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11 travel essentials that are always in my carry-on

These are the items that keep my bag light and my life easy.

Whenever I travel by plane, I am obsessed with packing as lightly as possible. All clothes must fit in a single carry-on bag (read about my travel capsule wardrobe here), with a small additional bag for any items I need to access during the flight. Aside from the clothing, my carry-on contains a number of extra items carefully chosen for their versatility and size. Here is what you’ll always find in my backpack, no matter where I’m going:

1. Inflatable travel pillow

It’s crazy to get on a long-haul flight without a decent pillow, and perhaps even crazier to travel with a pillow that must be hauled around for the entire trip. Enter the inflatable travel pillow, which takes 10 seconds to inflate and can be adjusted to whatever level of softness you want. It allows deflates to the size of a clementine.

2. Earplugs and face mask

Airplanes are loud places, and the lights always go on sooner than I want. That’s why I rely on earplugs and a snug face mask to block out sound and light, allowing me to sleep surprisingly long chunks of time. I also avoid caffeine in the hours leading up to a flight to ensure I sleep well. (Note: I’ve heard a lot recently about noise-cancelling headphones as being far superior to ear plugs but have not tried them myself.)

3. Short-stack coffee mug

Frequent readers will know that I am obsessed with my short-stack insulated coffee mug. It’s smaller (and way cuter) than most refillable coffee mugs, and always gets a comment from flight attendants, who want to know where I bought it (Mountain Equipment Co-op). It’s so light and small that I take it everywhere. (Obviously I have a water bottle on hand, too.)

4. Pashmina scarf

It’s an all-in-one wonder garment – a sweater, a blanket, a fashion accessory, a head covering, a window cover or privacy screen, a pillow or extra padding when needed. You name it and the pashmina scarf can probably do it. I never get on a plane without one.


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5. An extra backpack

Depending on the size of my purse (if I’m traveling with one), I’ll stash an additional small backpack inside my carry-on backpack, rolled up to reduce space. This gives me something to use for day trips and sightseeing without having to dump out the contents of my bigger bag.

6. Liquid detergent packets

I like to pick up 2-3 sachets of liquid detergent at the drugstore to take on trips because I’d rather wash my undies and the odd T-shirt in a hotel sink than carry extra pairs in my bag. Pro tip: Throw in a universal sink stopper if you have extra room.

7. Mesh bag for dirty laundry

I own a bunch of mesh drawstring bags in various sizes that are very handy for travel. I usually use them to pack my clothes by category, but I always have one allocated for dirty laundry. This keeps all soiled items in one spot, making it easy to do a load as soon as I have access to a washer or return home.

8. Pack shoes in a plastic bag

I’m not a fan of plastic bags, but I use one to wrap pairs of shoes when I travel. It keeps any smell and dirt from passing on to the other clothes, and comes in handy to collect trash or hold a wet bathing suit.

9. Use contact lens cases for storage

Light packers are always looking for ways to contain items in the least amount of packaging. Old contact lens cases are remarkably useful for stashing small earrings, necklaces, and any medication that’s been pre-measured.

10. Solid beauty bars

In order to avoid the hassle and potential mess associated with traveling with liquids, I pack a shampoo bar, bar soap, and moisturizing bar, which meet all of my needs. Ethique and Lush are good sources. Another good suggestion I’ve heard is pre-soaking cotton pads with any necessary cosmetic liquids and stashing in a zippered bag.

11. Menstrual cup

Last but not least, the mighty menstrual cup is a travel essential for any woman. You can read more about my rave reviews here, but let’s just say that it eliminates a great deal of stress, not to mention loose items, from any trip.

These are the items that keep my bag light and my life easy.

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