Unless it’s a short trip, I usually travel with both a carry-on bag and some checked baggage. On those longer trips, more often than not I leave something in my checked bags that I really wish I had up in the cabin. It’s really annoying to be on a 14-hour flight from Atlanta to Seoul knowing you forgot something that’s now in the belly of the plane. So close, yet so far away. I recently made myself a list that I keep in the “Notes” app on my phone. Here are the airplane carry-on essentials that I always make sure are accessible to me in the flight cabin.

A Pen and Notebook

Pen and Indonesian passport. Customs
Always bring a pen and paper. A spare pen will make you friends!

For me anyway, nothing on a flight is worse than when the flight attendant starts passing out those slips of customs forms and I have to sheepishly admit to the person next to me that I don’t have a pen. “Can I borrow yours when you’re done?” I hate asking that question. A pen is now always within reach. A notebook is also something I carry, just to jot things down – like places I may have forgotten to add to my itinerary. It’s also helpful to write down things like “I need a taxi” and “Where can I buy a SIM card?” in the local language. You might not have email or access to Google Translate when you get off the plane, after all!

Toiletries in a Ziploc bag

It hasn’t happened to me very often, but it has happened. I get off the plane, go to baggage claim, and… nothing. My baggage didn’t make it on the same flight I was on. Three times I’ve been stuck in a foreign country for most of my first day without extra clothing, deodorant, toothbrush, and shampoo. So now I always pack these necessities in my airplane carry-on essentials kit for when that happens. And it will happen again!

Airplane Carry-on essentials
Toiletries in a Ziploc bag

Hand/face lotion

In addition to the basic necessities, I always pack scent-free hand/face lotion. I’m one of those people whose skin is normally fine. But even on short flights, my hands become a mess and my nails get brittle. I even feel it on my face. The effects of the low humidity on commercial flights make lotion one of the airplane carry-on essentials I need most. You can sometimes find lotion in the toilet area of the plane cabin; however, I’ve found that it’s usually heavily scented, and I don’t like to be the person stinking up the cabin – even if the smell is nice.

Stephanie calls Vaseline one of the “Amazing Travel Multitaskers” I don’t bring it myself, but Halef uses it for chapped lips, which is always worse on planes!

Toothbrush, toothpaste, gum

On a flight more than a few hours, I always make sure I have toothpaste and a toothbrush – especially if there’s a meal being served or if I decide to have a beer or something. It’s nice to be able to brush those teeth. Plus, you just feel better after you do. Airplanes are pretty cramped these days, and nothing’s grosser than talking to the person a few centimeters from you who just ate a bag of pretzels and drank a coffee. Don’t be that person. Keep gum and toothpaste handy!


Indonesian and Canadian passports
Halef and I always keep our passports handy!

Now, you’d think this one goes without saying, but I’ve actually left my passport in my checked baggage, and it’s not a good feeling – especially if you’re like me and constantly checking your bag to see if it’s still there. I am honestly obsessive about this. I will check the place where I keep my passport about 10+ times per day to make sure it’s still there. For me, not having my most important document close at hand makes me a nervous wreck. Keep your passport and wallet or purse on you at all times! We like to carry all our documents in a passport wallet.

Water bottle

A water bottle at a touchless filling station at an airport.
Bring a water bottle and fill it after you go through security

If you fly economy, as we almost always do, you’ll see your flight attendant 2-3 times during your flight. At first, you’ll be offered simple refreshments. Later, dinner. And maybe after that some more refreshments. Having a water bottle with you to fill before you get on the flight is a good idea. Again, planes are notoriously low-humidity environments. You’ll want to stay hydrated. Also, water helps keep your breath fresh, so drink up! Keep in mind though, some airports will make you dump the water out before you get on the flight, even if it was purchased inside the secure zone. This has happened to me twice in Seoul, for example, after I paid for large bottles of water for my 14+ hour flight. Ask before you waste your money.


Unless you just don’t watch TV or listen to music, you’ll want a good pair of headphones. I’m sure most of you have used the cheap, low-quality headsets they give you (or charge you $2 for) on flights. I have and they’re the worst! They either feel like steel wool in your ears, or the volume/sound quality is terrible – usually both. I always bring my own no matter how long the flight is. I love having a good pair of noise cancelling headphones.

Charging cables

Airplane carry-on essentials - an iPhone charging
Don’t forget those cables!

Nowadays, most of us travel with several things that need charging, like our smartphones or tablets. Although I never watch TV on the road, I usually bring my Kindle Fire with me on long trips so I’ll have interesting stuff to watch on the plane. Except for shorter flights, airlines almost always have charging stations at each seat – either under the seat itself or on the back of the seat in front of you. Since I’m usually charging at least couple of things at a time, I also like to carry my Photive 5-Port Rapid Charger. (This also makes me pretty popular at busy airport gates, by the way!) Nowadays, chargers and cables are considered by many to be the most important airplane carry-on essentials they have. You’re lost without them!

Portable Charger

Anker PowerCore 13000

Just in case your seat back doesn’t have plug-ins, I highly recommend carrying a portable charger. This is the one I have – the Anker PowerCore 13000. A bit pricey at nearly $40, but I swear, it will charge my iPhone from 10% to full at least 4 times. So it’s great to carry around everywhere. One of my best purchases, if I’m being honest. Just use it all day, then plug it in and let it recharge overnight. It has two charging ports, so you can even make a new friend on your flight!

Extra Snacks

Carry a few extra snacks with you, especially if you fly economy
Carry a few extra snacks with you, especially if you fly economy

Most airports won’t allow you to bring food through security, so when you get beyond it, try to grab a couple snacks to take with you on the plane. Those paltry bags of peanuts and pretzels just don’t cut it on longer flights, and an apple, banana, or something healthier than what they give you on the plane will serve you well. I always order a vegetarian meal when I fly, but there have been times when the airline screwed up and I didn’t get one. At those times, I was glad I brought something extra. Bringing extra snacks is especially important if you have food allergies or special dietary requirements.

Earplugs and eye mask

I never bring these, as noise and light doesn’t bother me too much on planes when I am trying to sleep. And even if they did, I can’t stand wearing either of them! But if you’re not as weird as I am, you’ll appreciate having both when the babies start crying or when your window-seat neighbor insists on keeping the window shade open when you’re trying to sleep.


Don’t forget your meds!

This one is important. If you have medication you have to take, bring them with you. I take a couple myself and forget them occasionally. Always keep your meds with you. And if they’re prescription and you’re visiting another country, make sure they have the proper prescription labels on them.

Comfortable clothing

I’m a warm person, meaning I tend to wear shorts and a t-shirt most of the time. But when I am on a plane, I like to wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing. I always find that planes get cold after a couple hours of flying, and my shorts/t-shirt just don’t cut it. And the blankets they give you usually kinda suck. So something to keep you warm, plus a pair of long socks, is usually a good idea.

Lithium batteries – (not really airplane carry-on essentials)

This is not really one of the airplane carry-on essentials, but it definitely needs to be mentioned. If you have anything that uses lithium-ion batteries, those must be carried separately in the main cabin. Lithium ion batteries, while great, have a risk of catching fire. If that happens, you want it to happen somewhere it can be dealt with quickly and not in the belly of the plane where it cannot. Always bring these on board with you. Always!

Champagne is good, but water is better!
Champagne is good, but water is better!

Do you have any airplane carry-on essentials you always bring with you? Do you think they would help others? Let us know!

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Michael is originally from Canada but now resides in Atlanta, GA with his husband, Halef, who also writes here. He is a Couchsurfing expert and has traveled to over 40 countries to date. Currently saving all his money for a Round the World adventure.

3 thoughts on “Airplane Carry-on Essentials

  1. Great advice guys. I’ve only recently discovered taking an empty water bottle with me through security, I thought at first they didn’t even allow that. I try to get everything into hand luggage. I’ve seen mountains of lost luggage piled so high at airports that I do everything I can to get it all into hand luggage. Happy Travels

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