Ever since I was old enough to pack my own luggage, I’ve been plagued with “Female Over-Packing Syndrome,” like a majority of women on this planet. I tend to pack that blouse I never wear just in case it’s my lucky day and I strike gold on my 0.0005% chance of meeting the President or Harry Styles. Then I need all of my hair products. And five extra pairs of headphones. And two extra pairs of shoes in case I’m feeling brave. And my good bra because, ya know.
Usually what doesn’t fit into my single checked back is then stuffed into the bottom of my carry on and remains safely there, untouched, for my entire trip. Because that’s just how it goes. Now that – at the tender age of 22 – I’ve finally semi-mastered appropriate packing skills, I can safely say I’ve also nailed the recipe for a perfect carry on backpack for an international flight.
NOTE: I do NOT use small, wheeled luggage bags as a carry on. I only use my backpack, mainly because it’s smaller and I now know how to pack less. Also, then I don’t have to worry about rolling my bag through different terrains or up and down stairs. It’s easier to handle in large crowds and mass transit, and I can always spend a day with it on my back if I’m walking around and don’t have a place to store my luggage (like if I have a significant layover in a city and I want to explore a bit). It’s also nice in that it can either fit underneath the seat in front of me or in the overhead bin on my flight without taking up too much room.
So, yeah, I’m pro backpack. I don’t use a fancy or expensive camping bag because I’m not taking a lengthy backpacking trip across Europe. I’m usually using my bag for trips that are no longer than a week. My grey and tan Little America Synthetic Leather Herschel Backpack has served me well. It’s durable, big enough to fit everything I need, appealing to the eye, and it has a padded fleece laptop sleeve on the inside so my laptop/iPad is always safe. I used it on my college campus in Missouri and it joined me in adventuring to eight different European countries last year. The straps are padded and mesh so it never sits uncomfortably on my shoulders, and there are magnetic buttons, straps, and a drawstring on the outside to give it more protection against theft (personal opinion, but I do prefer it over a zipper).
When you’re dealing with an international flight schedule, that usually includes jumping a few times zones and traveling for long hours. Sometimes it means multiple layovers, plane changes, freshening up in an airport bathroom, and indulging in Cinnabon at inappropriate hours (we’ve all been there). More importantly, it means that your checked luggage will probably be opened and searched by customs, and it may or may not make it to your destination at the same time as you. Expect the best, but prepare for the worst. Here’s what I put in my carry on bag when I travel between North America and Europe.
Expensive Electronics. I pack my laptop, iPad, GoPro, and my phone in my carry on. Even though I won’t pull out my laptop or my GoPro, I don’t want them tossed around in my checked bag, nor do I want to risk someone taking it when the bag is opened and searched. It also lightens up my checked bag without adding too much weight to my already-light carry on. As I said, my specific backpack has a padded, snug pocket for my laptop so I don’t have to worry about it flopping around.
Toiletries. It can happen to even the most luxurious of travelers. Putting on deodorant in the bathroom stall or trying not to feel too uncomfortable when people find entertainment in watching you attempt to hygienically brush your teeth in public. I pack my toiletries in a small zipped bag with nothing that is too bulky or greater than three ounces: toothbrush, toothpaste, hair comb (not a full brush), small box of q-tips, deodorant, floss, hairspray (I’m a southern girl, judge me), face cleansing wipes, make up, fabric mist, hair ties, etc. I hit up Target or Walgreens before I leave to buy travel sized bottles of all liquids as well as travel brushes. None of the toiletries packed in my travel bag are the same items I use at my house. I actually just keep them in the small zip bag so I can grab it for my next adventure without having to repack all of my toiletries.
Bag of Liquids. As you know, you will be asked to contain all of your liquids in a quart-sized plastic bag when going through airport security. Prepare it in advance to avoid scrambling through your bag at the airport and being that girl holding up the line while impatient travelers behind you give you some serious side eye. You can do it in the car, at the airport, or as soon as you begin packing, but it’s wiser to do it before you reach security. The good news is once you’re done going through security, you can either keep the liquids in the plastic bag, or you can put them in your toiletries zip bag.
Zip Bag of Chargers, Adapters, and Headphones. I always pack a bag of chargers (laptop, tablet, phone, camera, etc) , two pairs of earbuds, and my adapters just in case I’m caught in a delay or I have a long layover. Most superstores now have travel chargers you can buy that don’t require you to plug your phone into an outlet, so I also pack a fully-charged travel battery for my phone as well as the charger for that. And, if necessary, pack batteries.
Clothing. While I don’t anticipate delayed or cancelled flights, nor for my luggage to be lost or delayed, I want to be prepared in the case of one of these unfortunate scenarios. I always pack an extra pair of leggings or jeans, one blouse, and two pairs of underwear. Sometimes, I get real serious about being over-prepared and pack a pair of socks. My usual travel outfit is a loose blouse, black leggings, and ankle booties, so I’m always trying to make sure I pack something similar. I roll the clothes and underwear and place them at the bottom of my bag, out of the way, so I have easy access to things that I am more likely to use.
Passport and Boarding Passes. I mean, obvi. You can’t really get on the plane without them. But if possible, check in to your flight at home before you get to the airport so you can print your boarding passes and make copies. Alternatively, you can check in online and use electronic boarding passes on your phone or tablet. Make sure you’re also traveling with copies of your documents. I always put my passport in a passport cover, which you can buy cheaply at Target or another similar store. Keep them in a safe, secure place in your bag so they don’t fall out or risk the possibility of being stolen.
Wallet. Again, obvi. Try to arrive to your destination country with some cash in their currency (most national banks provide this service). If you’re traveling to the UK, arrive with some British pounds so you don’t have to exchange currency at the airport, as it’s generally more expensive. Make sure all of your credit cards, identification cards, and other things like this are secure so they can’t slip out. I try to keep my wallet near the bottom of my bag since I pack snacks and an empty water bottle to avoid purchasing any overpriced items at airports.
Important Documents (and Copies). I can’t emphasize this enough. If it’s important to you, keep it with you. I have to travel with my authentic university diploma and other government documents that I must provide to the Italian police when I arrive, so there is no way I’m putting those in a checked bag with a greater risk of them being delayed or lost. I make copies of EVERYTHING: My passport, visa, government documents, identification cards, travel itineraries, social security and health insurance card, credit cards, boarding passes, emergency contact info, etc. I keep the original documents and the copies in separate folders and label everything.
Other: Sunglasses. Keys. Medication. Gum. Snacks (Something filling and quick, like a Clif protein bar or fruit). Earplugs. Eye Mask. Books or Magazines. Homework. Feminine Products. Notebook and Pen. Empty Water Bottle. While I don’t take all of these items, I do take many. I keep them in a separate zip bag because I never have any “floaters” in my carry on. Everything is secured and organized to ensure I am maximizing my space.
Anything Valuable to You. I don’t have very much jewelry. All of my earrings fit into a small, tin tea box and I only have a few cheap necklaces and bracelets that aren’t worth much at all. However, I pack my tin tea box of earrings in a zip lock bag with my Pandora charm bracelet, which is then wrapped in a brown paper sack and taped shut. Because I knew I would be attending some nicer events when I moved to Italy, I wanted to bring a pair of diamond earrings that were passed down in my family. Again, I didn’t want to risk checking these, so they went with me in my carry on. I put the pack in the very bottom of my bag, wedged in between my two pairs of undies. Safe and sound.
And that’s how it’s done. It seems like common sense, but hopefully this will give you something to reference when it’s time for your flight. Do you have any comments or suggestions to add? I’d love to hear, so please comment below.
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