7 Things Not to Do When Packing a Carry-on Bag

There’s an art to packing a carry-on bag. Wise travelers must balance the requirements of airlines and airport security, make sure important items are easily accessible, and remember all the little things that will keep them comfortable in flight.

In the spirit of 10 Things Not to Do When Checking a Bag, we’ve gathered seven common carry-on bag mistakes. Steer clear of these, and you’ll save money, have a better flight, and avoid running afoul of airport security.

Don’t Bring Liquids or Gels Larger Than 3.4 Ounces (100 Milliliters)

Let’s start with the basics of how to pack a carry-on: If you’re traveling with a full-size bottle of shampoo or sunscreen, it must go in your checked bag, not your carry-on. The world’s airports restrict liquid/gel items in your hand luggage to bottles no larger than 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters); they all must fit within a single quart-size (or liter-size) zip-top plastic bag.

This means that if you’re going to pick up a bottle of water or soda for the plane, be sure to buy it and stow it in your carry-on after security, not before. (Don’t be that bleary-eyed traveler who shows up at an early-morning checkpoint with a cup of coffee you just bought, only to have to throw it away.)

Note that there are a few exceptions to this rule, including essential medications and food for infants or children.

Don’t Pack Other Prohibited Items

Each country’s government has slightly different rules about what can and can’t be brought aboard a plane, but as a general rule you should never put any of the following in your carry-on: firearms, explosives, baseball bats or other sporting equipment that could be used as weapons, self-defense sprays (such as mace), and sharp objects such as knives and safety razors.

Scissors are generally okay when packing a carry-on, as long as the blades are shorter than 4 inches (or 6 centimeters in some countries). Nail clippers and disposable razors will also pass muster in most parts of the world. Swiss Army knives, however, are a no-go. Snow globes are not permitted unless they’re small enough to fit inside your quart-size plastic bag with the rest of your liquids and gels.

You can find lists of prohibited items for the following destinations at the links below. If you’re flying to or from a different country, do a Google search for its security rules, or call your airline.

Don’t Bury Your Liquids and Gels Deep in Your Bag

Save time in the security line by making sure your plastic bag of liquids and gels is right at the top of your carry-on or in an easily accessible pocket—that way you’re not digging around for it while the passengers behind you tap their toes in irritation.

The same goes for a laptop computer; unless you’re in an expedited travel line (such as TSA PreCheck in the U.S.), you’ll have to take this out at the security checkpoint for screening.

Don’t Pack Too Much

You’re aware that checked bags are subject to extra fees if they’re overweight or oversized—but did you know that many airlines weigh carry-on bags as well? Both Qantas and Air New Zealand, for example, have a 15-pound weight limit for carry-on bags (7 kilograms), while Air France allows a more generous 26 pounds (12 kg) as the total weight of your carry-on plus your personal item. Consider buying a small luggage scale to weigh your bag before you leave; that way you can redistribute or discard items in the privacy of your home rather than at the airport counter.

Many other airlines, including the biggest U.S. carriers, do not currently have weight limits for carry-on bags, but they do have size limits—and unfortunately, they’re shrinking. See Carry-on and Personal Item Size Limits for 32 Major Airlines to see how your airline stacks up.

Don’t Assume Your Carry-on Won’t Be Gate-Checked

Even if your bag is perfectly within your airline’s weight and size limits, you might still have to check it at the gate if the plane is very full or it’s a smaller aircraft than expected. Just in case this happens to you, make sure everything truly vital—travel documents, pricey gadgets, medicine—is stowed in the personal item you keep with you, not in the carry-on you gate-check.

Also, make sure there’s a luggage tag on your carry-on; gate-checked bags are occasionally mishandled just as regular checked bags are, and you’ll want your contact information on the bag in case your airline sends it astray.

Don’t Forget Your In-Flight Essentials

Especially for longer flights, you’ll want to stock our carry-on bag with must-haves such as earbuds/headphones (some airlines charge for these), antibacterial hand sanitizer (to help you avoid in-flight germs), an eye mask, a travel pillow, and plenty of reading material. For more ideas, see The Essential Carry-on Bag Packing List.

Don’t Forget to Prepay for Your Carry-on

Some low-cost carriers, including Spirit and Frontier, charge fees not only for checked bags but also for carry-ons. You will pay the lowest possible fee for your carry-on if you pay it online in advance rather than when you arrive at the airport. If you know you’ll be bringing a carry-on aboard your flight, pay for it when you book.

See Tripadvisor’s picks for the best carry-on bags. (Tripadvisor is SmarterTravel’s parent company.)

Some of Our Favorite Travel Bag Options

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

By Sarah Schlichter

Deputy Executive Editor Sarah Schlichter's idea of a perfect trip includes spotting exotic animals, hiking through pristine landscapes, exploring new neighborhoods on foot, and soaking up as much art as she can. She often attempts to recreate recipes from her international travels after she gets home (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires—no humans or animals were harmed).

Sarah joined the SmarterTravel team in 2017 after more than a decade at the helm of Sarah's practical travel advice has been featured in dozens of news outlets including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Budget Travel, and Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "A journal. Even years later, reading my notes from a trip can bring back incredibly vivid memories."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Road tripping and hiking through the rugged mountains of Patagonia."

Travel Motto: "'To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.'—Freya Stark"

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle. I get restless on long flights and like to be able to move around without disturbing anyone else."

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