How to pack a carry-on for a long flight: 9 tips for comfort

what to pack in your carryon for a long flightWonder how to pack a carry-on for a long plane flight? Here are essential tips for maximum comfort when you are traveling at 30,000ft. 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 – What to wear on a long flight: 7 tips for comfort )

On a long flight, what to pack in your carry-on needs to be well-thought out. 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. Comfort is key.

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

(Note: I am a mom to teenagers and generally have a well-packed mom purse with me wherever I go, but travel has special needs. And I travel on a budget, so no expensive items here. (<–but feel free to send me some! I’m not opposed to luxury!)

How to pack a carry-on for a long trip: tips for maximum comfort

First, let’s discuss the bag type.

International flights allow two carry-ons, no matter what airline, and most domestic flights allow one. When I can, I bring two small 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 small-to-medium tote bags, better than a backpack or a duffle bag for under the seat in front of you.

Why two? Because two lightly packed bags keep things better organized than one bag that is tightly packed, and it is much easier to find things. You may only need one medium-size bag if you are a more minimalist packer. But it’s a long flight. There is risk involved.

*Keep reading for how to get away with two bags on domestic flights, even if they say you can only have one.*

1. Use two medium carry-on bags, well organized.

I use a sturdy tote bag purse for one and a packable nylon travel tote that unfolds for the other.

Pro tip: If you are in a situation where you are only allowed 1 bag, once you are on the plane, pull out the packable nylon bag and re-organize things as noted below. It’s a pain to have to lug the one, fuller bag onto the plane, but once you are on, you can sort for maximum travel comfort. You aren’t using the overhead space, and that’s usually what airlines are concerned with.)

Note: If you are using your everyday purse or bag, make sure you have cleaned it out and it is de-cluttered for travel.

Then, I pack all the things I might want for a standard long day out. I use smaller pouches to organize my purse for daily life, so my everyday bag is already pretty organized. The pouches are easier to manage than digging around, trying to find small items. Putting things into smaller pouches is one of the best techniques I have for more organized travel. When I add my travel-specific items and pouches, my bag looks like this:

2. Pack entertainment needs

-Kindle e-reader (with some new books and free books downloaded from the library, whee!)

-1 actual book

-1-2 magazines (I love magazines because you can pass them along when you are done and it lightens your load a little)

-Downloaded content from Netflix/Amazon on my phone

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

3. Keep hygiene and personal comfort items handy

Pro tip: I keep all the liquids and such in the clear plastic bag through security and then re-distribute them back into one or two regular pouches.

-body balm/lotion (I like a more solid-balm so I don’t have to pull it out through security and there is less mess in the pouch if it explodes mid-flight)

-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 antacids and ibuprofen)

-tissue

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

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

-contact lens case with saline

-glasses

-any other personal hygiene supplies

I have all of these in two pouches, organized by how often I might need an item. This means I have all my 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 inside. 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.

Pro tip: About 45 minutes before the plane lands, it starts it’s descent and everyone gets up to use the bathroom. I keep an eye on the clock and slip in about 30 minutes ahead of the rush. This gives me a chance to use a face wipe, freshen with a body wipe, apply fresh deodorant, brush my teeth, brush my hair and apply a little makeup. I feel much more human and it’s nice to arrive not looking travel worn.

Why I don’t use a back pack as carry-on luggage on a long flight

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 onto my lap to find anything. Digging to the dark, deep bottom to find things was aggravating. And it was hard to remember which section a pouch might be in.So I use a medium tote bag as my second piece of carry-on luggage with travel-specific needs all in one place for a long flight.

I pack my travel-specific bag with:

Stuff to rest and snack

(Note: it you actually need to sleep on the flight, check out this article about How to Sleep on a Long Flight.)

-my neck pillow (there are so many types—I like a neck memory foam one best, but this is a trial and error kind of thing to find what works best) (there is more info on travel pillows in the link above on how to sleep on a long flight)

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

-eye mask (one that blocks light entirely is ideal and worth a little money to get a good one)

-foot hammock (important for shorter folks and to decrease pull on the lower back for anyone, this was a comfort game-changer for me)

-fuzzy socks or compression socks to change into on the plane (and always use the slippers the airline provides for trips to the bathroom)

-well-thought through snacks

A note on snacks to pack in your carry-on luggage for a long flight

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). On international flights, in particular, you may not be familiar with with what food is being served and it’s nice to have some choices you like handy.

And, of course, chocolate or other treat.

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 tray table 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 fuzzy-socked feet up, a long flight can feel practically restful!

(Ok, j/k, but with some essential carry-on items, it can definitely be better.)

Did you catch the first article in this series? If not, check out some essential information on what to wear on a long flight. You will be glad you did!

If you have to sleep on a long or overnight flight, you don’t want to miss the next article in the series: How to Sleep on a Long Flight (in coach).

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