My 14 Carry-On Bag Must-Have Items

I have been on hundreds of flights (I actually did some math really quick to decide if that was hyperbole, but I don’t think it is…). However, I still search for recommended items to include in my carry-on bag. I always want to check that there is not some life-changing must-have that I am forgetting.

All of these carry-on bag must-have items are specific to my “personal” item. Nothing on this list goes in my suitcase that will be in the overhead compartment. I need these under the seat in front of me for quick-access. 

Disclosure: there are some affiliate links below and I may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this post, but these are all products I recommend. I won’t put anything on this page that I have not verified and/or personally used.

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14 carry-on bag must haves

  1. Headphones (two types!) Depending on your devices, you may need two different types of earbuds. I prefer my Heyday Wireless earbuds to listen to music, books, etc. on my phone. However, if your plane has in-flight entertainment, then you’ll probably need to get some that plug-in.
  2. Chapstick There’s not much to say here other than I require chapstick to be on my person at all times. Having chapped lips without something to put on them is like a slow torture.   
  3. Dry Shampoo In lieu of taking a shower, dry shampoo can make you feel refreshed after many hours in transit.  
  4. Hand Lotion Planes are incredibly drying and my hands are always craving a bit of lotion to soothe them during flights.  
  5. Hand Sanitizer Welcome to traveling during COVID-19! I typically carried hand sanitizer anyway, but now it is a requirement.  
  6. Disinfecting Wipes Ok, I was that person who wiped down the entire plane seat and tray before the pandemic. You can bet I’m disinfecting all the surfaces these days, too.  
  7. Ibuprofen A headache or any random aches and pains can derail travel plans quickly. As someone prone to headaches, I always keep a small bottle of ibuprofen handy. 
  8. Charging Pack & Phone Charger Cord Having your battery go dead on any device during a flight is a heartbreak. Avoid that by always having a charger and cord! Some newer or larger planes will have USB ports, but I never rely on that. 
  9. Jacket or Scarf Even if I’m headed to the beach, I always carry a jacket and/or scarf on the plane. Temperatures on planes and in airports fluctuate wildly and I would rather not be cold. A nice scarf also serves as a pillow if you decide to take a quick nap. 
  10. Book or Kindle Some folks are readers, others are movie-watchers. Unless the plane has a great movie available, I will typically read throughout the flight. I have a Kindle Fire, but honestly I wish I had a Paperwhite…it is going on the wishlist! I was initially firmly against Kindles, a “real book” purist. However, when traveling it is hard to argue with the simplicity of having many books in something smaller than a regular book. 
  11. Toothbrush & Toothpaste I don’t really need to explain this one, but add it to your “freshen up” repertoire and thank me later. You can also choose to carry those “brush things” in lieu of a full toothbrush and paste in your carry-on. Just make sure you pack the real thing for your trip in some bag! 
  12. Water Bottle Going back to the “planes are incredibly drying” fact, carrying your own water bottle will help you stay hydrated. Most airports have bottle filling stations now and some restaurants will even fill them for you. The flight attendants will also refill it on the plane, just remember to ask nicely! 
  13. Snacks I’m a hungry girl and flights are so frequently at weird times that you miss meals or eat at odd intervals. I just can’t bring myself to rely on the provided snacks – unless it’s a long haul international flight, in which case that food is usually great and free flowing! Throw a granola bar, trail mix, or something in your bag just to be safe. 
  14. Extra Ziplock Bags I am a rule follower, and as a rule follower I always (always) put my liquids and gels in a one-quart ziplock bag. However, ziplock bags get torn and mussed up, so I carry a few extras. It’s also just nice to put your liquids in plastic baggies because sometimes they can pop open under pressure. Putting them in bags limits the mess potential! 

bonus items for long-haul flights

1. Foot Sling I was skeptical when someone recommended this to me, but honestly it is one of my favorite travel accessories. As someone with very short legs, sitting in any seat for a long period of time is uncomfortable. This foot sling works wonders! 

2. Turtl Pillow I can’t really say that I like this one over a traditional travel pillow, but it definitely has the benefit of keeping your head up. It is great for when you get stuck in the middle seat. You can buy it from Amazon, but I read some reviews that said there are several knock-offs so I bought it directly from their website

3.  Eye Mask Sleeping masks are definitely not a new thing, but I am just now coming around to them. Maybe it’s because I am getting old and cannot just sleep anywhere, but covering my eyes with a nice mask is helpful.

4. Hairbrush How does my hair get tangly when I am literally just sitting on a plane for 7 hours?? No clue, but it sure feels good to brush it out.

learn from my mistakes, y'all

So, here’s a quick lesson I learned. Jess and I both have these great eBags carry-on backpacks. They are great and we have both used them extensively. There’s even a padded laptop sleeve! 

Last year, I was traveling for work and then taking a few days to go hiking immediately after. Unfortunately, I was boarding in one of the last groups and they ran out of overhead bin space and said I needed to check my bag. Well, that meant I had to literally carry my laptop on in my hands because I didn’t bring a tote bag. Big mistake, huge. My pockets were full of random items (basically the stuff I listed above) and I felt quite unprepared. 

So, when you are trying to consolidate and are only carrying-on one bag, always bring a smaller bag to pop your in-flight items in just in case! You don’t want to look as flustered and unorganized as I did.

(classic airport bathroom mirror selfie during COVID-19!

classic airport bathroom selfie

In the end, what goes in your carry-on bag should be only things that you cannot check (or should not – i.e. medications) and items that will make your flight comfortable and enjoyable. My must-haves all serve a purpose, and that purpose is to keep me entertained and feeling good for however many hours I’m stuck in the too-small seat of an airplane. 

When you are ready to start traveling again, check out my in-depth guide on using Google Flights to find the best flights and best deals. If you are looking for some inspiration, read about my Labor Day adventure out west or click here for my semi-complete guide to solo female travel!

What are your carry-on bag must have items? Am I missing anything? 

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