How to Pack a Carry-On Bag Like a Pro [UPDATED]

written by local expert Jane Elmets

Jane always knew she wasn't destined for a desk job... She has travelled all over the world and is passionate about noodles, sloths and her hiking boots! When she isn't busy adventuring around the world, you can find her reviewing travel gear and dishing out travel tips to all the places she's visited.

The art of packing well is something that doesn’t come naturally to many. I have to be the first to admit that overpacking used to be my middle name. It came to my point that even my carry-on bag was full to the brim.

However, my nomadic lifestyle has taught me that less is more and to only bring the essentials.

So here is a peek into what’s usually inside my carry-on bag and how you can put together the perfect “pro-packed” carry-on bag. Not only will this guide help make any long-haul flight easier, it will also help you stay organized and ensure you have all the essentials right at hand.

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How to Choose the Best Carry-on Bag

To pack any successful carry-on, you must have the ideal bag for your travels. This bag should be lightweight, full of pockets and compartments, and easy to organize so that you can always find what you’re looking for.

Here are some suggestions for the best carry-on bags.

Our Picks for Best Carry-on Bags

Nomatic Backpack

Nomatic Backpack

As far as carry-on bags go, we’re absolutely obsessed with the Nomatic Backpack.

It fits all the gadgets we take on the road with us and is the perfect size everyday back to use daily on our travels. As for a carry-on, it fits the important electronic items, reading material for the plane, small toiletries and a spare change of close, just in case.

The streamlined design and comfortable fit are a huge selling point for this backpack. Plus, if you’re looking for something a little bit bigger, they have other bag options to choose from!


Osprey Quasar Daypack

If you’re looking for a sturdy carry-on that’s bound to fit all of your necessities, Osprey’s Quasar Daypack is a great bet.

Durable in design, this backpack is full of pockets to keep your belongings organized. There are padded shoulder straps to keep you comfortable no matter how heavy it is, and a laptop sleeve as well.

It looks sleek and gives you easy access to whatever you need at a moment’s notice.

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Anti-Theft Backpack

Another great carry-on backpack option is an anti-theft model that is big enough to fit all you need for the plane while protecting your belongings from prying hands.

Besides protection, this backpack offers users a sleek design with a laptop sleeve, three zippered pockets filled with compartments, mesh side pockets, and a USB charging port to connect a power bank too. How handy is that?

This backpack even comes in different colors and patterns, and has a handy luggage strap to hook on to a roller bag for convenience. Plus, the price is unbeatable.

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Lowepro Fastpack DSLR Backpack

If you’re traveling with a large camera, lenses and additional gear, it’s advisable to pack all your carry-on items in a camera bag.

This backpack has a laptop sleeve, a padded compartment to store a DSLR, as well as a large zippered compartment to keep the rest of the items you’ll need for your flight.

Instead of having one large compartment for odds and ends, there are many internal pockets and slips to keep yourself organized. You also get camera storage space and a side pocket for a water bottle.

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Longchamp Shoulder Bag

An alternative to a backpack is a trusty shoulder bag.

While it may not have as many pockets as backpacks, I’m a huge fan of traveling with a Longchamp or other shoulder bag because I can just reach in and grab whatever I need quickly. I’m particularly a fan of these bags because they fold up when not in use.

If you choose to use a shoulder bag, you’re going to need some sort of internal organization method, but that’s no problem. These kinds of bags also fit under the airplane seat in front of you easily, so you don’t have to worry about having your computer or other valuables stowed in the overhead bin.

Once you choose a bag that’s right for you and your travels, it’s time to start filling it with everything you need.

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Carry-on Packing List

Here are all the items you should pack in your carry-on to keep you comfortable and happy throughout your journey.

Travel Accessories

Having basic travel accessories will keep your carry-on organized and your important items easily accessible for whenever you need them. They’ll also keep you nice and comfy on the longest days.

I never fly without these things.

Travel Wallet

No matter where I’m going or what type of trip I’m taking, the first thing I pack is my travel wallet. I’ve been using this one for years and it has never failed me! It has held up so well; there’s barely a scratch on it. I love this thing to bits.

This nifty organizer keeps all of your important documents in one place without turning into a bulky mess. With a passport pocket, coin purse, card slots, pen holder and places to keep your boarding pass, it’s a one-stop shop for checking in and paying for anything along the way.

When it’s not in use, you can close it with the snap and store it for safekeeping.

I like this one because it’s super easy to find what you’re looking for without shuffling through a larger travel wallet. Plus, it comes in many colors, so you can choose one that suits your style. You seriously won’t regret getting this travel wallet.

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Read More: Best Travel Wallets to Stay Organized on the Go [2024 Guide]

Cable Organizer

Cable Organizer

Cables and other electronics can cause a huge clutter in your carry-on.

With an organizer, you’re able to keep them in one place and always know where they are when you need them. Not to mention your cords will stay tangle-free for your entire journey! Total win.

This organizer is one of my favorites because it has tons of compartments made from elastic and mesh so you can always find the cord you’re looking for with ease. It also has a flap pocket to store a tablet or Kindle and a compartment that fits a mouse and a mini keyboard.

The best part is that you can still fold it up to be flat and it’s easily packable. It really is the perfect size.

Another awesome feature that this organizer has is a waterproof cover. You never worry about your electronics getting wet with this! It’s definitely one of the best on the market.

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Foldable Water Bottle

This is such a practical, space-saving item that it’s hard to travel without it once you start.

A foldable water bottle is convenient for a carry-on because you can keep it compressed while checking in and going through security, and then unwrap it as soon as you find a water fountain near your gate.

Not only will you save money on pricey airport water bottles, but you’ll save space in your bag as well.

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View the Epic Guide to Travel Water Bottles

Travel Scarf

I love having a travel scarf no matter where I’m going, especially if my outfit is lacking pockets. I can stash my phone, passport, and money in the hidden pocket!

This travel scarf is lightweight so you can wear it throughout the trip as well as in the airport, and it comes in 45 (yes 45!) different colors and patterns, allowing you to choose one best suited to your personal style.

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Travel Pillow

If you’re taking a long flight or have a lengthy layover, you’ll want to rest your head at some point.

A travel pillow will keep you comfortable for the duration of your trip, and some can be easily compressed when not in use.

I always travel with this pillow because the U-shaped ones hurt my neck. This one has a more traditional feel without taking up too much space. Plus, it has a carrying case so I can stash it in my bag or clip it to the outside without worrying about it getting dirty.

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Eye Mask & Ear Plugs

We’ve all been on a flight with a screaming baby or two. Block out all sights and sounds on a noisy airplane with an eye mask and ear plugs.

This contoured mask is super soft and comfy, and fits to your face to block out as much light as possible. No matter how goofy you look, you’re sure to be the most content person on the plane.

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It’s important to keep your electronics and other valuables in your carry-on bag so they don’t get damaged or stolen in your checked bag.

Having your electronics with you will also keep you entertained during a long day of travel!

Laptop & Charger

Make sure you pack your laptop and charger in your carry-on bag. When it’s with you, it’s sure to stay safe and damage-free, which is not something that is guaranteed if it’s in your checked bag.

Plus, having your laptop on you means that you can get work done, surf the web, or watch movies while hanging around the airport!

I never go anywhere without my Macbook Air. It’s so lightweight and perfect for travel, I don’t think I’ll ever switch back to a heavier model.

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Keep your camera in your travel carry-on bag as well because you don’t want to take the risk of it getting broken in your checked luggage.

This Canon DSLR set has everything you need to take awesome photos on the go.

If you’re looking for other cameras to take traveling with you, be sure to check out our complete reviews of the best travel cameras!

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Phone Charger

On especially long travel days, you’re going to want to have your phone charger easily accessible for when your battery is running low.

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Power Bank

If you can’t find an outlet or are already on the plane, keep your electronics fully juiced with a portable power bank.

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Who says bookworms can’t travel light?

Long layovers and flights are the best time to catch up on your reading and having a Kindle handy gives you access to thousands of titles at your fingertips without adding weight to your bag.

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Bose Headphones

I always travel with a pair of noise-canceling headphones to drown out the airport noise.

The ones by Bose are super comfy, durable and cordless! The battery is also long-lasting which is one of the most important features in my opinion.

While they may be pricey, they’re definitely worth the investment.

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Travel Adapter

This is a must if you’re traveling abroad. Do not make the mistake of packing this in your checked bag because you will regret it the second you need to plug something in.

Even airports have different outlets depending on the country, so having a universal travel adapter with different plugs will make your life so much easier.

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Nothing makes you feel grimy the way airports do.

Keep yourself feeling fresh throughout your travels with basic toiletries in your carry-on bag. Always remember to keep things in travel size (100ml/3.4oz) and in a plastic bag, as full-sized liquids and gels aren’t permitted in the cabin.

Travel Toothbrush

After a long flight or during a lengthy layover, you’ll want to get all the grit and grime off your teeth.

A travel-sized toothbrush kit is perfect for this and won’t take up too much space in your bag. Just be sure that your toothpaste is in a plastic bag with the rest of your liquids!

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Face Wash

Is it just me or do planes make your face extra oily and gross? I always pop into a bathroom to give my face a quick wash to feel refreshed on long travel days.

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Hand Sanitizer

Airports are absolutely full of germs. To avoid picking them up and getting sick from what you come in contact with, disinfect your hands with sanitizer regularly.

I always travel with a spray bottle of lavender sanitizer because not only does it kill germs but smells amazing too!

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Wet Wipes

Trust me, these will come in handy at one point or another.

Whether you have sticky hands or get extra sweaty going through security, having wet wipes on hand will cure any of your messy problems. Sometimes I even take a mini wet wipe “shower” to keep myself feeling fresh.

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You Gotta have the travel tissues, that’s for sure.

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Flying seriously dries out your skin. Re-your skin hydrate with a mini bottle of moisturizer, and you’ll be back to yourself in no time.

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Lip Balm

On the same drying lines, keep your lips hydrated by regularly applying lip balm.

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Other Necessities

These are some final items to complete your carry-on bag and make sure that you have everything you need throughout your day.

Light Sweater

Airports and airplanes are cold. That’s just a fact of life. Don’t suffer from the excessive air conditioning, and be prepared with a light sweater to throw on when needed.

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Bose Headphones

Don’t let your glasses get crushed in your checked bag. Keep them in your carry-on so they stay protected throughout your trip, and so that you can throw them on when you arrive at your destination!

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Gum and airplanes for me are like peanut butter and jelly. It’s an absolute must in my carry-on bag to keep my breath fresh and my teeth occupied on long days in the air. Plus, it helps to fight the air pressure in the airplane cabin!

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Airports are notoriously overpriced and prey on unprepared travelers. Bring a stash of your favorite snacks with you so that you can munch while at your gate and in the air.

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Also make sure you have any and all medication you need in your carry-on bag.

This includes prescriptions, but I also like to travel with DayQuil and NyQuil, Dramamine, and chewable Emergen-C.

Change of Clothes

Lastly, I always keep a change of clothes (including underwear and socks) in the bottom of my bag on the off chance that my checked luggage gets lost or delayed. This way I always have something to throw on, just in case.

How to Pack a Carry-on: Tips and Tricks

The biggest tip I have for packing a carry-on bag is to keep yourself organized using Ziplock bags.

Instead of having all of your items floating loosely inside, put similar items in a baggie and pull it out when needed. This will save you so much time and energy normally spent fumbling around.

Another tip is to double check your airline’s carry-on bag policy. Often times there’s a weight limit, and depending on the airline this can be strictly enforced.

Sometimes it’s handy to travel with a small cross-body bag or purse in addition to your carry-on. Having your passport, wallet, and other important items hanging around your neck is quite convenient and doesn’t usually count as an official carry-on bag.

Keep all of your valuables in your carry-on bag, and keep your bag in your possession at all times. There are constant announcements not to leave your bag unattended in the airport, and for good reason. Listen to them and you’ll have nothing to worry about!

Lastly, always keep copies of your important documents in your carry-on bag just in case. I tend to keep multiple copies of my passport, bank cards, and address of where I’m staying with me on the off chance my wallet gets lost or stolen.

Having copies makes getting new documents so much easier and will save you a lot of stress in the long run. It’s better to be safe than sorry!

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What Not to Pack in a Carry-on

The main thing you’re going to want to avoid packing in your carry-on is lots of liquids. No matter where you are in the world, there are strict limits as to how much liquid you can take on board with you.

Generally, it’s limited to one quart-sized plastic bag with 100ml (3.4 ounces) bottles, nothing larger. This also applies to toiletries like toothpaste, sunscreen and lotion. Don’t get your nice products snatched by airport security and just stick to the basics.

There are other prohibited items that you can’t take on board an airplane with you. Avoid packing things like scissors, knives, and other sharp objects, as well as any weapons — even toys like water guns or sling shots. Make sure to leave the pepper spray at home as well.

Finally, don’t pack too much! The whole point of having a carry-on is to have your most important items easily accessible.

If you have a bag stuffed to the brim with all of your belongings, this completely defeats the purpose and will make your life at the airport a hassle. Stick to the essentials on this list, and you should have a stress-free travel experience.

carry-on bag packing list

So there you have it: a fool-proof way to make sure that your flight is as comfortable as possible!

If you get a good carry-on bag and tools for organization, everything will store away nicely and help you stay organized.

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