- I’m a longtime travel journalist and have finely honed my packing routine over years of intensive trial-and-error.
- Here’s my list of musts for my carry-on bag, including brand recommendations.
It’s easy to get caught up in packing your suitcase, but whenever my travels include flights, it’s my personal item that’s the real unsung hero. And how I pack it really matters: It can’t be too big and bulky, otherwise it’s hard to lug around the airport or fit under the seat in front of me. But it also has many jobs: helping me stay organized, entertained, and ready for anything that might come my way, whether that’s a low-on-battery iPhone or the need for a little cleanup.
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Note that these are items beyond the obvious ones like passport, phone, and wallet. Please don’t forget those!
The 10 Things I Always Pack in My Personal Item for Flights
It has taken a lot of trial-and-error to whittle it down to this list of must-haves for my inflight personal item. In terms of what I pack it in, it varies by flight. Sometimes it’s a small backpack, other times a tote bag with a zipper, and if I want to roll my personal item rather than carry it, I use a rolling underseat carry-on as my personal item.
Here are my top non-negotiable items I carry in my personal item on flights.
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 (after you’ve emptied it before going through security, of course, so it doesn’t get taken away).
Look for a collapsible water bottle for your carry-on bag that’s made of lightweight but still durable and leakproof materials. The tricky thing I’ve found is that a lot of the brands that focus on being lightweight and easy also have the sorts of tops that leak if they’re sideways. So for flights, I’m always looking for an option that folds small when not in use and also has a screw top, which is less likely to dribble water when closed.
2. Travel Wallet
Frantically digging through your bag to find your passport, driver’s license, or boarding pass at the front of the security line adds unnecessary stress to the 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.
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 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 so you don’t need to wrestle compartments open every time you need a pill.
4. Travel Pillow
Long travel days are ideal for resting up for the adventures ahead, and helping you get out ahead of jetlap. Whether you’re trying to sleep on a plane, bus, or train, having the right travel pillow on hand makes that a much more restorative experience.
There’s no single best travel pillow, you just need a pillow that feels comfortable to you, which takes some exploring the different styles, sizes, shapes, and materials available to find your best fit. Portability is important when packing for the plane, and features like clasps and carrying bags can make toting a travel pillow easier.
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.
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.
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. Hand sanitizer is great for cleaning hands before inflight snacks and meals, since it’s hard to navigate the aisle to get to the bathroom when the food and beverage carts are blocking the path.
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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.
8. Lip Balm
Airplanes are low-humidity environments, so lip balm is a must for preventing cracking and chapping. And bonus: 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. Find a pocket in your bag where you can stash it so it doesn’t get lost amid all your stuff.
9. Travel Wrap or Blanket
Temperatures vary wildly 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.
10. Travel Pouches
I love a good travel pouch to help keep my carry-on bag organized, and look for ones with individual 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 I 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. What’s more, between trips, I refresh and store my personal item kit (sans granola bars, of course) so it’s ready to go the next time, which simplifies packing.
Bonus: Questions and Answers About Personal Items on Planes
What are typical size restrictions on personal items?
Most airlines (even the budget carriers like Spirit Airlines that have strict inflight bag size restrictions), cap the personal item size at about 18 x 14 x 8 inches size limit. Note that if you have a basic economy seat, that may be all the space you get, since a personal item is included in the price but overhead bin space for carry-ons isn’t. (Note that with basic economy, you can still pay the checked bag fee if you do want to travel with more.)
What’s the etiquette on where to stash my personal item on a flight?
Most airlines (and airline passengers) prefer that your personal item must fit underneath the seat in front of you. That way, you’re saving room in the overhead compartments for carry-on suitcases that don’t fit under the seat.
What types of bags make the best personal items?
Here’s my take: Something like a small purse or day bag isn’t making the best use of your personal item space (especially if you’re going all carry-on), so you want something that’s a bit bigger to hold these essentials. A laptop bag, backpack, tote bag with a zipper (so your stuff doesn’t fall out when it’s sideways on the floor), large purse, messenger bag, or even underseat rolling suitcase can all be good choices.