Not long ago, airport security became more stringent, as did the rules around what you can and cannot bring onto a plane in your carry-on. It's different from checked luggage, which generally allow. Whether or not you want to avoid checking a bag, travel packing can be stressful if you don't have a plan.
Here's what we'll cover in this article, so you can pack your carry-on bag for any trip with confidence:
- What should I pack in a carry-on bag?
- What is allowed in a carry-on bag?
- What is prohibited in a carry-on?
- What else to consider when packing a carry-on
- FAQs: Is this OK to pack?
What should I pack in a carry-on bag?
We're listing several essential items, along with some advice, to help you pack your carry-on bag. Consider making your own list based on this information and organizing items in one place before putting them in your bag.
As you pack your own carry-on, you might still have to make tough decisions. The size of bag you're allowed to take depends a great deal on the airline you fly, the exact aircraft you'll take and your class of seat.
Most planes flying in and out of major airports have space for carry-on bags that are 22 in. × 18 in. × 10 in. (~56 cm. × 46 cm. × 25 cm.). The exact dimensions may change from airline to airline. Yours should provide these limits to you before you check in for your flight.
We suggest following 3 principles when packing clothes in your carry-on bag.
It's easy to start imagining all your outfits for a business trip or vacation. You might already be assigning outfits to different days or parts of your trip. However, versatility is the best policy when packing clothes in a carry-on bag. While slightly less fashionable, neutral colors and attire that you can layer can be the most valuable choices of clothing.
After versatility, the next best policy to follow when packing clothes in a carry-on is to pack more than you think you need. You might expect to travel for three days, but a surprise cancellation, layover or lost luggage could disrupt your plans. Suddenly, your carry-on becomes your only bag. Admittedly, space is at often limited in carry-on bags. However, in the event of unforeseen circumstances, it's better to be safe than sorry.
Buy what you need when you need it
If you don't have space for extra clothing, it's fine to pack conservatively. You can likely buy what you need in case of emergency. Clothing, like most toiletries and over-the-counter medicines are widely available for purchase in airports and stores around the world. But if you don't want to buy clothes in a pinch, pack some extra in your carry-on.
You might already take your official ID everywhere you go, and flights will be no exception. Proper ID is vital to have on hand for international and domestic travel. TSA security at U.S. airports checks your ID and boarding pass just before you enter the security protocol. At the time of writing, you don't need a passport for domestic flights in the United States, just an official, state-issued ID.
Starting in 2025, flying within the U.S. will require a REAL ID or a state-issued ID that is compliant with REAL ID. If you're not sure about your state-issued ID's compliance with this new program, contact your state's department of motor vehicles.
Any medication, including over-the-counter medicines that you take every day, is important to pack in your carry-on. If those aren't all in the same place at home, check your medicine cabinet. Items you use often but aren't thinking of packing, such as supplements and pain relievers, will stand out.
Phone and charger
Nowadays a phone can be more useful than a computer when you travel. This is because a phone may allow you to get directions, make emergency calls and update travel itineraries when you need to most.
Packing a charger is just as important as bringing the phone itself. Traveling with a dead phone can be as bad as traveling with no phone. Chances are, you'll be waiting around at some point when traveling. This is great time to plug in your phone at the many charging stations available at modern airports. Some aircraft even come equipped with a USB port at every seat. However, in either case, having your own charger can certainly come in handy.
Many toiletries are used daily, and some are not. Toothbrushes, deodorant and hand sanitizer are essentials for most carry-on bags. You'll probably use other items—like soap, hand lotion and cotton swabs —less frequently. However, they can still be useful to pack in your carryon. Keeping your toiletries in a bag can protect your other belongings against leaks. If you decide to do this for your gels, liquids and aerosols, you'll be allowed one quart-size bag in your carry-on.
On the one hand, yes, you might use headphones daily. On the other hand, they shouldn't take priority over the items we listed above. However, this may be necessary to keep boredom at bay or make private calls. Fortunately, earbuds can be very compact, so you may not have to sacrifice a pair to make room in your carry-on bag. You might even be able to fit a backup pair.
This makes the list because, although you can buy water almost anywhere, you'll pay a hefty markup at airports. Saving money can be essential sometimes, too. Reusable bottles will have to be empty to get through airport security. More on that next.
What is allowed in a carry-on bag?
Common household items and those we listed above are allowed in your carry-on bag. In the U.S., TSA restrictions for containers and liquids have been the same since 2006. The limit on containers of liquids and gels is 3.4 ounces (100 ml). If you have toiletries or medicines below that limit, they're fine to put in your carry-on bag.
The limits that airlines impose on the size and weight of cabin baggage (carry-ons) are often the same but might differ. In general, luggage is designed and sold with common size limits in mind.
Usually, an airline will set a limit on carry-on bag sizes based on the specific aircraft or class of your seat. Small, short flights, for example, may have limited space in overhead compartments, where carry-ons are stored. When in doubt, check your flight details for information about carry-ons and personal items.
What is prohibited in a carry-on?
Here are some restrictions for cabin baggage:
- Locks: There are special locks that TSA staff can unlock, but in general, your carry-on should not have a lock on it.
- Packages: Gifts and other items you might want to transport wrapped can make for mysterious items in security scanners.
- Food: Most food can be mistaken for dangerous material, even if the shape or container seems clear. This can cause an additional, thorough search, so it's best to avoid packing food in your carry-on.
TSA guidelines are available online, and they're followed in all U.S. airports. Nonetheless, it's valuable to check local travel restrictions and requirements about allowed items and carry-on bag sizes. Your airline may provide their travel requirements in one of the notices they send you about your flight.
What else to consider when packing a carry-on
We've covered what you should take, and even what you can't, but we have some other tips to consider when you pack a carry-on bag for a flight.
Make sure electronics are easy to access
Part of the screening process includes scanning electronic devices that are bigger than a cell phone, such as laptops and tablets. These cannot be in your carry-on bag when you go through security. Therefore, packing large electronic devices so that you can take them in and out of your carry-on will be useful.
Sometimes having a bag of tiny bottles or purchasing travel-size everything doesn't make sense. If you find this counterintuitive, repackage some of the toiletries you use at home. TSA guidelines won't allow full-size bottles of soap and shampoo, but you can save money and space by repackaging some of your own liquids in smaller bottles.
Check hotel amenities
These may include items that what you want to bring, such as a hairdryer or shower supplies. By checking what's available ahead of time, you may avoid having to pack certain items. Space saved!
Check the weather for when you'll arrive
This is most useful in helping you decide what and how much clothing you pack. The weather is also important for situational items like sunscreen, umbrellas and boots. Weather can change, but packing for it can reduce how much you need to pack in your carry-on.
Frequently asked questions for carry-on bags
Let's review some of the most common questions about items you could pack in a carry-on bag.
Can I bring a razor in my carry-on?
Disposable or reusable razors for shaving are usually allowed, but straight razors not be. Very few sharp objects are allowed in carry-on bags.
Can I bring deodorant in my carry-on?
Solid deodorants are usually fine and not subject to the 3.4-ounce limit imposed on liquids. Aerosol types, even small cans, may not be allowed.
Can I bring makeup on a plane?
Like other toiletries, whether makeup is allowed depends on the container size and material of the product. According to the latest information from the TSA, powder-based substances above 12 ounces (350 ml) might need additional screening if they're in your carry-on.
Packing a carry-on bag may be a nuanced process, but it doesn't have to be complicated. Before you pack, write a list of your must-haves and choose the niceties with caution. Then, confirm local and airline travel requirements to ensure you won't have anything that isn't allowed.
Ultimately, many of your packing choices will boil down to your carry-on's size and how available an item is at your destination. Most places around the world have stores that sell essentials and amenities should you need additional or replacement items. When packing clothing, wearing your bulkiest items can always save space, and don't forget to plan for the weather.