Having lived abroad twice previously, I was no novice to international travel.
However, not too long ago, I was a little rusty and I didn’t look at a single packing list online, and I paid the price!
One miserable day in the City of Lights
My troubles started on the plane: I lost an entire night’s sleep because I packed terrible sleeping aids on a red-eye. Upon arrival, I found I had almost zero access to cash. I spent that first day in Paris completely exhausted, dragging my heavy luggage up and down metro stops staircases, all to get some cash to pay to store my luggage and finally visit the city.
Since then, the biggest mistake I’ve made is not using my checklist!
Just when you think you’ve memorized the list, you can forget one little item that makes all the difference.
There are seven items you MUST have in your carry-on to help you have an easy transition upon arrival, and to make your long international flight as comfortable as possible: money, edibles, proper clothes, sleep aids, emergency items, important documents and entertainment.
I go into detail in this article about all the items you need, or you can scroll down just a bit and download the checklist.
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Continue reading to find out why I suggest these items, and what I pack in my carry-on for international flights!
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What’s in Your Carry-On for a Long International Flight?
It is critical to have, and have access to, cash. Be careful of the fees, though! It costs money to get foreign currencies. Banks charge a ridiculous fee to give you foreign currency, and if you go to one of the currency exchange stations at the airport, they’ll charge a 15% service fee, which is high. Check with your bank, because you might find that there is only a 1% or 2% transaction fee to withdraw money at an ATM abroad. Find the cheapest solution available to you! Since my bank has a 1% transaction fee, I go to the nearest ATM when I arrive at the airport, and withdraw what equates to $200 in the local currency.
Note: check travel guides about your destination to make sure the country you are visiting has ATMs at their airport. This is not always the case in less developed countries. In this unusual situation, you may need to pay the 15% fee at your home country airport exchange station and get the foreign currency before boarding your plane. Again, travel guides will give you the most up to date information on this for the specific destination you will visit.
Some credit card companies offer excellent travel benefits, beyond the standard fraud protection. I highly recommend Chase cards, because they have no international fees, a long list of travel insurances (like lost luggage insurance, and a concierge service), and on top of that, you can gain points toward airline miles. I had the Southwest Airlines Chase Visa and the British Airlines Chase Visa, and was able to fly for next to nothing by buying all my regular household expenses on those cards, and then paying off my bill in full at the end of every month.
I also felt assured that if something bad happened while on my trip, Chase was there for me. They offered insurances I would have otherwise had to pay for.
- ATM card
- Some of the local currency
- Credit card with a microchip & a copy of your credit card company’s list of travel benefits
For long trips, bring your own snacks with you. While the airlines may serve you a meal and a snack, the flights are long as are the layovers, and paying for additional food can be costly. To prepare for the long trip I recommend bringing high protein snacks, like Odwalla protein bars, or Kind bars. Protein gives you a nice steady energy, without the crash later that sugar gives you.
Staying hydrated is also very important. Planes are dry environments, and our bodies loose water while we sleep. Long flights, therefore, pose a particularly challenging situation to our efforts to hydrate!
Remember, you still can’t take more than 3.4oz (100 milliliters) of any liquid through the security checkpoint, but you can bring an empty water bottle with you! Some airports now have stations to refill water bottles near water fountains near the gates, but friendly bartenders without too many customers have been known to use their drink spout to fill your bottle up with water, too. You can fill up after security and be ready for the dry flight that awaits you.
*Please do not fill up your water in the bathroom sink. I did that once and had the worst gastrointestinal illness for the following 4 days. Learn from my mistakes!!
- High protein snacks, fruit, sandwiches, etc.
- Empty refillable water bottle
3. What to Wear
On domestic flights the temperatures in the plane never get too extreme, but transatlantic flights are very cold when the plane crosses the ocean, even in the summer.
While the plane might be warm as you board, once the plane has reached cruising altitude, the temperature will drop considerably. And, as you can imagine, it’s coldest next to the windows.
To prepare for this, no matter the season, I recommend dressing in layers. When I’m on a long flight in the winter, I wear smartwool pants under my jeans, a long-sleeve smartwool shirt, a button-up shirt, and a pair of smartwool socks.
In the summer I pack the shirts and socks in my carry-on and put them on in the plane once the temperature drops. My body temperature tends to run cooler naturally, so I need extra layers for warmth even in the spring and summer.
- Shoes that are easy to take off at Security (you will probably have to take your shoes off, so I recommend slip-ons with socks)
- Smartwool long-sleeve undershirt (not necessary for summer travel)
- Smartwool long underpants (for winter only)
- Smartwool socks (put on after boarding)
- Button-up shirt for easy layering
- Pants with a comfortable waist (you’ll be sitting down for a long time!)
- Light scarf
- Light jacket or fleece sweater (especially useful in the winter)
4. Useful Supplies & Refreshing Yourself Upon Arrival
In the worst case scenario, the luggage you checked could get lost or temporarily delayed. It’s always best to fly with a few items that can help make this frustrating situation go a little more smoothly. Also, after spending 7 or more hours on a plane, nothing can feel better than brushing your teeth at your destination! Most of the items you’ll want to refresh yourself are the same as the emergency supplies you’ll need if the airline loses your luggage.
While many women choose to wear makeup to the airport, I recommend packing it in your carry-on to apply upon arrival. This gives you the freedom to smush your face against that airplane pillow without fear of smudging your gorgeous eyeliner.
Similarly, if you wear contact lenses, for comfort both sleeping and while awake during the long flight, plan to wear glasses during the flight. The air in the cabin tends to be dry, and if you leave your contacts in, your eyes risk being very irritated upon arrival.
In addition to your toothbrush and toothpaste (packed in a plastic bag), I also recommend packing a fresh shirt and pair of underwear. You might even consider packing a quick-dry microfiber towel so you can wash your face in the airport bathroom. Again, these can also come in handy if your luggage gets lost!
Note: remember, all liquids and creams must be in 3.4oz (100 milliliters) containers and must fit into one quart size plastic bag.
- Quick-dry microfiber towel to use when washing your face or brushing your teeth
- Allergy medication (you never know how your body will react to new environments)
- Band-aids and alcohol swabs
- Travel packs of tissues for all manner of uses (including as toilet paper!)
- Contact solution, a contact lens case and glasses
- Moisturizer and lip balm or chapstick
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Empty plastic bags can be surprisingly handy. I like to have 2 or 3 with me when I travel.
- Fresh shirt and underwear to change into upon arrival
- Small items you will want easy access to upon arrival, such as sunglasses, drivers license, wallet, keys, car rental reservation, etc.
5. Sleep Aids
On long international flights, sleeping can be incredibly difficult. Why not invest in the items that will help you succeed in getting a bit of shut-eye?
I’ve tried sleeping on a blow-up pillow, but it would constantly slip out from between my shoulder and my head. I also tried one of those bulky half-circle neck pillows, but using this always gave me neck pain. Finally I found a neck support product by ReLeaf that is super weird looking, but I never have a sore neck anymore, and I can actually sleep with it! Plus, it doesn’t take up much space.
Both in the plane, and at your destination, earplugs and an eye-mask can be incredibly helpful. Iceland and other Nordic countries have very long days in the summer, which can mean that it won’t get dark before 11pm. This can make it difficult to fall asleep, and the eye mask provides the darkness your body needs to fall fast asleep.
- Neck support by ReLeaf
- Prime Effects eye mask. I’ve been using this eye mask for several years, and it’s quite comfortable with an adjustable band and a soft fabric.
Note: Sleeping pills have the potential to have dangerous side effects (such as DVT: deep vein thrombosis), so please consult your physician before trying something like that. Let’s try to avoid having a medical emergency in an airplane, ok?!
6. Important Documents
You never know when something is going to go wrong, and it’s always a good idea to be prepared for emergencies. You’ll need the emergency contact information for loved ones in your home country, as well as contacts at your destination.
While no one likes to get sick while traveling, you never know what will happen. Bring your medical history with you, just in case a doctor needs to know your allergies, immunizations, prescriptions, or recent procedures. I have this typed on a Word document, and I make sure to print an update before taking a big trip.
- Printed emergency contacts list. This should include the phone number and address of the US Embassy or Consulate nearest to your destination city, a contact in the host country (hotel info will do), and a contact in your home country. A printed copy of this can save you in the event your phone is stolen. [Click here to open my PDF contact list for you to fill out.]
- Health and medical history, and the international phone number for your health insurance. (Make a PDF of your eye prescription or other health records and keep them in the cloud just in case the foreign doctor needs the information.) [Click here to open my PDF health history form for you to fill out.]
- Travel documents: boarding pass, train tickets needed upon arrival, map of your destination city, translation of your drivers license if you plan to drive, etc.
- Printed itinerary and/or a digital itinerary in an app like Tripit, on your phone or tablet.
- Passport (if you need a new one or to renew yours, start the process at least two months before your trip)
- The appropriate travel visa. Check with the destination country’s embassy in your home country.
*Note about wheelchairs: If you require a wheelchair due to a specific medical condition, bring a note from your physician and the translation into languages at your layover and final destinations. This is a free service at large international airports that you can sign up for with your airline. It’s also important to confirm with the destination airport. A week before the trip, contact all of the airports where you will need the service so they can be prepared to assist you when you arrive.
I learned through personal experience that some airports may ask for proof of your condition in order to provide you with their free wheelchair service. A letter from your doctor will suffice. It’s best to have this translated into the language at the layover airport and the destination airport.
7. Fun and Entertainment
It will be a long trip, so it’s nice to be prepared with something to do in case the on-board movies are really terrible, or you have the lucky seat where the headphone jack doesn’t work.
Some planes either have a traditional AC outlet, or offer USB charging in the back of the seat in front of you, but not all do, so you should be prepared with a portable charger. I love the MyCharge portable charger because it charges more quickly than other chargers I’ve used. It can also recharge two phones – or one phone twice, which is super handy! Please avoid buying electronics like this at the airport, though, because the price markup is about 20-40%.
There are different electrical standards all over the world, so once you’ve arrived in your host country make sure to have a converter that works in their outlets. I’ve been using a Lenmar converter for the past year, and I really like that it has two USB ports and works in multiple countries. I also find it invaluable in France, where some outlets are unusually deep (a safety feature?), and therefore impossible to use with converters that can’t extend into the deep outlet.
- Entertainment & earphones (music, books, e-books; or movies saved on a phone, tablet or laptop)
- Charging equipment for your electronics (including an international adapter and a portable charger)
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What do you think of this list? What item or items do you think are most important to you?