We fly internationally a fair bit. Over the years we’ve developed and perfected the art of packing our carry on luggage and in this post, I’ll share how we approach the problem.
What is the point of carry-on? We view it as serving two primary purposes. It’s for things you want to keep with you at the airport and during the flight. Things like your passports, wallet, phone etc. Secondly it’s for things you don’t want to put in your checked luggage. That second point becomes especially important if your luggage gets lost, delayed, stolen or damaged. That category contains expensive and/or fragile items like DSLRs or laptops, change of clothes etc.
When we travel together we each take one carry on bag. Aga’s one is primarily used for her cameras, lenses and other photo gear. Mine contains almost everything else.
We use backpacks for our carry on. They have multiple compartments which makes it easy to find the things you need and can be used to carry other stuff during our trips.
Passports, cards and documents
Passports are the most obvious thing it’s worth spelling out loud. We put the passports in a dedicated, easily accessible compartment in the bag. Also, before travelling, we make sure to check the visa requirements of the countries we visit. While you can just show up with a valid passport and be let into most countries, that’s not always the case. A good place to start is Smart Traveller website.
You need your passport to enter a country, and your credit card to pay for everything else. Those are the very basics. We always take at least two cards each – a credit card for payments and a debit card for ATM withdrawals and as a backup for payments (see our post about best cards for travellers).
Before departing make sure to notify your bank of your travel plans so they don’t block your transactions as potential fraud. For the cards we use that can be done either via the bank’s app or online.
If you intend to use airport lounges you might want to take any extra cards that give you lounge access, confirm your airline/alliance status as well as any lounge vouchers you may want to use. Also for some lounge membership programs like DragonPass you may need to have their app on your phone to enter the lounge.
I also put our home keys in my bag for easy access when we return, copy of our itinerary and boarding passes. It’s important to not throw away your boarding passes after the flight. If you need to make an insurance claim your insurance company may ask you to present them as proof.
We don’t withdraw money before leaving Australia, relying on local ATMs instead, but if we have some cash left from previous trips, we take it with us.
Gadgets and chargers
Planes are noisy and a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones goes a long way towards reducing discomfort. I put mine on immediately when I settle in my seat and just turn them on. Not listening to anything, just to block out the outside noise. I also make sure to have a spare battery just in case.
I usually travel without my laptop but I always take my iPad with me. I use it for my Kindle books and also put some videos on it. That helps us stay independent during the flight if the airline’s choice of entertainment is not great or not complimentary and I also use it for reading throughout the trip. I also always take a compact audio splitter so Aga and I can both watch a video during the flight if seated together.
Like I mentioned we tend not to take our primary laptops when travelling, but Aga’s fairly old MacBook Air usually goes with us (in my carry on, since hers is full of camera gear). It’s light and compact, fast enough for some basic photo and video editing, but its primary function is as a backup device for all the photos and videos we take, as well as note-taking. We also recently got a tiny high capacity USB drive, for extra storage and as yet another backup. The laptop travels alongside the iPad in a dedicated compartment of the backpack so it can be easily removed when going through security and in a protective sleeve.
For all the electronics we take we need cables and chargers. Different countries have different sockets and voltage standards so when travelling overseas first step is finding out what standard is used in the countries you’re visiting. This website has a helpful map. These days many hotels, airline lounges and airplanes have universal power sockets that work with multiple standards, but we always have a plan B and often C. Most of the smaller devices we take like phones, iPad, GoPro can be charged via USB. On the plane, it’s quite common these days that there’s a USB port built into the seat. That’s the most convenient option and some hotels also have charging USB ports built into power sockets, desk lamps etc. Another option we use is USB ports on our MacBook Air, which can charge up to two devices at a time. We also have a travel USB charger with interchangeable plugs. We take a power adapter to charge the laptop and Aga’s camera batteries.
The USB cables, laptop charger and adapter as well as our universal charger travel in my bag. Camera chargers and spare batteries go to Aga’s bag along with the cameras themselves.
Finally the most obvious thing – we take our mobile phones. If we’re buying local sim cards (we usually do) we take the special sim tray opener to easily swap the card and a small ziplock bag for our Australian sim cards. Those then end up in a dedicated pocket in the bag.
I take a change of underwear, socks, a t-shirt and a pair of those disposable slippers you can find at every hotel. During the flight, I like to take my shoes and socks off for comfort and use the slippers when walking around the plane. The change of clothes is helpful for emergencies with our checked luggage, or if I want to take a shower during a layover.
Aga always takes a cashmere scarf she bought in Sri Lanka which is very versatile. She uses it rolled up as a pillow, as a blanket to keep warm, to cover arms or hair in conservative countries, or as a fashion accessory.
Toiletries and first aid kit
Most toiletries are provided by hotels and airlines so we don’t take much. Also, all gels and liquids are always packed into ziplock bags to contain any potential spillovers and for when they need to be taken out for security. We usually just take our deodorants, perfumes, dental floss, some tissues, lip balm, hairpins and hair bands. Sometimes we take some of Aga’s makeup, although most of that usually travels in our checked bags along with toothbrushes, toothpaste and our main first aid kit.
We do however pack a small first aid kit in the carry-on. That contains some band-aids, painkillers, throat lozenges, motion sickness ginger candy, tea bags, mints etc. We started taking electrolytes with us as well to help with dehydration and jetlag.
In addition to that, we take a pen or two to fill in immigration forms, and Aga’s business cards.
That’s all the stuff that ends up in my bag. Well, the wallet, phone and sunglasses travel on me, and the rest in the bag. It’s a long list but all together ends up not taking too much space and comfortably fits within the dimensions and weight of a carry-on.
Megan IndoeSeptember 24, 2016 at 5:44 pm
You guys pack really smart and are so organized! I wish we had a homebase that we could travel to and from more frequently. Rather than what we have been doing which is work for a year then travel for a long time, we like seeing all these places but it would be nice to just carry less stuff/stuff we only need for that destination. That’s what we are working on next!
JennaSeptember 24, 2016 at 6:06 pm
Great tips! We always try to pack with only carry on luggage, but it doesn’t always work out. Definitely agree with your strategies for what to bring on the plane–we always bring all of our valuables in our carry on like camera gear and computers. Good idea about packing extra clothes as well–would be horrible to be stuck without any clothes if your luggage got lost!
ChristinaSeptember 24, 2016 at 8:08 pm
That’s pretty compact packing. There’s no way I’d be able to fit so few things into my hand luggage. My photography gear usually takes up a whole bag on its own! I wish I could travel as light as you.
MeganSeptember 25, 2016 at 10:39 pm
Thanks for the insight into your carry on bag! I’m always intrigued to see how others pack. We have the same plastic holders for our Aussie passports btw – love the the free plastic sleeve they come in are better than the $20 passport holders you can buy!
BryannaSeptember 26, 2016 at 3:47 am
You guys have carry on packing down to a science! Love how you work together and each take care of different aspects of what you both want to bring with you. Great tips on how to do it right!
LeahSeptember 26, 2016 at 6:09 am
I’m with you. I’ve got to have the Bose noise cancelling headphones. I don’t fly without them or my toothbrush!
MonikaSeptember 27, 2016 at 2:57 am
Yeah, a pen to fill in the forms comes in handy – I hate asking people to borrow me one if I forget it 🙂
ClaireSeptember 27, 2016 at 11:58 am
This is a great guide to all the carry on essentials! I always include my solid shampoo and body wash as well, as they can be taken through security !
Danielle - GeekGirlGoesSeptember 27, 2016 at 8:47 pm
Such an organised carry on! I always take an eye mask on my flights. If I’m changing time zones, I try and sleep at the right time as soon as possible – sometimes this is still daytime where I am. So my eye masks helps to cut out the light and help me drift off!
Erik WintherOctober 3, 2016 at 7:46 pm
I can’t live without my laptop. I must read the news and I need to watch my favourite TV show while travelling. I am one of those people who can’t sleep on the plane and I can leave anything behind but not my laptop and it’s charger