Whenever your travels include a flight (or two), your carry-on bag is something of an unsung hero. It can’t be too big and bulky, otherwise it’s hard to carry around or stuff under the seat in front of you. But it also has to serve a lot of different purposes—helping you stay organized, entertained, and ready for anything that might come your way, whether that’s a dying iPhone or the need for a little cleanup.
What to Pack in Your Carry-on Bag
That’s a lot to ask of even the best luggage, so it’s important to make sure your carry-on bag is working for you. Before you embark on your guided tour, pack these 10 essentials to make the most of your limited carry-on space during your travels.
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1. Collapsible Water Bottle
Staying hydrated while traveling is important, and the bottled water for sale at the airport can be expensive and awkward to tote around. A collapsible water bottle helps you quench your thirst in a space-saving and sustainable way, and it’s easy to fill up at an airport water bottle filling station.
Look for a collapsible water bottle for your carry-on bag that’s made of lightweight but still durable and leakproof materials. Consider the size of the bottle’s mouth and the total amount of liquid it can hold to make sure it works the way you want to use it. (Do you want to be able to add ice to it? Do you want to be able to carry a large amount of water for long hikes or bike rides?)
Decide if having an included filter is important to you, too, and understand just how much the bottle collapses, as that can vary from brand to brand.
TourScoop recommends: Collapsible water bottles from Nomader, HydraPak, Platypus, Vapur, and Nefeeko are all great choices for on-the-go hydration. You can find these and other well-reviewed options at Amazon, REI, and Walmart.
2. Travel Wallet
Frantically digging through your bag to find your passport, driver’s license, or boarding pass is never a fun travel experience. Safely securing all those must-haves in a dependable travel wallet helps you avoid that kind of last-minute scramble.
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A good travel wallet offers plenty of organizational components to help corral all your important necessities. Features like RFID-blocking technology, zippered compartments, and water-resistant materials help keep everything safe and secure. Wallets made from durable materials make for longer-lasting options, especially if your travel style is more rough-and-tumble than refined.
TourScoop recommends: Brands like Zoppen, Béis, Pacsafe, Tumi, Travelon, and Travelambo offer well-rated travel wallet options. Retailers like Amazon, Target, and Walmart carry these and other options to match any personal fashion style.
3. Pill Case
It’s always a smart idea to stash important medications in your carry-on bag. Should the unfortunate happen and your checked luggage (or, if you’re traveling with family, your kids’ luggage) doesn’t arrive at your final destination when you do, you’ll have the daily meds you need to keep your blood pressure or allergies in check.
You’ll want a sturdy case that keeps pills organized by medication, day of the week, or whatever system works best for you. It should stay firmly closed to prevent accidental spills inside your carry-on, but also be easy to open when you feel a headache coming on and need some relief.
TourScoop recommends: We like the pill cases made by Port and Polish, Cadence, Vera Bradley, and Meacolia that meld function with good looks. A wide range of travel pill case options from totally basic to sleek and stylish can be found at retailers like Amazon, Target, and Walmart.
4. Travel Pillow
Long travel days are ideal for resting up for the adventures ahead. And whether you’re trying to sleep on a plane, bus, or train, having a travel pillow on hand makes that a much more restorative experience. You’ll want a pillow that feels comfortable to you, so explore the different styles, sizes, shapes, and materials available to find the best fit for the way you like to doze. Portability is important when packing for the plane, and features like clasps and carrying bags can make toting a travel pillow easier.
TourScoop recommends: Travel pillows from Cabeau, trtl, Bcozzy, and Travelrest have earned praise from travelers and reviewers. Options from memory foam to inflatable versions can be found at Amazon, Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Target.
5. Portable Charger and Electronic Devices
You never want your Kindle to die in the middle of a book or your tablet to go kaput during a movie. And a laptop without any juice won’t help you squeeze in that last bit of work before your vacation officially starts. That’s why a portable charger is a must-have to go along with your devices.
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When shopping for a portable charger, you’ll want to consider things like charging speed and capacity, along with any additional cords you might need to connect it to your various devices. You’ll also want to think about whether you want something small and lightweight to carry throughout your travels or a charger with a little more heft that’ll you mainly keep in your carry-on bag or guest room.
TourScoop recommends: Good choices for portable chargers include options from Anker, Belkin, OtterBox, and Nimble. Find chargers from these and other brands at retailers like Best Buy, Staples, Walmart, and Amazon.
6. Headphones or Ear Buds
Movies and music help a long flight feel tolerable, and you need good headphones or ear buds to enjoy them on the plane, especially with so much background noise. Plus you’ll be able to use them in your destination for app-based audio tours, an afternoon run, or communicating with family back home.
You’ll need to decide if you prefer traditional, over-the-ear headphones or smaller-sized ear buds that take up almost no space in your carry-on bag. Wireless options offer more flexibility than wired versions, but you’ll need to factor things like charging and battery life into your decision. Noise-cancelling headphones can be a good option for louder environments like an airplane with lots of background noise. If you’re flying with children, it’s a good idea to pack headphones for the kids as well.
TourScoop recommends: Bose, Sony, Apple, Soundcore, and Beats are popular headphone brands for music and movie lovers. Retailers like Best Buy, Amazon, Walmart, and Target offer options from these and other brands at a variety of price points.
7. Hand Sanitizer or Wipes
Germs, viruses, messy foods—our hands come in contact with a lot of different things during our travels, especially on airplanes. When you can’t easily access soap and water, hand sanitizer or wipes are the next best thing.
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The CDC recommends using hand sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent alcohol for the best results. Use enough to cover all surfaces of both your hands to remove as many germs as possible, and rub your hands together until they feel dry. If you’re throwing hand sanitizer into your carry-on, make sure it’s 3.4 ounces or less and stays firmly closed to prevent leaks. Hand wipes are another option for on-the-go cleaning, but you’ll want to check the ingredients to see how effective they are at fighting germs.
TourScoop recommends: You can’t go wrong with products from Purell, Bath & Body Works, Germ-X, EO, and Everyone. Retailers like Amazon, Target, and Walmart carry these and other brands in travel-friendly sizes.
8. Lip Balm
Airplanes can be drying environments, so lip balm comes in handy for preventing cracking and chapping. And as long as the balm is in solid form, there are no TSA restrictions on it. A good lip balm is hydrating but not sticky and feels soothing on your lips. Look for ingredients like beeswax, lanolin, and shea or cocoa butter to help lock in needed moisture.
You can opt for tinted or untinted versions, and swiping on some lip balm is a great way to give your face a little pick-me-up after a long flight. Find a pocket in your bag where you can stash it so it doesn’t get lost amid all your stuff, or better yet wear specially designed comfortable travel clothes with lots of pockets or women’s leggings with pockets, whichever you prefer.
TourScoop recommends: Burt’s Bees, Fresh, eos, Sun Bum, and ChapStick are much-loved sources for reliable lip balms. You can find these and other brands at retailers like Sephora, Ulta Beauty, Target, Walmart, and Amazon.
9. Travel Wrap or Blanket
Temperatures can vary in airports and on planes, so having an easy-to-pack wrap, scarf, or blanket in your carry-on bag can prove useful when you start to feel chilly. It’s also an item that can work hard for you during your trip (think over-air-conditioned restaurants, temperature dips in the evenings), so packing one is never a waste of space.
You’ll want to find a material that fits your style and budget and offers enough warmth without being heavy or bulky in your carry-on bag. Think about how you might want to use a wrap or scarf beyond just pure warmth to make sure if offers the flexibility you need.
TourScoop recommends: We like the wraps and scarves from J.Crew, White + Warren, J.Jill, and Barefoot Dreams for their style and versatility. You can find even more good options at Amazon, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Eddie Bauer.
10. Travel Pouches
Keep your carry-on bag organized with designated pouches for tech gear, snacks, health and beauty supplies, and other goodies. Being able to quickly grab ear buds, hand sanitizer, or a stick of gum when you really need it makes traveling go a lot more smoothly.
These kind of organizational aids come in lots of different sizes, styles, and materials, so choose the ones that work best for you for corralling charging cords, granola bars, or your favorite lip balms. Assign certain colors or sizes to specific items so you always know what’s where, or opt for mesh or clear bags so it’s easy to see what’s inside.
TourScoop recommends: We like the travel pouches from Calpak, Dagne Dover, Baggallini, Travelon, and Stasher for on-the-go organization. Retailers like The Container Store, Amazon, Walmart, and Target also carry a range of travel pouch options for your carry-on bag.