Everything You Need to Pack in Your Carry-On, According to Expert Flyers
We can't all afford business class seats, but we can all have a better in-flight experience.
Flying can be kind of a nightmare these days. Travelers seem all too comfortable with taking off their shoes and socks during flights, fighting with flight attendants, and generally being rambunctious. Beyond passenger behavior, if you are flying in basic economy class it often feels like you are sitting on an elementary school cafeteria stool, except you and everyone else are full-grown adults. And truly, even with the most comfortable seat on the plane, there's no way to avoid the fact that you are flying 36,000 feet high in the air for hours on end in a small cabin with dry air and tiny lavatories.
Fortunately, there are ways to improve the flying experience even if you aren't in the business class tax bracket. Below are the most essential items you should carry with you on your next flight, according to flight attendants, seasoned flyers, and career travelers. Not everyone has the same suggestions for the best things to pack for a trip, but from the dozens of people who gave their input for this article, there was an overarching theme: Your carry-on should be stocked with essentials to address the main concerns: hygiene, skincare, tech, and comfort. You should also have a good system for organizing all of that stuff, whether in you are packing it all in your personal item or your actual carry-on suitcase.
For instance, when it comes to combating plane skin, Air New Zealand's Inflight Services Manager Ben Whatman suggests a face mist for mid-flight skin hydration, while Delta Air Lines flight attendant Lori Thompson recommends a mini humidifier.
Whether you are traveling around the world or taking a short flight for the weekend during what's expected to be an especially busy summer travel season, here's what to pack to make your next trip even better.
A mini hygiene essentials kit
What your hygiene kit contains is up to you and what you define as hygiene. But the general consensus on the must haves are: toothbrush, toothpaste, face wash, wet wipes, and deodorant. The specifics vary from person to person. The bottom line is that, even if all of your travel plans go up in the air, you'll have a way to freshen up.
I suggest the following items, packed into a zipper pouch:
I also like to pack spare underwear in my bag. This was also a suggestion from several other frequent flyers—clean and fresh underwear can ensure even the worst travel delays don't leave you standing around stinky.
Products to keep your skin fresh
Beyond basic hygiene, another important component of your carry-on should include skincare that can handle the dry cabin air and long hours moving through busy airports, not getting great sleep, and stressing about making it on time to your flight connections. This goes beyond just a face cleanser. Moisturizer, toner, face masks, and even spot treatments can all make it into your mini skincare kit.
Some companies even create travel kits. Drunk Elephant, Dermstore, and Paula's Choice offer great options, depending on your skin type and budget. To keep things simple (and more eco-friendly), you can purchase reusable travel-sized containers and fill them with your usual products. I like the small magnetic ones from Cadence, but you can also buy more affordable reusable containers.
Air New Zealand's Ben Whatman suggests a specific product: Origins Super Spot Remover. "This is an absolute miracle product, I swear by this! I always keep one in my cabin bag—if I see a little spot or pimple appear, this will get rid of it in no time at all," Whatman said.
Other items that were must haves? Lip balm and face mist. Whatman suggests Kiehl's Lip Balm #1. I'm a fan of a combination of Aquaphor, and Sun Bum's SPF 30 lip balm. For face mists, you have plenty of options—you can even go so far as to pack a portable mini humidifier if you are so inclined, like Delta Air Lines flight attendant Lori Thompson.
"Our hotel rooms can be rather dry, and after traveling a mini humidifier adds much needed moisture to the air," Thompson shared with Thrillist. "This item is small and all you need is a glass or bottle of water. Feel free to add a drop or two of essential oils to freshen the air."
During flights I apply OneKind's Dream Cream moisturizer, which prevents that dry scaly texture that can sometimes when flying. I also always pack Summer Fridays' Jet Lag Mask, which feels like a resuscitation after basking in that musty plane air. If you don't mind drawing a little extra attention, hydrating sheet masks like the Dr. Jart+ Ceramiden Skin Barrier Moisturizing Mask and Wander Beauty's Baggage Claim Eye Mask can keep your skin plump and moisturized during the flight.
To keep it simple, an ideal flight skincare survival kit should include:
- Face Mask
- Spot treatment
- Eye cream
The tech to stay charged and entertained
Embarking on a flight with no way to drown out the sound of the chatty person three rows down and the (rightfully) rambunctious child at the back of the plane can spell certain dread for even the most levelheaded traveler. So pack prepared! In your tech pouch, you should have everything you need to charge the devices you are bringing on the flight. Most planes don't have USB-C ports yet, so you'll either want to pack a converter or dig out your retro USB charging cables.
A sure way to make sure you've got juice to call and Uber and map your way to your hotel when you land is by packing a portable charger. This portable charger from Amazon features a USB-C and two USB ports, meaning you can charge multiple devices at once.
If you're on a flight that offers entertainment, make sure you'll be able to make use of your headphones. The Twelve South Air Fly is perfect for people who are very attached to their wireless headphones but still want to watch The Nice Guys on the in-flight entertainment system. The adapter fits into the standard headphone jack, with a bluetooth enabled adapter that can connect to your headphones.
No matter which kind you pack, you should plan on packing headphones. I use the Bose QuietComfort 45 headphones, which block out other noise and don't hurt after sitting on my ears for an extended period of time. Many people, like NBC reporter Kay Angram, suggest AirPods—but it really depends on what feels good in your ears.
I'm less of an inflight movie person, and prefer to read through the seemingly endless supply of spicy romance novels on my Kindle. Whatever your plan is, make sure you've got whatever you intend to read/watch/listen to downloaded on your device before you leave the house, so you're not dependent on plane or airport Wi-Fi.
To recap your tech pouch should include:
- chargers for all devices
- a converter for USB-C to USB ports
- a headphone converter jack
- portable charger
All of the creature comforts
As someone who lost the ability to feel footwear shame, I'm a Crocs person at the airport. I'm sorry, but they are comfortable and easy to take off at TSA. But—and this is an important but—I never put my raw feet into Crocs for flights. I always put on socks, because the last thing I need to do is contribute to the epidemic of white people with their toes out on flights. I was not blessed with decent blood circulation, so I am always wearing a pair of compression socks when I travel. A single pair of the Bombas Everyday Compression Socks has dramatically improved my flying experience.
But even if you don't need the compression, socks are still an essential part of your carry-on. Whether it's so you can change into a fresh pair as soon as you get off the plane, or because you have toes that tend to get cold on flights, a cozy pair of socks can be the difference between comfort and catastrophe. It's also the acceptable middle ground between going barefoot and keeping your shoes on.
Flight attendant Lori Thompson recommends a packable blanket. "I have always had a packable blanket with me for those chilly flights. These are nice to have in case there is not a blanket available," Thompson said. If you aren't a blanket person, a packable sweater or jacket is a good option as well. I'm a fan of any that can transform into a pillow when I'm not wearing it.
For sleeping, writer and frequent flyer Annie Tan suggests an inflatable neck pillow, which can be deflated and tucked away when you aren't using it. I also always pack a sleep mask, which has been one of the biggest game changers on flights for me. No matter what the lighting is like on the plane, I can keep total darkness to get every second of sleep I can on a red eye. I like using this silk mask from Dream Recovery—the silk feels less irritating on my skin when I wear it for long periods of time, and the molded structure reduces any pressure on my eyes. In combination with Loop Quiet Earplugs, I can block out most of the sensory nightmares that come with being on a plane.
The ideal items on your packing list should be tailored to your needs, but products that are versatile, compact, and comfortable should be top priorities. The list should go like this:
- Neck pillow
- Eye mask
Somehow, I never, ever anticipate needing a pen when I travel. But without fail, when I'm traveling out of the country, I am asked to fill out a form either during the flight or as soon as I arrive at my destination. And no one is handing out pens these days! Pack a pen or two in the front pocket of your carry-on and never be the person looking around the plane like a lost duck when it's time to fill out your customs forms.
Remedies for in-flight discomfort
My to-go medicine bag looks like I robbed a Walgreens. When I fly, every minor issue I deal with on land amplifies. I sniffle, sneeze, ache, and get the worst motion sickness. Depending on what you deal with, your remedies bag might look different from mine. But the basic essentials include:
- headache reliever
- allergy medicine
- anti-motion sickness medicine
Beyond that, I know I'll fare better if I'm hydrated and regular on my journey. So I also pack to-go sized packets of hydrators and probiotics to put in my water or juice mid-flight. I like Liquid I.V., but there are plenty of other brands on the market.
So, you've gathered all of your mini skin care items, charging cords, hydration packets, wet wipes, and socks. But if you throw that all into your bag loose, it will feel more stressful trying to find what you need than if you simply hadn't prepared at all. To keep your stuff organized, invest in a set of zipper pouches of varying sizes. This is more sustainable than using Ziploc bags, and will also give you a chance to get something in a color that brings you a bit of joy. These clear, TSA approved pouches are perfect for sorting your medicine and skincare. If you want to be ultra organized, there are even pouches designed specifically for all your tech.
What not to pack in your carry-on
So, after that gargantuan list of what should be in your carry-on, here's what shouldn't be in there, straight from the TSA. It's a pretty eclectic list of items that are specified, but if the TSA is mentioning it, people must be trying to pack it. Here are some common items that absolutely cannot go in your carry on bag:
- Alcohol over 140 proof
- Liquids over 3.4 fluid ounces
Liquids seem to commonly trip people up—the TSA even went so far as to issue an official ruling on peanut butter (it's a liquid). For example solid deodorants are fine, and but if you are packing spray deodorant, it must be less than or equal to 3.4 fluid ounces. Toothpaste and mascara are also beholden to the liquids rule—so tubes cannot be over 3.4 fluid ounces. In total, all liquids should be packed in a resealable bag that's no larger than a quart.
Looking for more travel tips?
Whether you need help sneaking weed onto a plane, finding an airport where you can sign up for PreCheck without an appointment, or making sure you’re getting everything you’re entitled to when your flight is canceled, we’ve got you covered. Keep reading for up-to-date travel hacks and all the travel news you need to help you plan your next big adventure.