I actually travel entirely with carry-on luggage, even on the longest and farthest trips abroad. (Don’t believe me? Check out My Go-To, Long-Term, All Carry-On Travel Packing List for Women.) But my “carry-on” is still a large backpack containing everything I need for the trip, which isn’t practical to keep at my feet (it doesn’t fit under the seat in front of me) – so I bring a second, smaller bag keep with me on the plane. A carry-on carry-on, if you will.

In it, I pack everything that I consider essential for the flight – AND everything I want near my person at all times (like my passport, for example.) It’s like my bag of priority trip items – even if, God forbid, my bigger bag was lost or stolen from the compartment right over my head, I’d still be able to get by, enter the country, and then go shopping to replace everything I lost.

Here’s my list of essential carry-on items – and if you find it helpful, there’s a printable version of it you can download at the end of the article!



Credit cards/ID
Color copy of passport (+ digital copies)
Additional personal belongings



I like protein-rich bars, fruit cups or raw, easy-to-eat fruit like grapes and apples, and mixed nuts/trail mix with chocolate for a little something sweet. If you’re on a flight that doesn’t serve meals (or charges a ton to buy one), I strongly suggest a hearty sandwich or other premade meal, and plenty of filling snacks that include both salty and sweet flavors to curb those cravings.


It’s been said a million times before, but it’s important to stay hydrated on a flight! Either bring a reusable water bottle or buy a regular bottle once you’re through customs at your departure airport. Flight attendants will refill your bottle at the galley, where they have fresh drinking water, so you don’t have to bug them for a tiny cup every 30 minutes.



Most planes offer your own personal entertainment system on the seatback in front of you, but if you’re like me, you can’t watch movies for 10+ hours straight. I have the Kindle app installed on my iPad (and download any e-books I want to read before I leave the comforts of Wi-Fi), so I can read on the plane too. Don’t forget the charging cables for these!


Get a good pair of earbuds that fit – or better yet, invest in a solid pair of noise-cancelling headphones. I tend not to travel with these because they take up too much room, but I know plenty of other travelers who swear by them.

Portable charger

I love the RAVPower Portable Power Bank — it’s not tiny, but it’s small and sleek enough for my liking, especially since it can charge your smartphone from 0% battery to 100% a full 4-5 times before you need to charge the bank again!

Notepad & pen

Even if you’re totally digital, you’ll be grateful you have your own pen. Landing cards, anyone?



I can’t stress this enough: ear plugs will save your sanity. I recommend the expandable foam ones — you can buy them by the buckets at Target or any pharmacy. Bring a pair. Or five.

Neck pillow

Not all neck pillows are created equally. I am in love with this one.

Eye mask

Get yourself a nice one: fuzzy, soft, aromatherapy-infused ones are super.

Scarf/shawl (or travel blanket)

After trying to “convert” my jackets into doubling as blankets for years, I finally caved and took everyone else’s advice: a shawl (or a really wide, thick scarf) is the best “blanket” ever. You can wrap up in it, hunker down, and cozy up against the cold, unrelenting plane A/C. Plus, it’s just as versatile – and fashionable – to wear every day on your trip. This one from Nordstrom is one of the most popular out there, or there’s this equally as great one from Costco – for my fellow lady travelers on a budget. 🙂

Extra underwear/socks

Just in case.

Compression socks

On a serious note, you should always wear compression socks when you fly. The risk of DVT (deep-vein thrombosis) and blood clots is a serious risk. And get up and move as often as you possibly can – aim for at least 5 minutes every hour.


I pack all of these small items into a handy pouch that will keep them from getting lost in the depths of my bag or its pockets. Don’t forget that liquids need to be in clear 3 oz. (or smaller) plastic bottles!

Hair ties
Wet hand wipes
Hand sanitizer
Eye drops
Toothbrush & toothpaste
Nail clippers/tweezers

Eyeliner & mascara

I am super low-maintenance when it comes to travel, and my makeup routine is slim to none. But a quick touch-up can work wonders to make you feel like you aren’t a total zombie, and help alleviate the just-got-off-a-15-hour-flight look.


You’re going to dry up like the Sahara in that stale plane air. Bring a good skin cream and moisturize your skin often – shea-based creams are ultra-nourishing.


Obviously, bring your prescription meds. But I also bring ibuprofen for headaches, antacids for heartburn, and baby aspirin to help my blood/circulation.

Extra Ziploc baggies

You’ll want these. Trust me. And you can use them to package all your liquids for easy screening at the airport.

Don’t forget the luggage!

All of the above fits into my trusty Rick Steves daypack — although lately, I’ve been using the custom Gemline backpack I got from Gogobot.


Does this list help you? Download a handy printable check-off version of it here!