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7 Things You Should Always Do When Packing a Carry-On Bag

Packing a carry-on bag might seem simple, but it can make or break your travel experience. Whether you’re a frequent flyer or an occasional traveler, mastering the carry-on packing process can save you time, money, and stress at the airport. After all, no one wants to be the flyer frantically unpacking their carry-on at the check-in counter to meet the weight requirement or the person crying at the gate because their bag didn’t fit in the sizer. 

The right packing strategy is key to a smooth journey, from navigating security regulations to ensuring you’re prepared for unexpected situations. We’ve compiled a list of seven important things every traveler should do when packing their carry-on. From keeping your liquids in compliance to making sure you can lift your bag, these tips will help you breeze through security, avoid unnecessary fees, and arrive at your destination with everything you need. 

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Make Sure You Can Lift Your Bag

You’ve successfully managed to jam everything in your carry-on bag, and although you have to sit on it to close it, you can zip it shut. The real question is, can you lift your overstuffed suitcase into the overhead bin? 

Don’t expect to rely on a flight attendant to put your heavy bag in the overhead bin for you. Taylor Garland, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told the Washington Post that cabin crew members are trained never to lift bags because it could cause them an injury. 

Never pack a bag that’s heavier than what you can maneuver around the airport and into the overhead bin. 

Keep Your Liquids in Compliance

When you’re flying carry-on only, all your liquids, gels, and aerosols must follow the TSA’s 3-1-1 rule, which restricts these items to 3.4 ounces or less per container. All these liquids must be in a 1-quart size, clear plastic zip-top bag, and you can only have one bag per passenger.  

Remember that many things you may not classify as liquids (like peanut butter or makeup) are considered such by the TSA. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and leave it behind if you don’t want it confiscated at security. 

Check TSA’s What Can I Bring Tool

Many items are acceptable in checked baggage but are considered too dangerous to be allowed in the plane’s cabin, where they are accessible to passengers. 

If you’re unsure if an item is allowed in your carry-on, use the TSA’s handy What Can I Bring site, which lets you search to see if you can bring it in a carry-on or checked bag. 

You can find answers flying with everything from portable chargers (carry-on only) to baseball bats (checked bags only).

Weigh Your Bag

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Although most major American airlines don’t specify a weight limit for carry-on bags, many international carriers do. These airlines have strict carry-on weight limits and will insist on weighing your bag when checking in. (Don’t think you can skip weighing your bag by checking in online—often, you’ll have to check in in person for international flights to make sure your passport/travel documents are in order.)

Carry-on weight limits vary by airline but are generally limited to 20 lbs or less. Make sure you weigh your carry-on after it’s packed to avoid getting caught out at the airline counter.

Prepare for Gate-Checking

Meeting the carry-on allowance doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be allowed to bring your bag aboard the plane. Overhead bin space is at a premium, and if you’re in a later boarding group, you may be forced to gate-check your bag.

When packing your carry-on, separate anything you wouldn’t want checked (such as valuables, travel documents, keys, medications, etc.) so that you can easily pull it out if your bag gets gate-checked. 

Separate Your In-Flight Essentials Into Your Personal Item

Packed your reading material, headphones, and snacks in your carry-on? That’s great until you have to hold up the boarding process while you dig it all out of your suitcase before you stash your bag in the overhead bin and take a seat.

Come prepared by putting everything you’ll need in-flight into a separate personal item, like a backpack or tote bag, that you can stash underneath your seat and have for easy access. 

Prepay for Your Carry-On

If you’re traveling on a budget airline and a carry-on bag is not included in your fare, don’t attempt to sneak one onboard. Budget airlines are very strict about measuring bags, and if you have to pay at the airport for a carry-on, you’ll generally pay a much higher price than if you had allocated a bag in advance. 
For example, Spirit Airlines charges $49 for a carry-on bag at the time of booking. If you wait and add a bag during check-in, the price goes up to $59. If you don’t pay for a carry-on until you get to the airport, it will cost you $79.

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