Pack Your Bags: Sarah’s Carry-On

Who doesn’t love to be prepared? Last week we talked about our essential gear for van camping and backpacking trips. Today we’re back with a double feature (did you catch Katie’s carry-on essentials this morning?) focused on our respective carry-on strategies.

I would say I’m a bit of a traveler.  I’ve been to over 15 countries and with all those flights I’ve learned a thing or two about packing a carry on bag.  Just like Katie, I don’t want to be weighed down by my luggage, but I do want to make sure it has everything I need to:

  1. Keep me warm and cozy while traveling
  2. Entertain me in the airport and during the flight
  3. Keep me fresh, healthy, hydrated and happy
  4. Keep my equipment safe and sound

Depending on where I’m headed and how long I’m staying, I’ll either pack a small rolling suitcase or my osprey pack.  I always pack my camera equipment in my carry on, which can become quite heavy after awhile.  If I’m traveling to a convenient and stable environment (house, hotel, or somewhere where I’ll be renting a car) then I’ll gladly pack a rolling suitcase.  If I’m going on an adventure where I anticipate moving around a lot, taking all types of transportation and general craziness (ie: big cities, boats, buses and unknown environments) then I’ll take my pack.  It’s a little more work, but it makes things a whole lot easier when all my gear is on my back while I’m strolling down crowded sidewalks, boarding busy trains or wading through waters to catch a ferry.  That being said, I like to analyze everything that goes into my bag to avoid toting around any extra weight.  While traveling, it’s not uncommon to haul your bags around from hostel, to ferry, to bus, to train.  Usually I stack my stuff under my seat and fall asleep.

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Like Katie, I try to be efficient and organized in my packing. I also think about my travel timeline and when I’ll need each item that way I’m not reaching to the bottom of my bag for my boarding pass or constantly navigating around clothes that I won’t need until landing.  I also like to pack bags within bags so that I can pull those out instead of individual items.  I don’t want my undies on the airport floor, do you?  Speaking of undies, I like to be uber prepared in case of lost luggage or an unexpected overnight stay at the airport.  My bag was lost for four days during my first international experience! I went to (rural) Jamaica to study abroad and ended up sunburned and SO sick of my sweat-pant capris by day four.  Now I have a better understanding of carry on essentials so take notes!


Under-the-seat Carry On Bag:

  • passport
  • wallet (small bills for tipping, ID, credit cards, business cards)
  • phone
  • sunglasses
  • tablet
  • camera
  • iPod & headphones
  • gameboy
  • book
  • pen and paper
  • headlamp
  • comfy socks
  • hoodie or rain jacket (depending on bag space and climate)
  • empty water bottle
  • mini blanket and pillow* (I love my pillow, but sometimes it stays home)
  • sarong
  • scarf
  • gum
  • candy bar
  • trail mix
  • dried fruits
  • energy bar with protein like luna bars or cliff bars
  • tea
  • powdered greens


Liquids Bag:

  • chapstick
  • toothbrush & paste
  • mouthwash
  • shampoo & conditioner
  • sunscreen
  • deodorant
  • washcloth
  • baby wipes
  • argon oil (lotion)
  • brush, hair ties and headband
  • Tylenol & any medications


Over-head-compartment Carry On Bag:

  • computer & charger
  • phone charger
  • camera batteries, lenses, cards, & charger
  • hard drive
  • plug adapter (universal, usb-wall, 3 prong computer-2 prong)
  • address book
  • valuables (jewelry and sentimental items)
  • undies
  • briefs (pajamas)
  • tank top
  • t-shirt
  • long dress or skirt
  • bathing suit (or other site-specific necessity)
  • flip flops or alternate footwear

Like I said, I think about when or how frequently I’ll need each item.  Items like my blanket, book and tea bags are packed in the bag that I’ll eventually store under my seat.  Items that need to be pulled out while going through security like my laptop and liquids are stored in outside pockets for easy accessibility.  I like to zip right through security so I can get to the terminal and wait, wait, wait.  I like to wear comfy slip-off shoes like moccasins for that reason also.  I don’t know about you, but I love slipping off my shoes any chance I get (not including security!), but I like to be able to slip them right back on at a moments notice too.  Items that are not used as frequently or at all, like my house keys, are tucked safely into a secret pocket in my pack.  That way I don’t have to worry about misplacing them and I always know where they are.  Fragile items like camera lenses and hard drives are nestled safely into my big bag where I don’t have to ever pull them out or shimmy them under my seat.


As you can see, a lot of my carry on items will either keep me comfortable or occupied.  I’m the kind of person that is never bored.  I just don’t allow it.  I’m always doing something, even if that something is sitting and waiting in a cold airport terminal.  For that reason, I like to take along a sarong or blanket (sometimes even a pillow!) and plenty of stimulation.  I always make sure to download a good kindle book and podcast before I embark on any journey.  I like to take a paperback book and a headlamp as well.  Sometimes you’re sitting on the tarmac for over an hour, since you can’t use electronics during take-off, this is the perfect time for a paperback.  I also pack cozy socks and a nice scarf for added comfort.  I find temperature and boredom effect my mood most while traveling, which is why I make sure to cover those bases each and every trip.

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Once I’m cozy and content on the plane, I happily anticipate my arrival.  Nothing feels nicer than hopping off a 747 feeling fresh and energized.  For me, that has a lot to do with what I’m eating and drinking during the flight.  I always pack dried fruit, nuts, an energy bar and a sweet treat.  I also take along an empty water bottle and fill it up after going through security.  Recently, I’ve been taking my own tea bags instead of choosing from the sad selection served on board.  Kate swears by Emergen-C, but for some reason, I don’t dig the taste.  I’m weird, right?  I plan on packing powdered greens on my next trip to make up for it!  If I’m on a longer flight where a full meal is being served, I’ll go online and select what type of meal I want to be served.  I like to select the raw meal option.  That way I know I’ll get to eat some fresh fruits and veggies during the flight instead of some tasteless warm sauce that will weigh me down.  I also pack gum to chew on the way up and the way down because my ears always hurt like crazy and chewing like a mad-woman somehow helps them feel a little better.  That explains how I feel energized, but what about fresh?

I always feel a little sticky and stale after sitting in the same seat and breathing recycled air for five (or seventeen) hours.  To combat that, I like to pack a toothbrush and tiny tube of toothpaste, deodorant and baby wipes.  Wiping your arms and legs down with a baby wipe can do wonders.  It’s more of a mental thing, but it makes me feel comfortable in my own skin again.  I also like to pack a little washcloth.  I actually use it as a towel though.  This allows me to wash my face in the plane bathroom and wipe my mouth after brushing my teeth.  Planes are also ridiculously dry.  I always pack argon oil (that is what I use for body and face lotion) so that I can apply a few drops here and there when I’m feeling dry.  Those items are essential to me.  I love feeling fresh and clean after the flight so that I can focus on my next move instead of fantasizing about my next shower.  I also pack travel mouthwash, shampoo, conditioner and a brush in case my luggage doesn’t show up when I do.  It’s so much easier to be prepared instead of having to run out to buy those small and simple necessities.


Some necessities aren’t so simple to replace, like clothing.  When I landed in rural Jamaica with nothing but my carry on, I was screwed.  Really.  I had nothing but a bunch of camera equipment, books and the white t-shirt and sweat pants capris I was wearing.  I ended up getting sun burnt (try finding sunscreen in Jamaica) missing out on a couple days of swimming and sweating my bum off in sweat pant capris.  My white T was so gross after four days that I threw it out immediately upon retrieving my lost luggage.  I was young, resilient and I didn’t know any better since it was my first international flight, but I wouldn’t be caught in that situation these days.  I always pack one clean outfit (usually a long dress or skirt), one pair of pajamas (briefs and a tank top) and a pair of flip flops or moccasins. I also take any key items that would be hard to replace or would dampen my spirits if I went without them for a few days.  For instance, if I’m traveling to Belize, I’ll pack a bathing suit, Costa Rica, a rain jacket, and Nepal, hiking boots.


Last, but definitely not least, I pack my equipment, valuables and sentimental items.  I try not to take anything too valuable, if it’s not essential, but I certainly always have my DSLR, lenses, hard drive and laptop.  I wouldn’t dare put these items or anything too fragile into my checked luggage.  Airport baggage workers come into contact with thousands of bags a day.  They’re constantly hurling them on and off conveyor belts with time and accuracy in mind, not your camera and computer.  Keep this in mind, especially if you have soft luggage.  That being said, tip your curbside luggage handler.  Those men and women are not paid enough and they’re doing you a service!  If I have a bag that I think is slightly over weight, I’ll check it at the curb and tip generously, usually they’ll let the few extra pounds slid through without a fee.  Be sure to pack jewelry and sentimental items in your carry on as well.  It’s best not to tempt customs workers (I’ve heard horror stories and have had a tiny jewelry bag stolen as well) and you never know when a bag may be lost. For, like, ever. Lost. Lost. It does happens occasionally.

One final trick for your travel sleeve: Are you a nervous nelly?  If you need a little something to calm the nerves, pack a few mini liquor bottles.  They meet the carry-on liquid requirements and they are great to add to the in-flight orange juice, coffee or V8.  Say goodbye to turbulence jitters!

I hope this carry on guide helps you prepare for any upcoming travels!

*Photos without a watermark are taken by Saleem Ahmed, Sarah’s favorite traveling buddy!
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