Skip to Content

25+ Carry-On Essentials: Must-Haves for the Plane

As professional travel writers and bloggers, we fly a lot.

We’ve flown everywhere from Croatia and Mallorca to Thailand, Sri Lanka and Zanzibar.

Over the years, we’ve learned to pack certain carry-on essentials for both long and short flights – especially when flying in economy class.

Because, let’s face it…

Unless you’re in first or business class, flying really isn’t a lot of fun when you’re on a 15-hour red-eye flight to Dubai or wherever!

Economy seats aren’t the most comfortable. Dry air? Oh yes! Food? Sometimes you’re best bringing your own.

And you may have to put up with the screams of an unhappy toddler. (Sound familiar?)

Carry-on essentials for the plane include a travel neck pillow.
Someone’s lucky to be sleeping on their flight!

Carry-on essentials to pack for the plane

Bringing the following items onboard with you won’t turn your economy flight into a business or first class flight.

But they are carry-on must-haves for long flights (and many will come in useful for shorter flights too).

We find they at least help make our flights more bearable.

Passenger seated on a long-haul flight
At the beginning of our overnight Vancouver-to-Istanbul flight (almost 12 hours)

Pssst! You can easily buy our carry-on packing list recommendations on Amazon.

Oh, and a heads-up. As an Amazon associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. See our Editorial and Disclosure Policy.

Long flight carry-on essentials for sleeping

A woman sleeps in an airplane with her head on the seatback in front.
With the right carry-on travel essentials, you won’t have to sleep like this

1) Travel neck pillow

The first thing we learned when grappling with how to survive a long-haul flight was to take a neck pillow.

For most international flights, you’ll find a pillow already on the seat when you board. This helps with back support.

But you also need something with neck support to prevent to prevent cricks when your head slides sideways (and to prevent your head from flopping forward) – if you happen to doze off.

There are all sorts of designs for airplane neck pillows. (Some look like thick snakes you wrap around your neck. There’s even a unique inflatable travel pillow so you can sleep with your head on the tray in front of you!)

A lot of travelers like the Trtl travel pillow. It has a unique patented design to keep your head upright while napping. (It has a brace to support your neck so it can rest on one side.)

While it’s light and compact, we prefer something more squishable that we can adjust and move around, as we try to find a comfortable sleeping position.

So our pick for the best travel pillow is pretty conventional – the MLVOC travel pillow.

This 100% memory foam pillow provides all-round soft comfort and comes with a drawstring at the ends, so you can adjust the tightness around your neck.

Plus, the M-shape cradles your head sweetly upright (it doesn’t push it forward), and the sweat-resistant pillow case is machine washable.

And don’t worry that it’s bulky to carry. Just stuff it into the small travel bag it comes with, and it compresses down to half its size (a little bigger than a baseball).

We’re not the only ones who like this travel pillow – it’s received 5-star reviews from more than 20,000 happy Amazon buyers.

If you’d prefer an inflatable pillow, this neck pillow is an excellent option.

2) Sleep mask

You need a sleep mask to get some rest on the plane.
You need a sleep mask to get some rest on the plane (and preferably a softer, better fitting mask than this one)

A sleeping mask is also tops on our list of carry-on essentials for long flights. (It’s also great for blocking out early morning light in hotel rooms.)

I (Janice) love the Mavogel cotton sleep eye mask – it’s so soft!

It has a nose piece that bends to minimize light coming in from around the nose. And it doesn’t squish your eyes like some cheaper sleeping masks.

The problem is this brand is so popular that Amazon sometimes doesn’t have them in stock.

Another mask I have (and also love!) is the Alaska Bear sleep mask.

The Alaska Bear sleep mask is a must-have carry-on essential for long flights.
The Alaska Bear sleep mask

Covered with 100% natural mulberry silk on both sides, this light foam eye mask is designed to curve slightly over the eyes to give your eyelashes space.

It also doesn’t drape over the nose – and if you have sensitive skin, this is a big deal. The Alaska Bear mask doesn’t irritate my rosacea, like some other masks, where the nose section is cut lower down over the nose.

Then there’s the MZOO sleep eye mask, which George uses and likes.

It’s contoured, creating a cup around each eye, so it doesn’t put pressure on your eyes.

(Ladies take note! Your mascara shouldn’t rub off with this mask on.)

The MZOO sleep mask

3) Ear plugs

We find it almost impossible to get a few zzz’s on an overnight flight without ear plugs. 

The slightly scratchy exterior of foam ear plugs can irritate the lining of your ear canal (happened to me).

These superior quality Ohropax ear plugs are made from cotton wool and wax.

They’re super comfy – and they won’t irritate sensitive ears. And we find them better at blocking out noise than the foam ones too. They’re definitely one of our airplane essentials for long flights!

Ohropax, by the way, is a German company that has been making ear plugs since 1907.

And, yes, these ear plugs cost a little bit more than the standard foam ones, but they’re designed to be re-used (foam plugs should be thrown away after one or two uses).

What to know about ear plugs

Not all ear plugs are created equal.

After some research and checking with our pharmacist, we discovered that the Ohropax brand (made from cotton wool, petroleum jelly and paraffin waxes) is the softest and best.

See our review of the best earplugs for sleeping (Ohropax).

Oh, it feels good to arrive! Here we are on the Croatian island of Korcula (stopping for a photo opp during a bicycle ride)

Health essentials to take on the plane

4) Disinfecting wipes

Ugh. Catching a cold or other bug on the plane is unfortunately one of the downsides of traveling. (And these days, there are even more viruses lurking around, eager to infect us.)

Frequent hand washing with soap and water is one of the best things to do to help prevent getting sick.

And try not to touch your mouth or nose or rub your eyes (at least, not until you’ve washed your hands) – it’s easy for germs to get into your body when you touch your eyes, nose or mouth.

For those times when you can’t conveniently lather up, Wet Ones antibacterial wipes help kill many of those germs on your hands (up to 99.99% of harmful bacteria).

Wet wipes are also really useful for cleaning surfaces that you’ll touch on the plane.

As soon as we sit down in the plane, we make it a habit to use them to clean the tray table, armrests, seatbelt buckle, TV screen and other germ-infested airplane surfaces. (Along with the toilets, airplane tray tables are one of the germiest places on the plane.)

And, personally, we like the wipes that are made of plant-based fibers.

Yep! Disinfecting wipes are one of the most important things to bring on the plane when traveling today.

5) Hand sanitizer

While you’re at it, you’ll want travel-size hand sanitizer too. It’s another one of the best things to bring on a long flight to keep germs at bay in the plane’s tight crowded space.

It will also come in handy for germ-free adventures once you reach your final destination too.

6) Lubricant eye drops

Flying is so hard on the eyes!

The temperature- and pressure-controlled airplane cabin is a recipe for a dry environment – and it’s quite common to suffer dry eyes as a result.

Moisturizing eye drops (artificial tears) can soothe dry red eyes, however.

My optometrist recommended eye drops without preservatives, like the Systane preservative-free eye drops. They cost a little more than regular eye drops. But we think our peepers are worth it!

Now, we always carry one of these small squeeze bottles in our flight essentials kit.

7) Lip balm

Your eyes aren’t the only things to get dried out on long flights. The low humidity in airplane cabins also leads to dry chapped lips for many travelers.

The solution? Pack lip balm, a simple but vital item to include in your list of “long flight must-haves.”

Unlike some toiletries, lip balms aren’t restricted by airplane liquid carry-on rules, so you don’t have to worry about adding lip balm to your inflight essentials.

8) Travel pill box

Sure, you’ll be packing your medication in your carry-on suitcase. But you don’t want to have to reach overhead in the plane and haul out your wheelie for a few pills.

You’re much better off to have a small travel pill case in your backpack or purse by your feet, containing the pills you’ll need for the next 24 hours. (Throw in a couple of Tylenol too, in case you get a headache on the flight.)

9) Face mask

Masks are optional these days on flights. But we still carry a few KN95 masks (or similar) with us.

We pop them on when going through congested security line-ups and when boarding and exiting the plane (when everyone is crammed close together).

This WWDOLL KN95 face mask is a legit product according to NBC News and offers the protection recommended by the CDC.

10) Disposable toothbrush

You know you shouldn’t brush your teeth with water from the airplane tap, right? The plane water could be dirty.

These Colgate Wisp mini-toothbrushes are therefore ideal for airplane use, as you don’t need water to brush with them.

We love these disposable mini-toothbrushes – no water required (Credit: Colgate)

They come with a liquid-filled bead in the center of the brush head. When you brush, the bead squirts your mouth with a burst of liquid toothpaste.

These disposable toothbrushes are teeny small too – skinny and “pocket-sized.”

You can carry one discreetly in your hand when you walk to the airplane bathroom.

They’re also good for brushing your teeth on the go when traveling in general. We use them all the time to freshen our mouths.

Long-haul flight essentials for comfort

11) Noise-canceling head phones

Bose head phones are one of our favorite carry-on essentials for the plane for blocking out noise.
Bose head phones are one of our favorite carry-on essentials for the plane

A crying baby in the seat behind you? Talkative neighbor? Engine noise?

Not with these top-rated BOSE QuietComfort 45 noise-canceling headphones.

They’re wireless, come with Bluetooth connectivity and offer up to a whopping 22 hours of battery life from a single charge.

Watch your movie or listen to music in peace. These wireless headphones are perfect for travel – and everyday life too…

12) Noise-canceling earbuds

If you find the BOSE headphones too big, these Apple Airpods Pro (2nd Gen) will do the trick.

This version has an active noise canceling feature – making them a valuable carry-on essential for providing an uninterrupted music experience during flights. And they have a durable battery life.

Not to be outdone, BOSE also makes noise-canceling earbuds. The BOSE QuietComfort Earbuds II are another great option for your own personal music listening.

13) Travel shawl

For ladies, a shawl is a must-have travel essential for the plane.
For ladies, a shawl is a must-have travel essential for the plane (useful to have on your trip too)

This one’s for you, ladies.

Wear a big travel scarf or pashmina. It can double as a blanket on the plane and add an extra layer of warmth when you’re out and about on your trip.

Organic cotton is a great fabric for a travel wrap. It’s a natural fiber, it’s soft and it can be machine washed.

14) Slipper socks

If you’re flying long-haul in business or first class, you typically get a pair of socks in your amenity kit.

But if you’re flying economy, well, you don’t usually get much (though EVA Air gave us slippers on our economy flights to Asia).

The point is – for a long trip – you’ll be much more comfortable removing your shoes and putting on some warm socks. Your feet will thank you!

These soft slipper socks are stretchy (easy to put on) and also have non-skid gripping soles, giving you grippy traction when walking.

Note: You might want to take the socks off and put your shoes back on when walking down the aisle to the bathroom. Those bathroom floors sometimes aren’t the cleanest.

Compression Socks

Some people prefer to fly with compression socks to help prevent swelling in the legs, blood clots and deep vein thrombosis.

Psst! Looking for comfortable sandals?

Check out the best travel sandals for men and women we’ve sussed out – for the beach, city and adventure!

15) Portable footrest

Meet your new long-haul travel essential for your next flight – a portable airplane footrest!

It’s like a mini-hammock for your feet and it hooks to the seat in front of you. It lifts your feet up to make flying in economy class more comfy and helps the blood in your legs circulate better.

Great for shorter folks who can’t easily touch the floor, this footrest is a simple fix for a cozier ride in the sky.

Alternatively, to avoid packing something extra, rest your feet (in socks) on your backpack that you’ve stowed on the floor underneath the seat in front of you.

If that’s not high enough, plump up the backpack with your sweater or jacket. I’m 5 foot 4 inches, and I find that raising my legs even a bit by resting them on my backpack helps make sitting in a plane more comfortable.

Beauty carry-on travel essentials for women

16) Face moisturizer

Packing your favorite facial moisturizer in your carry-on is also essential for a long flight – that desert-dry airplane air just sucks the moisture out of your skin!

I really like this rich hydrating cream by Avene.

Applying it during a long day or night flight can make a noticeable difference in maintaining your skin’s hydration and appearance.

(Oh, and beauty experts say you shouldn’t wear make-up on a long flight. Just put lots of moisturizer on beforehand.)

17) Hand lotion

Who doesn’t love the smell of lavender! EO Essential Oils makes a great travel-size hand lotion with a French lavender scent.

Your seat mates will thank you every time you moisturize your hands with it.

18) Hair ties

If you have long hair, you’ll probably want to tie your hair back on the plane. You’ll be more comfortable, as your hair won’t get in your face when trying to sleep or eat.

So a thick hair tie or soft scrunchie is another one of the airplane must-haves you’ll want in your hand luggage.

Food and water essentials

19) Collapsible water bottle

You know the #1 thing to do when flying is to drink lots of water…

As we’ve mentioned, flying is very dehydrating. The humidity in most airplane cabins typically hovers around 20% and can dip as low as 10%. The ideal humidity for health and comfort is somewhere between 30% and 60%.

Drinking water on your flight helps you stay hydrated and ward off jet lag.

But what if there’s no more room in your carry-on for a hard-sided water bottle?

Enter the foldable SPECIAL MADE travel water bottle!

It’s sturdy when filled. But you can conveniently fold it up, so it takes up less space when you pack it away.

Made of flexible silicone, this reusable water bottle is BPA-free too –free of all those unsafe chemicals associated with plastic bottles.

Of course, having your own water bottle is also environmentally friendly.

20) Snacks

Dinner on the plane in business class
We wish! Sadly, meals in economy class are a lot less appealing

Take it from us. Put some decent snacks on your carry-on list, even if you’re fly internationally on a long flight.

On our recent overnight Air Canada flight to Germany, our dinner consisted of carbs, carbs, carbs and more carbs – potato salad appetizer, pasta (no meat), a cold bun and chocolate cake. (Sorry, Air Canada! But you could bump up your food quality for long-haul fliers in economy.)

Anyway, pick up some small cheese-and-cracker packages in the airport before boarding so you at least have some protein.

A couple of protein or granola bars can also come in handy.

21) Gum or breath mints

You’ll also want sugar-free gum (or breath mints) with you on the plane.

They’ll keep your breath fresh at your seat. And chewing gum or sucking on a candy or mint can help relieve ear pressure on your flight, especially during take-off and landing.

Other flight essentials

22) Passport and ticket organizer

You don’t want to be rummaging through your backpack or purse for your passport and boarding pass every time you go through security, customs and check-in.

One of the key travel essentials you therefore need is a travel document organizer (or folder) to keep your passport, airline tickets and other important travel documents together in one place. (We also like to put the booking confirmation for our first night’s hotel in here.)

If you prefer to get your hotel confirmations and boarding passes electronically, this travel passport and document organizer has a handy outside pocket for your phone.

23) A Kindle to read

Read your Kindle on the beach and on the plane.
Take your Kindle on the plane (and you’ve got it to read at the beach too)

If you’re like us, after watching a couple of movies on a plane, you’re probably “movied out.”

You may try to doze or catnap, but the reality is that on a long flight, you’re probably awake for several hours and simply trying to pass time.

A Kindle is thus another one of the important things to pack in your carry-on bag – for long and short flights. (On some domestic flights, planes don’t even have movie screens, so you can’t watch anything anyway.) Reading a good book helps time pass more quickly!

While we still like the feel of reading a “real” book, a Kindle is so much more convenient for travel.

You can carry a whole library of page-turners in one light slim gizmo. Plus the built-in adjustable light lets you read without having to turn on the overhead light and disturb your partner or seat-mate.

24) Instant stain remover

Eating on planes can be, well, messy.

Tide To Go instant stain remover fixes up most splotches – at least it makes them look a whole lot better!

25) Portable charger

Another one of our tips for long flights is to bring a portable charger.

Newer planes have plugs or USB ports for charging your phone, iPad and other gizmos.

But there’s no guarantee when it comes to what plane you’ll be on. So carrying a portable USB charger is always a good idea. (Plus you’ll have it for keeping your devices running when on your trip.)

More travel essentials for the plane

You’ll want to also pack the following items in your carry-on luggage.

These aren’t items you’ll need to get at during the flight. But they’re important enough that you should have them with you (not stowed in your checked bag).

  • A change of clothes – If your luggage gets lost, you at least have fresh clothes to wear the first day of your trip.
  • Valuables – Always pack jewelry, camera, laptop and other valuables in your hand luggage.
  • Prescription medications – If you pack your prescriptions in your checked luggage, which is then lost or delayed, it can be very hard to replace your medicines quickly. (You might have to see a doctor to get a replacement prescription and then have to find a pharmacy to fill it.)

Important documents

Your passport and ticket is essential to take on the plane!
You won’t go anywhere without your passport!

Of course, don’t forget the following important documents – critical hand luggage essentials!

  • Your passport
  • Airplane ticket(s)
  • Other tickets – Like train tickets
  • Hotel and car rental confirmations
  • Trip itinerary – We like to create and print out a summary of our itinerary, showing where we’re staying each day and any “can’t miss” times for particular days (train times, internal flights, booked tours, etc.)

That wraps up our list of what to take on the plane!

For short flights, we might skip some of these items. We probably wouldn’t need the neck pillow or sleep mask, for example.

But for long-haul flights, these are the flying essentials we absolutely couldn’t live without on the plane.

Read some of our long-haul flight reviews!

Qatar: What’s it like to fly economy class on Qatar Airways? (We flew from L.A. to Sri Lanka, via Doha – 21 hours of actual flying!)

Emirates: See our Emirates economy class review. (We flew from Seattle to Lusaka, Zambia, via Dubai.)

EVA Air: We’ve flown on EVA Air in economy class from North America to both Bali and Thailand.

Our top travel tips and resources

Hotels: is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)

Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more. We also have and recommend Medjet for global air medical transportation and travel security.

Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)

Need more help planning your trip? Check out our travel tips and resources guide for airline booking tips, ways to save money, how to find great hotels and other crazy useful trip planning info.

Pssst! If you make a booking or purchase through our site, we may earn a small commission (at no cost to you). Thanks!

Like this? Then share it on Pinterest!

Carry-on essentials for long flights
Carry-on travel essentials
Travel Essentials for the Plane

Photo credits: 2, 6, 7 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase

About the authors

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!