Flight Attendants Spill Their Secrets: 14 Things You Should Never Bring on a Plane, and What to Pack Instead
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Take it from the pros: don't make these common packing mistakes.
If you’ve ever noticed a flight attendant giving you some serious side eye, it’s probably because you packed one of their no-go items. You know, like a "carry-on" that's not quite carry-on size, or odorous food like salmon or broccoli the whole plane can smell. Hopefully, you’re well aware of what not to wear on a plane. Still, there are plenty of other things that flight attendants, and travel writers like myself, have learned over the years not to bother bringing on board.
For example, you’ll never find me trying to fit a full-size pillow in my beloved Away carry-on, even if it’s my favorite. Alternatively, I pack one of these travel-editor approved travel pillows that takes up a third of the space and doesn’t infringe upon my neighbor’s personal space. I also don’t pack all of my credit cards and money in my carry-on and personal item. In case I forget my carry-on on board or lose my personal item, I want to make sure I have a means of paying for things in my checked bag. But enough about me!
I spoke to the pros — namely, a few flight attendants and a travel writer friend — who were happy to share what they don’t pack, and more importantly, what they pack instead. Read on for 14 genius solutions to common packing mistakes.
Cheap, Plastic Toiletry Containers
Pack This Instead: Cadence Containers
Ricardo Wagner, a flight attendant based in Europe, loves his Cadence containers for carrying his liquids in his carry-on. “They are much better than the cheap ones you get in the travel section,” he said. “They fit so much more and are better at keeping things from leaking.” He also likes how sleek they are. They’re even customizable. And since they’re magnetic, they’re hard to lose in a larger bag. Not to mention, they prevent the spills you might experience from your average plastic container.
To buy: keepyourcadence.com, $76
An Extra Bag That Doesn’t Pack Down
Pack This Instead: Dakine EQ Duffel Bag
Every savvy traveler knows to pack a spare bag in case you end up buying something on your trip. But Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant Shannon Ichio Uyeda doesn’t recommend packing an extra bag unless it packs down. That’s why she swears by her Dakine EQ Duffel. When she’s not using it, she simply folds it into its end pocket and stashes it in her main bag. “It’s easy to take with you if you need an extra bag during your trip!”
To buy: amazon.com, $70
Jeans for a Long-haul Flight
Pack This Instead: Ibex Nomad Jogger
While there are travel-friendly jeans out there, like my favorite stretch jeans from Duer, joggers are by far the most comfortable travel pants for flights longer than six hours. For my upcoming 14-hour flight to Dubai, I’ll be sporting the Nomad Jogger from Ibex. It’s great for traveling because it weighs half as much as cotton joggers, it has pockets, the waistband is adjustable, and despite being made of a moisture-wicking merino terry, it’s machine-washable.
To buy: ibex.com, $165
A $5 Water Bottle From the Airport
Pack This Instead: Hydroflask Water Bottle
Jack, a New Jersey-based flight attendant of 19 years, still can’t believe it when passengers show up with pricey water they bought in the airport. Most airports these days have water refill stations, so it makes more sense to pack your own reusable bottle. While any old bottle will do, most flight attendants I know swear by HydroFlask, which has a new destination line inspired by the colors of Oaxaca. Their sleek-looking bottles are vacuum-insulated, so they keep your water cold for hours and can even keep hot drinks hot for hours, too.
To buy: amazon.com, $26 (originally $30)
A Big, Bulky Jacket
Pack This Instead: Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket
Jack also told me this: “Never pack a big, bulky jacket that will take up a ton of space in the bulkhead or have to go on the floor.” He’s personally a fan of Uniqlo’s ultra-light puffer that comes with a carrying bag and packs down to be about the size of a water bottle. Meanwhile, I have the Patagonia Nano Puff Insulated Hoodie, which is made of higher quality materials and packs down into its own chest pocket. When compressed, it can even double as a travel pillow!
To buy: rei.com, $279
A Portable Battery Pack With Just 1 USB Port
Pack This Instead: Anker Power Core Portable Charger
As a frequent flier with status on several airlines, I know firsthand that it’s not uncommon for outlets on planes to work. That’s why I always bring my own portable charger. But according to Jack, I need to get one with more than one USB port. “Many passengers want to charge multiple devices at the same time,” he said before directing me to this best-selling portable battery pack from Amazon with two USB ports. It has more than 26,400 five-star ratings and is smaller than your wallet, so it’s easy to pack.
To buy: amazon.com, $40
Your Entire Skincare Routine
Pack This Instead: Biossance Radiantly Rose Duo
Giovanna Caravetta, a Travel + Leisure contributor based in California, knows the hard way that it’s not a good idea to pack all of your skincare products in your checked bag. Not only is there huge potential for spilling, but this just takes up so much space. For that matter, why even check a bag if your trip is short enough?
To keep her skin and lips hydrated during flights, Caravetta always packs the Radiantly Rose Duo from Biossance. It includes a travel-size face oil made of rose extract and Vitamin, and a lip balm featuring “hydration heroes” like hyaluronic acid and ceramides.
To buy: sephora.com, $25
A Full-size towel
Pack This Instead: Youphoria Microfiber Travel Towel
Even if you’re going to a beach resort, leave your beach towel at home. That’s the advice I get from my friend and flight attendant Shea Kepler, who has experience working for both regional and mainline airlines. “They take up too much space in your bag and odds are, they’ll have them where you’re going,” she said. Instead, if you want to pack a towel, pack a lightweight option like the fast-drying Youphoria Microfiber Travel Towel. Because it’s made of microfiber, it takes up a fraction of the space a full size towel takes up. It also comes with a convenient carrying case.
To buy: amazon.com, $10
A Personal Item That Doesn’t Close
Pack This Instead: Loveook Laptop Backpack
Kepler, who says airplane floors are “revolting,” always recommends making sure your smaller carry-on bag, or personal item, is able to close at the top. “You don’t want your things to fall out all over the floor,” she said. “Personally, I love my Lovevook Laptop Backpack.” It has more than 22,600 perfect five-star ratings, and Kepler’s colleagues swear by it, too. “I'm a flight attendant and use this as my tote bag,” wrote one Amazon shopper. “Tons of room and easy to travel with.”
To buy: amazon.com, $39 (originally $60)
Pack This Instead: Kind Bars
Kepler also doesn’t recommend relying on the airline to feed you. “So many factors including turbulence and catering mistakes can inhibit flight attendants from being able to serve food,” she explained. “That’s why I always have at least a couple of Kind bars in my bag as emergency snacks.” (Not to mention if you buy these in the airport, they’re usually three times as expensive as buying at Amazon.)
I asked Kepler if it matters if your packed snacks have nuts, and she said no. “Severe nut allergies aren’t something we have to deal with very often.” In fact, it’s only happened once in the four years she’s been a flight attendant.
To buy: amazon.com, $13 for 12 bars with on-site coupon (originally $17)
A Top-loading Backpack As a Carry-on
Pack This Instead: Thule Chasm Backpack
The majority of backpacks are top-loading, but this can be frustrating if you need to get something during your flight and it’s shifted to the bottom of your bag. I hate having to empty out everything on top just to get what I want. For easy main compartment access, I love the Kuhl Eskape 20 Kanvas Backpack. It has a clamshell design so you can see everything at once and a padded quick access compartment for your laptop or tablet. But for an even more affordable — and water-resistant! — option, there’s also the Thule Chasm Backpack that has a capacity of 26 liters and an impressive 4.8-star rating at Amazon.
To buy: amazon.com, $150
A Hardshell Carry-on Without an External Pocket
Pack This Instead: Monos Carry-on Pro Plus
I love hardshell carry-on suitcases because they can take a beating, but I can’t stand them when they don’t have external pockets. Often, I’ll need something, such as my laptop, once we reach cruising altitude. I don’t want to have to pull my entire suitcase out of the overhead bin and find a place to unzip the main compartment just to reach it. This Monos Carry-On Pro Plus, now available in fun Magnolia Bakery colors, is perfect because it has an external padded laptop sleeve.
To buy: monos.com, from $275 (originally $306)
Disposable Heating Packs
Pack This Instead: Cabeau IncrediHeat
Katie Stork, a flight attendant of 10 years with Southwest, recommends packing the Cabeau IncrediHeat (a new product from the same company behind this travel writer-approved travel pillow.) “This heating pad takes up less room and takes away more pain,” she said. “Plus, it’s easy to charge because it charges via USB port.” She takes hers on every trip, both work and personal, and uses it not only on the plane but also at the hotel and in the car.
To buy: amazon.com, $40 (originally $50)
Liquid Shampoo and Conditioner
Pack This Instead: Viori Shampoo Bar
Stork also recommends swapping out your liquid hair shampoo and conditioner for those in solid form. “They’re better for the environment,” she said. “Plus they won’t be tossed by TSA if you’re over the 3-ounce limit.”
Amazon’s best-selling Viori Shampoo Bar, now available in lavender, is made of all natural ingredients including essential oils and has more than 4,500 five-star ratings.
To buy: amazon.com, $17
Last but not least, the best piece of advice we can give is this: “A thank you gift for the flight crew goes a long way,” says flight attendant Kepler, who loves when passengers show their appreciation with cash tips, coffee shop gift cards, snacks, or even just nice notes. “Odds are if you’ve given us something, we’ll give you something in return like a free specialist snack, a complimentary alcoholic beverage, or a dessert from first class!”
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