What to Pack in Carry On vs Checked Bags

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If you have plans to travel, it can be a headache to know what to put into each piece of luggage. Maybe you’ve got your list of travel essentials ready to pack, but you’re trying to decide what goes where!  I normally advise travelers to pack only in a carry on bag, but I know that sometimes, that’s not possible.  So when you’ve got checked luggage, a carry on, and a personal item, what do you pack in each one?  On this blog, I’ve shared a ton of tips for packing luggage. But a lot of packing advice just comes down to understanding airline requirements. It also helps to know what items you need close by.  I’ve made so many mistakes in the past! I put together this guide to tell you what to pack in carry on vs checked bag. Hopefully that will make the packing process easy for you!

woman packing carry on bag

When it comes to luggage for travel, there are three kinds of bags you can bring. A checked bag, a carry on bag, and a personal item.

Each airline has different rules and regulations for the size and weight limit for each of these kinds of bags.  Make sure to check your airline’s specific requirements for luggage before you decide what to pack in carry on vs checked bags.

Most airlines will also charge you to check a bag. For that reason, it pays to plan ahead of time in terms of how you’re going to pack.

So how to you know what to pack in carry on vs checked bags? Start by gathering a list of all your travel essentials. Let’s walk through what you should pack in each item.

What to Pack in Your Personal Item When Flying

In general, the things to pack in your personal item are things that 1) you’ll need often during the flight, or 2) you want to keep on you at all times so that they’re not lost or stolen.

What is a personal item when flying?

When you’re traveling by air, a personal item is something like a purse or backpack.  While each airline has different specific size and weight limits for personal items, all airlines require personal items to fit under the seat in front of you so that they can be stowed during takeoff and landing.

Keep Personal Items Near You at All Times

Personal items are items that you should keep on you at all times when you are traveling. These are small items that fit into the pocket in front of you, or even on your lap. The reason that you need to keep these items close by is that you will need them during your flight, and it is easier to have them accessible rather than having to rummage through your carry-on every time. Keep in mind that your carry-on bag will be in the overhead compartment . So anything that you want to have accessible should go in your personal item.

Personal item vs Carry On Bag

What is a personal item vs. carry on bag?

Typically, a “carry on bag” refers to a smaller suitcase that you will store in the overhead compartment on a plane.  Carry on bags are also called “hand luggage”.  A personal item, on the other hand, is something like a purse, a laptop bag, or a backpack, and it goes underneath the seat in front of you on a plane.

Let’s start by covering the things to pack in your personal item.

packing list for carry on bag

Credit cards and ID

You should always have your credit cards and ID on you in your personal item rather than keeping them in your carry on bag.  It’s much safer to keep these items near you at all times.  This is primarily for security purposes, but also for convenience.  You will need your ID or passport in the airport, and you also might decide to  buy things on your flight, like a bite to eat and perhaps even a glass of wine to calm those flying nerves.

Cash

You should also keep any cash in your personal item, not your carry on bag. Not only is this for security purposes, but it will also be handy to have this on hand when you get to the airport or your next destination. 

Travel documents

It is also important to keep your travel documents in your personal item so that they stay with you at all times. This might include a print-off of your booking, boarding passes, and so on. Once you have shown these at the airport, just hang onto them and keep them on your person while you travel.

In-flight entertainment

Depending on how long your flight is, you are going to want some in-flight entertainment to help things go by a little quicker for you. This could include a laptop, iPad, books, or a magazine to pass the time quicker.  Keep these in your personal item so that you don’t have to get up and down anytime you want to access them.

Headphones

If you are going to watch a movie or listen to music when you are on a flight, you definitely need to keep some headphones on your person for the duration. Using headphones will keep you from disturbing other passengers on the plane.

I highly recommend noise-canceling headphones for travel. They’ll block out the background noise of the plane, and also any other passengers! I just got these noice-canceling ear buds and love them!

Water bottle

Keeping hydrated when on a flight is very important. For that reason, make sure to take a water bottle filled with water in your personal item, rather than storing it in your carry on bag. This is even more important if you are on a long flight. It’ll help you look good after your long flight, too!

Phone

I recommend keeping your phone with you as part of your personal items. I use mine to listen to music during flights, and it’s also handy to have once you land. Having your phone on you will also make sure that you can reach anybody that you need to when you land, to organize your pickup or let someone know that you’ve arrived.

My Top Pick for a Personal Item

Black Zipper Tote Bag

This is a simple yet elegant black tote bag that makes for the perfect personal item while traveling.

I love that it’s got plenty of space for all of your necessary items while you’re flying. It’s casual enough for a weekend getaway, but could also be used for work travel.

Best of all, it has a zippered closure, which many tote bags don’t! So if your bag tips over during the flight, you won’t lose anything.

What to Pack in a Carry-On Bag

Now that we’ve covered what goes in your personal item, what should you pack in your carry on vs checked bag?

In general, the things to pack in your carry on bag are items that you want to keep with you, but don’t need to have immediately nearby during the entire flight.  Carry on bags are also the best place to pack things that you don’t want to risk being separated from while you’re flying. This could be because they’re valuable or hard to replace, such as jewelry or prescription medicine.

What is a Carry-On Bag?

Your carry on bag is a bag that you board with on the plane, versus checking it through to your destination. Carry on bags are and stored in the overhead compartment above your seat while you’re flying. If you need to reach items in your carry on bag, you can do so during the flight.

There are weight and size restrictions with carry on bags, and they differ from one airline to the next. So make sure to check what those are with the airline that you are traveling with beforehand. Most airlines allow one carry on bag only.

Laptop

If you do not need your laptop for in-flight entertainment, you can put it into your carry-on bag. Just be careful when moving it around and make sure that you have a lock on your carry-on if you want to take extra security precautions. And never, ever put your laptop in your checked luggage! It can easily be damaged or get lost.

Prescription and over-the-counter medication

If you have certain medications that you need to take on a regular basis, it is best to keep them on your carry-on bag. You can take these out if needed during the flight, but they don’t need to be close to you at all times.

Never pack prescription medicine in checked luggage!  The last thing you want is for your bags to get lost and be without important medicine far away from home.

Jewelry

Another thing to pack in your carry on bag vs checked luggage is jewelry.  Never put jewelry in your checked luggage!  Pack jewelry in your carry on bag, so that it stays close to you at all times. Bonus points if you can wear all the jewelry you need while you’re on the plane, and not have to pack anything at all! 

Check out my tips on how to pack jewelry for travel for more details on what to bring (and how to keep your necklaces from tangling while you’re traveling!)

Power cables

Assuming you’ve already charged all of your devices as part of your pre-travel checklist, you can keep your power cables in your carry on bag.  It’s unlikely you’ll need to use them during a flight, so they don’t need to go in your personal item. 

Don’t pack power cables in your checked luggage, though, just in case your bags get lost!  You don’t want to be stuck without power for your devices.

packing checked bag

Portable charger

Lately, I have been loving portable chargers for travel.  They’re great because you don’t have to worry about running out of juice when you are on the go.  This is especially important for your phone! 

I found one that I love that has a built-in-cable as part of the device, so I don’t have to worry about packing yet another cable for my devices.

Camera

If you enjoy travel photography, you might also want to bring a camera with you. If you prefer clicking “snap” the old-fashioned way rather than just taking photos on your phone, make sure to pack your camera in your carry on bag, instead of your checked luggage.

Tissues

Whether it’s a spill or just allergies, there are a bunch of different reasons why you might need tissues while you are on a flight.  These can go in your personal item if you’re prone to needing them (allergies!) or you can tuck them away in your carry on bag if it’s unlikely you’ll need to access them.

Hand sanitizer or wipes

Hand sanitizer is very important in the day and age that we live in so it is definitely essential for your flight to use it regularly, particularly since you will be in such close proximity to others. Wet wipes are also a great thing to throw in your carry on bag.  They are an easy way to freshen yourself up or if you are traveling with kids who are prone to sticky fingers.

I recommend buying a value pack in travel size, or using wipes instead. Wipes won’t count as part of your liquids bag!

Scarf

It can get very cold on airplanes and for this reason, it is really good to include a scarf in your carry-on luggage that you can put on whenever you need it. This might not seem like an essential to you especially if you are going to a warm location but if the temperature drops when you are in mid-flight, you will be so relieved that you have one in your bag.

Lip balm

Dehydration is always a challenge when flying, and your lips are likely to get dry and could become chapped even if you don’t think it will happen in a relatively short space of time. Put some lip balm in your carry-on so that you can reapply some whenever you need to and keep those lips moisturized.

Earplugs and eye mask

You might just plan on sleeping for the duration of your flight if you are a nervous flyer or perhaps it is a long one. If that is the case, two important things to put into your carry-on are earplugs and an eye mask. You can darken the cabin around you without disturbing others with the eye mask and the earplugs will help you block out all noise.

My Top Choice for a Carry on Bag

Lightweight carry on suitcase

You can’t go wrong with this carry on bag! It’s a spinner with 4 wheels, meaning that it’s much easier to walk with it in tow than 2-wheeled suitcases.

It’s also made from super lightweight material, meaning that it won’t add extra bulk to your bags.

Best of all, though, it’s expandable. So if you just-so-happen to pick up a few souvenirs while you’re traveling, you’ll have plenty of extra space if you need it on the way home!

What to Pack in Checked Luggage

What to pack in your checked bags vs carry on? In general, the best things to pack in your checked luggage vs carry on are the bulkier, heavier items such as your clothes, shoes, toiletries, makeup and accessories. 

You can’t board a flight with certain items, and these should be in your checked bag. This includes things like a bottle of wine, hiking poles, or sharp objects like scissors. Check out this article for a full list of prohibited items.

What is checked luggage?

Checked luggage can be small or large, so long as it meets your airline’s requirements. That said, when people refer to checked luggage, they typically mean a larger sizer suitcase that is too big to be a carry on bag.

Your checked luggage is stored in the cargo of the plane during the entire flight. This means that you won’t be able to access anything in your checked bags for the entire duration of the flight.

Checked bags also have weight restrictions, so make sure to check your airline’s guidelines ahead of time. If your bag is too heavy, you may be stuck paying a fee. With that in mind let’s take a look at some of the items you might want to pack in your checked luggage.

Air Tags

I’ve read so many travel horror stories lately that involve lost luggage.  Between flight delays and canceled flights, it is so easy for checked luggage to go missing, and not make it to your destination.  One way to combat lost luggage is by using Air Tags

Top Pick
Apple AirTag
$28.99

AirTags are a must if you're planning to check a bag! Put one in your checked luggage, and you'll always know your bag's location.

If your luggage gets lost, the AirTag app will tell you exactly where your bags are (before your airline does). They'll help you retrieve lost luggage faster!

10/01/2022 05:17 pm GMT

Use Air Tags to Track Your Checked Bags

Air Tags are small trackers that monitor the location of an item. Similar to a keychain, you can throw one in your checked luggage, and always have an idea of where your bag is.  I know several people personally who were able to recover their lost luggage because they used Air Tags!

If your bag gets lost, you’ll have much better luck with the airline’s customer service if you can tell them where your bag is located! If you do decide to check a bag, I highly, highly recommend using AirTags. Stay on the safe side!

Pro Travel Tip: These days, travel can be more uncertain than ever. Check for any COVID-related restrictions at your destination, and never travel without travel insurance! I recommend SafetyWing, because they have flexible + affordable insurance plans, and also cover COVID-related impacts on your trip (not all companies do)!

Clothing

If you’re checking a bag, it makes sense to pack all of your clothes in this bag.  Your travel clothes will probably take up the majority of space in your luggage. 

If you’re bringing a jacket, try to wear it on the plane instead of packing it. Wearing a jacket on the plane will save you some space (and weight!) in your checked bag.

I also recommend using packing cubes if you’re bringing a checked bag. These will help organize your clothes, and fit more of your things into your suitcase. And if you’re short on room, learn how to pack a suitcase to maximize space.

woman with a carry on suitcase

Shoes

Pack any shoes in your checked bag.  Put them at the bottom of your bag, and then pack your clothes over the top of them.  I generally recommend traveling with only two pairs of shoes, but depending on your trip you may have different needs.  Just keep in mind any size and weight restrictions.  And if you’re traveling with boots, I recommend wearing them on the plane. That’s because they are likely to be the largest shoes you bring.

Toiletries (or liquids larger than 3 oz)

Store your toiletries correctly inside a one-quart, clear bag. When packing your toiletries, make sure to use leak-proof bottles! The last thing you want is to spill the contents of your toiletries all over your clothes.

It is a TSA rule that all liquids that are over 3oz should also be put into your checked bag.  So if you want to bring, for example, a full-sized sunscreen on your trip, put it in your checked bag.

Makeup

The best place to pack your makeup just like with toiletries is in your checked baggage. You might want a few small items in your carry-on like lip balm. For the most part, you need to keep this in the cargo area of the plane.  Makeup can get heavy, so try to pare down to the essentials if you can.

Accessories

Pack any additional accessories in your checked bags. This could include belts, bags, or other other accessories that you think you might need during your trip. 

Additional heavy items

What else goes in your checked luggage?  Pack anything left over in your checked bags. If I do check a bag, it’s because of a special circumstance – like bringing wine home, or wanting to bring a full-sized sunscreen with me to a beach destination. 

If you’re bringing home any gifts or other heavy items, it’s probably easier to put them in your checked bag instead of your carry on.  Just make sure that you pack them carefully in between layers of clothes.  I also recommend using hard-sided luggage. Bags are thrown around when loaded on and off the plane. With hard-sided luggage, your things have a lower chance of being damaged.

My Top Pick for Checked Luggage

Samsonite Hardside Expandable Suitcase

When it comes to checked luggage, it makes sense to invest in a good piece. Checked bags get tossed around and if they’re made from cheap material, it could mean your things get damaged. So it’s worth putting a few extra dollars in to buying your bag.

I also recommend buying hard-sided large luggage. It’ll do a better job protecting your things than a soft-sided suitcase will.

I like this Samsonite large suitcase because it comes in a bunch of different colors and is at a really reasonable price point considering the quality (and 10 year warranty!)

Hopefully, this article has been helpful in showing you what to pack in carry on vs checked bag. Now that you know, you’re ready to get organized for your trip!

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