photo of backpack and boots

12 things I Always Carry On the Airplane

Before May 10, 2023, I had traveled for close to 40 years without ever once losing a piece of luggage. Well, it finally happened. Okay, “lost” is too strong a word, because I know where my bag is, it’s just not where I am.

I am in Pamplona, one of my happiest happy places, my home away from home in Spain. At last check, my luggage was on an Iberia flight from Madrid to Pamplona, the victim of a maintenance delay with American Airlines.

This isn’t a blast on AA. These things happen, and the thing is I am in Spain. That was my goal.

My flight plan with AA was from Jacksonville, Florida, to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then on to Madrid, Spain. The first flight was delayed by a vague, non-flight-threatening maintenance issue which ate into my 90-minute connection time. I had to walk very quickly from CTL gate C8 to gate A8 to make my flight to Madrid.

BOARDING CLOSED was the message I saw as I approached the gate, moments after an airport employee kindly told me, “better run!” from two gates away. I don’t run.

Still, I made the flight, but my luggage didn’t. Solidly in the category of “things I cannot control.”

What I can control, though, is how I prepare for such a situation. Thing is, even though my luggage never gets lost or delayed (wink), I always pack as though it could happen. So this post is about how to prevent a packing-related disaster when you are flying to Europe to walk the Camino. And it is also about what I always carry on the plane, separate from disaster-aversion planning.

Here are my 12 carry-on guidelines:

  1. Never (really, never) check your Camino backpack on the way to the Camino.

Your Camino backpack is your carry-on, hard stop. If you don’t need to check another bag, great. But if you do, be sure it’s not the backpack or day pack you will use to carry your things on the trail. That’s because if your backpack is delayed or lost, it is a game changer. Show stopper. Heartbreaking or annoying (or both), depending on how you look at it.

2. Pack a layer for warmth.

This time around I was coming from Florida, where I didn’t once wear my puffy jacket. Since airplanes are often cold, I usually take the jacket on the plane. And thank goodness I didn’t check it this time, because it is chilly in Spain right now, and if I had planned to grab it out of my luggage in the airport, well, that wouldn’t have worked at all.

3. Bring snacks.

Any time I travel I take the time to think through my itinerary and confirm in my mind what food will likely be available throughout the journey. And then I pack food to fill in any actual or potential gaps. I have an irrational fear of hunger (probably from a previous life), and I am happiest with a bag of snacks on hand.

I bring chocolate, nuts, fruit, and hard candies, plus sometimes a sandwich that can go without refrigeration. Not too much, but enough to stave off hunger and boredom. Yes, the airline does serve food on international flights, but what if I miss a connection (which just about happened)? Airport food is overpriced, often unhealthy, and low on vegetarian (vegan, gluten free, paleo, keto) options. A little self-care goes a long way.

4. Keep all medications and supplements with you.

Many people will tell you that you can buy anything you need in Spain, and that is mostly – nearly – true. You can even walk into a farmacia (pharmacy) and buy some prescription medications without a prescription.

You can also find supplements in Spain, but I can tell you from experience that it is unlikely they will be the same dosages and formulations you get at home. Further, I don’t want that kind of stress and expense in my first days in Spain. And I don’t want to spend my first day in Spain figuring out where to find these things. So for me, all medications and supplements stay with me.

5. Tuck a clean pair of undies (knickers) in your carry-on bag.

Of course, if you are carrying-on your backpack, you probably have all your undergarments with you. But if you are checking most of your stuff, pull out a clean pair to take on the plane. (Does this require any further explanation? Um, no.)

6. Speaking of keeping clean, take along a small travel-sized package of baby wipes.

Since the pandemic, I am nearly psycho about having clean hands, and most of the time hand sanitizing gel feels insufficient. So baby wipes for me. Also good for cleaning other parts of the body. You know.

7. Pack a toothbrush and toothpaste in your carry-on bag. (I am also fanatical about oral hygiene.) But daaaaaang it, I left my dental floss in my checked bag. Boo.

8. Don’t forget the personal grooming kit.

For me that includes tweezers, small scissors (with rounded tips), eyebrow pencil, and a 10x mirror. Just in case I need to see anything up close. (The scissors have gotten a lot of use, cutting tags off the pajamas, flip flops, socks, and umbrella I had to buy when my luggage got delayed.)

9. Wear your hiking boots on the plane.

I really should have put this as #1 on this list. It takes me months to get my boots just right, and the idea of having to buy boots in Spain and break them in on the trail is unthinkable.

10. Pack a pair of flip flops in your carry-on. (Which I didn’t do. Now I know.)

They were easy enough to find in Pamplona (€3 in the Asia Bazaar variety shop), but I wish I hadn’t had to spend the time looking for them. Flip flops can fill in for your second pair of (non-hiking) shoes in a pinch, and they are also – for me – essential when using shared showers.

11. Leave valuables at home.

But if you do bring them, they also go in the carry-on. “Valuable” is in the eye of the beholder, and mine include my laptop, which never leaves my sight (always working), two smartphones, a small container with my favorite earrings (souvenirs of my many travels),and #8, above.

12. Carry on those charging cables, wall chargers, and plug adapters.

For the record, anything with a lithium battery can’t go in a checked bag, But seriously, who is willing to risk separating their smartphone and phone charger for any amount of time?

And that reminds me to mention this: to charge devices in Europe, you will need an international power plug or adapter, but not a power converter, as modern electronics are designed to handle different voltages.

Well, that’s my list. Did I miss anything? If yes, please send me a message and let me know so I can update the list. Twelve is my favorite number, but I am willing to bump up the list to lucky #13.

Next question: What items can you not carry on the plane? Coming soon!