How to survive a long plane flight: essential tips about your carry-on

how and what to pack in your carryon for a long flightWonder how and what to pack in your carry-on for a long plane flight? Here are essential tips about your carry-on luggage. This is the second post in a 3 part series on How to Survive a Long Plane Flight, based on my recent experiences travelling back and forth between Los Angeles and Asia. I’ve learned a lot. Let my pain be your gain.

(If you missed Part 1, here is a handy link to catch up – How to survive a long plane flight: 7 tips on what to wear )

On a long flight, what you pack in your carry-on needs to be well-thought through. You don’t want so much stuff that it’s a heavy waste of space, but also not so minimal that you suffer. Because once those cabin doors are closed, you are stuck with whatcha got in that carry-on.

What follows is a practical list that has gotten me across the Pacific many times. Long flights don’t have to be miserable. With these essential tips about your carry-on, you can arrive feeling, looking and smelling fresh.

(Note: for some reference, I am a petite, middle-aged (gah!), mom to teenaged girls. I travel on a budget, so no expensive items here. (<–but feel free to send me some! I’m not opposed to luxury!)

This is how and what I pack in my carry-on to survive a long flight.

First, let’s discuss the bag type. International flights allow two carry-ons, so I bring two small-to-medium sized tote bags. They fit under the seat in front of me and the wide opening allows me to see what is in the bag. This ability to see into the bag is what makes tall, somewhat structured tote bags, better than a backpack or a duffle bag for under the seat in front of you.

Why two? Primarily because I am an over-packer. But it also keeps things better organized. You can probably get away with one if you can keep your ‘just in case’ items under control. But it’s a long flight. There is risk involved.

1. Two medium carry-on bags, well organized.

I use my tote bag purse for one and a foldable, nylon travel tote for the other.

In the personal item one (my purse), I clean it out to make sure I’m as de-cluttered as possible and then I pack all the things I might want for a standard long day. I am a pouch-organizing fiend in my daily life, so my purse is already pretty good-to-go with long-day essentials. With the added travel items, it looks like this:

2. Entertainment needs

-Kindle (if I have time, with free books downloaded from the library, whee!)

-1-2 Books ( have never read more than one on a flight, but I bring a back up in case one sucks)

-Downloaded content from Netflix/Amazon on my phone

-Electronic accessories all in a pouch (with my external battery and all my cords, including earbuds for the plane entertainment system)

3. Personal comfort

-body balm/lotion (I like balm so I don’t have to pull it out through security)

-lip balm/gloss

-face powder and mascara (for arrival freshening)

-ear plugs (some folks like noise-cancelling headphones)

-standard medicine I have with me all the time (like Tums and ibuprofen)


-sanitizing wipes (for hands and a wipe down of your seat/tv screen/armrest)

-toiletry kit (travel sized deodorant, face wipes, toothbrush and paste, comb)

-contact lens case with saline


-period supplies (ya know, just in case…)

I have all of these in two pouches, organized by how often I might need an item. This means I have all the high use stuff in one pouch.

This is where you can decide if you want to deal with a second bag. I find that my first tote/purse is pretty full at this point, so it’s hard to maneuver stuff around. Though I can usually find the pouches by touch, I hate trying to bend myself in the tiny seat space to root around in a tightly-packed bag. This is also the reason a larger duffle bag doesn’t work for me—too much space for my hands to try and grope through.

And know why I don’t use a back pack anymore?

The digging to the bottom a back pack demands. I had one I used for a long time and it was super handy to tuck under the seat, but I had to haul the sucker on to my lap to find anything. And it was still hard to remember which section a pouch might be in.

So I use a second small-to-medium tote bag. The second bag is travel specific. It has:

Travel items

-my neck pillow (there are so many types—I like a memory foam one best, but this is a trial and error kind of thing to find what works best)

-pashmina scarf (a large, lightweight scarf is invaluable, see here for some uses)

-eye mask (one that blocks light entirely is ideal)

-foot hammock (important for shorter folks and to decrease pull on the lower back for anyone)

-fuzzy socks or compression socks to change into on the plane

-a crazy amount of well-thought through snacks

A note on snacks:

A lot of thought goes into snacks—they are one of the best parts of travel for me. I try to have a selection of some salty snacks (nuts, Pringles), some sweet (dried fruit or fruit leather), and some that are more substantial (like turkey jerky or breakfast granola bars just in case a meal is not to my liking).

And, of course, chocolate.

For all snacks, I try to get things that have a re-sealable opening and are bite-sized, if possible (for example, Hershey’s kisses are better than a full-sized chocolate bar.)

I grab a large water bottle once I’m through security or fill up a reusable one.

Some folks bring a laptop, but I find the tiny trays to be very difficult to work on and I can do most urgent tasks on my phone and a foldup Bluetooth keyboard (that lives in my electronics pouch). So if you don’t absolutely NEED to bring a laptop, don’t.

With entertainment, good snacks, and your feet up, a long daytime flight can feel practically restful! (Ok, j/k, but with some essential carry-on items, it can suck less.)


But if you have to sleep on a long flight, you’re gonna want to catch the next article on How to Sleep on a Long Flight (in coach).

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