OK friends, let’s get a few things straight before we even start this post so I can lay it out on the table…
I have something to confess.
I hate carry on only travel.
I rarely do carry on travel only.
*shock horror! the masses move their mouse over to the X button on this post*
Oh, you’re still here? That’s awesome. So as I was saying… I’m not a carry on only traveler HOWEVER there’s a good reason for that.
I literally live out a freaking bag! I’ve been abroad for over seven years now, and it’s just too hectic to travel and live out of one bag. I need three, thanks.
Sorry, not sorry but I think I deserve to have an extra bag considering my lifestyle. If I could, I WOULD travel carry on only, and I have before quite a few times.
When I lived in Thailand, it was my base. I left my stuff in my apartment, and I packed a carry-on and jetted off for a couple of weeks. When I went on a road trip with my friend, I packed a carry on only… I can do it but it’s so rare that I fly back to a base nowadays, it’s not a viable option any longer.
So while I don’t do carry on travel, it’s not to say I don’t know what carry on essentials to pack or even how to pack a carry-on. I certainly do, I’ve only been packing bags perpetually for like, seven something years now. I should enter in a bag packing contest!
So here’s exactly what and how I pack for carry on travel and I hope it helps you travel better and more efficiently.
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Carry on Essentials For Your Upcoming Trip!
Legit stuff that you should always have in your carry on bag. Forget any of these things, and you may be in a bit of trouble…
Pay attention to the documentation particularly. Some of it is obvious but when we have 5479075902 things on our mind about upcoming travels, it’s so easy to forget the simple stuff. Bookmark this post and read it over before your flight!
Carry On Essentials: Documentation
You’d be so surprised how many people forget this and miss their flight or have to go home to get it only to make it back to the airport 5 minutes too late to check in. Just a friendly reminder—tape it to your door or something.
– Outbound ticket
Make sure to get one if you need one! Some countries require you to have proof of onward travel before they even allow you on the plane to their country. Double check.
And if you don’t know where you want to go next and only have a one way, do what I do. Book a flight on Expedia just before your flight, and then cancel within 24 hours. Expedia has a free 24 hour cancelation period, don’t forget to actually cancel it though.
Do you need a visa for the country you’re going to? Double check!
– Extra passport photos
If you plan on extending your visa, getting a visa on arrival, or plan on furthering your travels, it’s very likely you will need some of these, grab them now so you don’t need to find a photo store in a foreign country/get charged more at the airport or border for them to take the picture for you.
Just another reminder! It’s good to carry another form of ID on you, and if you’re renting a car, you’ll need your license.
Americans, if you’re driving abroad, you may want to grab an international driver license. It’s super easy and cheap, throw $20 at an AAA shop and snatch one up there before you take off.
– Copy of Passport
This should be in your bags just in case something happens; it’s good to have this. I also have a folder on my laptop with copies, and I’ve emailed my mom a copy too. Never know…
– Charles Schwab Card
Americans, get yourself this ATM card right now. They don’t charge international or ATM fees; it’s a lifesaver.
Carry On Essentials: Toiletries and Accessories
– Dr. Bronner’s
This is your everything soap. Since you’re traveling with only your carry on essentials, this little soap can do wonders. It’s an everything soap, shampoo to laundry. No joke! And they make it bar form, so guess what?
You’re going to be a total badass and have essentially zero liquids to carry on. You win!
You can buy anything else you need or want at your destination.
– Hand Sanitizer
Because planes and airports are gross. Enough said.
– Lip Balm
Chapped lips are a no-no. I love this stuff. It’s so nourishing and all natural. And even a tiny bit glossy!
– Makeup Bag
Whatever is in there, cut it in half and bring the rest. Here’s what’s in my bag: concealer, BB Cream, bronzer and blush (in one palette), one eyeshadow palette, mascara, tweezers, nail clippers, two brushes (one eye, one cheek).
– Travel Pouch
This is my travel wallet and my minimalist purse. Either it goes in my regular bag or backpack for the day, or if I’m hopping out to go shopping or for dinner, it’s my purse. It fits my chapstick, phone, money, and cards.
You won’t have enough room for a collection of purses! This and my day bag backpack are my carry on essential bags.
Because nothing is worse than not having a pen when you have to fill out departure and arrival cards! Trust me; you’ll never want a pen so badly in your life, ever. And then you’ll cry when you see the queue for immigration that you could have avoided if you had a pen to fill out those papers sooner.
Be a bit greener and bring your water bottle! You can even ask the air hostess to fill up your water bottle so you can
A. get more than two sips of water and
B. not waste a plastic cup on two sips of water!
Other Carry On Essentials Not To Forget:
- Toothbrush and paste
- Diva cup and a couple of pairs of Thinx
- Medicine if needed
- Mini sewing kit
- Hair ties
- A few pieces of costume jewelry
Carry On Essentials: Electronics
This one all depends on who you are and what you need or don’t need. In fact, electronics are a big part of why I can’t travel with carry on only bags because I literally fill an entire backpack with just my electronics. So if you’re traveling with tons of electronics, prepare to cut down on the clothes!
Do you need a camera and a laptop? Those take up a decent amount of space, not to mention the lenses, tripod, and accessories. On top of that, you’ll need a backpack with some padding to accommodate your precious items, again, more space is eaten up.
So just make sure you choose carefully and only bring what you’re actually going to use.
Aside from what’s listed below make sure you’re not forgetting the “little things” like SD cards, hard drives, camera batteries, etc.
– Chargers and Wires
Like, all of them. Don’t forget not one. My Apple charger crapped out on me and people attempted to scam me in India by overcharging for a fake one. My friend went cheap on buying a crappy iPhone wire in Thailand, and her phone started glitching out!
I prefer to use legit wires and chargers only and sometimes those are more expensive abroad or hard to come by. So don’t forget them!
Because planes and airports are boring AF and books are heavy as bricks. Get with the 21st century, people!
TIP: Don’t want to pay monthly for a Kindle membership? Buy one, sign up, pay for a month, download your 10 books within that month. Then place your Kindle on airplane mode and cancel your subscription. Since your Kindle can’t sync with anything because it’s on airplane mode, your books won’t be deleted along with your subscription.
– Phone (unlocked)
You’re not going to forget your phone, you’d probably forget your passport before you forgot your phone BUT is your phone unlocked?
I sure hope so because if not, you’ll get outrageous charges from your service provider or you’ll only be able to connect to wifi.
So get your phone unlocked so you can grab a SIM card when you land. If this is not an option for you, you may want to look into getting a mobile hotspot, so you have wifi everywhere. Skyroam offers this for a reasonable price (Code: nina77 gets you 10% off!)
Because there are crying babies, obnoxious people playing phone games with the sound on, and a gangle of terribly loud teenagers on Spring Break—most likely sat right next to you. Bring the headphones,
– Cube Power Strip
Don’t get shafted with outlets not being available or having to choose between having a lamp on or having your laptop charged. If your carry on packing list is electronic heavy, you’ll need this power strip. It packs well too.
Don’t be cheap, get a quality one, so you’re not left without any juice in your electronics.
– Portable Solar Charger and Torch
Charges a phone, GoPro, and anything that takes a USB to charge. If you don’t have access to electricity at all, you can charge this thing in the sun and then use it again and again to charge your stuff. It charges my iPhone about five times and has a torch feature.
What Type of Carry On Bag to Use?
Well, I’ll keep this relatively short and sweet because I have the perfect post for you to read on how to choose the best carry on bag…
But in short, it should be a backpack and a decent one too!
Your personal bag too unless you’re a woman carrying a cross-body purse instead.
It should be a backpack because it’s going to be the most comfortable thing. I don’t get duffle bags, they are awkward to hold, it can only be carried on one shoulder if you wear it that way and they are the epitome of uncomfortable.
A backpack uses both shoulders and makes for a much more comfortable experience.
Ladies, please don’t bring along a massive open shoulder tote. These are terrible carry on bags. Everything falls out,
It’s open which makes it an easy target for theft, and it’s also not as great as a backpack because it hangs off one shoulder and it perpetually is slipping off! Get a GOOD backpack.
You’ll be lugging this thing through planes, trains, buses, hotel after hotel, on and off your back, getting yanked this way, that way, by one strap, and dragged on the streets.
This bag will go through a lot, so making sure it’s a quality bag, isn’t an option, it’s a requirement.
That $10 Walmart backpack is cute when you’re going to and from your car but it’s not going to last long, and it’s not going to be comfortable!
Hello, it’s your CARRY on a bag. “Carry” is the keyword here, guys. Don’t let your shoulders scream at you during your trip.
So which carry on bags do I use? This one is my personal carry on with my electronics that goes under the seat, and this one is my cabin bag with the rest of my stuff or this one if I want more a bit more room.
But I have an entire list of great carry on bags depending on your needs that you can check out.
Carry On Essentials Packing List: Clothing
Well, this is awkward. You came here to see what your carry on packing list should look like but guess what? I can’t tell you.
Nobody can. Because nobody knows you better than you and also, where ya going and when?
It’s hard to guesstimate what someone is going to want to wear or need while they are traveling with a carry on. What’s the weather going to be like? How long are you going for? So many questions…
The carry on essential packing list below is a good middle ground and is great to work off of.
This list is good for a traveler going to a temperate climate, as in, there will be beach time but maybe a bit chilly at night. So tweak this to your heart’s content depending on your needs. I hope it helps give you a good idea on what your perfect carry on essentials list can look like.
- 2 tank tops
- 4 short-sleeved shirts
- 1 long-sleeved shirt
- 2 pairs of pants/shorts
- 1 maxi skirt
- 1-2 dresses
Undergarments and Such
- 5 pairs of underwear
- 2 pairs of socks
- 2 bras (one regular one sport)
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 pair of lightweight, packable shoes (sandal, flat, sneaker, depending on what you’re doing)
- 1 pair flip flops
- 1 light fleece jacket that you wear, not pack (tie around your waist/clip to the outside of the bag)
- 1 scarf with hidden pocket (the perfect scarf for transit!)
How To Pack All of You Carry on Essentials?
Ha, well, that’s obvious but trust me, it’s much easier said than done. This is how to pack a carry-on, Nina style.
I use vacuum packs because I think they save more room than packing cubes. I love the look of packing cubes and they are a bit more organized, to be honest, but at the end of the day, the biggest issue is space, and the vacuum packs offer me more space, so they win!
Toiletries and wires and all that other stuff? Bag them! I have a little bag for everything. My costume jewelry goes in one, shower stuff in another, wires in another… All the bags look different, so I can easily tell which bag is which.
Some people may like using plastic baggies, that works but depending on how rough you and are how long your trip is, they will start breaking apart quicker than an actual bag.
Here’s How to Pack Your Carry On:
- Place your clothing in a few vacuum packs and then roll the air out.
- You should have mini burritos of your clothes right about now.
- Open the burrito up and make horseshoes and place your horseshoes into your carry on bag.
- You can place all the other bits in between your horseshoes now.
- All of your bags should be in the middle, and your vacuum-packed clothing should be flanking the perimeter of your bag. See the picture below. I have two horseshoes and a hole in the middle for my bagged accessories to fit in.
That’s it. That’s how I pack my carry on bag! Pretty simple and everything is organized as can be.
If you just throw your clothes in there or stuff toiletries in random pockets, you’re going to have one hot mess to deal with. You’ll never know where anything is, ever. So, that’s a big big NO.
If your liquid leaks, it’s going to ruin every piece of clothing and maybe even your bag. Keep all liquids in a plastic bag and then a toiletry bag.
Just stuffing your clothes in the bag? You’re going to have a hotel room that looks like a closet threw up in it and crumbled up clothing takes a lot more time.
Want to pack even more like I do?
I do a super weird trick that I know many people think is really weird and stupid but I really like it. Before placing my clothes into the vacuum packs, I actually put them in plastic bags first!
I put my tops in one bag, bottoms in another etc… This separates them. Then I vacuum them just like I explained above. When I get to my destination, I open the vacuum bags and then I have about 5 plastic bags with my items neatly organized in them. Organized like a packing cube but I saved on space by vacuum packing them!
A bizarre way of packing, I know, but it works for me, and maybe it will work for you?
What do you think? What are your carry on essentials and how do pack your bags? Did I miss anything? Let us know in the comments!
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Nina Ragusa is an adventurer, messy bun master, breakfast fan, and full-time travel blogger. She’s been abroad and epically failing at the American Dream since 2011. Her sassy yet informative blog, Where in the World is Nina? is all about how to work abroad to live a more adventurous life. If you want to travel longer you have to work to wander.