your complete carry-on packing checklist: when you're checking a bag

NOTE: This post contains affiliate links.

packing. it makes people cringe. they dread it. and thanks to social media we get to hear allllll about it. there's an art to packing a carry on. but before we dive into that, let's talk about what the word 'carry-on' even means.

for some people a carry-on means they're packing for their entire trip. from their phone to their shoes to their underwear - this person isn't checking a bag.

for others, checking a bag is second nature. maybe their trip is just too long, or perhaps they need to haul some items to and from that simply won't allow them to not check a bag. 

everyone has a preference and different needs when it comes to packing their carry-on, and luckily my carry-on packing checklists have you covered. yep, i said 'lists', plural! 

i'm going to breakdown all of your carry-on essentials and if you'd like my free printable checklists that you can use when packing for your next adventure, then all you have to do is subscribe and they'll be delivered straight to your inbox! (plus, i'm going to have a lot more subscriber perks coming to you so it'll be totally worth it, i promise!)

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let's start with the basics - your carry-on when you ARE packing a bag. you're trusting that your luggage will fly with you, tucked nicely in the belly of the same plane you're on, and the travel gods will have it waiting for you when you arrive. which of course leaves you light, airy, and free to float through the airport with without suitcases or bags weighing you down. you're obviously a risk taker. so what then, do you pack when you've already tucked your favorite pair of jeans and over-sized toiletry products into your checked bag?

TRAVEL ESSENTIAL #1: phone + charger

this one is easy, right? let's be honest; we're addicted to our phones. me included, so no judgement here. one time, after a few too many vodka sodas I left my phone in an uber and my world came to a screeching halt. sad, but true. 2 hours later after a flurry of Facebook messages prompting other drunk friends to help track down my phone, and one very upset uber driver I got my phone back, so thankfully my story has a happy ending (and i've matured a bit), but for most of us it would take an act of nature to completely forget our phones. 

the charger? well that's easier to forget. i keep three chargers around - plugged in by my nightstand, in my car, and at my desk at work. i can't tell you how many times i've been running around packing at the last minute and was so thankful i had my checklist so i could run back up to my bedroom and grab my phone charger. i would have completely forgotten it. 

if you don't have a couple extra chargers i highly recommend buying a few to keep for travel, and now i also carry this portable charger everywhere i go that is AMAZING! i was able to charge my phone for 10-12 days straight the last time i was in europe without having to recharge it. i could easily put it in my backpack or tote, go out sightseeing, for drinks, dinner, and be able to plug my phone in to charge without having to find a wall outlet somewhere along the way. i can't imagine traveling anywhere anymore without this portable charger!



i know, i know - you're thinking OF COURSE I'M GOING TO BRING MY WALLET HEATHER! but bear with me. i know i'm being captain obvious here, and this one probably applies more to women than men, but still - no one wants to forget their wallet, right?!

i rarely take my everyday wallet when i travel. i don't live a nomadic life so i have the punch card for my fav breakfast place, my library card, my ulta membership card - things that i want with me in my everyday life, but definitely not things i want to drag with me when i travel. so when i'm packing for a trip, i purge. i grab another wallet, throw in my insurance and credit cards, some cash, and that's it.

i realize some of you may have kiddos and need to carry things for them, but i still would bet you don't need to drag your entire wallet with you. i mean, can you imagine losing EVERYTHING?! as if losing your insurance and credit cards wouldn't be enough, at least you can stop the bleeding by not dragging it all with you.  

TRAVEL ESSENTIAL #3: cash and credit cards

alright, i know some people are super against carry cash on them. and i honestly don't know why. i'm not suggesting you wad up $1k in $20s into your diamond-crusted platinum money clip and shove it into your shorts pocket, but regardless of if you're roadtripping or flying, you should most definitely have cash! 

have you ever been at a nebraska rest stop at 2am whilst driving across the country and you need a vending machine snack? what about walking through the airport, looking for a quick kiosk to buy a bottle of water and you see a sign that says 'ATM out of order'? or, and i'm dating myself a bit here, have you gotten in a cab at the airport only to find out they don't take cash?

sure, 90% of places take cards (which is why you should carry at least one card with you) and the likelihood of you being stranded in the palm springs airport panhandling so you can pay for a ride to your hotel is basically slim to none, but throw $100 in cash in your wallet, just in case, and thank me later.

TRAVEL ESSENTIAL #4: id card/license + passport & photocopies

just bring it all. seriously. you're not getting very far at all without an id. like you can't even check into your flight without an id, so that'll stop you before getting too far down the path.

but what if something happens to your id? you drop it in the mess of checking in and going through security, or, you get to security and they tell you 'hey your id is expired!' you're going to get a massive headache, need a drink, and then you won't even be able to buy a damn drink to calm your nerves and do some serious 'how do i get around without an id' strategic planning.

if i'm soundly oddly detailed and adamant about this situation it's because i've lived it. i was heading out to portland to visit my best friend a couple years ago and decided to save myself a couple hundred dollars and fly out of an airport a little over an hour away. i arrived, checked in, and headed for security, excited to see my bestie in his new home state. 

now i'm a prepared security gate goer througher. i have my shoes off, the liquids out in my quart sized ziploc bag (side note: who do i talk to to upgrade this to a gallon bag?), my sweater off, and my hat in hand and i'm ready for the sympathetic 'oh let's hurry you through so you can put that back on your head and hide that rolled out of bed hat hair' look.

but not on this day. on this day the tsa agent said 'just so you know your id is expired. i can let you through here no problem, but if you're renting a car when you get to portland you'll have problems.' 

car? no car. but how am i supposed to order drinks to celebrate being reunited with my friend?! and if you're wondering 'well heather, how did you let this happen? you know it expires on your birthday so it should be easy to remember.' the answer is 'i don't know and yes i do.' my oversight wasn't going to help me in the moment. 

long story short i made it to portland and my amazing, wonderful and fantastic parents (shout out to kris and chuck!) stopped at my house, found my passport, and overnighted it to me. and that, my friends, is why you should always carry two forms of identification with you. 

and when you're traveling overseas be sure to take photocopies of your id and passport with you. i've had the good fortune to never have to find the nearest us embassy due to theft, but the rumor is you're going to save yourself a heck of a lot of stress and headache if you have copies of your id's stored away.

TRAVEL ESSENTIAL #5: plane tickets + travel itinerary

are you ready for another story? i know i know, i have a lot of stories. but i've learned MANY lessons first hand and i'm not just suggesting things to you because i think i'm a travel expert. i've lived it. like the time my work travel agent booked me a trip to edmonton, alberta. and i went to check into my hotel and the hotel had lost my confirmation. 

but don't worry! said the nice lady at the front desk. just let me see your confirmation. now people, i had just bought my first blackberry. there wasn't any 'oh sure, let me just pull up the confirmation in my email' to fall back on. we were doing things the old fashioned way. and i had the audacity to assume that if i recieved a confirmation it was done. and 99.9% of the time it is. 

then the .1% of the time that a glitch in the matrix happens you find yourself looking aimlessly around a hotel lobby while the front desk clerks clicks away on her keyboard, only to be snapped back to attention by the words "well all of our standard rooms are reserved, but i can get you in the victorian themed room, the wild west themed room, or the 70s themed room." because standard apparently means beige walls and white sheets. and pro-tip: always pick the wild west themed room. err, i mean, always bring a copy of your itinerary with you. 

TRAVEL ESSENTIAL #6: e-reader + charger

i have a love-hate relationship with e-readers. i stood my ground for a long time; clinging to my hardback 400 page book with pride and determination whilst friends around me caved to sleek and light book readers. 

no! i wasn't going to do it. i need bookstores like plants need water. and it appeared i was going to lead a following of myself and 3 other people into the battle for real book superiority!

in addition to my love for real books, i was watching people buy tablets then claim they had switched to e-readers. no you didn't. you're playing candy crush and online shopping from your couch. i bet if i had checked, the last book they'd downloaded was 4% read. i enjoyed actually reading. i didn't need a distraction. i own a phone, television and computer for that. when i tell people i want to read it doesn't actually mean i need to go beat level 246 in candy crush.

so i stood my ground. i have a superiority complex about very few things, but real books? well they're just something special. and admittedly, they're also very heavy. or can be. the only compliment i would pay to e-readers at this time was that they were light and convenient; perfect for traveling. 

then the smart folks over at amazon came out with the kindle paperwhite. no apps. pages that read like books. what was i to do? i'd just declared to my 746 Facebook friends that i would NEVER get an e-reader! buuuuuuut it would be nice to eliminate lugging those real books through the airport. it was a real sofie's choice dilemma. 

eventually, a drunken amazon shopping night led me to one-click purchase my first e-reader. i usually reserve these purchases for avocado slicers and variety packs of sauces, but unlike my previous drunken amazon purchases this one turned out to be useful. 

in the day of iPhone's, samsung and other smart phones i'll still advocate for the paperwhite. i'll still pick the guy who makes you actually read. and i'll still buy real books. but believe me, traveling is much better when you can have endless books available to you for less than a pound in weight.

TRAVEL ESSENTIAL #7: headphones

because no one wants to hear your music. and because no one usually wants to make small talk with the person next to them. 


TRAVEL ESSENTIAL #8: black or blue ink pen

i'm obsessed with fine point sharpies. the ones that come in annoying colors. i have no problem taking meeting notes with my magenta sharpie, but as it turns out us customs prefers you to use black or blue ink pens, so always carry on with you.

TRAVEL ESSENTIAL #9: lip balm/chapstick

you don't have to be one of those people that digs their lip balm out of their pocket or purse every 15 minutes to reapply, but dry, chapped lips are THE WORST. not 'i just broke my ankle' worst, but an annoyingly irritating situation that can be rectified quickly and at a low price. also, i SWEAR by burt's bees products so if you don't have a go-to chapstick give them a try!


yep. not a toothbrush. not toothpaste. your hotel will give those to you for free if your luggage gets lost so you're covered in the hygiene department. but when you're second over-priced airport chili's beer doesn't wash the piece of chicken wing caught in your back tooth out, you're going to be mighty glad you packed floss in your carry on.

TRAVEL ESSENTIAL #11: tote/backpack

well you have to have something to carry your new kindle, phone charger, wallet, lip balm, headphones and floss in. what else are you going to use to accidentally run into people when you're boarding the plane and walking the aisle to get to your seat?

but in all seriousness, of course having a backpack or a tote bag is convenient. you can throw everything you're packing into it, plus any bottles of water, snacks, or trashy magazines you've purchased once you got past security. 


TRAVEL ESSENTIAL #12: expensive/important jewelry

i'm personally not a big jewelry person. i wear my fitbit and watch everyday, and i have a few unassuming and simple cheap necklaces and earrings that i'll throw on for my everyday outfits, but i'm not that girl that needs expensive jewelry. but what i do have are two rings from my mother that are very important to me. and yeah, they're not cheap either, but i would never pack them in a checked bag. keep those valuables with you!

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depending on your trip and your goals there are other items you may want to pack. they're not necessary. for example, i always bring my travel camera with me. but maybe you're iPhone 7 is your go-to camera. or perhaps you use your iPad to read so you need to bring your tablet. below are some of the nice-to-have items that you may not want to forget:

NICE-TO-HAVE #1: tablet + charger

sometimes your phone just isn't enough. you can watch your favorite tv show or movie and save on space and weight when you own a tablet. and bonus - your headphones that you already packed! 

NICE-TO-HAVE #2: camera + charger

obviously a camera is a essential for me. i honestly am completely flabbergasted when i see a beautiful photo and the person says 'taken with iPhone 6'. how? my iPhone pics don't look like that. so i use this great portable travel camera. it's super affordable, light, and takes great pictures.

NICE-TO-HAVE #3: laptop + charger

it's so much easier to bring a laptop with you these days. i think my macbook air may weigh less than my first generation iPad. at the very least it would be a close competition. so maybe you prefer your laptop to a tablet. or maybe you need to do some work and need to access files and folders, or perhaps you need to write a blog entry. either way, carrying a laptop is now easier than ever.

NICE-TO-HAVE #4: sunglasses

for hangovers. or tired mornings. or drinking by the pool. and i heard they're great to shield the brightness of the sun.

NICE-TO-HAVE #5: neck pillow

alright, i'll be honest; i've never used a neck pillow. people love them, and they're popular enough to make this list, and they are very likely to be great when it comes to sleeping. but there is something that drives me crazy when i see someone coming down the aisle to their seat as they're boarding and they have that damn pillow around their neck. 

i get it. it's a NECK pillow. it's the most logical place to carry the thing.  i'm sorry if you're a neck pillow wearer as you walk. i'm sure you're a very lovely person and i fully support your decision to bring a neck pillow with you, but maybe you could put it in your new tote bag!

NICE-TO-HAVE #6: gum/mints

personally, i find that gum or mints make my airplane chardonnay taste terrible, so i rarely bring gum or mints with me unless i have an early morning flight and need to get rid of my coffee breath. and i drink A LOT of water, so bad breath is not usually a concern for me. but maybe you love mints, or at the very least you can offer a piece to the horrible person that brought their spicy beef and broccoli on the plane to eat. they'll need a piece.

NICE-TO-HAVE #7: ear plugs

if you need to sleep and you're not the type of person that can put in your headphones and pass out, then go with your next best option - ear plugs

ear plugs are a MUST for me when i'm camping. snoring drives me crazy. more than normal. like if you're snoring there's a good possibility i'll plug your nose so you stop breathing and wake up. on second thought, maybe ear plugs need to be come an essential for me...

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we covered a lot of ground talking about what to pack in your carry on when you're checking a bag. and hopefully you can tell that i bring a lot of packing (or rather mis-packing) experience to the table to help you. 

this is just the beginning though. in my next entry i'll break down everything you need to pack in your carry when it's your only bag you're bringing. BUT, you can actually download both checklists for packing a carry-on, for free, right now! you don't even have to wait for my next entry!

when you subscribe you'll get these handy packing lists that you can print whenever you're packing for your next adventure. it's really that easy!

until next time, happy packing!


NOTE: this post contains affiliate links. if you order from these links than i will receive a portion of the sales that i'll use to travel more, test travel products for you, and maybe have the occasional glass of wine after a long flight.