Carry On Bag Size & What to Pack in a Carry On

With many airlines continuing to charge extra fees for checked luggage, travelers (including ourselves) prefer to take our luggage as a carry-on.  But with limited space, it’s critical that travelers maximize the space available and pack their carry-ons carefully so that they comply with the airlines carry on bag size rules.  To help you with your packing, here are our tips for what to pack in a carry on bag.

What to Pack in a Carry On Bag - Pin
Creative Commons A-waiting for a train-a” by Seth Sawyers is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Carry On Bag Size:  Choose the Best Carry on Bag

Before talking about what to pack in a carry on bag, you need to first choose the best carry-on bag for your needs.  Most airlines will let you take 2 bags on board, a medium sized piece of luggage or duffel bag (size requirements vary between airlines), as well as a personal bag such as a purse or computer case.  For travelers needing more space, they can often get away with a fairly large personal bag — as long as it’s not a full on suitcase!

Carry on bag 3
Standard size for carry on bag that airliners will accept as Carry On

Start Your Search for the Perfect Carry On Bag for You  

For us, we use a combination of bags.  We may use a good sized rolling suitcase that meets carry-on requirements, and has lots of good pockets as well as expandable pockets.  They we opt for good-sized shoulder bags that are big enough to carry many items, yet small enough to put under the seat in front of us.

For easy reference, check out this quick reference guide of all major global airlines and their carry-on baggage rules & restrictions!

Considerations for Rolling Suitcases as a Carry on Bag

What kind of traveler are you?  Where are you going?  What do you want to pack in your carry on bag?  The answers to these questions will determine the size of the bag, and functionality (such as inside and expandable pockets).

Lastly, take note of the items that you will pack in your carry on bag which need to be removed for security, such as electronics and liquids.  Are there pockets that allow you to access these liquids easily and quickly at security?

Consider buying Packing Cubes to save space 

What to Pack in a Carry On Bag 2
Creative Commons Please do not leave bags unattended” by frankieleon is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Travel Tip:  Expandable rolling suitcases are great so that you can quickly increase the size; however, some of them expand to the point that they no longer fit carry-on requirements.  So be sure that you double-check before stuffing your bag to the max!

What to Pack Inside Large Bags in the Overhead Bin vs. Personal Carry-on Bag

When you are packing two carry on bags, it’s important to consider the item and which bag it should go in.  Things that you won’t need during flight, such as clothes, shoes, most electronic cords, etc. should go in your larger carry on bag that can be stored in the overhead bin.

What to Pack in a Carry On Bag 4
Creative Commons Man Purses” by Jose Camoes Silva is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Your personal carry on bag should be stored down by your feet, under the seat in front of you.  It should include things that you will want quick and easy access to during your flight, such as portable electronics, books, magazines, snacks, wallets and passports, and other entertainment or comfort items.  You may also want to keep valuables, fragile, or awkwardly shaped items here too.

**Carry-On Tip:  Bring an extra, larger, collapsible bag with you.  Some purses or secondary travel day bags are small, and you can’t pack much in them.  Instead, stuff them inside the larger bag, along with other items that you want to bring with you on the trip.  Technically, it is still one personal bag — just a bit bigger.

Make Sure All Electronics and Valuables are Protected

If you are planning on bringing electronics with you, make sure you have the packed safely in your bag.  Also when packing think about whether you will be using these during your flight or waiting to board.  It will help you make some decisions in your packing for carry-on.

Carry On overhead bin
Creative Commons 777 Overhead Bins” by Michael Cote is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Consider Packing for a Layover

Layovers can be rough, but they can also be downright terrible if there are lengthy delays.  When thinking about what to pack in your carry on bag, be sure you have anything that you would want for entertainment, including your chargers and other cords, in case you are stuck for a while.

**Travel Tip:  Bring an empty bottle with you to save money at the airport by filling up your own water bottle.  Also bring some snacks with you.  As long they are not opened you can bring them with you.

Pack Documents & Electronics in an Easy to Access Pocket

What is in your carry on luggage
Creative Commons What’s In My Bag – Towel Day Edition” by cell105 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This will be important when going through security.  Don’t be that person holding up the line while you are digging deep into your bag for items that you need to take out at security.  Make sure that you have all of your important documents in an easy accessible pocket.  Also make sure that your cords for your electronics can be accessed quickly, in case they are needed during the flight.

How to Pack a Large Carry On Bag or Rolling Suitcase

Lay out all the clothes and items you want to bring before packing

Your goal is to stay away from the airline’s bag check fees, and waiting in the baggage claim area.  So planning what to pack in a carry on bag is essential.  Layout everything you want to get into your suitcase before you start packing.  Take a step back and look at how much you have.  Often times, you can look at what you want to pack and nearly cut it in half!  You will be fine.

Plan out your travel outfits while packing

While you are laying out your clothes and items prior to packing, make sure to think about the functionality of your clothes and how many outfits you can make.  You want to be able to mix and  match.  It is helpful to pick a color scheme, so that you have multiple combinations.  Be sure to consider comfort and washability on the road.

Lastly, think about shoes.  They take up a lot of space and are heavy, so you want to bring minimal pairs of shoes…and you may want to wear the heaviest / largest ones on the plane.

Plan out Your Toiletry Kit

Toiletry Bag
Creative Commons Toiletry” by Patty Ho is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Toiletries can take up a lot of room, and they are quite heavy.  Don’t over pack your carry on bag with toiletries that you will not need.  Think carefully, and take small travel sizes.  Remember, if you are gone for an extended amount of time, you can buy more if necessary.

Find the right Toiletry Bag for you 

**Travel Tip:  Many carry on suitcases on the market have a clear case for your toiletries, which can easily be removed when you arrive at the TSA checkpoint.  These make it much easier to remove your toiletries for screening, without the need for a bunch of separate plastic bags.

Pack your liquids correctly

Of course you should be sure your liquids are packed in sealed containers & bags, so they don’t leak and ruin your clothes.  But more importantly, make sure that you follow all guidelines for bringing liquids on the plane.  You can always use small TSA approved bottles to carry all of your liquids.

Read:  Know TSA Liquid Rules – Packing a Toiletry Kit

Use your Awesome Packing Skills

Once you have decided on what to pack in a carry on, start rolling.  Yes, ROLLING your clothes has been proven to save space in your bag!

Watch this clip on How to Roll Your Clothes for Packing 

Continue packing until either everything fits, or things start to not fit.  If things don’t fit, take it all out and start eliminating.  Honestly, you shouldn’t pack for the “just in case” anyway…if something ends up being super critical, then you can buy it later.

Wear Layers of Clothes on the Plane

Wearing layers of clothes when you fly is helpful for a couple of reasons.  First, you can save a lot of space in your carry on bag for important items by wearing some items, such as a coat or sweaters, onto the plane.  Even if you are coming from a hot destination and traveling to a cold destination, just wear it or throw it over your bag until you arrive.

Also, temperatures on airplanes vary greatly — even during the flight.  Sometimes it can be difficult for passengers to maintain a comfortable temperature.  So it is advised that you dress for a cold plane, but have layers that you can shed in case it is hot.  This will help you to keep comfortable no matter what.

**Travel Tip:  Different airlines load the plane differently.  Research in advance and try your best to get into one of the first boarding groups, this way you will have a better chance of scoring space in the overhead bin for your carry-on bag / suitcase.  If you are not so lucky and there is no more room in the overhead bins, you may be required to check your bag.  In this case, be sure that you can easily remove any important or expensive items that you don’t want to be checked with the bag.

Final Travel Tip:  Never Check Electronic Cords, Important Documents, or Valuables

Electronic Cords
Creative Commons My Work Bag” by Jim Pennucci is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Even though we are talking about what to pack in a carry on bag, we cannot ignore this important travel tip regarding checked luggage.  While it goes without saying that you should never include important documents or valuables in your checked luggage, many people don’t think about their electronic cords.

However, we’ve heard horror stories of people who packed their cords in their checked luggage and deeply regretted it.

Read also What’s the Best Bag for Traveling?  We Asked Fellow Travel Nuts  

Having had their checked luggage lost or delayed, they found themselves stuck without basic chargers for their phones and computers.  Also, we’ve had family members who had cords fall out during TSA screenings of checked bags, and vital cords that went missing to important pieces of equipment…cords that they discovered were impossible to replace.

Save yourself the headache and be sure to pack all your important cords in your carry on bag!

Download our Airline Luggage Restrictions Guide!


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