After years of travel, it’s amazing we didn’t realize the greatness of traveling with only carry-on luggage sooner. Early on we each lugged one large suitcase and at least one smaller bag or backpack…and a personal bag. We checked our larger bags, so what was the big deal?

The big deal was increasing baggage fees, long waits at the carousel and the worry that our suitcases may have gotten lost. Not to mention how difficult it is to drag around all that weight and the resulting sore muscles. Storage also became a problem when  taking trains and other local transportation.  What were we thinking?

10 Carry-on Essentials, GoRoamin Travel Blog


Now, since the big awakening and our shift to only carry-on luggage, we have less weight to heft from plane to plane or train to train. We have no airline baggage fees. We’re not spending time waiting at the luggage carousel, so we have less stress…and more time to enjoy our trips. It’s win-win all over the place.

Whenever possible, we travel with only our under seat carry-on luggage. That’s the one personal bag you’re allowed to take on the plane without charge. It’s usually the size of a large purse, briefcase or laptop case, or a small to medium-sized backpack or duffel bag. Airlines vary in what they’ll allow so be sure to check your airline’s policy on this. One budget airline dictates your under seat carry-on bag should be no larger than 12 x 16 x 9, and it must fit under the seat in front of you.


10 Carry-on Travel Essentials, GoRoamin Travel Blog


I’m always amazed at the ginormous sized bags people are able to stuff under the seat in front of them. That can be risky since most airlines have a box at the flight gate to check the size of your luggage. If you’re not sure, departure time is not the time to measure. If you wait and your carry-on is too large, you may be required to send it to baggage, so be sure to check the requirements early on.

Regardless of whether I take one small piece of luggage with my personal carry-on or not, there are certain necessary items that must be packed. And because space is an issue, I’ve pared my necessities to the bare minimum as well. My list of essentials are those needed to board the plane, be comfortable during the flight, and what I might need if I have to stay overnight somewhere due to an airline delay. I will personally carry on any documents and valuables that cannot be replaced if my checked luggage is lost.

I adjust my carry-on list for shorter or longer flights. Guys, you’ll have to adjust, too, since your necessities may not be as extensive.


The Big Carry-on Stuff…

These are items I will be least likely to use in flight. 10 Carry-on Travel Essentials, GoRoamin Travel BlogCameras, chargers, battery packs, computer cords and instruction booklets will get stowed in the bottom of my personal carry-on bag. I would never put any electronics in checked luggage or carry-on luggage that could get sent to checked baggage if the plane is very full.

Valuables like jewelry or hard to replace items that I don’t want in my checked luggage will also go to the bottom of the carry-on bag.

The Must Have Carry-on Stuff…

These are necessities that will get me through a short or long flight. To me, anything less than three hours is a short flight. Your threshold may be different, so adjust accordingly.

The Essential Carry-on Items

  1. Identification. Passport, driver’s license or other acceptable identification necessary for boarding your flight and reaching your destination. I do not carry a passport unless I’m going to a country where it’s needed. There’s less chance of loss that way, and one less thing to think about. I also bring business cards.10 Essential Carry-on items, GoRoamin Travel Blog
  2. Documents – flight confirmations/itinerary, hotel and car rental reservations and any other papers that apply. I carry printed copies, including a copy of my passport if I’m bringing the original. I keep each in a separate compartment. I also keep a copy of my passport someplace at home where it can be retrieved if necessary. If a passport is lost or stolen, it’s easier to get a duplicate when you have a copy of the original.
  3. Credit cards, ATM cards, phone cards and cash belong in your carry-on. Never put any of these in your checked luggage.
  4. Medications and Prescriptions. It’s a good idea when traveling overseas to carry your meds in the original containers. Be sure to print out a list of your meds and the dosages in case you run out or misplace them, and keep the list in a separate place. Don’t forget the aspirin, Imodium, antacids and Band Aids. You never know.
  5. Laptop or iPad, Cell phone, ebook reader, cameras, chargers, electrical converter, battery packs, Fitbit charger, computer cords, and any necessary instruction booklets.10 Essential Carry-on items, GoRoamin Travel Blog Never put your electronics in checked luggage if not required. Check your flights as some countries now require laptops to be packed inside your checked luggage.
  6. Personal items: glasses and contacts if you wear them. These should always be in your carry-on bag.
  7. Toiletries: folding travel toothbrush, toothpaste and floss. Contact lens solutions, lotions and potions (in TSA required sizes) and in a clear, quart-size zip-lock bag. 10 Essential Carry-on items, GoRoamin Travel BlogI don’t wear contacts, but I do bring moisturizing eye drops since the air in flight is dry. Lip balm, and lotions in tubes are on my list, too, as are face wipes and anti-bacterial wipes in small packets. I use the wipes to clean the foldout tray, a notorious breeding ground for bacteria and for armrests. (I’m not a clean freak, but when you travel a lot, you learn things.)
  8. Hair brush and cosmetics. I always carry fingernail clippers, emery board, travel-size fold-up hair brush, (mine has a comb on one end and a brush on the other) lipstick, concealer, mascara, blush and a small, unbreakable travel mirror. 10 Essential Carry-on items, GoRoamin Travel BlogIf I’m meeting someone, I can freshen up before I get there, and if the plane is delayed, I’m prepared to stay overnight. I usually carry these items in a smaller cross-body purse that I can drop into my carry-on bag before going through the TSA checkpoint.
  9. An extra set of clothing – in case your luggage is delayed or you have to stay overnight somewhere. I’m a minimalist here. Fresh underwear, socks, a shirt and tights that roll up very small. If it’s a long trip, I might pack a set of extra clothes since the chances of luggage getting waylaid is greater.
  10. Something warm – a big sweater, Pashmina shawl or neck scarf that doubles as a blanket. 10 Essential Carry-on items, GoRoamin Travel BlogI freeze on airplanes, so I wear a roomy sweater or lightweight jacket of some kind. I can shed clothes, but I can’t make them magically appear. Most economy flights do not provide blankets anymore and those that are provided (if not packaged) can carry a host of germs.

Optional Items for Short Flights

  1. Travel Pillow – I have two types. For a long time I used a contoured neck pillow filled with squishy stuff.
    10 Essential Carry-on items, GoRoamin Travel Blog

    My Pillow travel pillow (12′ X 6′ rolled up)

    There are several types, some filled with tiny beads or Dacron pillow stuffing, some that you blow up and those that wrap around your neck and head somehow. I’m sure they’re great, but for some reason wrapping my neck and head doesn’t appeal to me. The “MyPillow” travel pillow is my favorite because it rolls up small into it’s own case and can be used both on the plane and as a replacement for a hotel pillow.

  2. Books, magazines, music and laptop entertainment. I love a physical book, and I like to leisurely browse magazines, but space and weight being a problem, I travel with my Kindle Fire.10 Essential Carry-on items, GoRoamin Travel Blog That way I can read my choice of books, magazines and/or newspapers or play solitaire or poker. If it’s a long flight, I might watch a movie. And don’t forget to download your playlist to block out all the noise when you take a nap.
  3. Headphones and earbuds for listening to that playlist or blocking out your jabbering neighbors while you sleep. I can’t wear earbuds, but these COWIN E7 active noise cancelling headphones are amazing for both listening and blocking peripheral noise.
  4. Sleep aids; eye mask and earplugs if you need quiet for your nap.
  5. Footwear — slippers and compression socks. On long trips I love to take off my shoes, so I bring a pair of soft fold-up slippers. I love this pair because they’re leather and the sole is substantial and can be worn anywhere. If you’re on a long flight, wearing compression socks is a good idea to prevent DVT (deep vein thrombosis). This is particularly important for older persons, pregnant women, or those with a history of blood clots. And if these compression socks are any indication, they don’t have to look ugly either. Be sure to wear your shoes when stretching in the aisle or going to the restroom. The floors are not scrubbed clean after each flight. And those bathroom floors…picture me cringing.
  6. Food, munchies, and water – does anyone remember when we actually had meals served on every flight…even the economy seats. Well, you’re not going to get much of anything now unless you fly first-class. So go prepared. You can usually buy a few sandwiches and snacks on the plane, but you’ll get what you want if you bring it with you. Whether the flight is long or short, I like to bring fruit and nuts and maybe a power bar. I also like to put a lightweight, empty refillable bottle in my carry-on and fill it once I’m through the TSA checkpoint. Or I’ll buy a bottle of water once inside the gate for those times when beverages are not available while in the air. This is particularly important if you need to take medication while on the flight.
  7. A writing implement or two – because you know how pens like to quit just when you want to use them, and because you might want to do the crossword puzzle in the flight magazine, (or in bed some night) or fill out the airline credit card form and get free air miles. I love the Fisher Space pen because it writes upside down. (great for doing  crosswords puzzles in bed.)  And don’t forget to fill out those customs forms.

That’s my list. Did I miss something you think is a necessary carry-on item? And are you wondering how in the heck I can get all this in one small under the seat carry-on bag? It is tricky and a subject for another article. Keep tuned for that, and in the meantime, if I missed something you think is essential, let me know so I can include it.

Travel Tip: I keep a small travel bag of essential carry-on items packed in case I get a smoking deal and need to go somewhere in a hurry: small 3 ounce bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body lotion, travel-sized deodorant and mouthwash and toothpaste…all in a clear, quart-sized plastic bag.

Travel Tip 2: I take along a washcloth or two when traveling overseas. Many countries do not supply them.

If you have questions about the flight itself you might want to check out my interview with an airline pilot. In “This is your Captain Speaking” Captain Bill candidly answers some frequent, and not so frequent, questions from travelers. Safe travels!

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