How I Travel: What’s in my Carry-on Bag

I travel a lot. Last year I spent 155 days away from home (that’s 42% of the year!) I don’t do a lot of carry-on-only travel and that’s mainly because I’m a pack rat and I love buying things to bring home or bringing presents to people, and most of my flights have free baggage allowance. I actually just bought a new carryon suitcase and I’ll be experimenting with doing carry-on only on some of my shorter trips.

So I usually check one or more bags and bring my Timbuk2 WordPress messenger bag (don’t you love the fake brown leather?) or my SwissGear backpack as my carry-on. A lot of my travel is flying, but this bag is close to the same for train travel, or even a road trip.

Let’s look inside!

How I travel - my carry-on by Sara Rosso

#1. An Apple. Breakfast – the first thing to go. I have a lot of early morning flights and I like to eat something once I get to the airport (much like my ritual of getting an espresso post-security-check). If I’m traveling inside the EU or inside the US, I usually pack 2 or more apples so I can have one when I arrive at the hotel or wherever I’m going. Sometimes it’s dates + peanut butter, or a yogurt. I also pack food in my suitcase when I travel, don’t you?

#2. Cables and electronic stuff. In here I have several short cables for iPhone, iPad, micro and mini-USB, my headphones with mic (so I don’t need to bring a separate headset for conference calls), an ethernet dongle for my MacBook Air in case they don’t have wifi, a USB adapter with US plug, and one with EU plug (I bring both no matter my destination, in case I get stuck somewhere), and an Android phone, unlocked, so I can use different SIM cards. The zip bag is one of a set of Travelon mesh plastic bags (red ones, too!), also used in #6, I use for anything and everything – I’ve gone through 2 sets.

#3 A scarf. I always travel with a scarf, even in the summer. This scarf is lightweight but it’s quite big so it can double as a blanket in a cold airport or airplane. Linen scarves work, too.

#4 Medicine bag. Flying exposes you to a lot of germs, and while I don’t relish taking medicine, I like knowing I have some with me, and from the brand names I’m used to. I know a lot of medicine you can find anywhere, but keeping a couple of pills on hand, from a brand I trust, saves me that emergency trip for myself or for a friend. I carry Tylenol (headaches/fever), Advil (muscle pain), a decongestant, cold/flu tablets, antiacid, Emergen-C (basically Vitamin C + some extras), antibacterial salve, and some antibacterial wipes (I’m not a big fan of antibacterial sprays/soaps for daily use but I think it’s good to have on hand for cuts).

#5 An umbrella. I never know what weather is going to be like where I’m going, or most importantly, what I’ll come home to. It helps to pack a small one and I can always buy a big one if I need to. That umbrella fits in my day purse if needed. It’s a Totes Micro umbrella.

#6 More snacks :) I always have some raw almonds on hand for when I get extra snacky – I can bring better choices and save money vs. buying at the airport. I usually stick some dried fruit (like dates), a protein bar like NuGo or Lara Bar, packets of Justin’s Peanut Butter, and I also usually pack some chocolate of some kind so I don’t stop and buy peanut M&Ms. I stick extra peanuts or pretzel packs from flights I’m not hungry for as I sometimes want them later. And I usually have at least one packet of Starbucks VIA (instant coffee) so if I need a caffeine fix somewhere…I have it. On this particular trip I got an extra pack of Pocket Coffee and some Venchi Caffe snacks after check-in.

#7 Collapsible water bottle. This one’s a Platypus bottle. I drink a lot of water daily and definitely when I work out, and I like knowing I can fill up and carry with me as needed, and roll up when finished. I like to fill this up post-security check or I fill it up on the plane and ask the flight attendants for a refill when needed. If I bring my backpack, which is a bit bigger, I often bring my Kleen Kanteen stainless steel refillable bottle, too. When I’m staying in one place for a while, I’ll buy big 2-liter bottles of water and then refill the smaller one as needed for on-the-go.

#8 My actual daily purse (small, right?) by Furla (I have a few of these, it’s a problem I openly admit to). This is the purse I actually use day-to-day in Italy.  When I get to my location, I can leave most of the other contents of the carry-on bag in my hotel and just take my purse to go out for dinner or to run out and pick something up. In this I have the usual: wallet with cash & credit cards, business cards, my iPod nano (I love listening to music everywhere & I have a special downtempo mix for when I fly), keys, a pen, my iPhone, and some makeup: powder, mascara, lip gloss, and a few lipsticks.

#9 My Moleskine notebook or planner. I need to travel with something to write in, whether I’m planning something or need to take notes on something. I always use a Moleskine – the one pictured is a 2013 weekly planner but my go-to favorite Moleskine notebook is the square reporter pocket. There’s often a lot of waiting in travel (on the train to the airport, waiting to board, waiting for takeoff), and the few times I’ve forgotten it, I’ve really regretted it. There’s a Moleskine pen attached which you can’t see clearly.

#10 My iPad. I love to read and being on a transatlantic flight gives me an opportunity to read uninterrupted since I rarely sleep while flying and the iPad’s battery lasts forever. I also like to load up my iPad with movies just in case the inflight selection isn’t great. This is an iPad 1 and I’ve had it for almost 3 years now, so I’m looking at upgrading to a lighter version – the iPad Retina or the mini are on my radar. If you’re asking, why not a Kindle? While I definitely buy Kindle books (I published two Kindle books myself), mainly I like the multitasking of the iPad and I’ve been reading ebooks for 7 years and on backlit devices for almost the entire time (it doesn’t bother my eyes, and I like to read at night, too).  To find out more about what I think about ebooks, check out What are ebooks? Advantages and Disadvantages of Electronic Books on my tech site, When I Have Time.

#11 Passport and Italian permit of stay. Pretty much need these to get anywhere. One of the first things I put in my bag. I have another 5.5 years left on this passport and I only have 4 pages without any stamps!

#12 Foreign currency coin purse. I travel often enough to the US and London that I keep separate, dedicated coin purses for those currencies, SIM cards, and subway/Tube cards. When my flight lands and we’re taxiing on the runway, I just switch out my Euros and change into this purse and move the other currency to my wallet. The coin purse is Coach (and it was on sale!)

#13 Eye glasses. While I don’t need them to see normally, I do need them to use the computer for any longish period.

#14 Flip & Tumble 24-7 bag. One of my favorite things – I wrote about Flip & Tumble bags way back in 2007 when I first discovered them, and over the years I’ve bought and gifted many. This little ball becomes a shopping bag that I can sling on my shoulder. It can become a gym or beach bag, it can carry swag, it can hold my shopping, or it can become a sort of purse as I put my smaller purse in there with other stuff. Rolled up I can fit it into my day purse (#8) and it can hold up to 25lbs. Highly recommend, and it comes in a lot of colors!

#15 Miscellaneous: Tissues and wet wipes. I never travel without these, and I love that in Italy they sell these single-packs everywhere you go. If I don’t have room to carry a full pack of tissues with me, I often stick one or two loose tissues in my day purse or jacket.

What you don’t see and variations on this bag: my microfiber cloth to clean my various screens (I always realize how dirty they are when I travel), and my 13″ MacBook Air and power cord which fit in there, too. Sometimes I may bring my Canon 7D with the 50mm f/1.4 lens with me as well, and rearrange or remove things to make it fit.

What would you add differently? Is there anything you’re surprised to see?

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  1. says

    You are one very organised lady! I also travel a lot but usually cheap EU flights so no big weather changes, although I always have to add bookmarks to drop off and copies of my book for people I run into! I also leave some space (if that’s possible for gifts and new clothes).

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Catherine – that’s my vice, too – I love leaving space and almost never do carry-on-only, but may attempt it for an upcoming trip to London.

  2. Roman says

    I almost always travel with only carry on, unless I am going to be hunting in Italy then I need to check a bag for my hunting gear. This is my backpack of choice and have been using it since 2003 for Laptops by Targus USA&productCategoryId=4&bucketTypeId=0&searchedTerms=&navlevel1=products&cp=&bannertxt=Backpacks for Laptops
    Like you, I always travel with some medicine… especially sudafed, advil, and gum (if your head is plugged up it makes flying easier). While I don’t use a scarf, I do travel with a hoodie… great for sleeping with the hood up or as a pillow, and of course if you’re cold. An iPad is a must to travel with, I keep all my magazines there, books, movies, games, and can work on “to do” lists as well.

  3. Laura says

    Very helpful post. Every time I travel I am a bit more efficient and I am happy to see that your carry-on contents are similar to mine, so I’m getting closer to “getting it right.” The Flip and Tumble bags are the best item! I keep them in my purse and have used them hundreds of times.

    For our next trip to Europe ( a 6 week trip) I am planning to do carry-on only. Mainly to see if I can, but also because we fly through Newark, NJ and I am afraid they will not transfer my luggage correctly! Anyhow, I have two Baggallini Rolling Totes and they stack on top of each other- I put one in the overhead bin and one under the seat in front of me and that has worked on shorter trips so we’ll see…. I am excited by the challenge.

    Anyhow, thanks for the helpful post and the links to specific recommended items.


    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Laura – let me know how that goes! I’ve almost whittled down my liquids so I could do carry-on-only; I’ll be attempting it soon but most likely just for an EU-only trip.

  4. says

    You’ve given me some great ideas — I have my own set of “go-to’s'” for my carry on bag but not as well organized as you and now I think I have to add a few things… Thanks!

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Andrea – thanks for the link and the love about EOI – we’re hoping to get it back and up. My 42% travel definitely impacted it :(

  5. says

    I love these kinds of posts. As for the carry-on issue, I almost always travel alone, so I like to check baggage. That way, I don’t have to schlep so much if I need to use the loo or walk around in the airport. And I don’t mind the wait at the other end – it helps me get mentally organized for what awaits me!

  6. emily at thefarmfiles says

    Great tips! Intrigued by the flip and tumble bags…going to check them out right away.

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. says

    Thanks for this! I recently discovered that having a wallet for each country is better than switching all the stuff out of one wallet – that way I don’t lose my cash and coins in random places. I am very excited to check out the flip and tumble bags and collapsible water bottle. I also bring lots of snacks – for some reason flying makes me SO hungry. Sometimes I will make ravioli and toss it in olive oil, parmesan cheese, lemon zest, and black pepper and put it in a plastic bag. It sounds gross to have it in the bag but then I don’t have to lug a tupperware with me the whole time.

  8. chris says

    Great list – we definitely think alike! I would add that if I’m doing an overnight flight, I absolutely must bring my own: eye mask (40 blinks is the best!), earplugs, travel pillow, and socks with slipper bottoms. These are the keys to at least trying to catch a few zzz’s on a plane.

  9. says

    Very nice list! I just had to wonder about the peanut butter cups. Obviously you have not had issues with them, but I would think TSA may not like those in the US (being somewhat of a paste) so I never risk with them. Instead, I also bring a baggie of almonds and some protein bars.

    Question about the collapsible travel bottle – I had one of those at the start of my round-the-world trip but quickly ditched it. It is nice and all, but it never seems to dry up after you finish drinking the water and seemed a bit uncenetary to me to have leftover drops sit in there for days without use. How do you get around that?

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Dima – never any problems with the peanut butter cups nor packets of PB :)

      Re: the water bottle, I definitely hang it upside down to dry, usually overnight, as much as possible. That seems to get most of the water out, and if it’s a short trip, I don’t think a little extra water will really hurt. If you’re doing it continuously like you are, could be a problem :)

  10. says

    Done it…I just ordered a turquoise flip & tumble 24-7 bag to give to my wife (on your recommendation!). I just hope it arrives before our trip to Berlin on 27th March!

  11. says

    Hi! It arrived yesterday, posted from Denmark and C loves it. She’s decided to use it to carry all her folders and files in it that she needs for her job but it’s a reminder to me that sometimes people are simply delighted just to receive a gift…so I must give more gifts!

  12. Bailey says

    I hate traveling with checked luggage and never understand why people prefer checked luggage I have lived out of one bag when traveling once it was a small duffel bag but now I stick with a regular 15 inch backpack with only 5 pockets 1 main pocket, 1 medium pocket inside the main pocket, and 1 medium pocket on the front of the backpack, 2 water bottle pockets (one on each side of the backpack). I carry one outfit (jeans/pants, 1-2 tops, sweater), rain jacket, some first aid items and some toiletries (I usually try to find samples I’ll put them in a small box and when I travel just take what I need from the box it cuts on the weight), toilet seat covers and some toilet paper (I’ve been to bathrooms that had neither of these), prescription eye wear (I wear them but I bring an eye glass case and that little piece of fabric that you usually get with glasses) hand sanitizer, gum, camera, memory cards, extra camera and cell phone batteries, cell phone, snacks, socks, unmentionables, sleepwear, chargers/cords (including USB cords), small portable radio w/extra batteries (my cell phone can hold music but sometimes I like to listen to stations in the places I visit), sewing kit (I can’t sew an entire outfit but I can patch holes up), Brita soft sided water bottle (I’ve been to several places and the water tasted different each time this helps to take anything out that you don’t want to swallow), laundry soap (there is a new type of laundry soap that comes in a little case with several sheets of soap you take one out with a dried hand and viola laundry soap). Since I’ll be wearing 1 entire outfit including unmentionables, shoes, and socks I don’t need anymore than that I have matched the colors up so that I can mix and match and if I want/need something I can just go shopping I also might bringing another pair of shoes (because who wants to get off the plane or at your hotel and realize your shoes are falling apart but it’s the only pair you have and yes all of this fits into my backpack. I also carry a purse but one time I was told on an airline (can’t remember which one) that I could either bring on my purse or the carry on I couldn’t bring both onto the plane (luckily I managed to squeeze my purse into the carry on) so now when I pack I make sure that my purse fits in with everything else I also suggest another way to charge your electronics (I don’t have one but maybe one day I’ll buy one) such as a battery juice pack/solar charger.

  13. Kirsten says

    I have a kit with 2 mugs, 2 jars (in the mugs), and a heat coil. I put instant esspresso in one and Sweet and Low packs in the other. Add a Quaker Oats bar and you can have Breakfast in your Jammies! P.S. My Grandmother taught me to always travel in my 2nd best outfit…It does seem that the better one looks, the less one gets searched.

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