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How to Pack a Carry-On Bag Like a Pro

Updated on July 6, 2015

Choosing a Carry-on Bag

Before you start gearing up for your flight make sure that you choose the right carry-on bag to meet your individual needs. If you're checking a bag you might want to go with a smaller carry-on bag so you don't have to lug it around on your layovers. If you're only taking a carry-on you might want to invest in a carry-on sized suitcase so you don't have to pay the checked baggage fees. It's a good idea to figure out what is going to work best for your unique needs before you start making your packing list! One good rule of thumb is to make sure that whatever type of carry-on you choose it must be comfortable to carry around for lengthy periods of time! There's nothing worse than lugging around a bag that rubs painfully against your shoulder or that is so heavy that you can barely make it to your gate on time! If you're willing to spend a few extra bucks you can also invest in a carry-on bag that has wheels and an expandable handle which allows you to simply wheel it through the airport rather than carry it on your shoulder.

If you decide to go with a smaller shoulder sized carry-on bag make sure it has lots of pockets so that you can keep things organized and easily accessible while on your flight. If you're taking a carry-on sized suitcase you might also want to take a purse or an additional personal bag so that you don't have to get into your suitcase during the flight. Most airlines allow one carry-on bag and one personal bag.

Know the Rules!

If you're new to the flying scene you might want to familiarize yourself with the common regulations about carry-on baggage. Your first stop should be the Transportation Security Administration website where you can find a comprehensive list of allowed and prohibited items that you can take in your carry-on. You can even utilize their handy search feature to search for a specific item that you are unsure about. One good rule of thumb is that you are only allowed to bring one small bag of liquid items onto the plane and they all have to be 3.4 ounces or less per container. Be sure to take your bag of liquids out of your carry-on and place it in the security bin separately when going through the security check to streamline the process and avoid delays.

Shop for Travel Document Organizers on Amazon

Travel Document Organizers

You might want to consider investing in a travel document organizer. These organizers have places to keep your boarding passes, passports, money, credit cards, and other important documents or items that you might need to keep handy prior to boarding. I always take my travel document organizer when I fly because I hate digging around in my bag looking for all the different things that I need to get through security and board the plane. I just keep my organizer handy until I board and then I put it right in my carry-on bag for safe keeping. If you're a frequent flier I highly recommend a good travel document organizer. It is an absolute must if you want to streamline the boarding process and keep your sanity!

Packing the Perfect Carry-On

Now that you've selected the perfect carry-on bag for your trip, it's time to get packing! Here are some key items that you definitely want to include in your carry-on bag:

  • Medications
  • Charging cords for cell phones
  • Money and/or credit cards
  • Snacks
  • Travel documents (boarding passes, itinerary, passport, photo ID)
  • Headphones
  • Gum
  • Wet Wipes
  • Motion sickness medicine
  • Entertainment (like a book or Kindle, laptop, or small electronic games)
  • Empty water bottle
  • A light sweater or jacket

If you decide not to pack all of your medications in your carry-on bag, make sure you at least have enough for a few days just in case your checked baggage gets lost (which hopefully never happens!) Keep charge cords with you in case you need to find a plugin at the airport in the event that your phone dies during your journey. Nearly all airports are now equipped with charging stations. Although many airlines sell headphones for in-flight movies, bring your own to save a little money. Don't forget to bring gum in case your ears start hurting! Motion sickness medicine is also handy for all flights. Even if you're not prone to motion sickness, you might want to bring some in case someone around you gets sick which can quickly ruin your flight as well. Use the wet wipes when you're feeling dirty or grimy throughout your journey. Trust me, you'll be glad you brought them!

Bring your own snacks on the plane. Airport shops are pricey so stock up on snacks and store them in small baggies that are easily accessible in your carry-on. Don't forget that you can't take liquids that are over 3.4 ounces onto the plane, which means that you can't bring your own bottle of water. You CAN however bring an empty water bottle and fill it up once you've passed security! Some airports even have filtered water bottle refill stations which will save you a pretty penny if you have a long flight or multiple layovers.

Even if you're flying to a warm location, be sure to bring a light sweater for the flight. Planes can sometimes be chilly so it might come in handy. The sweater can also double as a neck pillow, just roll it up and place it around the back of your neck to make in-flight naps more comfortable.

Keep all of your money, travel documents, credit cards, and passport secure in your travel document organizer so that you don't lose anything! If you think that you'll need to get into your carry-on bag frequently during the flight you might want to consider stowing it under the seat in front of you (as long as it doesn't take up too much of your leg room). This will eliminate the need for you to open the overhead compartment every time you need something out of your bag.

If you have fragile items, like digital cameras, tablets, or laptops, be sure to pack them in your carry-on rather than in your checked baggage. Airlines are notorious for damaging luggage during transit so it's best to keep your valuable items with you rather than in your checked baggage.

Other helpful hints for a more enjoyable flight...

  • If you've ever ordered coffee during the in-flight service you probably know just how dangerous it can be to have a tiny paper cup full to the brim of scalding hot coffee. To avoid spills or burns bring your own empty disposable coffee cup with lid and have the flight attendant pour the coffee into your cup instead of the small paper cups that they offer. You can even buy a pack of disposable paper coffee cups with lids at the Dollar Tree! If you like your coffee sweet and flavorful you can even bring a couple of the individual liquid coffee creamers that they have at gas stations. Just snag a couple when you stop for gas on your way to the airport (they won't mind!)
  • If you are traveling with children bring a cup that has a lid and straw to prevent spills.
  • Most airlines allow you to make in-flight purchases (alcohol, featured films, headphones, etc.) but they only accept credit cards. Be sure to bring at least one credit card with you in case you want to make an in-flight purchase.
  • Although having a window seat sounds like fun it can be a real pain if you have to use the restroom mid-flight. I always opt for the aisle seat because I can come and go as I please without disturbing people in the seats next to me. Many people fall asleep during flights so the last thing you want is to be stuck in your window seat with two sleeping people to maneuver around just to get to the restroom.

Last, but not least...

Make sure that your carry-on bag meets the necessary size requirements. If you think your bag might be too big you can contact the airline prior to your flight to find out the size restrictions for carry-on bags. Carry-on size restrictions vary by airline. The size of the airplane that you are traveling in will also be a factor.

All airports also have handy carry-on size checking stations like the one pictured at the right. Before you check-in for your flight you can make sure that your carry-on bag is the right size by placing it inside bin on the size checker. As long as it fits inside of the bin, you should be good to go.


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    • alisharenee profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from New York

      There are different carry-on size restrictions for each airline. It often has a lot to do with the size of the plane and how much room they have in the overhead compartments. It's best to check with the airline prior to your trip to inquire about size restrictions.

    • quildon profile image

      Angela Joseph 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Great, informative article, even for a frequent flyer like myself. I never thought of the paper cup with lid or even the wipes. I'm still a bit confused about carry-on sizes. I see some people bringing bags that seem large enough to be checked, and as long as it fits in the overhead it's okay. But Spirit airline doesn't take anything larger than a small backpack.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Very helpful. Love the cup with lid idea. I'm sure my old carry-on is now too big. Do you suggest a website where we might get carry-on sizes easily or does this change from airline to airline? Appreciate the link to the TSA.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      5 years ago from Oklahoma

      I'm a terrible packer. Thanks for the tutorial.

    • diogenes profile image


      5 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Useful article. You didn't mention that airlines are considering shrinking our carry-on bag's size even further! Greed, greed, no end to it. You might look into this and tell us when and what the new requirements might be?



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