Carry-on backpack for travel

21 Best Carry-on Essentials for Travel

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Are you wondering about what to pack in your carry-on for travel?

Choosing Your Carry-on

Think of your carry-on as your “home away from home” as you begin your travel adventures. You want to be sure that you:

  • Are mindful about what you take with you
  • Follow TSA regulations for carry-on items. Your goal is to go through security without incident
  • Have your essentials close at hand while flying
  • Streamline your list of must-haves so it is not full of extras that you won’t use or that could be packed in your luggage
  • Invest in a high-quality backpack. We love The NorthFace Recon Backpack for Women and Men

For many years, I used a hand-me down backpack from my husband as my carry-on. It was time to find something new once the seams started failing. I liked the hand-me down pack for all of the pockets and for its ability to accommodate my camera, but my shoulders and neck ached every day I wore it. I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to it when it was time to find something new.

If you’re looking for a carry-on, do a little research and make a list of your must-haves. Not sure exactly what your must-haves should be? Let me share a few of my requirements.

I researched backpacks to use as a carry-on designed specifically for women with the following features:

  • a padded laptop section
  • a large middle section for my camera insert
  • lots of pockets
  • expandable side pockets for a water bottle, easily accessible hand sanitizer, and Blistex
  • a mesh front pocket
  • a sternum strap
  • a waist belt

I found all of these features in my The North Face Women’s Recon Backpack designed specifically for women. It fits me well and eases the strain on my neck and shoulders (though my camera is the main culprit for the pain now as I wear it around my neck throughout the day as I travel).

The North Face Women's Recon Backpack

My advice is to always invest in quality products for travel.

The North Face Recon backpack works as a camera bag and as a carry-on, so if you are into photography, you might be interested in outfitting your backpack to pull double duty.

My husband uses the standard version of The North Face Recon Backpack as his carryon when we travel.

The North Face Recon Backpack

Check out my 15 Popular Photography Gadgets here.

Just remember, when you arrive at your destination, you don’t have to carry everything in your backpack around as you sightsee.

Your back will thank you if you remove all of the non-essentials and leave them at the hotel, airbnb, or the accommodations where you are staying.

I have found a few other backpacks that are a little more fashionable that would be fun to try as well. They are designed specifically for traveling with your photography equipment while still allowing extra space for your other carry-on essentials.

BagSmart Camera Backpack, Anti-Theft and Water Resistant Canvas

Bagsmart camera backpack that is water resistant and anti theft

Brevite Compact Camera Backpack

Brevite Camera backpack

Carry-on Packing List

I am a list maker.

That is how I function best. And that’s how I “try” to not forget all the things I need to pack. I created a carry-on list a few years ago for all the things I need to remember to put in my carry-on. These are 20 of my must-have items and accessories plus 1 surprising but cute add on:

1. Camera and Accessories

Because I am all about photography when I travel, my Canon 6d Mark II camera and accessories are #1 on my carry-on list.

Canon 6d Mark II DSLR camera

If you don’t have camera equipment to worry about, just think of all the extra space you will have in your carry-on and how much lighter it will be!

Camera equipment can get HEAVY!

Leave a comment in the section below telling me what you would pack instead.

My North Face Women’s Recon Backpack carry-on isn’t designed specifically for transporting camera equipment, but I found this handy dandy Camera Insert on Amazon that transforms the inner section of the backpack.

Water Resistant Camera Insert Case

The camera insert has three sections, and the size of those sections can be easily changed as the dividers velcro in place.

For my camera needs, I leave the middle section of the insert for my camera. I fill the two outer sections with:

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens – This lens is most likely attached to my camera body.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens for Canon

Canon Nifty Fifty Lens – A second lens that is compact and lightweight enough to include.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens Nifty Fifty

Extra Camera Battery – I always bring along a second backup battery just in case I use up all of the juice in my first battery. I don’t want to miss any great shots!

Powerextra battery for canon camera LP-E6N

Battery Charger – Leave the charger in the hotel once you arrive and be sure to charge everything overnight so that it is ready to go in the morning.

Canon LC-E6 Battery Charger for Canon

Waterproof Backpack Cover – Read about our experience in Florence in my post, 15 Popular Photography Gadgets, when we really could have used this cover.

waterproof backpack cover

Lens Pen – Store this in the insert or in one of the pen slots in the main storage pockets.

Nikon Lens Pen

SD card – If you carry more than one SD card when you travel, you can also store these in the camera insert if your insert has a zippered pocket on the lid flap for small items.

SanDisk Extreme PRO 256GB SDXC UHS-I Card

NOTE * Most of the links here are specific to my Canon 6d Mark II. Click through any Amazon product link in this post and search for the accessories designed specifically for YOUR camera.

2. iPad and Accessories

I love having my Apple iPad when I travel just as much as I love having my camera.

Apple ipad pro 11 inch

Chris and I both travel with iPads in our carry-ons and use them for a variety of tasks:

  • Storing all information related to our vacation—dates, locations, activities, booked flights, hotel, and transportation
  • Reviewing in the evening for the next day
  • Unwinding or relaxing while reading an ebook
  • “Facetiming” with family at home
  • Watching a downloaded movie. Chris always “suggests” that our girls download some movies to their devices to watch. Invariably, they always leave this until the night before
  • Journaling throughout our vacation. If I don’t keep a daily record, I quickly forget or mix up our days.
  • Blogging on the long flight home

On a side note * Chris and I also use Evernote on our iPads as a note-taking tool. It is a handy app for everyday use that allows you to catalog your ideas, keep track of to-do lists, and for your vacations, manage your travel information.

In the vacation planning stages, Evernote can be synced so that Chris and I can both see and add to the same travel research files on our individual devices or computers.

I have a basic (free) Evernote plan, meaning I need to have WiFi access in order to update or sync files. Chris has a paid plan allowing access without an internet connection.

Using Evernote and an iPad (or another tablet), Chris always has access to our schedule, reservations, and flight information in the Evernote vacation file.

Evernote can also be accessed via a mobile phone, but can be more challenging to make updates. (You do not have to have a paid subscription to plan and sync your notes; however, when you are on the go, you will not be able to access notes without WiFi.)

NOTE * Be sure to charge all of your devices and portable chargers the night before you leave for your trip. Chris also highly recommends that you password protect ALL of your devices.

The accessories that I pack in my carry-on with my iPad include:

iPad cover – Protect your investment from accidental bumps

Procase Apple ipad 11 cover

Apple Pencil – if you need to distract your kids while flying, an Apple Pencil is great for drawing. I also use it for taking notes in my Noteshelf App as I travel.

apple pencil 2nd generation

Apple Magic Keyboard for iPad– I do a lot of blogging for as well as for my family blog. Having an external keyboard is so much easier than using the keyboard on the iPad.

Apple magic keyboard for iPad

Charging cables/cubes – Don’t forget to bring your Cables and Cubes and Adapters. Check out “Wall Chargers and Cables” in 14 Genius Tech Gadgets for Travel for what you might need

In fact, investing in a Travelon Tech Accessory Organizer would be convenient for organizing all of your cables related to your electronic devices.

Travelon Urban Tech Accessory Organizer

Your iPad or tablet will fit perfectly into the laptop sleeve of The North Face Women’s Recon Backpack. Tuck a paper copy of your itinerary here as well.

3. Cell Phone

A cell phone, whichever brand you choose, is invaluable when you travel. If you are still in the camp that doesn’t own a smart phone, now is the time to invest in one and learn how to use it.

I have an Apple iPhone 11 and love it. Love the camera!

Don’t forget about finding an iPhone 11 Case to protect your phone from accidental drops and bumps. They happen. And tuck your retractable cables, cables and charging cubes or blocks in with your iPad cables in your carry-on to keep everything together and accounted for.

Spigen iPhone 11 Case Green Crystal

TIP * Get in the habit of charging all of your electronic devices each night. Your phone is your lifeline when you travel.

4. Portable Charger

If you are using your phone throughout the day for taking photos, getting directions, checking maps, figuring out transportation, or researching on the internet don’t forget to pack a Portable Charger (or two) so you can recharge your phone when needed. If you are using your phone for all of those activities, you will most likely use up your battery before the end of the day.

INIU Portable Charger USB C 10000mAh Power Bank

Portable chargers range in size and shape from the size of a tube of lipstick to a cell phone to something larger. Portable chargers are convenient and easy to pack into your carry-on as you sightsee each day.

When I say, “Bring along a portable charger or two…”, I mean two if you have kids who use up all of their battery playing games and using social media and want to charge their phone. Having two, means there is one available for you so you can map the train schedules back to the hotel. Only somewhat important right?

And…don’t forget to bring your charging cable. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record huh?

5. Headphones

As you are flying, headphones are great for watching movies, blocking out noisy babies and chatty seat mates, or cancelling out noise as you try to sleep. You have options, so discover what will work best for you.

Often as we travel to new locations, we like to listen to Rick Steves Audio Tours. Okay, WE might be a little too generous if I apply that term to our whole family. Chris and I, however, enjoy listening to the audio tours. Headphones are a great option for listening to these tours or other podcasts.

Do you have podcasts that you love to listen to? Share in the Comments below.

Corded earbuds – As noted in my post, 14 Genius Gadgets for Travel, I have small ears. Headphones that are too large are either uncomfortable or they just don’t fit. I use the Skullcandy Ink’d 2.

Skullcandy Ink'd 2.0 Mic'd Ear Bud Headphone

If they do happen to fall out of my ears, at least they are connected by a cord and I don’t lose an expensive AirPod earbud. Because my headphones are corded, I also travel with an Apple Lightning to 3.5 mm Headphone Jack Adapter in order to plug my headphones into my iPhone. It is a necessary gadget! Don’t forget to add it to your carry-on if you have corded headphones.

Apple Lightning Headphone Jack Adapter

AirPods – You would probably love the convenience of Apple AirPods. They have a handy little feature where you tap twice on the earbud and it pauses your audio. Don’t forget a Silicone AirPod Case with Keychain.

Apple Airpod with wireless charging case

AirPods Pro – My husband did gift me a set of Apple AirPods Pro for Christmas, but I find they still fall out of my ears. Dang! Until I find a solution for wearing them, they are too pricey to risk losing. (Not sure that I am ready to travel everyday wearing a headband!) Don’t forget the AirPods Pro Silicone Case with Keychain.

Apple Airpods Pro

Beats Solo3 – Though these are not quite so compact and easy to travel with as smaller headphones, the Beats Solo3 are an over-the-ear option that works quite well if you choose to sleep in them while flying or simply prefer that style of headphone. Because they cover the whole ear, they are quite effective as noise-cancelling devices.

Beats Solo3 on ear headphones

You will need to charge the AirPods and Beats, so don’t forget the charging cable!

6. Passport Wallet

I am excited to try the Travelon Passport Wallet in my travels as it is a new to me. Chris or I usually keep track of all of the passports in a small zippered bag.

Travelon RFID Blocking Passport Zip Wallet

The wallet has some great features:

  • Blocks RFID readers and prevent unauthorized access to your identity
  • Features a passport window
  • Offers card slots for credit cards and ID window
  • Has zippered currency and coin compartments
  • Zips closed to secure all of your travel documents
  • Comes in a timeless style with colorful options

7. Sunglasses/case

Two of my brothers are optometrists and both would strongly encourage everyone to wear Sunglasses everyday when you are outside, in your travels, and on adventures. As you travel, you aren’t always mindful of the amount of time spent outside in the sunshine all day long. Take care of your eyes.

Don’t forget this important accessory—it is fashion and function all in one!

No doubt you will also need a Microfiber Cleaning Cloth and Lens Spray* for cleaning your sunglasses and glasses while you are away. The cloth can also work double duty to clean screens and carefully clean camera lenses.

The Solution Lens Cleaner Spray and cloth

8. Sharpie fine point pen

I love my Sharpie Pens when I work at home in my office. I love them just as much when I travel and take notes. Yes, I take notes every day. I write down the places we visit, the funny things that happen, and record memorable moments.

Sharpie fine point pens

A Five Star Small Notebook is compact enough to pack. Another option for me is to use my iPad, an Apple Pencil, and the Noteshelf app.

Five Star Spiral Notebook Small

9. Water Bottle

A water bottle is super nice to have on vacation and to include in your carry-on, but you need to make sure it is empty before going through security at the airport. We seem to accumulate more bottles of water in our travels, but staying hydrated is always important. In fact, bring along some small single-serving packets of Crystal Lite, Electrolytes, or Zipfizz to add a little flavor or energy boost to your Water Bottle.

EXIT Collapsible Water Bottle

10. Light Jacket

When I fly, I always bring a Light Fleece Jacket with me. The air on the plane often cools and a light jacket keeps the edge off the coolness of the air conditioning. Having a jacket that is foldable and rollable without wrinkling is a nice touch as well.

Full-Zip Fleece Jacket Women

11. Snacks

No doubt you will get hungry in your travels and will want to bring snacks to have with you as you travel each day. (When our girls travel with us, we often pack a duffel bag for snacks for our entire trip and slowly replace the snacks with mementos as the snacks are eaten.) I include a few of these in my carry-on just in case.

If you haven’t tried these Built Bars (so far Double Chocolate Mousse is my favorite) you might just be in for a pleasant surprise. They have great flavors, a nice texture, and are quite delicious.

Built Bar Protein and Energy Bars Double Chocolate

I chew Gum all of the time and try to bring a package large enough to last the entire vacation. Sure, I could buy more in country, but it is just nice to already have a brand and flavor that I like.

5 Sugar Free Chewing Gum, Peppermint

Applesauce Pouches – the person who invented these pouches was pure genius.

Go go Squeez Applesauce pouches

Almonds in convenient To-Go packs are great to travel with and perfect for an afternoon pick-me-up. Drop a few of these packs into your carry-on for a quick and healthy snack.

Blue Diamond on the go packs of almonds

12. Hand Sanitizer

Hand Sanitizer* is definitely a must-have in my carry-on, especially in this time of Covid. I carry a larger hand sanitizer pump with my toiletries which can be used to refill the travel-sized container as needed. Be sure to use it regularly as you are traveling. Check out my 20+ Amazing Amazon Must-Have Toiletries for Travel to discover everything I like to pack in my toiletry bag.

Germ-X Travel Size Hand Sanitizer

I also recommend a TSA Approved Clear Bag to organize all of your toiletry items from your carry-on into one place. I have marked items with an * that you will definitely want to include in this bag if you are required to remove it from your carry-on while going through security at the airport. (Make sure all liquids, lotions, and gels are under the 3.4 oz TSA fluid requirement or they will be confiscated.)

TSA Approved clear zip bag

13. Blistex

Blistex* is an essential part of my everyday life. You might say I am addicted. A minimum of one tube always comes with me on vacation (but more like three or four tubes) and is one of my must-haves in my carry-on.

Blistex medicated lip balm

14. Hair Stuff

No doubt after an uncomfortable night of sleeping on an airplane, your hair is going to need a little fixing to greet the day in a new country. Pack a travel-sized Hairspray* to add to your TSA Approved toiletry bag and include a Small Pick or Comb and a Scrunchie (if you use one).

John Frieda Frizz Ease Hairspray 2 oz

15. Face Powder

You may wish to do a little face touch up as well to be fresh for a new day with this IT CC+ Airbrush Perfecting Powder with SPF 50+ as you wake up.

IT Your Skin But Better CC+ Airbrush Perfecting Powder

16. Hand lotion

Gold Bond Lotion* is great for the dryness that always seems to happen to my hands when I travel.

Gold Bond Ultimate Healing Skin Therapy Lotion Travel Size

17. Tissue

Who wants to be without Facial Tissue when a big sneeze comes on? Neither you nor any of your seat mates! Tuck in some small travel packs to your carry-on.

kleenex tissue travel packs

18. Toothbrush/paste

You can find Travel-sized Toothpaste and a Toothbrush* which are nice and refreshing. Mouthwash would be optional for me.

Travel Kit 3-In-1 Toothpaste/Scope/Toothbrush

19. Eye drops

Don’t forget to pack Eye Drops* in your carry-on as well. They are helpful for dry eyes or for allergies that begin to act up. These drops are recommended by my brother/optometrist.

Refresh Tears Lubricant Eye Drops

20. Advil/Excedrin/Unisom/Rx/Airborne

Here’s a handy tip: Buy a small container or two (or twelve) of Tic Tac Mints. When the container is empty, fill one with your Advil and Excedrin tablets (they are different enough in appearance that you won’t confuse the two) and another container with your Unisom.

tic tac mints

Be sure to mark with a Sharpie what is in each Tic Tac container along with the dosing instructions.

Advil Liqui-gels
Excedrin Extra Strength Pain Reliever Caplets
Unisom SleepGels

Airborne comes in its own small tube, and I always like to pack one of those in my carry-on.

Airborne effervescent tabs

A good rule of thumb is to ALWAYS bring two to three days worth of any prescriptions you take in case you are separated from your luggage. A small, travel-size Container with a Twist Lid will do the trick for storage. It is also a good idea to mark the contents with a Sharpie as well.

Travel Containers Silicone with Twist Lid

21. Baby Fingernail Clippers

This is the surprising but cute item I always add to my carry-on. These Baby Fingernail Clippers are tiny and quite sharp and work perfectly on the go. In fact, I always keep a pair in my purse for day-to-day use and hang-nail emergencies!

LITTLE BRAND Infant Nail Clippers

Final Thoughts on 21 Best Carry On Essentials for Travel

Well, it is a long list, but if you are planning to be away from home for any amount of time, having a few little comforts close at hand is essential.

Be sure to tuck your airline ticket into your carry-on and Bon Voyage!

How to pack a carry-on like a pro image

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Kristen Callihan
6 months ago

Great recommendations! We are going on a trip in a few weeks and this is very helpful!

6 months ago

Thank you for the helpful list. In a few years when our kids are out of toddler stages, I look forward to traveling and lists like this will be a must! I will need all the organization tools available. 🙂

5 months ago

This is a great list! I feel like once I do start traveling again I will be so out of practice that I’ll need this kind of resource. I always carry on my camera equipment as well, and I like to bring an extra change of clothes too, since I have gotten my luggage lost way too many times.

Sarah Butterfield
Sarah Butterfield
4 months ago

These are great suggestions! I love the water bottle you linked to!

4 months ago

This is a great list! Once we’ll be able to travel again, I’ll get back to it. 🙂

4 months ago

These are great recommendations! I always try to pack a travel journal with me. It’s so fun to look back and read the details of great family vacations that I would’ve never remembered without the journal!

Sydney Hooten-Rynone
4 months ago

Great list of travel essentials! I am definitely going to purchase the clear TSA bags! Those will be so helpful when going through security! Thank you for the great recommendations!

4 months ago

Thank you for mentioning Rick Steves Audio Tours! I definitely need to check those out. I listen to history podcasts like The China History Podcast and The History of Rome.