Whether it’s a family vacation, a school trip, or a solo adventure, traveling as a teen can be both thrilling and overwhelming. I’ve been solo traveling internationally since I was 13 years old, and now I’ve also taught my own teens how to pack for air travel. In this guide, I’ll walk you through the best tips for packing a carry on.
List of essential items for a carry-on bag
These are basic things should be in a teenager’s carry-on for plane travel:
- Cell phone and charger
- Travel Documents (passport or ID, itinerary, visa, tickets)
- Travel Pillow & eye mask
- Headphones/ earbuds
- Power bank / battery pack
- Change of clothes
- Light jacket or hoodie for layering
- Personal care items
- Lip balm and hand cream
- Prescription medications
- Electronic device (mp3 player, kindle, video game player)
- Puzzle book or paperback
- Extra snacks
- Refillable water bottle
In the rest of the post, I’ll go over why you need each of these items. I’ll also share my recommendations on specific travel essentials and best carry-on luggage options.
Table of Contents
Airline Luggage Rules
Many airlines permit you to bring two personal items onto the plane with you, one stored under the seat in front of you, and the other in the overhead bin. Any other bags will have to be checked, usually for an additional fee. Check ahead of time with your airline for specific details and size requirements.
Personally, I hate having to pay extra for a checked bag, particularly since I’ve had to deal with lost suitcases more than once. I try to pack everything I’ll need for the flight and trip into my 2 personal items (usually a backpack and small rolling suitcase). I’ve taught my teenage girls to pack this way too, and even on a family road trip, we tend to pack light.
Benefits of packing light
I realize that two carry-ons don’t provide much space for clothing, and for some teen boys or girls, that might be a serious problem! As one of my cousins famously stated, “How can I be expected to manage on such a limited wardrobe?!” If that’s the case for you, feel free to pack another suitcase and check it through to your final destination.
However in my years of travel, it’s rare that I ever needed as many clothes as I packed. Unless you’re attending multiple events with specific dress codes (for example a family wedding), you can almost always buy what you need at your destination if you find you’ve left out something essential.
The convenience of skipping the baggage claim and having everything I need in two carry-on bags is worth it for me. I can get on and off the plane quickly, and there’s much less stuff to drag through an airport or public transportation en route to my hotel. On long journeys, you’ll be so glad to only have small bags to manage!
Important Travel Documents
It’s essential to have all your important documents and money sorted out and safely stowed. If you’re traveling on a family trip or in a school group, the adults will likely handle all of this for the entire family or group. However, it’s still a good idea for you to understand what’s needed and be aware in case you get separated from your adult.
First and foremost, make sure you have your passport or ID card with you, depending on the requirements of your destination. Double-check the expiration date to ensure it’s still valid throughout your trip.
For international travel, gather any necessary travel visas, if applicable, and keep them in a separate and secure compartment of your carry-on. It’s always a good idea to have a printed copy of your travel itinerary and any hotel reservations, just in case you encounter any unforeseen circumstances or technology failure.
Money and Cards
While it’s convenient to rely on debit or credit cards, it’s wise to have some cash on hand for emergencies or situations where cards may not be accepted. Carry a small amount of local currency in your carry-on, and keep the majority of your money securely stored elsewhere.
Protecting Travel Documents
When you’re flying solo, it’s up to you to keep your essential travel documents safe and accessible. When I traveled as a college student, my favorite solution was a thin money belt that was easily concealed under my shirt. Another popular choice is a travel wallet or organizer that can hold everything securely in one place.
Wherever you’re storing your travel documents, make sure they’re protected from a sudden downpour or splash. I once accidentally soaked my passport on a hot day because I forgot it was in my money belt and dumped a water bottle on myself to cool off!
Before you leave home, make copies of all your essential travel documents and keep them in a separate location, such as your email or a cloud storage account. This way, if you misplace your physical copies, you can easily access the digital versions.
If you have a cell phone that you’ll be bringing, you can often store the digital documents right on your phone. Many airlines and travel apps allow you to scan in your passport or ID, your ticket and boarding pass, and all your other travel plans.
In-flight Comfort Items
An inflatable travel pillow is ideal for long flights, since you can deflate it for storage when you don’t need it. I like mine to have a soft cover as well. Lip balm and hand cream will help keep you comfortable in the dry air of the airplane cabin or air conditioned airport.
I also bring along a mini first aid kit: a couple doses of over-the-counter pain reliever, anti-nausea medication (in case of motion sickness), and a couple of small bandaids. Travel stress often causes me a headache or indigestion, so I plan to take care of myself if that happens.
Comfortable Clothing for Flight Days
When you’re traveling, especially on a long-haul flight, comfort should be your top priority. Think layers and loose clothing. Wear a pair of comfortable walking shoes that slip on and off easily for security checks.
Make sure to include at least one full change of clothing in your carry-on bag(s) in case of delayed flights, lost luggage, or the random spilled liquid.
You do NOT want to be stuck traveling in a wet or bad-smelling outfit all day because all your clothing is in your checked bag! I usually pack one or more plastic bags in my carry-on for this very reason (unused garbage bags are perfect for this).
I strongly recommend packing a light jacket or hoodie for the plane ride as well. Airplane temperatures can fluctuate significantly and tend to run cold because of the air conditioning. A jacket or hoodie can help you stay comfortable, or be used as an extra pillow or blanket on a long international flight.
General Clothing Packing Tips
I always check the weather forecast at my destination so that I have an idea of temperatures and the kind of weather to expect. I choose my clothing based on the climate or weather, comfort, and the ability to mix and match.
I’ve been using a packing list for years, and my kids and teens also use one to pack their own bags. It’s a great way to make sure you don’t forget something important, like prescription ADHD medications or a swimsuit, that may be hard to obtain at your destination. You can download our free packing lists here.
What to pack in a carry on for a teenager
What clothes you actually pack will also be dependent on whether or not you can do laundry on the trip, and what kind of activities you’ll be doing. If you’ll be staying in a hotel or a home, you can often do a load of laundry as needed.
I usually plan for 4 complete outfits with tops and bottoms that can be worn in different combinations. I try to include options that work for hot and cold weather, in case of a sudden change while I’m traveling.
You can fit even more clothing into your carry-on suitcase by rolling the clothes tightly or using packing cubes.
Toiletries and Skincare Products
When it comes to toiletries, think about how long your trip will be, and how often you travel. If you’re only going away for a few days, grab the travel-sized versions of your favorite products.
Be sure to familiarize yourself with your airline’s size regulations for toiletries and with the correct packaging limits. Otherwise the security workers may dispose of your favorite products prior to you boarding the plane!
Keep your skincare simple while traveling. Instead of packing your entire skincare routine or makeup needs, just bring a few essentials that you can’t do without. Most of the time you can purchase something similar to your usual products at your destination if you suddenly discover you’ve forgotten an essential.
For a long time, I packed my toiletries in plastic zippered bags of various sizes, and that’s still a cheap and easy way to pack them. Just check the sizes ahead of time to make sure they are TSA-approved (or whatever your destination country’s security rules state).
However if you will be traveling often, it’s worth investing in leak-proof travel bottles and containers.
More than once, I’ve had a bottle leak all over my suitcase of clothes due to changes in air pressure, and it’s a mess you don’t need when you’re traveling!
Snacks and Hydration
Most airlines and airports offer water fountains and snacks for purchase at a minimum. However, unexpected delays can have you stuck on the airport tarmac for hours, or waiting for half a day in an airport, so it’s always wise to pack a few snacks and a reusable water bottle.
I’d suggest packing both sweet and savory snacks that are compact, non-perishable, and mess-free. Granola bars, trail mix, dried fruit, pretzels, crackers, or individual packs of nuts are all great options.
Gum is also a good idea to bring on the plane. Sometimes the changes in cabin air pressure can cause your ears to hurt, and chewing gum is a way that helps relieve the pressure in your ears.
Staying hydrated is extra important during air travel, since the cabin air can be particularly drying. Empty your reusable water bottle before heading through security and refill it at a water fountain or ask the flight attendants for a refill during the flight.
A long flight or layover can be incredibly boring, especially if you have nothing to keep you occupied. I strongly suggest bringing some electronic and non-electronic options in your travel pack.
I love to read, and I often bring a couple good books or new magazines with me on travel days. If you prefer electronic reading, add a travel book about your destination (or your favorite fiction series) to your e-reader or tablet before leaving home.
Load up your laptop, tablet, or smartphone with your favorite movies, TV shows, games or music before you get on the flight. You may enjoy creating a new music playlist specifically for the trip as a way to remember the trip later.
Don’t forget your headphones or earbuds, so you can immerse yourself in the storyline without disturbing fellow passengers. You’ll want a portable charger available too, as newer planes usually allow you to plug in and charge your electronic devices.
Some airlines do offer headphones and in-flight entertainment for an additional fee if you don’t have your own device or if you’ve gotten bored of what you brought.
A crossword puzzle book, deck of cards, or a fidget (such as a Rubik’s cube) can help when you get really bored of being stuck in your seat. If you enjoy drawing or writing, pack a travel journal or sketchbook. It’s a great way to capture your travel experience through words or images!
Best Luggage and Travel Bags
Now that I’ve talked about all the important items for traveling teens to bring, let’s talk about the best travel bags and luggage to use.
When our kids were little, they had small enough clothes that we could often share suitcases between them because it was easiest. Now that we have older kids and even young adults, everyone gets their own suitcase and their own backpack.
Important note: before purchasing a new suitcase, bag or backpack for a trip, check your airlines’ luggage size requirements. These can vary from airline to airline and from one country to another, so check this for all the legs of your journey.
Luggage features that matter
The best carry-on luggage will be sturdy, easy to transport, and compliant with flight regulations. My personal preference is to use a rolling suitcase that can expand for additional space, but still fits in the overhead compartment size limits or under the seat in front of me.
One thing to note about suitcases is that if the flight is full, sometimes one of your carry-on bags must be put into the cargo hold, instead of being with you in the cabin. If that happens, you’ll be glad to have a sturdy suitcase because the luggage handlers aren’t super careful with the bags.
Tips for checking a bag
If you do decide to check a bag, you’ll have to make sure it’s within the weight limits of the airline or pay an additional fee. Pack your heaviest items in your personal item (bag), not the suitcase, to help with the weight.
More than once we’ve spent a frantic ten minutes rearranging suitcases and bags to get the extra weight into a personal item instead of the checked bag – it’s super stressful! If you can, weigh your packed luggage before you leave home to avoid this situation.
Be sure that whatever bags you check don’t contain anything that would be inconvenient or devastating to lose, because checked bags do get lost sometimes. All your travel documents should remain with you in your own luggage, as well as your medications and any valuables (jewelry, electronic devices).
PRO TIP: suitcases on a baggage claim carousel all tend to look the same. We like to tie a colorful ribbon on our suitcases so that we can easily tell which ones are ours, even if someone else has the same brand and style.
Suggested carry on suitcases
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Amazon Basics 20-Inch Hardside Spinner, Black (comes in several colors and sizes)
Travelers Club Chicago Hardside Expandable Spinner Luggages, Black, 20″ Carry-On (other colors available)
Rockland Fashion Expandable Softside Upright Luggage Set, Purple, 2-Piece (other colors available)
Personal item bag
This comes down to your personal preference. I have opted for a standard school backpack because it’s entirely hands-free and has lots of pockets for organization. I like to have both hands available to roll my suitcase in one hand and carry my phone, ID and documentation in the other hand.
My husband often uses a messenger bag or briefcase because he’s usually toting a laptop and some notebooks. It’s really up to you.
Whichever bag you’re bringing as a personal item, make sure it has comfortable shoulder straps because you’ll be carrying it a long time on flight days.
Here are a few great options for personal item bags:
@dinkumtribe #amazonaffiliate I bought this waterproof backpack for my daughter who has to commute to college in the rain here in Oregon. Her books and laptop for getting wet on rainy days and she needed some thing that will repel water. Do we tried this out and so far it’s working out great! Linked in our Amazon storefront. @DinkumTribe ADHD family travel @DinkumTribe ADHD family travel @DinkumTribe ADHD family travel #amazonfinds #waterproofbag #waterproofbackpack #travelbackpack #laptopbackpackreview #travelbackpackreview #studentmusthaves #collegestudents ♬ original sound – DinkumTribe ADHD family travel
WONHOX Large Travel Backpack Women, Carry On Backpack,Hiking Backpack Waterproof (multiple colors, shown in video above)
High Sierra Loop Backpack, Travel, or Work Bookbag with tablet sleeve, One Size (multiple colors available)
Laptop Backpack,Business Travel Anti Theft Slim Durable Laptops Backpack (multiple color options)
Enjoying travel in the teenage years
I have so many great memories from trips I made as a teen to Mexico and the Midwest! Traveling as a teen can be stressful, but it’s well worth the effort, and with this packing guide, you’ll be ready for adventure. Let me know if there’s anything I should add!
©️Copyright Jennifer D. Warren 2024.