Here's my quick guide to figuring out what goes in your check bag(s) and which things should stay in your carry-on.
I love packing. It's like a puzzle to me, trying to figure out which things to take and how to make it all fit ... especially if you're bringing multiple bags for a short (or long) trip.
Here are the details on which things should stay in your checked bag(s) and which things you should bring on the plane with you.
We're doing a deep dive into packing — if you want to quickly jump to what applies to you, you can dive right in by clicking on the category (or just keep reading to soak in all the info):
- What Goes In Your Carry-On
- What Goes In Your Checked Bag(s)
A Bit About The Personal Item
- Expert Packing Tips (AKA, What To Read Next)
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What Goes In Your Carry-On
What Is A Carry-On Bag?
Your carry-on is a smaller bag that can either fit under your seat or in the above-the-seat compartments. It may be a duffel bag, smaller roller, larger backpack, etc. Your airline will have dimensions for what constitutes as a carry-on bag, so check for those when choosing your bag.
To me, my carry-on can be two things
1. If it's the only bag I'm packing, it holds all of my things.
2. If I'm also packing a check bag, my carry-on houses all the things I don't want to get lost and want to have the minute I get off the plane.
You will have access to your carry-on while on board, so consider that when packing.
So What Goes Inside?
Here's what I like having in my carry-on:
- My Clothes + Shoes : If I'm just packing in a carry-on, all of my clothes for the trip are stashed in here. If I have a checked bag with most of my clothes, I pack a spare outfit here in case my luggage gets lost.
Essential Right-Off-The-Plane Things : Like a coat if you're flying somewhere very cold (don't have that in your checked bag in case it gets lost!).
Toiletries : Here are my go-to travel-sized versions (TSA compliant).
Valuables : Things like a laptop, camera + gear, or a journal.
Fragile Items : Sunglasses, souvenirs, etc.
For shorter trips, I'm typically just fine with a carry-on (and a smaller personal item, like a little purse). For a big trip, I tend to pack a carry-on and a larger personal item (like a small backpack) for the bags that come on the plane with me, then a big checked bag.
Here's a guide to fitting everything in a carry-on bag.
What Goes In Your Checked Bag(s)
What Is A Checked Bag?
A checked bag is stored in the cargo area of the aircraft, so it's not accessible when you're on board. There aren't liquid restrictions, plus the size dimensions and weight allowances are more generous because they don't have to fit under a seat or in an overhead bin.
These bags get tossed around so don't pack anything fragile or valuable. Since they won't be in your sight, I always use a luggage lock (TSA approved — like this one) and avoid putting things in outside zippers that don't lock up.
So, What Goes Inside?
- Your Clothes + Shoes : Take out your spare outfit for your carry-on, and fit the rest in here. Here's what I pack on a longer trip in my checked bag.
Large Toiletries : There aren't liquid restrictions for checked bags.
Trip Extras : Extra snacks, things to do once I get there (like a book), etc.
- Heavy, bulky items : there are more generous weight limits for check luggage. I pack my heavier items here (like boots, heavy layers, snorkeling gear, etc.)
Pst: Are you an ILP volunteer? You'll need to pack teaching supplies here.
A Bit About The Personal Item
What Is A Personal Item?
Your personal item goes with you onto the plane. When I'm traveling with a carry-on, I typically have a small backpack or purse that will need to fit under my seat (so my carry-on can go in the overhead bins).
You will need to check what your airline says about personal items. Some airlines (like budget airlines in Europe) are very strict about weight and size requirements.
Sometimes I pack my favorite Fjallraven backpack, but sometimes it's just a small purse. However, I always have the essentials inside. Because you can keep your personal item under the seat in front of you, I pack it full of easy-access things you'll want during your flight. You will have access to your carry-on bag, too, but it's way more difficult to climb out of your seat and row and access the overhead bins, which is why I like having a personal item stocked with what I may need.
Here's What Goes Inside
- Passport and other documents (like your boarding pass)
- Wallet + ID
My phone + headphones + phone charger
- Snacks: Here are my go to travel snacks
- Things To Do : A book, magazine, my journal, etc.
A Pen : For filling out immigration paperwork on the plane
Toiletries : In case I want to brush my teeth mid-flight or take out my contacts.
Expert Packing Tips
Check This Before Any Flight
Most airlines allow 1 or 2 checked bags, one carry on item and a personal item, before they start charging ridiculous fees, but make sure you check with your airline, don't just assume. Also, that may be the case for long international flights between North America and other countries, but not between countries in Europe or Asia.
Make sure you check and double check the baggage requirements and restrictions with the airline you are flying — that blog post is really really really handy. It'll help you figure out which bags are free and which ones have a fee, which may determine if you even bring a checked bag in the first place
How Much Should I Be Packing? What Should I Pack?
If you're looking for how to pack, here's a handy list of things to consider:
- How to make a packing list
- How much of each clothing item should I pack?
Is a roller bag better than a duffel bag? Your guide to choosing luggage.
- Can I take this through airport security?
- How do I pack my polaroid camera?
Avoiding baggage fees
- Packing for a 10-day trip in a backpack
- ... Or just read through our "All About Packing" guide (it answers all the questions)
Ready to travel abroad?
International Language Programs (ILP) send volunteers to countries all over the world. You'll be able to make a difference teaching English abroad or by volunteering in the orphanage program in Europe .... but will also have weekends off and vacation days to explore other countries! You're set up with a group of American volunteers your age to travel, teach, and explore with. I loved my first semester so much, I went back a second time (and would love to go again).