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What to Pack in Your Carry-On

Elie and I will be leaving for Vietnam in three weeks to celebrate my 40th birthday.  For most of the time we’re there, we’ll be biking with Butterfield & Robinson, with a few days by ourselves exploring Hanoi and Saigon at the beginning and end of the trip.  I feel like a kid counting down to Christmas!

Everyone keeps asking me, “Why Vietnam?”

I wanted to do something adventurous for my 40th birthday, something outside of my comfort zone.  Other than our recent trip to Bali, I haven’t travelled through Asia at all and the culture and food is unfamiliar.  And, despite living in biking-obsessed Bellingham, I’m a timid biker and I rarely see the seat of a bike.  It’s good to face your fears and reach past the edges of comfort—to stretch and experience something new.  So, we’re biking through Vietnam.

In the four years Elie and I have been together, we’ve made quite a few international trips—Australia, Bali, the Greek Islands, three trips to Israel, Paris, and two trips to Mexico.  With each trip, I’ve gotten better and better at packing.  I keep a running list in my iPad of things we use during our travels, and on every trip we edit the list.

I think a well-packed carry-on bag is essential to being comfortable on the flight and feeling good when you reach your destination.  Can you survive a flight without all these things? Yes.  But why not give yourself a little comfort and some small luxuries, even if you’re flying coach?

what to pack in your carry-on on an international trip | Lisa Samuel | www.Simmstown.com

I know this seems like a long list, but all of these things will fit easily in a small carry-on.  And everything here will help you to step off the plane ready for exploration!

  1. Purchase a carry-on with wheels. Your back will thank you.  While there are many stylish and lovely handmade shoulder bags out there, a wheeled carry-on can be your best friend.  During layovers, Elie and I usually walk the airport to stretch our legs and get a little exercise between flights.  If you have a shoulder bag, you’re more likely to just sit.  I use a bag from KC Jagger that I found on a discount site.  It’s just the right size to hold everything, and it can even fit under the seat on larger planes.
  1. iPad and a functional case. Yes, you can watch movies all the way from Seattle to Taipei, but why not catch up on some reading?  I used to haul around 10 pounds of books and magazines when I travelled until I finally caved and bought an iPad mini, where I keep a diverse reading to fit every mood, everything from The Gifts of Imperfection to The Invention of Wings to Zealot.  With the iPad, you can also read your favorite magazines. If you subscribe to magazines in the mail, most of them come with a free online subscription.  Not only can you flip through the pages, but you can also connect to links within the text, perfect for pinning, for all you Pinterest users out there.  For the case, I love the Mod Tablet from This is Ground for holding my iPad and organizing cords.  You can order different inserts depending on your interests, ones that hold everything from guitar pics to camera cords.  Speaking of cords…
  1. Power cords. Just in case you get stranded in the airport, don’t put your power cords in your checked luggage.  And most of the newer planes have power at your seat now, so you can charge while you’re flying. 
  1. A change of clothes. I pack a change of clothes for two reasons.  One, if the airline loses my luggage, I have at least one clean outfit to wear.  Two, if I’m not going straight to a hotel and am touring straight from the plane, I want clean clothes.  I keep it simple and pack a pair of leggings and a long top, or something similar depending on the weather at my destination.  I put the change of clothes in a gallon-sized plastic Ziploc bag, which keeps them clean and compact.
  1. Socks. This is more applicable if you’re traveling to a warm destination, but if you wear sandals on the plane, be sure and bring socks.  The plane can be cold, especially if you have a window seat.  Which brings me to… 
  1. A warm wrap. The few times I’ve left my wrap at home thinking, “Oh, I won’t need it on this trip,” I always regret it.  A warm and cozy wrap is good for so many things.  Obviously, if it’s cold on the plane, you can wrap it around you to stay warm.  You can use it as a pillow.  When your butt starts to hurt after too many hours of sitting, you can roll it up and place it on your seat for an extra cushion.  And when you reach your destination, you have something warm for chilly days or nights.  I absolutely love the wraps from Design House Stockholm, which are soft and cozy.  Even better, they’re machine washable. 
  1. Sleep mask. If you’re sensitive to light, a mask can really help you get a more restful sleep. 
  1. Essential medications. Carry on any essential medications including vitamins or supplements you may take—you probably won’t find them at your destination.  For example, I always take the shelf stable form of the Bio-K+ probiotic supplement when I travel, to help prevent food poisoning.  You may also want to bring something to help you sleep on the plane, like melatonin.
  1. Toiletry bag. I leave most of my toiletries in my checked baggage, but there are few that make the flight (or arrival) more pleasant.  Since the air on planes is quite dry, it’s nice to have something to hydrate your skin including face, lips and hands. Instead of packing three separate products, I just carry on a 3 ounce bottle of sweet almond oil, which can act as a moisturizer for everything.  You may also want some facial cleansing wipes, like these.  And I think a toothbrush and toothpaste are essential.  This little pouch from Pottery Barn is just the right size to hold a few toiletry items, or this one is also great if you need a little more room.
  1. Snacks. Airport and airplane food is notoriously bad and not at all nourishing, so we always pack enough nonperishable snacks to make it to our destination, things like roasted almonds, whole grain crackers and packages of Justin’s nut butters, hard cheeses, kale chips, fruit, cut vegetables and dark chocolate.  This waxed canvas bag from Artifact Bag Co. is my favorite.  Then, you also have a perfect bag for vacation picnics.

I hope this list helps you when you’re packing for your next trip!

Lastly, I don’t represent any of the brands recommended here.  I’m just sharing the products I love.

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