You’ve chosen your study abroad destination, gotten accepted into your dream program, filled out the forms, dotted your i’s and crossed your t’s… way to go!

Now you get to figure out what to take in your carry-on. After all, you’ve got a limited amount of real estate to work with – about 45 square inches, actually – so you’ve got to plan carefully. This is not the time to throw your cares to the wind and be spontaneous (and by this we mean just randomly throwing all of your stuff into the biggest bag you can find). Nope, now is the time to plan carefully and optimize each bit of available space.

But don’t stress – creating the ultimate carry-on is easier than you think. With a bit of planning and some super-strategic ninja packing skills, you can keep calm and pack that carry-on in three easy steps. 

Too much stuff!

Step 1: Size...Yes, it Matters.

First things first: Start by choosing the right carry-on. You’ve got a few options, from backpacks and messenger bags to roller bags and duffles, or simply a gynormous purse. Regardless of type, your bag has to fall within your airline’s specific size limits, or you’ll end up having to check it… and that may cost you a few bucks.

Though each airline has its own carry-on size regulations, limits generally range from the small – 22x14x9” on airlines like American, Delta, and United – to the "large," 24x16x10” on airlines like Southwest and Jet Blue. Before you go, contact your airline and determine the specific guidelines that’ll apply to your flights.

Now that you know your size limits, let’s figure out what should and should not get shoved into that bag.

Cat in suitcaseStep 2: Just Don’t.

Unless you want to get stopped at security, leave these items out of your carry-on:

  • Toiletries/liquids over 3.4 oz
  • Water bottles with liquid
  • Metal objects
  • Fruits and veggies
  • Sporting equipment
  • Mace/pepper spray
  • Fluffy the cat

Step 3. Pack it Up, Pack it In.

Here’s what you can take with you on the plane. Depending on your destination, you may be traveling for quite a while, so pack with comfort and convenience in mind.

First, the essentials. These must-have items should never, ever be checked in your luggage, as airlines have been known to lose people’s bags every now and then (.7% of the time, to be exact, which isn’t that bad, but definitely not fun when it’s your luggage that’s lost). In fact, these items shouldn’t ever leave your side, or your sight, while you’re traveling:

  • Wallet, cash, and credit/debit cards
  • Passport
  • Boarding passes
  • Well packed carry onVisa-related documents
  • CEA Arrival Card and location arrival information
  • Insurance information
  • Phone numbers, including CEA contacts and family members
  • Prescription medications

Next, pack these items to keep yourself entertained and comfy on that long flight:

  • Water (purchased after you clear security) and snacks
  • Jacket or small blanket
  • Travel pillow
  • Reading material
  • Tablet, laptop, MP3, etc., chargers, and headphones
  • Lip balm

Don’t forget to pack a change of clothes (cause you don’t want to wear the same grimy outfit for three days in a row at the start of your program, do you?); travel-size (less than 3.4 oz) toiletries in a clear plastic bag; and your glasses/contacts so you can actually see all the amazing sights in your new locale.

See how easy it is? Enjoy your flight!

(Got any genius packing tips of your own? Share them in the comments field!)


Tara Kilkenny is a Site Specialist at CEA study abroad, which helps students spend a college semester studying abroad in 12 countries. Where will you go?