How to pack your carry-on essentials so that breeze through security and have everything you need when you need it. Free packing list for subscribers! This post contains affiliate links, meaning that I earn a small commission for a qualifying purchase (thank you!).

We covered what to pack; now it’s time to focus on how to pack your carry-on

We’ve covered what to pack in our carry-on, and now we’re focusing on how to pack our carry-on for the journey. This week, we’re covering how to pack it for maximum comfort. There’s a FREE packing list below for you if you subscribe.

How to Pack Your Carry On

Assumptions

For the purposes of this post, we will assume that we’re packing for an international flight with layovers that goes through US security. You can tailor down from this as required, and this also works for long train trips (though you don’t need to separate out your liquids). While these apply even if you’re traveling with someone else, this is designed to work for solo travelers.

We’re focusing on your carry-on for this post and will assume that you have checked a bag for your flight. However, this works if you do not check a bag as well. I once packed for a week’s business trip in Switzerland where the temperatures hovered just around freezing, followed by a trip to Paris, where it was a balmy 22-24 C with nothing but hand luggage, following this method. (It was a good thing that I did on that trip, because I had to switch from La Guardia to JFK, and the shuttle I’d booked was disastrously late, and I’d missed the window for checking a bag.)

(Controversial) Tip! Check the darn bag

Story above aside, I’ve come around to Team Check the Darn Bag for international trips. It’s just more pleasant than having to keep everything with you while you’re running around strange airports, trying to make a connection. Yes, you will need to wait at the baggage carousel and lost/delayed luggage is a risk, but honestly, the tradeoff for a more pleasant flight is worth it. Try it?

And a couple of notes

A note that some of these tips assume that you do not require assistance at the airport.

Principles

Follow the rules

Follow the rules for your carry-on and personal item, especially if you have not checked a bag. There’s nothing more painful than watching people fumbling at the gate with hand luggage that’s clearly too large.

Airlines set these rules themselves but think one carry-on suitcase that can fit in the overhead compartment and a personal item that easily fits under the seat in front of you. If you’re not sure, check your airline(s) website.

Make sure that it all fits

In instances where I’ve not checked a bag, I’m a bit sneaky, keeping my purse outside of my backpack for comfort and security, and generally don’t have any issues. However, I make extra certain that my purse fits easily in the top of my backpack so that I’m not one of those people everyone stares at.

Tip! Know before you go

When buying your ticket, pay attention to what you can bring onboard. Many airlines now have cheaper fares that do not allow both a carry-on and personal item. Make sure you know what you can take with you.

Prevent fumbling—compartmentalize!

Prevent fumbling—do not underestimate how clumsy fumbling is when you’re cramped in a seat trying to find something at the bottom of your bag.

Try to pack in the order that you need it (so, liquids and laptops, etc. easily accessible for security).

Compartmentalize your carry-on luggage to make things easier to access. I use the following to do this.

Freezer bags

Use freezer bags (silicone can make for a more sustainable option, but if using for your liquids, make sure that your bag is TSA compliant) to keep things separate.

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Tip! Bag of Bags

Pack a Bag of Bags (a gallon-sized bag with an assortment of baggies) every trip. I can’t tell you how many times having a bag to stash something has come in handy while traveling. It doesn’t take up much room, and, if you don’t use them, just stash them with your packing cubes for your next trip.

Packing cubes

Get thyself a set of packing cubes. I have these from Shacke Packe and like them because they’re inexpensive and have proven durable thus far. Packing cubes not only let you fit more in your luggage, but also mean that you can just grab one cube with something that you need as opposed digging through your bags for that tee shirt to change into after your flight.

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Tip! Using packing cubes

We’re focusing on hand luggage in this post, but using packing cubes/bags to compartmentalize checked luggage, especially if you have multiple legs of your journey. That way, you only unpack what you need when you need it.

Make sure you can carry it

Make sure you can easily handle your carry-on luggage. This means that you can book it if necessary though the airport without dropping things. See above tip about checking your suitcase.

I use a hardback spinner suitcase (that I currently need to replace—what’s your suggestion?) when I don’t check a bag and a small backpack for my personal item. Also make sure that you can lift everything. Don’t assume that you’ll get help hefting your leaden bag into the overhead compartment.

Safety tip!

This goes for your checked luggage, too, especially if you’re traveling solo. This is critical for your safety and security. If you're not sure, practice. Try to lift your bag with your arm extended. You might not be able to lift it all the way, but if you can't even get it off the ground, pack less.

Keep your valuables close

Keep the critical stuff with you—Don’t check it if you can’t lose it. This means packing said critical things in your personal item in case you need to gate check your carry-on suitcase. Also use your judgement in what you pack, because traveling is a risk. Maybe don’t take your most precious jewelry if it’s not essential for your trip (if you’re going to the opera, by all means pack that glorious necklace, but if not, maybe leave it home?).

If you need it during your flight, pack it in your personal item

I have a pet peeve. Those overhead bins are a pain, and every time they get opened, stuff can get jumbled. If you need it during the flight, don’t stash it in the overhead compartment.

How to pack your carry-on

Referring to the items from What to Pack for the Journey, we’re now going to pack our personal item.

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Make a list

We all forget things. And that’s going to be even easier now that we’re out of traveling practice. Make sure that you have a list off what you need to pack. If you’re a subscriber, I’ve created a little list you can fill in. Subscribe today to get it!

Pack in the order you’ll need things

We’re going to start with the security line. And then we’re going to pack bottom up (we’re assuming a backpack, but the idea is the same.

Getting through security

We’ve all seen it. That person who has lace up shoes, a laptop stashed in the bottom of a bag, the liquids god knows where, and it takes them for absolute ever to get through the security line. Let’s not be that poor unfortunate soul. We’re going to pack our personal item for maximum efficiency.

Tip! Adjust after you're through the line

Once you get through security, you can move things around a bit (if you have a digital camera, for example, you can move it lower in your bag to better protect it. Or, you could move your e-reader into your in-flight comfort bag. Same goes for any liquids.

Travel Essentials

Your passport/ID, paper ticket (really, do try to check in through an app), proof of vaccination/negative COVID test, phone, etc., need to be both accessible and secure. I keep these in my purse (cross-body, zippered, always), in a little pocket compartment, and my wallet is easily accessible.

I stash my itinerary in a document envelope in the laptop sleeve in my backpack. It’s available if I need it, but stashed away if I don’t.

Liquids bag

Likewise, pack this near the top, so that you can just pull it out when you need to. If you have Global Entry, you may not be required to pull this out if your journey starts with a domestic link, but it’s still a good idea to have it ready to go.

Pack any liquids that may spill in their own little snack baggie (do you really want your wrinkle spray all over your contact lenses?).

Laptops, etc.

Most backpacks these days have a built-in laptop sleeve that make it easy to access them at the security gate. Stash your laptop and tablet/e-reader there.

Digital Camera

You also need take out your digital camera as well for screening. Make sure that you’ve removed any lenses and pack those separately. Make sure that your camera is protected, but also near the top of your backpack.

Tip! Batteries

Pack items like spare batteries and other items you can’t gate check in your personal item to prevent you from having to fumble with it at the gate.

Everything else in your personal item (packing from bottom up)

Valuables

Pack these at the bottom of your bag, so in the unlikely event that you need to fumble, your valuables won’t spill out.

Miscellany

Any other items you have that you don’t need for your flight. This would include the Bag of Bags. If your backpack has side-pockets, put your water bottle in one pocket and your umbrella in the other. Organize your miscellany using a packing cube or bags, as appropriate.

Tip! Pack a change of clothes

If you've checked your bag, pack a change of clothes in your carry-on. You never know.

First aid bag

Where possible, remove pills from bottles and store in snack baggies. You shouldn’t run into any issues with common medicines like ibuprofen, but if you’re concerned, leave them in the bottle. Your in-flight comfort bag should include anything needed for the flight, so pack this near the bottom.

Landing Bag

Using the smallest packing cube and freezer bags to separate things out (you don’t want your toothbrush with your dirty togs), pack your landing bag, your best friend. Take five minutes after you land to freshen up with ease.

After you land (you could do this in the airplane bathroom, but I think that would be unpleasant), freshen up. Use the dry shampoo, brush/floss your teeth, give yourself a nice facial spritz, get the red out of your eyes, give yourself a quick clean, and change your shirt, underwear, and socks. You’ll feel a million times better, and you won’t frighten people with your travel-worn visage.

In-flight comfort

Prevent the fumble! Pack what you need for in-flight comfort efficiently in a gallon freezer bag (or two) that you transfer to your seat pocket (exception is your water bottle. If your backpack has side pockets, put that in one of those). Everything’s right where you need it. Get extra organizational points by using quart and snack baggies to further compartmentalize. Grab your water bottle, and stick it in the pocket too.

When you land, pull out your landing bag, and then pack your in-flight comfort bag underneath and your landing bag on top.

Your ideas

What did I miss? What are your genius suggestions for making travel easier? Let me know in the comments! Safe travels!

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