t need to pay a premium to get a first-class dopp kit. You can make your own at the drugstore by buying disposable ear plugs and a light-blocking sleep mask. These travel essentials pack up small and let you sleep anytime, anywhere. Be sure to keep these items in a separate carry-on pile when packing a suitcase.

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Large wrap

More than just a stylish accessory, a large wrap doubles as a blanket, can be folded up to be a pillow and can even become a sarong skirt in a pinch to, say, cover up a pair of leggings. If you’ll be touring cultural sites at your destination, a sarong can come in handy to cover shorts when entering churches, synagogues and other holy places of interest. Pro luggage tip: Learn how to roll clothes so your threads stay wrinkle-free.

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It’s wise to pack any prescribed and over-the-counter medications on your carry-on. According to TSA’s website, if you’re bringing a solid-form medication (like a pill), it can be packed in “unlimited amounts,” as long as it’s screened. If the medication is liquid, let the agents know, as it will need additional screening. TSA also notes that liquid medication can be brought on planes “in reasonable quantities.”

It’s also a good idea to keep a few aspirin in your carry-on luggage for emergencies. While you’re at it, throw some upset-stomach remedies in your bag as well, because flying—and deviating from your regular diet—can upset a delicate system. Aiming for a nausea-free flight? Avoid eating these foods before flying.

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If you get stuck on the runway for a long delay, some airlines will make you stay powered down until takeoff. Keep yourself entertained with at least two books packed away in your carry-on. One we recommend: City Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita. You could also opt for a magazine, newspaper or stress-free adult coloring book.

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Whether you’re on an overnight flight or you’ve just been on the road for what feels like 24 hours, pack a toothbrush with powdered tooth powder so you can feel fresh in no time. Bonus tip: Put an extra toothbrush in one of your suitcase’s packing cubes, just in case the carry-on one gets lost (or, you know, you accidentally drop it in the aisle).

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A change of clothes

Finally, if you’re checking luggage, add a fresh change of clothes (or even just a readily available pair of underwear, socks, a clean T-shirt or other pieces of your capsule wardrobe) to transform yourself into a truly super flier, or at least a prepared traveler. This comes in handy in case your luggage is lost before you reach your final destination.

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