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Packing the Perfect Long-Haul Carry On Bag

How to pack the perfect carry on bag

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Whether you go carry-on only or you check a bag, if you’re taking a long haul flight you’re also going to want a smaller cabin bag to tote all your in-flight essentials. Getting this right can mean the difference between a comfortable flight and being miserable.

So, how do you pack the perfect carry on bag?

Saddleback Leather Co. thin front backpack

The Right Bag

In this particular case I’m talking about the bag you’ll keep under the seat in front of you that you’ll want access to during your flight, not the carry-on you hoist into the overhead bin. Check the restrictions for your airline to make sure that your bag meets their measurement requirements to avoid frustration and disappointment.

Look for a bag that closes fully so that the contents don’t spill out around your feet while in the air. Multiple pockets for keeping things organized are also handy. I also like using smaller bags (re-use for Ipsy bags anyone?) to organize the contents of my bag as well. There’s not much room in economy so you don’t want to have to contort yourself digging around in a cavernous bag trying to find your headphones.

For some recent trips I’ve used the Thin Front Pocket Leather Backpack from Saddleback Leather. I just can’t get enough of that new leather smell. It’s the best.


How to Pack the Perfect Carry On


These days you can pretty much count on there being in-flight entertainment for long-haul flights, but you still need to do a bit of prep to really fulfil your entertainment needs on board.


The earbuds that airlines hand out are pretty dreadful so you’ll definitely want your own. Since I can’t wear earbuds for a long time without them bothering me, I pack over-ear headphones. I also pack a pair of Apple earbuds for those times on take-off and landing when they won’t let you use anything but earbuds. *sigh* Don’t want to get wired headphones just so that you can connect to the in-flight entertainment system? Now you can use your wireless headphones by using a Bluetooth transmitter with the plane’s headphone jack.

iPad with keyboard

Whether you just want to watch your own shows, read magazines with Texture or do some writing, an iPad is a good choice. I pair mine with a wireless keyboard to make writing easier. You could also bring a laptop for all things. My iPad setup is a bit smaller/lighter and it’s less precious to me if something were to happen to it, so it’s perfect for travel.


It’s pretty much glued to my hand anyway so this one is a no-brainer.

Book or Kindle

I’m a bit old school and love the act of reading a real paper book so I tend to pack a paperback in my carry-on. I rarely finish an entire book while on a trip so I don’t need to have my entire library with me. But for those who read faster than I do or like to juggle multiple books, a Kindle is a fantastic choice.

Chargers and external battery

If you’re on a 12 hour flight, you’ll probably end up wanting to charge one device or another before landing so don’t forget to pack your cables. Some planes will have chargers at the seat, but you can’t count on it so an external battery pack comes in handy on the plane and at your destination.

Notebook and pen

If you’re travelling internationally definitely put a pen in your bag. You’ll want to fill out the immigration/customs landing card before you de-plane. Sometimes I like making notes or lists or what have you on real paper rathan than a computer screen so I always take a notebook. If you find you have a little extra space in your bag you could also pack some pencil crayons (coloured pencils for you non-Canadians) and an adult colouring book to pass the time.


How to Pack the Perfect Carry On


If you’ve got a red-eye flight you’re going to want to attempt to get as much sleep as possible. For me, this means a window seat, so that I can lean against the wall, and a few comfort items to help get me into my own little sleep cocoon.

Inflatable Neck Pillow

Travellers seem to fall on one side of the travel pillow fence or the other: they love ‘em or hate ‘em. I’m not a natural back sleeper so I need something to prop my head on to try to mimic side sleeping and I love my inflatable pillow for that (I sometimes prop it over my shoulder against a window). Avoid the worst part of travel pillows (lugging them around when you’re awake) by getting one that squishes down into a small pouch.

Eye mask

For ages I didn’t think an eye mask was necessary…until I tried one. Sure, they dim the cabin lights during night flights but there’s still light and activity that can disrupt you when you’re trying to get to sleep while sitting up. So when it comes to eye masks, don’t knock ‘em till you’ve tried ‘em.

Ear plugs

Same deal here as eye masks. You might not think you need them until you try them. Sleep is just easier for me when it’s dark and quiet.

Pashmina/Blanket Style Scarf

Airlines will typically give you a blanket for red-eye flights but I don’t really like putting it up around my face, so I pack my own large scarf or sarong that can double as a blanket. I’ll layer it with the plane blanket to get cozy. If you want something that does double (or triple) duty, get yourself a Greek/Turkish towel. You can use it as a sarong, a towel, a scarf, or a lightweight blanket.

Sleep Aid

Check with your doctor before trying this one, and test it at home to gauge your reaction, but sometimes a sleep aid (I use zopiclone/Lunesta as prescribed by my doc) is just what you need to help you get to sleep and stay asleep on a plane. It’s pretty much the only way I’ve gotten 8 hours on overnight flights.


How to Pack the Perfect Carry On



Comfort items are the little things that can make long-haul flights more bearable. I always wear compression socks to avoid DVT and swollen ankles. I also find my legs feel a little less fatigued after wearing them. Putting them on counts as a workout though. Dr. Segal has some cute ones if you don’t care for black.

We all know airplane tray tables are just a gross collection of germs so I always have a pack of antibacterial wet wipes in my bag. Good for wiping your hands before eating too. While most airlines will feed you on long-haul flights it’s always good to pack a few snacks. I used to go overboard and bring food I never ate, so these days I just pack one or two Clif energy bars.

Dry plane air will wreck havoc on your skin so be sure to bring your own water on board (I use a collapsible bottle), face/hand moisturizer, and a lip balm.

Once I get off the plane I like to pop into the airport washroom and freshen up. For this, I pack some disposable toothbrushes, face cleansing wipes (good for a quick underarm/body wipe too), dry shampoo, hairbrush with hair ties, and a tinted lip balm. Sometimes just brushing your teeth and washing your face can make you feel like a whole new person.


Lastly, I always try to bring some back-up clothes on board in my carry-on. I don’t need them on the plane but on the off chance that my checked bag gets waylaid, you’ll be happy you have extra underwear, socks, and a shirt in your bag. If you travel carry-on only this really isn’t necessary though there’s always the chance that you’ll be forced to gate check your bag so if you have the space, throw in a spare outfit into your under seat bag.

After five years of international travels I feel like I’ve finally nailed the perfect carry-on bag. Follow these tips and you too can avoid stuffing your bag with unnecessary items and make packing a breeze.

What are the must-haves in your own cabin bag?

How to pack the perfect carry on bag


  1. Zoe says:

    December 8th, 2017 at 4:00 pm (#)

    Great list! I sure have many of these when I travel.

  2. Kasia Dietz says:

    December 9th, 2017 at 7:16 pm (#)

    Great tips! It’s so important to travel light when you travel often! As a fellow traveler, I started designing travel savvy bags as extra carry-ons ?

  3. Karen Chappell says:

    December 11th, 2017 at 7:44 pm (#)

    I also carry many of those things on my flights. But as a tip, no need to carry a Kindle & an iPad/laptop.

    I carry an iPad mini and I simply download books from my library onto it. Free if you have a library card. I would imagine all libraries offer this service now.

    I think I’m going to buy a collapsible water bottle too, just wish all airports had water filling stations (it’s awkward filling a water bottle from a fountain and impossible from a bathroom sink).

  4. Ashwin Sinha says:

    December 16th, 2017 at 3:56 am (#)

    Oh Wow! Thanks for the great tips! My sister is travelling next week and I’ll suggest her this post.

  5. Vivienne says:

    January 16th, 2018 at 8:05 am (#)

    Just a quick note for those of us who always try to get a seat at the bulkhead, you have to put your bag in the overhead bin during take off and landing. Also I had one of those collapsible water bottles that steadily leaked from a tiny hole in a seam at the airport and I had to toss it. Heck of a mess on my stuff since it was hanging on the outside of my tote bag. I take a small refillable plastic bottle now. Great list though don’t forget chargers and your phone!

  6. Vivienne says:

    January 16th, 2018 at 8:07 am (#)

    Sorry just saw you already mentioned chargers and phone……those were the first things in my bag including my passport and travel documents :)

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