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Have you noticed? There are lots of “things” available these days that - supposedly - make a long airplane flight easier. The list of new travel carry-on essentials goes on and on. Literally.
But are they all really essential?
That turns out to be an evergreen question because new, essential "things" keep being invented. Some look super cool and so necessary! But are they?
I conduct my own essential gear test every time I travel. No, it’s not the most frugal thing to do - but I buy one cool, amazing new invention for every trip. To try it out and see if it solves 'my problem’ - as advertised. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now.
Spoiler alert: some don't live up to the hype and most work just okay. But I 'm not dragging an overly heavy bag around an airport, airplane or destination. If I’m not going to use something, or even NEED it, it's not going in my travel tote.
That’s prime real estate. And it's reserved for the absolute best things I've tested and now use before or during my flight, or while I'm at my destination. Here's how I pick what goes into my bag.
What to Pack
I work backward to select the lucky items riding inside the plane with me. I pack what I'll need when I arrive. If my checked bag is still ‘en route’ when I arrive - there are some personal things that need to travel with me. This includes
- Clean undies
- Basic toiletries (face wash, moisturizer, toothbrush+paste, mascara, blush, lipgloss, brush)
- Appropriate power converter
- Portable charger for all devices
- Contact lens supplies
But a clean shirt is a want-to-have, so it goes on the waitlist.
Next up is my laptop (if it’s a work trip) and a camera. Although, depending on the purpose of the trip, my phone might be all the camera I bring.
Once that’s settled, I turn my attention to what I need in the air. It's a concise list:
- Neck pillow
- Noise-canceling headphones
- Reusable water bottle
- Allergy-safe snacks (“she’s one of those people!”)
- And something to read (sometimes a book but usually a device)
These are the basic non-negotiables and there are so many options for every item on the list. Which ones go in my limited cargo space? Read on to see what I use and how to buy them.
Travel Essentials List
It wasn’t easy to narrow down my all-star list of items to bring on long flights. I kissed a lot of frogs along the way. And I'm still keeping my eyes open for things to bring because, on top of the one new thing I try every trip, I keep a revolving list of things I plan on purchasing in the future, based on:
- Doing continual research
- Needing something mid-flight - one time too many
- Making do with a substitute of some kind for far too long
But let's get on with it!
First up is my pillow and blanket. The Cocoon Cool Max travel blanket is warm, portable, and lightweight but the real reason I was sold is the small, squishy packing bag it comes inside. Some of the blankets I’ve tried were ok but failed on the fold/wad test. Too big.
To go with my Cocoon blanket I chose the Trtl travel pillow. I’ve gone back and forth on this decision. I was tempted to buy one when they first came out (“ohhh, so shiny….”) but I’d purchased a perfectly good (squishy) travel pillow that squished into its own bag like my blanket.
Then the incident happened.
It was a flight from Berlin to Copenhagen and the string on my travel pillow bag got dragged onto the wet tarmac as I boarded my flight. Never saw it happen. But when I lifted my tote into the overhead bin - it dragged.
The wet string. Across the FACE of the man sitting on the aisle. Fortunately, I don't understand German swear words...
I threw it away when I got home and pulled the Trtl trigger. It's a unique design with a light fleece covering. Reviews are great, especially the one where the reviewer wanted to hate it. And the one that pointed out that the excess fabric can be used to hide your open mouth. Sold.
My blanket and soon-to-be pillow are almost all I need for falling asleep on a long flight. And all I’ve used until now. But I’m about to buy myself a sleep mask. I don’t use them - ever - but something has to change. My level of in-flight sleep has fallen to zero.
On the last two long flights, people had lights on next to me or went in and out of the mid-plane bathroom near my seat. Light on, light off, light on...Again with the research to find a way to use a sleep mask for the first time and avoid claustrophobic panic. Here’s what I found and what I’m buying: Nodpod weighted sleep pillow for your eyes. Same principle as the weighted blankets and I’m a big fan.
More Travel Necessities
The other piece of my light sleeping issue is noise, but I fail at earplugs. Something about it - no can do! What I can do is block external airplane sound with a pair of cozy, comfy earphones. Time for an upgrade on this item as well and this time I’m going with a pair of Sony Bluetooth headphones. These are the exact ones I’m buying. Might sleep like a baby.
I alternate between binge-watching movies and entire Netflix seasons and reading on my Kindle (they’re so compact and lightweight now!) Up to this point, I’ve used my earbuds, but I’m done with ear pain from overwearing those when traveling for 6-12 hours on a plane.
While I’m reading and bingeing, I’m snacking. I mentioned that I’m ‘one of those people.’ Food allergies to almost everything but lettuce. Not really but it feels like that at times. And airplane and airport food are slightly - shall we say problematic? So I bring my own.
Those snacks keep me from becoming hangry but I’m tired of the plastic baggie trap. (too much plastic!) When I found the Stasher Reusable Silicone food bag I thought I’d give it try. Can’t sing its praises high enough. When I got home, I closed my eyes and threw it in the dishwasher. It was fine! Now going on my fourth trip using them!
After the success of the silicone bag, I wanted to try an alternative to a hard-sided water bottle. Once I pass through security and fill up my water bottle, it’s fine, but until then I want to stay with the packable squishy theme. I found the Nomad Collapsible water bottle. I bought it to travel - but use it on the daily now.
Empty, the bottle rolls up and the attached strap hooks onto a small latch on the front of the bottle. The latch is a bit shallow and the first time I tried to roll up the bottle, it was new and stiff and came unfastened. I planned on tossing it when I returned from my trip until I realized it no longer unhooked itself!
I think after using the bottle it became more pliable and the strap/hook works fine. At least that’s been my experience.
Stay Charged the Right Way
When traveling internationally, part of your carry-on travel essentials must include a portable charger and an adaptor/converter. AND, if you’re like me and packing a blow dryer (yaaaassss), you need to get an adapter that will accommodate that portable wind tunnel machine (blowdryer). This is something I did not know while traveling in Italy back in 2014.
In Sorrento, we stayed in a Relais (upscale B+B) that was once the home of a wealthy shipping magnate. I brought the right converter/adapter for my electronics but every time I used my blowdryer - poof! Electricity out. Hubby had to trudge downstairs and ask the owner to flip the breaker more than once. No one involved was the least bit happy.
Finally, he came back to our room carrying a crappy little blowdryer that wouldn’t blow the circuit. My bad hair days in Sorrento are photographically preserved. (no power - no “Do”) Now I travel with the Travel Smart by Conair, a worldwide converter + adapter. No matter what country I’m in I look like my old self!
Ok, let’s talk about charging your smartphone before you head out sightseeing for the day. You have maps saved offline to lead the way and your photojournalist instincts are on high alert. And then it happens right after you stop for lunch. Ten percent battery alert on your phone. Panic!!
Seems silly but I let this happen to me time and time again. I’ve had portable chargers over the years - several in fact. But they die or get lost or don’t do much more than a little boost to get me to the next closest wall plug. No can do on the travel trail.
Plus I use my phone a lot while flying - with podcasts to catch up on and Netflix bingeing. It’s the road to dead battery life. Until finally. Finally. I got this Anker portable charger. That’s my answer for you if you’re taking an international trip or a domestic road trip.
I did so much research before picking this one and chose it for its ability to charge my laptop as well as my smartphone. According to the Anker website, this little baby can get you more than seven phone charges before it needs to be recharged itself. Give it a good 24 hour charge the first time, though.
Carry Your Airplane Essentials
Finally, on top of those 14 items - I can’t leave you without sharing my favorite bag for bringing them all on the plane. Two words: purse and tote.
If I’m on a trip without my laptop (non-work), my purse stores inside my tote while getting from point A to point B. Less pack-mule, more ease of travel that way.
If that’s not possible - which happens - I sling my purse cross-body and hang it to the front. Definitely not on my hip. I’m hyper-aware of those around me for my purse security. I don’t want anyone slashing a strap, slashing the bottom/side, or slyly opening it unbeknownst to me.
I’m also hip to the electronic reader today's thieves employ. They can steal my data as they stroll by me. I need the latest RFID material to prevent this from happening. It’s a lot to ask of a cross-body bag that has to be Swiss-Army knife useful and semi-chic. Here’s what I found after much searching. The Travelon Anti-Theft Classic Messenger Bag in black.
The material used makes slashing difficult. Zippers on the exterior have little locking mechanisms and it’s got RFID material everywhere.
I’ve seen its little RFID protection in action on the streets of Berlin. A couple approached me near Brandenburg Tor asking for directions. I answered while the woman stood in front of me and the man moved next to her - then up behind me - close. I stiffened, then remembered my little Travelon was working this situation for me!
I laughed and laughed all the way home.
And finally my tote. I use Briggs & Riley Kinzie Street Cabin Bag. It has RFID pockets, an interior pocket for my Kindle, and another for my laptop. There’s plenty of space for my travel items and a long strap to hang from my shoulder or go cross-body. In my seat, it easily fits below but can be maneuvered up to access my stuff.
I’m happy with it! I’ve gone through so many iterations of totes, including a couple of backpacks. I don’t know what it is about me or about backpacks but when I see one I’m so drawn to it. I want to do that - carry that. Yet when I actually have a backpack - nope. Hate it. It's just a personal preference.
So there you have it - all the things I absolutely need in my travel kit when I’m in for a long haul flight to a fabulous place. It’s easy to go overboard and fall for the next new thing. Been there, done that, lather-rinse-repeat. But when I add to this list, I’m just bringing something that’s either pure dead weight or I’ll use it when I don’t need to.
Does that make sense? Have you lugged your own dead weight? Heavy luggage isn’t always about your main bag. Before you overpack your carry-on tote, stop a minute. Think about your shoulder, back, and wallet. You don’t need any more than THIS list! And if you need a lesson in packing to get your head on straight, check out this article and this one too!