How To Pack The Perfect Carry-On Luggage

Many travel adventures begin with a flight. It might be overseas and half way across the world, or it might just be a short domestic trip in your own country.

Whether your flight is an hour or a 24 hours journey, there’s no doubt you’ll be taking some carry on luggage. After taking so many flights, we like to think we’ve perfected the art of packing our carry on luggage for any trip.

Here’s our complete guide to making the most out of your carry on luggage limit, and everything you need to pack to make your flight  and time spent in transit more comfortable.

carry on luggage

luggage graphic

Cabin Luggage Facts

All airlines have their own rules and guidelines around carry on luggage, with some being more generous or strict than others. It’s always a good idea to check with the airline you’re travelling with if you’re worried about your carry-on luggage limits.

As a general rule though, here are the guidelines that will be accepted by most airlines.

Weight limit: Carry-on luggage is generally limited to 7kg per person on most airlines.

Size: The standard size for cabin luggage is 56cm x 36cm x 23cm. It might seem obvious, but your luggage needs to be able to fit either under the seat in front of you or in the overhead compartment.

Restrictions: Most airlines will allow you to take one carry-on bag, plus a small personal bag, such as a handbag or laptop bag. Generally the total weight of both bags must not exceed the airlines carry-on weight limit.

Additionally, you must not have packed any dangerous goods into your carry-on luggage. If they are permitted to fly, they must be packing into your checked luggage. This includes aerosols, cigarette lighters, disabling devices (such as pepper spray or mace) and even party poppers.

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A Comfortable Bag

Let’s start with a comfortable bag! This is probably one of the last things people think about, but might just be the most important one.

There’s a lot of moving to be done from the minute you get to the airport until you get to your accommodation on the other end. And depending on how big the airports are that you’re visiting, this could include quite a bit of walking.

Most carry-on bags are pretty heavy once they’re all loaded up, at least around that 7 kg mark. Make sure you choose something that’s light and comfortable, and not going to make you feel like you’re breaking your shoulder.

  • Carry-on suitcases are perfect if you don’t need to access anything in your bag from the time you leave your house until you get to your destination.
  • Backpacks are also a great option, as the weight is evenly distributed between both shoulders and can take some of the pressure off. They’re also big enough to get in quite a lot of necessities.
  • If you’re going to choose a shoulder bag or tote, make sure you choose something with wider, cushiony handles, as these types of bags can feel super heavy quite quickly.

carry on handbag packing essentials

The basics for your carry on luggage

For all flights, no matter how long or short, we absolutely always pack these basics:

  • Passports for international flights (don’t want to forget those!) or a drivers licence for domestic flights, and our wallets.
  • An iPad each – excellent for flights on low-cost carriers that don’t include entertainment. We upload a few different movies, TV shows, books and magazines onto each of our iPads so that we can swap during the flight if we want.
  • Headphones – generally a pair of in-ear and noise cancelling headphones each. Why do we take both? In-ear can get sore and irritating on long haul flights, but they’re perfect if you want some background music when you’re trying to sleep, and noise cancelling headphones are just a game changer. Our favourites are the Sony Noise Cancelling Headphones, such a great price and so comfy!
  • Portable chargers and USB iPhone chargers.
  • Face wipes and moisturizer for a quick freshen up during or after a long haul or overnight flight.
  • Some cash for your destination – especially important if you don’t have anything organized for your arrival and need to catch a taxi or public transport.
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A Copy Of Your Itinerary & Travel Documents

This has come in handy more times than I can count. We always pack a printed copy of our flight itineraries, visa approvals (if required) and hotel or transfer bookings at our destination into our carry-on. This way, if there are any issues along the way, you have everything right there on you and you don’t need to worry about connecting to wifi or searching through your emails for confirmations.

We have had situations where airports won’t let us get to the check-in desks without sighting an itinerary, were denying that we had e-visas to board a flight to a different country, and even times when the taxi or transfer bus didn’t know the hotel we were staying at and we needed to supply an address. By having these documents right there to show people has saved us so many issues.

australian passports and travel wallet

A Cute Passport Case

Keep your travel documents safe with a good passport case. We love THIS ONE from The Daily Edited. Not only can you customise it with your own initials, image or handwriting, but it’s the perfect size to fit two passports and hold them comfortably.

A Neck Pillow

Highly underrated, but a game changer for long flights. Neck pillows can really make the difference between a comfy sleep and just not being able to find the right position for 12 hours.

Grab one with a clip that you can secure around a bag strap, so you don’t have to carry it around the airport with you.

Something To Read

Bring along something to entertain your mind and to read for some of your flight. You can only watch movies and TV shows for so long without getting a little bit bored. I like to download articles and blog posts that I haven’t caught up on yet to read on planes when there’s no wifi.

On an iPhone, you can actually save articles or web pages as a PDF to your iBooks, so you have no problem opening them up when you’re disconnected. I’ll also pack a book and a magazine just to take a break from screens sometimes.

I can highly recommend the book First We Make The Beast Beautiful: A New Story About Anxiety by Sarah Wilson.

flight into rarotonga


Essential on long-haul flights, low-cost carrier airlines, and especially if you have any food intolerances or food issues. It’s a good idea to take a few snacks with you on the plane too get you through the flight. Protein bars or nuts are really good options, as they’re light, easy and ready to go.

Make sure you check the rules for your destination, in regards to bringing food into the country or state. For example, fruit and vegetables often can’t be taken internationally or even between states, so you might be asked to throw them out before you even get on the plane.

A Change of Clothes

Definitely something we do more often when we’re travelling internationally and on long haul journeys with stopovers in the middle. It’s almost a safety net just in a worst case scenario when luggage might get lost or delayed, or it can allow you a freshen up option mid flight if you’re starting to feel sticky and uncomfortable.

Generally, just an extra pair of undies, t-shirt and light jumper for cooler destinations can come in super handy. Sometimes when completely changing seasons or climates, we’ll pack a complete change of outfit to suit the destination at the other end. Very useful when flying back into Melbourne in winter.

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Any Medication You Might Need

We always carry a little first aid pouch with us when we’re travelling overseas, just so that if we get sick or anything goes wrong, we’re covered. Generally we try to take with us:

  • Neurofen or some kind of pain killers
  • Anti-histamines for those super itchy mosquito bites
  • Anti-bloating tablets, because I have a super sensitive stomach at the best of times
  • Tablets for constipation and diarrhoea (could go either way when travelling)
  • Bite cream and after sun lotion
  • A few band-aids and extras just in case

There’s no airline policies about medication as far as I know, but we like to keep our first-aid pouch on us just in case anyone through immigration wants to know what they are. Generally I have them in a small cosmetics pouch out of the boxes (to save room), so I don’t want anyone in security ripping through my bags to see what they are – I’d rather have them on us if they want to search through them. We’ve never had an issue with them though.

Anything Special or Sentimental

This is more of a personal choice, and might have a lot to do with my anxiety, but if something is super important, sentimental or irreplaceable I always pack it into our carry-on luggage. This way there’s absolutely no risk of anything being damaged or lost in transit.

camera bag essentials

Cameras & Tech Equipment

We have a special situation for our cameras and tech equipment. Generally, everything can fit into one backpack for a standard trip, but for longer trips we might need a carry-on suitcase to make sure we can fit everything we need in our carry on.

It’s never a good idea to put such expensive and delicate equipment in your checked luggage. I mean, have you seen the way those luggage handlers throw suitcases around when they come off the plane?!

Thom’s carry-on luggage will always include our drone, laptop, 1-2 cameras and all extra batteries, lenses, cords, chargers and accessories, etc. It’s a pretty heavy bag by the time it’s all loaded up!

There are also now laws on flights that state that all batteries, including lithium batteries, portable chargers and extra camera batteries need to be in your carry-on luggage on a flight, so if you attempt to check them in you’ll probably be asked to get them out at the airport anyway.

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The Benefit of Checked Luggage

It’s becoming more and more common to see travellers trying to take longer trips with only their hand luggage. While it’s always fun to avoid the wait for your bag when you get to your destination, there are a few benefits to checking in your luggage, which often outweigh the cons for us.

  1. You can bring all your liquid products and any aerosols with you, like proper shampoo and conditioner, sunscreen, face wash, hairspray, etc. It’s such a little thing, but if you’re travelling for a few weeks it can take away a lot of hassle to have your products from home that you’re used to.
  2. You don’t have to lug heavy cases around the airport, life them over your head to put them in the luggage compartments, or worry that the flight attendant might pull you over for a weight check.
  3. You don’t have to leave important items at home to cram everything into that 7kg weight limit, you can pack all the clothes and accessories you might want!

Shop Our Carry-On Essentials

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So there you have it! It might seem a little excessive or like a lot of different things, but this works so well for us every time we travel. We always have what we need right there on the flight with us, and we have enough entertainment to keep us amused for hours on the flight.

What are your packing secrets? Is there anything you wouldn’t get on a flight without?

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Happy travels,

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Emma is a travel writer, photographer and blogger, chasing the sun around Australia. Travelling in her recently renovated vintage Viscount caravan, along with her husband Thom and daughter Macey, she's sharing the very best experiences from around her beloved sunburnt country.

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