Carry-On Basics: Travel Essentials You Should Have in Your Carry-On

Given the propensity of checked-in luggage to go AWOL on international flights as of late, travelling with only a carry-on has become crucial. Yet an issue arises: it’s hard enough to pack only essentials for a carry-on when you’re travelling with check in luggage. But what if you want to only take a carry-on? What on earth should you pack then?!

Well, many of us are discovering what minimalist travellers have known all along. For a truly enjoyable trip, one that ensures you’re not weighed down with stuff that is likely to fly in the opposite direction of your intended destination anyway, you’ve got to go carry-on only.

Whether you’re a reluctant recruit or already a fully-fledged member of the carry-on culture, here’s how you can make it work.

First, find the perfect bag for you!

Most airlines are offering you the chance to take a second carry-on at an extra (usually minimal) charge. Most call this a ‘personal items’ bag, which is usually a handbag (like our Magic Folding Carryon, Brooklyn Crossbody Travel Tote or expandable Oxford) – that fits snugly under the seat in front.

Add to that a nifty piece of hand-luggage that’s easy to pack and even easier to carry (like our Road Warrior Travel Carryon Backpack) and your carry-on game will be next level.

Road Warrior Carry-On Backpack from Zoomlite

Once you’ve set your heart on just the right bag(s), here are the essential items you’ll want to pack in your carry-on.

Your most important documents

Keep your most valued document (ie. Your passport) safe and at hand at all times. Don’t forget to take along your driver’s licence and international licence if you’re planning to drive abroad, and pack it all in a RFID-proof travel wallet.

Sleep Gear

Some may think that sleeping gear might be superfluous when you’re trying to be minimal, but they remain incredibly crucial. Not just for the flight, but for your sleep health in general, when you travel.

Neck or Travel Pillow

A comfortable pillow is essential if you'd like to sleep your way through a flight. Get an inflatable pillow or one that rolls into a pouch.

Gel Eye Mask

An eye mask allows you to sleep even before "lights out" time on the plane or even while your seatmate decides to turn on the reading light or tablet/other device.

Apps like Timeshifter are now available to help you ease in to the time zone of your destination by regulating your exposure to darkness and light.

Ear Plugs or Noise Cancelling Headset

These items will not only drown out the noise from inside or outside the plane cabin but also help minimise any pain in your ears that come from altitude changes.

Smartphone/tablet & chargers

There really isn’t much you can’t do with these two gizmos nowadays. Combined, they replace travel guide books, maps, and even your laptop for impromptu work stuff. Make sure you’ve downloaded the essential travel apps before you leave home, and add a VPN if travelling to a country that restricts internet use. Actually, here’s why everyone should be using a VPN when travelling.

While packing your chargers, you might want to throw in a compact but powerful power bank. Plug it in overnight in your hotel room and you never need worry about running low on battery.

Super slim day bag

Even if your carry-on of choice is super comfy to use all day long, you might not want to unpack it every single day. Plus, it’s probably bigger than you would need for a day’s exploration. A super-slim day bag that takes up little space but saves the day is the way to go. Pack just a few bucks and your phone in an anti-theft sling and you’re good to go.


Far be it for us to tell you what your essential toiletries should be. Let it be known, however, that the two must-have essentials are for cleaning and moisturizing.

Wet Wipes

Use it to clean surfaces around you on the plane, remove make up, clean hands before eating and everything else you are thinking of in lieu of a shower when needs must. These are the true traveller’s saviour.

Lip Balm and Hydrating Lotion

Flights are moisture sucking adventures at the best of time so balm and hydrating lotions are two things you’ll want to have with you at all times. When travelling, you will also likely be outdoors a lot more than usual, so ensure that cream has SPF and lather, lather, lather.

In order to take all your toiletries on a carry-on, you’ll want to use small clear bottles <100ml for your liquids, and keep everything else – like your deodorant bottle – travel sized. Replenish liquids in hotels (or buy larger bottles abroad if travelling with friends) and pack it all in a small essentials toiletry bag.

Wet weather gear

It matters not where or when you are travelling - getting caught out in a bout of horrid weather is never pleasant. Be prepared with a lightweight wind and waterproof jacket if travelling in cold climates or simply opt for a scrunch-all poncho if cold temps won’t be an issue. Remember to layer your clothing for extra warmth but keep your outer shell jacket as light and compact as possible.

Medicine and First-aid Kit

The true travel essentials? Neurofen, aspirin, motion sickness and stomach upset pills, and rehydration sachets. Hand wash is a must as is a small pack of mixed Band-Aids for cuts and blisters. Everything else can be purchased on a need-to-use basis. Keep your kit compact and at the bottom of your carry-on and, hopefully, you won’t have to unpack it until you get home.

Clothing & Accessories

The idea of travelling carry-on only means you ought to pack everything you need for your trip in just one bag. Not just the four most useful items for flying (that would be comfy pants and flat trainers, compression socks and a warm shawl) but also three extra tops, a pair of jeans, a jacket and a pair of flip-flops. And three pairs of underwear, of course.

Three changes of clothing (what you are wearing to fly + two more) can do you an entire week. Then comes washing day at a self-service laundrette. Then you repeat the process. And then you keep it going.

Those ninja travellers who can go on for weeks and even months on end with just a backpack full of gear? This is their secret!

Face Masks and Hand Sanitiser

Australia may have just dropped the need to wear face masks on incoming flights, but the international situation is still mixed. To ensure you never stress because you should wear a mask and you don’t have one, make sure you pack a couple in your bag. Add some hand sanitiser to the pack, which is something that you should always have with you anyway when travelling.

Packing Cubes

The one packing hack that can make all this possible is the use of packing cubes. Group related items in their own pack as separated above and go for compression packs if you think you might need a little extra squeeze.

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