What to Pack in a Carry On? – Comfortable Flying

October 25, 2017 Kristance Harlow
Black and white person pulling roller luggage

I’ve been blessed with opportunities to travel and I’ve flown all over the world. Despite the experience I’ve accumulated, if I don’t prepare properly for a flight it can be a miserable affair. I’ve tried to sleep on cold concrete floors, I’ve shivered in a freezing airport lobby overnight with no blanket, I’ve been in the middle, aisle, window seats, I’ve been sick as hell on the plane, I’ve gotten food poisoning, I’ve sat on the tarmac for hours both arriving and departing, I’ve been pulled aside to have my bags checked and missed my flight, I’ve sat next to people who weren’t necessarily practicing great hygiene. I haven’t seen it all, but I’ve seen a fair amount.

Travel can be stressful, no way around that, unless maybe you’re living in the lap of luxury and only take the most faaaabulous methods of transport. I don’t know about that side of life, I’ve never not yet flown first class.

Travel is even more challenging if you have any kind of ailment/disorder/limitation/illness or if you’re differently-abled/neurodiverse/mentally-ill. As someone who experiences chronic fatigue, a slew of digestive issues, asthma, (complex) post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression – I know that preparation is half the battle when traveling.

One of my best friends is taking her first flight soon, and I immediately started piling on advice (disclaimer: it was solicited). So I thought, why not spread the wealth? Here I am to bestow a bit of my accumulated tips and tricks on how to fly more comfortably. Some of these tips might not apply to every situation, but on a long flight or to guarantee comfort, I recommend them.



Yangchen Choling Monastery, Spiti Valley. I was literally in the middle of nowhere in the Himalayas of India, so that backpack worked awesome there but it was a bitch to travel with from one side of the world to the other via plane.

Choose the Right Bag

If you have the means, I highly recommend getting a decent carry on. Right now I live in Argentina and luggage is outrageously overpriced, so any new suitcase is a serious investment here, but in general buying luggage isn’t really on the top of most people’s priority list. Through trial and error, I can attest that awkward bags make for an extremely uncomfortable travel experience on any form of transport. Unless heading out backpacking, opt for a small roller bag for the overhead compartment and a bag that you can attach to it or fit inside it for under your seat. I’m not a very organized person when it comes to my material items, but I try my damnedest to pack my carry ons in as organized of a way as I can, and a structured bag makes that task easier. When you are digging for headphones, it’ll be easier to find in a bag that isn’t flopping at the sides.

Pack two carry ons

Pack two bags (one smaller bag for under your seat and one for in the overhead storage) to take on a plane. Even if your carrier only allots one carry on per passenger, still pack two; just put the smaller bag into your larger one for boarding and remove the small bag when you take your seat. Put essential items you might want to access in-transit into your small bag (ie; a book, medication, chapstick, etc).

Pack two bags

Think about how much you are taking in your carry on. Only put what you will absolutely need in your small carry on. After you have your liquids checked through security, be prepared to move the ones you may want to use while traveling into a separate plastic baggy. Keep that one with you and put the other items into the larger carry on. Do the same for other items that you want to keep organized but may not need, like your makeup and medications. Put everything of the same kind into separate baggies. It may sound a bit obsessive to organize that way, but you’ll be glad when you need to find the right converter for your phone charger and all you need to do is take out your electronics bag to find it. No more searching for everything in a bottomless pit. Stay organized.

Mini medical kit

Take a mini medical kit with useful items like Band-Aids, cough drops, and alcohol wipes. Just don’t transfer any medicines into unmarked or mixed containers, airport security can seize unidentified and questionable medicines.

Sewing kit sans scissors

A split hem or a button popping off is frustrating and a rip in a bag can be a pain in the ass, take a mini-sewing kit with safety pins, thread, and a needle. Just don’t take scissors, they’ll be taken from you at security.

Mini medical kit

Baby wipes are really useful when traveling. They work for freshening up quickly, you can wash your hands with them, and they’re gentle enough to wipe your eyes with. Take a small pack. Don’t forget to put essentials like deodorant and a hairbrush in your small bag. Again, if you’re taking a lot of toiletries, split them up and put the in-transit essentials in your smaller bag.

Sewing kit sans scissors

Taking some of your own snacks is a smart idea. When traveling it’s too easy to opt for unhealthy food choices like McDonalds because they’re fast and easy. (Plus, let’s be real here, I sometimes really like eating McDonalds). But too much of it and I feel queasy en-route. An increasing number of people have dietary restrictions (either by choice or for health reasons) and accommodating those can be difficult. Airline meals can be insufficient to fill you up on a long flight. I’m telling you, having a granola bar or even some chips to munch on when your stomach starts to growl will keep you sane and healthy.

Are you not entertained?

Take a book, if you will actually read it, in your bag. Just don’t make the mistake of over packing things like books and magazines that you never read, thinking you’ll maybe finally do it. It’ll bulk up your bag unnecessarily. Some of my favorite magazines are hard to come by. I always peruse the magazine choices in the terminal and if that rare Archaeology magazine is available, I will probably buy it read it while traveling. I also always carry a journal with me. Now I have a kindle, so that’s a handy and light way to carry a lot of reading material.

If you do want that blue screen time, wrap your cords carefully to make them easy to get at. Don’t forget your headphones and charger. If you’re going international bring a charger that charges via USB, because USB ports are universal and finding a charger for one (even if that charger is a computer) can be easier in some places than finding the right converter. Most planes show movies and have at least radio stations to listen to music, if not a whole selection of albums and music videos in a personal entertainment unit at your seat.


Whether you want to wear it or not, bring a wide scarf. It can play double duty as a blanket or a headrest. Temperatures can fluctuate greatly while traveling and a warm scarf is an easy solution for those times when you just can’t get comfortable. I swear by this. If I don’t have a scarf I always regret it.


  1. Alice Lynn on October 28, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    What a super helpful article! I’m going to print it out and put in my suitcase so when I have an opportunity or obligation to travel, I can refer to it. Thanks, Kristance.

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